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PlayStation’s London Studio, Creators Of The Revolutionary Singstar, Deserved Better Than This



The news that PlayStation is laying off around 900 people, or around 8% of its total global workforce, should be viewed for what it is: a callous and depraved act by an executive and shareholder class who just made over $9 billion in revenue and thought, lol, let's also toss some people's lives into the bin while we're at it, as a little treat for ourselves.

Amid the bad news overall, though, one particular piece stood out to me as being even worse: Sony would be closing PlayStation's London Studio. Not laying off some of its workers, not shifting its focus, just shutting the whole thing down. I'm absolutely floored by this, at the way that studio's legacy has been shrugged off as just another casualty of an industry more concerned with appeasing shareholders than it is making quality video games.

London Studio was formed back in 2002, and while it worked on over 50 games over the years (including EyeToy Play, a project I could write a whole other blog about), it's perhaps best known for SingStar, the revolutionary multiplayer karaoke game that changed the video game landscape forever, in ways that some of you reading this will know all too well, but many may be completely oblivious to.

See, SingStar--a PS2 game that relied on custom PlayStation microphones that players had to sing into, battling opponents for who could sing a song more "accurately"--was one of the most successful video games of all time in Europe and Australia. But for whatever reason, it barely registered as a blip in the United States.

So much of the modern video game industry apparatus, from marketing to the press that disseminates that marketing, is dominated by Americans. They're the biggest English-speaking demographic out there, it's where most companies are based, to an extent that makes sense. But the degree to which our wider appreciation of video games--and the way we remember them--suffers as a result of this homogeneity can sometimes really suck!

So you'll see a lot of reports about the Sony layoffs this week, most of them from American media (like Aftermath's!), that simply add London Studio to the list of casualties as a footnote, just another detail. No! Their contributions, no matter how long ago they were, deserve a grander farewell than a footnote!

SingStar was a monster. It should be spoken of in the same sentence as the Wii whenever anyone charts video games’ progression from bedroom pastime to mainstream cultural force. I can tell you this with numbers: of the 158 million PS2 units sold worldwide, 55 million of them were in Europe. By 2009, the SingStar series had sold 20 million copies, the vast majority of them on PlayStation 2 in Europe and Australia. That is a venn diagram with a lot of overlap, as much as you'll find for any one series on any one platform in the history of video games.

But I can also tell you with experience. I worked at EB Games (basically, GameStop) from 2002-2005, right around the peak of the series, and you couldn't keep the games on the shelf. More importantly for PlayStation, we also couldn't keep PlayStation 2 consoles on the shelf, especially when Sony started releasing special SingStar bundles. What was most notable about this wasn't just the volume of interest and sales, it was who was buying them: women.

Before you say anything, yes, SingStar was very much of a timePlayStation

Sure, men were allowed to buy and enjoy the series, but of the folks coming in and spending the money on software and hardware, the overwhelming majority of them were women, many of them making their first ever video game console purchase. My girlfriend (now wife) had never owned a console in her life but was a SingStar fiend. Same with all her friends. They'd have dedicated SingStar parties all the time, during which she would like you all to know she would kick my ass. Aside from maybe Halo 2's launch, I can't remember a more ceaseless rush for gaming products in my time working at EB Games than a combination of a pink PlayStation 2 and a copy of at least one SingStar game.

If all of this is starting to sound fairly sexist, well it kinda was. That was even the point: Check out this article from the Sydney Morning Herald in 2004:

If PS2's marketers are right, this year women will be joining the gaming stampede, which is usually dominated by males from four to 40.

The latest gaming sales trick is new software and hardware peripherals that shun racing cars and blood and guts in favour of putting girls on the TV screen with singalong software frighteningly close to karaoke. Sony Computer Entertainment calls it SingStar, a PS2 game that is one of several to have won fans among Australian females.

PlayStation Australia's boss goes on to say in this article that 50% of SingStar sales had been to teenage girls and another 30% to "women over 30". "We're seeing 40-year-old women inviting friends over for a few cocktails on a Friday night and they're all doing SingStar", he says, and I absolutely believe those numbers.

Have we ever seen anything like this in video games, before or since? Something that could walk straight up to a specific demographic of people traditionally uninterested in or kept from that particular part of the space and not just try to appeal to them, but absolutely win them over, to the point you can sell them multiple pieces of expensive proprietary hardware?

SingStar helped get so many people buying PlayStation 2 consoles--and multiple SingStar games, since they ended up releasing over 60 versions over the years--that it tangibly moved the needle on the PS2's global sales figures.

And now the people responsible are gone. Probably not many (if any) of the actual people, a studio's workforce is always in flux and there hasn't been a SingStar game released in years. But one of the biggest problems this industry is facing right now with all these layoffs is the institutional knowledge that is being lost every time an entire studio closes, when everything they ever made and learned and spoke about in meetings is scattered to the winds.

SingStar and its legacy deserved better. But then, everyone laid off by corporate ghouls deserves better. 

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