Home, Sweet Virtual Home

The [Ad]vantage: Home, Sweet Virtual HomeIt's funny how times, and topics, have changed over the last year. We've gone from talking about seizing opportunities and exploring new platforms and emerging media to simply surviving to see another day. All it took was a little worldwide economic crisis to redefine our business priorities. Case in point, in the July 2007 issue of Media, I wrote about the newly announced Sony Home, a 3-D virtual world and community where gamers could meet, interact, play games, watch videos, listen to music and even own and furnish virtual homes - all via extremely customizable avatars.

At the time of Sony's announcement, virtual worlds like Linden Lab's Second Life and mtv's Laguna Beach were growing in popularity with audiences, including curious advertisers seeking to create unique, branded engagements beyond the typical marketing vehicles. Although full of potential, these virtual worlds weren't without issue and, as a result, advertisers sat in a wait-and-see mode for fear that the platform could backfire. In contrast, when Sony shared the vision of Home (part of its "Gaming 3.0" strategy), I believed it uniquely addressed key issues that others had yet to resolve. It possessed a clear strategy that insightfully defined a reason to exist, a true value to its target community, and an exponentially better user experience that was to be tightly integrated into Sony's PlayStation 3 gaming system.

It was also clear that Sony had planned for advertisers to be a big part of Home's experience and growth. These considerations could be seen in Home's environments, the interaction capabilities of the platform, and Sony's clear attempt to create a brand-friendly world that major brands would find more comfortable than other virtual worlds, thus creating expanded revenue opportunities for Sony, and engagement opportunities for advertisers.

Much to the surprise of us hopefuls, and to the dismay of many ps3 owners, it took Sony more than 14 months longer than expected to release the first open-beta of the Home experience. I went from saying "This is going to be huge," to "This thing may never come out." Well, they say that good things come to those who wait. In this case, it could very well be true.

Having finally experienced Sony's creation firsthand, not only is Home entertaining, visually stunning and rich with features, but it also engages visitors for long periods of time (hours, not minutes) - one of the longtime benefits of, and interest in, video games and gamers.

It has integrated advertising into the environments, similarly to the real world, just without the physical or technological limitations. For instance, when hanging out in Central Plaza, visitors can watch movie trailers on a massive video wall complete with 3-D sound.

Beyond virtual billboards, the real potential lies in the ability for brands to become part of the world itself. Red Bull, a brand taking part in the beta, has built an island surrounded by pristine water and giant rock formations resembling those found off the coast of Vietnam. Visitors can interact with other Home residents, step up to a Red Bull bar, or take part in a fully branded Air Race game, a sport Red Bull actively sponsors in real life. Players race their planes above the island and out over the ocean while blazing through rings and banking around pylons, all while exposed to and interacting with the Red Bull brand.

Of course, the potential of Home's value to advertisers is only as big as the PlayStation 3 install base. Despite rumblings last November, ps3 sales have been strong. Sony claims a 40 percent increase in sales between 2007 and 2008 with a huge 130 percent increase in sales from November to December, bringing the ps3 install base to about 20 million units.

What does that mean for Home? As of early January, less than 30 full days into the open-beta, users downloaded the Home software 3.4 million times and had already purchased more than $1 million worth of virtual goods. You can put me down for $20 of that. (It's rare you can buy a waterfront home with a bbq grill for that kind of money.)

Certainly Home - and virtual worlds in general - aren't right for every brand, especially in a challenged economy. And in its current beta form, the world is rather small. But for those interested in exploring its potential, you may just find there's no place like Home.

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