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Blizzard should disentangle Real ID from its Good IDeas

July 13th, 2010 by katiegreen

With all the hubbub about Blizzard’s reversed stance on the use of real names in the forums (for now), it’s easy to forget that the Real ID system brings in a wide array of changes, most of which are staying in place. While much of the functionality is handy, the implementation of the system comes with significant drawbacks. After watching Facebook, Blizzard’s new partner, get torn apart in the media over privacy concerns, one might think that Blizzard would be a bit more careful in implementing features that involve a player’s real name. This week, we look at Blizzard’s Real ID, and the pros and cons of the various aspects of the system.

The Problem: I Like my Social Networks Disparate

Social Network Venn Diagram
We really love Venn diagrams.

Have you ever tried to create a seating chart for a wedding reception? Or even just been to a wedding reception? If you have, you’ve probably encountered the problem Pixelsocks mentioned last week: the merging of disparate social networks. Just because the couple dozen/hundred people you invited likeyou (or your spouse), it doesn’t mean they like each other. Tables at receptions tend to have a set number of seats, and everyone needs a seat. The lucky couple gets to, based on their knowledge of who gets along with who (which is never perfect knowledge) put together the chart, optimizing happiness for their guests. Now, weddings have the advantage that guests (at least well-behaved guests) check their emotional baggage at the door (or at least keep their mouths shut), because the day is supposed to be about the couple.

What happens when all of your identities: from work to school to hobbies to exes, get merged into one, but without the social pressure to be nice found at a wedding? That’s what Facebook does. I don’t know about you, but I’m Facebook friends with a variety of types of people: close friends, old high school friends, old bosses and coworkers, and family (from second cousins to my mom), and I follow pages for some celebrities and groups that interest me. When I post on Facebook, I have to keep in mind who can see what I’m posting.

Thankfully, relatively new features on Facebook allow me to group my friends, and only make content available to certain contacts. This allows me to gush about the hotness of certain celebrities to my friends without imposing on my relationship with coworkers or family (as Dan Savage likes to point out, there are certain things parents have a right not to know). Facebook also lets you control who can see you exist at all: only friends, friends of friends, or everyone. With Facebook, unlike with a wedding, you interact with your friends and they interact with you; their interaction with each other is indirect (via your Wall, comments on your photos, etc.).

So what happens when Blizzard tries to jump on the “merged identity” bandwagon? Your real name, all of your alts, and your WoW friends are all in the same Azeroth? That’s what the Real ID system is all about.

Real ID Features
Here’s the Blizzard description of the Real ID features, straight from Battle.net, with pros and cons of each feature. Remember, though, these are not available à la carte; rather, you opt in or out of the whole system.

Real Names for Friends:

Your Real ID friends will appear under their real-life names on your friends list, alongside whatever characters they’re playing. Gone are the days of having to remember which of your friends is which. You’ll also see your friends’ real names when chatting, communicating in-game, or viewing their character’s profile.

Pros:

  • You get to see your friends’ names.
  • Keeps track of which alt belongs to which friend: particularly useful if your friend list is full of alt-oholics.

Cons:

  • You’re stuck with your privacy levels as “visible to friends of friends.” From the Real ID FAQ: “In addition, players who are Real ID friends with that player will be able to see your name in a “friends of friends” list, which allows people to be able to quickly send Real ID friend requests to others they may know.” This is a major issue I have with the system. Not everyone has the same comfort level when it comes to being Facebook friends, and the exact same phenomenon exists in WoW. Here’s some ways this can become problematic:
    • Some of my guildies, who I have befriended in real life, are happy to be friends with pretty much everyone. Other friends of mine are privacy junkies. If I friend them both, they will be able to see each other. Plus, I will be visible to the random people my guildies friend while drunk.
    • Hey girls, ever harassed when someone hears you on Vent and finds out you’re a girl? All those friends of your friends will be able to see you have a female name. Prepare to be harassed. By people who know your real name.
    • What if that real name happens to be “Felicia Day?” She used to play with some of my guildies cum real-life friends, and would therefore show up on my friends of friends list if we were both to use it (and befriend the linking friend). Now, as a member of the gaming press (and because I’m not a big meanie)I wouldn’t annoy her. Yet if she were to use this new feature, she’d likely be rapidly identified by people she doesn’t know and harassed. Blizzard has done a lot to court Day’s attention, as she’s head honcho of The Guild. Why implement a cool set of features that the people of The Guild, who Blizzard desperately wants to be befriend, can’t use?
  • There are currently concerns that add-ons will be able to see your real name. I don’t know who made my add-ons! Whoever they are, unlike companies such as Facebook and Blizzard, they aren’t under massive fiscal pressure to keep that information private.

Workarounds:

“Gone are the days of having to remember which of your friends is which.” This is not hard to do, even without Real ID.

  • My guild posts first names, with permission, as part of the character notes.
  • You can make notes about your friends. You can put people’s names there.

Cross-Game Chat:

With Real ID, friends can now chat cross-game, cross-realm, and cross-faction across all supported Blizzard games. In World of Warcraft and need more players for your Icecrown Citadel raid? You check your Real ID friends list to see if anyone’s available, and sure enough, a couple of guildmates are playing a 2v2 ranked match in StarCraft II. Real ID makes it easy to ask them to come along.

Pros:

  • This is the feature I really want. One of the fundamental problems with WoW is that when you find out that your friends play WoW, chances that your Realm/Faction combos won’t match up. I’d love to be able to see if my friends are busy on Emerald Dream instead of Rexxar (where they belong) when filling a raid group. Furthermore, if they would let me queue for heroics with specific people on other realms instead of just my realm, I’d actually have a chance to play with friends who aren’t willing to transfer to my server. I’d also love to be able to find out about raid delays if I’m off playing Starcraft II or Diablo III.

Cons:

  • More a copycat issue than a con: Didn’t Steam do this first? And while still letting me use a screen name? Couldn’t Blizzard let me use a screen name? Like, my old username (before they made me change it to my email address)?

Workarounds:

  • AIM, ICQ, GChat, and a dozen other instant messaging clients exist. A new client (still in beta), Raptr is specifically aimed at gamers, and in fact lets you message people on Xbox Live as well as major messaging clients (including game-oriented Xfire). I currently run WoW on my $200 netbook and can run a messaging client at the same time; if I can, anyone can.

Rich Presence:

See additional information on your friends list about what your Real ID friends are up to. Find out what your friends are doing and which games and modes they’re playing in real time. Invite that buddy just sitting around in Dalaran to play some StarCraft II with you without fear of interrupting a raid or a heated Wintergrasp match.

Wow, a chat client with status message technology? Will the wonders never cease?

Broadcasts:

Broadcasts: Broadcast a short status message for all of your Real ID friends to see, whether you want to issue a call-to-arms or let your friends know about an important change of plans. You can also read your friends’ broadcast messages on the “Recent Broadcasts” feed on the Battle.net welcome page — kind of a “corkboard” to leave messages to your friends when offline or busy.

So, it’s in-Blizzard Twitter? I can’t imagine my friends getting drunk and abusing this. Oh, wait, I just did.

Friend Once, See All Characters:

When you agree to become Real ID friends with another player, both of you will automatically see all the other’s characters on your friends list. You’ll even see any characters your friend creates in future Blizzard games, carrying your social network forward and helping you stay connected with the people you enjoy playing with most.

Pros:

  • Saves /friend-ing all of your friend’s alts on all of your alts.

Cons:

  • In addition to unifying your “real name” identity with your “WoW” identity, this aspect of the Real ID system necessitates the unification of all of your WoW identities. You might not want that. Here’s some examples:
    • Bank alts. Remember, you can’t become invisible. That means if you quit out of the raid at 1:00 saying you’re too tired to play only longer, and then you hop onto your bank alt to scan the auction house, your friends will still see you.
    • Opposite faction characters. Hope you’re out to your friends about having a Horde character, because this system will do it for you. This is particularly significant now that you can have characters on both factions on PVP servers. Your Role-Playing guild may not take it well if you kick their butt in Wintergrasp.

Workarounds:

  • There are add-ons, such as Friendshare, that let you synch friend and ignore lists across your characters. It even lets you share notes (where you can put someone’s real name, if you know it).
  • Guild webpages are perfect for keeping lists of alts that are in the same guild.
  • Excel is a frequent tool of WoW players when optimizing gear: it’s also good for keeping track of your WoW friends. You can even use tabs to separate friends by realm, and you can use rows or columns to identify alts by the same person. Or, if you’re not OCD, just keep a .txt file listing your friends from different characters.

Conclusions:
Blizzard could implement most of these features using account user names (which they recently abolished in favor of email addresses) instead of real names. Why don’t they? Knowing multiple people who have had to practically dissolve their online identity due to stalking, I can’t help but be infuriated that Blizzard would further punish these people by restricting access to some of the exciting functionality being added, such as cross-game talk, to only those willing to broadcast their real names.

Furthermore, these features desperately need customization, particularly since the new Battle.net infrastructure moved away from user names. The ability to change visibility to “friends only,” an invisibility option, and the ability to select which of your characters are shared are all features that seem reasonable for users to demand.

Of course, the move to real names is influenced by Blizzard’s friend Facebook. It’s a lot more natural to integrate your Battle.net account and your Facebook account if you’re already using your real name under the Real ID system. But Blizzard could quite easily let players use the features tied to Real-ID using a screen name, and still allow for an opt-in to the Facebook integration. Not that there’s a good reason to connect my Facebook to my Battle.net account: a) I already see WoW-related ads on Facebook, b) if I want to be Facebook friends with WoW friends who I know by their real name I can already look them up, and c) the chances that any of my Facebook friends who play WoW just randomly play on Rexxar/Horde, are quite low. Which, of course, is why they need to tie it to something I want.

Blizzard has come up with great ways to keep connected with people while playing their games. Given that the friends you play with are one of the major draws of their games, this is a great move. Sadly, they’re bogging it down with controls that lack fine-tuning and unnecessarily make you use your real name to access them.

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