Playstation Access Magazine, Issue 2
Who are you in Playstation Home? A mirror image of your lovable self, with identikit face and your favourite threads, or an urban guerilla with combat trousers and Mohawk - a rock chick, a fop, a stormtrooper or a lion? Whoever you are - you have joined a quiet revolution in fashion, marketing, and social networks.
Caspar Tykier is Founder and CEO of Veemee, one of the main developers on PS Home. Veemee's Home store products range from giant 'smiley' heads and animal outfits,to major brands including Billabong, Diesel, Audi, Game, and Universal. He estimates that 90% of Veemee's product is fashion.
Caspar: I think there is a sense that you create your avatar as a super-ego or extension of yourself, how you want to be portrayed in these worlds. In Home, if there are fashion brands that you gravitate towards in the real world there's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't feel the same about your virtual persona, and I think the success of Billabong and Diesel bears that out.
Of course, there is nothing new about fashion brand promotion in video games. In recent years, Diesel have styled characters in Devil May Cry 2, H&M have dressed the Sims, and Ben Sherman have furnished you for a spin round Honolulu in Test Drive Unlimited. But if fashion is about self-expression then it requires interaction with others in a social network. And that brings real-world benefits to a brand.
Caspar: If you have made a virtual world purchase of a real world item and you've put it on your own character, that could positively effect your disposition to buy in the real world. It's almost a virtual try-before-you-buy. It's certainly something that we want to explore - how deeply we can make that connection.
Take, for example, Diesel Island, which advances the brand's 'Be Stupid' campaign via a mythical banana republic, complete with self-styled 'stupid' constitution. The idea works perfectly as a zone on PlayStation Home, allowing gamers to wander the island, buy virtual clothing and generally behave idiotically. It complements the campaign on other media but also works in isolation, ensuring Diesel reach a diverse audience who consume a number of different media.
But if Diesel Island is ultimately oriented to marketing real-world products, other developers are utilising PlayStation Home as an arena for entirely virtual self-expression. Lockwood Publishing's huge range includes a variety of products for avatar customisation from 'alternative rock' clothing to spacesuits. Now, with their recently launched Drey range, they are taking inspiration directly from the fashion-show runway to create their own bespoke brand. Cathrin Machin, Lexie Brown, and Sophia Coney work on developing Lockwood's fashion content:
Cathrin: This time we have taken a whole different tack, we’re contracting fashion designers, rather than game artists, to design the content. It's very different because we find that although many game artists work with characters, they don’t have any idea about fashion, personal or otherwise.
Lexi: The other thing we looked at was advertising the same way as a fashion brand would, looking at the iconic brands - Dior, Versace, Chanel. In effect, we are approaching the virtual world as we feel those companies would.
One of the designers who have previously worked with Lockwood, and who understands the potential of gaming, is Jon Burgerman. Originally from Nottingham but now based in New York City, Burgerman designed a range of animated street-wear for the Lockwood shop in Home. For him, the opportunity was about creative freedom as much as commerce.
Jon: I like computer games and I thought it would be a good opportunity to show my work in a new environment, to a new audience. It makes it a lot more accessible - you might sell a top for £100, which is kind of expensive, but you could sell a digital version of it for very cheap. From a marketing and advertising point of view you're getting people to enjoy your work, and maybe the next time they see this cool thing they might be tempted to buy it, or at least enjoy it.
It sounded a little crazy. I liked the fact that we could make a bunch of stuff and actually not have to worry about where it's getting printed, how it'll get sent over, who'll distribute it. It's kind of the most environmentally sound way to create a collection of clothing - by not actually creating any pieces of clothing.
While Burgerman was excited by the fact that he could escape the restrictions of real world production and distribution, Lockwood's engagement with real world fashion for the Drey range has meant a step closer to the production cycles of the major fashion houses:
Cathrin: We’ve already had a catwalk show for 2012 Summer, all of the fashion is already worked out 6 months or more, almost 12 months in advance so at this point it's not a guessing game as we know exactly what you will be wearing 12 months down the line.
Sophia: With our turnaround times on production and content, which is usually about 3 months from production through to publishing, we’ve got plenty of time to get next years fashion in time.
So what of the Home community itself? How do they feel about the fashions being produced on their behalf? Appropriately enough for a space where identity is mercurial, information on the community is sparse ("I don't think anyone knows what the demand really is.", says Caspar at Veemee. "There's no research"). But for Lockwood, the way people use the designs to communicate is key to understanding what their customers want.
Lexi: You get several different types of Home user. You get the people who just want to mess about and wear ridiculous things and then there are people for whom it is a second version of real life. They take it quite seriously and have fashion events, fashion walks. There is a massive community of all these different people getting together from all over the continent and trying out different trends.
Cathrin: I think that they're a truer version of themselves because you can be whoever you want to be - you don’t have to limit yourself to your size or your shape or your gender. You wouldn’t normally walk out of your house in a bikini but in the digital world, none of that actually matters - the rules are thrown away.
Jamie Holding is lead developer for AlphaZone4, the dedicated PlayStation Home website and database, and an active member of the Home community. He agrees that the motivations of users are varied, and that this is what defines the Home space.
Jamie: Virtual reality is different to different people. I like to just use it as an extension of my standard gaming life but lots of people use it as a chance to have a completely different life and play a completely different role. On the American Home some people pretend to be aliens, they have bald heads and wear long white robes and call the leaders 'Mother', It's nuts but great fun.
The trend for more outlandish costumes on Home lends itself to eye-catching promotions such as wearable Pot Noodle packs. But for fashion brands, surely the pronounced difference between the hyper-real virtual space, and the mundane real world, presents an obstacle to promoting real-world wares. Not necessarily, says Jamie, it may just change people's buying habits.
Jamie: I know a lot of people who, every week, will pore through the latest fashions and there are certainly a lot of people who love buying the real version of the clothes in real life. I know some men who create female avatars online and go full out and create an entire online presence. In an online world it gives you the freedom, and sometimes they end up buying female clothes in real life as well.
The empowering potential of video games is under-reported, to say the least. Psychologists have defined something called the Proteus Effect whereby an individual takes on an entirely different persona through an avatar, with therapeutic consequences. A recent report from Stanford University found that the use of avatars could have a positive impact on the way people eat, take exercise, and the way men view women. And the Japanese subculture of Cosplay demonstrates the potential for game design to influence alternative fashion. But could the trends in Home ever have an influence on mainstream clothing? Lockwood feel it already does.
Lexi: Fashion is a business that is inspired by so many things that it wouldn’t surprise me.
Cathrin: We have a main client base in America and quite often we put out a lot of the UK fashion. I remember when, 2.5 years ago, we first brought out skinny jeans in America, there was absolute outrage, and just pages and pages of discussion going on in the forum. "What is this? What is this style? I don’t get it". But then on the threads where they post pictures of themselves, you can see it slowly creeping into how they dress.
This crossover shouldn't be too surprising. For all the expressive outlandishness of Home, it is worth remembering that the fundamental appeal of the Home space both to its users and to brands, is that it is still a recognisably human world where many of the same models apply.
Just as with real life fashion, part of the attraction of avatar customisation remain the evolutionary impulses of competition and display, with some of the most highly prized costumes offered as rewards for success. And, of course, some items have kudos for their real-world value in pounds and pence. But the other familiar appeal of brands in Home, according to Jamie, is that they offer a short cut to quality.
Jamie: With Home you get a lot of generic clothes, but the big brands often do the best quality stuff, and have the premium content. It's always a bit pricier, but people like Lockwood tend to do huge collections of stuff to appeal to everybody. Brand recognition is quite powerful in Home, I think.
For Caspar at Veemee, it is not just brand recognition that remains strong in Home, but much of the real-world business model.
Caspar: All those things about the real world - sales, and bundling, and seasonality - all that good stuff translates through to the virtual world. It's slightly harder to facilitate just because of the nature of the way you have to load content, but these are all marketing ideas that have been around for a long time. Savvy shoppers know how to hunt them, and that's true of the virtual world. Put a free item on and people will hunt it down.
How much are the brands actually making from these new routes into our wallets and purses? According to Jon Burgerman, for the time being at least, the revenue is minimal:
Jon: Well, I won't be retiring on it anytime soon. Much like any licensing, it's part of an overall income stream. On it's own it's not a career but along with real t-shirts, posters, surfboards, etc...But it's not raking in millions and millions, it's early days for me.
Home's appeal to fashion, then, is far more than simply as a source of revenue. Its very uniqueness is that it combines revenue with marketing in a unified, coherent, and innovative way. For people like Caspar, this is the heart of their pitch to the fashion brands.
Caspar: Is this about revenue or marketing? I think the interesting thing is it genuinely is both. You can hit a really valuable audience by entering into PlayStation Home, and at the same time you can make a little money. That's the marketing Holy Grail. If you've got something that's awareness driving, is self-liquidating, and revenue driving, you've hit a home run.
Fashion and marketing in Home remains, like Home itself, a work in progress - still evolving to suit its community of gamers, developers and brands. It is neither guaranteed revenue stream, nor marketing medium, but a hybrid of both which continues to develop in an innovative way thanks largely to the creativity of those who use the space as a virtual social network. And, who knows, it might just change the real world a little bit as well.