4 May 2011

Sony MMOs: An Uncertain Future

The last two weeks have been a difficult time for Sony. The PlayStation Network has suffered some two weeks of downtime, initially thought to be some form of emergency system maintenance. The followed the announcement that the Network had been hacked, exposing the personal details and passwords of some 77 million gamers and users of the Qriocity streaming service.

More recently it was announced that Sony Online Entertainment had also been hacked, with the details of nearly 25 million players of games like EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies and Vanguard being stolen. All SoE MMO games are currently offline and are likely to remain so until additional security is implemented.

For Sony the next few months will be a hard slog for them as they attempt to win back the trust of their customers. While offers of compensation or free game time will help to placate some, it’s Sony’s future customers that are going to be the hardest to win over. A rough Twitter poll broke players down into roughly three camps.

The first group feel that once Sony gets through this, their security is likely to be stronger than most other MMO providers. Depending on the game, these people will probably give the firm another chance.

The second group don’t currently trust Sony with their personal information following this hack and are highly unlikely to play any future MMO from them. These gamers are going to be much harder to win over. Sony will need to produce something truly spectacular, both in the shape of a ground breaking game and some heavyweight assurances that the company has put this incident behind it and made meaningful changes.

The third group still have a resentment towards Sony, either because of previous scandals such as the Sony BMG copy protection rootkit, or with their treatment of Star Wars Galaxies and the “New Game Enhancements”. More recently Sony gained a large number of critics due to the legal action taken against George Hotz. This group of people will be much harder, if not impossible to win back as customers.

It’s easy to label this as a security issue and say that Sony were caught napping, while the simple fix is to beef up overall network security. While there’s no certainty that Sony’s security will remain best in class, pulling in external security experts will help to tighten things up in the short term. It’s through establishing best practice and acting on regular audits that Sony will avoid repeating this in the future.

In the longer term though, Sony is going to need to undergo substantial cultural change in order to win back trust. Consumer electronics is a much easier relationship to manage – you build a good quality TV set and as long as the aftercare is good when things go wrong you’ll be fine. When you’re providing an entertainment platform that your customers will rely on, there needs to be a long term trust that you’ll look after those customers. If your actions damage that trust or make them feel that you will mismanage the platform then customers are less likely to buy into it.

While the offer of free game time or free services might be enough to entice some back to the PlayStation Network and Sony Online Entertainment, I can’t help but feel that it doesn’t go far enough. Until Sony loses the electronics giant mindset I feel that they will continue to lurch from one scandal to another. Until that mindset changes to one of a platform owner that puts customers, users and fans at the centre of every decision, it is probably unlikely that Sony Computer Entertainment will recover.

The point of all this? In the competitive world of MMO gaming, developers live or die by the number of subscribers they can sustain in order to turn a profit. Triple-A games cost a lot of money to produce, with MMOs being even more expensive because of the back-end infrastructure that’s needed to support them. If Sony ever hope to hold a successful MMO again they need to start working now on rebuilding that trust. A killer game just isn’t going to bring in the customers any more.

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