Since the PlayStation 3 was announced, Sony has used two of its products in particular to define the next-gen PlayStation experience: Little Big Planet and Home. Home is a persistent online community that can be accessed through the PS3 Dashboard. While not replacing the XMB, Home actually includes features not available on the standard PS3 menu system, and Sony hopes that it will become the first thing that users launch every time they turn on their console. Soon, Qore subscribers will be able to test-drive this service through a private beta being distributed through Sony’s online video mag, and the general public will all get to go Home sometime this holiday season. After going hands-on with the beta, I decided to offer my experiences as a primer for those of you who will soon be venturing into Home for the first time.
Home is a virtual community that exists to link PS3 gamers in a way that has never been tried before on consoles. As soon as you load the game, you are taken to your spacious new apartment. You are then tasked with creating your Home avatar, which is what will represent you among the other players in the community. The character creation engine is very thorough … almost dauntingly so. Those expecting to have their mini-me ready in a few minutes might want to pull up a comfortable chair and prepare to be there a while. Each section of the body has multiple parts, all of which can be stretched and molded in a large amount of ways. I tried for about 15 minutes to make my dude look somewhat like me, but failed miserably at this task, inexplicably settling on a cowboy as my default Home character. Thankfully there are presets to get you started, so it’s easy to find a base to build upon.
All of this customization seems a bit overwhelming until you get to the clothing options which, as of right now, include 9 shirts and 8 pants. While this service is still in beta, the fact that there is a Home store, where you will be able to purchase clothing and other in-game items with real money, speaks volumes as to why these options are so sparse. I decided to go venture out into the world, which lead me to encounter one of the biggest problems with the current state of Home: loading times.
Every area that you leave and enter in Home requires a load, which is actually connecting you to the server for that particular area and pulling up all the data. While a connection-related load is expected, the first time you enter a Home space there is an extra load that you might not be prepared for. When you initially download the Home client, it includes limited content. Every time you enter an area for the first time, you have to download the data that makes up that area to your PS3’s hard drive before you can enter. While these downloads don’t take too long, as most areas are about 30mb, it is bewildering that Sony decided to have each area download independently instead of just including all of the base areas in the initial Home client download. This would be fine for new expansion areas, like Game Spaces for upcoming titles, but the fact that you have to download Home’s base locations such as the Central Plaza and the Mall makes for a strange and slow first sojourn into the world of Home.
Upon leaving my fancy new apartment (and waiting for the load to finish) I was dropped into the Home Central Plaza, a large open area with a park, a large speaker that lets a user choose which song is playing, a large screen playing a trailer for Socom, and some walkways that link your character to the Theater, Game Space, and Mall. I discovered about 35 people loitering around these parts, some talking using the in-game text and voice chat, and others dancing, laughing, and making use of the game’s numerous animated commands. It was Central Plaza that truly represented the Home experience for me, as people were using the world as a virtual chat room and entertaining each other using all of the in-game functions and expressions.
When you approach another user, a menu pops up that quickly lets you view their profile, add them to your friends list, or send them a message. I strolled over to the Home Mall, which is a beautifully designed 2 floor shopping extravaganza that includes stores for clothing, furniture, real estate, several stores that aren’t yet defined, and even a few tables to play Chess on. I went into the furniture store and bought 1 of everything, all of which are currently free. The "Threads" store had nothing available to increase my wardrobe, so I decided to instead pick up a new summer house, which I was able to set as my default Home Space from the PSP, a multi-use in-game device which essentially acts as the game’s menu.
Of course, there is no point in having an ocean-front bachelor pad without tricking it out with all kinds of sweet furniture, so I started looking for ways to customize my place. I pressed start to bring up the PSP, and went to the Decorate menu to choose furniture I could decorate my apartment with. The beta options are limited, but you do get several tables, chairs, and random items from the store to give your place some semblance of personality and style. Once I had placed an inordinate amount of chairs in my Living Room, I headed back into the Plaza, threw on my virtual trench coat, and slyly strolled into the Theater.
In previous iterations of the beta, the Theater included a full lobby and several screening rooms, each with a different video playing. The developers of Home wisely realized that this area was unnecessary, so you are now instantly transported directly into a single screening room. I looked around and saw about 20 people seated with me. Random chit-chat was occurring between users as I made my way to a back row seat; everyone knows that all of the cool kids sit in the back. As I glanced up towards the screen, I saw something that was mildly surprising yet somehow familiar: a black screen that said “Loading Video…” While I make no claim to understand how streaming video works, I found the way that they implemented the screen data in Home to be fairly annoying. The video that loaded a minute later was in HD, but I couldn’t help but think that an instantly-loading streaming version at slightly-reduced quality would have been better for the flow of the experience. You are thankfully able to zoom in on what you are seeing, but oddly not able to make the video full screen. (To preserve authenticity I guess?) The sound and video quality are both excellent, and you can hear the other users talking while the video plays just like in a real theater. After I realized that the trailer was just going to loop, I promptly made my way out of the Theater and walked over to the Game Space.
The Game Space is the hub for all of the social gaming activities in Home, and I was pleasantly surprised by what was included. There are full Billiards and Bowling games to be played here, and you can choose an empty table or lane and wait until someone else decides to join you. What is odd is that you can’t see other people playing their games in this space. You see them standing next to the Pool tables and sitting in the Bowling area, but their actions in those games are not visually transmitted. The games themselves are functional representations of the activities, comparable almost to their GTA IV representations, but the ability to chat while playing enhances this experience nicely. Both games only allow 2 players, which is a bit of a letdown, but the fact that it works as well as it does is impressive. The Game Space also features several arcade cabinets, each of which contain flash-like mini games that you can toy around with. Some of these titles are fun little diversions, but they most likely won’t hold your interest for long. Sadly, none of the previously announced Namco Arcade titles are present yet.
After journeying back into Central Plaza, I wanted to seek out Sully’s Bar and the Far Cry 2 Space, two game-specific areas built for Home. After meandering around the Central Plaza for a few minutes, I still had no clue where either of them was. I opened my virtual PSP and discovered that you can load into these areas via the PSP menu, but not by walking into them from the Central Plaza. While this is an understandable solution, as many new Game Spaces will be added post launch, it would be nice if there was an in-game hub to ease the transition into these areas without having to choose them from a menu. The Far Cry 2 Space features a bus stop and an office, and you can access character dossiers and information about Ubisoft’s recent title.
Sully’s Bar, the Uncharted Game Space, features character pictures, a television that lets you watch old war footage, two passcode-locked doors on the second floor that I couldn’t sleuth my way into, and an exclusive arcade game called “Mercenary Madness” that is a pixilated, old-school platform action game that mixes elements of Uncharted with the gameplay of classics such as Out of this World and Flashback. Aside from the Game Space, Sully’s Bar is easily the place to be in Home if you are looking for interesting things to see and do; but the discovery that is necessary to locate these areas kept all but a handful of users from finding them.
Home’s graphics and sound are, at this point, minimalistic yet solid. It has a fairly generic look, and the character models are detailed but lacking of any particularly identifiable style. The actual Space designs are nice, clean, and very futuristic, and the framerate dips a bit when a lot is on-screen, but it never drops too severely. The sound is also fairly minimalistic, but there is enough ambient noise and background chatter to make the world feel alive. The game controls similarly to many other third-person games, and the buttons are mapped to various functions like bringing up the text chat, activating the voice chat, and pulling up the animations menu to control your avatar’s actions. The much-anticipated “Game Launching” function works well and is activated via the PSP. At one point I saw people gathering in the Central Plaza for a Warhawk match, so I jumped in with them and verified its viability. At this point, I am unsure as to whether launching into Home, loading the right Space to meet up with your group, configuring the game that you want to bring everyone into, and then launching that title from within Home will be the ideal way to join multiplayer matches with your buds, but it is a welcome addition to the already feature-packed service and it worked well in my test.
In the end, what we’ll get out of Home when the full version releases will likely depend on whether the PlayStation 3 user base embraces it or ignores it. So far it’s a great way to meet up with and chat with other users, but not so fun when you are wandering around by yourself. If you want to try it yourself, remember that the Home beta will be available this month to Qore subscribers and available later this year for all PS3 owners. If you’ve already experienced the Home beta and have your own thoughts or stories, please share and discuss!