Nobody ever asks me, "Shamus! What can Sony do to redeem the time and money they've spent on PlayStation Home?" This is partly because my advice would only benefit a Sony executive, but mostly because nobody gives a pair of broken waggling thumbsticks about PlayStation Home. This is a shame, because when Sony built Home, they spent a lot of money to build some impressive technology that hasn't reached as large an audience as they might have hoped, and hasn't really lived up to its full potential yet. Kind of like the PS3 itself. I believe that PlayStation Home can be made to work, and that it can even strengthen the PS3 platform and help sell games. I think it can do this without any huge development costs. Sony just needs to take some of the systems they've already built and start plugging them into each other.

Just in case you're a sensible person who doesn't go around beta testing non-games bound to struggling console platforms, let me give you the short version: PlayStation Home is a virtual world attached to the PlayStation Network. You sign in, design an avatar, and then go mingle with a few dozen other PS3 users. You can text chat, voice chat, look for playmates, or go shopping for virtual-world goodies using your real-world money. If you're really interested in spending money, you can buy yourself a new apartment. You can also go bowling (if you can find an open lane) or play some other simple videogames. The areas are small but attractive and pleasant. The crowds are no worse or better than any other gathering of random online strangers.

People are saying that PlayStation Home is pointless, and Sony is probably interpreting this to mean they need to add more bowling lanes or dull single-player amusements. But the "pointlessness" complaint is actually just a symptom of the real problem, which is that PlayStation Home is currently unfit for the purpose for which it was designed. PlayStation Home is perfectly capable - in a technological sense - of sustaining a viable population for all the same reasons that certain World of Warcraft users hang around in Goldshire for hours at a time. Those people aren't really "playing" World of Warcraft, they're enjoying the persona they've constructed with all of their in-game effort. There is no gameplay in Goldshire (not for the max-level or first-level types who populate the place, anyway) but it serves as a social hub for players when they're not playing the game. That's exactly what Sony is trying to create in PlayStation Home, but their wrong-headed approach negates the most crucial and fundamental needs of this sort of socialization.

When you first begin PlayStation Home you have a very limited wardrobe. A few pants and a small handful of shirts. If you want something to express your individuality, then you need to hike over to the mall and pony up some real cash for better clothes. A new shirt will run you about $1.50 USD. As someone who has spent the last fourteen years working with and thinking about virtual worlds, I can promise you that very few people want to directly buy virtual gear with real-world money. Those people do exist, but they're never going to be more than a small fraction of the potential userbase. Thanks to MMO games, there is even a stigma associated with this sort of thing. Buying your gear online is seen as lame by many. In an MMO, nobody can tell if you acquired your item via gameplay or EBay, but in PlayStation Home your non-default shirt announces to everyone who sees you, "I paid real money for this."

The result is that most people end up wearing the starting clothes, which makes the world feel bland, which reduces the quality of the experience for everyone. $1.50 is not much money, but who wants to get out their credit card for such a small-change transaction?

Comments on