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The Home of the Future?

20:1025/08/2011Posted by Simeon PaskellNo Comments

As a long time fan/observer of Sony’s PlayStation Home, I was intrigued to hear that another revamp for the PlayStation 3’s much maligned social hub has been announced. Whatever your opinion of Sony’s great social experiment, it is difficult not admire how the company has stood by a project that has suffered a hail (nay, torrent!) of criticism from the very moment of its difficult birth. Whether or not such faith will eventually be rewarded – and public perception shifted to such a degree that Home will be labelled a success, rather than a misguided experiment – has yet to be seen, but Sony are clearly listening to the criticisms levied at it, and taking steps to hone the experience into something that appeals to a wider audience. So what lies around the corner for PlayStation Home? This is what Sony itself had to say:

‘Coming in Fall 2011, this new core experience for PlayStation Home features a “hub and districts” design that will help you find games, people and places that fit your favorite game genres. The design features a new Hub that integrates games, quests, community events, and user-generated content, while providing you with additional navigation, shopping, socialization and entertainment options.’

The two words that caught my attention in the above statement were ‘quests’ and ‘user-generated content’. Home’s current focus on community events and, more recently games, is well documented, but for the social network to strive to deliver narrative experiences and allow users themselves to shape the world is a bold move. Home has dabbled with such things in the past – a user art gallery there, an alternate-reality game there – but its core raison d’etre has been in delivering a social space for PlayStation users to meet, interact and immerse themselves in PlayStation-related products (or, product placement!). It has never really been pitched as a game – or adventure – in and of itself.

This new direction throws up a number of questions. Firstly, in attempting to more explicitly go head to head with core gaming experiences, is there a danger that Home could in fact lose something of what makes it so unique? And then there is the worry that in promising ‘huge, branching narrative adventures’ (note the word ‘huge’!) could Sony yet again be setting Home up for a fall, with the promises and hype falling short gamers expectations?

On top of this, it has long be a complaint that most gamers would much rather just pop a disk in their PS3 and play the latest and greatest of what the game chart have to offer, and not have to pootle around a virtual world seeking out morsels of entertainment. In shifting focus to a more gamey-experience, could Home’s foibles and shortcomings be brought into even starker contrast, with it transitioning from a highly criticised – yet unique – social space into a second rate game?

There are reasons to be a little more positive. Home-based games such as Sodium (1 and 2) have delivered perfectly competent gaming experiences, in turn proving that the underlying technological potential is there. The million dollar question is whether or not Home can rise to the challenge and deliver experiences that not only meet gamer expectations, but that accentuate the ‘Home Difference’ – the elements of gameplay that could only be achieved within a social gaming network of this type. If the games can’t do this, then the main sound echoing around Home’s newly revamp halls will be that of a million blu-ray disks being unsheathed and popped into the PS3’s drive.

Outside of the games, the new Home is to feature a “Hub and District” design, with a central area surround by four themed districts. Reshaping Home into a more ordered structure does make a lot of sense. While there is no shortage of spaces in Home’s current form, there is little sense of cohesion; each seems to occupy an ethereal space completely disconnected from the rest of Home’s areas. The upshot of this is that Home is a world of pocketed communities; disparate areas occupied by fans of specific games or themes. If the new Home can bring these areas together – physically and thematically – that would really be something to celebrate.

The other biggest announcement was that Home’s core client is to be updated, promising a ‘streamlined initial user experience, getting you in and playing games faster than ever before’. If the new Home is to only deliver on one of it’s promises, it must be this one. Should Home manage to coax a cynical audience back onto its shores, only to confront them with clunky load times, sluggishly skinning avatars, long waiting times for games and other issues, many new or returning users will simply walk in one door and out the other.

With Home’s extended period in ‘Beta’, Sony should certainly have collated a lot of data from which to work, and should have a reasonably clear idea of what works and what doesn’t. So, this revamp could very well be make or break time for Home; the groundwork has been painstakingly – and painfully - laid, its now time for Sony’s vision to finally crystallise, for the ‘Beta’ tag to fall away and for PlayStation Home to finally find its place in the world.

This piece originally appeared on the gametaroo! blog.

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