The Game Developers Conference 2009 marks the 2nd anniversary of PlayStation Home's public debut. After much hype and delay, the platform finally launched in public beta in December of last year. Three months later, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with Jack Buser, the director of Home at Sony Computer Entertainment, and Peter Edward, director of the Home Platform Group, to discuss the current state of the service, whether it is living up to their vision, and plans for 2009.
Q: What is the current state of PlayStation Home?
Jack Buser: Recently we've passed some serious milestones, like 5 million downloads of the client. We have seen a tremendous number of spaces, and the frequency by which spaces content is being released into Home is increasing exponentially. We have released our first ARG [alternate realty game] called Xi, and just announced the Guitar Hero space. This is demonstrating that all the major game publishers are stepping up and supporting PlayStation Home in a big way.
Q: Where did the idea from Home come from?
Peter Edward: It evolved from something very, very different many years ago. We started work on it as the online element of one of our major franchises on the PlayStation 2. Two things rapidly became clear. This wasn't going to work on the PlayStation 2; we needed the PlayStation 3 for this. And the second thing was the potential of what was being worked on was far greater than an online lobby service for a multiplayer game.
The environment that was originally created was actually a pub where you could go and meet with your cohorts between RPG-style quests. In that pub were dart boards and pool tables and things. It rapidly became clear that the really interesting aspect of all this was what was going on inside this pub. The interaction between users - what they do and how they communicate with each other - rather than using it as a loading screen. That evolved into what was called HUB, and that evolved into Home. Then we revealed it at GDC a couple years ago with the vision of producing a world class gaming service for the PlayStation 3. That vision hasn't really changed. It's been tweaked and honed around the way, and we have clarified what are the most important aspects to us, but fundamentally it's the same.
Q: What are the aspects that you view as most important to Home?
Peter Edward: The most important thing is to provide the gaming audience - the PS3 is primarily a gaming audience and I think there's a great temptation to be all things to all men and all women, but actually we have an audience and the best thing we can do is cater to that audience and give it what they want – a social network for gamers that allows them to focus on their passion for gaming. And expand that to social interaction with other gamers and fill the gaps between gaming sessions. Users can fill those gaps between their play sessions within Home. And have more of a bond with developers and publishers, and for developers and publishers to have a bond with them. It's an all around bonding exercise.
Q: So are most people who are enjoying Home part of the core gamers, or has it bridged to folks who, say, bought the PS3 as a Blu-ray player?
Peter Edward: Home is a broad reflection of the PlayStation audience. It is not just a hardcore audience. We have made a very conscious decision to make Home a very broadly appealing platform. The idea is anybody should be able to come into Home and not be threatened by it and find something that appeals to them.
Jack Buser: You also find people who find a voice in PlayStation Home. You find that people tend to be very active in Home who are really hardcore gamers. But you also see people in Home who are very active who would never play that game. Maybe they play more casual games or PlayStation Network games. There's an incredibly active group of women in PlayStation Home that are very, very vocal. Home is giving different people a voice on the PS3 platform. It's a great way for the platform itself to broaden and appeal to different audiences.
Peter Edward: One of the advantages is the realistic avatar. People can relate to it straight away. It gives you the opportunity to either create something that looks like you, or it looks like your alter ego or reflects your mood. It makes it more welcoming to people who may not want to get into the whole orcs and mages thing.
Q: You're running an alternate reality game in home to encourage stickiness and communication between gamers. Are you looking towards ARG design to build a lot of the content in Home?
Peter Edward: We're providing a little bit of everything. We're providing the platform. We're providing the tools. And we're providing some benchmark content to inspire and give ideas to other publishers about what's possible and what they could do. Xi is showing you that you can have something far-ranging and a bit outside the box, but ultimately achievable. We're not in the business of creating the content for the Home platform. We're creating that initial spark. Other developers and publishers take those examples and build on them.
Q: So are you expecting developers and publishers to not only build spaces but also gameplay experiences and content.
Peter Edward: Absolutely.
Jack Buser: You're already seeing that with Electronic Arts. They are doing a lot of work with the community. The producer of an EA sports game is basically there, answering questions from the community. That's not a full on ARG, but that is a type of engagement we did not predict.
Peter Edward: It's really interesting to see what other teams do with the environment and the platforms we put out there. It really is quite stunning. It's stuff we never expected. Home is a platform. It's a software platform opposed to a hardware platform. And as is the way with most platforms, the first round of development is pretty safe. It works. But people are getting the hang of how it works, and that's starting to come through in the content. We're just now seeing the next generation of content.
Q: How long is the average user spending in Home?
Jack Buser: Forty minutes. That changes depending on what's going on - whether there are events take place in home - but on average it is 40 minutes per session duration. As more and more things start happening in Home, you can see that number start to increase. That's really sticky. If you compare that to other platforms, you start to realise why so many game publishers and brand advertisers are so excited about this platform. To have that kind of engagement with the numbers we're actually dealing with, you start to realise this is a very effective way to engage the community. And these spaces, like Guitar Hero, actually provide value and gamers want to hang out there. It's an incredibly effective way to cut through the noise these days.
Peter Edward: It is active engagement and not just passive engagement.
Q: From a third-party perspective, what percentage of publishers are interested in Home?
Jack Buser: Every major publisher is interested in Home. Here you can speak directly to the PlayStation audience on the platform that your product is on. It is unbelievably uneconomical. And there are commerce opportunities for partners. You have publishers and brands coming into Home looking to engage with an audience, but they also have the opportunity to generate revenue. It's a model that makes sense for everybody. It's kind of a perfect storm.
Q: Right now, what is the average user spending in Home?
Jack Buser: We made USD 1 million the first month after Home launched. At that time, there was barely anything to buy. Just little things to stick in your apartment. Now we have tons of content. And you're going to see a ton more virtual items and premium spaces, which sell really well.
Peter Edward: The whole customisation thing is a big deal. One of the most compelling things about being online is being able to express yourself to other users - your personality and your individuality - through clothing and decoration of your apartment.
Q: What were some of the hard calls you had to make during the development process?
Peter Edward: The biggest choice was when to put it out there. It's not a new subject for debate: Why did this take so long? We announced it two years ago and it took until last December to actually get it out in beta. The most difficult aspect of development was making that call of when to put it out there, and more importantly making the decision not to put it out there until it was ready. We could have put it out there much, much earlier, and obviously that was the plan, but during development it became clear that this would be a long-term platform play rather than a flash in the pan. We needed to make sure it was robust, that it had sufficient feature set to be appealing, that the tool set allowed developers to make content for it. And all this meant we needed to give it enough space to actually be fully featured. It's still evolving and there is more we're adding to it.
Jack Buser: People are realising now that Home is a platform. I think there was a misunderstanding during those original couple of years that we were making a game. We weren't. This is much closer to building a game console than a game. We're building a platform that other people can create content for, which is extremely difficult to do. We spent the time to do it right so that today we have something that is a total console differentiator. It is a platform that truly brings community to a game console in a way that you have friends on your friends list who you've never met before in the real world but you know really well.
The fact that we've worked so diligently to get the platform technically ready, and do all that work, that we have a tremendous head start over any kind of competitive effort that might pop up.
Q: In terms of future vision, do you think Home will be limited in what it can do?
Peter Edward: What gets me excited about the future of Home is that yes, we know what we're doing short-term - that's planned out. But in the long-term? Who knows. One of the basic tenets of the Home platform from day one has been that it should be an evolving platform that reflects the requirements of the contributors to the platform as well as the users of the platform. And the thing is we are able to take feedback from people using the platform and roll it into our development plans. With a traditional boxed game, if it does really well, you have to wait a few years to make a sequel and incorporate that feedback from your userbase. We're able to do much, much more than that. And use that community feedback much more quickly. That's really exciting. that also means there will always be an air of mystery about what the distant future holds because no one knows what users will start capitalising on. Someone will start using some content that totally changes the way people are using the environment in there because its such a brilliant way of interacting with users that no one had ever thought of before. For me, that's genuinely exciting.