Lead artist Johnathan Venables and associate producer Mike Rouse take time out from developing PlayStation Home to chat to PlayStation.com.
As more PlayStation 3 owners are invited into Home's closed beta trial and Home Square steadily fills with speech bubbles and robot dancing avatars, SCEE's online gaming service gets ready to open its doors to the wider public.
The beta testers who have spent the last few weeks chatting and launching games from the groundbreaking gaming community hub will be familiar with Home's clean, detailed art style, although they may not realise that it began life as a very different project. Speaking to eu.playstation.com at SCEE's London Studios, lead artist Johnathan Venables reveals more:
"Home actually started life as The Getaway Online for PlayStation 2. That project never came to fruition, but it gave us a good backbone of network code. Then we were given a PlayStation 3 dev kit, so we started porting everything across and getting it working, initially only over a LAN connection. Phil Harrison loved the idea of a network hub for gamers and the team grew from there."
Home's current art style is a far cry from the grime of a London pub; the oasis that is Home Square, with its palm trees and soft stream of clear water, resembles a Mediterranean holiday resort, while the Game Space has all the neon-flooded charm of a 50s bowling alley. Everything has a kind of stylised realism, and is presented in gloriously crisp High Definition detail.
"Before we started working on the PS3, our art style was a legacy of the Getaway series: dirty, gritty London pub interiors." says Venables. "So we sat down to decide what look we should develop for the PS3. We wanted the art style to be as accessible as possible; to look great graphically and appealing enough for anyone to pick up and use."
Associate producer Mike Rouse adds: "We took the unusual step of releasing a closed beta to the community very early in development. As a result of the feedback from that, we moved from the original lobby, which was like a pill-shaped room, to Home Square, which is a lot lighter, airier and with clearer destinations."
Creating such lush, detailed visuals is a demanding task for any developer, and building them into an online service only increases the difficulty. When quizzed on the challenges of developing Home, Venables answers: "Getting the thing running, basically. All of the classic limitations you face as a game developer, such as running out of memory, are even more stringent for us because we're online."
"You only have to look at the Game Space," Rouse interjects. "It has five bowling lanes; two high resolution screens, downloading video on-demand; six pool tables; and eight arcade cabinets, all featuring dynamic objects. Added to that you potentially have 64 unique characters, all with different animations, and you have voice chat and text chat going on, all at the same time. And then we have to take into account that some of our users have relatively slow Internet connections."
Another challenge has been managing the expectations of PS3 owners. Since Home was announced, fan sites and forums have been awash with speculation as to what might be included in the service. For Rouse, the level of hype is encouraging. "We've kept fairly quiet on the press side of things," he says, "but the community has gone wild."
When speaking to anyone involved in the development of Home, the word community is never far from their lips. When the service becomes available to the public, it will be in the form of an ongoing open beta; an evolving service that will mould to the demands of its users. Recently, SCEE president David Reeves announced that Home had already shifted its emphasis to cater for gamers first and foremost.
"Beforehand, there was a greater focus on the social networking aspect of Home," Venables elaborates. "And although that's still very important, now the emphasis has shifted to suit the PS3 gamer. Initial users of Home will be relatively early adopters of PS3: they're gamers.
"We're nothing without our community, and as we get more feedback from them we're going to start seeing bubbles of change. We'll see groups of RPG fans or Resistance 2 fans gathering, and then third parties will start catering for them. We expect Home to grow as communities form within communities."
Third party support is one of the most promising initiatives set in place by the Home team, offering the possibility of branded content from game developers, clothing brands, furniture manufacturers and more. When asked how these relationships will operate, Rouse reveals that third parties will be able to create their own content.
"Half of the development team is actually a tools team," he says, "because third parties need to be able to create content to the same standard as you see in Home today. And that doesn't just apply to clothing, furniture and items, but entire spaces. We have a robust and complex toolkit that allows third parties to create content for Home easily."
Whether users will be able to create their own content is still undecided and, like everything else, will depend on demand. For the time being, the team is approaching user generated content with trepidation.
"We're starting slowly because we don't want to flood the community with tools that hardly anyone is going to use," says Rouse. "User generated content can go either way: there can be not enough and everything looks the same, or there can be too much and people clutter up the place with rubbish."
"There's an important division between user generated content and customisation," adds Venables. "Home is already very customisable, and that's the avenue we're most interested in exploring at the moment."
It's with this that the interview comes to an end. It's as much of a conclusion as you can reach when discussing Home because it's a service that strives to evolve to the desires of its users, rather than the visions of its developers. Speaking with members of the team, it becomes clear that Home's potential is limitless, and that they are as excited about this potential as the PlayStation fans are.
Innovative, entertaining and beautiful, Home is shaping up to be something special. And, by listening to those people using the product as it evolves, Home will revolutionise how the PlayStation community interacts and plays online, and further expand the entertainment possibilities of PS3.
PlayStation 3 users: welcome Home.