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A guided tour of the PlayStation Home beta


Home's Central Plaza now looks altogether different from this early, mall-like setting.

Since its impressive unveiling at GDC '07, the virtual community of PlayStation Home has gone from being Sony's most ambitious software undertaking as a console manufacturer to something just shy of vaporware. We hear that more members of the gaming populace are being cherry-picked to test it, but despite this – and a spattering of showings at industry events – it nevertheless seems no closer to realization.

With the expanded closed beta underway and Sony still talking about a public "open beta" release by year's end, we met with PlayStation Home director, Jack Buser, to get a look at what those under NDA are experiencing right now.

Gallery: PlayStation Home | 38 Photos

Our tour began in the totally re-designed Central Plaza, something that Buser calls the "pride and joy of SCEA." This area, inspired by elements of modern architecture from Munich and Los Angeles, serves as an entryway and hub into the world. As it stands, the world is comprised of this space, the Games Space, which contains virtual pool, bowling, and arcade games; the Mall, which offers free and paid clothing, furniture, and even entire properties; and a currently single-screen movie theater, which is being used to screen trailers (WipEout HD at present) with plans to expand it into a multiplex offering "more types of video content."

"It's clear that Home is still very much a work in progress, but, as Buser explained to us, will continue to grow."

It's clear that Home is still very much a work in progress, but, as Buser explained to us, will continue to grow long after its doors have been open to a (hopefully) eager public. Manning a DualShock 3 sporting Sony's upcoming keypad peripheral, Buser walked us through Home's current state.

First and foremost, Buser shared his distilled explanation of what Home is all about – something that was still fairly unclear to, well, anyone. "It's all about expanding the game experience. Expanding the gamer community," Buser told us, explaining that, "Every time we do anything, the first thing we ask ourselves is 'How does this expand the game experience? How does this enhance gameplay? How does it enhance existing or upcoming games?' That's our 'laser focus' with Home."

The original Games Space (shown) has undergone a major face-lift in the beta.

Some – ourselves included – have seen the Game Space before and wondered what was so special about multiplayer online pool and bowling. Buser explains that this area of Home is actually a key community component in the eyes of the team. "The real reason for the game space being there is to give you an excuse to do something to meet people," he said. "Take pool. It's just like playing pool in real life. You do it to hang out with friends. Maybe one out of 10 times you play pool it's actually to get better at your game."

Buser believes that the space will serve as a novel and better means of making online friends. "There are really only a couple of ways to meet new friends on traditional game consoles. Either play a game with them, shoot them down, and say, 'Hey, I shot you down! Be my friend' and add them to your friends list," he noted, adding that, "Sometimes you often regret doing that and have to remove them."

"There's no place that gamers can meet up en masse and get to know each other. Which is really kind of sad." – Jack Buser

His second analogy was that, "You meet up with them in real life and exchange PSN IDs, etc.," but that, "There's never really been this layer in-between. There's never been anything built into a game console that's been purely designed as a way to make friends. In Home, you can take time to find out more about somebody – what games they're into, etc. – and decide if you want to be friends with them."

Buser lamented the death of arcades as a congregation spot for gamers, saying, "Think about the real world. If you wanted to go out there and meet other gamers, where would you go? It used to be you'd go to the arcade, right? You can't do that anymore. There's no place that gamers can meet up en masse and get to know each other. Which is really kind of sad." In his mind, "[Home] is the place to meet other gamers. Especially outside of the context of games. You don't have to be blasting them to chat."

The basic – yet customizable – apartment all Home denizens receive still looks nearly identical to this earlier iteration.

But what about other reasons to stay once you've made those friends? We asked about plans for expansion, and were told that, "What we want to do with Home is dynamically grow. What you see on day one is not what you'll see on day two. It's not what you're going to see a month down the road or even six months down the road." The cinema complex was one example. "We wanted to experiment with only one screen, to make sure we got it right," Buser told us. He illustrated how the world will extend past the Central Plaza by opening the World Map, a 2D representation of all the game's spaces. Buser explained that new spaces will be added to the world without necessarily appearing in the Central Plaza, stating that, "We have a ton of content in the pipeline."

"We're constantly going to be adding new spaces, new items, new features, new events ... and even new technology." – Jack Buser

When we quizzed Buser about the oftentimes lengthy loading when moving between zones, and whether this will be optimized before the open beta, he responded, "I can't really talk about that specifically, but what I can talk about is that the reason at launch we're calling it a 'open beta' is because we're constantly going to be adding new spaces, new items, new features, new events ... and even new technology. It's always going to be a living, breathing platform."

We wondered what transpires if spaces become too crowded. For example, would we see queues to play pool? "They way we've designed it, each area that's on the map – game spaces, the Central Plaza, and so on – they fill up to a certain limit and then [another is created]. That way, we know how many people are going to be in a given space, max, he explained. "We've designed it so that it will be crowded, but not so crowded that you won't be able to get to the [Games Space] game you want to get to."

There's no cinema lobby like this in the beta. You walk through the main doors straight into a single-screen auditorium.

Rounding up our tour, Buser booted a newer version of the client to show us the still work-in-progress dedicated Game Space for Uncharted. This envisioning of Sully's bar was a lavish, two-story adventurer's club affair, complete with what we realized were doors that could only be unlocked using special passcodes, one of which we suspect was hidden in a video playing on a TV above the bar. There were also Mercenary Madness arcade machines running. The game, as it turned out, was a simple Pitfall-esque platformer.

Buser said that the Uncharted space was just one example of what can be done for first- and third-party single player titles within Home. "It's also a way for us, with cross-platform games, to provide content for them you're not going to find on any other console," he said. "The farther along we get, the more you're going to see things that happen in-game affecting things in Home, and vice-versa."

We left Home impressed by the atmosphere and vision, yet still uncertain about what the average gamer – even the hardcore contingent – will make of (and in) it.

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