The Untold Story of PlayStation Home, Sony's Most Successful Disaster

By Keza MacDonald on at

The world’s introduction to PlayStation Home was technically at the Game Developers Conference in March of 2007, but most of us will remember it from Sony’s E3 conference that same year, where it featured in one of the most legendarily cringeworthy presentations in E3’s long history. The conference opened with a virtual version of Sony America executive Jack Tretton – stiff, weirdly animated, with a strange face and a dour expression – walking slowly towards the screen, showing off the new Home Square, which was sparsely populated with other avatars. “G’morning ladies, looking good,” says the incredibly nervous real Jack Tretton, with palpable awkwardness.

Ten minutes later, showing off his “tricked-out apartment” (“I hope those hot chicks from the square will come by and join us!”), Tretton ‘runs into’ fellow Sony executive Kaz Hirai on the balcony, with some virtual hot dogs and burgers on the virtual grill, and the two have a staged conversation. “I’ll chill here on the deck,” says Tretton, as virtual Kaz walks off-screen.

It was stiff, pointless, and unintentionally hilarious – all descriptions that would often be applied to Home itself over its six-year lifespan. It launched on December 11th, 2008 and was closed earlier this year, on 31st March, never having shed that “beta” tag. Home was supposed to be a vast network that connected PlayStation gamers across the world in a virtual space, somewhere for them to not just share a love of games, but get together to play them too. Its reveal video from GDC 2007 describes Home as a “huge, worldwide PlayStation 3 matchmaking system”, somewhere to “meet up, hang out and explore a connected world”.

Home never ended up becoming that. What it did become was much stranger: an odd monument to consumerism full of expensive clothes, yachts, and aspirational apartments.

But it also became very profitable, which put Sony in a strange position: it could not quietly sideline Home because it was making too much money. Instead, it had to shamble on for more than half a decade, despite the immense technical limitations that prevented it from ever officially coming out of beta.

Publicly, almost everyone involved with Home has insisted that its development was relatively uneventful; that it went alright, if not entirely to plan. What I’ve heard over the past year from the wide selection of people whom I’ve interviewed about Home (some of whom worked at Sony at the time, some of whom still work there, and some of whom worked for other developers and companies that made things for Home) is quite different. I have heard tales of bizarre regulations, infighting among the various divisions and regional offices of Sony, third-party developers trying to make the best of a bad situation, and endless, insurmountable technical problems that hamstrung the project from the start. In many ways, PlayStation Home was a total disaster, but it still made a lot of money over its lifespan, and despite all its many, many limitations it was legitimately enjoyed by millions of people.

Despite never actually being finished, it became Sony’s most successful failure.

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I’ve harboured a strange fascination with PlayStation Home for years. I started playing it in early 2009 (though “play” seems like the wrong word; “observe” is perhaps more accurate). I was living in Japan at the time, and a friend discovered that Japanese PlayStation Home was one of the most surreal things ever to grace the PS3. This was largely thanks to a now-defunct developer called Irem, which pretty much single-handedly populated PlayStation Home in Japan with weird, interesting spaces.

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There was a matsuri (or seasonal Japanese festival) area with stalls selling masks and weird sweets, where you could play carnival games and walk up a hill to watch fireworks explode to a strict timetable. There was a bustling city shopping and nightlife street reminiscent of the Yakuza’s Kamuro-cho, or indeed its real-life inspiration, Tokyo’s Kabuki-cho. (That one did actually make it onto European PlayStation Home, but not until 2013, 18 months after it went live in Japan.) There was a little Japanese schoolhouse and a network of caves that involved solving riddles to progress.

Japanese Home, for a while, showed the idea’s potential. Were it not for the fact that hardly any of these spaces worked properly and all of them slowed the frame-rate into single figures when they were busy, you could see what Home could have been in these social quasi-games: a fun way to expand on popular games, and create places for people to come together. But mostly, I liked it because it was weird.

American and European Home were capable of unexpected surrealism, too; I’m reminded of the few months in 2009 when everyone was walking around in terrifying Dizzee Rascal masks, after the man himself “performed” in the Singstar space to promote his new album.

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There were hundreds of player spaces released for Home over the years, but by the end, instead of places to hang out or game-themed attractions, they were mostly either apartments to buy or places designed to sell you things, making Home a complex of malls and branded areas. A large proportion of Home’s devotees, meanwhile, seemed obsessed with always having the latest thing, decking their apartments in “designer” furniture and robing their characters in Billabong-branded virtual clothes.

Home’s update blogs became bizarre lists of new things to buy, accompanied by catalogue-style sales pitches (“This blouse and skirt leave a soft and simple impression. And OMG, how about those pumps?! You’re going to look great no matter how you wear these!”). It became a vortex of virtual consumerism and an extremely weird place to hang out.

***

Home began as an online mode for a PlayStation 2 game called The Getaway: Black Monday, which was being developed at Sony’s Great Marlborough Street offices in London. The team worked on it for almost five years in some form before it went into open beta as PlayStation Home in December 2008. Getaway Online, as it was known within Sony, was a kind of hub area for players to plan their strategies and team up for heists.

“The way Getaway Online worked was that you would have a lobby, a map of London, and there were pubs around the place,” explained one developer who worked on it. “You could meet in these pubs, plan a heist, and when you went to do a heist it would create an instance – kind of how Guild Wars works. The character customisation was similar [to Home], though much simpler, so you could have space marines, native Americans or American football players running around doing heists in London.”


The Getaway: Black Monday’s first chapter.

The Getaway: Black Monday took a bit of a critical battering when it came out in 2004, without an online mode. But in the meantime, within Sony’s walls, the idea had evolved expanded. Sony Europe’s vice president Phil Harrison had come on board with Home, envisioning it as something much bigger than what the team originally had in mind. It was referred to internally as the Hub.

“Phil came back to it and was like ‘imagine if we could do this with all our games’? So you could plan your racing strategy, your first-person shooter strategy, so on. That was what it was supposed to be,” I was told. “Phil Harrison described it as the 'space between games', a lobby system that would launch into any game. So when it came to be designed, the idea was that what was really important was the number of people you could get into a space, then the functionality with other games.”

Everyone I spoke to who was involved with this stage of Home’s development said that Harrison was vital to the project. It was his baby, and he managed to secure a great deal of internal funding without anyone having to really prove the concept as a commercially viable thing. A lot of other high-up people within Sony did not understand what the team was trying to achieve with Home whatsoever, which was a problem that persisted right through to launch, causing a lot of problems.

“I don't think Japan really got it, not for a long time,” one source who has since left Sony told me. “Their idea of online is very different from the western version of online. In Japan it's all about playing with friends, and playing in the same room – like playing Pokémon and sitting opposite each other. Multiplayer is more of a social thing in Japan, whereas what we were doing was more of a western thing: you'd meet people you don't know, through matchmaking services and things like that. I think they were like 'why would you want to meet people you don't know online?”

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SCE Vice President Phil Harrison, around the time of the PS3’s launch.

As Harrison championed the project and the resources that were being poured into Home started to add up, what had started as a PS2 game was suddenly expected to be a flagship game for the upcoming PlayStation 3, which led to some drastic changes of direction in the few years prior to Home’s announcement in 2007. “When we first started, the original idea was that as far as the style went, it would be PlayStation 2 and a half; we weren't aiming for benchmark PlayStation 3,” one developer from the early days of Home told me.

“Because we wanted characters you could change to look like you, simplicity is always best. Look at the Wii’s Miis: ellipse, circle, square, you can put beards on it. So we went down that route, did a male and a female and two sets of clothes, got it all together, it all worked, it looked great. It was not quite an anime style, but it was kind of influenced by it, with big hands, big feet, cute faces – comic book realism.

“We showed that to a group at Sony called the Creative Direction Group, and they're basically a sort of independent group who look over everything in the UK, making sure it conforms to the Sony look and feel. They deemed that it didn't sell the PS3. We tried to argue that that wasn't the point, but... to them it was a showcase.”

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After that, the whole character system had to be reworked. The team spent months developing a complex system that simulated human genotypes and created impressively realistic faces. But the problem then, of course, was that the characters were too detailed for the engine (or the network) to be able to support having hundreds of them in the same space. “If you make the characters really detailed, you can't have these beautiful characters in a boxy, dismal world,” recalls one developer, miserably. “They just said ‘it doesn't matter’. We redid our calculations... I think originally we were hoping to have between 256 and 128 people in a lobby, and that got cut severely, the cap at the end was about 50. So that had a huge impact on what Home was, changing the characters.”

This was the beginning of all of PlayStation Home’s issues: what was demanded of the development team was simply not technically possible. Instead of cutesy comic-book characters, PlayStation Home’s avatars ended up stuck somewhere between PS2 and PS3-era human modelling: in short, creepy. The one thing I’ve heard echoed by everyone I spoke to about Home is that the technology of the time simply could not support the original vision.

There’s an interesting technical reason for why everyone looks oddly similar and completely weird in PlayStation Home, incidentally. Originally, the character creator was based on racial characteristics (Asian, Northern European, African, Aboriginal and so forth), but in the final character creator all the different facial features and bone structures were just mashed up together. Instead of blending together real faces to create a believable human, as was the original intent of the character creation system, what you’re doing with Home’s character slider is blending cobbled-together faces with other cobbled-together faces.

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Style-wise, Home changed a lot over its half-decade of pre-release development. It wasn’t just the look of the characters that went in a completely different direction. Before that, the team had created amusing pet companions like hover-dogs and monkeys, unique emotes, all sorts. “When we started it was very much anime influenced, crazy, neon strips, and so that's what we did, but then they wanted everything to be much more simpler, more vanilla, like a lifestyle advert where everything's white and everyone's wearing white... it wasn't that it was hijacked, it was just part of that phase of having lots of different producers, slaloming between their visions.”

When Phil Harrison left Sony at the beginning of 2008, after Home had already missed its first scheduled release date of Autumn 2007, the team was extremely worried. “For quite a while Phil Harrison was the champion of it, and the only champion of it, and when Phil left we were all terrified that it was going to go out of the window,” recalls one team member.

“There was a period where we went through as many producers as Spinal Tap went through drummers. Senior management didn't really know what [Home] was, so we had one guy who was really good at free-to-play stuff, another guy who was really traditional, and they just kept throwing producers at it because it didn't quite live up to what they were hoping I think. Meanwhile we were still trying to make the thing we set out to make, so yeah, that was kind of odd.”

A man named Oscar Clark was brought in at the beginning of 2008 to sort Home out for an expected Spring 2008 release date, wrangling all the different requirements from all the Sony territories (his official job title was "Home architect"). Recalling the project in a 2013 interview with Eurogamer, he said: "They were going for launch, and basically they didn't have a product, as far as I was concerned. There were some fundamental pieces that just didn't work as an idea." It eventually went into open beta more than a year late.

***

After Home actually launched, all of the technical problems that it already had were compounded by network restrictions. As anyone who downloaded Home in the early months will remember, it sometimes took a full ten minutes to download all the assets for a new “space” before you were allowed to enter it (and even then, only if there was room).

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“There were too many assets; everything was so detailed, the loading times between spaces were insane,” recalls a developer who left the team around the time of Home’s eventual launch. “It needs to be 'I'm going here, I’m going to do this thing', not ‘I'd like to go here, would I like to wait ten minutes to download it?’”

What’s more, once you’d finally downloaded a new space, there was rarely anything to do when you got there. If something did get popular within Home, it became near-impossible to actually experience it because of the restrictions on how many people could be in the same space at the same time. Popular attractions within Home were almost always full, and even if you managed to get in, the performance left a great deal to be desired.

The few decent games (or quasi-games) that were actually released in Home brought the whole system to a standstill. In Japan, one April Fool’s day, Irem ran this crazy event that turned several Home areas into a bizarre RPG, and when you levelled up your nose extended like Pinocchio’s. For several days, there were people running around in robes with ludicrously long noses at about 5 frames per second.

Technical limitations were at the heart of everything that anyone tried to achieve within Home, and they were exemplified by one of its flagship ideas: The Hall of Fame, a personal trophy hall filled with each player’s individual virtual achievements. (This was referred to as “Total Game Integration” by Home’s early producers.) This was an idea that never actually happened.

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The Hall of Fame, shown in Sony’s promotional shots from 2007.

“At one point they were hoping to have physical 3D Trophies in Home corresponding to different games, but nobody had the time to make 50 objects for every game they released,” explains a source who worked at a third-party studio that did a lot of work with Home. As a result, Sony ended up getting third-party studios to make assets for games like Uncharted and Ratchet and Clank to use in Home, as nobody involved in the actual making of the games in question had the time or inclination to do it themselves.

“It was just very stressful for everyone concerned. The external studios were in crunch, so sending stuff to us was their lowest priority. Sony were often chopping and changing what they wanted because they were presumably wrangling with multiple different marketing teams trying to appease them all. And the artists would get frustrated because obviously the items would never look as good in Home because of Home's various weird problems and limitations, so they'd feel like these studios they admired would be judging them.”

Unfortunately, making something for Home and then getting it into the virtual space was an unnecessarily complex process. Originally it was supposed to be a kind of drag-and-drop system where artists could use a standalone Sony-created tool to create branded clothing and objects with their own assets, but that never came to pass.

“The system of getting assets into Home was an absolute nightmare,” admits a member of the Home team who also worked with third-party developers. “I worked on it, and I needed another company to help me figure it out. This stuff was monstrous.”

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“Users were always frustrated with how long it took us to fix things, but it was often because the systems behind everything was broken,” adds the third-party developer. “The Sony Home team were great, but there weren't many of them, and they didn't seem to get much support, so we had to figure a lot of things out for ourselves, or find convoluted workarounds… One weird thing was that the character models for male and female were totally different, so creating male/female variations of things was essentially creating two things. But Sony were always touchy about technical limitations, so we couldn't just tell the users that, and they'd get really annoyed if we only did one gender of something for budgetary reasons.”

This is why, despite the proliferation of non-games-related branded spaces and personal/public spaces from third-party developers, there were never all that many Home spaces that actually corresponded to popular video games: it was just too annoying and difficult for developers to make things for Home. There was never a Call of Duty space, for instance, though there was quite a good one for Assassin’s Creed II. This lack of big-name game inclusion was one of its biggest failures in the eyes of PlayStation’s core fan base.

“I think a lot of users turned away from Home because that lack of connection with the games they loved,” agrees the third-party developer. “The core would always be there regardless, but I think Home could have been more popular if they'd had a more integrated approach from the start and made Home easier to work with for devs.”

***

After about 2011, from the outside, it looked like Home was increasingly handed over to third-party developers like nDreams and Veemee to see what they could do with it. In the first few years some genuine attempts at games were made, like Sodium (which was originally going to be a 4-part game, but only made it to part 2) and the shonky-but-still-just-about-functional Mercia. But after the first few years, it became clear that games didn’t really work in Home. What worked, instead, was selling people cosmetic items.

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“Games weren't really worth it, at all,” a source told me. “We tried a variety of different things, but it seemed what Home users loved most was dressing up and hanging out. They couldn’t get enough of things like yachts… I enjoyed some of our Home games, but there's no way I would have actually paid for them as a user, when I could have been playing games that didn't require multiple load screens and downloads to use.”

Home’s transformation – from ambitious gaming network to a kind of lite Second Life where there was nothing to do but go shopping – was gradual. People at Sony didn’t really know what Home was when it launched, but after a few years, everyone seemed to understand that it was a good way to sell people things.

“It wasn't so much hijacked as that's just what it became,” says a former member of the Home team. “It had to make money. We'd spent so much time on it by then.” It was certainly an odd thing for its development team to witness, though.

“I remember there being a discussion among the development team when they first started discussing the idea of putting clothing in, things you could sell. [We thought] generally, anything you buy shouldn’t cost more than 50 pence, things like earrings, headphones. Anything that's small, people would buy. That's where we thought it would be going. Then the first items that went on sale... I think it was a Santa suit and a snowman suit, and they were something like £7.99 to buy the entire outfit. We were just like 'are you drunk!?'”

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Home items were indeed notoriously expensive, though Home’s users would regularly kick off in the forums when they thought something crossed the line. I recall that in the early years of Home you could buy a handbag for a ludicrous $4.99, but over time the pricing evened out to the point where even a yacht only cost $9.99. There were thousands of these items: every new update brought new gestures, clothes or decorative items to buy. You can still browse an archive of the item database here. It’s endless.

“I remember when we were discussing where we wanted Home to place in the marketplace, we wanted it to be as far away from Second Life as possible, but I think ironically it ended up in the same place,” said a source. “What’s the point of going to a virtual space where anything is possible and buying clothes and furniture? I don’t get it. At least in Second Life you could be a squirrel on wheels.”

“Home was actually really good at giving devs freedom to make virtual goods,” I was told. “The American version of Home in particular had no major restrictions on what we could do, so it lead to us making some really inventive stuff. But there were restrictions for different regions. Japan and Europe wouldn't allow any clothes that were too revealing, or anything that hinted at blood or gore; Japan also had a restriction all of their own where we had to place what they called, rather wonderfully, 'a panty cap' on dresses so players couldn't look up the female avatar's skirt.”

What’s most strange for me about what Home became is that there was a passionate group of people who loved it. You only need to look at this tour of the Dream Yacht on Home fansite PS Home Gazette to get a taste of the enthusiasm that people had for these virtual objects. Home’s transformation into a vacuous virtual storefront seems sad when you think about what it was originally intended to be, but people loved it anyway. And they spent a lot of money on it.

***

One thing I could not get out of Sony (or anyone else, for that matter) was exactly how much money Home made, but I got the impression that it was a lot. Sony has always kept any actual numbers about Home’s profitability close to its chest, though it’s always been happy to rattle off other numbers, claiming anything from 20 to 41 million users (meaning “anyone who downloaded and used the client at least once”) and long “session times”. But as for the money? Given the astronomical cost of Home’s development, it might not have broken even. But then, maybe it did. What’s certain is that Sony could not afford to shut it down before this March.

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In an interview with Gamasutra in 2010, Sony’s Jack Buser (who was Home’s director at the time) said the following: “We haven't talked too much about the platform itself, but what we have said is that every mature virtual item we have ever created has been profitable… We've released over 5,000 virtual items on the platform, and we know that once those items reach maturity, they are profitable. So you see us creating a tremendous amount of virtual items, because it is such a high margin business for us to be in…  I would say that it is a very good business model for PlayStation.”

One source told me that to the best of their knowledge, this was true. “Home always had a huge amount of traffic, it had a very loyal following. My personal understanding has always been that it was incredibly profitable,” they said. “It was obvious when you spent some time in Home: you'd always see players walking around with paid-for content. I've seen developers who exclusively built Home content for many years and their studios kept growing, so that's quite telling.”

Brand integrations like Red Bull’s spaces and the Pottermore areas, meanwhile, have been described as “multi-million dollar deals”. Home certainly was profitable for the developers that ended up providing almost all of its content in the latter days, like nDreams, whose CEO claims they earned seven-figure sums from Home for several years. Home might have been a failure in many ways, but commercially there’s every indication that it was, somehow, a success.

***

PlayStation Home’s last day was much like any other, only slightly more populated. Stiff, strangely animated avatars crowded around on the beach, in the square, in front of the screen that used to show endlessly buffering adverts and trailers for an odd assortment of products, doing the Running Man for the last time. I wandered around listening to people’s conversations; some people were expressing their regret that Home was closing, or sharing memories, while others (like me) clearly hadn’t been back in years. “I’ll have to find something else to do after school,” said someone. “I’ll miss Home, but also kinda not,” said another. I have to remind myself that everyone is reminiscing about a product that, despite just over six years on the internet, was never technically released.

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“Home was incredibly iterative, you can see how much it has changed over the years,” reminisces a former member of the team. “The sentiment was that Home could only come out of Beta when it was 'done'. And of course it never was.”

“It was a huge success, a profit-making thing, probably the biggest selling, for something that doesn't sell, and certainly the most users of anything I've ever worked on,” says another. “But what it was going to be, and what it became were very different. I mean, it paid the mortgage, but a lot of people were very disappointed. It did some things that we weren't expecting it to do, but it never really did what the original core team wanted."

Despite their involvement in it, nobody I spoke to about Home could really put their finger on what it was about home that made it popular with the people who did love it. “From the small amount we saw of Home fans running competitions and the like, they were often outsider types with little confidence, but in Home they could stand out and show off and feel good about themselves,” said one person.

For me, though, I think that perhaps Home’s brokenness was part of its appeal. The first person I talked to for this story put it best: “People like an underdog. Kind of like a three-legged greyhound, it could almost run.”