Tuesday, April 02, 2013

PlayStation Home: Renovate or Die

After over six months, I had my PlayStation 3 resurrected from a "Yellow Light of Death" issue with the help of my friend, Gerard (thanks a million for the heat gun treatment!). I hadn't realized how much I had used the PS3 before it broke down until after it was fixed. After getting re-acclimated with using the system, I noticed that I spend a lot of time browsing the PlayStation Store, but not buying or demoing anything. Another thing I noticed is the amount of time I spend in PlayStation Home. But, when I signed back on a few weeks ago, something was different.

All of the Spaces I frequented just last year were empty. It was a pretty jarring experience for me to run around these huge empty landscapes without the familiar bombardment of text bubbles, crowds of dancing avatars, and ridiculous costumes. There was a bit of charm to see the Space actually being used as they were intended, despite the frustration of having to wait your turn to use a virtual pool table or arcade machine. And I was actually getting excited over the growing number of Spaces dedicated to Home games. Sodium ONE was nothing but a great idea, but seeing how empty that Space was just a few weeks ago, it looked like it never caught on.

PlayStation Home Appraisal

Surely, I wasn't the only one that saw the potential of PlayStation Home...so why isn't anyone using it now?

All right, I admit, I'm playing dumb for the sake of argument. To be honest, I guess I've always had a feeling of apprehension ever since I signed onto Home the first time. It sounded like a good idea when Sony was marketing it before it came out, but by the time it was released, the idea was already pretty stale.

The personalization features, such as modifying your avatar's likeness and arranging furniture in your virtual apartment, suffered from clunky interface controls, making the process time-consuming and frustrating. The Spaces that you could explore were really large but didn't have much to do in them at all, and having your avatar spend most of its time literally running around in these large landscapes definitely didn't help make things interesting. Communicating with other people was a real pain as well. Aside from having to be within a virtual earshot of the other person's avatar, you either had to struggle with the on-screen keyboard or make a big production to set up a keyboard or headset (or both) just to say hello. Perhaps the biggest setback for the Home experience was the network issues. Home suffered from crazy lag, most likely due to how Home spent most of its time downloading every single avatar–that includes their likenesses and the costumes they wear (which you might not have yourself, which would add extra load)–in the current Space you're in. Shopping for costumes, furniture, and accessories was a real pain because of all the downloading and processing happening in the background....I don't see how anyone would want to buy anything!

With all that said, I honestly like Home and I hope it thrives, but not many people have such low standards as I do for games. I don't have any idea where resolving Home's issues stands in Sony's priority list, but if they want it to survive, they're going to have to make a major overhaul to it if they want it to continue. Below are several suggestions for a "renovation blueprint" to improve on the PlayStation Home experience.

Step 1: A Social Network Should Act Like One

Here is the first, most important way Home can be a better community. Sony goes out of the way to call Home a social network, yet it does little to resemble a social network. One major problem with Home is that it's just too darned flashy for its own good. When someone mentions Facebook or Twitter, the last thing people think of is making an avatar run around aimlessly in a virtual space. Social networks are all about instant access to information...what better way to do that than make Home a simpler menu-driven, chatroom-based experience? Yeah, you read it right: cut out the "running around" part of Home. It's just a boring waste of time to run around anyway. Throwing all of the interaction points in a Space into a simple menu will not only save time, but be able to satisfy the need for instant access to information and also ensure that users don't miss a single thing. Currently, not everything that a user can interact with in a Space is clearly marked, so listing all points of interest will help ensure that people get to see everything the Space has to offer. Lastly, switching to menus would eliminate the slightly jarring disconnect between running around in a virtual space with your avatar to shopping at a Purchase Point. Because Home is supposed to be an immersive virtual experience, having a very non-dynamic menu for the stores is more of an injustice than a simple oversight.

For communications, stripping the interface to a couple of simple text windows really shouldn't be an issue since Home's communication system is already based on how messages are handled on PSN friend lists, so little would change if at all. Furthermore, eliminating the need to place your avatar near other avatars to talk to them would remove all the annoying aspects of communicating on Home and distilling the social media aspect down into its purest form: the chat window. Despite it looking kinda pretty, the colorful mess of word bubbles and the frustration of trying to read blocked word bubbles would be filtered out as well. Mic and keyboard support should be retained for people already using those devices. Perhaps using the chat room or voice chat functionality might see more use in Home since chatting is more relevant there.

Step 2: ...But Keep It Pretty

While I may be preaching that Home should be neutered of its avatar-driven immersion in a virtual world, I never said anything about getting rid of everything. There's no reason why Sony has to get rid of everyone's hard work....devs and users alike spent a lot of time working on avatars, picking wardrobe, designing costumes, furniture and accessories, and laying out Spaces. Heck, some users actually paid real money for their stuff, so it would be bad business to remove everything entirely. So, instead of throwing all that away, just repurpose them.

For avatars, it just wouldn't make much sense to drop them. XBL has their avatars, while Nintendo has their Miis, so it'd be odd for Sony not to have avatars. In XBL's case, they have successfully sold clothes, costumes, and accessories without the use of a virtual environment, so it shouldn't be strange for Sony's avatars to be just avatars.

As for the Spaces, these can be left completely intact, but instead of users running around in them, they can be used as a creative way to represent the Spaces' content. Just imagine that when you first enter a Space, you're shown the entrance or lobby of the Space. If you select Point of Interest A in the menu, the camera zooms through the Space until it reaches the virtual location of Point of Interest A. To add to the aesthetic, the developers can throw in some randomly generated avatars to populate the area and make it look busy (why randomly generated avatars should be used instead of real avatars will be mentioned later). On top of all that, the user's own avatar could be on screen and react while they zoom around the Space...maybe even teleport from place to place.

Another thing to do is allow users to peruse the Spaces with a free-range camera. It was pretty limiting to only be able to take pictures at your avatar's eye level, and some of the Spaces were moderately impressive. Being able to take more dynamic shots of Spaces would make for some sweet XMB wallpapers.

Currently in Home, interaction points in Spaces, such as kiosks or machines you walk up to in able to play a mini game or look at something, usually have a cap on how many users can use them at the same time. Whether this is caused by the PS3's limitations is unknown to me, but perhaps making avatars and Spaces abstract would lift the limit, so people don't have to wait until other people "get off the machine" to get their turn.

Step 3: Optimize Network Connectivity

Like I said before, because Home spends most of its time downloading and caching avatar and Space data, getting rid of Home's virtual reality aspects would relieve most of the strain on the network, so that solves most of the problem right there.

But, what about those users that want to show off their avatar's costumes, etc? This is where Home should follow an "on-demand" model, where instead of forcing all users to download all the avatar data loaded in the visited Space, they should only load the avatars they choose to see. Users should be able to pick from a list of avatars, and be able to drill down to which interaction point they are currently using in the Space. Perhaps for those users that really need to know, add the gender of the users to increase incentive to look around. Or better yet, add some kind of "Meeting Place" for each Space so users can sign into that Space to just strut around. Yeah, yeah, I know that sounds similar to how it is now, but the point is to make the avatar loading process on-demand. Besides, since there are soooo many users that just love to dance around for hours on end in one place, it would be tragic to remove that feature completely, right?

Users shouldn't be forced to load all that data if they don't care about it. When I use Home, I'm not concerned about meeting people....I just want to play games, check out the Spaces, and get free stuff for my avatar. By making avatar data optional, I can guarantee you that perusing Home would be a much smoother experience.

So, as I said before, I really don't know what Sony thinks of Home these days. They don't really seem to advertise it in any kind of big campaign, let alone mention it at a professional level in conferences. All flaws aside, I really hope Home survives the transition between system generations, because there were some really cool things happened. They had music streams you could listen to and request songs; they promoted upcoming games with themed Spaces where you could get exclusive costumes and accessories; hell, they even streamed the launch of the space shuttle Endeavor back in 2011. My favorite part was seeing full-scale games develop on Home. Sodium ONE, Sodium2, Novus Prime, and No Man's Land were respectable games worth playing. Admittedly, I also thought that the people and the community had their moments. Sometimes I signed on to bother interact with people, and honestly, some people were actually pretty cool to talk to.

Sony really had a good idea with Home, but its facade needs a bit of a refreshing. If they want people to keep coming back, they need to renovate or force to shut it down.

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