You know what's good for breaking the ice before you conduct an interview with an industry veteran? Pretending you're Forrest Gump and talking with a thick South American accent in front of a TV screen. After thoroughly embarrassing myself doing just that, I sat down with Greg Fischbach, the CEO of the Yoostar Group, to talk about movie karaoke, social network integration, and Microsoft Kinect.
Q: A lot of people seem bewildered by the concept of movie karaoke; what's it all about and how does it work?
Greg Fischbach: We're working on the name 'movie karaoke'; it's not really a very good description of what we're doing. Basically you star in the films, and what we've done is gone to Hollywood and begged, borrowed and pleaded to use their film library to let you perform next to some of the world's great stars. We've made clips from the scenes in the movies. The clips run from anywhere between 30 seconds to two or three minutes long, and we provide a teleprompter so you can see what the words are. Clips appear on screen, you can read the words as they are, or you can make up your own script as you go - you can play with it. You can create these user generated videos that are fun to create, fun to watch being created and you can share them with your friends. It's a whole social experience. The more you do the same scene, the better you turn out to be. It's like Guitar Hero when you play the same song, or even Karaoke Revolution - there are a couple of tracks in there I like to do - and I get scored for it, I get scored in this game for it, I get scored in other games for it, and it's just fun to do it. The sensation of seeing yourself on the big screen, at home, is really cool. It made you smile when you did it...
Q: It really did.
GF: Yeah - it makes you smile. I don't know what it is, but it's almost magical.
Q: Do you envisage people cracking this out at parties or social gatherings in the same way they might Rock Band or SingStar?
GF: Yeah, because it'll be fun. It'll be fun to randomly choose a video to perform in, and you may end up playing the female role as oppose to the male, and you'll have to figure out how to do it. Or you may create your own role for it as you go through. Or you may take one of the sets and figure out how to play with it. There's a feature that limits the Xbox; it only goes out ten feet, so if you're beyond ten feet, the Kinect camera won't catch you. So you can actually find when you're playing some of the scenes - we have Star Trek in here, the Star Trek Enterprise - you can actually teleport yourself into the scene. And that's really cool. We discovered that at E3, and I'm sure there are other features with the camera that we've not been able to discover yet, that will be unlocked as we go forward. The users will unlock more of it, and I think that with all user generated content, the users will find things that we haven't found, and take it in different directions.
Q: So, there are 60 movie scenes out of the box - how hard has it been to license those scenes? Have you had any particular problems along the way?
GF: Oh, it's just a cake walk![laughs] We've licensed 1500 films, we've got deals with all the studios, we've got 1200 actors, and each one has its own story. It's like New York, it has 8 million stories, and there are no two talents that are alike, everybody has specific requests or requirements. It's a new genre, so anytime you're going to create a new genre, somebody's going to ask a question or say 'I'm not too interested, I'll wait 'til after!'. So I think it's been a struggle; it hasn't been easy. We've been at it for two years, we have 500 clips up on the site already, and I think that we'll continue to add content at the rate of anywhere between 10 and 20 clips a week now. As we grow older it's easier for us to acquire talent. We've just signed a major star that unlocks 8 films for us. It's just one after another after another. We have a way that we moderate all the content that's up there, we moderate three ways; we moderate it for nudity, for language and for appropriateness. So we have various constituencies that we have to satisfy. One of them ourselves is the talent we've signed, and the studios that we've signed. So we want to keep our content within our certain bandwidth. You who want to leave it at home and do whatever you want to do can do as you please. But if you choose to post it, then it'll be moderated, and reviewed before it's posted.
Q: A question about the Yoostar store then: will players be able to purchase individual scenes, or will they be forced to buy packs of scenes as we've seen in the likes of Guitar Hero?
GF: We do it two ways. We don't force the user to do anything, but we offer the user to buy as part of a package, or he or she can buy one at a time. Because it's an online store, and because it's totally programmable, we will continue to look at ways to encourage people to come and to purchase. We will also develop ways in which they can earn rights to purchase films, earn points so they don't have to pay cash for the films.
Q: So there's also a heavy emphasis on social network integration; how does Facebook and Twitter play into the Yoostar 2 experience?
GF: It's a very important area, a key part of a strategy. There a four pillars; there's content, there's gameplay, there's social, and there's the camera - you got them all. And those four pieces all tie together. I think the most critical piece is the social part, it's where we form communities and allow users to comment, review and discuss films, create contests for users on the site itself, trivia contests, for instance who did the best Terminator flick, and then offer prizes for those that achieved the best films, and also give prizes for those users that use the site a lot. So we encourage people to come up and participate and share, and I think there's a real fascination when you're able to post your own clip on your own Facebook or MySpace profile, if that's what you choose to do. It's a whole different world. Finding you standing next to John Belushi, or sitting in a car next to John Belushi is really kind of cool. It's the first game that puts you in the game, there was another company that talked about putting you in the game, but this one really does put you in the game.
Q: Quite literally, yeah. So, I've been playing the 360 version today, which obviously uses Kinect - how does the PS3 version differ?
GF: It works basically the same way, the difference is that it uses the motion controller or the joypad, whereas this game only uses gesture and speech technology to control it. Other than that the games are virtually identical.
Q: So it's controlled with PlayStation Eye in combination with PlayStation Move?
GF:Yeah. And what's so unique about what we've done is we're one of the first companies that has been able to mask the background without using green screen on a 2D camera - and the PlayStation Eye uses a 2D camera, and that's really cool.
Q: Are you worried that the 360 version of the game is going to prove more popular given it's got Kinect support?
GF: I hope they're both popular; I'm not worried about either one. I hope they're both very successful.
Q: What are your thoughts on Kinect in general?
GF: I'm a tech-junkie. I have an iPad, an iPod, an iPhone, and I think the gesture technology is really cool. The first time I saw gesture technology was about two years ago at a trade show in Barcelona, and it was presented by Gesture Tech - a competing technology to this. They had Need For Speed up and running at their booth, and that was the first time I'd seen anything like that. I thought it was a really cool application, and that was two years ago. Four or five months later I saw Microsoft and Spielberg introduce Kinect at E3 in June of last year. I thought 'this is real innovation going on here', and we thought we could learn to use gesture technology in a lot other applications too, in terms of how we move things on screen. When I'm describing it to a friend I call it a 'touchless touchscreen' because people sometimes don't get it. But the ability to move something on the screen, that dynamic is so much different than anything we've ever seen before. It makes Kinect very interesting in terms of technology.
Q: Today I've only seen real films with real actors in the game, can we expect to see cartoons, animations, or even other game scenes find their way into the game?
GF: I think there's no content that we can't try to take a look at, and see whether it works or not. Putting yourself in an animated scene is funny, we've played around with that one - so you might be talking to a duck [laughs], and you walk on stage. You can take the idea, and move it through loads of other content. It's basically only limited by your creativity; the only thing that limits what we're doing is the creativity of the gamer. We'll continue to try and find content in film, and television, and other areas that give gamers the creativity to do what they want.
Q: When can we expect to see Yoostar 2 hit store shelves?
GF: The game will release - if they finish it, because we're not sure they'll finish it in time - we'd like to release before Christmas, but it might end up being after. We're in the final stages of tuning it and putting it all together, so if we can get it all together in time, it'll be out before Christmas.
Q: And if all goes to plan, what's the next step for the Yoostar franchise? What are your ultimate aspirations?
GF: I look at it as a platform. So you have the content, the camera, a social platform to play with - and that gives you a good framework to build upon. It's a complex idea, not a simple idea, and if you take it and look at the things you can do with the content, and social content, you can see how it can gravitate to all areas. It's the first time we've been able to provide the user with the creation of video content in their living room. I mean, we do it on the laptop a lot, we use it a lot whether it's Skype or sending emails - we're very used to it, but this is the first time in a 'theatrical setting' - I'll put that one in quotes - that you're able to create content and then share that content with all your friends. There's a real difference to try and do it in front of this screen [points to laptop], as oppose to a bigger screen where you can capture the whole thing. Taking it from here and putting it there is a big deal. Taking away the need for a green screen and letting you stand and do it where you can act is a big deal. I think we'll see a lot of different uses for it, other than what it's designed for. I think it's a great tool.
Q: And do you think the core gamer will have just as much fun with this as the casual gamer?
GF: It's hard to say. Everybody has the same moderate; casual gamers don't play hardcore games, but core gamers play casual games. I think the leg up we have is that we're using a new technology in order to introduce it. The fact that you're using either Sony's PlayStation Eye and Move or Kinect to do it, those will appeal to the hardcore gamer, that's who we think is the initial buyer of this, because they're the early adopter. Because the product is so different - you and I were both at E3, and we didn't see anything like that. We saw a lot of motion products that look like they're a lot of fun to play, but nothing like this one at all.
Q: Last question then: what's your favourite film of all time?
GF: My favourite film of all time? I like the Blues Brothers.
Q: And is that in the game?
GF: Yes, it's fantastic.
Q: Thanks very much for your time, Greg
GF: Thank you.
Yoostar is due for release on Xbox 360 and PS3, hopefully before Christmas 2010.