SAN FRANCISCO — How big could Sony's "PlayStation 3 secret" at the Game Developers Conference really be?
Earlier this year, as negativity about Sony's console swelled in the press and among vocal Internet-based gamers, GDC director Jamil Moledina assured MTV News that a big PS3 revelation slated for his show would guarantee the console's long-term success. He said this over coffee in a New York café. When asked if the announcement involved a possible Sony "Second Life," he nearly did a spit take — and then he clammed up.
Why? Because Sony revealed on Wednesday (March 7) that it is indeed launching a "Second Life"-style service called PlayStation Home that will grant every PS3 owner an avatar and a virtual apartment, which are linked into a virtual world that will be available for free to all system owners when it launches in the fall.
"We are building a very rich 3-D social-networking service for PlayStation 3 users all around the world," said Sony PlayStation's head of worldwide studios, Phil Harrison, during an advance briefing to the media on Tuesday night.
People familiar with the avatar-based worlds of "Second Life" and MTV's own "Virtual Laguna Beach" would find much familiar with the demo. Launched from the PS3's main menu, Home starts a gamer off in a lobby, framing a full-body shot of the player's customizable avatar while the avatars of other PS3 users mill around that same lobby. The characters are designed to look like real people, down to the details of individual eyelashes. They don't appear as cartoon figures, like Nintendo's Mii player-avatars on the Wii.
The Home environments resemble a cross between an expensive resort and Luke Skywalker's planet of Tatooine. Spaces shown thus far are all indoors. Buildings are full of smooth, sloping surfaces; windows tend to extend from floor to ceiling. Players can communicate via voice, text chat (supported by a USB keyboard or a virtual keyboard) and through canned speech and gesture. Every player gets a selection of free clothes, with more advanced goods available for purchase online or unlocked by playing new PS3 games.
Harrison said the Tuesday night demo was running off the PlayStation network and was not a simulation. It demonstrated PS3's muscle; a lot was going on in Home at any one time. Public spaces include simple games, like a realistically rendered pool table, bowling lanes and stand-up, playable arcade machines. While a Sony representative shot some pool and other avatars walked by, a virtual Jumbotron nearby played video trailers of PS3 games.
One public space shown briefly was a large movie theater multiplex. Harrison said the theater rooms can be programmed by movie studios to show trailers. He briefly mentioned some theaters may show user-generated video via Sony partner Grouper.com, but did not reveal further details.
Home users will each have a personal apartment they can customize with free and purchased furniture, all rendered to bounce and pile up with realistic physics. Players can redecorate and stream movies and music saved on their PS3 into virtual TV sets and stereos. At one point Harrison snapped a digital photo of the reporters he was addressing and, within a minute, had that photo uploaded into Home and hanging on a virtual world as a handsome piece of décor. Home gamers can invite friends — and their avatars — to hang out in their apartment, and when gathered they can collectively leap into multiplayer PS3 games.
Sony has taken knocks from critics disappointed that the PS3 did not launch with a unified service tracking players' accomplishments, a feature Microsoft has popularized with their Xbox Live Achievement system. Sony now has something like that too, as Home will include a circular Hall of Fame that houses trophies rewarded for player accomplishments. Several can be displayed for bragging rights; the rest of the ones a player has gained can be summoned from a column of transparent cubes that emerges from the Hall's floor. In the demo a trophy shaped like a pile of yellow-circle guys from Sony's PSP game "Loco Roco" marked the successful discovery of all of the game's secret areas.
It was not clear if this was actually an achievement uploaded from a PSP save file, or if it was merely mocked up to indicate the potential of a PS3-based "Loco Roco" game. A big sword in a glass trophy box indicated some sort of accomplishment in the upcoming PS3 game "Heavenly Sword." Another trophy marked the successful connection of 100 gamers onto the player's friends list.
While makers of "Second Life" go to great lengths to explain their service as something other than a game, it is unclear how much of game PlayStation Home is. In games, players get new content — cars, weapons, superpowers, access to later game levels — by playing. They face challenges. They get rewards. In "Second Life," users get new content by obtaining it for free or by purchasing it from other users. There's no goal-oriented play there, no game. Harrison demonstrated a wealth of obtainable content — including a much more advanced two-story personal apartment that contained its own pool table — but how much of that can be gotten via play (as opposed to purchase) remains to be revealed.
Some other key details yet to be disclosed include the number of players able to access public and private spaces simultaneously, and to what extent users will be able to generate their own content.
A demo movie of Home released to the press promises that the service will be "infinitely more exciting than anything on other consoles." That may be hard to measure. A large-scale beta begins this spring, with the service planned for a fall launch.
Back in December when MTV News asked Harrison about that Sony "Second Life" rumor, he said, "There must be static on the line" (see "PlayStation Exec Talks Shaky '06, Reveals Plans For New Gaming Feature"). It seems to have cleared up.