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GDC 2004 Keynote: Encouraging Innovation in Game Development


March 25, 2004
 

Andy House, Executive Vice President of Sony Computer Entertainment America, spoke this morning about the international future of the Playstation. Calling on innovation as the key to evolution, he explored Sony's plans for extending the life cycle of the Playstation 2, and talked about Sony's next gaming project, the Playstation Portable.

A Brief History of Playstation

House began with a history of Playstation's success in the US and overseas markets. When Playstation first appeared in the early 1990's, house said, the console revolutionized the gaming world. Gamers could for the first time play games in 3D, and with the ease of producing and distributing CD-based media, developers were able to experiment with gameplay formats and develop broad, consistent playing audiences. He also noted that the Playstation was the first truly international gaming console, and the first console to come through with a lifespan of ten years or more.

The Playstation 2, continued House, strengthened the dominance of the Playstation brand. Not only was this the first multi-function game device, doubling as a DVD Player, but it was the first game system to come with built-in backward compability, a fact that solidified its position as the foremost game console on the market.

House's figures indicated that there are now nearly 100 million Playstations worldwide, and that the number of hours spent by the average gamer has increased multifold in the last five years. In short, he said, the Playstation brand has tranformed the face of gaming, and he added that Sony's plan is to remain at the industry's leading edge.

Innovations in Hardware

House believes that the key to Sony's success lies in innovation, specifically in hardware development and smart platform management. Rather than upgrade the Playstation once per generation, House said, Sony looks for ways to constantly continually improve a console throughout the life of the product.

Innovation, he said, is the core reponsibility of a platform holder. He sees it as Sony's job to push innovation on the part of software developers, faciliate growth in whatever direction the market heads, identify future potential in both hardware and software, and to bring all these things together into an enhanced interactive experience for the user.

House then launched into a seris of demonstrations that highlighted Sony's currently flagship hardware innovations.

Eye Toy: Adventures in Optical Gaming

Eye Toy, Sony's add-on optical recognition device for PS2, has penetrated three million households world wide since its introduction last year. The product is now receiving global support from Sony, and House believes that the product provides developers with great potential for creating new and compelling game experiences.

At this point, House brought up a guest speaker to further discuss the future of Eye Toy. His demo, possibly the highlight of the hour, included:

  • Major League Baseball 2005, in which a player will be able to use Eye Toy to map his or her own face onto the body of a player character. In the video demonstration, a user stood in front of Eye Toy, allowed the game to photograph his face, and then watched as it was mapped into a fully customizable baseball character.
  • Eye Toy Groove, a dancing game in which players "grab" at musically-driven visual cues in time to an accompanying song. William Hung, local star of American Idol, came on stage to demonstate, and delivered a roof-raising performance of "YMCA" as he danced away.
  • An untitled platform game, in which players slide along a rail while reaching for goodies and avoiding various obstacles. This was the most interesting of the demonstrations (and, according to NAME, the furthest from release). The video showed a player first calibrating his body with an on-screen body outline, then leaning, ducking, jumping, and reaching in various directions to control the on-screen action.

The potential of Eye Toy, said the speaker, extends well beyond these first attempts at creating optically-based games. He envisions a version of Eye Toy that can recognizing a players' movements from anywhere in a room, and games in which players control their characters by simply moving their bodies.

Onling Gaming

Another area of innovation, and House's next frontier in game development, is on-line gaming.

Sony's initial objective with the PS2 network adapater was to get players confortable with the idea of online gaming while extending the console's lifespan. But according to House, market penetration of the network adapter has exceeded all expectations, with nearly 3.4 million network-ready PS2s having been sold world-wide. Even more surprisingly, 40% of online gamers are connecting via narrow-band.

In part, he attributes the success of the network adapater to the titles that support it. An impressive video montage showed clips from Tiger Woods 2004, Everquest Online, Tony Hawk's Underground, Final Fantasy XI, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, Socom II, and over a dozen other games that support the network adapater.

Yet House also believes that the real boom in on-line gaming is yet to come, and predicts that the market will continue adopting the technology, due to its role as a community-builder and commerce generator.

Some of SCE's plans for the network adapater over the coming years include:

  • Building a more integrated on-line community. Connoting images of XBox Live, House suggested a central PS2 network space that could provide player match-ups, tournament organization, player "clans," and more integrative long-term scores and statistics.
  • Providing developers and publishers with more support for implementing network-capable games around the globe. This could include flexible hosting solutions, detailed user data and demographic information, and centralized log-on and billing options.
  • Working toward a less centralized business model. House used the newly emerging music industry as a template for how onling gaming might develop, and said that the existence of persistent worlds opens the door for providing content that is smaller, downloadable, user-created, and extendable.

House believes that the network adapater will ultimately extend the life cycle of the PS2 and pave the way toward a new generation of gaming.

Playstation Portable -- The PSP

Having saved the most anticipated of Sony's hardware innovations for last, House finally turned to the hotly anticipated Playstation Portable.

 
 
Backbone Entertainment Demonstrates 3D Gaming
from a PSP Emulator.

Sony anticipates the PSP to be at the front edge of a revolution in mobile gaming, doing for handhelds what the original Playstation did for consoles. He described the PSP as a wireless, multi-function, mobile device, capable of 3D gameplay on a par with the PS2. He also went on to discuss the specs of the PSP, indicating that it will feature a high-res 16x9 screen, Universal Media Disc (UDM) based games, and wireless connectivity with other PSPs -- and, eventually, with Playstation consoles. He concluded by saying that the PSP will feel to the user like "having a PS2 in the palm of your hand.".

The Senior Producer and Creative Director of Backbone Entertainment, both currently working on PSP titles, came on stage to discuss their experience developing for the PSP. They were visibly impressed with the PSP development environment, and noted that although direct ports of existing titles will not be possible due to issues dealing with the device's screen size and control set, the PSP was nevertheless "fun and easy" to develop for. They also noted that PSP developers will be able to leverage the power of the PSP to develop new gaming properties, rather than relying on pre-exising licenses as is often the case with titles for the Gameboy Advance.

Sony plans to show a prototype of the PSP at this year's E3, and to release the product in Japan within the 2004 calendar year. The US and European releases will, according to House, occur before the end of the 2004 fiscal year. And with nearly 100 developers already working on PSP games, there should be plenty of launch titles to accompany the release.


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