If you have read my first post on PlayStation Home you will have realized, how impressed I am with the theoretical potential of this platform and how disappointed I am with Sony's actual implementation and (probably) strategy.
No, I am NOT saying that “Home is doomed” because it seems to be a hangout reserved for testosterone-laden young males (that is the PS3’s main target group, after all) or because it does not offer all the features of Second Life. But the features that are missing clearly show, what makes SL so special and – Yes, I still dare to say this – "successful".
It's User Generated Content, Stupid!
Basically, we are talking about user generated content. Second Life makes it easy, to add content – and monetize it. In Home its is impossible to add ANY form of user generated content without an individually negotiated contract with Sony!
It is other users who created 99% of the content, which makes up Second Life. The same is true for IMVU and (to a limited extent for There).If you want to know more, about the importance of UGC in gamespace and virtual worlds, please check out this excellent paper! Even the first three or four dozen sims in Second Life way back in 2004 offered more variety, more surprises, more innovation, more entertainment than Sony’s artfully crafted world.
No, I am not exaggerating. Home in its current state is utterly boring after 10 hours max – if you are not interested in harmless chat with fellow gamers; which is probably not a fault of the platform as this might be its intended purpose. If this is not Sony's only intention ... they should implement a few changes (namely: open it up for content creators) or put in a lot more effort into content creation themselves. The story of Google's failed Lively platform clearly shows that it takes more than just some cool 3D scenes and a friendslist to create a sustainable platform!
The technical platform is nice in many aspects. There is a lot of potential here. I am just not sure, if Sony will be able to fill out this potential and let the platform evolve into more than a 3D chat system. This skepticism has got to do with the tight control Sony obviously wants to keep on everything that is happening here and the typical business models Sony knows from its (console) gaming business.
Sony’s Content Strategy for Home
Sony is obviously following a strategy, where the additional content is expected to come from or is at least licensed from brand partners. The first ones are Red Bull (who sponsors an inworld "air race” game), Ligne Roset (a disappointingly limited line of furniture), Diesel (more streetwear consisting mostly of t-shirts and pants) and game companies. The US Home, for example, already includes two locations themed in the style of the PS3 games Uncharted 2 and Far Cry. Those locations are … well “locations”. There is no interactivity there, not even some simple competition, there are no events, no freebies no … you get it?
This is even more disappointing, as the PlayStation platform lends itself rather well to the implementation of great looking games. Red Bull's 'air race' is a good example. And actually I would have expected Sony to have more applications like this ready, to show off its shiny new platform. It seems that it is not easy, to develop games like this for Home, though. I am afraid, it might be nearly as hard as developing a new game for the PlayStation itself. This would explain the scarcity of interactive applications at launch - and it would be a catastrophe, IMHO. (We tried to get more information about developing interactive apps for Home but did not get any from Sony so far ...)
The strategy to base everything on existing brands and talk about additional content with BIG brands only, is certainly one, which comes from Sony’s experience with games. And it probably worked fine for these. I am not sure, if it will work as well in this new space, though. The next big thing for Home will be a "sports complex" designed and branded by Electronic Arts for example. I am sure this will attract a lot of Home users - but for how long? If Sony wants Home to be more than a chat room – I am not sure of that – it needs more “content”, more variety for avatars (shapes, clothes, skin, hair …), more ways to create interactive offers on a low budget. And UGC is the most efficient way to produce that. But that’s a scary idea it seems.
This concern is understandable, if you are a company trying to be perceived as providing “family entertainment” and, if you believe that user generated content in a virtual world will lead to flying penises. It is especially scary in the US market, where an exposed nipple can result in a state affair. That still seems to be a major issue for many companies contemplating virtual worlds and user generated content. I have to say, though, that in more than a thousand hours spent in Second Life, I still have to see a flying penis :) Legal problems surrounding UGC are a real problem, though. Other platforms, like There and IMVU are working examples, though, how this can be handled and still provide a community with a wide stream of interesting, user-generated, content. As far as I know, Twinity will use a similar approach.
I really wish, Sony would consider this route, too. I guess, everyone would benefit from such an approach (even in the watered-down model of There or IMVU).
Otherwise Home will probably stay very limited, as virtual worlds go. In its current state, Home is basically a relatively small chat platform with a few dozen different “rooms” (which are automatically replicated to a few hundred). You can not do much more than … well ... chat and hang around. The integrated games? They will be boring after a short while.
The Business Model of Home
The business model behind Home has not been discussed much by Sony executives. Watching the first incarnations of Home and Sony’s partnerships gives us some clues, though. It is probably a mix of binding customers to the platform (hard to break that down into hard numbers), selling virtual goods and sponsoring deals.
It will be interesting to watch how the micropayments (virtual goods) will develop over time. The first numbers, which have been circulated, were not too bad. I wonder though, if this will be sustainable. After you have spent some 20 or 25 dollars, you have bought EVERYthing, which you can buy in Home currently. And most of that won’t be too much fun. Actually, for most users, spending a max of 5 Dollars is probably a more realistic number. This might change, IF Sony gets the content pipeline going. More clothes, more variety with apartment types (maybe even some open space), more furniture would certainly help this line of business. It is my firm belief, though, that this will not generate a lot of revenue in the long run, if Sony does not open content production to a wider circle of producers.
Sponsoring deals are a different issue. Just now, I bet that Sony pays the sponsors to participate in Home-based projects (like EA's sports complex featured here). This will only change, if and when the number of regular Home users grows to a substantial number. This is a definite possibility, as every owner of a PS3 (some 20 Million worldwide) has access to home potentially. There has to be some incentive for those PS3 owners to go inworld, though. A classical “hen and egg” problem: PS3 owners won't use Home (a lot) if the entertainment potential of Home is not improved substantially, sponsoring partners are hard to convince to do such a deal, if there are not enough eyeballs to catch.
Then there is the additional question of which eyeballs to catch. Today, the PlayStation 3 is a typical "advanced" or "NextGen" console, which is bought by core or hardcore gamers mostly. In 2007 and 2008 Nintendo showed the world, that - while this target group certainly is not without potential - the high growth markets are elsewhere: within the female population, with younger kids and people well above an age of 30. This is where the Wii and the DS handheld are finding most of their buyers. In these markets you need a different kind of content. You can't attract a lot of women (especially in the generation above 35) with ego shooters, war simulations, car races, group sports etc.
Home as a Market-Extending Platform for the PlayStation3
But you could certainly attract them with "smaller", more casual games, with socializing games, with 3D communities and topics like fashion, household decoration etc. (No, I am not trying to start a sexist flame war ;-) For younger girls a Stardoll-like Barbie game would sell great - and would be much more attractive in a 3D world setting. And what is with a version of SingStar (Sony's bestselling Karaoke game for the PS2) for Home, which works like a MMOG? (Or extend this with avatars and fake fashion shows like you can see them in the Nurien demos). This would not be hard to do at all with the elements already inplace in Home.
Combine al of these examples (more can easily be developed by people more creative than me) and you could create a lot of good "reasons" for many additional PS3 sales outside the current target groups. A PlayStation3, which is a great looking, quiet (!) Blue-ray player, that has software available, which appeals to mom, dad and kids of all ages and genders would be hard to beat in the market. Microsoft's XBox is a hardcore gamers machine, does not have Blue-ray and is loud as hell. The Wii is not well equipped enough to work as a media center and lacks the graphic power you need for hard core games ...
Maybe I am exaggerating. Maybe I am overestimating the potential of the Home platform. But from what little experience I had in Home, I do believe, that this platform could help Sony broaden its market substantially. But to do so, developing for this platform has to be cheap and easy - to ensure a WIDE variety of content for every taste. Let's hope that Sony will realize this (or has realized it already).
Stay tuned for the next installment with some thoughts on Home as a business platform ...