Updated: All Quiet on Sony’s ‘Home’ Front

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 didn’t make the trip to Engage (according to officials, Sony and the conference organizers couldn’t work out an appropriate topic to cover). Since last year’s keynote presentation, the initial excitement surrounding Home appears to have dampened; the product has disappointed many users and advertisers. And though Red Bull has been joined by a handful on nonendemic brands like Toyota, 7-11 and Fox in the world, according to some digital buyers, Home exemplifies Sony’s slow-footed nature when it comes to embracing advertising.

Indeed, many champion rival 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 have run recent campaigns in the world. Jack Buser, director of PlayStation Home, acknowledges that the company was initially focused on making sure that the site worked. Since launch the company has dialed up the number of things for users to do, yielding “ an extremely, extremely sticky platform.”  

“There is a tremendous amount of content in Home,” said Buser, who added that 85 percent of users have visited the world a second time, and average users sessions last 60 minutes.

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

Buser also disagrees with the notion that advertisers need to spend big money to work with Sony on Home. “No matter what the budget is, advertisers have a large number of turn key options in the world.”

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.