Like many of you I've spent the holidays traveling to and visiting with friends and family. Though this afforded me ample free time with which to re-connect with my PSP (and finally get into Jeanne D'Arc), it also meant bidding adieu to my very unportable PS3. For several evenings prior to leaving I milled around in Home, trying to strike up a conversation, channeling my inner Dude, and avoiding the temptation to Quincy. I was genuinely interested in trying to make Home a social platform, a place to meet other people and chat about life, the universe, and maybe - though not necessarily - games.
It didn't work so well.
Home, like many other things on and about the PS3, seems to invoke highly polarized reactions among critics and players. I've seen it on recent end-of-the-year lists as both one of the best applications and biggest disappointments of 2008. As the holidays are one of the few occasions I get to re-connect (and game) with a real-life social network that I've developed over the years I spent some time with them ruminating over why I don't have anything close to this kind of network of friends on the PSN and whether Home could provide it. Basically, before making any judgments about what Home lacks or where it fails to live up to expectations we need to really think about the question: what do we want out of Home?
The closest real-world analogy to the sort of environment that Home seems to aim for, in my mind, is arcades as they were (in the States) about 15 years ago. Back in high school my buddies and I spent as much or more time socializing in arcades as we did actually playing games. Even as recently as 7 years ago, when the DDR craze finally hit the East Coast, I found myself making new friends in between butterfly turns. That world is, sadly, long gone, its closest approximation being the occasional gaming cafe or LAN center that offers gaming by the hour on high end rigs and HD screens, sparse neon lighting, and "customer service" staff that range from apathetic to downright hostile.
What I want out of Home is some sort of social aspect beyond gaming. If alcohol is the social lubricant that makes bars good hangouts, games can be just as much of one given the proper atmosphere (and sometimes you can get the best of both worlds).
Maybe this will resonate with some of you: I don't have a great number of people on my friend's list - few enough that I never had to worry about Wipeout HD crashing. Only two of those are people I know offline and rarely have the opportunity to game with. The rest are people I added as a result of maybe a half hour of enjoyable play in a particular game. At most I may game with them a few more times and afterward I'll probably forget what game I met them in. These "friends" occupy a level of relationship to me only slightly higher than the random people that matchmaking services pair me with. I might feel some connection with them - enough not to play cheaply and not to suddenly drop the game without a "laterz" - but I don't play with them often enough to know more about them than perhaps the particular patterns they use in GTA.
For deeper and more long term relationships with people we must be capable of personalizing them - associating them with individual, idiosyncratic characteristics - over a sustained period of time. A simple PSN ID with an associated stock 2D "avatar" is incapable of providing that. Even if you have a mic and chat during the game (and I'm constantly amazed at how many people don't have or use a mic), unless that sort of conversation happens to take a turn away from the specifics of the game you are playing it's unlikely to make a lasting impression. At the same time there's something forced about trying to shift the conversation away from the task at hand, namely, the game being played.
This, of course, is one of the the things Home promises. It's too unwieldy (and again somewhat forced) to initiation a "chat call" through the XMB. To approximate a more real world situation you need to be able to chat with people while they're playing a game (even if you're not) and have a stock of games that you both can play. Achieving this in Home would mean being able to chat with our friends even if they aren't in Home and giving us more multiplayer games besides bowling and pool. Further, it would be nice to have more information about what other games people own or have played recently (trophy lists are a start, but not a reliable measure). The idea is for there to be a solid foundation for users to socialize independent of the games they own - possibly even independent of the games they like to play. As a a tool for social interaction the games, remember, are the lubricant, the means to forging relationships, not the end in themselves.
Thus far I haven't added a single person that I met in Home to my friend's list. I've also never met some folks in Home and decided to play a game with them (other than in-Home bowling). As a matchmaking service Home is greatly inferior to the matchmaking services within games themselves (well, perhaps not Age of Booty's...) so if I'm looking for a Team Fortress group I'm booting up my copy of The Orange Box, not shouting LFG in the Central Plaza. But that's not really Home's purpose. Home isn't a place to meet people to play games with - it's a place to meet people.
Is this happening for you in Home? Do you find Home more useful as a place to meet new gamers or as a social outlet for friends you met in games outside of Home? What does it need to make it a viable tool for both?