Made in Canada

Add to Technorati Favorites
website stats

Going Home

With all the fits and starts customary to Sony, the long-awaited and -maligned and -mocked Home online social service opened it’s expensive polygon gates yesterday to the PS3-owning masses. They tend to call these things a roll-out, and roll-out it did, in exactly the manner a flaming earthbound meteor would roll-out, which is to say, there was extended silence and trepidation and doubt followed by a calamitous explosion, and fire, and runnning and screaming.

Not unexpected. Nary an online service can launch these days without the million-monkey-army (that’s you and me) pounding anything mildly interesting into so much molten slag, at launch. So even though Sony’s announcement specified yesterday morning’ish, it really wasn’t until around 10pm EST that you could reliably log into the thing.

What we have in the end is a mixed facsimile of what was presented at GDC 2007. Certainly not as capable, nor as full-featured – and yes, incredibly late. But I will not look too deeply into the shortcomings of this admittedly beta product. Oh sure, it’s beta like Gmail is beta, but it’s also free the way Gmail is free, and between those two words we can cut them a lot of slack. It’s not like anyone is getting ripped off here, so it’s hard to get ornery about missing promised features in this nearly-entirely gratis service.

What awaits you in Home is a graphically impressive 3D space that is heavy on chat and socializing the old-fashioned way – as in, standing around a room and talking – and light on just about everything else. There is a surprising lack of content in Home, much less than we in fact know they have, which tells me they plan on frequent updates to keep the thing fresh in player’s minds. As it is right now, you have about 25-30 minutes of actual content to explore. You get to tweak your avatar; decorate your complimentary bachelor pad with a shocking paucity of free furniture; potentially shop for only a tiny few more for-pay items (ranging up to $1); wander around the public square; play a few super-simple minigames in the bowling alley; and gawk at ads.

There are a couple of game-themed spaces available in North America: the Uncharted bar and a Far Cry 2 African train station. These are a later addition to Home that weren’t demonstrated originally (credit where it’s due), and add a much-needed context for game advertising. Essentially developers can model a Home space using their existing geometry from the game itself, which transform into sanitized walking-tour virtual setpieces. For instance, the Uncharted bar contains a lot of game lore: pictures, little story in-jokes and references, and some kind of puzzle involving door codes that can award you a prize. (More on the prizes in a bit.) These are interesting because it gives a player a chance to explore a game environment without actually buying or paying for that game up-front. The whole thing gives off a Universal Studios theme-park vibe. That includes lineups, I must add: if you want to play one of the arcade machines in the bar, yep, you actually need to queue. I understand the decision to do it this way, but one really does wonder how it came to be that we find ourselves sitting on a couch playing an “experience” of a guy in an arcade waiting in line to play an actual (crappy, tiny, primitive) game. Needless to say, I didn’t spend a lot of time actually doing… that.

Also worth noting is what is absent from the original E3 demo, and it’s not insignificant: everything relating to media is currently missing. No picture frames, no televisions or stereos, no P2P streaming. I’m sure there’s a Cthulu’esque tangle of IP regulations that needs sorting to make such things happen (in six languages no less) without legal armageddon unfolding, but come on guys, you announced (demo’d!) this a long time ago.

Advertisers are deeply embedded into the DNA of Home, of course. I saw trailers for Twilight and Watchmen and all sorts of crazy stuff. There’s also the announced Red Bull Island of Plane-Racing, or whatever it is, as well as truly meta advertising like customizable Ligne Roset virtual furniture and Diesel virtual jeans.That stuff’s not out yet but it will be soon, and it gives us an idea of what to expect, which is mainly microtransacted Eurocentric weirdity.

Having said all of that – and I’m about to set myself up for some ridicule here – there is something persuasive about Home. I think Sony is really on to something unique. The problem is, it may be a total accident; we can’t tell yet if the SCEE Home strategy people actually know what they are doing, or have stumbled upon something completely by accident. Because for all the Sims/Second Life bullshit, it actually is sort of funny and novel to talk and interact with friends and strangers in Home.

Seriously. And I’m not the only one who thinks so – Home was packed last night. Of course its the launch, but when I entered the bar and literally saw around 50 people avatars, chatting and mingling, I was taken aback. Like I said earlier, Home doesn’t look like Second Life. It actually looks good, and despite the server-rape taking place yesterday evening, the lag wasn’t so bad either. Lots of people had keyboards, and a smaller number had headsets. Home has locational audio (sound sources fall off or increase in volume as you move away or towards them) so perhaps this is a good thing, as I half-expected a berserk cacophany of voicechat in the central square, which didn’t happen. The scheme is push-to-talk (R2); probably a wise choice. Occasionally you could actually overhear a conversation as you walked around, which is more interesting than it sounds: Home grants the ability to stumble upon other PS3 folk of similar interests, which is of course the point of a social network. In this regard it succeeds. And of course, there’s the huge range of canned e-motes and dancing animations available to make you look properly foolish as you socialize. The actual standing-around, shooting-the-shit part of Home is already a success. I simply could not believe, even in the Closed Beta, how many people really did go on there to just simply hang out.

The rest of Home is a big ball of potential… a word we hear way too often in relation to Sony’s console, but nonetheless true. There are two aspects of Home that show great promise beyond the Sims stuff.

The first is Game Launching: the ability to gather a party of people in a Home space and launch directly into a multiplayer game. Currently only Warhawk is on the supported games list in Home, although we know for certain that several more already have hooks inplemented: Motorstorm, Wipeout HD, Resistance 2, and LittleBigPlanet to name a few, so those should be forthcoming shortly. (I would hope.) Game Launching turns Home into a fairly useful, if long-to-load, cross-game lobby. To make this feature really sing, it will require quite a lot of support from Sony and 3rd parties as well.

The second thing is Home items. Some demonstration of this is available in the form of prizes from the current arcade machines such as Ice Breakers and Echochrome. Getting a certain score in these minigames will reward the player with a new Home item, like a costume or a piece of furniture. This is where Home becomes deeply interesting for Achievement/Trophy whores. In the initial E3 demo, a Galactic Senate-style trophy room was demonstrated. This seems to be absent in favour of a new (superior) approach of making the apartments and avatars into trophy cases themselves. The single other housing option, aside from the free Harbour Studio, is the Summer Home, a much larger mansion that contains conspicuous amounts of shelving. The idea seems to be that alongside XMB trophies will be Home items that are awarded during regular gameplay, copied into Home for the next access as you win them. In this sense, everyone’s apartment (and clothing) become visual trophy collections, in the way a World of Warcraft character can be assessed at a glance by the amount of glowy bits and spiky things festooning his avatar.

That’s what I mean by potential. If I can hang the skull of the first guy I headshot in Killzone 2 over my fireplace, I consider that a deeply worthwhile and highly compelling goal as a player. Likewise, the Clubhouse contructs, which are for-pay (but persistent - apartments are only “on” so long as the owner is) show great promise for the idea of clans and shared spaces, but with a 32-player current limit, one wonders if it will be enough.

Another last-minute change to Home between Closed and Open Beta is the central menu device, which is now a generic Sony Ericsson-looking smartphone (it used to be a PSP). This provides an instant traditional menu system that allows you to skip the walking and teleport to a space, or “phone” a friend that is elsewhere, or change Home settings. It works pretty well. The phone feature in particular is handy because it allows for a private conversation (while traversing spaces) between two players. However it took me a minute to figure out how to hang up the phone – and some sort on-screen notification of a call in progress would be nice. You can see other Home users looking down and interacting with their smartphones, which is a nice visual cue to know that someone is otherwise engaged – you’d think they would do the same for an actual call, since you cannot communicate with others in proximity while you are on the phone. (I know, it gets deeply confusing. At one point last night I was in Deviation’s virtual house and received a call from another friend in another virtual house. That’s what happens when you construct real-life elements in cyberspace that have cyberspace components of their own.) There are other beta-style interface oversights evident, such as the backwards way you back out of modal functions, i.e. decorating or customizing your avatar or furniture. (Back out with circle, but X to confirm? Huh?)

Sony can buy a significant amount of slack from the free pricetag and the “beta” moniker, but they will need to be extremely active about updating the content, polishing the front-end, adding to supported Game Launching titles, and the Game Spaces to keep people’s interest.


4 responses to “Going Home”

  1. Homesex. That is all.

  2. Awww, Youtube pulled the Home video full of blowjobs that I was going to post….

  3. This is a really good impression of Home.

    1. Get game launching working better and add more games
    2. Bring on the trophy support
    3. Remove the lines on arcade games and bowling
    4. Phone a friend needs to include more than 2 people. 3 way calls?

    I really think there’s plenty of potential here, but Home has gotten worse since its announcement.

    Homesex will be huge. Seriously…

  4. So it seems as though Sony has added beards, but removed voice chat. Progress… !?

Leave a Reply