Sony has announced the next SingStar game - and it lets you use your phone as a mic.
SingStar Ultimate Party launches in time for Christmas this year for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3, courtesy of long-standing SingStar developer Sony London, and its headline new feature is a free app that turns an iOS or Android device into a microphone.
After you've downloaded the app, you need to make sure your device - iPhone, Android phone, tablet or even iPod - is connected to the same wi-fi network as your PS3 or PS4. Then, you will receive a four digit code. Type it in and you're good to go.
We had a go on the new SingStar at a recent event using an iPhone and it worked at least as well as the dedicated SingStar microphone released for previous versions of the karaoke video game series. As you'd expect you hold the phone as you would normally and sing into the mic at the bottom.
As for the game, it comes in two flavours. One is the disc version - the first new SingStar disc since 2011's 'SingStar: Back To The 80s' - which costs £24.99 and includes 30 songs (expect detail on the new track list at E3 next month). The second is the download version, which is essentially a demo. This is free (you don't need a PlayStation Plus subscription) and includes 10 songs each a minute long.
As is the case now, you can buy songs individually at £1.15 a pop. And the songs are cross-buy, where available. So if you buy a song on PS3 you automatically get it on PS4 - if it's available for that console. Sony is working on licensing as many of the tracks already available on PS3, so hopefully those with a huge catalogue of already purchased songs will be able to carry them over to PS4.
The user interface has been revamped to make it easier for players to navigate and easier for Sony London Studio to update. It's built using HTML5, so the developer can make changes on the fly without having to go through Sony's quality assurance department. Because of this, Sony London can bubble content up to the front of the UI at a whim, perhaps pointing to artists who are on tour, for example.
Sony London has also added a raft of new features to the in-song experience. If you're using the PlayStation Camera you can add a number of augmented reality effects, such as masks on player faces. The game tracks the light on the DualShock 4 controller, too, as well as the light from a smartphone torch, letting those who aren't singing add light effects on screen.
"When we first had the idea of a phone, all of us went, really? Now we've done it with so many people, you just forget."
Sony London Studio director Dave Ranyard
As with previous versions of the game, a maximum of two people can sing at once - the UI gets too cluttered if you add more, Sony said. You can continue to use the existing SingStar microphones, as well as Bluetooth headsets, but you can also use the PlayStation Camera as a microphone, letting everyone in a room contribute.
Sony London has changed the difficulty system so it no longer includes easy, medium and hard variants. This time, players do not get to pick the game's difficulty. Instead, a thin line is displayed inside the pitch tube on-screen. Hitting that thin line triggers the perfect pitch and a high score.
Accompanying this change is a new scoring system that lifts the previous 10,000 point cap per song. Now, three million points is considered peak. "It's gone from a Pac-Man score to a pinball score," Sony London studio director Dave Ranyard told Eurogamer at a recent event.
There's also an experience point system, which feeds into a ranking system. You start the game as a "SingStarter", and work your way up towards "SuperStar". There is also a community XP system, which pits players in the same country against other players in another country during certain weekends. It's "Singstar's own Eurovision", according to Ranyard.
As before you can upload "snapshots" to the SingStar community as well as Facebook and Twitter, and send challenges as notifications through the PlayStation Network. However, you can also use the PlayStation 4's Share functionality with the PlayStation Camera to live-broadcast your performance. This, Ranyard said, was one of SingStar PS4's most exciting features. "This Christmas it will be a lot of fun watching people singing," he said.
"The first Christmas of a console's life is about core games and SingStar is a bit different. So we felt this Christmas was the perfect storm for SingStar."
But clearly, the headline new feature is the ability to use an iOS or Android device instead of a SingStar microphone - a new feature designed to reduce the barrier to entry and widen SingStar's potential audience, Ranyard added.
"I'm excited about the phone as a mic, because it means there's no barrier to entry at all. You don't need to buy the mics.
"When we first had the idea of a phone, all of us went, really? Now we've done it with so many people, you just forget. After about 30 seconds they've forgotten. It's the only thing that's gone from 3D to 2D!"
This, coupled with the launch of the free version, means all PS3 and PS4 owners can at least try SingStar, he said.
Today, 21st May 2014, marks the 10-year anniversary of the SingStar franchise. Ranyard, who has worked on the game since its beginning on PlayStation 2, said the decision to release a new game in the series now was in part to celebrate the occasion, and in part to capitalise on PS4's second Christmas.
"We always wanted to do PS4," Ranyard continued. "We decided not to go for [the PS4's] launch because we felt it would be better this year, which is partly to do with the 10-year anniversary. The first Christmas of a console's life is about cool games and SingStar is a bit different. So we felt this Christmas was the perfect storm for SingStar."
"We're doing a lot of tech demos for Morpheus. We'll see what happens. The studio is really excited though because it's just so hot."
Around 30 of the 120 people at Sony London are working on the new SingStar. Others are working on Sony's virtual reality headset Project Morpheus. Indeed Sony London created the Project Morpheus tech demo The Deep, which was unveiled at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year. It's also working on other Morpheus tech demos.
Sony London's experience with AR on EyeToy, EyePet and Wonderbook made VR the perfect natural step for the studio, Ranyard said.
"A lot of AR techniques translate to VR. It's not a leap. It's a step. So from a studio perspective it makes sense. But it's a different audience. We're doing a lot of tech demos for Morpheus. We'll see what happens. The studio is really excited though because it's just so hot."
Of course not everyone at Sony London is working on SingStar, or even Project Morpheus. Others are working on other, secret projects, although Ranyard won't say what.The man who dared call educational Minecraft a Do games belong in the classroom?
What's clear is that Sony London is evolving, even if it's sticking with SingStar at its core. It's reworked its art team to help it make the jump from being what Ranyard described as a "PlayStation 2.5" studio. This is the idea of the graphics of its games, such as Wonderbook, being limited because of the drain on the PlayStation 3's resources as a result of using a camera feed and player tracking. Key staff from Crytek have been hired to help flesh out the new art team, which created the Project Morpheus The Deep demo, and the animation of the shark it contained. According to Ranyard, Industrial Light & Magic were mightily impressed, saying The Deep's shark should be given a BAFTA.
"Part of the remit of the studio is to do new stuff," he said. "If it's got wires hanging out of it and the SDK [software development kit] doesn't really work, we want to be there! It's not the same as being on a massive franchise for core gamers. It's changing a little bit. With the Morpheus work we're doing and the new art team it feels a bit more grown up."
So, will Sony London make a Morpheus launch title? "Who can tell? It would be great to do that. We'll see," was Ranyard's coy response.
But don't expect SingStar for Project Morpheus: " The Venn diagram... apart from me and maybe a few journalists, it's not necessarily the same audience," Ranyard laughed.
This article was based on an event held in Santa Monica. Sony paid for travel and accommodation.