EXCLUSIVE REPORT: SCEE tech execs talk PS3 network strategy at DevStation

Sony’s open Home

It’s a measure of just how collaborative the process of developing games has become, as well as the wealth of technical information available for its platforms, that Sony Computer Entertainment Europe’s annual DevStation 07 conference has become a packed three day event.

Held in the new opened BFI Southbank building in central London, over 450 European SCEE-licensed developers heard presentations on topics as varied as networking, audio tools, online community features, game case studies and third party middleware. The first day, set up as an introductory course on PlayStation 3 for new licensees, was particularly well attended.

“It’s felt a bit like organising the tricky second album, so I’m pretty pleased with the mix of topics we’ve chosen because all the streams have been popular,” said Paul Holman, SCEE’s vice president of technology. “The first day was for new studios starting up on PlayStation 3. It’s easy to assume people know about these things, but it turned out to near enough a sell out in its own right.”

Come together right now
Of course, with the vast majority of studios still working on their first PlayStation 3 titles, the conference was underpinned with a general enthusiasm among developers to gain as much information as possible on the future roadmaps for all Sony’s platforms, as well as the emerging online Home portal, PlayStation Network and PlayStation Portable. Details were provided for the next six months in terms of the features to be supported in the various forthcoming SDKs and console firmware releases.

But with many of the platforms’ features revolving around online capabilities, a major issue for Sony’s global R&D and developer relations departments is making sure everything in the bigger picture matches up.

“This sort of thing doesn’t affect development teams, as they tend to be working on one platform at a time, but for us, we have to take a very holistic view across the platforms. There’s connectivity between PSP, PS3 and Home, so the technology has to hang together,” Holman explained.

“Every month, there’s a drop of new features and we have to make sure each of those drops works. It can make you look back to the PlayStation 1 days with a certain nostalgia. Things were much simpler then.”

In this situation, communication between Sony’s internal groups has become paramount. The re-organisation of the R&D structure, with the SCEE group, as well as tools company SN Systems, reporting directly to Tokyo has helped in this respect. “The PSN is being developed in the main R&D groups in the US and Japan, while Home is mainly being developed in Europe,” Holman pointed out. “We collaborate with them as we collaborate with Tokyo.”

Welcome Home
The big news of DevStation was the session on the rollout of features for the Home community service. Currently undergoing a closed beta, it will launch globally in October. In between now and then, there will be a monthly SDK (or HDK as it’s known) releases, as more advanced features are rolled out. For example, the current pre-release version only supports the use of Maya for the creation of 3D assets, while v1.0 will add 3ds Max and Collada support.

In terms of creating the various lobbies that will make up the Home environment, the finished pipeline will be relatively open platform. As well as typical game development-style C++ options, there will also be a simple export Wizard option, which will validate the lobby assets before allowing you to export and preview the environment running on PlayStation 3.

“The interesting thing for me will be finding out who will be the main developers of Home,” Paul Holman commented. “It could well be a very different group of people from those who are at this conference. It been designed to be used by designers and artists, and equally, in the future, there will be the challenge of user-created content. We’ll probably see some very strange things then, as well as some avenues which I’m sure won’t work. At this stage it’s very early. We’re just starting the closed beta trial, but it’s also something of an experiment.”

Thinking outside of the box
With PlayStation Network activity starting to take off – there have been over 1.5 million user accounts registered, over six million downloads and 115 million log-ins – it’s clear that together with the Home community service and the PlayStation Store, this aspect will play a major part in the future success of the PlayStation brand.

Certainly, Zeno Colaço is keen to stress how such developments are changing SCEE’s internal focus.

“Developers are having to make a shift in their mindset about the kind of games they made,” he says. “Now there’s a route to market which means you can tune and work on your concept and get attachment to that title. Ultimately though, retail disks aren’t going to go away. Later this year, we’re bringing out 50 GB Blu-ray disks because games won’t fit on 25 GB disks, so the market is exploding in different directions.”

He added: “But what’s really encouraging us is the activity in the PlayStation Store. It’s still early days, but we’re not only seeing free downloads, but the take up of billable content has been very good, beyond our expectations. I think that shows the potential for things like back catalogue games, expansion packs, episodic elements and in-game items.

Colaço also thinks this entrypoint makes as great opportunity for studios which perhaps haven’t previously developed on PlayStation or even traditional gaming for that matter.

“I think PlayStation 3 has bought in a lot of studios who haven’t done console games before,” he predicts, adding: “If we rely on the established houses, we’re in danger of getting the churn of old franchises, but I’m pretty confident we’ll start to expand the developer space and in my group, we’re definitely encouraging developers to innovate.

“In terms of the PlayStation Network, big download games and quirky items are both welcome.”

Home throws up interesting new paradigms when it comes to Sony’s developer relations operations too.

“From our point of view, each territory has close connects with the major publishers in its region,” said Zeno Colaço, SCEE’s vice president of publisher and developer relations.

“Obviously some publishers have their head offices in Japan or the US, but what’s significant is that companies aren’t necessarily choosing to run projects from their HQs.

“We have a lot of activity in Europe, perhaps partly because the message came from Phil [Harrison] at GDC, and partly because things will move at different paces in different regions, so you need to provide strong local support.”

But what’s certain is that the future will be collaborative. From PlayStation 3, to the PlayStation Network, Home and even the soon-to-be kickstarted PSP, for SCEE and the development community, it’s all systems go.

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