Games journalist Steve Boxer met Sony chiefs regarding the influence of Web 2.0 on the gaming world at the Edinburgh Interactive Festival. Over to Steve for what they said…
The Edinburgh Interactive Festival, which took place on August 13 and 14, is an unusual affair, best described, perhaps as a “boutique” games show. It’s always attended by a small but select band and, as it takes place while the Edinburgh Festival is on, the general vibe is relaxed and holiday-ish – rather than the usual manic nature of games shows in which everyone is trying to sell something. This year, a dream team of SCE people behind Sony’s merging of games and social networking – Jamie Macdonald, VP of Worldwide Studios, Paulina Bozek, Executive Producer of SingStar and Peter Edward, Director of the PlayStation Home Platform Group – gave a joint talk entitled Beyond Social Gaming.
We caught up with them, in a bid to find out the motivation behind Sony’s desire to incorporate social networking into its games and services, most notably SingStar, LittleBigPlanet and Home. And this is what they said:
Q: The whole Web 2.0 influence: was it initiated by the massive success of things like My Space and YouTube? What was the thinking behind it?
Paulina Bozek: For SingStar, it was a combination of two things. Our two main features in SingStar for PS3 are downloading the tunes you want – obviously, it’s always on – and the community uploading of content to share with your friends at My SingStar Online.
Q: Which is classic user-generated content?
PB: Yeah. Yes, it was emerging as a big cultural trend, but we started working on it quite early, and now we’ve finished the title. It has been in production for two years so, two years ago, it was early days. We were already looking towards that. With SingStar, in particular, it wasn’t just about the big online names like My Space and YouTube: people were spontaneously sharing and forming communities. We were constantly getting videos on a Monday morning, saying: “This is my SingStar party,” so it was natural for SingStar to go that way.
Q: You can’t force these communities – they emerged organically. Except that seems to be what you’re doing with Home. When is Home going to kick off?
Peter Edward: We’re still in closed beta at the moment, and we’re looking to escalate the numbers in a controlled fashion. I don’t think there’s any benefit from just opening the floodgates on day one and letting everybody in. We want to scale up the numbers so we can get feedback from the users and find out how they’re using the service. And as the service grows and as we start bringing more people in, we’ll get more of an idea as to how they’re using it and build it up with them, rather than just going out there with a product that ticks all the right boxes. I think that reflects on what you were just saying: that these services tend to grow up organically and, generally speaking, you can’t say: “This is the next social networking site that everyone is going to use: go away and use it.”
Q: Home is something that you see as eventually making money for Sony, isn’t it? But the average PS3 owner will see it as a nice way of getting into online games?
PE: Yes, that’s certainly one of the main attractions to the gamer, who has purchased the PS3 as, primarily, a gaming console. Then, Home will be a nice way of getting into online gaming, as it will allow them to have more control over how they get into the games, who they’re playing against and what type of games they’re playing, rather than what can sometimes be more of a hit and miss affair at the moment. But let’s be honest, most of the purchasers of PS3s are classic 18 to 34 males right now, but there are lots of other family-members and friends who might see them using Home and think: “That looks fun: I’m not normally the sort of person who would use a PS3, but let’s have a go with it.” There are lots of different aspects of Home which I think will appeal to people other than those who just want to get into online gaming.
But as far as the money thing is concerned, yes, obviously, Sony is in it to make revenue from it, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. But there are revenue opportunities for everybody there, in the long-term. Obviously there’s advertising and sales revenue for us, even physical sales channels, going through other fulfilment channels for partners.
Q: Such as, say, buying T-shirts in virtual stores?
PE: Yes. But also in the longer term, the parallel of buying a T-shirt for your avatar in Home and, at the same time, buying the same T-shirt for yourself, that arrives at your home.
Jamie Macdonald: Also, in the long-term, there will be the opportunity for people to start up as, say, T-shirt creators and sellers in Home. The revenue streams are there for everyone.
PE: It’s not just B-to-C, it’s C-to-C as well. That’s not day one, but as a platform, we see it as being a revenue opportunity for everybody involved, not just for Sony.
Q: Again, that’s quite Second Life-like. How much of an influence was Second Life?
JM: When we started work on this, Second Life didn’t exist. Our motivation, originally, right from the word go, was that we fed up with going into online games for five seconds before dying, and we thought there must be a better, more congenial way of leading an online existence. That was what prompted us to start developing what has turned out to be PlayStation Home. So, it’s certainly not Second Life.
Q: And there’s the crucial difference that in Home, the environment is fixed and unhackable, whereas most of the worst aspects of Second Life stem from being able to, for example, launch great shoals of flying penises into the environment.
PE: Yes. I think that’s something that, conversely, they’re a bit proud of – the fact that it’s a bit of a Wild West environment. And if that floats your boat, it can be very appealing. But it’s the obvious thing to do, to make comparisons between Home and Second Life, and it’s understandable that people would do that, as they are quite similar, superficially. But Home has been in development for quite a long time, and its roots came from online gaming rather than social networking, and the social networking aspect has grown from that. But Second Life has hardware issues, as obviously it’s PC-based and has to cater to the lowest common denominator, and it’s not an easy thing to get up and running, whereas Home has been deliberately created to be something that anyone can get into. And because it’s on the PlayStation 3, we know the hardware everyone has, and we can exploit that to the maximum.
JM: And the other main thing is that, apart from the whole Wild West scenario, Second Life is kind of a solitary activity, although you’re in an environment where there are other people – but where you are, it’s a solitary activity. Whereas with the PlayStation 3, Home is under the TV, and you’re there, probably with other people, enjoying the experience as a whole. Although there’s only one of you walking around on-screen, it’s more of a family activity.
Q: Which begs the question of moderation, clamping down on griefing and so forth. What have you got in place for that?
PE: There are two answers to that. The first being that Home uses all the systems, the back-end and the standards of the PlayStation Network. Home is not a separate entity in that respect. Clearly, there are some areas where Home is quite a different proposition to the PlayStation Network, so there will need to be additional measures in place. But we have got comprehensive moderation and grief-reporting procedures in place. Essentially, you will be able to avoid people who you want to avoid – to block them out of your experience. We can get a lot of information about the kind of user you are – your age, location and that kind of thing – so we can be pretty confident about knowing you are who you say you are. So we can protect you in that respect.
Q: Will we see areas that you have to be 18 in order to enter?
PE: Yes, probably. In the short-term, there probably won’t be many but in the long-term, we expect to see them. For instance, a casino or even somewhere you can go and see 18-rated trailers for games. That isn’t anything particularly sinister, but obviously, you’d have to prevent 12-year-olds going in there. Obviously, there are other 18-plus areas that you could imagine, but some of those might not come to fruition. But we have the ability to age-protect areas, and I think that’s something that we will inevitably make use of.
Q: Will there be any design tool going out with it, specifically for designing objects?
PE: Absolutely. Again, that’s a bit further down the line – our priority at the moment is to be able to give developers the tools in which to create an experience for users. But once we’ve got those guys up and running, we’ll start turning to user-created content tools. Such as, for example, the T-shirt designer, all the way up to being able to design your own dream apartment. Also things like giving scripting tools. Most users won’t be that creatively minded, probably, but there will be some who want to show other people what they can do, so you could give them Java-scripting tools so they can create their own min-games or something. That’s the sort of thing that can really start to build the smaller, more hard-core community that influences the larger community.
Q: Back to SingStar. One thing I liked was the way it automatically videos you when it hits the chorus. Is that the core of your UGC?
PB: Both the SingStore and My SingStar Online have been integrated so that they’re completely seamless. When you’re buying songs, you don’t have to exit the game and go to a Web browser – it’s an easy, media-rich, fun and spontaneous experience. And the same with the user-generated content. If you’ve got a USB camera, PlayStation Eye or Eye Toy plugged in, it can record you automatically, and it’s so simple to put that online if you want to. A different scenario would be if I’m at a party, and I get my camera out, I have to get that back to my PC. Our ethos is always to build stuff in that is very integrated, very seamless and easy to use, so that people are having fun and participating without having to work very hard. Our user-generated content is around the experience of SingStar, of people performing. When we started doing it, we thought about lots of other platforms that are more open, where you find all kinds of content, like My Space and YouTube. We don’t want to compete with those huge networks. We already know that SingStar has a real hook around this idea of performing, and it’s really universal. So we decided to focus just on singing and performing, and all the fun you can have around that.
Q: And there will be awards for performance of the week and so on?
PB: Our initial launch feature set lets you capture all the videos and store them on your hard disk, so you can upload them. You’ve got an online profile, and it automatically uploads your high scores. You can browse around, have your own gallery space with videos, rate videos and watch the highest-rated videos. But that will evolve, so the next step for us will be to have contests, which would be event-driven. Also, linking up with our marketing site, so we’d be visible on the Web as well. So ultimately, you’ll have your party, and your photos and videos, and you’d send a link to your friends on a Monday morning and, via the internet, they’d be able to see everything. But the key would be that it’s sent up there by the game.
Q: Do you think we’ll see a new generation of pop-stars emerging from SingStar on the PS3?
PB: Maybe, yeah. You’ve seen young bands on My Space. It’s a timeless activity, the idea of girls singing into their hairbrushes, but now you can be online and everyone can see and rate your performance, I think that will have an effect.
Q: And SingStar does actually teach you how to sing somewhat, doesn’t it?
PB: Right from the beginning, we brought in a music teacher. We were discussing what we could do in the game to make it easier and more intuitive. I’ve heard her saying that it’s something she would use in class, not so much to teach singing, but after the lesson was over, for 15 minutes of fun. It’s not a serious training tool by any means, but it does teach you pitch, harmonies and things like that.
Q: How much further can all this Web 2.0 meets games stuff go? What’s the ultimate goal?
JM: To make games more accessible, yes. But there’s a changing landscape out there regarding how people interact with entertainment. People now, out of the box, expect to be able to interact in a connected fashion, and to exchange experiences built around that. I think what we’re doing with Home, SingStar and LittleBigPlanet is, essentially, providing the environment in which people can create their own entertainment experiences and share them with a much wider circle of friends than they’ve had before.
PE: You don’t have to separate gaming from creativity on the user’s part any more. We’ve always said gaming is an interactive experience compared to watching movies, for instance, which provide a passive experience. Now, we’re into another area, where gaming is not just an interactive experience, but it’s an interactive experience with your friends, rather than with the people who made the game. Giving people that semi-ownership of the game itself is great for building up the bond between the games and the gamer, rather than it just being a commodity that you use and, once it’s expired, you move onto the next thing. It’s great, because it gives longevity to games, which was a very difficult thing to do before.