PlayStation Home, the digital hang out space for Sony's PlayStation 3 that opened to the public in 2008, is getting an extreme makeover later this year. Sony's console social network will be redesigned for the fall, reemerging as an experience that's part theme park, part online game and part social network.
The new PlayStation Home, Sony says, represents the social platform's "evolution from a virtual environment to a world of games, with a focus on rapidly connecting players with game content that pertains to their style and mood." Gone will be much of the architecture of the current Home, replaced by a space called the Hub and a series of districts based on themes, a digital Disney World designed with core gamers in mind.
The Hub of the new Home is a sleek, bright entrance into this redesigned world. The new entrance to Home, the Hub looks like a futuristic airport or mall—clean, populated by virtual shoppers and travelers, and drawing some visual influence from Valve's Portal 2. It has been designed to get Home visitors to destinations and games faster; to pop you into a social space, not an empty apartment; and to immediately have "a huge game staring you in the face as soon as you come in," says Jack Buser, director of PlayStation Home.
"No longer will people come into Home and say 'I couldn't find anything to do,'" Buser promised during a preview of the new Home at this year's Game Developers Conference. The Home team want to "jam fun right in your face" (in the nicest way possible).
Upon entering the Hub, Home visitors will instantly see games to play—a version of Lazy 8 Studios' Cogs has been the example provided in early previews, but Buser says Sony wants "fresh games all the time"—places to shop and activity boards, where players can learn about Home-based events and play mission-based quests.
From the Hub, PS3 owners can also visit Home's new districts, each inspired by the Tomorrowland and Adventureland of Disney World, each loosely themed around video game genres.
Home's Action District is geared toward the Call of Duty, Resistance and Killzone player, with an "urban feel reminiscent of a first-person shooter level" that "provides a direct travel point to action and horror games." Whether we'll actually be able to shoot our fellow Home visitors in the face, or just give them finger guns while dancing with them, remains to be seen.
The Adventure District is more suited for the Tomb Raider and Uncharted fan, an area designed as a "lush island jungle with an air of mystery, hidden treasure and discovery." I got a peek at the Adventure District at this year's E3 and was impressed by its ancient architecture and detailed idols. It's one of the more intriguing areas, as it may be home to the most interesting quests and treasure hunts the new Home has to offer. (It was also previously rolled into the Action District, but Sony split the two after early feedback.)
PlayStation Home director Jack Buser expects that PlayStation 3 owners will meet up, strategize and launch their games from districts like these, or at the very least socialize with like minded gamers. Two more districts are also planned.
Home's Sportswalk is aimed at the virtual sports fan, designed with an "outside-the-stadium feel." Sony promises "major league sports scores, headlines and highlights, ample space for sports-themed games and provides direct travel points to sports-related games." And its Pier Park, a boardwalk populated with carnival games, rides and arcades, promises an "E for Everyone area."
In addition to dividing Home into theme park-like zones, pushing more games on players (like Cogs) and making it simpler to move between the platform's virtual spaces, Sony is layering new MMO-like quests and "persistent, branching story lines" into its revamped virtual world. I had the opportunity to play some of these games at E3 2011, including one that instanced an alien invasion of Home. Seriously!
That objective-based gameplay started with a warning message in Home's new Hub, detailing the invasion and informing me about my tasks. That lead to me playing a mini-game that put my Home avatar in control of a boat in a top-down arcade game. Taking control of a DualShock, I gobbled up barrels of fuel with my boat while avoiding the alien missiles that rained down upon my little watercraft. A related game put me in control of a gun turret, from which I shot down alien space ships and destroyed a city block-sized mothership.
The games were simple but entertaining diversions. It was the promise of quests, daily challenges and ongoing story-driven missions—and the resulting rewards from completing those tasks—that seemed to hold the most promise for ramping up gaming in PlayStation Home. Add to that community-driven quests and the ability to unlock video game content from Home and the appeal of "gamifying" the PS3 social space starts to look much more appealing from a play perspective.
Sony's push for PlayStation Home to be more than a digital space to chat, dance and play with other PS3 owners hits this fall. It says it also plans a "separate core client upgrade" that revamps of the underlying user experience in Home.
"This update will deliver a more streamlined experience upon login with customized tracks for new, returning and regular PlayStation Home users, minimizing the time it takes for players to get into games," says the official announcement.
If you're a fan of the current Home, one of the 23 million users who have creeped its virtual halls, say your goodbyes to the old experience. Buser says spaces like the existing plaza and theater will soon be extinct—"We're going to press the detonate button on that stuff," he said excitedly at GDC.