Social gaming has been kicking around for a while. Anyone with a Facebook account knows what it’s like to be flooded with requests to join some game or another. Usually these games are joy-stealing fun vampires, purely designed to drain away any thought you had that they’re designed to entertain you. They thrive on being able to render players into such a catatonic stupor that they’ll pay real cash just to be able to press their buttons more often.
I’d lay odds that one of the big reasons people are turning off from Facebook in their droves (apart from the privacy concerns) is because they’ve had enough of being spammed by a horde of grovelling farmhands or inept Mafioso. The players themselves probably mean well, but finding hundreds of Xeroxed pleas for help is enough to try the patience of a saint. And even though you can ignore everything from one application, there’s soon another that springs up to spew forth a torrent of spam from its drooling mouth. It’s like playing whack-a-mole just to keep on top of it.
There are other ways to pull together a social gaming experience. Both the Xbox and Playstation networks use an ID that you can link to friends with and share messages. You can even use voice chat, see what your friends are playing and team up in games together. It’s a pretty slick experience and one that most gamers seem comfortable with. The key thing though about the setup on consoles is that it’s usually about playing single-player or basic team games. If I share my Xbox Live details with a friend, I’m not sharing details on all the characters I have in Dragon Age: Origins, just the games that I play and the achievements I’ve earned. I’m also using a nickname, not my email address or other information.
So why the big deal about Blizzard’s new RealID system? It initially feels like a good idea, providing players with a way to communicate with each-other no matter what realm, faction or even game you’re playing. Say you’re working on a refer-a-friend alt but a guild needs your help with a raid, it’s now possible for them to get you a message without having to resort to SMS messaging or ventrilo camping.
It’s also a big tool for Blizzard in order to encourage players to subscribe to both Warcraft and their next-gen MMO. One of my own experiences with dabbling in games like Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan is that I tended to miss out on things happening in Warcraft. Sometimes this is a good thing, such as when you’re after a break or suffering from burnout. Other times it can be a real hindrance – you become scared to try out your new game in case you miss something in your old one. By having a messaging system that works in both, Blizzard ensures that players can feel comfortably contactable whatever game they choose to play.
The difficulty comes with trying to match up a messaging system with more esoteric concepts, such as how gamers view themselves and their relationships with other gamers. There’s also the problems that arise from how you uniquely identify each player on the network, and how that player shares their identity with others. There are also issues with how gamers view their activities in-game and whether they feel comfortable disclosing those activities.
Gamers have traditionally given themselves aliases for use in the online world. Nicknames like my own are in common use, readily shared and exchanged. It’s how we identify ourselves and how we share that identity with others. The trouble is there are quite often several people who share the same nickname, resulting in names like switchblade6764. Blizzard’s solution was to use the only piece of information they have that’s different for each individual – our email address. In many ways it makes sense – it’s a logical identifier to build a system around. In other ways it’s a nightmare – we might use the same email address for our billing information, or for PayPal, or any one of a number of other systems. It pushes players into a situation where they have to think very carefully about who they would link up with over RealID, which in turn reduces the usefulness of the system as a whole.
As an example, I use a different email address for my guild’s website and other WoW stuff than the one I have linked to my Battle.net account. While my open email address gets tons of Warcraft related phishing emails, I know they’re fake by default because they’re in the wrong inbox. Tying my identity and my email address together removes this security. Personally, I would rather have seen a push towards nicknames instead of the current solution.
The other issue is related to presence and how that presence is handled. To give an example, when I fire up my desktop I’m automatically logged into Messenger. Across the world various people receive little alerts that I’ve come online. What they don’t get is status updates to say I’m checking my email, surfing the net, coding in Visual Studio or doing any of a hundred other activities that I can use my PC for. All they know is that I’m either online or not. And if I choose, I can set myself to “appear offline” and vanish.
The problem with RealID is that it overestimates how much of a social experience gaming really is. It’s true that MMO gamers like to talk to each other and have shared experiences. But it’s also true that sometimes a gamer just seeks peace and solace in a fantasy world, away from other people. By automatically linking a RealID to every character on every server in every game that you have, you remove that opportunity for gamers to have a solo experience in your game. You force gamers to go elsewhere and off your network if they want to play a game without being disturbed, without being watched or followed. It’s this aspect that doesn’t make sense to me, and feels like a strong oversight.
Gaming is evolving into a shared experience because players prefer them and developers want to provide them. It makes sense to try and stretch those shared experiences beyond a single game and into an entire fleet for players to meet and team up in. But it has to be done in the right way, understanding the social nuances and conventions that gamers have established and working with them. By going against these norms, developers risk alienating the very people they hope to bring together.