While Nintendo is given much of the credit for the demographic explosion in gaming, it is another platform holder’s internal IP that long-ago primed the mainstream players the Wii courts.
Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, SingStar struck a chord with consumers when it was released in 2004. The singing game has since converted huge numbers of non-gamers to the PlayStation brand, and laid the foundations for Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
SingStar started life as an internal tech demo at Sony that let users sing along and see if they were in key.
“I saw that demo, and I went away and thought about it,” explains Kevin Mason, principle designer at Sony’s London Studio. “Then I played Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? with my nan, on the PlayStation. She had real problems with the controller. So I got to thinking about a game that my nan could play, and came up with a weird idea for a karaoke game that featured singing animals.”
After tweaking and testing the concept Sony published the debut SingStar disc in May 2004, and over the next year the brand found favour with an increasingly interested fanbase.
The developers’ knack for selecting just the right pop songs to sing along to helped, and London Studio’s experience with the EyeToy series was invaluable – but the ability to produce new compilation discs quickly, combined with a confident marketing campaign, is probably its biggest strength. A countless array of discs has meant that the series has reached out to new demographics and musical tastes.
Explains UK product manager Lucy Duncan: “Looking back, when we first launched SingStar in May 2004, we'd already dipped our toe in the social gaming water with EyeToy Play and at that point were at the forefront of a new trend in gaming which has become an industry mainstay over the past few years.
SingStar has helped attract a whole new audience to what was once a fairly male dominated gaming environment, and has opened people’s eyes to other gaming experiences they may once have not considered.
“It’s this diversification that has allowed us to work with a selection of some of the world’s biggest music artists, but also secure other brand partnerships, with the current ‘Road to Glastonbury’ promotion we’re running being a good example of this.”
The team at Sony point to a number of timely factors as being fundamental to the success of the series, including the popularity of talent shows like Pop Idol when the series first began gaining sales momentum.
But the most important reasons are more practical considerations which in time have helped reach new audiences – and won over the music industry.
“Getting the microphone bundle to match the average RRP of games was essential, as was using original artists,” explains London Studio executive producer Dave Ranyard. “And of course the PS2 was at the right point in its life cycle too. There were 70m of them out there, and we could sell product to people other than the person who had originally bought the console. The brother or sister or mum.”
London Studio development director Mike Haighs adds: “What was truly a challenge was the business. The content in SingStar is owned by other people, so convincing them we will treat their property with reverence, and won’t mess about with it – that was a challenge. Of course, being with Sony gave a great deal of credibility to us in those early meetings.”
Luckily, the team at London Studio benefit from a close relationship (and proximity – they’re next door to one another) with colleagues in the marketing department, who help compile tracks lists and SKUs. Across Europe in the last five years the team has built up strong central marketing and music licensing teams who work with individual territories and licence country-specific music artists to help establish the brand.
“Just as the music industry varies from country to country in terms of taste, we realised the potential in releasing territory specific SKUs,” points out Duncan.
Since its debut, SingStar has spawned 160 different discs across PAL territories and North America (see ‘SingStar’s Greatest Hits’ for a brief history).
While the series evolves technically – wireless microphones recently launched and the PS3 version introduced online elements – Sony says physical retail has been and will remain key to its success.
“We want to appeal to people who haven’t seen this product, as well as the people who have already got it,” says Mike Haigh.
“If you’re just online you’re not going to have the opportunity to do that. You need to have presence at retail. We want to keep supporting the people who attached to it through the online bit, but certainly, as far as the boxed product is concerned, that’s where people who have never seen SingStar before see it first.”
Duncan adds: “Despite the much lauded transition to digital download, retail has helped make the SingStar franchise the success it is today, and will continue to play an integral role in helping drive it forward. We want to continually attract new audiences, and it’s at store level that many people will have their first SingStar experience.
"Disc sales have shown that there’s still a huge demand for physical media, and in terms of an entry point, the disc-based product is still an essential gateway into the SingStar world, for both offline and online play.”
With a huge library of songs still to make use of, a healthy attitude to both online and retail, and a talented development team, it looks like five years is just the beginning for Sony’s benchmark studio.