GDC 06: Online key to PS3

Worldwide Studios head Phil Harrison unveils Sony's grand online plans for its upcoming console with high-definition demos and slides of next-gen interfaces.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--It would be an understatement to say that anticipation was high for the Sony keynote address at the 2006 Game Developers Conference. More than an hour before its scheduled start, a crowd gathered in front of the San Jose Civic Auditorium, the site of the speech, under the surprisingly warm central California sun.

And little wonder. The presenter was Phil Harrison, president of Sony Computer Entertainment's Worldwide Studios, former executive VP of development at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, and cocreator of the EyeToy peripheral for the PlayStation 2. His speech promised to reveal details about the newest addition to the PlayStation family, the PlayStation 3.

Even before the event, the next-generation console was visible. Or, more accurately, its box was. A mockup of the silver and white versions of the PS3 were literally put on a pedestal onstage, surrounded by PSPs and PS2s in colors not available at North American retailers. The original PlayStation was up there as well, apparently to help convey a sense of dynasty to Sony's platform.

When the hall's doors opened, an eager crowd surged forward--first to save their seats, then to bum-rush the stage to take pictures of a technological equivalent of a pheasant under glass. Confused staffers tried to stop them, first saying they couldn't take photos "of any kind," then allowing press to snap some shots, and finally bowing to the inevitable and letting everyone with a camera shutter away--for the first five minutes.

Finally, after what seemed like a torturously long delay to those who overindulged at the previous night's Microsoft event in San Francisco, the lights dimmed. The loop of covers of The Clash blaring on the PA faded out, and an unseen announcer repeatedly admonished anyone within earshot to turn off their cell phones and refrain from videotaping.

After a brief introduction by GDC head Jamil Moledina, who said GDC was "proud to host the demystification of the next-generation transition," Harrison took to the stage. Though intimidatingly tall, he proved more amiable than most other executives, balancing his grander statements with deadpan British humor.

Much of Harrison's presentation rehashed points made by SCE president Ken Kutaragi at last week's PlayStation Business Briefing in Tokyo. Using some of the very same slides as his boss, Harrison played up the PlayStation 2's success, reminding the audience that the console has sold more than 100 million units. He said the 6,732 titles released for the console had sold in excess of a billion copies worldwide, and repeated Kutaragi's claim that the console has a 60 percent market share.

To remind everyone of the PS2's capabilities, Harrison brought out SCEA Santa Monica developer David Jaffe, who showed off God of War II. The crowd ate up the "exclusive" clip, which showed game hero Kratos ripping one of the heads off a Cerberus, gouging a Cyclops' eye out, and hacking the wing off a griffon in midflight.

After joking that the presentation was a "family show," Harrison then turned to the subject of the PSP. Boasting that the now-$199 handheld is the fastest-selling platform in Sony history, Harrison said that Sony has sent out 5,412 PSP development kits worldwide. He then repeated the main PSP-related points from the PlayStation Business Briefing, showing off its forthcoming camera peripheral and GPS receiver. He said both have "tremendous gameplay potential" and urged any designers in the crowd to create games that used them.

Harrison also reiterated Sony's plan to digitally distribute original PlayStation games to PSPs via an archive server. He said the service would begin "this winter," after the portable gets video/voice chat and audio/text RSS functionality. He said the PSone games and other content would be available via archive servers, but that the PSP would get the ability to boot off of and store entire games onto a Memory Stick Duo. However, he emphasized that Sony would continue to release games via the PSP's proprietary Universal Media Disc (UMD) format.

Harrison then neatly segued into the subject of the PS3, touting that the console will be "seamlessly integrated" to the PSP. He repeated that the PS3 can be used as a content server, delivering media from its hard drive to a PSP "anywhere in the world."

Harrison then showed the latest spin on the famous rubber duck demo that was used to showcase the graphical capabilities of the PS2 and PS3 at previous Sony events. But instead of ducks in a tub, his demo showed several ducks lying on a seabed. Then the camera tilted upwards, showing the sun shining down through an ocean filled with thousands of fish. Harrison then pointed out the complex shifting schools of fish, and assured the audience the Finding Nemo-esque scene was all being rendered in real time.

To quell any potential skepticism, Harrison quickly moved on to a real-time PS3 demonstration. After clarifying the console would launch in early November 2006, the executive brought out Andrew Bond, Senior Engineer of physics-engine-maker Havok, and Richard Lee, technical director of SCEE. The pair then showed off an amusing demo that showed off how the PS3 can render complex rag-doll physics in real time and high-definition resolution. This was done by blasting around hundreds of fully skinned and rigged onscreen soldiers via invisible concussions, much to the audience's delight.

The next demo was from an "unnamed game" from SCEE's London Studio. The shop's technical manager, Simon Hobbs, presented a brief clip of a Volkswagen-esque car being shot to pieces by an offscreen machine gun. Besides being pocked with bullet holes, the car's windshield and taillights shattered, its engine came apart, and finally, its wheels popped off.

Having temporarily sated the crowd's appetite for destruction, Harrison then went on to extol the virtues of the Blu-ray Disc (BD). He said the high-capacity medium is the preferred format for the PS3 because of the massive amount of data next-gen games require in the form of high-resolution graphics, high-fidelity sound, more-theatrical content, and more dialogue. "It's not just cost of creating assets," he said. "It's also in storage cost."

To illustrate his point, Harrison showed a street scene from the upcoming PS3 sequel to the Getaway, which showed a re-creation of London's Piccadilly Circus. To demonstrate it was in real-time, Harrison panned the camera around, pointing out how the numerous details in the environment would require a vast amount of data--a quantity that he said BDs are perfectly suited to store.

Harrison used another approach to shill Blu-ray. He pointed out that BDs have enough capacity--up to 50GB per disc--to store all localized versions of a game. That would allow publishers to have a single SKU for the entire planet, which would streamline production and distribution costs.

Then it was on to one of the presentation's highlights. Dylan Jobe of Sony's Incognito Studios came onstage and briefly played a demo of the PS3 remake of Warhawk. He talked up the PS3's ability to create "ambient warfare" via the sheer computing power of its Cell central processor. He said the power of the Cell is very accessible, and Warhawk didn't need to create effects using low-level assembly programming language.

As he spoke, Jobe piloted a jet fighter through a massive in-air battle. In the background and foreground, hundreds of enemy fighters engaged in "next-generation behavior" by dodging clouds of tracer fire and strafing massive airborne capital ships.

During his demo--which featured highly detailed graphics full of dynamic shadows, detailed explosions, and cloud effects--Jobe also revealed that Warhawk would be playable at E3. That means that there will be PS3 kiosks on the floor of the event, a fact that had not been previously announced.

After some sustained applause, Harrison retook the stage to talk up Sony's answer to Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network Platform. He stressed that the lengthy title was strictly "an internal name, not a consumer name," resurrecting rumors that the online service would be called the PlayStation HUB.

Then, it was on to business. Like Kutaragi the week before, Harrison said the cornerstones of the PSNP are "the four Cs": Content, Communication, Community, and Commerce. He said it would go online alongside the launch of the PS3, and that the basic service would indeed be free. He said SCE would support the basic service, but repeated that the PSNP would also allow for the integration of third-party servers.

In a thinly veiled swipe at Xbox Live, which does not support third-party servers, Harrison said Sony is adopting an "open Internet business philosophy" for the PSNP. Specifically, he said this was done to encourage "makers of massively multiplayer online role-playing-game-type products" to integrate into the network. Later, he would hold up the wildly popular MMORPG World of Warcraft, which boasts more than 6 million subscribers, as a paradigm. "If World of Warcraft were a country, it would be bigger than Ireland," said Harrison. "That's what we would like to achieve in terms of community."

Using the mention of community as another segue, Harrison presented several slides that showed the interface of the PSNP. Using the PS3 game Formula 1 as a backdrop, he showed how up to three simultaneous video chat windows could pop up during gameplay via a minimalist, translucent heads-up display (HUD). Later slides showed how a player could send messages, check e-mail, scour friends lists, and send game requests all while in-game--and all using the same translucent HUD architecture.

Moving on to commerce, Harrison displayed the first shots of the PSNP store, which can also be accessed in-game. He showed a mockup of a menu offering an additional racetrack that players could buy, again using the same translucent design as the communication HUD. He then showed how the PSNP store menu could be customized to match the look of a game with a slide of a car being bought in Motorstorm. The menu featured the same bold yellow design as the off-road racing game's logo, but retained the same elements as the other store menu.

Unsurprisingly, the mention of Motorstorm cued a demonstration of the game, presented by Evolution Studios' Scott Kirkland. The demo was a far cry from the trailer which wowed audiences at E3 2005, even showing slight frame rate issues at times. However, the results were still impressive, as Kirkland guided a dune buggy through a plain of mud, which dried in real time, eventually impeding the vehicle's progress. He explained the PS3's Cell had the ability to render sophisticated in-game dynamics, allowing wheels to drop in newly created ruts and dirt splattered onto walls to visibly dry.

More impressive was the subsequent demo by Ted Price, CEO of Insomniac Games. Price played several minutes' worth of his studio's forthcoming shooter, Resistance: The Fall of Man, which was formerly titled I-8. Looking much like a next-gen combo of Black and Half-Life 2, the shooter saw Price fighting off wave after wave of oncoming aliens with a variety of weapons, including a needle-grenade launcher, which drew impressed "whoas" from the audience. He then announced that the game would be "out this year," within weeks of the PS3's launch.

When the demo ended, Price delivered his stump speech for the PS3. "Even though we've had a close relationship with Sony, we're an independent developer," he said. "We chose PS3 because it has superior firepower." He said this firepower stemmed from two features of the PS3. First, Blu-ray's storage capacity, which "allows us [developers] to put content on we previously couldn't," including extra dialogue, into games. Second was the Cell processor's seven synergistic processor units (SPUs), which allow for much faster calculations. "The PS3 has parallel processing on a scale we've never experienced before, coupled with a storage medium that will help us give consumers the content they demand," said Price.

Closing his portion of the presentation, Price then showed a clip of "a game we haven't yet announced." However, its identity didn't remain a mystery for long. After panning across a city skyline that resembled an eco-friendly version of The Fifth Element's futuristic metropolis, the camera angle followed several vehicles through packed lanes of flying cars and buses. Then, across the frame, a blimp coasted by with a giant billboard on its side bearing the words "Ratchet & Clank."

When the lights came up, Harrison retook the stage to present his concluding remarks, which covered Sony's vision for the future of the game industry. "Right now, we make content on discs inside boxes in stores," he pronounced. "But in the future, we will be creating and servicing a network of game communities." Harrison went on to show the increasingly complex revenue streams that will stem from said communities, which include mobile gaming, game object auctions, and traditional packaged media.

Harrison also said episodic content and network sales would soon become key parts of publishers' income. He then announced Sony was launching an international "e-distribution" initiative to help generate "content that will be only available online." (More information can be found on the initiative's trilingual official Web site.) He also said subscriptions would become very important, and that he "would love to bring social-network functionality into PS3" much like the Web site Myspace does to nongamers.

The final part of Harrison's diagram of future game-industry income was merchandising akin to that of Hollywood films. "We are creating phenomenally powerful brands and IP," he told the crowd. Continuing the Hollywood metaphor, he laid out his hopes that one day games would become a part of everyday life and more mainstream.

"I believe games can have as much social currency as television shows," he said. "You know how you hear people talking the day after they see a really good episode of 24 or Lost? I think games can do that too."

For more news from the event, check out GameSpot's GDC 2006 page.

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