A Home Run for Sony? 

Online virtual worlds have certainly been growing in popularity in the last 12 to 18 months. Worlds like Linden Lab’s Second Life, and even fully branded environments like MTV’s Laguna Beach and Nickelodeon’s Nicktropolis have all helped legitimize consumer interest in persistent virtual worlds and communities. Such worlds also have proven popular among advertisers looking to showcase their innovative brands and engage an even more elusive and selective audience.

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, a major new player in virtual worlds emerged — Sony. And whether you’re a gamer or advertiser, this may be the best place to play yet.

Following several days of hype and drama (Sony tried to control the timing of the announcement), Phil Harrison, Sony Computer Entertainment’s president of Worldwide Studios, unveiled Sony ‘Home’ to a crowd of gaming professionals and enthusiasts. Home — initially exclusive to PlayStation 3 but slated for extension to PSP and mobile — is a 3D virtual world and community where gamers can meet, interact, play games, watch videos, listen to music and the like, via customizable avatars.

Although initial reports compared Sony Home to a combination of Second Life, Nintendo Wii’s Mii character creator (Home lets users create and customize avatars, which they claim have more than a million combinations) and Microsoft’s Xbox achievement system (social ranking), Sony Home looks to be much more.

Part of what Sony calls “Gaming 3.0,” Home is likely to set a new standard for virtual world experiences and open up a host of new opportunities for gamers and advertisers. One advantage is certainly Sony’s high performance ps3 platform — which is certain to create a rich and rewarding user experience. More importantly, what may ultimately set Sony Home apart from other virtual worlds is that it’s purpose-built — there’s a point beyond the novelty of the experience itself.

For Sony, Home is a long-term component of its entertainment strategy. This fact alone dramatically increases the likelihood of a continually growing population. And the growth of Sony Home is likely to be further aided by growth in the gaming console industry. Currently, 40 percent of TV households in the United States have a gaming console, up by 18.6 percent from two years ago, according to Nielsen Media Research.

It may seem unlikely that we’ll reach a place where all households have connected gaming consoles, but when you consider that today’s console, such as the PS3 or Xbox 360, have become more like entertainment hubs, complete with high-definition disc formats, streaming audio and video, it seems likely the numbers will continue to rise.

Also in Sony’s favor is the way in which the platform has been developed. Many advertisers have shied away from virtual worlds and other consumer-driven societies for fear of being associated with questionable content. For Home, Sony plans to moderate all public spaces to ensure the experience remains family friendly. The company also says it has built-in safeguards, such as the inability for avatars to actually touch.

Sony clearly sees the revenue potential of making Home advertiser-friendly. Home appears to have plenty of virtual advertising opportunities in forms including signage and content sponsorships. And that’s just the beginning. “Advertising is a core revenue source for the publishers who will have to put a lot of resource and money into making the Home experience as fulfilling as it will be,” Sony stated in a recent frequently asked questions document released to the development community. That acknowledgement combined with the overall concept of Home means Sony’s Gaming 3.0 initiative could create safe and viable places for advertisers to play.

But opportunity doesn’t guarantee success. Brands considering exploring virtual worlds like Sony’s Home also need to understand the audience and respect people’s limits. Brands that get this right will flourish. Those that get it wrong … well, let’s just say it won’t be pretty.

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