Endlessly repositioning imaginary furniture and wandering coldly virtual streets: are you happy at Home? Despite the obvious potential of PlayStation 3’s lavish online world, its continuing beta has been beset with questions levelled at this chic playground’s deeper function. Generously proportioned and pleasant to stroll through, even with a handful of game spaces to explore there remains a sense that Home lacks any immediate reason to exist.
It’s ironic, then, that an online community has needed a real-world pastime to provide a potential sense of direction. Xi, created by the developer nDreams, is not only the first alternate reality game (ARG) to take place within a virtual world, but its three-month run, starting in March of this year, has succeeded in bringing a hint of challenge, mystery and, more importantly, purpose to what is otherwise merely a promising piece of social technology.
“Xi started at the Edinburgh Interactive Festival a couple of years ago,” says Patrick O’Luanaigh, the founder of nDreams. “I saw a talk from Pete Edwards, who runs Home for Sony. Home seemed really exciting, and I thought it would be really cool to have an ARG – something in there to grab people’s attention and to make them want to come in. I came in and did a pitch to Phil Harrison and the Home team. They said: ‘Wow, we really like it’.”
Patrick O’Launaigh (front centre) and the team at nDreams
Sony wanted something that would make the platform exciting; nDreams’ hopes were to create an engaging tangle of both real and virtual spaces, linking websites, YouTube clips, purpose-built Home areas and minigames into an elaborate mystery. Tying the pieces together was an intriguing narrative, revealed in puzzle challenges and treasure hunts, which saw players unravelling the peculiar identity of ‘Jess’, a fleeting presence trapped within the machine.
Xi would eventually come to span the globe, sending players ping-ponging from real-world locations like Birmingham New Street station to the streets of Paris, and even as far afield as Mumbai. Collaboration was essential, but a mixture of casual and more elaborate puzzles allowed players to dip in and out, working on their own or in teams, or simply following the developments from the sidelines.
It was a massive undertaking for a new developer. “We ended up doing 12 spaces, 24 minigames, 108 videos and four huge websites,” remembers O’Luanaigh. “By and large it came out as we planned, though. We had a huge chart that was 12 weeks long, and each line had a number of items for every day of the week, and every single weekday from launch to finish we had new stuff happening.”
Getting in on Sony’s project early meant nDreams found itself in a privileged position. “We were able to really push Home,” says O’Luanaigh. “We were given carte blanche to mess around. We were fortunate that there was a fairly large Home community already there, looking for content. Everybody was online, helping each other across language forums – French guys who spoke English were posting on English forums about what they were doing – and it was proper intercountry co-operation. Normally, language players are fairly separate. It’s rare for people to interact like that, and it’s really satisfying.”
With four million visitors to the hub space, and over 500,000 unique players, Xi surpassed nDreams’ expectations. And, as for Home itself, O’Luanaigh remains extremely positive: “I think it’s really getting there. What people tend to forget is that virtual worlds, just like real cities, grow. London wasn’t built in a day, and that’s the same with any virtual world: they change, they get new features based on what the community wants. Second Life was tiny when it started. It’s the same with Home. I’d love to go three years into the future and see how it has evolved; I know the guys are working on new features and new content. I hope we’ve given a bit of a taster to people. You can have stuff every single day, and a real reason to go in there every day, and there’ll be more of this stuff that’s coming along.”
While nDreams is moving on to other projects, Home’s first real crowd-pleaser suggests that the platform’s greatest potential is tangled up with its biggest problems. A blank canvas, the online world is only as good as what’s painted on to it. O’Luanaigh’s team has laid down the first brushstrokes, however, proving Home’s users can come together to create a vibrant community when given a sense of direction. Now, once again, it’s Sony’s move.
This article originally appeared in E205. Like what you’ve read? Buy your copy of Edge now for £4.50 and get it delivered to your door (UK and Europe only) at www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk/gamesradarshop.