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Virtual Reality

Thomas Bidaux discusses Home, PS3 MMO development, and the differences between Microsoft and Sony.

In part one of GamesIndustry's interview with Thomas Bidaux, NCSoft Europe's director of product development, he explained the differences between theme park and sandbox virtual worlds.

The Virtual Worlds Forum, part of the London Games Festival, is taking place next week, and he'll be one of the keynote speakers at the event.

Here, in part two, he discusses the concept of 3D social networks, developing MMOs for the PlayStation 3, and the differences between Microsoft and Sony.

Is there a cultural aspect to a person's preference for either a sandbox or theme park, do you think?

Well, I think people who are more into gaming will be more into the theme park, people who are more into socialising will be more interested in the sandbox.

But I'm sure there are differences between different cultures. I wouldn't be able to point at one and say whether they were more like this, or more like that. It would be interesting to compare us with people like Habbo Hotel, look at their numbers and our numbers and see if there's a difference between countries.

There are different age groups as well, and the gender proportion can be different - I think sandboxes are a lot more attractive to the female players, rather than the theme park.

What about mainstream users - the business world seems to have latched on to Second Life. How influential do you think those kinds of virtual worlds will become?

It's often been the case that socially, in the West, games are for kids. And if you're playing games it's a mentality you have to deal with. But in the East, people play whatever their age. It's very much in their culture to be playing - it's not a stupid activity, it's not for kids, it's taken seriously.

If you look at what Second Life is doing, it's opening the minds of people who think it's more like sci-fi - and it's not a game, so it's ok, it's for adults and serious people.

When they start to scratch the surface of Second Life, then they start to realise there's this game called World of Warcraft, which has 9 million people all over the world, and they start to talk a bit more about that at the same time as Second Life.

In the future, I think you'll see more of those virtual worlds, but I don't think you'll have something that will kill them all, be the ultimate virtual world - you'll have multiple worlds, and they'll have different features - you won't be able to have one that does everything.

Eventually what you will see is that they will become 3D Facebooks or MySpaces. If you look at Facebook, there's nothing to it - it's the applications that people develop which are the interesting things. So it's the virtual world that allows users to provide content - they provide the framework, no content.

As much as a platform can look good, if there's no content on the platform it's doomed to failure. That's the nice thing about our business - we don't have to worry about content, because we provide it, and that makes it easier for us.

They can potentially grow bigger than everything we do, but not until they figure out how to provide good, clever content, not just fantasy stuff that other people made happen - that could be offensive, or ugly, or whatever - and that will take some time.

Do you think PlayStation Home will be one of the first real providers of 3D social networking?

I think Home is very interesting, but I want to see how people use it. Again - content. If there is an incentive for people to go into Home, beyond just customising their avatar, then it will be very, very good. If there is no incentive, then it will remain quite limited.

One of the limitations is linked to the PlayStation 3 - so the success of Home is 100 per cent tied to the PS3's penetration into the market.

I donât think you can say you will sell more PS3s because of Home, but if the PS3 had the right penetration in the market, then yes - Home will be very interesting.

Console MMOs have traditionally been hard to pull off - is technology changing that?

Yes. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are the first consoles that are capable of supporting proper MMOs. I think that from the point of view of the MMO, from the tradition of the MUD expanding into the modern-day MMO, you have to break a lot of rules so that they can fit onto the platform, and they need to find their own way, their own pace, their own systems to be able to be proper console products on top of being MMOs.

If you try to cut and paste your existing MMO on to the platform, it won't work properly. It's just the nature of things. I'm more optimistic about a console game developed specifically, or taking a game and porting it - but doing a proper port, not just a cut and paste.

They will happen, and they will have some success. Whether it's going to be bigger than PC? I don't know yet, but they have lots of potential, lots of interest.

There are also problems you have on PC that you won't have on consoles - it's fixed hardware, that makes it a lot easier to actually QA and make stable. You can provide an experience that you can have a lot of control over.

If the sales of PS3s don't pick up, does that make it more difficult to develop a viable MMO on the platform?

Yes, of course.

Do you think it's going to be an issue?

I'm not worried at the moment. We have plenty of reason to believe we'll do fine. It might be a problem in the long term, but we feel good about it.

People talk about the PS3 as a product that will be around for many years into the future - does that play into your strategy?

Definitely. Because you don't want to roll out an MMO and make it obsolete because of a new platform a year after that. You want to have your MMO for many, many, many years - as many as possible.

So the PlayStation 3 is a good platform for us, and we assume it's going to be around for quite a long time. Early adopters, and the early days - we don't really worry too much at that point.

It's been said that nowadays hardware is becoming less of a focus, while content is as important as ever, and services are increasingly so. Is that something you'd agree with?

When you have the minimum level of hardware required, then it's no longer a problem. If you have the connectivity, if you have the hard drive, if you have the minimum raw power, then actually it's the distribution of the services that's the most important part.

So yes, I totally agree. But you still have this accessibility issue, and the fact that the PS3 has the Blu-ray drive makes it very nice, so that as games become bigger and bigger, we know that we'll have space on the Blu-ray disc to put everything that we want for quite a while.

It goes in that direction - it's the longevity of the hardware that's important. Hardware isn't totally irrelevant, it's never something that you can totally discard.

Do you think Microsoft will have to release new technology sooner than Sony in that case?

I think that's the strategy. I don't know for sure, but I think it's the strategy. It's very interesting because Microsoft and Sony are two very different companies. One is a software company at its core, one is a hardware company at its core.

If you look at the 360 and the SDKs and the operating system, and the beginning of Xbox Live - that's all Microsoft's strengths. If you look at Sony, their strength is on the hardware, the longevity of the hardware, and it will be around longer than the 360.

So I think that Microsoft will release the Xbox 720, or whatever it will be called, before the PlayStation 4, for example - but both strategies are valid, they are interesting in their own ways.

Do you think people get too carried away with trying to compare them?

Yes, I think so. I think each console has its own strengths and is interesting - and Nintendo with the Wii is completely different. But if you look at the 360 and PS3, they are two different platforms, there are lots of different things.

There are some games that will never be able to be ported from one to the other, or if so it will need to be a real translation that will require a lot of work, because they work differently, they have different principles.

Do you think we'll ever see a virtual world on the Wii?

I'd be surprised if we never see some kind of virtual world where you can walk around with your Mii, actually. The Miis bring the very first step to go in that direction, but they're not in any hurry to build that.

It goes back to what I was saying about the four aspects of working online - access to the client. That takes out a quarter of what makes online a powerful platform, which is a shame.

Thomas Bidaux is NCSoft Europe's director of product development. Interview by Phil Elliott. Part one of this interview is available here.

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