Sunday, January 25, 2009

Architect Designs Sony's Virtual World

Architect Designs Sonys Virtual World

Back in July 2007, architect Kenji Ikemoto got an unexpected call from a contact at Sony Computer Entertainment, Sony's (SNE) video game unit. Was he interested in designing an online virtual world for the company's PlayStation 3 gaming console? Ikemoto, 37, was intrigued. The founder of Jota Associates had worked on residential and commercial buildings around Tokyo, but had no experience in video games and no clue why Sony would want to hire a real-world architect for such a project. The offer began to make sense when he met with officials at Sony Computer Entertainment's office: They wanted to create a virtual cityscape rivaling hip areas of Tokyo.

When PlayStation Home launched on Dec. 11, after more than a year of delays and months of testing, PS3 users in Asia finally got a glimpse of Ikemoto's Home Plaza. He had designed a split-level plaza surrounded by four buildings on an island. Off in the distance, beyond a body of water, tall buildings sat at the foot of a mountain range. If it were in the real world, the plaza would cover 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet). "Everything in Home can actually be built if you spent the money," Ikemoto said.

The PS3 has trailed Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii for more than two years, and Home is Sony's latest attempt to give its machine a leg up on the competition. The online 3D world is part social network, part multiplayer online game, and it's a free download through Sony's PlayStation Network for the more than 17 million PS3 owners. For now, Home isn't much more than chic apartments, a mall, a bowling alley, an arcade, a movie theater, and a cafe. So it's no surprise that most of the reviews have been either mixed or critical. "For many of us, Home simply isn't anything we want," wrote Ben Kuchera on tech news site Ars Technica in mid-January.

Corporate Sponsors and Communities

And Sony has other, bigger problems. On Jan. 22, it forecast a $2.9 billion annual operating loss—its first in 14 years, and a significant downward revision from its previous prediction for profits.

Sony has recruited Electronic Arts (EA), Ubisoft, Red Bull, Paramount, Diesel, and others to set up their own shops and mini-game venues. Users start by creating a digital character, or avatar, picking outfits, and furnishing a new apartment. Once outside, they can roam the complex. Red Bull hosts airplane races and Electronic Arts will soon have card tables, golf, and go-kart racing. "Our goal for Home is to give users a fun place to form communities," says Junji Shoda, Sony Computer Entertainment's vice-president in charge of Home.

Tapping Ikemoto for the project wasn't the original plan. In early 2007, Shoda's team in Tokyo received the template from Sony's studio in London and worried that it wouldn't fly in Asia. One member of the Home team in Tokyo thought they should get a real architect and recommended Ikemoto. After he signed on, members of the Home team told Ikemoto they wanted a rolling landscape for Home Square. The rest was Ikemoto's call. "They told me: 'Here's a grassy area. Now build something,'" he said.

Unfamiliar Territory for Architects

Ikemoto had nothing to compare the experience to. Typically, architects have to think about cost, availability of materials, and local building codes, and can spend up to two-thirds of a project in on-site meetings with the builders and other contractors. With Home, none of those things mattered. It was as if a developer had written Ikemoto a blank check and freed him from the usual limitations. Ikemoto was stumped. "Without those considerations, it's harder than you might think," he said.

Sony's team in Tokyo was also in unfamiliar territory. Many of the team's members had experience creating games and were accustomed to giving orders to programmers and designers. "We had to do the opposite this time," said Home producer Yoshikatsu Kanemaru.

Using standard architectural CAD software called VectorWorks, Ikemoto condensed several months' work into a few weeks. He pulled all-nighters to finish a blueprint and kept up the frenetic pace during his Friday meetings at Sony's offices, where programmers and producers transformed his ideas into computer-generated 3D images.

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