Interview: Kevin Mason, Singstar Lead Designer

We here at TSA recently got the chance to interview Kevin Mason, lead designer on Singstar.

Here’s the interview in full:

Hi Kevin. Firstly, the competition: Rock Band is taking the SingStar® idea one stage further, with regards to adding instruments – do you have any plans to go in that direction?

– ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW –

We’re all really excited about Rock Band and the new Guitar Hero and I think that Rock Band is a natural extension of Guitar Hero. However, I don’t think we should add instruments to SingStar as I think it would dilute the experience in some ways. I think there’s a natural temptation to fill a game with as many features and additions as possible, but it doesn’t necessarily result in a better experience. I think we’ll focus on making the singing experience as good as possible and that will be done in terms of new game modes as well as continuing to select the songs that are the most fun to sing.

We agree it’s all about the songs. What are the plans for making new songs available?

We intend to update the SingStore with new content very regularly after the launch, with volume gradually building over time, spanning a variety of genres. Another thing to consider about the SingStore is that we’re not just adding songs from the UK charts. One of the big reasons behind the success of SingStar is the amount of localisation we do. We create specific versions for around 10 different countries, all featuring songs from that country and we’ll be adding new songs into the SingStore for those languages too.

So, on that matter: the burning question – do you have any word for us on pricing?

I know everyone wants to know how much a song will cost, but we’re not ready to announce that yet. As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s a lot of discussion to be had between many different companies and we need to make sure that everyone is happy with the pricing plans before we announce anything. As soon as we’re ready, we’ll let everyone know.

Will there ever be a simultaneous release of an artist’s music in the high street and in SingStar?

I would hope so. The SingStore™ certainly makes that a possiblity for PS3, but we’ll have to wait and see.

About SingStore™ – were there any particularly thorny technical challenges in making everything play nicely together?

Not only was creating an in-game store a massive technical challenge, but we were creating an in-game store on a brand new system where the final specs were unknown for some of our development cycle. I think the SingStore was a massive challenge to design and implement. We weren’t sure that an in-game store would be possible as it hadn’t been done before, however, we were very adamant in our belief that we needed to create one to enable the player to buy content from within our game, within the SingStar environment rather than a generic one.

We wanted to give the player search facilities to find specific songs, so we knew that we could only do that with an in-game store. We were also strong in our view that there had to be background downloading so that the player could keep singing whilst new songs downloaded – we feel that this is a really important feature and we’re delighted that we managed to get that working. We wanted the SingStore to feel seamlessly integrated with the game, so that the player could skip between singing songs and buying new ones and we’re really proud of the finished implementation.

So is the PS3 as difficult to develop for as the internet would have us believe?

Having conducted a quick poll of the coders here, all of them agree that the PS3 has been much easier to develop for than the PS2. As an internal development team, they’ve found the tools and support they’ve needed to allow them to get on and make the game. Obviously whenever you start on a new system you have a lot to learn but I think the coders here see it as a challenge and they’re all very excited to be working on such a powerful system.

Will you be making SingStar playable just by using the microphones and camera, e.g. for selecting menus and songs? If not, is that something you’d like to achieve in the future?

A while ago we had a basic level of voice recognition working in the menus. It allowed the player to say the name of the artist and the song carousel would spin and select that artist. Although it was really neat when it worked, it came with so many usability problems that it was actually highly frustrating to use and overall it added so much complexity that we decided not to pursue it any further. We haven’t looked at operating the menus using a camera as we don’t think that’s a task that is particularly suited to a camera. It’s our feeling that it’s easier to navigate the menus with the controller and leave the camera for in-game.

What has the PS3 enabled you to do that wasn’t possible on the original SingStar, then, voice recognition aside, and will we be able to use our existing PS2 disks on the PS3 version?

The inclusion of the hard drive as standard was hugely important for the development of SingStar PS3. Without the HDD, we couldn’t save a single song on PS2, but with the 60GB HDD, there’s room for hundreds of songs on PS3. Online capability out of the box is also incredibly important for us as we really want our players to be contributing their performances to My SingStar™ Online. As for the PS2 discs, you can load them and play them on your PS3.

We love the PS2 games, and in some respects SingStar is the best game in the world because it’s the only video game that our wives and girlfriends will play. Are you aware of what SingStar has achieved in this respect, over and above just being a great game?

It’s our philosophy that everyone loves playing games, but many people are put off by video games. We wanted to created a game that made people forget they were playing a video game, they were just playing because it was fun. My ex-girlfriend absolutely hated PlayStation®2 because I spent so much of my time playing it. Then I brought home SingStar and she turned into the most competitive gamer you can imagine. She wanted to beat me at every song and get the top score. She phoned me while I was at work one day asking me how to turn the PlayStation on as she’d never done it before. When I came home I found her singing away and she was systematically working her way through all of the songs, making sure she got the top score each time, so she could have her photo in the Charts. All this from someone who hated PlayStation previously! We’ve had a lot of anecdotal evidence of people (mostly girls) playing SingStar at a party and then going out to buy a PS2 the very next day. For us, that’s just the best compliment we could hope to receive and we hope that the latest SingStar on the PS3 will encourage new people into gaming.

Are any of the development team good singers? Name and shame the best and worst.

I’m one of the worst singers and unfortunately for the team, much of my day is spent singing! One of our programmers, Suzanne, told me that I do a particularly horrible rendition of Fix You by Coldplay. I was gutted, because I thought I was quite good at that. There are a few good singers on the team – Jim Fowler, who is our music guru, can certainly hold a note and our producer, Tamsin Lucas and our art manager, Louise Hartley are like an angelic choir when they get going.

Which part of SingStar are you most pleased with?

It’s difficult to say as all of the different areas of the game had their own unique challenges. My SingStar Online was particularly satisfying as it was an area that presented new and complex challenges and I think we’ve done a good job there. Overall, it would have to be the SingStore though as I t
hink that’s the feature that most players really wanted and I hope they’ll be pleased with how we’ve implemented it.

Finally, the online-based nature of SingStar on PS3 means that users can upload their own videos; will you be having competitions, and more importantly: prizes, for example: free song downloads for the winners?

We are looking at having competitions in the near future, and hope to incentivise our users with some good prizes too – as for what they’ll be, you’ll have to wait and see!

Cheers Kevin!

Cheers.


Digg this interview, dude.

– PAGE CONTINUES BELOW –