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Sony's Social Gambit

Worldwide Studios' Jamie MacDonald on how the publisher is continuing to pioneer in the social gaming space

Since the launch of the PlayStation 3 many have discussed the platform's software offering, for better or worse. But now the console is starting to mature we're seeing a greater number and variance of titles out there - something which Sony will hope can attract a wide audience to its flagship product.

At the recent Games 3.0 event in London, we spent some time with Worldwide Studios VP Jamie MacDonald, and got him to unpack his thoughts on the PlayStation 3 and social gaming, as well as the latest on the Home project.

Q: Social gaming - from Sony's perspective it's been something the company's pioneered, but how has it squared over time with your hardware offering?

Jamie MacDonald: I think that the thing is, our hardware offerings have a lifecycle of their own. EyeToy, SingStar and Buzz! all appeared on PlayStation 2 relatively... not late, but probably three years after launch. First EyeToy: Play, then a year later SingStar and then a year or two later for Buzz!

So it's all about working out where the demographic is for any particular platform, and our brief is to help the process, whereby we expand the audience for any of our platforms over the lifecycle.

Other studios, other organisations in the US and Japan - who are very good at doing titles which appeal, to use that phrase 'teenage boys in their bedrooms,' - and they're great at that, and absolutely needed. But they come at a certain point in the lifecycle, and we just happen to have found ourselves in a niche really, where we are good or have been good thus far in social gaming.

That's a point in the lifecycle of the platform. Now, for example with PlayStation 2 it's going much younger, so we're still doing social titles for PS2, but it's a much younger audience. For the PlayStation 3 it's the other way around - we have social titles which are appealing to a more adult, sophisticated audience.

Q: Is that simply down to price point, do you think?

Jamie MacDonald: Not just price point - that is a driver, but I think at the same time it's more about how ubiquitous the platform becomes. Part of that is to do with price, but it's not only price, it's about platform position, and the PS3 having a Blu-ray Disc player - so it's more likely to be in your living room than anywhere else.

Q: Do you think it's more difficult for the PS3 to appeal on a social games level, than it was for the PS2?

Jamie MacDonald: I don't actually, no. If you cast your mind back to 1999 when PlayStation 2 came out, I remember being completely awestruck when I first saw it, watching Gran Turismo 3 and just thinking "Wow - how do they do this?"

Its price point then was similar to the PlayStation 3 when it came out. The difference between PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 1 is similar to that of the PS3 and PS2, and the lifecycle and demographic that the platforms appeal to will be broadly similar.

Q: [Worldwide Studios president] Yoshida-san explained that part of the reason for his recent move back to Japan was to do with maintaining better internal communication - do you think social gaming was a particular priority in the design of the PS3, or was it more of an afterthought?

Jamie MacDonald: I don't think PlayStation 3 was designed with any particular genre in mind to be honest. I think it was designed as a very high-specification digital media entertainment system, and we were involved in designing PlayStation Eye, which came out in the launch window.

I do think it's great that Yoshida-san is back in Japan, and that Worldwide Studios as a result will perhaps have a more direct voice with the other parts of Sony Computer Entertainment.

But really I think it's more that the success we had in Europe with social gaming in the PS2 era was a surprise. Nobody foresaw it, and what we're trying to do now is to make sure that this whole new genre is catered for within future PlayStation developments.

It's not that social gaming was ignored, it's that it was a surprise to everyone - and also, to be frank, from our point of view it's been more of a success in Europe than it has in Japan or the United States. It's still been relatively successful in the US, but I think it's fair to say it's not had much of an impact in Japan.

Q: One of the things unveiled earlier this year was EyePet. With the PS3 in mind is it part of a long line of products that have a broader demographic in mind?

Jamie MacDonald: On the EyeToy side of things? Absolutely. We launched PlayStation Eye with things like EyeCreate, which did really well, and with some downloadable PlayStation Network titles for it, but we were always aware that the fundamental EyeToy experience had to move on, and that it was appealing to a different audience than the early-adopters.

We kind of knew that before PS3 was launched, and we talked with our product marketing people and concluded that it was best to focus our efforts on PS2 - we've got two EyeToy products out this Christmas for PS2. And then later on in the PS3 lifecycle, it made sense from where we felt our audience would be.

Q: At E3 SCEA's Scott Steinberg told that he felt in order to win out this console generation the PS3 had no need to attract Wii users, but just to translate all the PS2 users across. From a social gaming point of view it might make sense to bring in some Wii users, wouldn't it?

Jamie MacDonald: From my point of view we want to create products for PS3 that appeal to as broad a range as possible. If that brings in people from PlayStation 2 - great. From Nintendo - great. From Xbox 360 - great.

So I suppose I'd say why limit ourselves? My driver on this is that I want to create really broad entertainment experiences that everybody can enjoy.

Q: On to the subject of Home - and starting with the name itself. Internally, do you see it as the definition of a home as a starting point, or do you see it more as a more emotional individual's sense of what their home is? What's the thinking behind the word - I've never really seen it explained?

Jamie MacDonald: That's probably because it never has been explained. We had, for a long time, an internal codename of "Hub" and that to us kind of explained what it was.

Q: That would speak more to the first definition, rather than the second.

Jamie MacDonald: Absolutely. And we just felt that it was a bit geeky. To be honest I really can't remember how we came to the word "Home". I do recall us all thinking that it works, and works on lots of different levels - "Let's go home" - and Home is where you start from and go back to. And people talk about having a "Homepage".

So it just felt right on different levels, and if we could use it from a trademark point of view, it was a no-brainer. That's how it came about.

Q: In terms of making a place feel your own, customisation is important. How is that side of things coming along?

Jamie MacDonald: Very well, in the sense that it's all there. Really, in terms of the progress on Home a lot of the stuff we've been working on of late is about making it robust enough to be a global service that we can roll out.

In terms of features and what you can do in Home, there'll be no surprises when it's launched. So much of our work in the last few months has been making it robust, bulletproof, localised - it's the first time we've ever done something like this.

But the customisable spaces and the avatars - they've improved and changed. It's weird, when I look back to the very first time we did any of that on PS2, and I think back to the first implementation on PS3 - and now I look at it and it's very different. The spaces are different, the people are different, the animations are different. Things are much slicker and visually appealing now, as you'd expect, than from the early prototypes.

Q: In terms of user-generated content, there are always limitations, but with LittleBigPlanet Sony's raised the bar. Will that experience have an impact on the tools available to users within Home, do you think?

Jamie MacDonald: In some ways I think it's inevitable in that we're from the same stable, if you like. But we do have plans for all of our first party titles to have a presence in Home. Home is what it is - a place where people meet, socialise, play games, come back to talk about the games they've just played.

Whereas LittleBigPlanet - or SingStar for that matter... I was thinking about this earlier on, that the mantra for LBP is 'play, create, share' and actually you can apply the exact same thing to SingStar. You play it, you create your video, and then you share it by uploading it online.

So that kind of approach - user-generated content - I can see where you're coming from in that LBP is more immediately creative, but I think those sorts of communal activities will only increase.

You don't need to have exactly the same experience in lots of different places - it's enough that you're in Home and you can go to a SingStar space, or an LBP space, and meet other like-minded people.

And also, frankly, there will also be the places where you can go and meet teenage boys who just want to go and shoot people, which is fine [smiles]

The whole point is that it's something for everybody.

Jamie MacDonald is VP at Sony Worldwide Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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