GDC 2006: Basic Sony Network Platform for PS3 confirmed free-of-charge

San Jose (CA) - In a packed San Jose auditorium for the opening of the Game Developers' Conference, Phil Harrison, President of Sony Computer Entertainment's Worldwide Stuidios, opened his keynote address by reiterating his company's promise that its PlayStation 3 console will ship worldwide in November of this year, with production capacity slated to be about one million units per month. He also made clear that the PS3's basic online service would be free of charge to subscribers, laying down the gauntlet for Microsoft's competing Xbox Live service, said to be the jewel in that company's crown.

Dubbed the Sony Network Platform, the basic service will feature universal login, matchmaking (in terms of player versus player, rather than romantic), and skill rankings. Users can send text messages, but more interestingly, they can also partake in continuous video chat, seamlessly overlaid on game screens. Harrison showed mockups of the video chat on a Formula One racing game; unfortunately GDC volunteers were very strict in preventing us from taking photos.

Extending the marketing model for games, Network Platform subscribers will also be able to purchase amended and enhanced content in the form of new levels, equipment and characters. Sony has plans to accept subscription and micro payments. Conceivably, Harrison anticipates, entire games could be downloaded and installed on the PS3's built-in hard drive, which is presently slated to be 60 GB capacity. 

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Sony Computer Entertainment president for worldwide studios Phil Harrison

But also extending Sony's revenue model for gaming will be extensive in-game advertising, made feasible through the Network Platform - and perhaps explaining its free basic service tier. Players rack up millions of online hours in many games, and those eyeballs, Harrison believes, could provide a great source of advertising revenue. For example, he said, SOCOM 2 - a PlayStation 2 warfare game - has tallied 39,000,000 hours of online play since its inception.

Some in-game advertising will take the form of simple product placement, something we see regularly on TV shows. In a video game, the same thing could be done to showcase a type of body armor or a car driven by the main character. Of course, in-your-face advertising in a war game could put people off, though Harrison added, "If done correctly and with great sensitivity to the consumer, I believe that this can provide a tremendous revenue stream."

The first SDK for developers for Network Platform will be released next week, and the final production environment will appear in September. The basic service will be free of charge, though it isn't exactly clear just yet where Basic service ends and "extended" service begins. Sony will take care of all the backend services and server farms will be installed in Asia, Europe and America. However, Sony will allow third-party game servers, like those for massive multiplayer games, to be connected.

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Suddenly, availability by November doesn't seem as bad as it appeared last week.

Giving attendees a demo which showed off the PS3's graphical power, Harrison reassured existing console owners that the new console will be backwards compatible with old PlayStation games. At the same time, the PS3 will be capable of producing the 1080p (1080 vertical lines progressive) resolution necessary for Blu-ray and high-definition video.

Perhaps the most appealing visual and audio effects demo Harrison presented - if you shut your morality off for a few seconds - featured a line of soldiers being blown up and flying around the screen. In real-time, dozens of soldiers in military formation were lined up to the horizon. As the soldiers were blown up, their limbs flailed realistically as they made a realistic screaming sound. (Did we mention there's a war going on?)

Harrison seemed to have fun with the demo, at one point remarking, "I think we should just ship it like this." He hinted that the demo may be made available in the future, for those who appreciate the blowing up of things.