In part one of our three part interview with iNiS co-founder Keiichi Yano, we focus on Lips, its forthcoming singing game for Microsoft â?? how its knowledge of karaoke culture can help the game's development, and why the game might help players appreciate songs in a whole different way...

iNiS to win it? â?? Part 1

You pitched the idea of Lips to Microsoft – had a karaoke game been something you’d wanted to do for a while?

Well, I personally like karaoke a lot [laughs]. I’d seen SingStar before – I’d never really super played it, but I knew about Karaoke Revolution as well, and I knew that SingStar had had some success, especially in Europe. I’ve heard that there are people that buy PS2s just for SingStar, right? That’s really cool, that’s awesome.

So I thought, hey, I want to try that. I knew that with the 360 I thought it would be cool if we could do a peripheral based game, given the success of Guitar Hero. I didn’t want to do just a microphone; I wanted to do something special with it. So we were thinking, you know, that people like to move when they’re really into the song they’re singing, tilting the microphone up and stuff – so what if doing that helped them rack up extra points?

So that’s where the motion sensing aspect came from, and we also thought it’d be cool to have lights flashing to the beat of the music, so we put that in there too. Once we’d thought of all that, it started to make sense to me – it’s not just singing, there’s other things. That’s one of those things with other singing games, I thought, is that if you’re not singing you’re doing nothing. That’s the kind of angle we’re looking from.

So to go back to your question, I’ve always loved singing, and I’ve always wanted to try something with that, but I didn’t think until I really thought about pitching something for the 360 that it would be Lips, but it seemed like the most natural thing to do after I’d kind of thought about it for a while.

So the design of the microphones has been iNiS’ doing?

Yeah – it was in my original pitch. What I said originally was: ‘You guys are going to laugh, and I’m totally not taking into account how much this’ll cost, but this is what I want to do’. But the more I thought about the design, it occurred to me that those features that I’d originally envisioned in my pitch were so integral to the experience and what I wanted the product would be. So I pushed very hard to get those features and we have them now. It’s an awesome mic and I’m very proud of it. The look, and the engineering of it, is obviously Microsoft’s doing, but from a spec standpoint we’ve been driving that the whole time.

As a music game company, what do you think of other peripheral-based games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, and how these set-ups are rapidly getting bigger?

Well, I think there’s going to be a point where it’s not going to fly, especially with bigger peripherals like the drums – I mean, you can only have so many drum controls, right, no matter what country you live in.

I think that games that do peripherals just for the sake of having a peripheral will fail, ultimately. Where it makes sense, though, I think it’s so very valid, because I think we live in a sort of iPod/iPhone world where cool new devices are the thing right now. If you can develop a device that’s cool and works well, there’s a market for that. Maybe not as big as drum controllers though!

Do you worry about competing with the other peripheral games?

Sure – I think there’s only so much money you can put into peripheral-based music games, so yeah, we do worry about that. I’m personally more concerned about the experience we’re providing, that it’s a quality experience but at the same time it’s a unique one. I think what we provide you can’t get with any other music game, and when people finally get their hands on it they go ‘woah!’

Do you feel any pressure as being a part of Microsoft’s push for the core gamer?

Well, I feel responsible, definitely, because I think Lips will be one of the driving games to drive the casual market for the 360. So, I do feel some sense of responsibility for that. I’d like to do everything I can to make sure that’s successful.

But am I pressured? No, not really. This is something that I want to do, and I’m very thankful that Microsoft gave us the opportunity to do this – we’ve worked very closely with them to make this happen. It was a great experience, it was fun, it was a great learning experience – it was just all kinds of good things, and there were times of struggle, definitely, but at the end of the day I hope we all feel confident that we’ve come up with a unique product.

SingStar is hugely popular in England, and in Europe – it reaches quite far beyond the core gamer demographic, but if you’d asked someone ten years ago where a karaoke game would be most popular, they’d have probably said Japan. Do you think there are things that, knowing the karaoke culture so well, you guys can bring to Lips in order to differentiate it?

Yeah, definitely. A lot of the little features in Lips are taken from the karaoke culture background over here. I mean, I don’t consider it a karaoke game – I consider it a singing game. But yeah, we’re the home of that, right? There’s a lot of history there. So, there’s a lot of things that we’ve kind of borrowed from that experience to make sure that our experience is, first of all, approachable to casual gamers – anyone can come in and enjoy this game.

The second thing is to make sure that… while this is the home of karaoke, it’s also the home of two of the major game consoles. So to bring that kind of Japanese game design aesthetic to that, I think, in itself creates a fairly unique proposition there. It will feel very unique, I think. Our game is very much a more visceral experience, in a good way.

But it’s so easy to get into. For example, we have a thing where you can pick up the microphone and, seeing its motion sensitive, you can just shake the mic, and you’re instantly in the game – the music doesn’t stop at all, you’re in the game right away. Casual gamers don’t know about that – they just want to sing to it, right? But their first impulse would be to just grab the mic, and we can just let that happen. That accessibility I think is something we really learnt from being the home of karaoke. I hope it works well!

Lips also features a rating mechanic like SingStar – do you ever wonder whether scoring people, empirically grading them in relation to their friends, actually scares a lot of people off?

One of the things we’ve really tried to do with Lips is to make sure people feel invited and comfortable, so we’ve got a lot of things in the game that help them to do that. For example, we are not as critical on the scoring – but at the same time, if you’re really good, you’ll score higher. It’s not like we’ll fail you, or you’ll even feel like you’re failing, because you’ll be racking up points. But at the same time, better people will score higher – so it’s not discouragement, it’s one person compared to another.

So in one sense, to have that gauge is a good party conversation – to say ‘I did well on that.’ But at the same time, there’s that reinforcement of ‘Yeah, you can do this!’ You can be awful, but there’s still a lot of positive reinforcement.

We also have these things called noisemakers – you can pick up other 360 controllers and use them to play percussion instruments, like those karaoke places where they have tambourines or something. We’ve done that with the controller – you can pick it up and play along with the player. So you can essentially have six people all interacting with the song at the same time. When you’re doing that, it’s like it doesn’t even matter – people are just having a good time.

A lot of the things that we did were to create that atmosphere – that small box atmosphere – where [skill] doesn’t really matter because everyone’s having fun. Sometimes it’s hard to get that in your home when you’ve only got two or three people there, it becomes more a critical thing. So it’s opening up the possibilities there, opening up the gates for more people to just have fun.

In its previous games, iNiS has focused on emotions in songs, and you’ve said that was something you were looking to carry through to Lips too. How – through being more selective with song choice?

The way we pick our songs, well, there’s so many criteria that it’s hard to say it’s just down to one reason. But at the end of the day, we try to pick the songs that will stick with users in the long run, because we’re basically pressing these songs onto a disc, so hopefully they’ll stand the test of time.

That being said, I think that one of the things that I really found through our overseas fan base is that, once you’re introduced to a song through a game and you have to do it multiple times, you take a liking to a lot of those songs. That’s something I’ve learnt through the years doing all of these music games, and one of the things I found – even with myself – is that some of the songs even I didn’t know, because they’d been suggested by the Microsoft side, but through the process you come to know them and it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s actually a good song’.

What’s awesome about Lips, I think, is that you discover the true essence about what is great about a certain song. You look at certain things and you go, ‘I really like this phrase, and that’s why I like this song; it’s half a rediscovery, it’s half a digestion of the song in a different way. You pick up things that you might not have realised if you’d just listened to it – through singing, you recognise certain nuances that you wouldn’t have noticed before. The game helps to accentuate that because of the fact that it is trying to score you. And you pick up on that, and it’s like ‘Oh, that’s a really cool part of this song, I really like singing this bit’.

And that’s the whole thing about this music interaction game thing – because you’re interacting with it, it’s a different feel, and I think it’s a different relationship between the musician that’s playing the music versus the user that’s actually hearing it. When you start doing it yourself, you start getting closer in to the hues of the musician that originally wrote the song, and you understand the emotional nuances behind their creative decisions. I think we bring that out really well in this game, and in that way I really can’t wait for people to sing against our system. I think they’ll learn that they might like a song because of a different reason than they did before.

Do you think that will cross over to when people use their own music collections? Do you think they’ll discover new things about songs they already love?

I hope so. That’s definitely our goal. I think they will. I hope they will! [laughs]. I think that’s all I can say about that right now.

A more cynical person would have thought of opening up users’ music collections but then thought ‘what about all the downloadable content opportunities we’re missing out on?’

Yeah. That’s something else I can’t really talk about too much, but we have DLC as well. We have a fairly steady stream of songs planned. So later on, as further announcements are done, people will learn and understand the balance there.

Parts two and three of this feature will be published later in the week.

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