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The Playstation 3 finds its Home

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Phil Harrison's keynote speech at the Game Developers Conference centered on a new downloadable service available for the Playstation 3 console. Called Playstation Home, the service will offer players a virtual space to decorate with furniture, wallpapers, and trophies acquired by completing special objectives in Playstation 3 titles. Following the announcement, Harrison turned over the stage to the designers of a network-friendly collaborative game called LittleBigPlanet.

Attendees of the Sony keynote held at the Moscone Center Esplanade South were greeted initially with something other than what they might have been expecting: giant inflated soccer balls. The mood of the room, filled with the hushed silence of an anticipated industry event, within minutes gave way to roars of laughter and excitement as the outsized sporting goods flew through the air, propelled by the fists, arms, and headbutts of the conference participants. By the time the lights had dimmed and the representative director of Sony Computer Entertainment, Phil Harrison, appeared on stage, the audience was buzzing with excitement.

Harrison started his talk, "Developing and Creating for the Third Age of Video Games," by saying that Time Magazine's decision to name "You" the person of the year marked a pivotal moment in the mainstream adoption of user-designed media. Democratizing the internet and putting the user in control was the central facet of Web 2.0. Rather than simply providing a set of rules, the trend of introducing new tools that empower the individual enables greater personal expression and user-created content. The direction toward personalized content is at the core of what Sony calls "Game 3.0."

The long line outside the Moscone Center auditorium

Phil Harrison described the "disconnected console" of the 1970s as gradually making way for the "connected conole" emerging today. The old model was powered by the static game cartridge, and the entirety of the gaming experience was contained on a disc of plastic. By contrast, connected consoles or PCs, using the power of the internet for the first time, are bringing together players in a virtual world environment. Still, these interactions are restricted by the limitations of the static game content encoded on discs. What we are getting into now, Harrison said, is Game 3.0: "This is all about the content, powered by active communities, built on open standards."

The purpose of the keynote, Harrison said, was to show the audience two or three applications that would demonstrate the new paradigm of Game 3.0. "This is not something we are trying to claim for ourselves or trademark," said the Sony representative. "This is our suggestion for how we want to find ourselves going forward." Sony suggests the next form of gaming entails new freedom of expression and personal authorship for individual players and their online communities.

Gigantic soccer balls

The first demo presented to the audience Harrison described as a service that would be launched around October of 2007 for the Playstation 3. Console owners can choose to download the service free of charge to their hard drives when an additional icon is made available to the Cross Media Bar. Launching Playstation Home will introduce players into a virtual environment called the "Central Lounge." There, said Harrison, they can control a customized avatar and choose what facial features they would like to have. "Home is a 3D community," he explained, "which is really a 3D social networking service." Players can customize their character's face, hair, and accessories, as well as download new clothes and other unlockable content with each new Playstation 3 title.

The technical director of Evolution Studios, Scott Kirkland, came on stage to guide the on-screen character through the Central Lounge. Harrison pointed out the in-game advertising displayed inside the lounge, which would serve to inform players "obviously of the latest games, obviously of the latest services." These ads were printed on banners hanging from the ceiling of the virtual lounge, and on in-game monitors streaming video in high-definition. Harrison explained that here players will encounter other Playstation users and interact with them using either voice chat or a custom message generator.

Phil Harrison delivers Playstation Home

Harrison describes the Lounge as "a low intensity environment for players to meet, to share, to get to know each other, while playing very easy, very simple multi-player games." Within Home, these games are available for play, while still allowing the player to be located in the public space of the virtual environment. An avatar can walk up to an arcade machine, causing the camera to switch from a third-person perspective to a full-screen display of the game.

At any time, Harrison explained, players can bring up a virtual PSP, which is the controller for Home. The PSP remote allows players to jump instantly to any of the locations offered by the service. Scott took his character to an apartment, the in-game private headquarters. Harrison described how the wallpaper of the room could be "tricked out" with low-key or fanciful designs, even tremendous Resistance: Fall of Man frescoes. Anything on the Playstation 3 hard-drive could be stretched or reduced in size and made to decorate the space, according to the user's tastes.

A customized avatar in the Central Lounge

Scott brought the character upstairs, where a pool table was located, using a realistic physics engine. On the outdoor deck, friends were shown conversing through colored voice bubbles, complimenting the choice of interior decoration. By positioning his character in front of a Sony Bravia TV, Scott brought up a trailer of Casino Royale on the screen-within-the-screen. Harrison explained that music and video could be streamed to other users in the space. Realistically, the sound grew louder as the character approached the screen. "Just like in the real world," Harrison said, "your Sony Bravia is a very reliable device." To demonstrate, Scott had his character throw the Bravia down the stairs while the trailer continued to run.

Again calling up the virtual PSP, Scott took his character to a space called the Home Cinema. In the large multiplex, Harrison explained, players can access content from movie development studios, television networks, even content created by users themselves. "To the left is user-selectable content," Harrison said, "where you can get the content you want to watch when you want to watch it." Posters and video screens displayed Spider-Man 3 ads. These surfaces would dynamically reflect the latest attractions from big budget studios, Harrison explained. In this space too, users could meet with their friends, chat, watch content together, and share their impressions of what they saw. Hence, Home was designed with social networking in mind.

Tricking out the virtual environment

Over time, Harrison explained, Playstation Home would incorporate spaces that expanded beyond the Sony sphere. There would be content supplied by game developers to advertise their products. Beyond that, companies not involved in games would have content available to access in Playstation Home. "So you could imagine a location built around a famous cofee company, or built around a clothing company, or record company, retailers, magazines, you get the picture."

Scott brought up the virtual PSP to whisk the character away to yet another location within Playstation Home, this time a tournament arena. Harrison described the space as very easy to build. Players could create their own basketball or boxing arenas, for instance, where any surface could be covered with streaming video, HTML scripts, or content from internet websites. "What you want to design as game developers is entirely up to you." By allowing players to interact with trailers, 3D models, and other interactive content on display in their arenas, commercial venues could encourage socialization within their virtual environments to advertise their products in a new way.

Home will offer a new way to watch movies with friends

The last location on display in Home was called the Hall of Fame. Here players could browse the trophies they had won by achieving certain milestones in Playstation 3 titles. Harrison described how players could decide which trophy they want to position and where, thereby thoughtfully flaunting their gaming prowess. "You can invite your friends into your Hall of Fame," Harrison said, "and they can see which trophies you've won." The objects are fully 3D, can animate, and incorporate video. As the Playstation 3 library expands, he explained, an entire constellation of trophies will be available for players to strive for and claim for themselves in this "ever-extending, ever-expanding" virtual space. The wide array of achievements was displayed visually by a wall of dimly lit shelves extending for miles.

Harrison took the opportunity to summarize the key points of the Playstation Home service. A unique real-time 3D community, he stressed that it was free to use, and launched directly from the Cross Media Bar. "There are public and private spaces for every user, infinitely customizable characters, and locations, and accessories." "In the future," he said, "you will be able to have pets in your apartment. In the future, we will allow you to have more sophisticated clothing." Home is what Sony wishes to make into a place for people and companies to create an involved and interactive community.

Having described Playstation Home, Harrison transitioned to a game title which he said exemplified the Game 3.0 experience. The example was Singstar, the karaoke title for Playstation 2 , which "sold over 7 million units... and has delivered over 600 million songs into peoples' homes." Sony intends to brings Singstar to the Playstation 3, he said, which will allow for further expansion of the service through the online network. Here, players will be informed of new songs being added to the online store and weekly karaoke contests. The Media Gallery was shown displaying the game's songs, along with comments received by online viewers. These features were intended to open the gaming experience to the panoply of social networking features offered by Playstation Home.

Closing up the Singstar browser, Harrison introduced "another exciting product," called LittleBigPlanet. The title is created by Mark Healey, Alex Evans, and Media Molecule, he said, the designers of a genre-blurring, independently financed Playstation 2 game called Rag Doll Kung Fu. Harrison reported how taken Sony was with the game, and decided to invite the independent developers to try and create a breakthrough title using the Playstation 3 development tools called Playstation Edge. The result, Harrison explained, is LittleBigPlanet.

Media Molecule demoes LittleBigPlanet

Mark Healey and Alex Evans came on stage to demo their creation. "This is all about creativity," said Healey. "It isn't about creating complicated tools, it's about empowering players." The creators of Media Molecule introduced their new game's mascot, "Sack-Boy," a miniature rag doll with a zipper on his belly. Multiple Sack-Boys were brought up on screen, differentiated by their apparel: one had a headdress, another a colorful hood, and yet another was lavishly outfitted with Evil Knievel attire. The player can introduce objects to the environment from out of thin air, the developers explained, and the way these items interract with the space is meant to look realistic. They demonstrated Sack-Boy calling up a block of wood, which clunked heavily against the floor. By browsing the on-screen menus, they slapped against the curtain in the background a 2D drawing of a frowning king's visage, then defaced it with a pair of googly eyes. The Media Molecule developers suggested the full array of creative activities available to the player by stamping squiggles of grass upon the ground, attaching star-shaped antennae to Sack-Boy's head, planting flowers on a tree, and spinning around on a gear mounted against the wall.

Introducing Sack-Boy

Scott Kirkland and Phil Harrison joined the developers of LittleBigPlanet in traversing an obstacle course designed through the game's software. The four navigated blockades like soccer balls and massive oranges that, due to the sock puppets' diminutive size, required some innovative stacking skills to progress beyond. At the peak of their uphill course, the four jumped onto a skateboard large enough to accomodate the group, and hanging on to the sides, the Sock Boys were launched downhill, the background streaming by behind them. Finally they were returned to their original position, completing the level. Such customized obstacle courses, it was revealed, would be to LittleBigPlanet's online community what the user-generated karaoke tunes would be for Singstar. Anyone could potentially design an obstacle course to be discovered and explored by the online community. And if the promises of LittleBigPlanet and Playstation Home really do manage to offer a more immersive and interactive environment, after some errant wandering the Playstation 3 may finally be finding its home.

Phil Harrison introducing Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet

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