What if Home Had Started As A Gaming Platform?

“If we listened to everyone, Project Eternity would be a Japanese turn-based dating sim with insect people.”

–Feargus Urquhart, Obsidian Entertainment

Home was formally positioned, in the beginning, as a social network for gamers — and we are living with the legacy of that marketing to this day. But what if Home had initially been conceptualized and positioned as it exists now: as a gaming platform?

Well, you have to admit, it’s an interesting idea.

Look, this is a publication devoted first and foremost to the sociological aspects of Home, and it caters to an audience which cares more about Home’s social scene than its gaming scene. That said, because Home started as a social network for gamers and then evolved (out of business necessity) into a gaming platform, it’s left some of Home’s core loyalists out in the cold. It’s not that Home’s emphasis on games took anything away from the social scene — it’s that the more socially-minded users felt marginalized (or even betrayed) because it appeared that far less development resources were placed on making the Home experience itself more socially robust and entertaining.

So let’s turn this around for a moment.

Let’s say that Home launched today — as it exists, right now, in version 1.7, with the wide array of games and enticements we’ve watched organically grow and flourish over the last few years. Further, let’s say that it was originally pitched as a freemium gaming platform, rather than a social network for gamers; that the PR, from the beginning, emphasized Home’s gaming elements over its social elements.

Frankly, I think it would’ve done better.

We’re all PlayStation gamers. And Home is a free application built into each console. Realistically, we all would’ve ended up exploring Home out of curiosity anyway. The difference is that had Home 1.0 looked like Home 1.7 — with so much more to do — it stands to reason that it would have been far better received. Moreover, had it been positioned from the very beginning as a freemium gaming platform, rather than a social network for gamers, there would have been a very different set of expectations for Home.

I’ll wager, the social elements of Home would have thrived just as brightly. Possibly even moreso.

If you want proof of this, look no further than Xi.

I wasn’t there for Xi. And by the time the Xi Museum was released, the mini-games in it looked…well, rather quaint compared to what I was used to with the Sodium games, Novus Prime, and a few other attractions which had been deployed by that time. But Xi proved one incredibly important point: that if you put a bunch of gamers in a room and ask them to talk to each other, it’s not nearly as effective as giving them a game to enjoy as a shared experience upon which they can build a community.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Jack Buser said exactly the same thing. And he was right.

Had Home been positioned up front as a freemium gaming platform — and had launched with the wide array of third-party games currently available — it really would have been a major selling point for owning a PS3 at the onset of this console generation. In an era where games are sixty bucks a pop (not including downloadable content add-ons) and it seems like most major titles can be had on any system, Home would have been a wonderful competitive edge: a free virtual world with low-cost gaming attractions, all built right into the machine from the get-go. As it is, Home unfortunately took half a decade just to get to the point it’s at now, and this console generation is drawing to a close.

And the community? It would have been just fine. Home would still have all the same social interface tools we’re used to, but society-building wouldn’t have been the marketing emphasis. As a result, you’d have gamers treating Home as a sort of low cost virtual arcade environment, and there wouldn’t have been any of the expectations about streaming movies and music from the hard drive, a Hall of Fame “trophy room,” or any of the other talking points that were emphasized in the original PR outreach under Phil Harrison’s tenure. You’d still have clans, groups, fams, cliques, clubs, media and all the rest of the wonderfully diverse community that’s sprung up in Home, based on the percentage of overall users who came for the games and stayed for each other.

This does not mean that Home doesn’t have design flaws. It’s still a metaverse with no purpose, there are still glitches and bugs which need to be ironed out in order to facilitate the creation of better gaming experiences, the blocking system is still not where it needs to be, clubhouse functionality (more accurately, the lack thereof) is shameful, and the Home navigator interface buries most of Home’s content under a disappointing number of clicks. But a Home which had been positioned up front as a gaming platform instead of a social network would have, quite frankly, been better for everyone — and now, with Home 1.7 unleashed, we’re finally going to start to see virtual commodities offered for sale which deepen the social interface of Home.

It’s nice to see what we were writing about two years ago come to fruition.

It’s taken me a while to get to the point of view that a gaming-oriented Home is a better proposition; I came into Home for its social scene, because ever since I was a kid, the idea of living inside a video game has held a unique fascination for me. Who knows, maybe I watched too many episodes of Captain N back then. But Home, even in the comparatively primitive state it was in back when I joined in ’09, filled that curiosity. That said, I can’t deny that Home in its current state, with a much wider array of gaming attractions, is far more interesting to explore — and the social scene is still there. Some of the old hangouts are gone, which is a shame, and some friends have moved on from Home, but it is ultimately a more diverse environment than it used to be — and games made that happen.

Since we can’t change the past, what can we hope for in the future?

Realistically, Home still has a few years left. Just as PS2 sales didn’t automatically switch off when the PS3 came about, it’s not like the next console generation is going to automatically kill the PS3 and Home. I do wonder, though, if 2012 (and possibly 2013, if developers aren’t too tied up supporting the massive projects they launched this year) is a sort of “peak oil” period for Home as we know it. Already there are the first signs, with multiple Home developers shifting resources to the Vita — and this makes sense, as it’s a brand new piece of hardware that Sony is keen to support.

What I’m personally hoping for is a clean-sheet redesign (and reconceptualization) of Home for the PS4. There’s only so much that can be done with Home in its current state, and let’s remember that it’s running on architecture that was originally conceived for the PS2. The core team in London has done a remarkable job of somehow making all of this stuff work for the most part, but it’s like taking a low-end car and constantly garnishing it with tuner kit parts. At some point, you just want a newer, better car.

I can only speculate as to what such a redesigned Home would look like. I don’t think it needs to run in 4K or be anything particularly outrageous (we’re in a 1080p era and Home chugs along quite contentedly at 720), but I will contend it should be conceptualized from the ground up as a gaming platform with social elements, as opposed to a social network with gaming elements. We’re in an era where there’s a tremendous shift to mobile and casual gaming, and having a freemium gaming platform built into the PS4 makes a strong case for investing in yet another console.

And for god’s sake, launch the thing with some robust games up front. How would gaming journalism have reacted all those years ago if they entered PS3 Home and found Sodium, Novus Prime, No Man’s Land, Cutthroats, Mercia and MiniBots all available for them, right off the bat? I’ll wager it would have been a far more positive reaction.

Because Home had to change its primary concept after it was already underway, there’s always been this us-versus-them debate about social users versus gamers with Home. The notion that, somehow, those evil gamers were let in and catered to, while social users had to stand in the corner and feel like their Home was denuded. This could have been avoided, had Home marketed itself up front as a gaming platform which happened to have some social elements — and had the games to back it up when it launched.

Perhaps there will be no second-generation Home; perhaps it is a venture which Sony has carried for half a decade, and not realized sufficient return on its investment to justify committing further resources. Or, perhaps, the next console generation will indeed see a new version of Home, using all the lessons learnt from the previous iteration. We will see.

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