Sunday, December 05, 2010

Playstation Home

I did my first exploration of Playstation Home today. It's a three-dimensional virtual world similar to SecondLife, but specifically for the PS3. Technically it's still in beta, though it has been for quite a long time, and a lot of people are in there so it feels like a production system. But at the same time, its limitations can be forgiven because it's still in development.

The scope invites comparison with SecondLife, and there are definitely similarities. If Playstation Home intends to go head-to-head against SecondLife, it has a few solid advantages. First, the graphics are amazing. The PS3 has some powerful graphics capabilities, and the design really takes advantage of them. I suspect they've also pre-rendered a lot of things. Not only is it much smoother and more consistent, it's somewhat more reliable; even after many years, SecondLife's graphics are quirky and flaky, because of all the different graphics cards and configurations, a problem the PS3 folks don't have to worry about. However, the text is often rendered in colors without enough contrast and too small, particularly people's names. Also, the streaming video was too jittery to be watched -- maybe with a T3 or DSL it wouldn't be, but a T1 should be able to stream video if they put some basic buffering in there.

Considering the limitations of the controller compared to a keyboard and mouse, it's surprising how rich and functional the interface is, and easy it is to do the things you want to do. Of course, text chatting is heavily limited if you don't have a keyboard (if I end up doing more in PSHome, I will definitely want a controller-mounted thumbboard, though I can use an ordinary USB keyboard too). But it's quite simple to move, change your view, do gestures, and interact with things and people.

Generally speaking, the designers are taking heavy advantage of the fact that they control the hardware, and they can develop functionality without having to be limited by the necessity of client-server separation. They can tailor their capabilities precisely to the hardware and so take it to its limits, instead of having to be adjustable to varying platforms, hardware, software, and OSes. And they're using that fact. Not only are they squeezing all the performance out of things they can in the graphics and interface areas, they're also using the opportunity to load up the world with more active sorts of content -- such as games, including some serious, full-bore games that wouldn't be even vaguely possible in SecondLife. They're also taking some advantage of the fact that they know you own a PS3 by offering some integration with the games you may have, with things like trophies, downloadable content, and leaderboards built into the world.

For all that, the world feels very small and very limited. There just aren't that many areas and they're, oddly enough, even more separated and isolated from one another than SecondLife. Part of that is because you have to download each area as you go into it -- and "area" can be as granular as specific rooms in some places -- but at least that's only once. But it's more because the world is very small. They just haven't made a lot of areas or a lot of content.

Don't get me wrong. In some ways, starting out in PSHome, you feel a stronger answer to the "now what?" question than in SecondLife. SL can be so sprawling and so full of areas where nothing is happening and no one is standing, and it's hard to find where to go to see people or do stuff. PSHome throws you right into places where there's games to play, people moving around, and a simple, short menu of destinations. But that's mostly because there's just not many other places; the world is still quite small. So inevitably you'll end up where there's stuff happening, but by the same token, you won't always find anything to do once you've finished looking at the first few things. I imagine if I had more friends playing with PS3s, being able to run into them in PSHome might ease that.

But it's more than that. The key design decision behind SecondLife is that they didn't make a world full of content: they made a blank slate and the tools to build stuff into it, and then let the players create the stuff. That's SL's greatest weakness: there's a ton of really mediocre stuff. But it's also SL's greatest strength: there's just so much stuff, more than anyone could ever keep up with, and more than PSHome's developers can touch in a million years. Whatever you want, someone's made it, so there's no end of time you can spend looking for stuff and then tweaking it to your heart's content. In PSHome you can only sample a handful of places, objects, and things to do before you run out.

And I expect that PSHome is never going to open up the development tools, partially because of controlling the experience, but for a much less pleasant reason: PSHome is primarily a means of making money for them. (What else would it be? They're not in business to give toys away free.) In SL, since everyone can build stuff, there's tons of freebies, and most of the stuff you'd buy (with in-world currency you buy with real-world currency), you buy from other players. In PSHome, if you want any nice furniture, clothes, or other goodies, you buy them from Sony directly, and while $1.99 might not seem like much, when you consider the exchange rate between Lindens and US dollars, $1.99 would buy a fortune of stuff in SL.

It's not just selling stuff in-world, too. PSHome spends a lot of time promoting other PS3 stuff. Much of the stuff you can buy ties in with movies you can stream to your PS3, games you can play on your PS3, trophies to encourage you to play the games, etc. It's not too intrusive, and again, it will probably ease as more of the world is being built, but it is noticeable.

I also noticed that when I saw people, there seemed to be more immaturity, but I don't know how much to read into that. Is the pool of all PS3 players less mature than the pool of all PC users? Goodness knows SL has a remarkable number of immature dweebs making childish innuendo as if it were wit, but it's easy to not run into it -- you very quickly learn to avoid the "drop points" where new people get plonked, for instance. Maybe in PSHome the real problem is just that there aren't any other places to go.

All in all, I think PSHome could become a really great alternative to SL. It'll never be a full replacement since the exclusion of non-PS3 owners means it can't get big enough to displace SL, but its advantages could make it a lot of fun for PS3 users, especially those with PS3-owning friends. But they'll need to build it up a lot more. Even just making a bunch more "central plaza" locations would be a good start -- it'll thin out the crowds so they don't want to go too far and end up giving people the impression of not enough going on, but if they divide it into a few areas and then give them slightly different personality or hobby focuses, that would go a long way to making the world feel bigger and the people you meet more interesting, and be a first step towards making it feel more like a world than a tiny amusement park.

No comments: