Real ID, the battle is over

For the moment.

Things have had a chance to calm down and settle though the rumblings are continuing, rather like the earthquakes we’re getting in the build up to Cataclysm. I’m hoping that it isn’t a portent of what is to come in the future.  The storm on the forums and what I suspect was/is a sustained flow of cancelled accounts, especially given the reports of the account management system failing or being very slow thus indicating that it was at the very least under stress, Blizzard have completely backed down.

Well, no.  They haven’t.

Our focus has all been on the forums announcement, however the underlying technology and direction remains, mapping our real names to our in-game personas and to our usage of games into the web of public information as much as possible.  The statement from Blizzard makes this clear.

Forum Announcement

I want to make sure it’s clear that our plans for the forums are completely separate from our plans for the optional in-game Real ID system now live with World of Warcraft and launching soon with StarCraft II. We believe that the powerful communications functionality enabled by Real ID, such as cross-game and cross-realm chat, make Battle.net a great place for players to stay connected to real-life friends and family while playing Blizzard games. And of course, you’ll still be able to keep your relationships at the anonymous, character level if you so choose when you communicate with other players in game. Over time, we will continue to evolve Real ID on Battle.net to add new and exciting functionality within our games for players who decide to use the feature.

There we have it, Real ID is here to stay and Blizzard intend to make it a core element of their games and the way we interact with them, there is a massive social networking pie out there and they want to see a slice of it.  Let’s be honest, there is big money in social networking.  Investors love it, as a movement and as a technology it brings lots of people to the same place, provides a lot of demographic information, all of which is freely provided and normally costs vast amounts of money to collect through surveys.  All of which gives plenty of information for marketing to get their hooks into to extract more money from us, the public.

Activision / Blizzard are a company, their prime reason for being is to make money, remember this, it’s important.

Everything the company does is designed to bring in cash, some of which is invested in current and future products, some maintained as a surplus ready to deal with issues, emergencies, unplanned expansions to their operation (a game is massively more popular than expected and more equipment is needed for example).  The flip side of the balance is they maintain their core position in the market by providing good solid games which appeal (initial sales), which have long lasting appeal (ongoing subscriptions) and generate a lot of loyalty to the game and the company (pushback against other entrants to the market).

They need to keep us satisfied & and happy.

We don’t own Azeroth, we just think we do

This is true in the most brutal sense, Blizzard own the databases, they own the servers, they employ all the people working on it.  It is their sandbox, we are invited in to play there, for a certain consideration on a monthly basis.  However we invest time, huge amounts of time, without that investment of time, love effort WoW would be far less than it is now.  Consider how much work officers do in preparing and organising raids, farmers bringing materials to the AH, crafters converting those into the enhancements needed by players, RPers adding colour to the world.  Outside the game what about the hours of effort in spent updating wiki’s, theorycrafting, the original builds for wowhead, wow.com and the myriad of other sites and blogs.

Would the attraction of WoW continue without the additional effort put in by all those volunteers?  I’m sure it would, but something would be lost, some of the glue which links players across realms would disappear, without that glue there is less holding us in Azeroth, why not go have a look at something new, it might be shinier, there might be nicer people.

Battle.Net

Battle.net is a logical development, when they have many games it makes sense to consolidate the account management into a single tool, I would suspect that the multi-player aspects of SCII are going to use technology taken from WoW and Diablo 3 will be using the next iteration of that development.  That it was optional was something which would never last, there is simply too much money and effort to be saved internally from combining the function into a single system.

However, it has provided the additional linkage between players, their games and other meta information which has laid the foundations for the current mess Blizzard are in.  There is also a tone being set which puts players backs up “Don’t worry, the new feature is optional” which becomes in a short period of time, “You can’t access this without using the new optional feature, but you don’t have to use it….” with a logic extension being “It is now mandatory, you must use real ID to be able to use any of the features of the service you’re paying for”. Many players have spotted this sequence and now tend to be suspicious of “optional” features.

I’ll set my stall out clearly at this point, the day Blizzard make the sharing of my name mandatory then I’m off elsewhere.

Who owns our information?

We store a lot of information online, there’s a stack of information inside Blizzard about us and our alts.  Part of the key to the mystery is how the imformation is partitioned.  The hard links between “me” and my gaming are only within Blizzard’s accounting database, that’s where they should stay unless I make the active decision to change that, either by ‘coming out’ on places such as this blog or by agreement with Blizzard.  The forum change was not an example of that, effectively banning players from the forums unless they’re willing to share information which they keep private was heavy handed, would not solve the problem as stated (just look at old school usenet where some of the biggest trolls used their real identities).

This has wider implications as well, when companies start to believe that they have the right to do with our information as they will we are on the road to a dark place where we have no control over what a third party can do with our identities, our personal preferences etc etc.  Do you really want all of your purchases from the local supermarket to become available to anyone who’s willing to pay for it?  Yes, what about the purchases from the pharmacy in-store, details of the alcohol you’ve purchased?  At the moment companies run serious risks in the market where they loose information, see the hammering T-Mobile got in the US after their main customer database was compromised, or the case where VISA numbers were held by a large chain which then got compromised and so on.  Long may this continue, they need to remember that this information they’re holding has massive value, both to them, us and people who we would never share it with.

Unfortunately more and more companies are looking at these vast data silos, costing huge amounts of money to maintain and keep secure and wonder how they can monetise it further, expect to see more cases where the data protection laws globally are pushed to their limits.

The Social Networking angle

One of the largest elements in the Blizzard decision will have been from looking at the market and the use of the internet which is already happening.  Millions of people are putting their entire lives, their histories, their locations (in some cases on a minute by minute basis) online and open to the world.  From the corporate perspective we’re doing it already, we’re announcing every little detail of our lives to the world at large, while we’re on the move and so on.

Once again all of this is active decisions on our part, and does not take account of the different groups within the wider online community.  While there maybe 400 million active Facebook accounts, about 50% of which are logged into daily, this is still only a fraction of those online (approx 11% of netusers are active Facebook users) and the defintion of ‘friend’ has been bastardised by Facebook and similar sites for years.  Facebook additionally has a terrible record of security, something users are starting to notice, but usually only through media stories of identify theft & the regular kiddy fiddler scare stories.

Blizzard aren’t stupid

This change hasn’t come out of nowhere, the underlying technologies will have been on the drawing board 18 months or more ago, we’re looking at a long term plan.  They’ve looked at the social networking market, the model of communication and the possibilities for hooking in other sources of revenue.  What they then did was fail to properly understand just how much this would annoy their customer base, which does hint that there is a lack of understanding on their part as to how identity works within gaming communities, how geeks tend to control their ID and personal details online and how the privacy landscape is changing across the wider internet.  In short their predictions on how the change would be accepted were massively mistaken, doubly so when it became clear within hours that the “stopping trolls” reason was a smokescreen. A smokescreen that was blown away by the market announcement made on the same day of the relationship with Facebook.

Tactical Errors

I believe that Actizard made an error in the timing of this, I understand that from a technical standpoint and logistics bringing this in before SCII drops is perfect timing, fresh releases, new code, new systems that’s all good and logical.  However from a raw business (dare I say Goblin?) perspective it’s the wrong time.  Only the beta players have invested time in SCII, so dropping their intention to buy is relatively painless, and only serves to drive up resentment against the company (you forced me into not getting the game I wanted, you bastards).  In WoW the situation is slightly different but we’re at the end of the expansion, by my reckoning we’re looking to November 2010 for Cataclysm and there’s already a drop off in activity.  Leaving now is painful but not as massively so as, say, one month after Cata has dropped and the entire community is into levelling, exploring the new zones, looking at what has changed.  The inertia behind staying in the game at that point would be tremendous, the social pressures within guilds to stay and progress the new raids would be similarly high.

My view is that we’re looking at the next Real ID announcements as we head into the holiday period in December, after WoW has dropped, SCII is in full swing and players are less likely to leave.  Also the wedge has been driven home that few milimeters, getting us to accept something less than the forum names but more than now will be easier because it’s “not as bad as they were planning“.

The end-game is still the same, my belief is that we’re watching a period of withdrawal and entrenchment ready for the next push.

Am I cancelling?

Not yet,this was a terrible move by Actizard, I believe a stupid, unnecessary and dangerous one.  My main is a paladin, so this was a big enough hit to pop ardent defender, not enough for the kill but bringing everything low enough that the kill shot wouldn’t need to be huge.

I hope I’m wrong about their next moves, I suspect I’m not. Am I looking at what other MMOs are coming onto the market?  You bet.

I’ll be coming back to this topic with some thoughts on where I think this is going, what Blizzard are eyeing up and why.

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One Response to Real ID, the battle is over

  1. korenmolen says:

    I agree with just about everything you have said. In information networks, I share different information with different people. In a Venn diagram sense, there are people who fit in both the Wow-set, the LinkedIn set and the Facebook set – and that’s how I prefer it.

    I think data protection is very important – and I also think that geeks are more aware of it than most internet users. I suspect that the mature wow players have geek origins, although I am not sure of this – this might make them more educated than most about data security. More educated than the average facebook user, for example.

    I still would have been far happier to have an account alias for this purpose – and it would have solved their problem, and mine – to be known by the online nick that I have used, literally, for years (but which is not my Real Name).

    I’m glad they c0cked up the timing from a strategic point of view. Whether it will lead to fewer buyers for Cata, I do not know.

    The thing that keeps me playing is the immersion element. And the continued variation of the choices – characters, levelling, factions, skills.

    As for monetisation, I would rather they increased my monthly sub by a pound/couple of Euros/dollars than by introducing all the (real money purchased) pets and ponies (yes, I know that horse has bolted).

    The success of those sales must be so high – it bears a striking resemblance to Farmville’s *special* crops/extra fields combination. In that model, there is only so far that a player can go without recruiting more saps to be *friends* and without spending real money to acquire game money.

    The closer WoW gets to Farmville, the less I like it. Make the bare bones of this business model more obvious in game, and it is not so enjoyable. I don’t know where my cut-off point is. I spend lots of time in-game. Never say never and all that.

    But, dammit, they should be paying *me* for my information, not the other way around. Tesco does…

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