When it comes to Lips, Microsoft's first stab at a karaoke game since the long-forgotten Xbox Music Mixer, SingStar isn't so much the elephant in the room as the elephant in 15 million living rooms - or at least the business with 15 million sales - and no one's going to let Microsoft and Lips developer iNiS forget it, least of all us. "What do we think of SingStar?" says iNiS' chief creative officer Keiichi Yano, when we pop the question. "I can't really talk to the other music games, but you know obviously we've looked at it, and we do consider it a competitor, but I really want to do my own thing here, and I think one of the things we're really doing is providing a very deep experience."
After half an hour exploring the Lips package, the claim rings true. The basic mechanics are admittedly familiar - a music video plays in the background as lyrics and pitch lines appear in the foreground so you can sing along, and the game measures the quality of your performance based on pitch and rhythm ("this is pretty standard," Yano deadpans), which means you can get away with humming as long as you fit the tune. But there's more to it at every turn. "If you sing really well, and your pitch is very accurate, you'll score higher," Yano notes. There's also an orange meter along the top of the screen.
This will fill up as you sing along, and when it's full you're asked to perform a gesture. The game can handle this because the microphones are motion-sensitive. You can also go into "starstream" mode when the time comes. "So while it's in the starstream mode, I can pick up these stars for extra points. Even if you're not singing that great, if you can activate starstream and pick up these stars, at the end it will award bonus points," says Yano.
The microphone's motion sensitivity also allows for Rock Band-style percussion, but whereas Harmonix and MTV's band game picks up clapping noises alone, the Lips microphones pay attention to movement. Gentle motions rattle the tiny make-believe cymbals, whereas clapping motions fire them up properly. You can also change the type of percussion to cowbells, maracas, bongos, drums and others.
At the core, says Yano, there's a desire to get the whole room involved; for Lips to be the centre of attention. That's one of the reasons the microphones are wireless, and why they have lights up and down the side that spark to life based on your performance - or just throb quietly on the table, beckoning someone to pick up and clap along. The mics don't rely on a dongle for their connection to the 360, either, which means you can still have four regular control-pads hooked up. If you do, they can be used to play other instruments. It's not meant to be a high-scores Rock Band or Guitar Hero-style complement to the singing (at least not that they've announced), but it should at least ensure that your controllers are covered in sick and beer the next morning.
Another distinctive change is that there's an actual progression system; a persistent character element that allows players to earn "medals" based on their performances. "There is no campaign, but there is the notion of levelling, so you can sing a lot of songs and level up," says Yano. His Microsoft colleague demonstrates that you can build experience by dancing, pressing buttons, adding vibrato to your voice or simply being a good singer. Other game modes include versus, co-op, duet (with harmonising and "all kinds of different variations") and unspecified "party games"; "all sorts of other things you can play with".
Perhaps the biggest difference between Lips and SingStar though is that iNiS is allowing you to import your own music collection from iPods, Zunes and other MP3 players. We happened to have a Zune handy (it had to come in useful one day), and when Yano plugged it into the demo 360 the first 100 songs on the device appeared in a long list. The full game will recognise every DRM-free song on an MP3 player, Yano says, and that could even include rips from vinyl and elsewhere. There are other bold claims too: lyrics will be displayed, performances will be rated as they would be with bundled songs, and you can even do vocal reduction so you can hear yourself over the real singer's caterwauling.
Slightly infuriatingly, Yano and Microsoft dodge every question about specifics, and won't hit the A button to take us through to whatever interface lies beyond, so while we can listen to the first few seconds of whatever Arcade Fire and Arctic Monkeys nonsense is on my Zune by hovering over a track on the list, we aren't given the full show. Asked how lyrics will work, Yano promises "a very compelling solution", but that's about it. His Microsoft colleague chimes in: "One thing to note is that for each song the experience will vary. We do have to say that. It's very based on the song, so that's just kind of a disclaimer."
Yano confirms that the mics will be bundled with the disc when you buy the game, but there are more dodges when it comes to pricing - especially for downloadable content, although once again it's an area where the developers want to emphasise Lips' distinctiveness. "We'll have lots of downloadable content," says Yano. "You'll be able to really extend the experience. We'll be talking about that very soon." Upon further kicking he adds that pricing "will be competitive", and that content will include music and videos. "And there's other things we can't yet talk about that are downloadable." At a guess, you'll be able to pay a nominal fee to grab lyrics for your custom songs.
Another difference, although a less flattering one, is the absence of support for the Xbox Live Vision camera. That's a shame from our perspective - and no doubt from the perspective of 360 owners jealously watching SingStar's community site fill up with fairly amusing videos of people singing songs dressed as Chewbacca and getting their gran to do "Ordinary World". There are at least a host of options to customise the experience in other ways, and some sensible extras like technology to intuitively raise and lower the level of the original artist's voice depending on whether you're singing along or have dropped off.
And of course there will be lots of songs bundled on the disc. "We're running around 40, but we're not finalising the count yet," Yano says. They'll be master tracks, so no covers, and each is backed by its original video, and playable in full-length of shortened versions. The only confirmed songs at this point are "Mercy" by Duffy, "Young Folks" by Peter, Bjorn & John, and "Bust-A-Move" by Young MC. The latter's a rap track, and Yano does the whole thing for our benefit, showing how the scoring is based on rhythm alone rather than pitch - with circles on syllables to make it easier to read the lyricist's intent.
For all that though, this is still going to be treated as Microsoft's SingStar, because it doesn't really matter how many extras you pile on when the core attraction is the same: singing along to real-world songs and getting rated based on your performance. The good news for people who like the sound of Lips and don't have a SingStar-compatible platform, however, is that if the developers follow through on their claims regarding imported music and downloadable content, this could be just as, if not more attractive a platform for that activity. Whatever they say though, the most important thing isn't where Lips differentiates itself; it's whether it can match or best the things it's doing that are the same, and on this evidence it deserves to be taken seriously.