Welcome Home: Hanging Out PlayStation Style

Is it me, or is gaming relying more and more on social media networks? Time was, gaming was this dirty, solitary habit you did in your mum's basement or in a darkened corner of your dad's study. You didn't talk about it, you didn't brag about it, and (even if you wanted to), you couldn't show off your gaming accomplishments.

Nowadays, if you don't have an Achievement score of at least 14000, you're probably going to catch heat about it - in real life. Gamertags, friend codes and even guilds are increasingly important parts of your gaming experience, even if you're not into competitive multiplayer games.

So, logically, Sony wants to step that up and incorporate even more stuff into your social gaming experience. But instead of just adding Trophies and an avatar system (in the mode of "me too!" one-upmanship we usually see between Xbox and PlayStation), they've made an entire virtual world that's supposed to bring your gaming, your music, your movies and even your sense of style all together in one place. This is definitely a step up from the Mii Plaza.

So how well does it work? It's too soon to weigh in on technical flaws, but the three years of development definitely shows in how smooth the test environment runs, how detailed the avatar design system is and in the sheer amount of stuff there is to do in Home.

Hit the jump for impressions and screens.

I watched Home Director Jack Buser take his avatar into the central plaza. After having seen the NXE avatars and making half a dozen new Miis for a class project, the realistic Home avatars were like a breath of fresh air slap in the face. Jack explained that while everything is supposed to look realistic, you can drill way down into the avatar system to customise a green-painted, handle-bar mustached greaser or go with a random pre-made hipster chick with half a dozen facial piercings and realistically-sized hips (wow!). Whatever you choose, you're not stuck with it - you can change everything about your avatar on the fly by entering the editor right from the central plaza. (

The idea, says Jack, is to let PS3 gamers express themselves. This lowers the awkwardness of meeting new people and making new friends; he cited how currently the only way to add friends to your PS3 was to exchange PNS IDs in real life or randomly encounter users in online multiplayer matches. Maybe you decide someone who's helped you out in Warhawk is cool, so you add them. Then later you find out they've got a crazy kid sister who shares their console or - worse - they're a team-killing fucktard who has it out for you. With Home, it'll be easier to identify the people you want to be with and connect with them and easier to sort out the psychos and avoid them.

Jack then showed off the game launching feature. You can launch into games straight out of Home if you have the game disc in the tray or downloaded to your hard drive. The cool thing about this is the multiplayer: you can use Home to find other players and launch into the match directly from Home. For this to work, you go into a menu while you're hanging out in Home. From there, you set the exact terms of the multiplayer match: deathmatch, time limit, number of players, etc. Once you've got it set up, a game controller icon pops up over your avatar's head in Home. Other avatars can view the settings you've chosen and haggle about them, or just shut up and join your group (as long as they've got the game in the tray or on their hard drive). Once you've gotten people together, you launch the game, which them dumps all of you directly into the multiplayer match - bypassing the main screen, the menus and that tedious lobby-waiting stuff. When it's over you get dropped right back into the central plaza.

I glazed over for that part mostly because I don't play multiplayer games that much. I guess I must've yawned because Jack immediately dashed his avatar off to an in-Home entertainment centre to show me the pool table and the little 2D games you can access from old-school arcade machines.

"[Home is]not just about playing games," he said. "It's about having a place to hang out."

That's why they've got a bowling alley in Home, and that theatre where you can go to watch teaser trailers and stuff. I guess it's kind of cool to have a centralized location where gamers go to watch things together - it means I don't have to wait 'til I run into a gamer the next day at the water cooler to talk over the latest Final Fantasy XIII trailer. But, if you're not really a social gamer by nature, what does Home have to offer you besides pool and 2D arcade games?

This is where I started getting interested. Home takes your solitary gaming experiences and makes them social. I got to see this with the Uncharted area - Sully's Bar.

To leave the central plaza, Jack opened up the world map; a feature that currently appears as a big white sheet of graph paper with Polaroid photos spread out over it, each representing a different place. There was one for Far Cry and one for Uncharted. Selecting the Uncharted snapshot spawned Jack's avatar into Sully's, where the décor featured bamboo walls and jungle/tiki trappings everywhere you looked. It was like any Disneyland pub modeled after a movie - with big paintings of Nate and Elena on the walls to boot.

There were three locked doors in the room. Jack explained that the two doors on the second floor were open on specific days for "special events" (I'm guessing Uncharted announcements or trailers were visible here during the days when the doors opened.) The third door was part of a massive scavenger-hunt style puzzle that took fans in the closed beta weeks to figure out. According to Jack, the forums were just bursting with fans trying to figure it out, pitching code suggestions and clue theories back and forth until someone figured it out.

"I won't tell you what it was," said Jack. "I don't want to ruin the surprise." He did drop hints about games featuring rewards in Home - special items you could only buy if you beat a game or special clothing you could get by solving one of these themed puzzles.

I get the feeling that the point of stuff like Sully's Bar isn't entirely about fan service and virtual clothing, though. Part of it is about extending the life of your single-player games once you've beaten them (sounds like some of the clues for unlocking that door in Sully's were within the game itself). Another big part of it is marketing; developers could totally jump all over stuff like this to advertise their games, or even - gasp! - get feedback from fans for potential sequels. Maybe I'll finally have more than two people to gush about Valkyria Chronicles with.

So, yes, there's even something in home for the anti-social, despite it being a massive social network. Social networks are really just about the potential of connectivity, not the actual act of yelling at people over message boards or what have you. Show off random virtual crap and being able to passively spy on people has huge appeal to a lot of people - not just gamers (check Facebook if you don't believe me). PR rep Abigail Murphy says Sony wasn't quite sure when it first started crafting Home what it had really gotten itself into (hence all the delayed release dates). But Sony is busting its arse to make this work, and so far it looks like these three long years of development have paid off.
The only thing that bothers me is not knowing what the deal is with crossing between regional central plazas. If I've got friends in Tokyo I want to play with, how am I going to get to them when I'm stuck in the Northern California zone? Jack wasn't too forthcoming about this beyond a "We're working on it," sort of answer. Given the level of realism in Home, I wouldn't be surprised if you can hop regions via an airport or a bus terminal - let's just hope they stop short of charging you a fare.

The last big impression Home left me with was a lack of clothing options. When Jack took his avatar out into the plaza where a bunch of testers were runni ng their avatars around, a half a dozen or so were all dressed in weird white underwear-looking body suits and flamenco dancing. Jack explained that these guys had decided to dress up as "zombies" in honour of Halloween. I didn't know zombies had visible panty line - but I do know you could find better costumes at K-Mart than in the Home's limited wardrobe selection.

But clothes, like content, will probably come with time. An email from Patrick Seybold, head of SCEA PR, confirms that while I only saw a mere six types of beard and 15 colour variations in the avatar customisation screen, there are already far more in the works. As far as clothing goes, Jack said it was entirely possible that developers could include Home-specific treats with their games, like special clothing or stuffed animals to put in your apartment (not unlike NXE's plan for game-specific clothing). If that's the case, game developers might have to start employing fashion designers in their code monkey pool.

Times are a'changin', and the days of gaming alone are dying out. Even if you're one of those anti-MMO gamers who can't stand the thought of /dance commands, you're going to get Home by the end of this year (so sayeth Seybold). So you might as well start looking for the silver lining. Sony looks like they've included a lot of it.

Check out the screens for yourself.


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