SAN JOSE, California — What does the video game future look like when filtered through a crystal ball built by Sony PlayStation? The company offered a peek at this week's Game Developers Conference.
One of the tallest men in video games, Sony's Head of Worldwide Game Studios Phil Harrison was an easy figure to spot Wednesday, his presence at the conference a steady reminder of the PlayStation brand's presence and potency. In the afternoon, he spoke to star Japanese game maker Tetsuya Mizuguchi after the "Lumines"-creator's speech about his upcoming Xbox 360 title "Ninety Nine Nights," and asked the designer to make games for the PS3 download service. (Any reply was kept appropriately out of earshot of nearby journalists).
By evening, Harrison was shepherding a dozen or so "Shadow of the Colossus" PS2 developers, fresh from winning five awards including best game of 2005 at the Game Developers Choice Awards. Later he worked the room at Sony's cavernous developer party, host to three igloo-shaped tents outfitted with international cuisine and a big glass tank featuring radio-controlled robots at battle.
But Harrison made the greatest impact earlier in the day. In a Wednesday morning keynote address at the San Jose Civic Center, the Sony exec confirmed an early November PS3 release (see "PlayStation 3 Part Of Your Summer Plans? Think Again"), showed several demos indicative of what games on the machine can really do, and predicted an eventual shift to a market where games are downloaded instead of bought in boxes. He made sure that the hump-day for San Jose's week-long event was all about Sony's next big thing in video games.
Harrison confirmed plans for the launch of an Xbox Live-style online service for PS3 code-named the PlayStation Network Platform, and he offered tantalizing hints of that network's potential by noting that massively multi-player online experts at Sony Online Entertainment co-developed the service. Harrison also revealed that MMO publishers would be able to provide their games on it.
He also predicting a looming shift in the way games are played and sold. "We make content," Harrison said. "We put it on discs we put it in boxes. We sell it in stores. It's what our industry has done very well for the past 25 years. However in the future we're going to go through a radical change. We're going to be creating and servicing a network of game communities." Gaming would involve linking up with networks of friends, downloading games directly onto consoles — a future, Harrison did not note, that is already partially realized by Xbox Live.
"I believe this represents the most fundamental shift in the planning, creation, production and management [conducted by] game developers that our industry has ever seen," Harrison said. He predicted the "shift from disc-based business to a network-based business" would be the talk of GDCs for years to come.
The keynote's main event was what Harrison described as the "demystification of the next generation." At E3, he and the rest of the PlayStation executive team had brought mostly pre-rendered trailers that left the audience salivating at PS3 possibilities but unsure if the eventual meal would match the pictures presented in the menu (see "PlayStation 3 Will Let You See The Spit Fly Like Never Before"). At GDC, Harrison was primarily showing demos running off of PS3 development kits.
"We start with events like this where game developers themselves come to understand the technology and come to understand the creative possibilities provided by what this box can do," Harrison told MTV News after a public demonstration of the PS3 in action. Harrison was still standing on the stage where he had just delivered his keynote address, standing beside two gleaming silver shells of the PS3. Like those units, which Harrison said he would only move with gloves on, the gradual unveiling of Sony's new machine is being handled with care.
During his presentation, Harrison cued an undersea demo of thousands of fish gathering in swirling schools, each using their own artificial intelligence to flock with matching species and zip through the deep. Later, on the GDC show floor, a Sony rep said the demo's 5,000 fish were flocking with a sophistication of autonomous artificial intelligence that would have limited the pool to just 50 if the demo had been built for PS2.
An unannounced PS3 car game was shown in equally stripped form. A sporty two-door was placed on a sun-cracked desert flat and an unseen gun let loose. This demo showed damage applied in procedural stages, meaning the destruction of the car was not a canned animation but rather a series of cracks, breaks and drops cued by the unique pattern of that particular play session's gunfire. The bullets at this demo punctured the passenger door enough that it swung open, causing the passenger window to shatter, the side mirror to crack off, the bumper to drop to the ground and the hood to pop open.
The next demo was an oversea aerial battle from "Warhawk," a title from developer Incognito that was promised to be playable at E3 in May. Incognito product director Dylan Jobe used a PS2 controller and PS3 devkit to steer a fighter through "hundreds" of enemy planes and a herd of lumbering ships. Jobe pointed out the game's procedurally rendered ocean (now waves — instead of a car — reacting on the fly to attack) and volumetric, ray-traced clouds.
Insomniac president Ted Price played a "Doom III"-style level of his company's PS3 first-person shooter "Resistance: Fall of Man," and introduced a non-interactive teaser trailer for his company's first next-gen "Ratchet and Clank." "If you do everything right, the PlayStation 3 can do more per frame than any system ever invented," Price raved as he blasted enemies in "Resistance" with a weapon perhaps best described as a porcupine bomb.
While the graphics of "Resistance" looked similar to current high-end PC offerings, they were greatly superseded by the crisp cityscape of flying traffic in the "Ratchet" teaser, underlining the gulf between the types of PS3 trailers that set the media abuzz at last E3 and what is actually playable. A similar graphical gap was evident in Evolution studio's "Motor Storm," an off-road racing game with an onstage playable demo at GDC 2006 that looked sharp but not as vivid as the realistic trailer unveiled at E3 2005. Still, "Motor Storm" provided the most visible and playable use of the PS3's tricks of any demo shown on Wednesday. A developer steered a yellow dune buggy through muddy terrain, its tracks digging ruts in the ground that immediately — and lastingly — deformed the track.
Noting how little tracks have been able to change in previous-gen games, a post-keynote Harrison praised the "Motor Storm" demo. "Those ruts left in the ground become gameplay obstacles to other vehicles," he said. "That is an addition to gameplay that was not possible on PlayStation 2."
It can't be denied, in at least one respect, that the PS3 has earth-shaking potential. Harrison promised more at E3.