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At Home with Phil Harrison

For today's in-depth Gamasutra feature, we sit down with Sony Worldwide Studios president Phil Harrison to discuss Home, its similarities (or lack thereof) to Second Life and Nintendo's Miis, the importance of Blu-Ray to the PS3, and the value of bringing big-name developers to downloadable games.

At GDC 2007, Gamasutra sat down with Sony worldwide studios president Phil Harrison to discuss his thoughts on the newly announced Home, its similarities (or lack thereof) to Second Life and Nintendo's Miis, and the value of having talented yet expensive developers like Dave Jaffe making PS3 downloadable games. After a slight diversion into a discussion of Turrican, Harrison shares his thoughts on Blu-Ray's importance to the PS3, and the price of the console in Europe and the U.K.

Gamasutra: What made Sony decide to go with PlayStation Home?

Phil Harrison: It started life on PlayStation 2, actually. It was something we were working on to create an interactive 3D lobby that would become a launchpad for a number of online games. But, the PlayStation 2 -- great platform though it is -- was coming up against some technical limitations in some of the user-created content that we wanted to put into the space, because we didn't have a hard drive in every PS2, and we didn't quite have the 3D processing power that we wanted. So, we thought that this would be better off on PlayStation 3, and we've been working on it for about two and a half years.

The decision to do it was to create a rich 3D layer that would sit on top of or around the existing PlayStation Network platform, without trying to change that functionality, but just present it in a very immersive way that would resonate well with our audience and also develop this conducive opportunity for them too.

GS: So does this supplant the existing PlayStation Store?

PH: No, it's deliberately distinct and separate from the Xross Media Bar in the PlayStation Store.

GS: What has been the influence of Second Life, or Nintendo's Miis, or things like that? Have they influenced your design at all?

PH: I wouldn't say "influenced." We're obviously aware of some of the other graphical interfaces that exist on other systems. But, we've done some things in Home which can only be done on the PlayStation 3 because we have a hard drive, because we have a consistent rendering platform, and because every PS3 is the same, so we have that predictability of clients' experience in the network that you wouldn't get on other systems.

Having integrated some of the network functionality into the machine from the beginning on the design of PlayStation 3, it meant that every user would ideally be a connected user. So it wasn't really an influence because we knew that we could do some things in 3D better than other systems. That was our goal: let's create the most rich media interface, let's create the one with streaming video, let's create the one with complex environments. I'm really happy with the way it turned out.

GS: It seems a bit like a Second Life-style idea, but done in a more user-friendly sort of way. I think that was the big limitation toward Second Life being adopted by a lot of users. So is that a big part of this? Not necessarily the comparison, but the casual nature of being with the user?

PH: The unifying theme of Home is entertainment, and the fact that users are connected together in a 3D world, and that they can communicate and cooperate together. Everything about Home has to do with the PlayStation experience, be it PlayStation games, or movies, or music. It's very much focused on the digital entertainment that you would want to get out of your PlayStation 3.

We're providing the experience. We're providing the network of spaces. So that means we can invest in making them look beautiful and making them look cool. As you know, the approach that Second Life takes is that they just provide the tools, and that they are entirely server-based. It's a very different approach, and it's really inappropriate to make any direct comparisons with Second Life since we're in a very different space.


Phil Harrison displaying Home at this year's GDC

GS: So there won't be too much user-created content aside from your avatar and your house at this stage?

PH: We want to enable user-created content, but in a way that still maintains high production values and a predictable experience for all users.

GS: Then that's more of a future-looking thing?

PH: Well it's not so much for the future, but it's something that you have to be careful with. Second Life brilliantly does user-created content, but that's all they do. They don't do anything else other than that -- and I really like what Linden Labs has done, so I shouldn't be critical -- but Home is much more high production-value, because we are able to control that channel much more effectively.

GS: Does the Hall of Fame mean that there will be Xbox Live-like Achievements in all games from now on, or is it still very much up to developers?

PH: The Hall of Fame is something that we are consulting with our third parties on at the moment, as to what they want out of it. We've shared the concept with a few of our third-party partners, and they all love it. They all think it's very cool, and they all think it's a great innovation. But the exact rules and policy about how it's supplied is something we're still consulting with them about, and we'll come back to them with more information.


 

GS: Can you say if it came from user demand, or if it was your own idea?

PH: It was a few ideas that came from a few different places coalescing into one visual expression of the Hall of Fame. Not just the games you own, but the games that you will own, I think is a really powerful part of it, and not just the trophies that you have, but also being able to see the trophies that other people have won. You can see who is the fastest Gran Turismo player. You can see who has got the best score on Blast Factor. Those are very compelling community elements, and people have responded very strongly to that so far.

GS: Will you be able to isolate just your friends or things like that in any way? Either in the Hall of Fame or in Home?

PH: Yes, absolutely. That's key to it.

GS: So it's nice that Sony developers are able right now to make these smaller download games like Jaffe is and the Lair guys and things like that. How is that feasible from a cost perspective? It's certainly a lot more expensive to have David Jaffe making this tiny game, because you still have to pay his salary, versus having Jenova Chen making flOw; it's slightly different. How is that working for you?

PH: Well, it's what I do. I invest in creativity, and I invest in creative risk. It's my job to make sure that I have a balance.

GS: Are you confident that the return is such that it makes sense to have someone with a more highly established console ability making these?

PH: I think it's the most important thing, having David Jaffe create a game for the PlayStation Network. It validates everything about the strategy: a very high profile creator who has got a proven track record and an excellent wide variety of game types dedicating his passion and his creativity to a game for the PlayStation Network. It makes me very happy that he wants to do that. And he is having a blast doing it. You should talk to him, he's really enjoying what he's doing.

GS: I know he's really wanted to go back to that sort of thing for a long time, so it's nice that that ability exists. And does that ability exist across the board for Sony's developers? Have you been mining existing developers for future games in that space?

PH: Absolutely. We've got over 50 products in development right now for the PlayStation Network.

GS: In-house?

PH: Combination of internal and external.

GS: The partnership with Xfire was just for one game, it turned out. Initially we thought that was going to be for more things, in terms of connectivity and Achievements and things. Will Sony be building this sort of thing into its own games from now on, since you have Home here?

PH: Home is a service that runs on top of the PlayStation Network itself. The PlayStation Network as a set of features continues to grow, so we will continue to add functionality, features, and sophistication to it. As we do that, Home will also grow by nature of the fact that it sat on top of that platform.

GS: Will hardware-supported network play be available for developers? Right now, the developers have to take the initiative to implement their online structure. Is this moving toward a scenario where Sony provides that structure, and developers just plug into it, ala the Xbox 360?

PH: We still believe strongly that developers and publishers should choose how they build out their network offerings, but with things like Home, and some of the additional functionality of the PlayStation Network, we're empowering developers with more tools and more features.

GS: So, that's yes and no?

PH: Your words, not mine!

GS: Do you think that Blu-ray will be as important to the PS3 as DVD was to the PS2, or is it a slightly different scenario? People bought PS2s over other consoles at the time because it was an affordable DVD player that also played games.

PH: I think that Blu-ray Disc as a movie format is vital for PlayStation 3, but it's more necessary as a game format. We need that storage space. You know from talking to developers who know what the demands are for next-generation games, in terms of storage space. They are having to compromise on other systems in order to fit their games onto DVD.

I think what the difference between PS2 as a DVD player and PS3 as a Blu-ray Disc player -- and I'm going to get shot for saying this -- but on PS2, we didn't make the best DVD player. On PS3, it's the best Blu-ray Disc player. So that is a big difference. I think as Blu-ray Disc as a format starts to gain greater momentum, more consumer electronics devices coming out at lower prices you're going to see the "Best Buy" effect -- growing out more space to the category in their stores. You're going to see more racks dedicated to Blu-ray Disc movies in retail stores as well.

I was telling somebody earlier on that the thing I remember about the launch of PlayStation 2 was that there was a big HMV store on Oxford Street right near my office, and the movie home video section had one or two aisles dedicated to DVDs, and sixteen dedicated to VHS. Within a matter of weeks, that had almost been completely inverted. I think the same will happen on Blu-ray Disc movies, though that might take a little longer, because we're at a much earlier point in the cycle. DVD was a little bit more established in the marketplace when the PS2 shipped.

GS: And it's also a little less obvious. You've got tape-to-disc versus disc-to-another type of disc. Conceptually, it's little bigger leap for some consumers.

PH: There is also the network effect. When you go around to somebody's house and watch a movie on Blu-ray Disc on an HD display, you're like, "Oh, OK, I'm never going back to DVD."


GS: Developers have been very excited about the storage space of Blu-ray. They've also been a little concerned about the speed of the drive itself. I know that it's not possible to rectify drive speed, but has Sony been working with people on ways to maximize the use of the hardware?

PH: I'm sure that there are people out here in our developer support group who can go into more details on this, but one of the key factors to performance on disc is not the drive speed or the data rate, but actually the disc geography: the way you lay out the disc and optimizing the disc. And we have some tools which are allowing developers to maximize that and get high performance.

If you look at the loading times of games on PS1 or PS2 at the very beginning of their life cycle, you can see the way that things improved, not only at the tool level, but also developers themselves became more efficient and more sensitive to the way the data has to be loaded on the disc.

GS: One developer put the data on several parts of the Blu-ray Disc in order to maximize loading. That was pretty crazy, but a good idea.

PH: It's something that we did on DVD as well. It's a perfectly legitimate, logical way of maximizing the use of the drive.

GS: People are smart and will figure out anything.

PH: Right.

GS: Does the temporary backlash that's happening in Europe concern you at all, or do you think it's going to blow over soon?

PH: I'm not sure I know what you're referring to.

GS: I'm referring to people in general feeling like they're paying more for something that's different.

PH: This is a really unfortunate argument that we can never, ever win, but I'll try. The prices that are charged in Europe include VAT. The prices that are charged in the U.S. do not include VAT. Depending on the country you are in in Europe, VAT can be anything up to twenty percent.

On a device which is $599 or $499, VAT is a huge chunk of the price point. The other thing is that the dollar/pound exchange rate at the moment is crazy. It won't necessarily be crazy forever, but it's based on the exchange rate today, which is not favorable to that comparison. Plus there are additional costs of doing business in Europe: multiple languages and some of the distribution challenges. It's something which we don't control. We don't control the VAT rates, much as we'd like to.

GS: I was kind of sad to see that it didn't wind up being as all-region as we had initially heard.

PH: It's region-free for games, but not for movies.

GS: Right. But the backward compatibility is not region-free.

PH: That is true, because of the difference between PAL and NTSC.

GS: But across NTSC systems, that is?

PH: Japan and the U.S. are separate regions on PS2 and PS1 games. It's partly technical but it's partly business policy issue, so it's something we are not entirely in control of because of the fact that PS1 and PS2 games have already been established. PS3 is kind of a line in the sand going forward.

GS: Is Julian Eggebrecht ever going to be able to make a new Turrican? I've heard that he wants to, but I'm not sure anybody at SCEA is really aware of the franchise.

PH: That was one of my favorite games on the Amiga. I'll ask him next time I see him! I don't know that he owns the trademark...

GS: He does!

PH: You have more information than I do! It's a great suggestion. It's a game which I loved on the Amiga and played on the Genesis as well. There was a Genesis version of it, but it was called something else. I can't remember what they called it when they brought it to Genesis.

GS: Mega Turrican.

PH: Thank you. You're obviously a fan!

GS: How significant is the cost of making the PS3 to the system's success for Sony?

PH: The cost as in the component cost?

GS: Yes.

PH: No different to what we experienced on PS1 or PS2, where we initially sell the system and don't make money on it, but as you get economy of scale, the cost comes down, the audience grows, the install base grows, and you get an economically profitable platform. It's a business model we understand very well.

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