On March 31, 2015, PlayStation Home, the short lived social space for PlayStation 3, closed its doors for the very last time. For many PS3 owners, this went completely unnoticed. But, despite being largely a critical failure, PlayStation Home had quietly amassed a very loyal and free-spending community, turning the assumed mis-step into a commercial win for Sony. But with Home’s closure, its fans were now left in the dark, waiting longingly for an alternative that never game.
Six years later, some of PlayStation Home’s most loyal fans can’t let go. They make their voices heard through online petitions and YouTube videos campaigning for its return. It’s clear that PlayStation Home left an impression on its core audience, and they absolutely refuse to let this often ridiculed, yet surprisingly successful online experience fade away into just a memory.
But some of its most passionate fans have decided to take the next step, finding ways to not only completely restore PlayStation Home, but hopefully preserve it in video game history for generations to come.
This is the Inside Story of the fans who refuse to let PlayStation Home die.
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Nagato, a passionate PlayStation Home fan, has been working for almost two years with a team called Destination Home, a non-profit project attempting to revive PlayStation Home. They do this for not only the community's pleasure, but perhaps more importantly, games preservation - the act of archiving and restoring video games for future generations.
“Our goal is to not step on the toes of the actual companies and developers,” Nagato says. “We don't support piracy, we don't profit from this at all. This is something we're doing as sheer passion projects. What we want to do is just host games on our own servers for preservation purposes only.”
Preserving game history, in its essence, is about keeping a game’s code alive. This is something that’s made substantially more complicated when a game like PlayStation Home is not only online based, but unfortunately also long dead. But let’s rewind a little and answer a more pressing question: what exactly was PlayStation Home?
What began life as Sony's first foray into social space evolved into its own commercial beast entirely. At its peak it delivered a wholly unique digital experience, including month-long spanning ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), brand centric spaces loaded with virtual experiences, and even a digital recreation of Sony’s E3 presence to explore. But this microtransaction juggernaut of a game platform began life a little simpler.
At GDC in 2007, then President of SCE Worldwide Studios, Phil Harrision, took to the stage to announce PlayStation Home, a console-specific social platform where users could navigate 3D spaces to meet, talk, and play with other gamers. There would be zones themed around new releases, personal and community spaces, and the ability to customise your avatar.
But despite initially promising a winter 2007 release, PlayStation Home stumbled its way out of the gate a year later, with content in short supply and sporting a beta tag that would endlessly remain in place.
In spite of its flaws, though, the service began to slowly mount a following. People were spending time and (perhaps more importantly) money in PlayStation Home. Unlike it’s unquestionably more popular counterpart, Second Life (a 3D virtual world released for PC in 2003) PlayStation Home focused wholly on the PlayStation gaming community, giving them a space beyond the confines of specific games to meet with other PlayStation gamers. It even went so far as to help facilitate connecting like-minded players with the revolutionary option of immediately jumping in a game together, all within a 3D world. A key element to PlayStation Home becoming successful, though, was its accessibility. Anybody who had a PS3 could immediately boot up and play Home for free.
“Everybody knows the PlayStation 3 in the US was 500 or 600 dollars,” recalls Nagato. “I came from a family where we couldn't really afford that. So I used to beg my mom every Christmas. “I want the ps3, I want the ps3” and December 24th 2011 on Christmas Eve, I finally got a slim model of the ps3. My mom couldn't afford any games for me, so the first game I jumped into was PlayStation Home.
“I didn't even know what it was [or] how to even communicate with others,” he adds. “I thought it was just like a sims game and I really didn't think anything of it. [But] It was something I got immediately hooked into because it was just an extravagant space to meet people and really just talk about different cultures.”
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For some people, this digital social space was the main reason for them to buy a Sony console. “I got my PlayStation 3, just because of PlayStation Home,” says iAnony, a PlayStation Home fan so passionate about the game that he’s decided to recreate the experience in Dreams. “I wanted to play it so bad and I don't know why. Something attracted me to it.”
“I remember watching the early trailers released from PlayStation Home before it was released,” he recounts. “I thought it was the coolest thing. I remember getting my PlayStation and PlayStation Home hadn't been released yet. Eventually one update [comes] and boom, there it is. I installed it so fast, played it immediately and fell absolutely in love with it.”
PlayStation Home gave a home console audience a social tool that it’d never seen before. A chance to meet, explore, and play games with people worldwide, beyond the confines of a chat room, and to even find like-minded gamers to form friendships with, despite potentially being miles, or even continents apart.
“I'm from the US, so I used to play the US region of Home,” Nagato says, reminiscing about his globe hopping adventures in PlayStation Home. “I found out by making another PSN account from a different region, you could go to the Japanese region Home, or the UK. So for me, it was virtually experiencing different people's cultures and learning different dialects.”
“Most of my friends - even today - I met them in Home and I still contact them to this day. I kind of grew up with people [on Home] that were my age. It's kind of crazy to see; with some people who I'm really close with, they have families now and stuff like that.”
As Home and (perhaps cynically) its revenue grew, it began to expand, adding more and more tools to enable users to share time together. But in 2015, with the arrival of the next generation of PlayStation, the rumours of Home’s upcoming closure began to gain traction.
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“I just remember seeing a post stating that Japan Home was closing down,” recalls Nagato. “It was just a store that was closing down, not like the entire server, [but at] that time I'm putting two and two together. PlayStation 4 had just been released, PS3 had had its heyday. I could see from a company standpoint, that it was like “cut the plug on it”. That was kind of sad, because I've spent many hours, met a lot of friends on Home. For me personally - during my young adolescence - I had anxiety issues. [Home] was a way for me to communicate to people from the outside world, and actually share the same interests.”
For players like Nagato and iAnony, PlayStation Home had not only become an important part of their childhood, but their social space of choice, filled with memories. Without PlayStation Home, though, they lost the vital tool that helped them not only meet, but also enjoy their time together.
On March 31, 2015, with its loyal audience (and potentially a host of voyeurs) there to see the final digital sun set, PlayStation Home closed its servers.
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“I was in that video, I don't know if you've seen it?” says iAnony, failing to contain his laughter about how uniquely melancholic it was. “There's a video of when PlayStation Home closed. I was one of the people! It was a sad day. Without a doubt I did not enjoy that day.”
Nagato also has a clear memory of his final PlayStation Home experience. “I remember at 3am they cut the server. It was kind of crazy because the day after was April 1, so everybody thought it was [an] April Fool's Day [joke] or something? But it was not the case…”
“I remember just being sad. Like not even going to school the next day because it actually kind of affected me because I really don't have that community to really talk to [anymore]. I didn't have a PS4 at that time either, so I was stuck on PS3.”
With the closure of PlayStation Home not only was the service lost, but so was its data. Home wasn’t on a disk or a cartridge. You couldn’t play it offline. It lived completely within the servers that were now gone forever. The people playing Home on March 31 would be the last ever people to experience PlayStation Home. Or so they thought…
“Even when it closed I was trying to conceive like, yo, there's got to be somebody out there with the same interests,” Nagato says. “Home was such a great game, somebody's got to be smart enough to figure out how the client server works from the actual console to the server itself. So a few years later, voila, here I am.”
Nagato and the Destination Home team, sharing a love for PlayStation Home and a passion to see it return, began combing through all their PS3s for any stored data they could find. They solicited whatever local or cache files any Home fans could find left on their dusty PS3s, with a goal of being able to reverse engineer and restore the code.
“Imagine a lost game such as PlayStation Home that has its online server [and] Sony shuts it down,” Nagato says. “There’s really no way for the public to play such games without people archiving it.”
“Tons of games - not even just online based games - are lost every day from beta builds on old development consoles,” he continues. “So for me, preservation is really something important because one day, I would like to show… if I have kids one day - hey, this is what PlayStation Home looked like.”
Video game preservation isn’t just something limited to Nagato and The Destination Home team, though. Many game historians and passionate fans are currently taking important steps into preserving a still relatively young, but easily lost art form. One of those people is Kelsey Lewin, co-director of The Video Game History Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preserving video games and teaching the medium’s history.
“I came into the preservation world as someone who was just kind of frustrated with feeling like we were really only getting one small part of the story, or maybe the most popular parts of the story, but we were missing a lot of the little pieces,” explains Lewin.
“Part of preservation is not just keeping the ability to play the game alive, but also to keep the more ephemeral stuff still in our cultural memory,” Lewin says, explaining how the memory of our experiences is just as vital as functional components. “How were people talking about this game? What was this game in its context and how did that evolve over time? It encompasses a lot more than just the game itself. It's really the whole experience.”
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Other forms of media, particularly movies, have been actively working on restoration for decades. For video games though - especially ones housed in online servers - the importance in relative terms has only recently been recognised.
“Unfortunately, we have it pretty difficult with video games compared to other forms of media,” says Lewin, clearly frustrated by the situation. “We are dealing with the lack of ability to play these games In the future if we don't have the correct tools. Something like a Super Nintendo might stick around for a very long time - they're pretty hardy systems - but they're not going to stick around forever. And we need other ways, other than having an old piece of hardware to be able to use some of these mediums. So with something like art, or books - a purely textual, visual medium - you don't really have this sort of issue. There's a lot less going on with a still image, or even a moving image than there is with a playable, interactable thing that may require some sort of software emulation or otherwise to continue to access.”
“The way online server games work, it's much, much harder,” says Nagato. “There's a lot of data that has to be previously archived, without actually taking the hard drive from a console and dumping that and revamping it. Or basically taking that old data and revamping it by decrypting it and all of that fun stuff. Where reverse engineering comes into play is trying to figure out how to get the game and client server to work and how to get those two systems communicating”
Despite the challenges of reverse engineering PlayStation Home, substantial progress has been made by Nagato and the Destination Home team. As of this article’s publication, they’ve managed to restore and host over a dozen of spaces, mini-games, and the complete avatar customisation tool. Yet despite all the incredible progress, the project is still missing the vital ingredient, the key element that brought PlayStation Home to life: the community.
“With online and community based games, it's very difficult to preserve the entirety of the experience,” Lewin says. “Not just from a technical perspective, it's based on how many people are still playing, and kind of how the context of it changes over time. So playing PlayStation Home in 2021 is going to be a very different experience. Even if you're able to keep everything else exactly the same, it's going to be very different from how people might have experienced it in 2009.”
“What made Home Home was the actual community, really getting to communicate with other people. It was like going to like a virtual New York City,” says Nagato, a New York resident himself. “It was like actually meeting people from different cultures and different spectrums, so that's what I really enjoyed about Home the community.”
“The ultimate goal is to get an online client working for the PlayStation 3,” he explains. “Once I see another person in the lobby, I say hello and we can actually say hello together. That's something for our team - that's the grand day.”
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Reverse engineering isn’t the only way people are trying to resurrect PlayStation Home. There’s also an ongoing effort to recreate the social space within Dreams, the creation tool developed by Media Molecule and released in 2019.
“When Dreams was announced I immediately started a notepad on my phone and writing ideas of what I wanted to create,” reveals iAnony, the creator behind the Dreams project. “I was like ‘I want to make a PlayStation Home thing’.”
Despite perhaps lacking the technical knowhow that the Destination Home team possesses, iAnony decided to try to keep PlayStation Home alive in his own, perhaps equally creative way.
“I was a massive LittleBigPlanet creator,” recalls iAnony. “So even back in a Little Big Planet, I attempted to do a PlayStation Home type of environment. But it's very different in that game because it's a 2D platformer.
“So I jumped into [Dreams’] create mode and was like ‘I'm gonna make Harbor Studio’, the very first apartment in PlayStation Home. I put the blocks down and I shaped it. I'm like ‘This is actually pretty easy to do!’. After the Harbor Studio, it just spiraled.”
Despite basic 3D space creation appearing easy on the surface, iAnony decided to go above and beyond for his recreation. Not content on just building an illustration of the experience, he tried to capture the essence of what he loved about PlayStation Home.
“Every time I think about PlayStation Home, it's being able to customize my home,” he says. “Have my friends come over, check it out, and then customize while they're there and drop furniture on them and it’d be hilarious!”
“That's the first thing I did in Dreams. I made the Harbor Studio and when it was done I was like, ‘Alright, let's make the couch, and then let's make it so that we can move the couch!’.”
But iAnony didn’t stop there. When his replica of PlayStation Home started gathering attention in the Dreamaverse - Dreams’ online user generated curation tool - he began investing more and more time into the project, including adding any functionality where he could.
“I added things like the cash system that obviously wasn't in Dreams, but I want people to be able to get a virtual job in the game to earn money doing tasks,” iAnony explains. Right now I have the fountain game in the middle of Central Plaza, where you fly the UFO and get the collective bubbles, it's very simple. I also have a cheat code, if you can figure it out. It's in the main menu of the Dreams, the very first level, and you can get infinite money if you do it!”
Despite all progress though, iAnony has inevitably stumbled into the same issue Destination Home has. To fully replicate the original PlayStation Home Experience, you need the community.
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“Dreams was supposed to have multiplayer at some point, and it still doesn't, so I'm kind of holding back on it until that's available,” says iAnony, seemingly slightly frustrated at the tools holding back his long-term vision. “I feel like that is a massive part of PlayStation Home. It's showing your friends ’Look what I have, look at the furniture I have, and the house I have!’ Even though back then it was real money you were spending. Now It's like ’Look what I earned within the Dreams level!’ It's kind of hard to say where it's going from here until that's available. I like recreating it, but I also feel like single player isn’t the point of it.”
There’s no doubt there’s still technical hurdles for both Destination Home and Home in Dreams to overcome. And even if those are overcome, there’s still the question of whether a community can ever function again like it did in PlayStation Home at its peak. One thing that is unquestionable, though, is the passion for the project.
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“This would be literally the best time to have Home, because everyone is stuck in the house, can’t really interact,” Nagato says, referring to 2021’s real world pandemic and lockdown circumstances. “I would literally go on Home right now. I’d probably be in the playground, just listening to music and playing the horse game or something. Or just talking to people.”
“Working on this project is something that I'm doing surely for fun, I enjoy working on it every day,” he says. “So for me, it's like a passion project. So I will be doing this regardless. even with no one watching at all.”
The reality, though, is even if these projects never fully come to fruition, their current state still has important value. PlayStation Home is a snapshot in time; a relic of an era that, at its best brought people around the world together in a 3D social space on console for the very first time, and at its worst normalised flagrant use of microtransactions and advertising. But video game history isn’t just a record of the success stories, it also documents the mis-steps and failures. It’s about how the medium evolves, and as more time passes it’s more important than ever to make sure these stories are preserved.
“If you go into a bookstore right now, like a Barnes and Noble or something, and you look at the shelves that are for the video game section, there's about three or four books that are actually telling a story about video games,” says Lewin. “And then if you go over and you look at the music section, or the movies and film section, there are just hundreds or thousands of biographies and history books and just interesting stories that people are telling about these mediums. The Video Game History Foundation really wants to help usher in a world where people are celebrating video game history and continuing to treat this like the really cool art form and cultural medium that it is.”
Fantastic work by companies like The Video Game Foundation is already being done, but these are just the first steps in preserving an art form for generations to come. And despite all of PlayStation Home’s flaws, its moment in time has as much historical value as any other generation-defining piece of media.
Large companies understandably treat their platforms as commodities, and they are unfortunately easily discarded when they’ve served their commercial purpose. But for the fans, PlayStation Home is where they grew up. It’s where they learned about different cultures, and formed lifelong friendships. Those fans want to cherish these memories, and if companies won't preserve it, then it’s down to the people.
PlayStation Home may be gone, at least in an official capacity. But PlayStation Home will continue to live on in the passionate community that grew from it.
“People would just tell me ‘Leave that game in the past’, ‘Get a PS4’ or whatever.” Nagato says. “But for me, that game was something really profound in my life, and it's really about the community base for it. That's what made Home, Home.”
Dale Driver is an IGN Senior Video Producer, and he'd like to thank Nagato and Destination Home, Kelsey Lewin and The Video Game History Foundation, iAnony and Eric Sapp for the incredible artwork. Follow Dale on Twitter.Read More