Free for All: So about that PlayStation Home

PlayStation Home screenshot
My birthday is this week, so I thought it was time to grab a PlayStation 3 bundle, something I have been wanting for a while. Not only have the prices dropped for the consoles, but with the next generation coming out soon, I knew that many of the games that I wanted to get for it would be even cheaper. On top of that, the PS3 is the best console for MMOs. It currently hosts several, one of them being PlayStation Home.

My curiosity for Home has been fired up since I heard about it, but I've never before looked into it and have rarely heard anything more from it other than the occasional news story. Most of the time when I ask a PlayStation user about the virtual world, he'll just sort of shrug. It was about time I saw it for myself!

PlayStation Home screenshot
As a long time Second Life player, I knew right away that there would be many comparisons in my head between Linden Lab's darling and Sony's attempt at a virtual world. There are many similarities, but only because both are connected by the obvious social game mechanics. They're both virtual worlds, they both rely heavily on the selling of virtual products and personal spaces, and they both have a distinct look that is usually impressive but often quite ugly. The problem with both spaces and other virtual spaces like There or IMVU is that there is too often a lack of consistency. For a game world to look and feel right, there has to be a reliable style and design in that world or things feel mismatched and slapped together.

PlayStation Home screenshotIn a world like Second Life, a player can avoid a lot of the issues that come with ugly or mismatched content by becoming familiar with the in-game search. It acts like a miniature version of Google and will lead players to amazing spaces, all created by players. In Home, it can be a bit more challenging to find incredible zones to explore because there really aren't that many. The game utilizes instanced zones that are loaded as the player visits them, and many of the zones are open to all and so have a more consistent feel to them but also a lot less variety in that content. I can see the reasoning behind creating Home. Sony wanted to create a virtual space for hanging out and meeting up with friends, but the company wasn't trying to create an actual MMO. Instead, Home is just a small something to be enjoyed while you're chilling out on the couch.

More recently Sony announced that it was adding features to Home that would make it feel more like an MMO, but it didn't go far enough. In this age of actual, open-world MMOs like DC Universe Online and Free Realms existing on the same device (and made, technically, by the same company), Sony should just go all the way and create a free-to-play and (more) open world for players to play in. As it is now, Home is sort of stuck between an open world and instanced bits of content that can take much too long to download, even on a killer connection like the one I have. I can imagine a future Home that acts more like There, a social MMO that allows players to create content but puts that content through an official filter. Or, if player-created content must be left off or cut back, I would love to see Home on the PlayStation 4 invite players to explore beautiful areas more than it does now. Most of the time I spend in Home feels like visiting a shopping mall rather than a virtual world. The world needs more exploration and less monetization, something that I truly believe would result in more money being made. Relaxed players relax their wallets.

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Luckily, Home's player housing is cool. It's not unexpected but is certainly better looking than housing in most social MMOs I have played, and it also feels more solid. My default beach house overlooks an amazing town and marina, and I can only imagine how nice it would be if I could actually explore that town below. Many of the housing units come with beautiful scenery attached, but that scenery remains background imagery only. Again I am picturing the more-powerful PS4 and the possibilities it might bring to exploration and more complex personal spaces.

"The prices are quite fair, but I am so used to seeing those prices hidden behind virtual currencies that I forgot what real prices were."

Shopping is where Home really shines. I love the fact that all of the prices on the screen are in simple dollars and cents. I don't have to worry about exchange rates or swapping out my credit card information for "Home Bucks" or something else. If I see an item I want, it's listed in the exact amount that I need to pay for it. At first these real-world prices were shocking, but then I realized that what I was reacting to was seeing the actual dollar amounts, something I rarely see. The prices are quite fair, but I am so used to seeing those prices hidden behind virtual currencies that I forgot what real prices were. My only real complaint about shopping in Home comes from the lack of a really good preview mode. You can take a decent look at clothing items and other tidbits, but housing needs to have an easily accessible preview mode like the one in Free Realms. In that game, you see the home or space you want and click a large button to visit it. I imagine that the loading speed issues prevent Sony from adding in such an easy feature and that it would create a problem for people on slower connections, but social gamers are used to loading times if they've visited many games.

PlayStation Home screenshot
There are some neat choices for players who want to game while in Home. There are several different themed districts, each one offering pay-to-play and free games. In the action district, for example, I was able to load and play an interesting shooter that used cover mechanics and a post-apocalyptic design. The controls took a lot to get used to, but it was nice to see a game within a social game. There's also an adventure district, a themepark with rides, a sports bar with gaming, and shopping districts as well.

Home has been a lot of fun so far, even with the loading times. If the launch of the PS4 includes a relaunch or upgrade to Home, the device would be almost worth its price just for Home. There are quite a few players on every time I log in, but I guarantee that there is some seedy stuff going on. Again, though, any social game world fan is used to getting some bad apples with the bunch. Luckily Home provides tools for reporting and ignoring others.

Home and the PlayStation console are not providing me with an extraordinary experience. I can find all of the same types of fun on my gaming PC or even my Chromebook or tablets. The advantage Home and the PS3 has over my gaming PC is portability and ease of use. It would be nice to see some modern updates to Home, of course, but for now I'm having a lot of fun exploring and shopping.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.