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In-Depth: Sony Invites Developers Home

In-Depth: Sony Invites Developers Home Exclusive

October 14, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

October 14, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

In a meeting in San Francisco, Sony's Jack Buser, director of the PlayStation Home platform, described the service's transformation from social network to social gaming platform, outlining improvements and showcasing new areas and new types of content, saying "the vision of Home has evolved."

The Evolution of the Platform

"In the early days when we built Home, we really were building a social network for gamers... through that, over the last year, it's developed into a game platform, first and foremost," says Buser.

"Home is developed based on community feedback, and we've been very good about that," says Buser. When it comes to Home's transformation as a service, he also adds, "This happened organically. I'd like to say that 'this was all planned from the get-go,' but it's what happened."

This revelation was fueled by seeing what developers did with the platform, he says. In particular, EA's EA Sports space implemented a Texas Hold 'Em poker game that made the team realize the potential of Home to host games -- including what Buser describes as "mini MMOs."

While Home spaces originally served essentially as marketing for game titles, Buser says that now, "these are full on branded products in their own right -- they are games." The soon-to-launch Ratchet & Clank and Uncharted spaces include minigames that are much more elaborate than what Home has seen before -- an R&C shooting gallery-style game is pictured above. "Everything is social, fun, repeatable. That is the guiding light -- that's what this platform is really good at doing," says Buser.

"We're going to do all the things that we promised, we're going to do all of the things people expect us to do, and 10 months in we've accomplished so, so much of what we set out to do," says KC Coleman, associate producer for Home at SCEA's Foster City studios.

Who's Developing For Home, and Why

So what is Sony's take on what Home can be right now? Says Buser, "We try to create a platform that has a low of a bar as possible to create extremely high quality content. Home is a high definition environment where you can create extremely polished games but with very rapid development cycles. You can have small teams of developers -- a couple of engineers and a few artists -- crank out very sophisticated social gaming experiences in very small amounts of time."

Buser sees a few different models for developers and publishers to interact with Home arising. Major players like EA can extend their IP through marketing and branded item sales. Smaller developers, however, can launch their own spaces, sell virtual items, or create Home-based games.

Buser sees major publishers getting more involved with Home thanks to its eight million users, almost four million of which are inside North America. According to Buser, 85 percent of users in Home have tried it before, and average session length is an hour -- in other words, it's a sticky platform. "Game publishers and game development houses are setting aside small crack teams... to build Home content across the publisher," he says.

But Buser wants to be inclusive to smaller developers as well, and Coleman says that the primary developers for the platform are smaller houses. "We are specialists in Home and we can work with you," says Buser.

The situation is evolving so fast that Sony is still figuring out how to enable developers, it seems, from Buser's attitude and comments: "Home as a game platform is something that is brand new. Yes, you need to be a registered PlayStation 3 developer." The Home Development Kit, or HDK, is freely downloadable from the development tools network to all registered PS3 devs, he notes. "If you're a developer, you can go on there, get the HDK and start going to town."

However, Sony, as with its console games, does require developers seek approval before teams are authorized to build in Home, says Buser. "If people want to build for Home, we're happy to hear their concepts and ideas. You come to us and say, 'Hey, I've got this idea,' and the process starts. Right now, we want the right stuff on the platform. We want the right kind of thinking." Developers can email [email protected] to find out more.

"Home requires a special kind of developer; a kind of developer who wants to think a little bit differently about the kinds of games they want to make," says Buser. "Home is not a traditional game platform. It requires a developer to think a little differently about how gamers interact. What are the kinds of games that work in a high definition social context. It's a new kind of skill."

The Road to Payment

Independent developer Mass Media has launched the Neptune Suite, a $5.99 personal space with minigames that users can purchase. Says Coleman, "You can make stuff with four and five people and make a very solid home contribution." Adds Buser, "[Developers] are starting to say, 'What's a platform we can pick where we can create something that is low-risk and high-margin?' That's Home."

When Home launched, microtransactions were limited to items such as avatar clothing, but that has changed, says Buser: "That's the technology we have now. That's the difference between where we are and where we were. This is the model we're starting to see emerge in Home. You have essentially the freemium model." While you can sell basic items, you can also sell virtual items "that actually make the game play differently" as well as tokens that allow users to play games -- or just sell them the game as a single transaction.

It's not just about virtual spaces or selling tokens, either. "With [version] 1.3 we are now getting the ability to have what are called 'portable objects.' These are virtual items that are able to have code associated with them," says Buser. "These are ways of having games you could potentially sell that users can have in their inventory and carry around with them."

While Buser was unwilling to talk specifics on stats for user conversion from free to pay, he did say that "Home's not all that different from what you would expect. User behavior tends to be user behavior." Importantly, he says, "we definitely talk about that stuff with our developers under nondisclosure. We get really hands on with our development community. We're here to help."

Room to Create

What sort of freedom will developers have? Says Coleman, "They have a ton of creative freedom. We have a weekly greenlight meeting, reviewing the content pitches people are getting. We're talking 10 to 15 new pitches of content every single week."

On the issue of client capabilities, Buser is bullish, quoting one of the London-based creators of the Home platform: "We've built this client, but we never could have thought that these kinds of ideas or gameplay experiences could ever be built with this client." Adds Coleman, "There's something in the central plaza right now we were told that we could never do."

One of the more impressive bits of the demo was a strategy card/board game in the Uncharted space called Fortunate Thieves -- a multiplayer hex-map based game with cards that create different effects on the game. Not only does it show what sorts of experiences can be built in Home 1.3, it also serves as a launch pad for developers' understanding; Coleman invites them to come check it out and see what's possible.

And it's extensible, he says. "We could do any number of things to keep this game live and to keep this game fresh. We could make it portable; we could put it in people's apartments, eventually. We could update the map pack; we could make new maps and dynamic maps. We could even update the cards and have secret cards. We're talking about this technology to have users to have this experience that is evergreen and can see for a long time. It's about social, repeatable, fun, and dynamic games that are always changing and being fun for people."

Home And Its Community

Of course, Home has had its share of bad press -- and user apathy. "There's all of this cool stuff in Home, and nobody knew about it. That's a hurdle we're in the process of jumping," says Locust_Star, an online community specialist at SCEA, who goes by his PSN ID because "we don't want to create the perception [in users] of there being any divide between us."

A community plan is "required" for any developers planning to work with Home, says Buser. Locust_Star says, "It's required because it's just smart. It's good business. You don't want to put something in Home without building community around it. Your content lives or dies by the community. We are very proactive about reaching out to developers and explaining to them what the best practices for launching content in Home are as regards community."

With the PS3 price drop, Buser says that there is a "flood of new people coming in" to Home. And he's bullish on the future. "Games will look a heck of a lot more like Home in 10 years than what they look like right now. I firmly believe that this is the direction the market is moving in."

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