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Sony unveils online PS3 plans

You won't have to pay to play.

Further details of the PlayStation Network Platform announced by SCE boss Ken Kutaragi in Tokyo yesterday have emerged, including the fact that the ability to play games online will be included in the basic free service.

Additional information about the service has emerged as the slides used by Kutaragi in his presentation have been posted online, bringing with them a host of details of exactly what will be included in Sony's online offering.

As reported yesterday, the PlayStation Network Platform will have a basic free service which will be available to all purchasers of the PS3 from the day of launch in November, and which will be co-created by Sony Online Entertainment (creators of the Station.com system used by games such as Everquest, Planetside and Star Wars Galaxies) and GameSpy.

The free service will support a host of communication and community features, including voice and video chat, messaging, unique user IDs and handles, and matchmaking, ranking and data upload and download service for games.

Crucially, the basic service will allow users to play games online - a factor which sets it apart from Microsoft's equivalent free service, Xbox Live Silver, which enables community features and content purchases, but doesn't allow users to play multiplayer online games.

Sony's system will be handing off significantly more control to game publishers, who will be able to run their own game servers as they see fit. Although Sony will be creating a standard infrastructure for the service, with data centres in Asia, North America and Europe, the system will still run over the conventional Internet and publishers will be able to connect their own servers to it.

This opens the possibility that game publishers could charge their own fees for playing games, which is indeed likely to be the case for titles such as massively multiplayer games - a genre which will be well-served by Sony's more "hands-off" approach to the network service, since some MMOG publishers have opined that Microsoft's approach is too restrictive on their business models.

However, Sony is pushing hard for publishers to use the network to generate revenue through selling content, rather than through charging users for multiplayer functionality, and the PlayStation Network Platform is designed from the ground up to support a wide range of content sale and payment methods.

One slide from Kutaragi's presentation lists a few of the options available to publishers in this regard, which appear to be at least as advanced, if not more so, as Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace offering.

As well as stores for the sale of content which will be set up on the main PS3 "portal", Sony will also offer publishers the opportunity to create in-game stores in their titles which integrate in the background with the main store infrastructure.

Content purchases can work in a number of different ways on the network, with publishers not restricted to simple item-by-item transactions for their content. Subscription payments are also built into the system, as is a micropayment system allowing users to pay tiny amounts of money for small pieces of content.

How exactly this will work from the point of view of users of the service is not yet clear; it's likely that Sony will use a credits system, as Microsoft does on Xbox Live, which allows a balance of "currency" to be topped up with credit card payments or game cards bought in-store.

What exactly will be sold on the marketplace system is still the subject of some speculation - but after we revealed last week that Sony has been speaking to its publishing partners about the technical issues regarding distributing PSone and PS2 content online, three more important hints have been dropped which suggest that this content will indeed be on the menu for PlayStation 3.

Firstly, we now know that the PS3 will have a 60Gb hard drive as a bare minimum, which means that even downloading PS2 games (which could occupy over 4Gb in some cases) isn't an impossibility; secondly, the firm has confirmed that the PS3 will be able to boot games directly from its hard drive, and has made much of having 100% backwards compatibility with PSone and PS2 titles, which will play in high-definition on the new hardware.

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly of all, the company yesterday announced that it will be distributing selected PSone titles over a new digital distribution service aimed at PSP owners, allowing them to download the games and play them directly off a Memory Stick - a move which indicates Sony's first attempt to directly exploit its substantial back catalogue, and which almost certainly indicates where it plans to go with the PS3.

Content available on the PlayStation Network Platform is unlikely to be limited to game-related content alone, either. The PS3 is being promoted as a media server for the home, and while Microsoft doesn't allow users of the Xbox 360 to download movies or music directly via the console - arguing that the proper place for that functionality is on a Windows Media Centre PC - Sony is likely to want to do exactly that with PS3.

More details of the network service will undoubtedly emerge in the coming months, with the full picture certain to be filled in by September - when the test version of the network will come online, allowing developers to test their online-enabled titles in a replica of the final environment.