People keep asking me what I think of Sony's PlayStation Home, the virtual world for the Playstation 3 which just launched in Beta last week. It's an affirmation of Second Life's influence that such a large media corporation would consider experimenting in the same space-- but then, that was also the case of Google, and their ill-fated virtual world Lively. In both cases, however, all I see is a behemoth company struggling to replicate SL, but constrained by their very nature to really do so. After an initial burst of post-launch interest, I would be extremely surprised if Sony Home garnered more than a few hundred thousand recurring users, or if it's not discontinued outright by the end of 2009.
Why do I say that? Five reasons stand out to me:
Home's potential user base is relatively small, and not likely to increase.
A web-based virtual world like Habbo can be played by pretty much anyone with a Net connection and a Web browser with Flash-- in other words, by several hundred million people. A downloadable, 3D virtual world like Second Life requires a fairly new graphics card and a broadband connection-- in other words, a percentage less than that. (Let's conservatively guess 100 million.) From that huge potential user base, Habbo has 10 million active monthly users, and Second Life, half a million.
A console-based virtual world like Home, by contrast, requires a Playstation 3. At the moment, however, less than 18 million people own a PS3, according to VGChartz, and that number's growing at a glacial rate, especially when compared to the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii. If Second Life can only retain a half million users from the hundred million plus who could use it, and the tens of million who regularly play 3D online games, what do you think the mathematics of retention will be for a platform with a far smaller audience?
Successful virtual worlds need women. But few women own a PS3.
To me, this is the largest stumbling block. Habbo, Gaia, Second Life, every successful open-ended virtual world I can think of, has near-equal gender parity. (MMORPGs are male-dominated, but then, they have a game structure.) Trouble is, very few women seem to own a PS3. I wasn't able to find a demographic breakdown, but in a 2007 consumer study at this .pdf link, the PS3 among the top ten must-have devices among men, while it didn't register at all with women. (Who expressed a strong interest in the Wii; largely thanks to women, by the way, Nintendo's Wii Fit is now outselling Grand Theft Auto IV.)
Without women, your virtual world looks like this: dozens of male avatars pathetically ramming themselves into the few females who dare to enter. (Or perhaps more likely, the few dudes who decided to cross-dress their avies.) Video possibly NSFW:
(Thanks to Dusan Writer for this link.)
Lack of internationalized keyboard-based communication will prevent community of hardcore users from taking hold.
I believe the lack of a keyboard has prevented any virtual world from succeeding on a console. Text chat adds richness to communication, creates bonds that extend beyond the avatar visuals and the virtual space. Voice chat does not seem to be a viable option; the virtual world There has had VOIP for years, and that's done nothing to build its user base. Arguably voice chat is a detriment to growth, since it forces people to immediately reveal a lot about their real life identity, and very few people are extemporaneously witty and charming in voice. Further, a large percent of the Playstation 3's audience is in Japan, making this communication problem even worse.
Dearth of user-created content will drastically increase development costs.
By description, Sony Home will allow an extremely limited amount of user-generated content. Beyond the utopian "build your own world!" rhetoric of Second Life and other user-generated platforms, however, there's actually good hard-nosed capitalistic reasons for embracing UGC: developing and maintaining a world, constantly adding fresh content to keep existing users interested, costs money. A lot of money. Even in economically prosperous times, this burn rate would increase the pressure on Home developers to show return on investment quickly. Which brings us to the next reason Home is so unlikely to succeed:
Sony corporate woes put under-performing properties in the hazard.
After a recent layoff of 8000 employees and many more contractors, Sony's Playstation division is under review, with underperforming properties likely to get the axe in these recessionary times. Google killed Lively after only a few months of failure; with the economy in even worse shape now, how long do you suppose Sony will let Home muddle on?
Despite the foregoing, Sony Home may still carve out a niche. If they were to ask me, they should link it with Little Big Planet, which enables user-generated content, and is appealing to women. For now, however, it's very difficult for me to see Home surviving 2009 as a successful property.
Image above: a comparison to Sony Home and Second Life in Shadowdraft.