PlayStation Home, Sony’s answer to the Second Life question no one asked, was never where the company’s heart lived. Maybe its greasy, suppurating id lived in those gleaming neon halls, somewhere between the bowling alley full of dead-eyed polygon people and the virtual shopping mall. You know the PlayStation Home shopping mall I’m talking about. It’s the one where you could spend very real money on an entirely fake golden statue of a robot lady with impossibly proportioned breasts.
After seven years, the majority of which were spent in beta testing, Sony closed Home’s doors this week. The PlayStation heart is secure elsewhere, for sure, but the shuttering of Home does mark the conclusion of an experiment true to the PlayStation soul, as well as the end of the brand’s darkest era.
When Home was conceived in 2006, the PlayStation brand was nose-diving hard after enjoying more than a decade of market dominance. By the time the Game Developers Conference took place in March 2007, Sony was in sore need of good will after the PlayStation 3’s miserable release in November 2006. In the span of just a few months, the company with the best-selling home console of all time — the PlayStation 2 — became a laughing stock to both consumers galled by the PS3’s high price and developers turned off by its notoriously finicky architecture.
At GDC that spring, game makers were buzzing about everything but PlayStation. Xbox 360 was coming into its own after its first year, thanks in part to ease of development and the booming popularity of Xbox Live; Nintendo Wii wasn’t even six months old and already a phenomenon with everyone from toddlers to octogenarians; and just two months earlier Apple had unveiled this curious touchscreen device called iPhone that had small devs intrigued with new possibilities. Seemingly no one wanted to talk about Sony’s lumbering $600 console that seemingly had no vision for connecting people online.
Sony did have a vision, though; a hell of a vision based on its invigorating presentation that GDC. The bright, bubbly arts-and-crafts fantasia of LittleBigPlanet, which would let people make their very own game levels and share them online, was just half of what Sony envisioned as a more physical (in the virtual reality sense at least) answer to Xbox Live. The other pillar was going to be PlayStation Home, a platform whose debut had people both inside and outside of the industry genuinely excited.
The PlayStation Home envisioned in that 2007 trailer was downright utopian: People would have their own apartment in a vast virtual space that looked as open and malleable as Linden Lab’s still-growing Second Life, but without the rough edges. Even the avatars PS3 owners could make for themselves there would have the fashionable, smooth-lined sheen of a ’70s sci-fi flick like Silent Running. Rather than the anonymity of text, people would meet up in Home virtual face to virtual face and either play games right there — bowling, arcade games, billiards, etc. — or seamlessly dive from Home into bigger multiplayer games like Call of Duty. Sony even planned to have little themed clubrooms for specific games. Want to talk with your friends about strategy before playing aerial combat game Warhawk? Meet in the Warhawk room after shopping for avatar T-shirts and flirting with people outside. It’ll be just like the little computer world of the ’90s cartoon ReBoot, only sexy and stylish and modern!
Even before PlayStation Home was wracked by delays — the beta didn’t launch until 21 months after that GDC debut — and the technological failings of both the PS3 itself and Sony’s PlayStation Network, it was doomed to fail. The entire concept betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of how social networks and social technologies were evolving as the aughts wound down. The cumbersome divisions and eyesore layouts of Myspace were already yielding to the more fluid, interconnected tapestry of interactions on Facebook. Meanwhile, Microsoft was focusing on invisible back-end technology for letting people play video games online together, making ease of use and accessibility top priority for its audience. Text and a minimum of tinkering were the interfaces of choice for people connecting over the internet. Making a doll body to wander around a bunch of shiny virtual plazas just so you could chat with friends and play some freaking SOCOM wasn’t just unnecessary; it was counterproductive.
While Home never grew into the bustling fake metropolis Sony wanted it to be, it did unexpectedly grow both populated and profitable.
Just how inconvenient Home would turn out to be as a gaming social network, or even as just a fun thing to use, didn’t become clear until the beta version opened for business at the end of 2008. Impossibly slow to use, prone to frequent crashes and adding an infuriating layer to the already cumbersome process of playing games online with PS3, the only original promise Home delivered in its first version was making a virtual space for avatars to hang out and talk to one another. You could at least do that, albeit using the awkward on-screen PS3 keyboard to type out clipped messages. You could also make your avatar dance.
If that sounds like an utterly dystopian realization of the initially utopian pitch for Home, the behavior of the average user at the time matched it. If you popped into a lobby with a female avatar, getting mobbed by other dancing avatars wanting to chat you up was common enough to birth the original Home prank: Quincying. Those with long memories might recall Quincying as the art of making two avatars, one a young woman to lure in trolls and a second that looks like a hipster version of Sweetums from The Muppet Show. When the troll arrives, turn into the second and start dancing. Home was a weird place.
Over the next few years, even as Sony slowly delivered the features it initially envisioned, like themed spaces tied to specific games or a virtual lobby for people to see announcements from E3, it still struggled with basic usability. Home would update, but it would still crash your PlayStation. Virtual sexual harassment, sluggish performance and an overall lack of utility should have quickly rendered it a wasteland. Yet it didn’t. While Home never grew into the bustling fake metropolis Sony wanted it to be, it did unexpectedly grow both populated and profitable.
Sony never committed to sharing comprehensive data on Home, preferring to instead focus on how many people had installed and used it at least once. (Of note, 19 million people used it for an average of 70 minutes as of early 2011 according to Sony’s GDC address that year and “tens of millions” as of its closure announcement last fall.) All the while, brands like Audi and Cartoon Network continued to produce virtual items for Home like avatar T-shirts and other tchotchkes that people bought with cold, hard cash. Part of the reason businesses remained interested was the small, devoted and willing-to-spend user group in Home. Lockwood’s game Sodium, a Home exclusive, offered the first five levels for free and 45 more only available if you bought a T-shirt for your avatar. A solid 25 percent of users bought that T-shirt according to Home director Peter Edward. That’s just one of the things Home’s mercurial users spent money on. Sodium users could also buy this golden statue of a busty robot lady; a statue that served no other purpose than to be a statue.
Home didn’t work, and it certainly didn’t pump blood through the PlayStation body, but it was fascinating to inhabit all the same.
This is the sort of thing left behind with PlayStation Home’s closure, an unexpected mixture of failed ambition and surprising financial success. With Sony’s eyes turned toward entertainment on PlayStation 4, with its IPTV service PlayStation Vue and streaming game service PlayStation Now, the shuttering of Home this past Monday seems like the inevitable end of the virtual space dream. Will Sony’s virtual reality tech Project Morpheus and other headgear like Oculus Rift bring it back around? Maybe, but that will depend on the average consumer embracing it and the jury is out on whether or not that’ll happen.
PlayStation Home’s legacy is as a bizarre experiment, an attempt to embrace the sort of internet socialization envisioned in science fiction novels like Snow Crash and pulp garbage like Hackers. Home undeniably had its own rhythm, though. There was a tangible vibe born of Home’s residents stiffly milling about its public squares and awkwardly gyrating whenever someone new logged in. It wasn’t the beat of life by any means, but it was definitely distinct. Home didn’t work, and it certainly didn’t pump blood through the PlayStation body, but it was fascinating to inhabit all the same.