PS3 Home Boss: Free-to-Play is The Future

By James Brightman

PS3, having just seen a $50 price cut, is enjoying a sales bump, and Sony aims to capitalise on the momentum with a complete overhaul of PlayStation Home this fall. For PlayStation Home director Jack Buser, Home is a “huge differentiator” from other consoles, and historians will look back on Home to note its pioneering efforts in bringing free-to-play gaming to consoles. Indeed, Buser believes the future is in free-to-play.

While EA and other third-party publishers are investing heavily in digital platforms like Facebook, Sony believes it can make its own mark. IndustryGamers asked Buser if PlayStation Home should be considered Sony’s answer to Facebook, to which he answered “Yes.”

“One of the cool things about PlayStation Home is that the games on the platform very much, by and large, use the latest and greatest business models that we’re learning from the web. Many of the games are free-to-play or ‘freemium’ where the core game mechanic is free-to-play – you can beat the whole game if you want and never spend a dime, but we will sell weapon upgrades, armour upgrades, enhancements, etc. as a series of micro-transactions. You don’t have to, but it makes you better at the game. So while a lot of our games are using the free-to-play model, we’re actually building game types that are leveraging the power of the PS3 hardware to build FPS titles and online racing games – the kind of games that look and feel like the kind of console games that you’ve come to expect from PlayStation but leveraging the new business models,” he explained.

Buser noted that this free-to-play focus is clearly reflected in the developer community as well. 

“In fact, if you look at our developer community, it’s a great mix of folks that have come from social game development on the web and traditional console development houses, coming together to build an entirely new class of games that’s using the best from both worlds. It’s using the most cutting edge and creative business models that so many sessions at GDC are all about while also giving a gameplay experience that’s very much PlayStation – high definition, 3D, online multiplayer, action packed,” he continued.

Buser sees the transformation of Home into a social games platform as a truly landmark moment in the industry. He’s naturally biased towards his own product of course, but he does have a point: these high quality free-to-play games don’t really exist on Xbox 360 or Wii.

“So for me, this is incredibly exciting. It really is a milestone in the game industry. If we were to fast forward 10 years and look back at what PlayStation Home is doing right now, I believe it’s going to be viewed as a turning point in the industry where we finally started to see these business models from the web actually take hold on consoles and start to create profitable businesses for console developers, using free-to-play and token-based play and ad-sponsored and all these cool models that really on consoles are only found in PlayStation Home. It’s a huge differentiator for the PS3. You could not build these types of games on other consoles because they don’t have a platform like Home,” Buser enthused.

Will console gamers fully embrace free-to-play? Is this the future of console gaming? Buser certainly thinks so. Developers can build games quickly, and without huge budgets and the risks associated with AAA retail products, and gamers can still enjoy high fidelity experiences. This could be the beginning of an important trend.

“I’m very biased but I’ll let you look under the hood for a minute. In PlayStation Home, you can build a full-on game that looks like a console game – for example, a full-on FPS or racing game – with a team of just 6-10 people and it’ll take 6-9 months to complete. Everything’s done with scripting using [programming language] Lua… so with a very small team you can create a game that’s up and running on PS3 in just six months. And it’s monetizing immediately!” Buser said.

“So for instance, with Sodium 1, we had 1.6 million people go through that game in the first six weeks after launch in North America alone. So you can do the numbers and realise that you can have investments that are moderate with lower risk [than big budget consoles games], and when you’re talking about a built-in community, we just announced 23 million users globally on Home – the numbers start to add up.”

He concluded, “I’m a big games historian and read lots of books on game history. If you fast forward 10 years, it is my personal belief that games will look a lot more like what’s going on in PlayStation Home than what they typically look like today.”