Gaming : ‘Home’ isn’t where the heart is
Playstation Home is Sony’s somewhat delayed response to the ever increasing social networking phenomena. It’s also an attempt to attract its share of the ever expanding audience of the ‘causal gamer’. With Sony’s entry, all three of the main consoles now have their own social networking infrastructure. The Wii has the ‘lightest’ of the three networks, mainly focusing on ‘offline’ networking, putting the emphasis on groups of people playing together around one TV, but it is noted for the fact that it was the first to introduce avatars to a wider audience. This is not to say that the Wii doesn’t have online facilities though. You can message friends, send them your home made avatars and with some of the more recent games, play against each other online. In recent months Microsoft has pushed its new Xbox Experience, essentially an update to the consoles user interface, the ‘dashboard’, granting access to a wealth of community material such as film trailers, interviews, reviews, all from the main interface. The new update also follows the example set by the Wii in allowing users to create avatars of themselves.
So, where does Sony’s ‘Home’ fit into things? They’ve attempted to integrate the best bits of Nintendo and Microsoft’s efforts but with a slightly different emphasis. With both the Xbox and the Wii, social interaction often occurs after a game has been chosen and loaded, which, whilst providing the user like mind individuals, can often limit social diversity. There is no central place to meet new people. Sony has taken note of this and has produced a stand alone environment that exists without any association to a game. This environment consists of a virtual world, similar in nature to that of the ever popular Second Life, into which users create an avatar of themselves. It’s through this avatar that the users can explore the world. Right from the start it’s obvious that Sony have tried to implement a virtual version of real world social interaction. Every avatar has an apartment, there’s a bowling alley, an arcade, a shopping mall and a cinema. All places that Sony’s key demographic are likely to interact socially.
So is it any good?…… Frankly, in my opinion, no. My first use of ‘Home’ was marred right from the word go by the horrendous amount of loading needed. I signed up and waited 10 minutes for the installation files to download. I then waited again whilst the files installed. ‘Great, I’m in’ I thought. After a quick tutorial and a very limited ‘create an avatar’ task you’re left to look around your rather minimalist apartment. I went to leave the apartment and guess what…… ‘Now downloading plaza’. By now 30 minutes had passed and all I’d done was stack a few pieces of furniture and attempted to throw chairs off the balcony (within ‘Home’ obviously but by this point I was considering it for real). Out in the plaza I was struck by two thoughts. The first was how empty the place was and the second was how limited the ‘create an avatar’ function actually is. I was faced with about 20 or so people of which about half looked similar to my avatar. Most of these people were dancing, randomly, with no music. ‘OK…..moving on’ I thought, ‘Oh, cinema, I’ll go there’…..’Now downloading cinema’…….grrrrrrrrrr. The experience hadn’t started well.
So, to the cinema I went. Once inside (10 minutes later) I get the sneaky suspicion that a new film is about to be released. I could watch a constantly looping trailer of the new film Watchmen, a teaser trailer for the new film Watchmen, a 2 minute ‘making of’ the new film Watchmen, a short action scene from the new film Watchmen and about a million posters for the new film Watchmen. I left the virtual cinema with a strange urge to go to a real cinema to watch some kind of film, the name escapes me…….Leaving the cinema means going back to the plaza once again. ‘Ahh, at least this has already downloaded’ I thought. Well, yes but, ‘Plaza loading……..’ ZZZZzzzzzzzzz.
So, back in the plaza. Another avatar runs up to me and sends a private message in German. I slowly but politely reply stating that I don’t know any German. (A painful task as text input is never quick with a joy pad and I refuse to spend a fortune of the aftermarket keypad addition for the joy pad. Yes, I can use a USB keyboard, it’s just a shame I don’t own one!). The reply to that was in German. I laboriously reply once again and apologise. They reply, once again, in German but this time in capitals with many exclamation marks with the avatar flailing it’s arms wildly……. I run, deciding to hide in the bowling alley, forgetting I haven’t downloaded it yet. I hit the invisible wall at the door that refuses entry until it downloads and look back to see the German avatar chasing after me. I run back to the cinema whilst the bowling alley downloads. That was close. Whilst there I find out about this wonderful new film called Watchmen, don’t know if you’ve heard about it but I damn well have!!!! Anyway, I head to the bowling alley once it’s installed and think about going bowling. Thinking about bowling is as far as I get. I reach the top of the stairs and cast my ‘virtual’ eye over the bowling alley. This virtual world is open to greater Europe and how many bowling lanes do they supply?…..six….genius. I walk up to one game and start to write a message asking to join, only for another avatar to run up, controlled by someone with far more supple thumbs, who manages to type ‘hello, please could I join your game’ in the time it’s taken me to write ‘Hi’. Not wishing to look like the last kid to be picked for sports I leave promptly. Wow, that was worth watching the Watchmen trailer for the 7th time for.
So, I finally arrive at the last place, the shopping mall. Now I know why the apartment is minimalist and the avatars are similar. The shops within the mall all sell virtual clothes and furniture. £4 for a virtual sofa for my virtual apartment….. Excuse me? £4 for a virtual item that does nothing but sit there. On to the next shop. £2 for a new virtual shirt? There are shops in real shopping malls that sell real shirts for that much!! I look at what’s free. Wow, what a coincidence, costumes from the new film Watchmen. I stand there, watching carbon copies of my avatar arrive, get changed and leave as carbon copies of Watchmen characters. I laugh and walk out (minus the costumes). Upon leaving the shopping mall a small remote control helicopter heads straight for me, exploding inches from my face. I don’t ask. Realising that there are more pressing things in real life; like choosing which fragrance of deodorant to put on and finding my car keys, I leave ‘Home’.
Whilst I think you’ll agree that all of the above would make for one interesting day out if it were real, I really couldn’t be bothered to go through all of that on purpose in the virtual world when in reality I’ve decided to allocate time in front of my Playstation to play a game. I’m not knocking the principle. I’m just as likely to be on Facebook or some form of messenger program as the next person, I just don’t think Home is worth it. There’s nothing in there I can’t already do with Google, YouTube, a few chat rooms, a few simple browser based games and possibly Amazon or Play.com which are all available anyway if you have an internet connection. Using the modern wonders that are the mouse, the keyboard and a multi-tab browser, it’d also be a damn site quicker! In its favour it is presented very well, with good graphics and some very nice touches to the virtual world. It also has massive potential as other areas, shops and games could be simply tacked on with a future download, however, as it stands, it’s a rather hollow experience. It’s easy to see why Microsoft and Nintendo decided to dispense with the visuals and stuck with a simple menu based system. The Xbox system I find particularly good as choice content is displayed on the main screen as ‘headlines’ next to your options to load a game. You are free to ignore them and load your game or explore the ‘headlines’ further. The Wii has its ‘Channels’ that sit on the front screen. You view the channel or you don’t, it’s up to you. You let the content do the talking, not the visuals (or random Germans).
Is it fair to criticise a free addition? Not really, but you can’t help wondering whether the time and money being pumped into Home’s development couldn’t be better spent elsewhere. Anyway……..I’m off to go to a real cinema….. Watchmen looks quite good.