Sony launches PlayStation virtual community

TOKYO — Sony Corp.'s much delayed virtual community for owners of its PlayStation 3 game console will start worldwide Thursday, but it's unlikely to attract many newcomers to the machine, company officials said.

The free-of-charge PlayStation Home service is mainly meant to make gaming more fun for people who already own the PS3, they said.

Owners download Home software and connect their PS3 to broadband to create three-dimensional digital images that represent themselves called "avatars," and communicate with the avatars of other PS3 owners.

The figures wander around virtual lawns, bowling alleys, arcades and homes in the PS3, but the central activity is playing games and becoming friends with other PlayStation 3 game fans, according to Sony.

Junji "JB" Shoda, a Sony Computer Entertainment Japan vice president, who oversees Home, said Wednesday the service isn't meant to rival virtual worlds like Linden Lab's "Second Life," which can be played on personal computers and has drawn millions of people.

Sony had the idea for Home before such virtual worlds or "metaverse" in cyberspace became popular, he said.

"This is a community for gamers," Shoda told reporters at a Sony Computer Entertainment office in Tokyo. "It's meant to enrich the interactive experience for gamers."

The service, offered in eight languages, will start in Japan, Europe, U.S. and other areas where PlayStation 3 is available. The service will be updated with new games, licensing partners and events including a New Year's countdown ceremony, Sony said.

Home was initially promised for 2007, but was delayed twice.

Shoda said the delays were needed to get feedback and understand what gamers wanted, as well as check on security and other anti-crime features.

Ryoji Akagawa, a senior producer at Sony's game unit, said Home will help ensure PS3 owners will keep coming back to play games. It may also possibly encourage family members to start playing with the PS3 that's in their homes, he said.

But both Shoda and Akagawa were cautious about promising significant console sales perks from Home. The PS3 has struggled against rivals Wii from Nintendo Co. and Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360.

Sony announced Tuesday it was trimming 4 percent of its work force, or 8,000 jobs, as the global downturn erodes profits. It also plans to cut another 8,000 temporary jobs worldwide. The reductions are in electronics and don't apply to the gaming business.