Sony’s Virtual World: No ‘Home’ Run

About a year ago, Sony used the Engage Expo conference in New York to showcase PlayStation Home, its much-anticipated virtual world aimed at gamers. Around that time, Red Bull was even touted as one of Home’s first sponsors.

This year Sony sat out Engage, and it seems that all’s quiet on the Home front. The product has disappointed both users and advertisers. In fact, Red Bull remains one of the few non-endemic advertisers to carve out space in the world.

According to some digital buyers, Home exemplifies Sony’s slow-footed nature when it comes to embracing advertising. Though many champion Microsoft’s Xbox Live as a platform that delivers true media convergence while providing numerous attractive ad opportunities, Sony’s equivalent PlayStation Network is seen as lagging. That’s probably driven by the companies’ disparate heritages. “Microsoft has MSN,” said Jon Epstein, CEO of in-game ad firm DoubleFusion. “They are much more of a media company than Sony has traditionally been.”

Sony says that PlayStation Network, which launched three years ago, has 40 million users globally, compared to 20 million paid subscribers for the older Xbox Live. Meanwhile Home, which debuted in December 2008, just passed 11 million users globally.

But many doubt that Home has much consistent usage.

“From moment one, it kind of felt clunky,” said John Rafferty, creative director at Publicis’ Denuo. “And once you got through that, there wasn’t much there.”

“I don’t see how it’s relevant to the casual or hardcore market,” said Leigh Alexander, news director of gaming site Gamasutra. Alexander explained that Home was developed during a period of intense hype around virtual worlds—where many were predicting that average adults would socialize via avatars with people across the globe and even gather virtually to watch movies and play games. But most people remain satisfied with reality-based social networks like Facebook. “Everyone was looking into making the Web more 3-D,” she said.
“One of the lessons we are learning on the Web—users want to do things as quickly and easily as possible even if that means static Web pages.”

Thus, Home is a nonstarter for many buyers, especially when PlayStation often demands labor-intensive six-figure deals. “There’s just a huge barrier to entry for advertisers,” said Denuo’s Rafferty, who added that after an early push, he’s heard little from the Sony sales team regarding Home.

Sony officials say that they have added more games and activities to Home to encourage usage. And brands such as U.S. Army and Fox have run recent campaigns in the world. “PlayStation Home offers partners a chance to cut through the noise and actively engage directly with a large, targeted, and highly desirable consumer base,” argued Jack Buser, director of PlayStation Home. “Over 30 partners have recognized PlayStation Home as an interactive platform to convey an immersive brand experience.“

“Home continues to get richer and richer, said Epstein. “I think that it is just now coming into its own.”

Regardless, advertisers say are much more interested in PlayStation Network, the Web-based hub where gamers can download movies from Netflix, play games, surf the Web and shop in the PlayStation store. But while media companies heap praise on Xbox Live as a powerful distribution channel for content, PlayStation Network isn’t seen the same way.

And while Xbox Live hosts custom games and microsites for brands like Doritos, PlayStation Network only advertises content that it sells. “It was not really built with an advertiser’s mind-set,” said Rafferty.

Still, others do credit Sony for slowly getting its act together. “Sony is a little more conservative in embracing their system as an ad platform. They just have less people,” said Dario Raciti, director of Ignition Factory at OMD. But he believes PlayStation Network has closed the gap in terms of content and features. “I think they are starting to go down the path of being more competitive with Xbox Live.”