Now in open beta, Sonyâ??s Home is a known quantity for gamers â?? but what does it really mean for developers? Ed Fear sat down with the team behind the project to find out why developers should be excited about the possibilities in its new social space for PS3 gamersâ?¦

Home Sweet Home â?? Part 1

Home has been in development for quite a long time now – has the focus changed much over that time?

Mitch Goodwin (lead programmer): Well, I’ve been on it since day one, four and a half years ago. It’s changed a lot. Originally it was a lobby interface for The Getaway: Black Monday on PS2 – that was the original goal of it. The decision at the time was that there wasn’t enough of a PS2 online userbase to justify it, so we were kind of left to explore and take this idea of a lobby system forward.

We talked about doing an SDK so that other developers could use the system for their own games; give it out to them as a set of libraries. It soon evolved into a committed PS3 standalone project, and we started going towards the idea that we would be a part of the PS3 platform.

It evolved very slowly over a long period of time to get where we are now. We recently found a bit of code which had weapon pickups in it – it was legacy from back in the day when the target was very different. That can be a bit of a bad thing in terms of managing the development of a product: you’d normally want a pretty clear design at the start, but for Home it’s essential that we work in that way, because we’re going to be evolving as we get beta responses and third parties put in requests.

Peter Edward (game director): The focus has refined. At the time of GDC last year, there were so many ideas of what it could be – everybody was very excited about the possibilities for it. Our angle for it at the time was that it could do any number of different social and gaming activities.

Since then we’ve refocused, partly through necessity and partly through recognising our current audience. We have an audience of gamers, so it made sense to focus on that and give something for those guys to latch on to. Besides, there are loads of social networks around with their own strengths – there’s no sense in us just trying to replicate all of that. It makes more sense to focus on the strengths of the PS3.

Why should developers be excited?

PE: Well, for one, there’s the opportunity to strengthen the relationship with the user. Traditionally, whether it’s an offline or online game, your relationship with the user is restricted to the time that they have that disc in the machine and they’re playing it. Fundamentally, it’s based around the game and that’s it – when they move on to something else, you lose them completely.

With Home, it allows you to maintain that contact. If you’ve got a game which has a representation within Home as well, and people are going into that space and mixing with other fans of that game, or of that genre, or even of that publisher or developer – the relationship with the developer is way longer than if it’s just a one-off hit from a shop. I think all of the opportunities that go along with that are the most exciting thing for a developer.

You have the opportunty to get feedback from users immediately after they play. You have the ability to extend interest with that game, through extending interest in the space, having tournaments, leaderboards – it all extends the appeal of that game beyond the traditional bell-curve. You can promote additional games that you’re working on, you can do research into what features people would like, and you’ve even got creative opportunities to promote that stuff in the first place.

MG: There are lots of different levels for developers to go into it – it’s an optional thing. They could just support game launching, and then it’s just a service that helps them get users together and extend the lobby system of the game itself. Then they could do spaces or create objects and items that enhance the gameplay – there’s already third parties who are doing things where you can launch games and do things that then reward you back in Home. You can add little bits that aren’t huge amounts of work but could enhance the game separately – basically an extension without having to change the game once it’s been released.

How has reception been amongst developers?

PE: It’s gone through waves. Initially, there was real excitement from people, because we were showing something really different and that had a lot of potential. And then there’s the realisation that, well, we probably announced it too early – GDC 07 was a long time ago. I think there was sort of recognition amongst developers of ‘Oh, this is interesting, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.’

When we talked nitty-gritty to developers and showed them the tools we’d been developing alongside the client, they started to get a little cagey about whether they want to be involved. We’re now, however, coming out of that – we’ve got case studies and examples of work that’s been done, we’ve been through it ourselves internally, we’ve got agencies that have produced content.

The feedback we’ve been getting is that, in the early days, it was a bit thin on the ground in terms of support and tools, but now it’s mature and everybody’s starting to produce some really interesting stuff. As soon as developers start seeing what other people have done, it really starts to build on the excitement, and now it’s at a really nice stage where people realise that it’s not that difficult, and also that the possibilities are pretty vast. So we’re back at the exciting stage again.

MG: There is an initial reluctance or hesitation – they like the idea but they don’t know practically what they can do to benefit. In my experience, you’ll have a conversation where you suggest something and they go ‘Oh, right, that’s quite neat’. And then it’s a really nice experience when you see what they come up with.

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