Sony builds 'Home' for Net denizens

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In the wake of virtual worlds like Second Life and such file-sharing stalwarts as YouTube and Flickr, Sony Computer Entertainment is using its PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable to usher in its own virtual online-connected community.

The initiative, dubbed "Home," will allow gamers to create virtual avatars and congregate in 3-D homes and halls to socialize via text, audio or video chat; watch movie trailers or feature films; and play casual games. Gamers will be able to do all this via a free download that will be offered in the fall in the U.S. and Europe.

"Our vision for the future, Game 3.0, will continue our track record of industry advancement by leveraging the convergence of technologies, from broadband and video chat to supercomputer-speed processors, to make gaming more interactive and dynamic than ever before," SCE Worldwide Studios president Phil Harrison said Wednesday during a keynote presentation at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

Sony also will explore user-generated video games, adding interactivity to the popular shared video craze. "LittleBigPlanet," a game that will be available in the fall in shortform and in 2008 as an actual game, will allow players to create characters and interact physically with the game's environment. Community-based teamwork will be required to solve some of the game's challenges. The game will allow players to create unique levels and share them with others.

While access and certain services in this world will be free, there will be multiple revenue opportunities for Sony, game publishers and corporate America within "Home," including micro-transactions for custom real-world items like virtual clothing for avatars; the potential to buy and watch streaming music and video content; the sales of casual games; and the ability to create more elaborate homes stocked with virtual, branded goods.

There also will be opportunities for product placement within this virtual "Home" for everyone from Hollywood studios to car companies. The 3-D world has retail shops, movie theaters and arcades built into it.

Another part of "Home" will be the Hall of Fame, where gamers who achieve in-game milestones will be rewarded with 3-D trophies. This aspect is similar to the "Achievements" that have become popular on Microsoft's Xbox Live that sponsors like Old Spice have stepped in to reward players with real rewards. The same model could apply to Sony's "Home" over time.

PJ McNealy, video game analyst for American Technology Research, was bullish about the "Home" plans.

"We believe there are now incremental opportunities for publishers to create their own 'homes' for gamers to visit and play games while being served up streaming trailers and sponsored advertisements in a reasonable fashion," he said. "Sony's online strategy, while behind Microsoft's Xbox Live service and its 6 million global users, appears differentiated and impressive on first pass."

McNealy cited an example of how Electronic Arts could make money by selling virtual "Madden NFL 2008" T-shirts for avatars in the "Home" world. In addition, streaming video content for upcoming games, movies or TV shows could be shown on walls throughout the "Home."
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