Sony Developer Improves My View Of PS3 ‘Home,’ But There’s A Catch

Jack Buser, director of the PlayStation 3 virtual world “Home” project gave me a private demo of the service in midtown Manhattan last week. He was trying to impress me with “Home,” which launches free to every PS3 owner this fall.

Buser was going to have to work hard.

I’m the guy who, following an unsupervised 10-minute session with the service, wrote the following about Home for Kotaku back in June:

Home is clearly still a work in progress, functioning not that differently from what you heard about more than a year ago. Whatever it needs to make it a hit, I don’t think it’s in there — yet.

Here’s how Buser tried to improve my view and impress me with “Home.” His pitch was…psychological.

Buser didn’t the things you might think of when you see “Home.” He didn’t mention virtual world “Second Life” or the current most ambitious interface for a console community, Xbox Live, as he walked me through the version of “Home’ that is currently available to select PS3 owners as part of an “expanded beta.” He described this PS3 service, this 3D virtual world as “something that hasn’t been done before.”

I had expected to hear about features. I hadn’t, however, expected his pitch for the service to be so psychological. Buser seemed excited about what “Home” could do, but even more motivated to explain to me why gamers would want in. He talked to me about “the life of a gamer,” and how “Home” is designed to improve it.

There hasn’t been a good place for gamers to meet since the arcades… “Home” can fix that.

How do gamers meet each other these days? Buser asked me this question a number of ways, arguing that there isn’t really a place where this is easily done. There hasn’t been a good place for gamers to meet since the arcades, he said. “Home” can fix that.

Think of your friends list and how you add people to it. He and I batted around the ways that happens. You know someone in real life and get their gamer ID from them. You add them. Or you encounter a stranger in an online game, have a good time blowing them up in a deathmatch and then you send them a friend request. People you meet in that latter way might turn out to be people you didn’t want to be friends with. Or they just don’t become people you bond with or that you even remember.

“Home” is the better way to meet gamers, Buser said. The idea is that you meet someone as an avatar, gain a little insight about them before you decide to play a game with them and maybe make a bond before you start playing. “It’s a neutral place you can go to talk to somebody before you add them to your friends list, “Buser said.

And he said it again, with slight variation: “This is the place for people to go any time they want to meet other gamers.”

The idea for the “Home” user is for gamers to walk their avatar through virtual public spaces and find gamers, to chat them up and maybe become good enough friends to add them to a friends list. To that end he showed me that the main central plaza of “Home” still has the arcade — with bowling alleys, pool tables and other games designed for people to socialize around. It has a danceclub, which looks more like a dancecorner and supports a prototype feature called “Listening@Home” that is designed for communal listening and dancing to music. There’s still a movie theater but with a scaled-back number of screens geared toward, in Buser’s terms, a “social viewing experience.” None of these sectors are designed to allow users to communally listen or watch copyrighted content from their hard drives — video-sharing of, say, PSN-downloaded movies is an idea still tangled in rights issues — but these sectors are designed to get people to talk to each other about what they hear and see. “Home” is designed to be a hangout.

Buser wouldn’t tell me the maximum headcounts for any of the spaces he showed me. The numbers fluctuate as the project continues development. The central plaza he showed me had about 20 avatars with what looked to be room for more to loiter. He did say that the central plaza region will split into instances as more people log into it, but that the instances will always have enough headroom for players to bring their friends into the same instance. How that’s mathematically possible, he wasn’t saying.

“Home” avatars will be deeply customizable, malleable through a few layers of increasingly deep character customization that appears to enable the cheek-pulling, eye-shaping, and ear-moving manipulation that would allow the re-creation of any human face. The avatars come with clothing options. More can be bought, for real money, through a mall.

“Home” avatars can’t be aliens, unless players demand otherwise.

“Home” avatars can’t be aliens, unless players demand otherwise. Buser said the developers made a conscious decision to enable only human skin tones. Could we get to make ourselves green or purple or render ourselves like Jak from “Jak and Daxter“? If the people call for it. ” Our development will be guided by the community,” Buser said.

When I saw “Home” earlier this year before my Kotaku post, I was underwhelmed by the service. Yes, it allows people to chat — by text, animated emotions or voice. Yes, it allows people to invite each other to games — pop an icon over your head that says you want people to join you in “Burnout“. But these things could seemingly be done more efficiently in a 2D system like Xbox Live. “Home,” I had found, was filled with all this waiting to get from place to place. The service was graphically impressive, but it seemed inefficient. Load times were a drag. In the updated version Buser showed me, load times were shorter. It took just 17 seconds for his avatar to warp from his private room to the central plaza, for example, and this was by selecting the region through a “map” of icons that allow single-click warping from sector to sector. Buser said the load times are still being improved.

I could see Buser’s point about how socially empowering “Home” could be, even if his demonstration barely budged my sense that it will be meaningful “Home” will be for a PS3 user like myself.

My impression has been changed. What I hadn’t seen or had explained to me when I entered “Home” on my own those few months ago, was the function and helpfulness of the community. “Home” will be pointless if no one’s in it, if its central plazas are empty. Buser said they won’t even launch “Home” — an event scheduled for this fall — until they meet their goal to “have a kind of community to show people around.” The idea is it’s all social. You go to an area of “Uncharted” to find out what people there think of the game or to ask for a hint. Yes, some of us would go to NeoGAF or Metacritic or GameFAQs for that kind of stuff. But perhaps the average PS3 owner wouldn’t. For them, perhaps “Home” is the answer to questions they barely knew they had: Where do they go to meet people just like them?

I could see Buser’s point about how socially empowering “Home” may be, even if his demonstration barely budged my sense that it will be meaningful “Home” will be for a PS3 user like myself. For a gamer like me who already has ways to talk to other people about games, “Home” still doesn’t seem terribly useful. For all the gamers who haven’t found a way to connect to people just like them and would like a comfortable way to do so, “Home” may suit them fine.