Speak to people of a certain age about PlayStation Home and you will probably receive one of two responses. You will either get shrugs from those who never “got” it, or you will see faces light up as the slightly awkward memories come flooding back from Sony’s weird and often wonderful experiment.
Initially envisaged as a 2D online space for Getaway: Black Monday, a game that’s biggest social impact was probably Michael Cera playing it in Superbad, PlayStation Home sprung to life in beta as a 3D social sim on PlayStation 3 on December 11th, 2008. Basically the console equivalent to something like Second Life, users could interact with each other, play mini-games, check out user-generated content and crossovers, and even watch movies. Oh, and get drowned in a whole load of advertisements.
Before the rise of social media, PlayStation Home was really ahead of the curve in bringing people together from across the world. My memories of it are spotty at best, me being an actually spotty teenager when it released, but I do remember how wild it felt to be chatting to somebody dressed up more fancifully than Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element with the option to go bowling with them just one incredibly long loading screen away.
Due to it being a free “game” with no subscription required for either the experience itself or PlayStation Network, PlayStation Home saw millions of users during its earliest days, and while no official figures have ever been released, estimates believe that 20 to 41 million users tried out Home at least once during its life. That means that half of all PlayStation 3 owners may have played with Home at some point, whether that’s to get wholly confused by it all or sink an absurd amount of money into the equally absurd amount of virtual items on offer.
It was a wild success in terms of players, but not that one that made Sony the tonnes of money they hoped, or at least enough for them to continue supporting it past the life-cycle of the PlayStation 3 and then onto the PlayStation 4. Despite huge player figures overall, the amount of active users for PlayStation Home eventually dwindled to the hardcore, though those hardcore players still helped it to turn a profit. Servers were shut down on March 31st, 2015, nearly seven years after launch. It never left beta.
PlayStation Home is looked back on now as being a little too ahead of its time for its own good, both technically and conceptually. The PlayStation 3 was perhaps underpowered for the kind of experience Sony wanted to offer, it beset by technical problems that saw simple movement being as difficult to navigate as the Switch eShop is now and many of its spaces just regularly flat out refusing to work. If it was to release for the PlayStation 4 or perhaps even the upcoming PlayStation 5, you could see PlayStation Home becoming something huge, especially now that Sony’s network and social infrastructure is much more solid.
They may be beaten to the punch, however. There’s been a lot of social sim games akin to PlayStation Home that have popped up over the last few years, the outlaw wasteland of VR Chat probably being the most notable (and notorious). As good as that bonkers virtual reality experience is, though, it’s not the regulated, properly maintained space that Home was, the amount of meme avatars running about being the perfect evidence of just that. Instead, it’s the monolith known as Fortnite that might become what PlayStation Home always promised.
It’s been the plan for a long time to make Fortnite more than “just” a Battle Royale game, or more than “just” a game overall. In December 2019, Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, replied to a tweet asking him about what he thought of the Fortnite experience, whether he saw it as more of a platform than a game. He replied that Fortnite is a game right now, but for them to check back in 12 months.
Fortnite is a game. But please ask that question again in 12 months.
Fast-forward to May 2020 and Epic’s reveal of Party Royale, a new hub for Fortnite players who want a break from fighting to be the last slender female skin standing. There are no eliminations in Party Royale, SCARs being replaced with paint guns and all kinds of silly ways of effectively playfighting each other. Players cannot use in-game text chat to talk to each other (at least so far), but emotes are basically their own language in the world of Fortnite, just as they were in PlayStation Home.
Party Royale compares most notably to PlayStation Home with both being places to check out virtual concerts that were ostensibly ad events. Steve Aoki and the like have held some clunky mini-concerts within Party Royale, which have always been pitched as experiments by Epic to see where they could possibly take it in the future; Marshmello and Travis Scott’s concerts within the “main” experience should probably be viewed as the ultimate end goal for what Party Royale wants to provide. But PlayStation Home did it first, Dizzee Rascal’s performance within the SingStar space preceding what Fortnite did by nearly a whole decade and it has the exclusive cosmetics to prove it.
A lot was made about Fortnite screening Christopher Nolan movies within Party Royale, which is surely the best way to consume the director’s work, but PlayStation Home did it first. In 2011, Home players could watch free movies via Crackle with up to 60 other players. Granted, nothing on Crackle has ever been as good as what Nolan has put out, but free is free.
It’s not just within Party Royale where Fortnite resembles the mad metaverse of PlayStation Home, however. Fortnite’s branded deals have become more and more commonplace as time has gone on, meaning that it’s now a game where John Wick can team up with the Demogorgon from Stranger Things to take on Batman and Captain America. Whole new modes and locations have been created just to try and rationalise these ads as experiences, including a downhill racer to help sell Nike Air Jordans and Pandora from Borderlands taking over a spot of the Fortnite map, to name just a couple. Compare this to PlayStation Home, which had specific spaces to help promote other games and brands like Red Bull and Coca-Cola, and the similarities become even more obvious to see.
Epic have done well to make this “commercialisation” a gradual process instead of the all-out splurge of ad content that was PlayStation Home, though. The crossovers in Fortnite started out with The Avengers, which was simply smart business to pair two of the biggest entities in pop culture because of the shared demographic between both. This has made subsequent crossovers more palatable for Fortnite fans, whereas PlayStation Home’s ad strategy was like using a gatling gun on a dartboard. Some of these ads are even organically weaved together, such as Fortnite turning up in Ralph Wrecks The Internet and Endgame to return the favour.
With Battle Royale as a subgenre perhaps not being as feverishly exciting as it once was, it looks like Epic are trying to make Fortnite last far beyond BR’s boom period to provide something for everyone. Fortnite is slowly becoming a social hub for players of all experiences and tastes, a game that evolves beyond its rough and ready PVE roots into something that’s seldom ever been seen before, and certainly not on this amount of devices in so many countries across the world. Whether Fortnite becomes its own OASIS or not and how it leverages the next-generation remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: PlayStation Home did it first.
Fortnite: Chapter 2 – Season 3 is free-to-play on PC via the Epic Games Store, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, and Android.
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