Before there was a FarmVille or Words With Friends, gaming socially meant two people in a basement playing on a split screen—perhaps on two TVs, side by side, depending on how old-school they were. Since then, video games have come a long way to connect players emotionally and socially with each other. The Internet, for example, opened up the doors to massive multiplayer games that can span thousands of people. For its next-generation console, PlayStation has put social front and center in an effort to "celebritize the gamer."
John Koller, PlayStation's vice president of marketing for home consoles and handheld platforms, said social was at the top of the company's priority list when designing a console from the ground up.
"I think the sky's the limit in terms of how developers and the architecture we've put in place in PlayStation 4 can achieve certain social ends," he told Fast Company. "The goal is to build a vibrant, thriving community that interacts constantly."
Take for example its DualShock controllers. A hallmark of PlayStation gaming, the vibrating feedback gives gamers a more visceral experience. In its evolution, the new DualShock 4 sports a share button next to the directional pad.
The emphasis on social is also evident with the console's embedded services, including Facebook, Ustream, and most notably Twitch, a gaming-focused live-streaming service. Twitch, an offshoot of Justin.tv, is expected to penetrate more than half of American households with integration in the new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles launching next month, said Matthew DiPietro, Twitch's vice president of marketing and communications.
"The demand and desire on the part of the gamer is clearly there. What we wanted to do was remove all of those technological barriers," he said. Traditionally, broadcasting live game play has been what Koller considers a "janky" experience that involved a capture card, third-party software, a PC hooked up to the game console, and a lot of know-how. By removing all of that friction and building live streaming into the PlayStation 4 on a system architecture level, it's banking on Twitch—and to a lesser degree Ustream, which has a broader focus—to engage gamers, help them discover new experiences and titles, explore commerce opportunities with downloadable content packs—and most importantly, celebrate the gamer, Koller notes.
"The overarching strategy is around celebritizing the gamer," he said. "We think it's really important to personalize who they are and how they play and grab the emotion they have."
When Twitch's organic growth got on PlayStation's radar a few years back, the company knew live streaming would become an integral part of its next-generation console. "We watched it from afar. We would look at those numbers and be absolutely shocked at the number of people following without a message-based platform, and we wanted to build it in at a system architecture level," Koller added.
In the past, celebrating gamers meant rewarding them with trophies or items when they accomplished certain achievements, but live broadcasting opens up new possibilities. "It [the reward] may be sharing to trash-talk a friend and say, 'Now you can see I beat you at the buzzard,' but it may also be to have that following, the social engagement," Koller explained.
PlayStation also sees Twitch playing a role in discovery.
Indie developers stand to benefit the most from having more eyeballs on their games. "They, too, can be celebritized as great inventors of content," Koller said.
And hardcore gamers can use Twitch to discover new experiences within games they are already playing. "In the past, gaming was very linear. You solved a particular challenge or boss in one way," but now, he said, "there's almost an education aspect to it" where players can learn new methods and techniques from others' experiences.
Being social, though, means more than integration of services. Other changes with the PS4 include the option to use real names to link online personas to offline identities, and connecting asynchronous playing with a sense of persistency in games' virtual worlds. "You may never know the person who affected the world, but when you leave and another person comes in, that rockscape or that community may have changed completely organically because of the actions of somebody you never met," Koller explained. "And that persistency is a social component we haven't seen a lot of in gaming and is changing the way people are developing games."
Still, what excite Koller most are the things to come with development. "I think we can build a lot in this architecture," he said. "The creativity in this industry and the way development takes nuggets and expands on them is fantastic. Where they take that, I'm not sure, but I'm sure in the next 12 to 18 months, we'll see expansion in areas we haven't thought of yet."
[Images: Alice Truong]