If you haven’t set foot in PlayStation Home since the virtual world’s initial roll-out, you may be surprised by the current state of the social platform. The free-to-play destination has erupted with activity over the past 12 months, prompting a location that’s both bursting with content and brimming with life. The catalyst for that transition has been a greater emphasis on interactive content. The days of empty cross-promotional spaces are long gone, usurped by the more engaging integration of fully-fledged games.

One studio that’s been driving the platform forward with its impressive roster of free-to-play content has been Hellfire Games. The Austin-based outfit was founded in 2009 by a couple of former Ultima Online veterans, and immediately turned its attention to building MMO-esque experiences for PlayStation Home.

In 2010, Hellfire Games released its first project for the social platform, Novus Prime. The co-operative space shooter was positively received by fans of the virtual world upon release, and it subsequently prompted a sharp change in direction for the innovative online destination. Since then, PlayStation Home has played host to a number of unique experiences from a growing network of support studios, including a technologically astounding first-person shooter named Bootleggers ’29 and an engrossing RPG called Mercia: Fractured Realms.

But Hellfire Games has not been resting on its laurels in the interim. Alongside frequent premium updates for Novus Prime, the studio has also been quietly constructing Home Tycoon – a Sim City-esque business simulation game designed specifically for PlayStation Home. Unsurprisingly, there’s more to the title than initially meets the eye.

“It’s the first game in the genre where you can build your city from a birds-eye view and drive around at street level as your personal avatar online,” community manager Ben Lewis boasts in an exclusive chat. “Imagine Sim City with a dash of Grand Theft Auto, built from the ground up exclusively for PlayStation Home.”

Hardcore gamers tell us that Home Tycoon will be the game that brings them back to PlayStation Home

It’s this kind of ambition that’s quickly transforming PlayStation Home into a breeding ground for original games – but Hellfire Games is only just getting started. Depending on the mission type, Home Tycoon players can expect to participate in a wide array of activities including fire-fighting, police chases, ambulance pick-ups and more. “These activities add plenty of variety to the missions and unlock new rewards upon completion,” Lewis enthuses. “Let’s just say you’ll wear several hats as the new mayor!”

Needless to say, the title is really pushing the boundaries of PlayStation Home to its very limits – and that’s something the developer is particularly proud of. “It’s been great to see PlayStation Home’s incredible growth in recent years, most notably in the past six months,” he continues. “We’ve been developing MMO-style games for PlayStation Home since 2010 with Novus Prime, and this time around we wanted to deliver a brand new experience that Home veterans and new users alike could instantly jump into. We think we’re really pushing some of the platform’s boundaries with Home Tycoon, and we can’t wait to see what our players come up with in the game.”

But what incentive is there for developers like Hellfire Games to support PlayStation Home in the first place? After all, it’s not hard to imagine Home Tycoon succeeding as a downloadable PlayStation Network title – or even as a packaged retail release. Lewis believes it’s the infrastructure of the platform that makes it such a tantalising proposition.

“PlayStation Home has the benefit of providing an open-ended virtual world platform that you can’t get on any other console, which initially drew us to Home during Novus Prime’s development,” he explains. “PlayStation Home has the user base and the tools we needed to develop not only a great online city-building game, but also a thriving public space with the Train Station, where players can meet up, hang out, visit other cities, compete on the leaderboards, and shop before heading over to their personal game space.” As such, the game was planned as a PlayStation Home exclusive “from its inception”.

And that’s a key factor because, as many failing subscription-based MMOs are finding out, it’s hard to switch to a free-to-play business model if it wasn’t factored into the original design document. Fortunately, Hellfire Games has plenty of experience courtesy of its time spent working on Novus Prime. “We’re big fans of free-to-play games at Hellfire Games, and we’ve had plenty of previous experience with the business model in PlayStation Home,” Lewis tells us. “We planned Home Tycoon as an enjoyable sandbox game that doesn’t require a single purchase to be ‘fun’ from the start, and made sure that the players who want to extend their experience will have loads of content at their fingertips.”

Subsequently, careful planning allowed the developer to fulfil its vision without too many hiccups. “Much of our time was spent coming up with fun premium content for our players, and ensuring that there’s value for those who want to experience everything the game has to offer,” Lewis says.

But as with any other free-to-play game, the content that’s available at launch merely represents the beginning. “We’ve got plenty of additional content and promotions planned for the weeks and months following launch,” Lewis teases, before listing buildings, theme packs, and game-enhancing virtual items. “We also expect community-created content to be a big draw for Home Tycoon. Sure, we can come up with plenty of cool stuff to do in the game, but the coolest stuff will come from the truly creative players out there. You can build some pretty insane racetracks with the Stunt Pack, for example.”

Given the outrageous scale of Home Tycoon, we couldn’t resist asking Hellfire Games how it expects PlayStation Home to evolve in the future. “You only need to glance at the release schedule over the past few months to see how far PlayStation Home has expanded, and how much potential still exists,” Lewis notes. “We’ve seen a lot of comments from hardcore gamers telling us that Home Tycoon will be the game that brings them back to PlayStation Home, and that means a lot to us. If you haven’t logged into Home in a while, you’ll be surprised at the crazy amount of content coming to the platform each week. It’s a great time to be a PlayStation Home gamer.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Have you had a chance to don your hardhat and jump into the world of Home Tycoon yet? Is it the type of experience you’d like to see more of in PlayStation Home? Let us know in the comments section below.