Sony is justifiably proud of SingStar. It's sold over 17 million units. Over 4 million songs have been bought and downloaded. It's also almost universally adored by critics. Everyone at Eurogamer plays SingStar, for example, often to the exclusion of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. SingStar's brilliant, and it's a success. So it's slightly bizarre that the highest score it's ever had on Metacritic, across 26 individual disc releases, is 82, with the majority languishing in the mid-70s, if not lower.
The reason for this is also the reason that this is an article about SingStar, and not a review of SingStar Queen and the new wireless microphones: SingStar is now basically unreviewable. Unlike Guitar Hero: Metallica, or AC/DC Live: Rock Band, SingStar has morphed from a game into a service, and defies traditional critical judgement. I might only think Vol. 2 is worth 7/10 when I review it, but would I recommend SingStar overall? Unquestionably. A few jokes about Brian May's hair with a paragraph about the new microphones on the end doesn't really cut it. Besides, I wanted to put the paragraph about the wireless microphones at the top.
They have been worth the wait. The USB receiver is surprisingly large, cluttering up the lounge floor alongside the larger PlayTV box, but the microphones are ample justification: sturdy and professional, with a laptop-style power slider and locking mechanism, they press the Microsoft Lips equivalents further into the depths of my peripheral basket than they were already. In-game, they are indistinguishable from the wired equivalents. The only bonkers thing about them is that they've taken two years longer to come to market than originally expected.
"We really just wanted to make sure it was the right product, at the right price, and to do that sometimes you have to take a little bit more time," says series director Dave Ranyard (the new Paulina Bozek, for those keeping count), speaking to me a week after their GBP 34.99 debut. "SingStar mics have always been manufactured so you feel like you're holding a real microphone, like you would in a band, and you do get that kind of feel from them. I think that actually subconsciously adds to the experience a bit." Indeed - and they are the single most significant thing to happen to SingStar since the launch of the PS3 version and SingStore in 2007.
The good news is that SingStar fans won't have to wait that long again to see other improvements. Ranyard can't talk publicly about new song packs (although we've been told what they are, and they are awesome), but he says that in addition to continuing to stock the Store with additional music and shops with additional discs, Sony plans to continue expanding the game in feature terms over the next 12 months.
The first part of this will be the new voice control update, which launches with SingStar Vol. 4 later this month, and will also be available as a free download for PS3 owners (sadly it's not coming to PS2). "You get into the main game loop and then just use voice, so you can browse right, browse left, select - these are the kind of terms you can use," says Ranyard. "You can say a band name or song name and the carousel will spin to it. And then you can get into the game, play the game, come back out and keep using just the mics." Pausing the game still uses the control pad, because whatever word the team might use could end up in a song lyric, with awkward results, but beyond that, you no longer run the risk of Ellie dropping the DualShock 3 in a pint of Vimto at two in the morning.
And further beyond that, Sony's London Studio, where SingStar is put together, plans to keep introducing additional technology tweaks and features. "I'm happy to say we'll look at new gameplay modes," says Ranyard. "The Store as well - as far as I'm concerned that can benefit from feature development just like anything else, so as content increases we may well work on the storefront... We do have a new section to the storefront coming called SingStar Extras where you can buy, or get for free, other things than just songs, so that's where you might buy features in the future, or you might get the features for free." He says to keep an eye out for announcements at E3.
Given the game's broad appeal though (my mum has played SingStar, and she can't even make a new folder in Windows XP), it's no surprise to hear Ranyard talking about the inclusiveness of new features. "From some of our really rough stats, about 80 per cent of people playing SingStar are in a social experience. They've got friends round, or family, or whatever," he says. "But that means there are 20 per cent who perhaps aren't, at that time. And actually, 20 per cent of SingStar users is quite a lot of people, so catering to that experience is a totally reasonable thing that we'd consider."
As he says this, I'm reminded of my personal remorse at the deletion of friend-of-Eurogamer Keza MacDonald's X-rated version of "Suddenly I See", and the loss of my own emotional rendition of "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia. Ranyard points out that there's a ratings element to that - the games have a relatively low 12+ PEGI designation to hit, and sometimes go to 3+ - so I ask whether it's worth putting out a one-off "grown-ups" SingStar to give us all an avenue into slightly less family-friendly songs. And behaviour. "As the community grows, there may be a time when we have sub-communities," he speculates. "At the other end of the spectrum, maybe there's a sub-community for younger players."
And despite a few teething problems with the Store when it launched (many speculate it was the reason the game, originally a PS3 launch title, took so long to arrive), London Studio now embraces PlayStation Network as much as the next developer, even if the next developer is Media Molecule. "The concept of being online [or not] is almost irrelevant," Ranyard points out, citing the growth of sites like Facebook alongside games like LittleBigPlanet. "Things like that are informing us about where we're going." Global online leaderboards seems like an obvious step.
There are also now over 650 songs on SingStore, but despite the huge number, and Ranyard's eagerness to talk about scaling up or down for people of different age groups and singing ability, there have been accusations of a narrow focus. When a list of the top ten best-selling songs was published recently, the first comment on the Guardian's write-up said: "all that's on the SingStore is eighties pop, obscure Euro hits you've never heard of, and mind-numbingly dull commercial indie". Does the SingStore have a problem with variety?
"Personally, I don't think there's a problem with variety," Ranyard says. "Eighties pop? You know, the biggest-downloaded song is Bonnie Tyler's 'Total Eclipse of the Heart'... I've been in bands and all sorts back in my younger days, and I think one thing that SingStar does really well is highlight great songs... I didn't like [Total Eclipse of the Heart] when it came out, because I was a punk, but I love doing it now because it's a great song."
So how are songs chosen, then, and how do they end up on SingStore? "We have evaluation criteria, so if a song's got a two-minute instrumental in the middle, it's perhaps not a great SingStar song. It's really simple things like that... But having said that, sometimes the artist and the song are so loved by the fanbase that you might be forgiving of one or two of those things because it's an absolute classic." As for who actually picks the songs, there are offices in places like Spain, Portugal and Germany who submit wishlists. "We don't necessarily have one place that picks all the songs," says Ranyard. "We tend to use marketing departments, for example, because they obviously know what their territory wants, what consumers want."
Once a song's decided, it needs to be licensed, and that's a complicated process that takes up to 12 weeks for the team of five people whose job it is to sort it all out. "Lots of rights are owned by different people and you can only use something when you've cleared all those rights," says Ranyard. "For example, if a song's written by three or four people, each person could be represented by a different company."
Getting it into the game happens at London Studio. "We've got a team of musicians who sit and listen to the songs and work out the melody that you're going to sing, and work it so the lyrics appear at the right time, which is a gameplay thing but we hire musicians to do that - so each one is crafted by human hands and ears, if you like."
Of course there are additional complications. If there's a shot of someone holding a knife in the video, for instance, that could affect the PEGI rating, so the video has to be edited. "For [another] example, you may find you get an eighties pop song, and with the videos in the eighties, they loved making them a bit like films, so what you'd find is that in the music for the video they'd put in an extra four bars in the middle because there's a scene that's like waving goodbye on a platform or something, and then you get the CD bit and it doesn't match up." And of course every time someone edits something, that means seeking re-approval from the rights-holders. Still, at least the process is the same for discs and Store downloads.
And at least it doesn't get them down, perhaps because every Friday afternoon they have SingStar parties in the office (I thought we invented that), or perhaps because they always have the option, slumped on the sofa on a Sunday morning, of firing up the SingStar community pages and watching the surprisingly amazing videos that fans of the game concoct. It's the new Hollyoaks Omnibus. What's more, Ranyard reckons the community pretty much polices itself.
"People can grief-report, but to be honest I don't think there's that much moderation goes on," he says. "I think there was a little bit in the early days, because people didn't really know. It was nothing like malicious, it was more naive, and it's not like every day I get emails like, 'Oh god, this is happening', so I don't know how it is moderated. It's certainly not a big topic for us." They even have nice comments threads apparently. Imagine! Ranyard speculates that it's because people are comfy in the walled garden that is SingStar online, and support one another rather than fighting.
"And you're right, I love watching it too," he admits, although with three kids his Sundays probably don't involve many hangovers and Hollyoaks anyway. "We've given them one editing function, which is the pause button, and yet they've done some amazing videos. That's kind of what I'm getting at when I say that we look at the community and that informs us as to where to go." He doesn't want to comment on whether full-length video recordings will be introduced in a future round of updates, which probably means they will be.
One feature we would all like to see, though, isn't really up to Ranyard and his colleagues at Sony, and that's only having to buy a song you like once. At the moment, anyone who fancies a bit of "Mr. Brightside" in SingStar and Rock Band has to fork out twice, and again if they want it on CD (although you know, it's a bit old now - buy Day & Age instead). Are we ever going to get to a point where it's just one, sensible price for an all-access pace?
"That's a really tough question. I do know what you mean from a consumer perspective. At the end of the day I'm a consumer as well," he says, before pausing. "We could get there. Maybe that's more of an initiative for the music industry." So, er, probably not, then. Given the music industry's attitude to evolving technologies like the internet in the late nineties, and even now, it's hard to imagine them not wanting us to buy everything multiple times.
Then again, Ranyard has to work with people in the music industry, so he's not about to slag them off, and points out that while the number of competing music games sometimes means paying out too often for the same thing, it has its upsides too. "If you look at the music industry," he notes, "games has been quite a big positive impact on their finances in the last couple of years. Yes, obviously there's competition for content on the one hand, but the other side of it is that the music industry takes us very seriously now, so that makes it easier and smoothes things out. The fact that there's a healthy market there helps us a lot."
And hey, we've got wireless microphones now, and they can't take that away from us.
SingStar's wireless microphones are out now. Dave Ranyard is series director for SingStar at Sony's London Studio. Tom Bramwell has the voice of an angel.