Fresh Firmware Lets PS3 Gamers Get More Social

Sony announced a crop of new features and functionalities for the PlayStation 3 Monday.

Additions in the 2.40 firmware update include in-game XrossMediaBar (XMB) access that will enable players to communicate with other gamers on their PlayStation Network (PSN) friends list — now doubled in size to hold 100 contacts — as well as access other features without leaving the game they’re playing.

Other additions include a new virtual ranking system called “Trophies” and a Google-based Internet search feature added to the XMB.

The latest add-ons will be available for download on July 2.

Gaming, Uninterrupted

The new XMB in-game access will allow gamers to view friends’ profiles and see if they’re online as well as send and read text messages without leaving the game being played.

By pressing the PS button on the PS3 controller, the “Home” menu will appear on the screen. Gameplay will either automatically pause or, in the case of multiplayer games with other players, will continue in the background.

When a player reaches a particularly important stage in a game — where distractions such as messaging and social interaction is not a desirable feature — players can set their status to “Not Available” to block friends from texting in-game.

With the XMB enhancement, users will also be able to sign in to PlayStation Network, manage PlayStation Store downloads, quit a game and access other options in the “Settings” menu including browsing through content such as pictures and videos stored on the PS3 hard drive.

Another new feature will enable gamers to mute a game’s music in favor of providing their own customizable soundtrack from music saved on the console’s hard drive. The functionality is game specific, however, and will be available on a game-by-game basis.

“We’ll be announcing games that support this feature in the future. While SCEA is actively working with developers to offer personalized soundtracks as an option in their games, ultimately, it’s a decision for developers to make based on the overall gameplay experience and aesthetic they want to create,” Al de Leon, a SCEA spokesperson, told TechNewsWorld.

A mini control panel for use while playing music and a Google-powered search — similar to the function rolled out in the recent PlayStation Portable firmware update — round out the significant changes to the XMB. New features allow users to search the Web and receive results without opening the PS3’s Internet browser.

Functionality not included in the XMB in-game menu include viewing photos and watching videos; Internet browsing; shopping on the PlayStation Store and voice chat. For those, players will still have to quit a game and take the standard XMB route.

The new in-game menu is “satisfactory,” according to Billy Pidgeon, an IDC analyst. The feature, he noted, is something that PS3 owners have been asking Sony for “from day one.”

“This is a compulsory feature to the platform’s fan base. This is fine for now. It’s difficult to determine what functions might be needed without trying the in-game XMB, and Sony can and will add any necessary functions to future updates,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Virtual Trophy Room

Sony’s other major improvement to the PS3 gaming experience is the creation of so-called Trophies — virtual bragging boards through which gamers can show off their gaming prowess. Users earn virtual trophies — bronze, silver, gold and platinum — by achieving milestones determined by each developer. Bronze rewards are given upon completion of less difficult tasks, while gold medals are reserved for more challenging undertakings. Platinum trophies are reserved for those who finish the entire series of tasks.

Gamers will receive an overall numerical level ranking based on the bronze, silver, gold and platinum trophies they have earned across all games. They will also be able to gauge their progress toward the next level and compare their rank to their friends’ rankings. Players will be able to flaunt their accomplishments on Sony’s equivalent of a trophy wall. Each user will receive an individual profile they can personalize.

“The profiles are a very important update also. This will give gamers more control over their game identity,” Pidgeon said.

“Developers determine how trophies are earned in their games. There are guidelines that developers need to follow, and the standards of good game design will also play a role to ensure that gamers are challenged appropriately before winning any trophies,” de Leon noted.

“The trophies appear to be very well thought-out, to the point where overall points and level are commensurate with skill and proficiency. One game’s trophies may be more difficult than another, but other players will know that, so if you get all the trophies on something like ‘Ratchet & Clank,’ you would not gain as much respect as you would have had you collected them all in a game such as ‘Resistance,'” Pidgeon explained.

“Super Stardust HD” will be the first game featuring the new Trophies system. Other upcoming games to feature the system include “LittleBigPlanet,” “MotorStorm Pacific Rift” and “NBA ’09.”

The downside to Trophies is that recently released and popular games may not support the ranking system.

“The new update adds features that are long overdue, but indicate that Sony is serious about improving the PS3 and the PSN experience. I look forward to subsequent updates and features,” he concluded.

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