Crispy Gamer

Coachella Diary

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Voltaire said that illusion is the first of all the pleasures, and nowhere did the "Candide" author's words ring more true than in the hollow, parched town of Coachella near Palm Springs. For it was during these dry, 100-degree days and nights on those manure-smelling polo grounds that the zombified, pot-polluted desert dwellers called rock 'n' roll fans gathered to witness what seemed to be bands more numerous than I have strands of DNA.

It all began with a Sony-sponsored trek to Palm Springs to the supposedly tony La Quinta Resort where golf is king, Frank Capra once slept, and a cheap room is a mere $450 a night. Within these perfumed and flowered confines, where it rains just four times a year and where the constantly-watered grass is golf-green short, I would witness the new SingStar karaoke party game for the PlayStation 3, which drops on May 20. I wanted to sing. I needed to sing. Like a star.

They tucked us dusty, non-Amex-Black-carded gamer geeks way back in the hinterlands at something dubbed the Legacy Villas, a gated community where the drunken and non-drunken alike find it difficult to find their faux adobe abodes after the sun has set and the colorful desert hummingbirds hum no more. The environment was like Malvena Reynolds' brilliant protest song, "Little Boxes": Every adobe-topped villa looks alike and the water-sprinkled lawns hiss with sad anger all through the night and the day. It's an evil game of mazes at night, like playing Sony's upcoming, M.C. Escher-inspired echochrome on a blank screen.

Friday, April 25, 2008

At the Legacy Villas Clubhouse, I expected the concierge to try to sell me a time-share. Instead, within a conference room, the pixie-ish Paulina Bozek, a fellow Pole who is SingStar franchise director out of Sony's London office, explained the ins and out of the both the disk and the store. She said that there have been 90 SingStar disks thus far, including many localized editions. There's been a Bollywood edition and an Apres Ski Party edition. 1,300 songs have been licensed and the various versions have sold 13 million copies worldwide. That's so much singing, it'd make you hoarse.

The big difference with the PlayStation 3 version? Online, downloadable music videos. Bozak said that in the four and a half months in which SingStar PS3 has been available in Europe, a million songs have been downloaded by 140,000 users of the new online site, the SingStore, accessible via the PS3.

When SingStar PS3 hits these shores on in the third week of May, the online store will be enhanced by a social networking site called My SingStar Online, basically a MySpace meets YouTube meets Facebook for those who like to show off their singing chops. The store will be packed with 200 songs at launch. Yeah, there should be more, and Sony acknowledges it, saying the goal will be to have 25-50 new songs available each month.

While the pricing of $59.99 for the 30 song-disk with two mics is attractive and a deal, I have to say that $1.49 per song may be too much in this time of recession. Affable U.S. SingStar producer Petro Piaseckyj made the case that the price per video is reasonable because "You're not just getting a song like you do in iTunes. You're getting a video, too." Time will tell. Heck, maybe they'll have a sale from time to time.

People who like their SingStar really like their SingStar, and Sony showed off 30-second karaoke snippets that fans carefully made using the PlayStation Eye camera and no editing software -- just starting and stopping the recording function over and over to make a video. Then, they uploaded their handiwork. That's real dedication.

People seem to like to get dressed up to perform in their videos. I saw everyone from an Elvis imitator to what looked like the Abominable Snowman wailing away. Says Bozek, "When you see these videos, it's like having a surveillance camera in someone's living room. It's really quite mad." Not everything will go up willy-nilly, however. If a user flags a video, there'll be big-brotherly Sony people behind the scenes working night and day to monitor My SingStar Online. Drop an F-bomb and you're done.

There are even plans for indie bands to give their own music videos the karaoke treatment, says Alex Hackford, SCEA's head of A&R. The idea sounded new and unfinished, but it's is an appealing one. Imagine singing along to Vampire Weekend's "Walcott" long before the band got so bloody hot. The question is, what rights would the bands have to give up to get on the SingStore? And who would get on? Would the community choose, or would Hackford choose? Or would it be both? "We haven't quite figured it out yet," admits Hackford.

Upon noodling around with the game, I liked the simple, intuitive feel of the store and found the videos easy to access with no lag time. If you don't have a PlayStation Eye, you can upload snippets of your audio as well. My favorite perk? There'll be a fairly non-competitive Enhanced Duets mode in SingStar PS3, good for people like me who fear losing due to strained vocal cords. It's not often that I get up the gumption to sing in public, but when PSP Fanboy's Andrew Yoon suggested a duet, I was game. Then the machine froze up, as if it feared my off-key voice, which bears the limited range of a male Ashley Simpson. Yoon walked away, and I stood there, bemused. I was ready to go to the show.

Sunscreen was on my balding pate and the yearning was in my heart. The only band I craved seeing at the event was Rilo Kiley. I left Electric Playground's small crew of Donna Park and Enzo Zanatta as they grooved, mesmerized by Death Cab for Cutie. A five-minute walk later, and I witnessed the wonders of Jenny Lewis. There, as the white lights blinded so much so that I needed sunglasses at night, I saw God; I got hard and I was moved to misty eyes, the choked up kind. I mention this because if a jaded writer such as yours truly can be so moved, why doesn't Rilo Kiley appear on any of those 90 SingStar disks? Sony's Alex Hackford is a terribly smart guy who attends all these festivals and knows pop music better than most music critics, so why no Rilo Kiley on SingStar? As usual, I'm mystified. Maybe the band will show up on a download in the fancy new store. It has to.

After the deathly, plaintive strains of Portishead, a few of us, including GameSpot's Ricardo Torres, braved the chaotic and sometimes cut-up zombies to walk the mile or so of black hole desert darkness to the random cabs that were scattered upon the distant avenue like lighted crumbs. There was a celebrity-infested Sony/T-Mobile party that I was required to attend, but the thrill goes away after 3:30 am Big Apple time. While Ricardo and his cameraman soldiered on via taxi to shoot the party, I curled up into my usual haunted state and went to sleep.

April 28, 2008

The next morning after breakfast, I could see the bags under Ricardo's bleary eyes, and he wasn't happy. He coughed a little and then he said of the party that ended mere hours ago, "We were in line for a cab and that (insert your favorite expletive) Nicky Hilton got in front of us, flashed a lot of money to the cab driver and took off." Why can't these rich folk leave the princes of gaming alone? I thought, aren't those Hilton girls a tad too old to be partying and acting like teenage assholes, already? They're like herpes: They just keep coming back for more.

In the air, the idiots and the angels hung around. As the SkyWest jet left Palm Springs, as the HD LCD monitors and PS3s were torn down and shipped out, as all the game journos were scattered across the country once again, as the hummingbirds flew microscopic 30,000 feet below and the ancient nadir of the Grand Canyon was like the gaping cut in my soul, I kept quietly singing Rilo Kiley's "Breakin' Up." You know that refrain, "Ooo. It. Feels good to be free. Ooo. It. Feels good to be free." Illusion is such a pleasure, the first one.