Wednesday, January 27, 2010

You Can't Go Home Again

This time last year, I was thrilled with Playstation Home. Much to the frustration of my friends and girlfriend, I would spend hours each week jogging around this virtual neighborhood of dead-eyed mutes. Yet even then, I knew it was more in anticipation of what was to come than it was because of the experience it offered at the time. Playstation Home has been in its "open beta" phase for just over thirteen months now, and it is hard to deny that it has grown, but has it really delivered on any of the promise it once had?

I think that depends on who you ask. PS3 fans at the time (the few that there were) had visions of a slick, virtual world where users would be able to seamlessly socialize and access their system's many media functions at the same time. Some even thought that it would supplant the PS3's main menu as the primary means of accessing content, providing something far more engaging and dynamic than any other system could. Sony fueled many of these fantasies but, in hindsight, it clearly had different plans.

As I look back, I now see that the amount of time I spent in Home gradually decreased throughout 2009. Today, not even a biweekly content update can be sure to lure me. Sure, there have been various small successes: The "Xi" alternate reality game was sufficiently deep to keep me coming back, even if I was too impatient to refrain from cheating my way through it. The Ratchet and Clank space had a fun minigame that not only hooked me for a brief time but also forced me to cooperate with other users to win. Even the recent "Sodium One Hub" surprised me by showing how pretty Home can look.

All of these spaces, however, are really just elaborate packaging for one or two stilted, shallow minigames which, in turn, are really just elaborate ads for whatever real game they represent. This is neither what initially drew me to Home nor is it what keeps me coming back; I can get many more games of far higher quality by visiting the Playstation Store or (!) by putting in an actual game.

None of this ever managed to distract me from the fact that Home is failing to perform many of its perceived roles. A year later, I still wonder how I am supposed to use this application as a social network. What is so personal about Home? Avatars and personal spaces should, in theory, fit the bill. In practice, though, they only serve to show how much money I am willing to spend on virtual items. Even if the monetary issue is removed, there is still an extremely limited amount of items from which I can choose. (The amount of apartments available only recently became greater than ten. Who, exactly, was begging for a bobsledder outfit?)

Of course, personalization is not even half of the social networking experience. The majority of it is (wait for it...) socialization. Playstation Home is designed to make this nearly impossible. Not more than a few weeks into the life of Home, public voice chat was disabled, limiting audio communication to personal spaces and user-to-user "phone calls." This left most of the communication to text messaging, whereby messages appear in a bubble above the user's avatar. Simple enough, if all you want to do is say "hi" or yell a racial epithet then flee. Having a conversation is another story. Considering that most of us do not have a Bluetooth keyboard lying around, the text messages require the use of the clunky onscreen keyboard. It makes conversation an excruciatingly slow process.

Even when voice chat can be used, the experience is crippled by bugs and connection issues. Often, inviting more than one other user into my personal space resulted in one of us being unable to speak or hear the conversation. Not that there is much to talk about when visitng a personal space. Early promises of being able to stream video and music to virtual entertainment systems quickly faded into myth. So, after about 60 seconds, visitors will have seen all that any given apartment has to offer (that is, if they do not own that space themselves). Meeting up with friends in public spaces may sound more promising, but this process is quite tedious. Users may only engage in a phone call with one other user at a time. It does work regardless of the users' respective locations in Home, but the limitations of this feature are still downright pathetic. The soon-to-be-released game, MAG will allow dozens of users to chat simultaneously, but Home, an application that is specifically designed for socializing, cannot handle me speaking to two other people at a time? There is no question that the PS3's dedicated chat application is far simpler, faster, more feature-rich.

Even if one only has a single friend, getting to the same location will take some time. Moving between each tiny location in Home is a grind. Each space must be downloaded on the first visit (some spaces are as big as 50MB) and whenever that space receives an update (it is often), another download is required. Once the space is downloaded and installed, connecting to it and loading it can take a good 30 seconds. Once again, I can point to a number of games that handle similar tasks on a far larger scale much quicker. Needless to say, this ensures that Home is in no way more pleasant, intuitive or practical than the the PS3's main menu; Home will never replace it. Home's long stretches of downtime have only served well as moments for introspective questioning like, "Did I really buy this $600 machine so I could do this?" or, "What am I doing with my life?"

That, after all, is what repels me so consistently from Home today. As I am shuffling around the Home Mall, traveling through small crowds of improperly rendered avatars, who congregate for no apparent reason beyond it looking more natural than standing apart, I get a sinking feeling. It becomes undeniable: If I spend any more time scrolling through a clunky menu, looking for a vaguely interesting virtual t-shirt for an avatar that few people will ever give a second look, I am wasting my life.

Playstation Home is a consumerist culture low point – a collection of people willfully submitting themselves to advertisements, not for any real enjoyment, but largely out of a sense of brand loyalty. A year ago, I started using Playstation Home because I was a proud PS3 owner. Today, I have stopped using Playstation Home for that same reason – because there are simply too many better things to be doing with this machine.

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