As part of a series of features looking ahead to next month's GameHorizon event, GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Peter Edward, director of the PlayStation Home Platform Group, one of the speakers at the event.
Here he looks back on the launch of Home, talks about how it's settled down since open beta launched in December, what people do most in the virtual world, and how Sony sees content as a priority versus generating revenue.
Q: What are your reasons for speaking at GameHorizon this year?
Peter Edward: Well, Home is a slightly different project to what we normally do within Sony Computer Entertainment, and certainly within the London Studio. Most of what we do here is self-contained in that we make it and we sell it.
Home is different, in that while we put the platform together and we're constantly updating it, we rely upon third parties to actually put content onto the platform, and so it behoves us to be more in contact with the developer community than perhaps working on a standalone game would.
In that respect it makes a lot of sense to be going to events like GameHorizon, meeting and talking to other developers and publishers, finding out what the opportunities are for Home, seeing what other people are doing, seeing where the development community is moving.
Then we can try and get people interested in the Home platform if possible, but also if we're aware of what other people are doing we can try and make Home as resonant to that as possible.
Q: Home went through an interesting launch phase - the turning on of the tap, rather than the light switch, so to speak - how do you feel that went, looking back now?
Peter Edward: I think it's gone very well - I'm very pleased. We went to open beta in December and since then we've had something like 6.5 million downloads. We've got a very healthy active user base, and we're finding as well that people aren't just churning, they're returning - which is obviously key for something like this.
You start off with everybody interested in what's going on, people come along and have a look around, and that then starts to tail off - but you get to a point where people come back. There's more and more content going in, there are more things to do, and people come back to have a look around - and then they realise there's loads of content.
We're at the point now where we're starting to see our active user base go up, and we're getting more people coming back than are leaving, so we're at the tipping point of where the platform starts to gain momentum.
That's really nice for us, because until that happens, you're hoping that it will happen, but you need the reassurance - so in that sense it's nice. We've had a couple of client updates with some new features, we've got a few more features coming along soon.
But the main thing is less about what we're doing on the platform - we're keeping it up-to-date, we're adding improvements and features - but the vast majority of the impact on the platform is by the content that goes on there. That's where I've been really pleased with the uptake.
You start off by showing publishers and third parties, and it's the sort of thing they get very excited about. Then you go through the reality check, where people start wondering whether or not they want to put content on there, do they want to take that risk? And it slows down a little bit.
But then you get people putting content on there and it starts to gather momentum, and now there's content in a constant flow - I think once you've got third parties realising that it has a positive effect, then they put more content on there, and you're at the point where you can be fairly confident you've got something that's working.
We're at that point now - you know what you want from the platform, you know what you believe it's capable of, but it's nice to be shown that's actually happening.
Q: What is it that people are doing inside Home?
Peter Edward: To be honest a lot of what people are doing is just hanging out and talking to each other. Home Square, which is the first port of call for most people, is still a hugely popular area, despite the fact that it doesn't change massively. We have different screens and posters, and what's shown on those screens, so obviously there's generally something new to see, but I don't think that's what draws people there. I think it's the knowledge that they'll meet people, hang out, and watch the virtual world go by. I think people really enjoy doing that.
The other thing people are spending a lot of time in are their personal apartments as well, because that's an area in which they know who they're talking to - they can bring people from their friends list and know they can have a conversation without being interrupted. Club houses are also popular for the same sort of reason, and you can also use voice communication there.
Obviously whenever any new content comes in, people flock to it and they're excited to see what there is. People are very into the customisation element of it, and having seen the way the Street Fighter IV outfits have gone, for example, and Watchmen outfits - people put a lot of stock into those recognisable appearances.
We had Star Trek uniforms that went on sale recently, and they were massively popular. We had entire spaces full of people wearing only Star Trek uniforms - that sort of thing gets people really excited.
The key thing though is that it has to involve social interaction. Home is a space for games, and there has to be the element of social interaction with other gamers, the shared interest. Movie files and trailers and those sorts of things are very interesting, and people do come and look at them, but they don't have the repeat viewing aspect to them - whereas interactive spaces where people can compete against each other...
The Red Bull air race, for example, when it first launched - but then a few weeks later we put in a leader board so that people could have their time go up there and compare it with those of those brands, or with a top ten list. As soon as we put the leader board up the usage of that space went through the roof, because then you're into an area where people can compete against each other, there's that stickiness to it - if you got into the top five of the leader board and then somebody beats it, you have no option... you've got to go back!
So it's important that content has that social stickiness and interaction, and we're finding that's the stuff that people are most interested in, as far as spaces are concerned.
Q: There was some concern expressed prior to launch around the instancing issue - how have you found that to have worked out so far?
Peter Edward: I think that's probably the main reason why the apartments and club houses are so popular - because that removes the random factor to the instancing. It's a double-edged sword really, because while it gives an intimacy to an area while you're in it, it does mean that in a popular area the chances of you randomly bumping into somebody you know are fairly slim.
That's also why we're looking to develop ways to make it easier for the user to avoid the total random nature of things. I can't talk much about that, but it's an area of emphasis for us, to allow users to connect with their friends more frequently - and in a more controlled way.
It's something the community is very keen on, and something we've recognised for some time. It's an important thing, but not a minor piece of development.
Q: And the whole point about instancing is to try and maintain quality or performance... otherwise it becomes unusable. Home, as a free platform, is an ambitious project - and not inexpensive to build - so how important is that micro-transaction element overall?
Peter Edward: That's a tricky one to answer, because on the one hand, yes - Home is an ambitious platform and has been in development for some time, so obviously that's a lot of money. But it is a platform, it's not a single software product. We do have a profit and loss on Home, and obviously revenue is an important part of it, just like with anything else.
But our belief is that if you make the community happy, and get good content on to the platform, if you get a platform that people want to keep coming back to, then the monetisation aspect of it will almost take care of itself. It's certainly not something that should be the driving force, not something that's the driving priority at this stage of development. We have to focus on making sure we're giving the community what they want, and making sure the platform itself is sufficiently capable and robust, and that the content is there. That's definitely our priority.
That's not to say that we don't want to monetise the platform, and that we don't have plans to do so, but it's definitely a kind of consequence of getting all the other factors right, rather than being a driving force. We're not in it to make a quick buck from Home, and then move onto the next thing - Home is a strategic platform for PlayStation, and as such we're developing it.
Q: Micro-transactions in the West are relatively new, but creeping nicely into the general consciousness now - I guess the sales of things like the Star Trek uniforms will be very encouraging?
Peter Edward: It is, and again, it's nice to see that what you believed to be the case is borne out with what's happening. You look at the Korean market and micro-transactions are where it's at - there are millions and millions of dollars being passed around on a daily basis.
But a couple of years ago when you talked about micro-transactions over here [in the UK], particularly with respect to virtual clothing items, the vast majority of people would have responded to you that they weren't interested and would never contemplate paying for that.
But we're seeing people that are prepared to pay for that - like any market you don't expect all of your users to pay for virtual items or whatever the goods are, but it doesn't require everybody to do so. If only a small percentage of the community is paying for items that still amounts to a lot of money.
From a third party's perspective it makes it worthwhile to produce those items in the first place. I can't give you any specific figures on how much has been sold - that's obviously a matter for our licensees - but there are plenty of items being made that are making money.
I think there's enough content being given away for free on the Home platform that people don't feel forced into buying stuff, and the fact that they are buying things shows there's a market for it and that people like it.
What's really interesting is that in some cases we're actually finding that the paid-for items are shifting more than the free items, and what that points to is that there's a value in the perceived exclusivity of an item - users can say they've paid for it and it gives them the opportunity to show their individuality a little more.
If the majority of people don't see the value in that, but a minority do, then that's fine.
PE is director of PlayStation Home Platform Group. Interview by Phil Elliott.