One of the features of the PlayStation 3 has been the Home "game". I use game in quotes because it isn't really a game, per se, but a virtual environment where PS3 owners can mingle, see previews for game, movies, and accessories, as well as socialize with their brethren. If you have ever heard of SecondLife, PlayStation Home is a much scaled down version of that.
I've spent a few hours dabbling in Home. It's certainly an interesting idea: provide a 3D virtual environment that recreates a campus atmosphere and let players use it however they like. Unfortunately, it isn't a new idea, and it has rarely worked in other scenarios. Remember VRML? It was supposed to be the next big thing in web interfaces back at the turn of the millennium, allowing users to mingle at a 3D website together. Or more recently, how about Google Lively? Never heard of it eh? It was another attempt at 3D virtual social environments that just never had legs. Second Life has succeeded by filling a particular niche well. That niche being the ability for someone to anonymously fulfill whatever bizarre kink they like to indulge (furries much?) Oh, and some folks manage to make a living at it, but mostly it is about sex.
PS Home doesn't have that aim. Worse, it doesn't have any aim. After spending several hours listlessly wandering the sterile environments (a personal apartment, campus plaza, bowling alley, mall, and theater) I found absolutely nothing compelling to do. The few games that are available feel half-baked, and aside from Echochrome, there is no reason to play them (playing Echochrome wins you a new outfit). Like SecondLife, there are shops where you can use real money to purchase upgrades for your avatar, such as new clothes or furniture for your apartment. Unlike SecondLife, there is no way to earn that money, or to get the virtual items without spending cash. As such, it feels like a shallow attempt to nickel and dime the players ($7 for a santa outfit you have to buy a piece at a time!!!)
Let me take a step back and describe my first experiences. The night that the beta was opened to the general public, I logged on around 11 in the evening to see what the fuss was about. After a few minutes dressing up my avatar with the paltry set of clothing and shaping selections (the Wii has this totally beat for being able to create a recognizable representation of your likeness) I was delivered to my apartment. A sterile, empty place with a seaside view, and all the furniture facing the wall. I'll leave out the bits about the application crashing (it did, a lot). After familiarizing myself with the controls, I stepped downloaded the rest of the environments and stepped out in the plaza. Here I was met with probably hundreds of other likeminded curious gawkers. Most were milling about, wandering from place to place to see what Home had to offer. The bowling alley was chock full of folks waiting in line to play the games that were available at the lanes and in the arcade. This post and comic from Penny-Arcade sum up that experience pretty well. The Mall environment had a few stores, but I wasn't about to start spending 50 cents to $2 for the privilege of "personalizing" my avatar or apartment.
Twenty minutes later I had seen everything in home, and was unimpressed. I went to the plaza again to see if I could find any interesting conversation going. That's when I noticed that the demographic of the plaza was 99% male. The one poor female avatar had a crowd of 20 or so other avatars dogging her around from place to place, kicking on dance moves whenever she would stop. Of course, this quickly led to the act of gender-bending pranks now known as pulling a Quincy. When I did find a group of folks with a conversation going on, I found it really hard to participate. I have a bluetooth headset, but only a few others were using voice chat. Most were text chatting, but doing so with just a controller was very difficult. By the time I had entered my comment, the subject of my comment was already off the page and so I came off as non-sequitur. Annoyed at this and the over-all feeling of meh, I gave up and just played a game.
A couple of weeks later now, and I have a new PS3 Wireless Chatpad to assist me in communicating, so I decided to give Home a second look. There was a new update, and I notice that one of the changes is that voice chat has now been turned off for all but private zones (your apartment, premium gaming clubs). On entering the plaza I see not the hundreds of avatars from before, but possibly ten. The demographic is now closer to 60/40 male/female, but I'm fairly certain that most of the "girls" are just boys waiting to pull a crying game prank. A new movie is playing at the theater. I picked up with a small group in the plaza that was just having a amicable chat. Participating with the chat pad was much better than the joystick entry I was using before, and I was actually able to be a part of the conversation. This was certainly a viable way to pass the time and potentially meet other players with similar interests. One frustration in chatting was the draconian word filter. A lot of words are banned from use, and result in a your text appearing as **** where the banned word would be. Unfortunately, there is no contextual help. Even if that banned word appeared as part of another word, it got the star treatment. So Hello became ****o and Christmas became *****mas. It frequently broke up the flow of conversation as we tried to figure out what the speaker meant (and the speaker gets no indication that their word was filtered either). Worse, there is no way to disable this feature. A second frustration is that the ability to add a new friend to your friend roster is not part of the interface. The whole point of Home (in my mind) is to meet with other folks and find new friends to play with, yet Home doesn't facility either adding friends nor launching games. It's a major oversight in functionality.
I can't say that I'm disappointed in Home. It is a free application, and I'm free to not use it. I can't say I'm surprised by what I found in home, as it was about what I expected from my experiences in Lively and SecondLife. I am a little surprised at how much effort Sony is putting into this environment though. If they want it to be a success, they need to make it integrated with friend making and game launching. Above that, they need to find a hook to make spending time in Home worthwhile, and not just another empty virtual environment.