GDC 2006: Over 1,000 games developers and press gathered in the San Jose Civic Auditorium today as Sony Computer Entertainment president, Phil Harrison, unveiled further details for the launch of PlayStation 3.

Last week, Ken Kuturagi revealed that the next-generation console would not hit stores until November. Today, Harrison reiterated this and confirmed that the company are aiming for a simultaneous worldwide launch in Europe, North America, Japan, Asia and Australia. Pricing was not discussed.

To prepare for this enormous task, production of PlayStation 3 is ramping up at a rate far higher than for either previous generation consoles, reaching 1 million units per month. During his hour-long keynote, Harrison presented seven key features of the forthcoming console:
  • Full PSOne and PS2 backwards compatibility
  • Full Blu-ray support
  • Displays: legacy Standard Definition (SD) to full 1080p HD
  • Latest HDMI
  • Broadband network connection
  • Wireless connection
  • Hard drive
The PowerPoint slides came thick and fast. Thanks to the enormous capacity of the Blu-ray format, Harrison proposed that publishers would produce a single, global SKU for each game. Not only can they store high definition textures, models and game audio on a single disc, but the extra room would allow them to store more speech and extra languages, allowing for half a dozen or more localised versions of a game on the one BD-ROM.

The exact implications of this are currently unclear. Will it result in all games hitting shelves simultaneously worldwide? Will games take longer to develop if all the translation work needs to be done ahead of the main release? Could it mean the end of region-locked games? Or might it just be the case of 'we have the space - here's what we might do with it' ? More will be made known at E3 2006 in May.

What was made clear is that digital distribution is coming. Akin to Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace, PlayStation 3 will have an online store allowing the purchase of various content, from the individual tracks of a racing game to mini games and even classic PlayStation games that will run under emulation. This is no doubt in response to Ninendos plans to make their substantial back-catalogue of titles available for their next-gen console, Revolution. The proof will be in the execution, but we rather suspect there will be greater demand for Super Mario Bros than for a 12 year-old version of Ridge Racer.

In terms of next-generation games showed, it was a bit of a mixed bag. We saw several tech demos - projected on a huge screen in full 1080p - and it was hard not to be in awe of the sheer power of the console. Annoyingly, we can't show you any screenshots because both video and still photography were banned from the keynote. However, we were shown a high-detail model from "an unannounced game from Sony's London Studio" - we suggest The Getaway - in which a simply gorgeous, silver coupe was summarily destroyed using a machine gun.

Glass shattered realistically, wing mirrors, bumpers and headlights not only fell off the car, but reacted in real-time to their environment as they fell thanks to some very advanced physics. Sony has announced support from Havok but also made special mention of AGEIA. We don't know which system powered the demo but suffice to say that if this level of detail is representative of future PlayStation 3 titles, and assuming those developers are using AGEIA's PhysX engine either as well or in preference to Havok, then we could see PS3 games coming to the PC that really make use of AGEIA's PPU add-in card.

We were also shown running versions of an underwhelming Resistance: Fall of Man but we were very impressed with the graphics of Warhawk. This action shooter makes heavy use of procedural animation to allow dozens of fighter jets to zoom around the sky with apparent ease. The enormous capital ships featured levels of detail simply not possible on PS2, we were told.

It is embarrassing to admit, but the single feature that impressed this reporter the most was the volumetric clouds - put simply, the most realistic-looking clouds ever seen in any game. For a ground-based FPS, clouds are not exactly important but when dogfighting at 2000 feet, these gorgeous, fluffy balls of water vapour can be used to your tactical advantage. We can't wait to play it at E3.

More on Sony's other announcements shortly.

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