It can be startling how quickly the music video game genre changes.
One moment Just Dance is nothing but a Rayman Rabbids mini-game, and Rock Band and Guitar Hero are amongst the biggest selling titles in the world.
The next, Rock Band has lots its publisher, Guitar Hero has been cancelled entirely and Just Dance is a million-selling phenomenon.
SingStar has endured through all this upheaval. Over the last eight years, there have been 70 SingStar SKUs released throughout the world. Its most recent game was out just last year.
Yet SingStar is no-longer the retail powerhouse it once was. And despite efforts to widen its appeal with dancing and guitar spin-offs, SingStar has yet to recapture its glory days.
So this year Sony has gone to extreme lengths and is giving the game away.
Free-to-play is very much the en vogue business model. Players can now simply download the SingStar client for free. They’ll just need to pay for the songs (and, of course, the microphones).
“It is a logical next step for us,” SingStar senior producer Chris Bruce tells MCV.
“We've been lucky to be around for eight and a half years now – not many franchises can say that – and since 2007 we’ve been delivering our content via the SingStore, there’s over 3,000 songs on the store now.
“It is a bit of an unknown. Obviously we on SingStar haven’t done this kind of thing before. There’s still certain barriers of entry for it, you need an audio input device of some kind to play the game and obviously you will need songs.
“One of the things we are doing is giving consumers access to short versions of songs that they don’t have to pay for, so they can have a go.
“And they can also play by using the PlayStation Eye camera. It’s a slightly different experience, it’s not a dual-microphone experience where I’m singing against you. But it is about broadening the audience.”
He adds: “We are very excited and confident. The latest version of the PS3 has just launched, so it is a great time for SingStar to be there on the European Cross Media Bar. And it is a great chance to bring new people in and hopefully there will be some people coming back to it.”
Bruce believes there is a huge number of former SingStar players that will use this opportunity to return to the brand.
“If you do a simple search on Twitter for SingStar, what you see is people talking about it, whether they are playing it or not. Some saying they had these great memories of playing SingStar. Hopefully we can reinvigorate some of those players to get them playing again.”
The decision to go free-to-play doesn't bode too well for the High Street. Sony and Microsoft are both experimenting with the freemium model (where the game is free, but consumers are encouraged to pay for extra content), and this doesn’t require physical stores.
But Bruce disagrees that this means there’s no role for retailers. Of course SingStar still requires the microphone or EyeToy accessories, and there are other ways for the likes of GAME and HMV to get involved.
“A few years ago we released the SingStar Party Pack, which featured two microphones and a voucher for 20 songs from the SingStore,” he explains.
“So we have already been doing things at retail and testing things out in the market. And that Party Pack is still available at retail now.”
And there may be more discs in the future, too. “We are always looking at new opportunities, including discs. What we want to do is bring out the best content to people via the format that is most appropriate,” adds Bruce.
The new free SingStar will be promoted primarily via a PR push, using the firm’s various channels including SingStar.com, the PlayStation Europe blog and Twitter.
It may not be a multi-million pound TV campaign, but as with most freemium titles, this new SingStar is something Sony will want to keep pushing all year-round, not just at launch.
But the success or failure of the free SingStar could have a far bigger impact than just the fate of Sony’s music franchise.
Should it succeed, SingStar will be a force in the market once again. But also, it could prove that the freemium model – a model that has so far been primarily limited to mobile and PC – can work on consoles, too.
“It’s an interesting one. Obviously we wanted to push the boundaries,” adds Bruce.
“In terms of consoles, you will see more of this stuff happening. And we are one of the first to do it on such a broad scale. There are some others doing it, but not with something as accessible and with such a very wide appeal as SingStar. With our different types of music and various modes, there’s something for everyone.”
And that’s what makes this most exciting. This isn’t like the other free-to-play titles currently on the market. This isn’t a super-hardcore RPG or a social farming simulator. It’s a potentially wide-reaching family product – an audience perhaps not as familiar with the freemium concept.
And the ramifications of its success could help define what we see on the next generation of consoles.
“We like to think of ourselves as the original and best music experience,” concludes Bruce. “We paved the way for this genre and hopefully with this next step we will
continue to pave the way. Dancing is the big thing at the moment, and a couple of years ago it was Guitar Hero. We have been pretty consistent and now we want to get more people back singing again.”