Home Beta Review
HOME, BITTERSWEET HOME
When 2008 came to a close, gamers were treated to not one but two gifts. In a changing climate that has game companies clamoring for their share of the casual market, Microsoft and Sony unveiled new designs for their graphical user interface, aiming for the G-spot of ease and fun of use. In mid-November '08, Microsoft threw down the gauntlet in the form of The New Xbox Experience (NXE) for their Xbox 360. Sony answered the challenge by releasing an open beta of their Home application for the PS3, as an adjunct to the XrossMediaBar (XMB).
For all intents and purposes, NXE is a dashboard relaunch. Its beauty lies in its simple interface and the charm of its cutesy but static avatars. Content is presented in frames with bright, colorful graphics. Compared with the old experience, NXE is essentially a facelift for the 360's interface, transforming it from bland grocery list to full color grocery ad complete with big, easily identifiable pictures. There's not much difference between the two, but the change is definitely easier on the eyes.
On the flip side, Home exists as an application that, once launched, becomes a virtual world for gamers to inhabit. Gamers logging on to Home will find a more sophisticated Avatar customization program than its NXE counterpart. Unfortunately, Sony forgot to stock the closet because there is a surprising dearth of clothing and accessory options. I found out the reason behind this stinginess soon enough. After exiting your virtual apartment, gamers can explore with their avatar and find a few cool locations to check out, including the Mall, Theater, and Bowling Alley, each of which must be downloaded in 15-30 Mb chunks before being accessible. Pressing the start button will bring up a navigation window that allows avatar customization, location jumping, club management, and game launching -- a feature that is currently compatible with only Warhawk.
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The Bowling Alley offers the most to do. There are arcade machines that let you play a few simple games like a modified version of EchoChrome and Ice Breaker. Playing EchoChrome wins you some clothing, a fun but underutilized idea. There are a few other interactive elements like the pool tables, a video screen running commercials, and of course, the bowling lanes.
The Theater runs movie clips and trailers. And that's about it for now.
The Mall is divided into two stories, with each level housing 3 types of stores: clothing, real estate, and home furnishing. Here it becomes clear that Sony intends to nickle and dime you for every piece of furniture, decoration, or clothing you may want. The price ranges from $0.49 for a pair of shoes to $4.99 for an additional summer home. When I saw this I asked myself, why aren't these free. They are in NXE. But more importantly, what is the point of paying for these items when there is no compelling reason to return to Home after your initial visit. Unfortunately, the public disagrees with me because Sony announced at CES 2009, $1 Million in revenue from items purchased in Home.
Furthermore, what's annoying with Home is the fact that with each successive update Sony posts, you are forced to download the entire package over and over again. So every time there are new stores or items in the Mall, the entire Mall has to be redownloaded and reinstalled. These are not small files, ranging from 15-30 Mb. To put this in perspective, Microsoft's game updates are typically 200-800 Kb in size and are patched on to the existing file.
Ironically, the most disappointing issue about Home is not delivering on its great potential as a gateway for gamers to socialize. Having been publicized for so long, one would assume development to be further along. Instead, gamers can expect to be greeted by anemic infrastructure. Special areas like the Uncharted Bar is a good sign of things to come, but having a bar that serves no drinks and a junky jukebox that doesn't play, replaces my sense of immersion with an uneasy feeling of being at a movie set instead of a living, breathing bar. And the fact that voice chat was stripped recently to resolve user connection issues hinders basic community features that Xbox users have accepted as basic necessities.
By virtue of being a beta, Sony expects Home's burps and hiccups to be excused, but bad manners will clear a room real quick. For now, social interaction is relegated to typing on your controller, a few interactive games, and lots and lots of pointless dancing. Until Home can lure users to log on every time they turn on their PS3 by providing innovative content that engages interaction between community members, it is a mute point how well your house or how cool your avatar is pimped out. Home needs more events like the recent 12 Days of Christmas, where gamers can win prizes by being the first to correctly answer trivia questions. Hope also comes in the form of the new Red Bull Air Race, where users can visit an island and race a plane; and the upcoming EA Sports Arena Complex coming in the Spring. But it takes a continual stream of fun content and support from publishers to create unique gaming spaces to prevent Home from becoming a boring doll house.