Real ID, next steps

I’ve previously discussed my general thoughts around Real ID, the problems with it and some of the motivations which were driving Blizzard.  I do not actually ascribe malicious intent to Blizzard or Activision.  I know this goes against the received wisdom that Kotick is satan reincarnate but to be honest I think this is so much garbage.  It’s more likely that the system was put together without serious input from outside the company, much like Google’s Buzz, remember how much grief that caused when that launched, it’s largely the same principle at work.  Large corporations are used to sharing information internally, pushing contact details all over the place, there is also a tendency within large corporations for people to ‘share’ information about themselves as part of introductions in meetings, particularly for kick-off meetings without remembering that there are people who like to only share details of their lives on their terms.  I count myself in the latter group.

Anyway onto the meat of this post, thoughts on what we’re doing already out on the web for ourselves and where I believe Blizzard are going to try to use Real ID to provide ‘new’ services and make more cash off us.

Sharing, everyone is doing it!

Let’s have a look at what millions of people are already doing, without an apparent care in the world

  • “Friending” just about anyone (Facebook / LiveJournal / etc)
  • Sharing family details, relationship status, birthday with either the ‘friends’ list or the whole world
  • Sharing details about interests with the world
  • Sharing (almost) minute by minute location information
  • Writing in great detail about the ups and downs of their lives, their loves, sex, illnesses, financial woes, names of banks

Facebook is a fact of life, I read somewhere recently that they’ve gone through the 500 million subscriber window.  Even if only half of those are regularly users that still a huge number of people sharing their data with just about anyone.  For some users it’s a race to see who can have the most “friends” and be as open as possible about the most intimate details of their lives.

It would be complete nonsense to assume that at least some of Blizzards millions of subscribers use Facebook.   Indeed a significant number are using it to keep track of when raids are meant to be and build a social shell around a raiding core, to build interest and bonds which keep the group going through the slow periods.

Communities of interest

Blizzard wants to keep building on the guild model, it’s part of the social aspect to the game which keeps players within Warcraft rather than drifting off to another MMO or RTS game.  I’m as guilty as other people, one of the ties which keeps me playing WoW rather than exploring EVE or LotRO is that the ‘home’ guild is full of people I know, I think there’s only one I’ve not physically met and of the rest one who I’ve not shared a beer (or other alcoholic beverage) at some point in the last decade and a half, and that’s only because he’s underage.  So vent is part of how we play the game, running dungeons for run and relaxation is what we do, the social aspect is important.  The raiding guild (until it suffered from pre-cata collapse) had a different feel to it, friendly but not ‘social’ in the same sense, in my use of the game the raiding guild was there to provide the solid progression challenge and the home guild to provide the social base.

Social guilds tend to provide their own glue, with the interaction of the players keeping things ticking over, possibly with larger guilds having a forum or using such as Facebook for out of game communication and co-ordination.

For larger guilds and those focused on specific progression (raiding, levelling, RP, PvP and so on) there is a whole service industry

  • Guild websites
  • Guild forums
  • Sites collecting information about the game (wowhead, wowwiki, mmochampion)
  • Progress tracking sites
  • Guild recruitment
  • Guide sites (levelling, raiding, gold etc)
  • Blogs (by the metric tonne)
  • Facebook groups, both for WoW and for individual guilds / alliances
  • DKP development & sites
  • Voice communication (vent / teamspeak / mumble)

It’s huge, and the returns are paying for these services either through direct subscription or through advertising.

The community is incredibly powerful, but…

The problem, Fractures

At times in the game cycle where the game is lacking in draw, and the strength of the ties within the various guild types is not sufficient to hold players in the game.  It’s happening in WoW at the moment, progression has slowed massively, the noise on /trade on maintenance day for the weekly is a fraction of what it was 2-3 months ago.  RP levels are up in the home cities and the levelling zones are crawling with freshly hatched alts, Auction House traffic levels are down.

If there wasn’t an expansion due I’d be expecting realm closures and a winding down of the game.

However we all know what is happening and come November (or somewhere close) the numbers will ramp up again with a huge spike as Cataclysm hits the live servers, however the fallout at the moment is pretty terrible, raid groups are collapsing in on themselves, some people are leaving the game for good (too easy, vanilla was better) the group and social cohesion is breaking down as is seen in LFD with the increase in morons in groups.

Players want to know they can find good players they want to group with and push through the new content.

Also players are moving off onto Starcraft II and more worryingly from Blizzards point of view, they’ll be heading off out into the uncharted realms of Dragon Age and other MMOs.  If the social glue isn’t strong enough, why not go and explore something completely different?

No money for you Blizzard!

All of this adds up to a problem, Blizzard needs players, with products such as WoW and SCII it needs players to keep shoving coins in the slot every month, forget the sales of the boxes they’re nothing in comparison to the monthly subscription.  The model Blizzard rely on is to keep content going through social interaction & ‘progression’, let’s be honest without the driver of the badge grind and helping friends through the content who in their right mind would kill approximately 1800 5-man bosses in roughly a 2 year period on a single toon.

So the players need to be glued together or the subscription money dries up and more importantly it doesn’t come back to the same (or greater) level when the new content drops.  Prior to realID all the control on how the players grouped together and interacted outside of WoW was in their own hands, Blizzard had to do nothing, they could simply be there and ride on the back of it.  However this means they cannot direct it, add their own focus on where the playerbase should be looking for their next fix or indeed make some of the folding stuff.  I can imagine that relying on external forces for the ongoing growth and maintenance of your games is something which disturbed Blizzard/Activision.

Social Networking crawls from the Twisting nether

Like a twisted entity from the nether itself, intent on sucking the very life from everything it touches social networking tries to enter every aspect of our life.  We’ve already looked at how hundreds of millions of people globally hooked on social networking.  So the underlying fabric is there, Blizzard simply need to use the ideas and technology to start formalising that structure.

Within Activision

Stage one, the fabric is needed to link all the players together both within games and across Acti/Blizz games, that’s where Battlenet and realID enter the frame.  At the billing level this allows simplification of databases, authentication and the like, it’s also brought together the Real Name -> ${games}/${all_characters} mappings.  Now the fabric is in place let’s make it easy for anyone to talk to anyone else with the realID friending capability.

Problem 1 Solved: Players are glued back together within the Battlenet universe.

Stage two, while the above helps it risks leaving a large segment of the player base who have left for other MMOs, completely different games or even completely stopped gaming for the moment.  Let’s make it simple to hook Facebook contact lists to in-game account information.

Problem 2 Solved: Players are glued together with the current leader in the social networking sphere.

Stage three, profit

Both the previous phases of this are about preserving revenue, they do nothing to increase it.  The relationship with Facebook brings some viral advertising possibilities which might draw in new gamers but I cannot see this is anything more than a percentage point here or there.  Gamers will already be looking at the big launches, non-gamers may be pulled in but they’re more likely to be recovering gamers who’ve managed to shake off the habit for a while.

There is another group of gamers out there, let’s call them timelapse gamers.  Farmville is the classic example, unlike SCII, WoW or the other online properties there is no need for these gamers to all be online at the same time, everything is done in a manner which is more akin to “chess by mail” where actions are taken and shoved onto the stack and the other players react to what’s happening on the stack.  With a major focus on social progression, in that “I must keep my farm growing and well-tended to keep ahead of $other_fb_user”.  However I’m not convinced that Activision is seeing this as a particular growth area for the company.

So features which they could be bringing out (all as additional services, naturally), much of what follows is a stream of consciousness approach to the issue… so.. sketchy on details.

  • Facebook hosted guild functionality
  • Building DKP or something similar into the game, they are putting a lot of effort into making guilds very attractive to players.
  • Raid planning / organisational tools which hook into FB or similar
  • We have external access to the Auction House, why not the calendar, in-game chat, generating in-game mail?
  • Messages from Facebook into the various games?
  • “PUGbook” – a completely random unfleshed out thought which has drifted through my mind
  • Possibly stupid thought, but a Farmville game focused around pets earned / purchased within the likes of SCII / WoW?  If people are willing to keep a non-existent field growing with imaginary crops, why not feeding a WoW dragon and raising it’s young from eggs?

I certainly see nothing unlikely about Blizzard taking ideas and services which are already in wide use in the community and creating their own versions, they’ve never been shy about taking the best and most popular ideas from the Addon community and integrating them into the core game.  So extending that reach further is well within their mode of operation.

Advertising

It’s been denied many times, but there have been announcements in the past and I think it’s safe to say that any company will do what it thinks will bring in the most profit for the minimum of acceptable risk to its bottom line and where the organisation wants it’s reputation to be.  This will not necessarily align with the views of all its current or potential customers.  Opening up to Facebook brings solid gold information on the hobbies and interests of millions of users and how those users are linked.  Advertisers want solid information, with the way the media is evolving getting relevant adverts to the eyeballs of internet users is where the money lies.

Will they bring adverts into the games?  This depends on the game, WoW, not yet.  It would smash the immersion which does exist into many tiny pieces, this doesn’t mean we won’t see it on the launcher or on the official sites.  The FC channel can work both ways, once you’ve confirmed the BNet to FC link you’ve also let Blizzard see your interests as logged on FC, targeted advertising again, focused high value eyeballs.

How far can this go

As far as the paying customers are willing to let it, Blizzard will continue to develop along these lines for as long as the profit / risk balance is acceptable.  We’ve seen already how pressure from the community, and I suspect the realisation of just how much at risk their staff were has caused them to back off.  However my belief is that we are seeing only a tactical withdrawal and futher attempts to drive this forward will be coming our way.  If the users accept the changes then more will be around the corner, given how the concepts of ‘friend’ and ‘privacy’ have been changing over the last decade I am not holding out much hope for the medium term.

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