How has Sony London Studios’ SingStar series gone from a single game to a franchise including 116 discs of content in just four years?
That was a question answered in one of the opening sessions at Paris GDC this morning, where senior producer of the franchise Tamsin Lucas explaining how “we get a small team to deliver so much content”.
And what a huge amount of content it is. First released in 2003, SingStar was originally developed by a team of 15. The singing game was released with one international disc featuring 30 music tracks and four localised versions with a handful of territory-relevant songs on each.
Today, the franchise has been released in countless iterations, across PS2, PS3 and PSN; the past year alone saw the release fo R’n’B, 90s, Latino and other variants, to the extent that the team was “moving away from anything but fully localised games”.
Added Lucas: “Localisation has been instrumental to the success of SingStar. It’s an important factor for the level of engagement players have in the game.”
But a diverse line-up of disc content requires which Lucas called a good ‘factory line’ – and the machinery which powers SingStar’s prolific nature continues to roll on to this day, with 10 unannounced SKUs for PS2 in the works for this year and songs constantly being treated and uploaded to the SingStore on PS3.
The team has the process down so pat that, Lucas said, “launch dates go by without a murmur”. (Which has a downside, she confessed – releases aren’t supported with launch parties as new games are so frequent, and there are no team bonuses tied to each game’s arrival.)
So how does the production machine ensure this happens?
Lucas explained that production breaks the components of each song for every release into constituent parts – such as audio, video, lyrics – which are in effect micro-managed. Each part being handled separately makes for more effective production as the tracks are handled methodically and without interference.
“I would advise you to be really ruthless and remove anything that involves decision making as it’s decision making which slows the process down,” said Lucas.
But not at the expense of creativity. “Don’t let your work become defined by the process,” she added explaining that the more ‘ruthless’ approach works only because SingStar’s concept itself requires every single song featured to be treated the same specific way in order to work in the game.
“Crucial” to the production has been London Studios’ investment in tools and finding tools programmers. “Be really nice to these guys,” joked Lucas, saying that finding the right tools programmer for your project can be make or break to its success – and she also said that, while some developers are resistant to it, investing in internally-made tools to support your project has been a production secret for the SingStar team.
SAM, the SingStar Asset Management tool, is a London Studio application that was developed alongside the first games and which has progressively built into the centrepiece tool in the SingStar pipeline.
Lucas also described SAM as a “desperate attempt” to prevent the production from relying too much on spreadsheets and charts and instead is an actual tool that supports the team rather than smothers it.
“In true agile fashion, we’ve worked on it with the idea it would be something we could sell if needs be,” explained Lucas. “SAM has been running and in use since its creation.” The tool has evolved since 2004 but remained usable throughout; “A good set of tools doesn’t stand still,” she added, saying that it future proofs the team for future SingStar SKUs and whatever next PlayStation platform the game will appear on.
Another asset to the SingStar production team is its diverse and different development team – of just 40 people – who are “people you wouldn’t normally find on a game team”. So SingStar has no 3D artists, but has a community manager and a music licensing department, plus music transcribers.
Good scheduling it what holds the process, tools and team together, Lucas concluded, offering a simple point of fact that any producer will be familiar with – that you mist hit deadlines dates, and in order to do so you have to be organised.
In many respects, the production of multi-SKU big budget titles like Singstar is easy, she said. “You’ve just got to make it happen.”
But at the same time it’s hard because “it is down to you to get it right”.