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GDC: Phil Harrison Keynote: "Game 3.0: Developing and Creating for the 3rd Age of Video Games"

As mentioned in my GDC Diary, I became aware of Sony's Phil Harrison (or at least put a face to the name) after watching that satirical "PS3 Song" video on YouTube. He seemed on the video not only to be clueless, but a bit of a stuffed shirt as well, the perfect target for console schismatics everywhere. I went to the keynote to check him out, to see if he really was as flat as an ironing board.

The start of the presentation wasn't promising. Phil manfully announced his intention to give the presentation via the user-friendly PS3 and accidentally gave the audience license to titter when said device was less than responsive. Then just like James Brown, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Phil issued a guttural "HEY!" and then collapsed on the stage until a group of horn players picked him up and wrapped a sequined cape around his shoulders. Ok--I made that last part up but my point is--Phil soldiered on, not wanting to disappoint the scads of Sony enthusiasts waiting to hear the Good Word.

After a few awkward moments, the equipment decided to co-operate and we were treated to Phil Harrison and Sony's vision of the Game Industry of Tomorrow. I was hoping he'd say that this GIT (Game Industry of Tomorrow) would be like that David Cronenberg movie "eXistenZ" and we'd all have bio-ports surgically implanted in our spines where disturbingly gelatinous, vaguely penile pods would be inserted, immediately sending us into a Holodeckian universe where the line between game and reality would forever be erased! Alas, that idea's still ahead of its time and Sony's vision of the future revolves mainly around a sort of virtual Myspace called "Home".

I can't decide what I think about Home. Mostly it looked like a poor man's Second Life or perhaps "Banality: the MMO". It appeared the intention was for users to forego their bland, workaday real lives to create bland, workaday virtual lives. Maybe that's jumping to conclusions but the avatar shown at the conference was less than compelling. He looked like Joe Average Schmoe and even though we were assured of the vast number of customizable options, all of the presets they'd made looked like the same avatar: Joe Schmoe 10 pounds lighter or heavier, Joe Schmoe 3 years older or younger, Joe Schmoe with hair parted on the side or down the middle. The fun, we were told, is in hanging out with your gaming clan buddies in a virtual arcade as well as customizing your avatar by purchasing all manner of virtual couture. So let me get this straight--what they're telling me is that now not only do I have find the cash to keep up with our real society's fashion fixation, I also have to worry about the consequences of not keeping up with the digital Joneses? Ay Dios Mio!

At least Home offers one way for my digital self to outstrip the accomplishments of my real self--home ownership. Living in the Bay Area the last 5 years, I've pretty much given up hope of ever owning my own home unless I win the lottery or convince Madonna to adopt me. I'm told I can live that homeowner's dream through Home; moving into my very own hipster apartment which I can trick out in any way I choose with a readily purchasable array of cool 3D furnishings. (I wonder if I decide to make my place into a crack house, if I can purchase virtual newspaper for the windows and virtual urine stains for the carpet? Hrm...) Along with furniture, I can decorate my apartment with any imagery I want, including movie posters and trailers. And here's where my ambivalence about Home lies.

I remember being horrified watching Minority Report as Tom Cruise moved around the city, relentlessly pursued by advertising. When Phil Harrison talked about updatable content, I imagined moving around Home's world, even inside my own apartment, being unable to escape the trailers, billboards, flyers and sales pitches. To me, that sounded like an advancement in product placement, not gameplay. Phil assuaged my fears by saying this service will NOT be a method for turning us all into catatonic, sponge-brained consumers, but will act as an instrument of unity, bringing gaming communities all over the world together as One. ...or something like that.

The next product presented was SingStar Online, a kind of virtual karaoke. It allows people everywhere to sing along to their favorite songs only instead of making asses of themselves in front of a handful of drunken friends, they get to make asses of themselves in front the entire Internet! This kind of product has got to be symptomatic of the current pop culture trend that spawns the Simple Lives and the American Idols and the So You Think You Can Dances. It's a popular obsession with celebrity, both with the lives of actual celebrities and with the idea of being a celebrity oneself. It's the only way I can explain an otherwise totally normal person going out of their way to be mercilessly shredded by an online community for not doing justice to "Lady Marmalade".

The final Sony offering and by far the most inspired, was a quirky little game called "LittleBigPlanet" developed by Media Molecule, the guys who created "Rag Doll Kung Fu". In a similar vein to Katamari Damacy or Loco Roco, LittleBigPlanet uses simple means to create more fun than most of the ambitious next-gen projects out there. Using cute characters and physics based gameplay, LBP gives players the ability to create game levels of their own, complete with terrain and props. Objects can be placed on the fly and then interacted with by the adorable player characters to hilarious effect. Players can make and play levels solo, competitively or in tandem. The level demonstrated to us at the conference had enough charm and replay value in it for 10 next-gen games.

Phil Harrison (or his presentation choreographer) must be a shrewd fellow because the Sony talk started out like a lackluster infomercial and ended like a vaudeville show, with the audience clapping, smiling and wanting more. Having begun trying to sell the audience on Sony products through demonstration, he finally succeeded by - fancy that - entertaining them.