Sony turns PS3 focus to community

'PlayStation Home' blends 'The Sims' and 'Second Life' with a dash of e-commerce

By Chris Morris, staff writer

SAN FRANCISCO ( -- Sony is giving PlayStation 3 owners the chance to mingle and share.

The company, which has weathered some fierce criticism about the lack of community features in the PS3, announced Wednesday a broad-reaching program which will combine social networking and user generated content with e-commerce for owners of the video game console.

PlayStation 3 owners will be able to customize their avatars.
Users will be able to mingle and chat with other PS3 owners.

"PlayStation Home," which will begin a large-scale beta test in April and is expected to launch worldwide this fall, will allow PS3 owners to create customized likenesses of themselves (or whoever they'd prefer to be in the online world) to communicate and play with others in a 3D virtual community.

Just as it has on the Web, social interaction has quickly become a key element of this generation of video games. Microsoft's Xbox Live Service lets players easily find friends and compare in-game achievements. Nintendo's Wii allows them to create cartoonish icons of themselves, which can be inserted into gameplay.

Sony's (Charts) approach is different in that it goes for a more photo-realistic avatar. It also groups users into a large collection of common areas, where they can wander and communicate via keyboard or voice chat. Many of the rooms in this common area are filled with mini-games, including older arcade titles (which have been a particular strength for Microsoft's (Charts) Xbox Live) and small, casual games such as bowling or pool.

In addition, each user will also have access to a private 'apartment' - a completely customizable area where they can talk with friends, decorate their furnishings and share personal digital content that is stored on their PS3's hard drive. (Imagine a souped-up version of "The Sims," Electronic Arts (Charts) hit series blended with the virtual world "Second Life".) Players will also have a 3D trophy room, allowing them to display significant milestones and achievements reached in their games.

"We have a tremendous deal of growth ahead of us," said Phil Harrison, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios. "It's a very exciting opportunity laid out in front of us and one I hope people embrace and take to new heights."

If the initiative sounds a little 'Web 2.0,' that's deliberate. Dubbing the project "Game 3.0," Harrison said also introduced a new community-based game due later this year entitled "LittleBigPlanet". In the game, users create and share their own levels, with other players ranking and commenting on them. With its cure characters and simple building system, the title seems tailor-made to appeal to an audience beyond the hardcore gamer.

While PlayStation Home appears, at first glance, to be a social mingling spot, it also represents a significant step into the world of microtransactions and e-commerce for Sony. Though the program will be free to download and use, users who want to change their avatar's clothing or buy additional furniture or accessories for their apartment may find small costs associated with those.

Harrison said the company may also unlock new clothes or features when users purchase and play a new PS3 game.

Meanwhile, the vast public areas in PlayStation Home will be filled with imbedded dynamic advertising, displaying footage or trailers from new or upcoming games, movies and more. In a live demonstration Tuesday evening, only Sony games and films were seen, but Harrison said the company plans to offer the space to other companies as well.

Beyond the main common areas, PlayStation Home will also have spaces dedicated to particular publishers and brands. Electronic Arts, for instance, could have a Home space that is solely dedicated to its Madden series, one of the industry's perennial best sellers. Ultimately, however, Sony hopes to convince other companies to create their own dedicated spaces.

"Over time," said Harrison, "we expect to expand this to non-game companies, such as cola or clothing manufacturers."

Analysts were impressed with the initiative, saying Sony seems to be on the path to gaining back ground in the community space.

"It's a good game of catch-up - and it's different," said P.J. McNealy of American Technology Research.

The bigger question is whether it will ultimately sell more PS3s. Sales of the system have been fairly strong, but the company is lagging behind its competitors.

Analysts Tuesday once again pointed to the high price tag of $500 and $600, saying it's still much too high for the typical user - and until Sony lowers the price, it's not likely to see a significant bump at retail, no matter how impressive the new features are.


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