Q&A: SingStar senior producer Paulina Bozek

Sony's popular karaoke series is finally making its way to North America, and GameSpot sits down for a duet with one of the top persons on the project.


European gamers don't often have reason to gloat compared with their North American counterparts. Frequently having to wait months for hardware and software releases has driven many Europeans to importing games on a regular basis.

Fortunately, simultaneous worldwide releases are becoming increasingly common now. But European gamers have had it good in at least one respect recently--they've had access to some of Sony's most innovative titles ahead of their North American counterparts. SingStar, a party game as essential as Guitar Hero, is just one of the titles that European gamers are currently enjoying that isn't currently available on the other side of the Atlantic, along with the likes of Loco Roco and the Buzz! series.

Today, however, Sony Computer Entertainment America has announced that it's bringing a PlayStation 2 version of SingStar to North America this fall, presumably to pave the way for the PlayStation 3 version that was confirmed at May's Electronic Entertainment Expo.

While karaoke might seem like a terrifying prospect for many gamers, SingStar's masterstroke was to turn the traditional drunken Japanese pastime into a proper video game. Equipped with two microphones and a USB adapter, SingStar grades your singing ability based on pitch and timing, with bonus points awarded for hitting special notes and completing unbroken runs. Rounded off with good presentation and official licensed music videos, SingStar is a good example of a peripheral-based video game.

SingStar is now in its sixth iteration in Europe, and it caters to everyone's taste. There's a SingStar for every occasion, whether you're entertaining a bunch of twentysomething guys (SingStar Rocks!), your teenage niece (SingStar Popworld), or your mom (SingStar Anthems). There are so many tracks to choose from, and we wonder what form the US version will take. A Sony American spokesperson said: "The initial US release of SingStar will include hit songs relevant to the US market from a wide range of genres, ensuring there are songs that appeal to a variety of musical tastes."

So why such a long wait? "The release of SingStar in the US for PlayStation 2 is based on several factors, including market growth of the PlayStation 2 console and consumer demand for such a title. With the recent price drop of the PlayStation 2, we have the opportunity to attract more people to the platform, and SingStar is the type of product that appeals to wider audiences such as casual and female gamers. SingStar is a revolutionary entertainment experience that will help to push the platform to new heights while ushering in an era of more social gaming," the Sony America spokesperson said.

To learn more about the past, present, and future of SingStar, we spoke to Paulina Bozek, senior producer for the SingStar series.

GameSpot: SingStar has been very popular in Europe. What do you see as the key to its success?

Paulina Bozek: During the development of the original SingStar game, we were always conscious of the fact that we were developing a game, rather than a simulator or a voice trainer. This made us always focus on making the game fun above everything. Almost everyone likes to sing, even those that aren’t so good--the game brings out the exhibitionist in everyone. This, combined with the competitive element of the scoring system, the original music, original videos, expansive tracklists, and of course our SingStar microphones, combines to make a product we are really proud of.

GS: The series hasn’t yet made it over to the US and Japan. How come the series originated in Europe, especially given the popularity of karaoke in Japan?

PB: SingStar came about as the result of a research project into sound input for the PlayStation 2 at Sony Computer Entertainment’s London Studio. The technology to interact with the console using sound was created, and this eventually evolved into a singing game. SingStar was developed at the same studio which created the EyeToy series of games. Of course, Buzz is also a SCEE title developed in the UK--there are some really creative ideas coming out of European studios at the moment. We’re really excited that the PlayStation 2 version of SingStar is set for release in the US very soon.

GS: With six different versions of SingStar, are there any genres you’d still like to cover? A lot of people seem to be waiting for SingStar Brit pop or a '90s compilation.

PB: We are being contacted all the time with suggestions for future iterations of SingStar. There are loads of different tracks on our wish list and genres we would like to cover--rest assured that we will be continuing to release new versions on a very regular basis.

GS: SingStar has unfortunately lost a few features through the various iterations. The original game had a career mode that was quickly dropped, and now the tracklisting for SingStar Anthems is down from the usual 30 to 20.

PB: After the release of the first SingStar title, it became very clear that the multiplayer and party modes were far more popular than the single-player modes. For this reason, for the sequel, SingStar Party, we decided to focus largely on the multiplayer experience. We improved the Pass the Mic team game and introduced the duet mode.

Each version of SingStar uses up an entire DVD--we squeeze as much onto each disc as we possibly can. Due to the demand for more songs, we release new games quite frequently and this limits our development time. For this reason, we have to focus on adding new features that really make a difference to the play experience. We felt that the duet mode was definitely something that we needed to include. Last year, we introduced the rap mode in SingStar Pop for the first time, and we try and keep adding features that make the series more fun and give the player more of what they want.

SingStar Anthems is actually an extra version which we squeezed into the summer schedules. It is actually only intended as a UK-only release, hence the smaller tracklisting. But, in fact, it has proved so popular that it’s getting a release in many European territories now. We will revert to the full 30 tracks on subsequent releases.

GS: SingStar is a very popular party game, yet it’s only possible for two people to play at once. Is support for four players technically possible, or Bluetooth mics on the PS3?

PB: We are working on wireless Bluetooth mics for PS3. It’s going to be another SingStar-branded exclusive microphone, professional-looking and high quality, as we’ve done on PS2. In terms of four-player, this is an idea we have considered--you could have some songs which include backing singers, etc. It’s not something we’ve got working yet, and it needs to be resolved both technically and from the point of view of onscreen interface, i.e., you need to show four people what to sing. For now, it’s all about two people on the mic and the rest of the crowd watching--which is also a big part of the SingStar experience.

GS: The technology behind SingStar is based on timing and pitch. Is there any way that it could be improved to be even more accurate?

PB: The pitch detection is actually very, very accurate and robust. We spent a long time developing and refining this technology. If you play the game on the medium or hard difficulty setting, the scoring system matches the pitch detection more closely and you’ll see how accurate the pitch detection actually is… The one way you could improve the overall sound input tracking is to make it rely on speech recognition. However, this makes the song very difficult to play.

Although, we are always keen to bring new experiences to SingStar, and innovation in the programming team has led to the introduction of rap scoring, which is actually tracking the words that people are saying, and their rhythm.

GS: SingStar seems to appeal to both hardcore gamers and people who would never even pick up a Dual Shock 2 pad. Do you think that a simple interface is the key to mainstream appeal?

PB: The success of SingStar, EyeToy, and Buzz with nongamers is definitely down to the removal of the barriers caused by traditional games controllers. The simple interface combined with game design, which turns familiar activities into gameplay, is definitely what lifestyle gaming is all about. Having said that, many people are introduced to gaming through the simplicity of games like SingStar, EyeToy, and Buzz and then progress to trying some of the more traditional games using traditional control methods.

GS: So do you think that there are any other genres that could be tackled in a similar way? Like in MovieStar, for example, where your acting ability is judged via a SingStar mic and an EyeToy camera?

PB: LifeStyle gaming is something that is increasingly important to SCEE’s development teams, and the success of SingStar, Buzz, and EyeToy show that the public definitely have an appetite for these kind of games. We’re always looking at new ideas for games suitable for everyone, which are fun and easy to play and understand. The SingStar concept can be extended to other experiences and it is something we have also been exploring.

GS: SingStar looks set to be one of Sony’s key titles for the PlayStation 3, particularly in the online area. Will traditional packages still be released for the game, or will tracks be available as download only?

PB: We are currently looking at the best distribution model for PlayStation 3 in conjunction with our global sales and marketing partners. We will certainly also continue to support SingStar for PlayStation 2 as long as there is a market for it.

GS: What other improvements will we see in the next-gen version?

PB: The next-gen version is going to be an evolution of the game experience everyone knows and loves with SingStar. We will be adding the SingStore--which will host hundreds of songs. This means you can download the songs of your choice, and make your own SingStar playlist whenever you want. Some of the music videos will be in full HD glory, and, as always, all of the music will be the original songs with videos.

Complementing the SingStore will be MySingStar, an online platform where users can upload their performance videos and party photos and share them with friends. We’ll also be hosting competitions around performances on MySingStar. There will be prizes for top scores and the best user-rated performances.

In-game, you’ll be able to customize your menu backgrounds to personalize your SingStar game. And soon after launch, we’ll be introducing new Bluetooth wireless microphones.

GS: Thanks for your time.

We look forward to bringing you more information on upcoming versions of SingStar as soon as it becomes available.

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