PlayStation Home has come a long way. I recently logged in for the first time in a quite a while, and I quickly realized I had been away for too long. It had gone and turned into Disney World; there’s no chance you see, hear, and experience everything in only one visit. And even after two hours, I knew I hadn’t even scratched the surface. So when I spoke to Home boss Jack Buser about the current state of things and the intended direction of Sony’s virtual social service, I had to admit: I’ve been out of it for too long. And now I also have to admit, I won’t ever be away for that long again.

We have some questions for Jack that he was good enough to answer; some are ours and some are from the readers but first, let’s get a general update concerning Home. This alone will likely pique your interest before we even reach the Q&A.

Jack: “Let me talk a bit about the evolution of the service since we launched. We announced recently that we had hit 14 million users worldwide, which is a great milestone for us and means we’re really playing in the major leagues now. The average session duration of a user these days is 70 minutes. That means that people are, on average, spending over an hour whenever they visit Home. And for people who really study these kinds of platforms, of all the needles, this is one of the most difficult needles to move; it really speaks to how engaging your platform is. How much is there, how much is there to do, and the fact that this metric is going up speaks to the amount of content on the platform. Home users tend to be some of the most engaged PS3 owners; they tend to play more games, watch more movies, listen to more music, etc.; they’re just a very engaged subset of the overall PS3 audience.

Right now, there are over 50 spaces in the North American Home alone and one other thing: we’ve thrown over 400 events in Home and this is very time-based, and unique to Home. Things will happen in a particular period of time and you have to be there in order to have that experience. For example, if you didn’t actually go to E3, you could log in and see a virtual replica of Sony’s booth. We had over 330,000 people visit our virtual E3 booth (which is a lot more people than actually attended that booth in person) and you know, that booth isn’t there anymore. You needed to have been there.”

“You need to be there” is a common phrase concerning PlayStation Home; that much, we now understand. As for the questions:

PSXE: Is Home going in the direction you envisioned when it first launched, or have there been some surprises? And what are the long-term goals?

Jack: “When we first developed Home; when the first concept of Home was ever envisaged, we knew that community would be an important part of next-generation consoles. But we saw a problem with the way consoles used the online system: notably, if I wanted to play a video game online with a friend, there’s only one or two ways to do it. I’d either have to know them in the real world and we had to have the same game and the same platform to play together, or I’d meet someone while playing a game, and add them to my Friends list. But you’d go on to the next game and totally lose track of that person; you’d never really get to know them. In the early days with Home, we wanted to solve that problem. We wanted a neutral environment outside of any particular game, where gamers all over could meet each other and get to know each other.

Home is still that but what we’ve learned along the way is that gamers love to play games, and it’s through games that they make these social connections. So we’re focusing on Home as a game platform; really, what better way to connect the users than through games? You can get all these great social interactions and now, it’s really tough to walk into Home without making a few friends. It’s that ability to connect with the PlayStation community in the context of games; this is our long-term vision: the idea that Home is a universal games hub.”

PSXE: So in other words, we can expect a bigger emphasis on Home exclusive games – and the general relation of video games to Home – in the future?

Jack: “That’s one of the things we’ve really been focusing on recently: get as many games in Home as possible. We already have over 100 games now. We’re focused on bringing those types of experiences to users; to bring true games to users; the kinds of games you cannot play on any other platform. One of the things Home brings to the gameplay experience is the idea of the social game experience; you’re seeing a lot of innovation in this on other platforms like Facebook. But with Home, we can really leverage the power of the PS3 console to really speak to gamers. Our social games aren’t necessarily super casual experiences; they can be like hardcore shooters but still fit inside the framework of casual games.”

PSXE: I played Sodium One for the first time last night; it was really very fun. We’re hoping that game is successful so we’ll see more like it…

Jack: “At GDC, we announced a couple metrics for Sodium One: it had 1.3 million engagements in the first 6 weeks in North America. If you look at Home as a game platform, it really solves some fundamental issues that developers have faced, like ‘how is anyone going to find my game?’ It can be tough to get noticed on traditional consoles; you might not ever get discovered if you don’t have the big marketing budget. But Home is a 3D user interface at its core; it allows gamers to discover games very organically. So you can see that with Sodium, over a million people in a few short weeks found it, and that’s the power of Home. In my mind, it speaks to the future of the industry.

And the other thing about this is that Home supports multiple business models. There’s the Midway, where you can buy 50 tickets (only $0.99) and play the carnival games, and some of the free-to-play games in the Sodium Hub. You can always upgrade your free experience to a premium one through virtual item purchases; with the Salt Shooter in Sodium, for example, you can play a five-level demo for free, but a one-time purchase unlocks the other 45 levels. You gain social capital by playing these games, so Home is very flexible.”

PSXE: Readers have asked about a Trophy Room in their own personal space; might that be added at some point?

Jack: “The first step towards Trophy integration has been to award virtual items based on Trophies in select games. You see that in SFIV and RE5; you get particular Trophies that you can actually take with you into a 3D Home representation. There are items for your wardrobe and apartment, and you can display them however you see fit. What’s Step 2? …I can’t talk about it yet but I can tell you the idea of Trophies in Home is one we are committed to, and we’ve already begun…”

PSXE: Will Home somehow integrate the new upcoming technologies, like PlayStation Move and 3D?

Jack: “Well, we haven’t publicly talked about those technologies in the context of Home but in general, Home is an evolving platform from a technology and feature standpoint. But if there are features or technologies you want to see in Home, please be sure to let us know. A good place to do that is in our forums, or you can let us know in Home (specifically, tell our community managers). That feedback guides development so while there’s nothing specific for Move and 3D just yet, please let us know what you want.”

PSXE: Considering the PlayStation Eye will be even more popular with the emergence of Move, might we be able to take a picture of ourselves and that as our true-to-life avatar?

Jack: “One of the coolest things we’ve done along those lines is actually something a lot of people don’t realize: we let you take any picture off your PS3 hard drive and allow you to display it in a frame in your personal space. That’s a fantastic way to share your photos with your friends. It’s real-time sharing, really. In terms of avatar customization, we believe the current state of the avatar systems is extremely powerful; the user can create a very realistic representation of themselves or do something entirely crazy (there are tons of hairdos, too). There are even costumes that can turn you into game characters, like SFIV fighters, for instance. We don’t have anything to announce at this time regarding the Eye but this idea of allowing users to further customize their avatars is something we’re very focused on.”

Side Note: We asked about how PlayStation Plus and Home might mix ‘n mingle, but that’s not something they’re willing to talk about just yet.

PSXE: When will we be able to play our own locally stored music or videos in our private Home spaces?

Jack: “We actually had an exciting announcement at E3; it was our first step towards music in Home. In a new space called the Playground – the theme was inspired by ‘80s Brooklyn – you can purchase a boombox for your personal space; this allows you to play music there. The music is the same music featured in the public spaces; ‘80s hip-hop and pop and stuff; this is just the first step towards experiencing music in Home.”

PSXE: For those who have never visited Home, what would you say to get them to log in?

Jack: “For new people, I definitely recommend checking out the PS Store where you can buy a Starter Pack; virtual items just to get you started and they’re heavily discounted. Beyond that, just come in to play the games. There are 100 games ready to go and you’ll make tons of friends; it’s just going to happen. A ton of it is free to play and more fantastic games are coming every day. So really, just try it; just check it out. Pop in and see what happens.”

I also added that it didn’t take anywhere near as much time a I thought to download all the new spaces I visited, and Jack said they’re “optimizing the platform like crazy,” so the load times are significantly shorter. He also reminds us they’ve got background downloading so you don’t have to wait all the time. If you hadn’t noticed, it has become apparent that Sony realizes gamers are gamers, and they want gaming-related reasons to visit Home. And so, that’s really the focus, here; Buser spoke about something called “Total Game Integration,” which is the idea that Home can expand on the world of the game. It basically works both ways: you’ll get things in games that will unlock items in Home, and even certain Home things will unlock parts of the game. This right here is a damn cool idea.

Last but not least, be on the lookout for a big Home-related announcement coming on Monday. We can’t tell you anything about it right now but based on the tone and subject matter of this interview, you can probably guess what it might entail… Anyway, we appreciate Jack Buser taking the time to talk to us and we must reiterate, from the PSXE standpoint: if you haven’t been there in a while (or have never been there), Home likely offers a lot more than you might think. Prior to my last visit, I might’ve been skeptical at the idea that the average Home visit lasts 70 minutes. But now I believe it…I’m actually surprised it isn’t more.

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