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Sony is showing off a major redesign of PlayStation Home. The site originally launched in 2008 as a virtual world and is now becoming a hub for social gaming.
The redesign is aimed at jumping on the big trend in online games: social games with free-to-play business models, where users play for free and pay real money for virtual goods. This is the kind of gamble that Sony needs to make in order to hang on to its 23 million registered users at a time when social networks and mobile phones are stealing consumers’ attention.
The core of Home will be a Hub (pictured at top) where you can socialize with friends and immediately find game-related activities to do, director of PlayStation Home, Jack Buser (pictured), told VentureBeat. Sony has a closed beta test for the new Home right now and hopes to widen it soon.
“Right when you walk into the Hub, you’ll see a featured game and the activity board that lists everything you can do,” Buser said.
Home is evolving to become more of a platform for playing social games. The 230 titles available on Home are aimed at Home’s mostly hardcore fans, but they are lighter and more casual experiences than users would find in disk-based PlayStation 3 games. That’s a far cry from Home’s original mission in 2008 as a virtual world for gamers.
Sony showed us its plans for Home at the E3 video game trade show in June, and it has been tweaking the experience ever since, announcing preliminary plans in August. But now the design is taking shape for a full launch later this year. The idea, Buser said, is to keep users engaged for a longer period of time, to measure what they like, and then to revise the offerings of Home so that they will be more amendable to the audience.
“That’s what we’ve learned from the rise of social gaming,” he said.
Indeed, Sony took feedback into account in creating various sections within Home. The central plaza of Home will now be replaced by a futuristic transit place called The Hub. That Hub includes “meta games” that let you take on quests such as defending the Hub from attack. Home will still offer features like navigation, shopping, socializing and viewing movies.
Besides quests, the Hub integrates games, community events and user-generated content. “We are giving the keys to the castle to the users so they can” host their own events on the activity board, Buser said.
At The Hub, users can look at an activity board showing the various games in progress and missions that they can fulfill. They can also create their own events to share with friends. Visitors can earn points for game-like activities.
From the Hub, players can navigate directly into free games, or move to different districts that emphasize different game genres. In the constantly-changing districts, users can find games that suit their own styles and moods. The goal is to rapidly connect players with games that they want to play.
The territories include the Action District (pictured right), where users can associate in a gritty, urban place that looks like a first-person shooter level and provides direct access to action and horror games.
Another district, dubbed Sportswalk (pictured left), is a place that makes you feel like you are “outside the stadium” with access to major league sports scores, headlines, highlights, and sports games.
The Adventure District drops you into an island jungle with a lot of mystery, hidden treasure, and adventure games. And the Pier Park district is a waterfront boardwalk with access to carnival, outdoor, and arcade games. You can take a ride on the Pier Park Ferris wheel (pictured below) or visit the arcade.
Buser said that Sony will rotate new content through the marquee physical spots within the Hub and the districts, so users will find it worthwhile to come back and discover new games. For instance, in one plaza a tank from the game Sodium is on display. If a user walks their avatar up to it, they can jump directly into the Sodium game.
The world will also contain new games. One of the new games that Sony will debut on PlayStation Home is COGS, a social game being developed by indie game label Codename. A working demo of COGS is one of the first things you see when you walk into Home.
I played a gangster shooting game called Bootleggers 29, where you try to steal a barrel in the middle of a warehouse while shooting other gangsters in a multiplayer match. Sony is updating the Playstation Network client to enable real-time peer-to-peer game play, as is possible in Bootleggers 29.
“It’s a great place for people who are between major games,” Buser said. “They can enjoy a break with a free-to-play game.”
But Buser noted that, in contrast to broad social networks, Home’s audience is full of passionate hardcore gamers who don’t mind paying money for games. So he anticipates that Sony and its many third-party developers will make considerable amounts of money through virtual goods transactions.
“Our users are the core of the PlayStation Network, the most active users,” Buser said. “They spend more money, play more games, watch more movies and listen to more music than the average consumer.”
Some 30 developers are creating games for Home. Typically, about 5 to 10 developers make a game over six months before it debuts in Home.
Buser said the average time spent in the Home platform is 70 minutes per session. There are about 10,000 virtual items. Home has 65 virtual spaces, 35 partners, and it has held more than 600 community events. The game spaces have seen 66.7 million actions over the past year, up 83 percent from a year ago.
In bars inside the Sportswalk, you can see dart boards that you can actually play. The same goes for the poker tables, which will let you join others in a game of multiplayer poker, which is a full-scale poker experience with 3D avatars. You can play pool or sports trivia games if you like. If the games don’t do that well, Sony can swap them out and put in new games easily.
“In the poker game, you can watch or take actions that will drive animations, such as an avatar pulling in poker chips,” Buser said. “You can win points.”