Sony PS3 moves toward an online community, gradually

PlayStation 3 consoles have always had Internet connectivity, but players trying to message one another have found that they're considered "busy" while they're in a game. An upcoming firmware update should change all that.

What's been perceived as perhaps Sony's greatest continuing weakness in its full-feature game console battle against Microsoft's Xbox 360 is the continued delay of its all-inclusive online community. This weakness is only compounded by the perception problem the company created for itself, having announced the PlayStation 3's Home service over a year ago, and having since then delayed its rollout, most recently in search for something that's more "focused" on gaming rather than the virtual bar-hopping experience Home was originally touted to be.

But while one team of developers is working on solving the problem of getting Home to look more "focused," the team readying the PS3's firmware update 2.40 announced over the weekend, by way of a pair of videos on its corporate blog (Part 1 is here, while Part 2 is here, that it's about to release the simplest and most basic feature for enabling any kind of Internet communications linking service to take place: a way for players to pause their games to access the Cross Media Bar (XMB) operating system, for basic system access without exiting.

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A demonstration by the SCE team's social media manager Jeff Rubenstein, posted on Sunday, shows a test version of firmware 2.4 being paused. The full operating system features list takes over, except on a charcoal-frosted foreground that transparently reveals the paused game in the background. One of the functional entries on that list is instant messaging, which lets players receive text messages from other players.

"In the past, I would have to get out of the game, read the message, and then decide [whether to respond], said Rubenstein. The demo message was from a friend challenging him to beat a newly posted high score on a different game. Leaving his racing game paused, he then pulled up the second game on the menu. Since XMB is not a multitasking system, a message asks him if he wants to quit the paused game. After clicking on "yes," XMB then started the new game.

While XMB does provide access to other full-time features, such as PlayStation store, the ongoing downloads list, and photo-sharing, while a game is paused, it's important to note that selecting these features does give the player the option of exiting the current game before proceeding. One exception is messaging, which is a low-overhead feature that lets the game stay paused in memory while the player responds.

Another exception is system settings, which will enable the player to set up a Bluetooth headset, for instance, without exiting the active game.

A conceptual feature Rubenstein demonstrated is a way to use the in-game XMB to replace a game's standard musical track to any MP3s in the system, or to a stored playlist of MP3s. A basic media player console is also available in-game.

A second video released this morning shows Rubenstein demonstrating a much-requested trophy system, which utilizes a gold/silver/bronze medal approach to attaining competitive goals, and which should be competitive to the points system Microsoft currently employs with Xbox Live.

Rubenstein did not divulge the timeframe for the 2.40 firmware release other than to say it should be available "very soon."

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