An open letter to Blizzard

2010-09-08 23:29

Yeah, still thinking about this. Decided that, just because I liked the company so much for so long, I ought to give them a summary which isn’t bounded by what you can post on the forums or surrounded by trash-talking teenagers. This is a copy (edited for blog) of something I sent to their PR department, after customer support told me those were the right people to send it to.

Hello, Blizzard PR folks! I’m writing you because, in theory, you’re the people who care how Blizzard looks. If you’re the wrong people to look at this, please don’t just toss it out — forward it to someone who can read it and think about it. This is about the only thing I’ve asked of you after five years of play. Hear me out.

Hi. I’m someone who was, for a long time, a pretty big fan of World of Warcraft. I cancelled my accounts (plural) over the Real ID thing, and your response since then has not changed my mind. I’m writing you because it’s hard to tell how much of what happened is Blizzard being out of touch, how much of it is Blizzard not caring, and how much of it is Bobby Kotick being a psychopath.

Let me start by explaining what I mean by a “pretty big fan”. I’m not gonna pretend to be the biggest WoW fan out there, but I think that I can argue convincingly that I was a very active fan, and that it took a lot to drive me away.

I maintained three accounts (you’re welcome to verify this, this email is being sent under my battle.net ID), and paid for accounts for other people, such as sending time cards to friends. I bought four copies of WotLK collector’s edition. I upgraded machines to play WoW. Heck, I built a couple of machines which were completely purpose-built for WoW and never did anything else.

I maintained a couple of addons, and spent many hours writing up bug reports for other addons, and submitting patches. I’m a professional programmer; my time spent debugging and contributing code is something I normally get to charge money for.

All of this comes down to one simple thing: I was a really big fan of WoW. In five years of playing it, I never so much as got a trial account for any other MMO. I don’t know how many hours I spent playing WoW, but it was a lot.

And I left. I think you should care why.

Issue #1: Real names for forums was obviously, fatally flawed.

Heck, it was stupid. When that announcement came out, I told a lot of my friends about it. Without exceptions, and I do mean without even one exception, every single one of them reacted with incredulous shock that Blizzard could seriously propose this.

I won’t pretend that every one of them immediately thought of all the many objections that were raised in the forums. But every single person saw at least one obvious objection which would be a guaranteed showstopper.

I’ll come back to a couple of the specifics later. The key point here is this: It is pretty weird that this idea ever got as far as being announced to the general public. The range of immediately obvious fatal flaws is astounding.

Worse yet, there is no way in which this would have reduced the problems that have made your forums such a cesspit. Bullies don’t care whether their victims know who they are. For that matter, when your bullies are mostly kids who have no personal liability or risk, what would be the smartest thing to do? It wouldn’t be to let them find out the real names of the people they want to harass. Kids can and will take internet drama to the real world given the information they need to do so. (And the use of their real names isn’t a deterrent, especially because they don’t have to post under their real names to do searches on someone else’s real name.)

Either everyone involved is spectacularly, incandescently, naive, or you were all lying. But come to think of it, we know some Blizzard reps were lying. That’s issue #2…

Issue #2: Blizzard reps were lying.

Before this announcement, Blizzard reps repeatedly told us that the reason Real ID used real names was that it was only intended for use with people you know in real life. After the forum announcement, Blizzard reps said that the change to require real names to be used on all the forums, where everyone could see them, had been known to everyone at Blizzard for a long time.

That means that the line about it being used only with people you know in real life was a lie. Not a misunderstanding, not a nuanced statement which people might misinterpret. A lie. You flat-out told us that Real ID was only for people you know in real life, at a time when you knew for sure that your plan was to force anyone who wanted to use the forums to post there under their real name, even though they might not know everyone who reads the forums in real life.

Now, with most companies, I wouldn’t even bother to point this out; the assumption that corporate representatives are lying is pretty much a foregone conclusion in most of the world. But this is Blizzard, and while I’ve seen Blizzard reps announce changes of plans before, this was the first time I ever saw a Blizzard rep say something that was later revealed to be a lie.

Of course, the lying may not have been the worst. There were also responses which were dismissive and insulting; that’s issue #3…

Issue #3: Initial response was insulting, dismissive, and stupid

I call your attention, in particular, to a post made in the EU forums (sorry, I can’t get you an exact link). One of the Blizzard representatives said that, yes, Blizzard knew a lot of people would leave over this, but thought it was a good thing; it would improve the forums.

Think about what that sounds like to the people who were leaving. It sounds, very much, like “we don’t want you and your kind”. There’s just one problem. By the time that post was made, nearly all of your community MVPs had come out as saying they would no longer use the forums if this change went live. So had dozens of people who had such undesirable traits as “female”, or “has a job in an industry other than video games”. And you thought the forum would be improved if they left.

There wasn’t a single complaint from the regular trolls and bullies. They weren’t planning to leave, and weren’t bothered by the proposed change. So it wasn’t that Blizzard thought the forums would be better off without both the MVPs and the trolls; it was that, having seen that the MVPs were leaving and the trolls were staying, Blizzard came out and said that would improve the forums. Probably a mistake, but a mistake you’ve never corrected. Not even when you backed down from the plan.

The backing down was actually pretty decent, except that it was not really presented in terms of the substance of any complaints; that’s issue #4…

Issue #4: Blizzard never acknowledged the substance of any complaints.

I really liked Mike Morhaine’s response at first, but then I noticed something.

Blizzard acknowledged the complaints as a mass noun. However, there is no acknowledgement, not in any post I’ve seen from any Blizzard representative, of the merit of any of the complaints. For all I know, if 10% fewer people had cancelled their accounts, Blizzard would still be happily moving forward with a plan which would have endangered some of their customers.

I’d like to digress for a moment into a couple of specific complaints that mattered a lot to me, because while many of the others are doubtless significant (and I’m sure the people who raised those complaints are feeling just as ignored as I am), these were the ones that mattered the most to me.

Issue #4a: LGBT? Die in a fire.

WoW’s community is, by and large, astounding in its variety and depth of hostility to gays, transsexuals, and other people who aren’t obviously heterosexual. It’s certainly not the worst out there — Xbox Live is essentially unchallenged, there. But it’s bad. Really, really, bad.

Two of my closest friends who play WoW are transgendered. Both of them have legal names which would instantly “out” them to anyone who has ever talked to them in game. What this means is that anything that relies on a legal name is instantly ruled out. A lot of gay people might be outed if you could see the real names of both members of a couple. And in WoW, being outed means being harassed.

The Real ID system, as a whole, is in effect actively and directly hostile to gay and transgendered people. Worse, since the harm it does is specific, and doesn’t affect many players, refusal to use it can raise suspicions that otherwise might not be raised.

This is the kind of thing which you should have fully thought through before even considering going live with Real ID, and ultimately, it can’t be resolved without allowing people to choose a handle other than their real name.

Issue #4b: “No one cares about privacy.”

It seems that there’s a bit of a disconnect between the very accurate observation that many people are not very concerned with privacy, and the conclusion that no one is very concerned with privacy. You’ve gotten smacked down on this one a fair bit, but I just thought I should point something out:

One of the people I know who argued that Real ID was no big deal does, in fact, have a facebook account. Under a fake name. She’s not dumb enough to be out on the Internet under her legal name.

… Enough with the specifics. The problem here is that many of the complaints people raised were serious complaints — as in, you simply can’t ever expect these people to use Real ID. And yet, in all the responses Blizzard has offered, I have never once seen Blizzard admit that, in fact, there are genuine and sound reasons for people not to want to play video games under their legal name.

And when you don’t admit that, in fact, there was an element of justice to the complaints, you end up coming across as not caring about those complaints in terms of their merits, only in terms of their number. So small groups (say, transgendered people) are pretty justified in assuming that, if Blizzard can find a way to make the real name requirement acceptable to “most” players, Blizzard will go right ahead and do that, because the substance of the complaints doesn’t matter, only the number of complaints.

But of course, Blizzard wouldn’t go right ahead and do that, would they? Well, maybe they would. That’s issue #5:

Issue #5: At this time, for the time being…

In the original message from Mike Morhaine, posted July 9th, Mike said:

“As a result of those discussions, we’ve decided at this time that real names will not be required for posting on official Blizzard forums.”

A lot of people pointed out that “at this time” sounds an awful lot like “but as soon as you’ve all bought Cataclysm we’ll do it anyway.” I personally didn’t think so. But let’s look at what Michael Ryder says to Eurogamer a couple of weeks later:

“Ultimately we decided we would not go in that direction for the time being, […]”

Now, maybe this is just poor phrasing, but the phrase “for the time being” is a qualifier that usually means you plan to change something later. Maybe that connotation isn’t intentional, but it’s there, and so far as I can tell, it’s the last official statement from Blizzard on the topic. We got a temporary reprieve because there were so many of us, but no one at Blizzard thinks we had a real point.

Ultimately, the entire process seems like it’s been undertaken without any thought, not just to what people don’t want, but to what they do want. That’s Issue #6:

Issue #6: Real ID is not what the vast majority of players want

By forcibly tying highly desirable features (cross-game chat, cross-faction chat, ability to friend all of a person’s characters at once) to an undesirable feature, you have created the illusion that people want the real name thing. Not many people seem to actually want the real name thing in its own right. Some don’t want it, for many reasons (it breaks immersion, for instance).

Other services, like Steam and Xbox Live and PSN (and in fact, pretty much every service out there) allow people to pick handles. So does City of Heroes, where “globals” are unique handles people can use to keep in touch without having to share real names.

Okay, that’s about long enough. Lemme summarize a bit.

Let’s bring this all together and see the picture it draws us. It draws us a picture of Blizzard deciding to do something that will be harmful to a substantial minority of their player base. The response is, among other things, a post about every four seconds for three straight days, mostly criticizing the scheme.

In response, Blizzard makes it clear that most of their prior statements about Real ID were dishonest, and that they’ve been thinking about this for a long time — so presumably they’re aware of all the problems and decided that they just didn’t care. This is amplified by a blue poster openly dismissing the people who complain. Not just the complaints, but the people. We are told that the forums will be better without us.

When this inexplicably fails to mollify the customers, Blizzard backs down — but does so without in any way acknowledging the substance of even one complaint. We never hear a single response to the effect of “That’s something we hadn’t considered, and you’re right that it would be a big problem”. And then Michael Ryder goes on to hint that it may happen anyway, just not “for the time being”.

Real ID, even the optional parts, still sucks. It’s regarded by many SC2 players as the single bad thing in an otherwise awesome game. It selectively denies access to some pretty awesome features to the set of “anyone who has reason not to be known by their legal name in an online game”, which is a set dominated by various groups which would, in most contexts, be protected minorities.

Months have passed. Still not a single acknowledgement of the substance of even one complaint. Stalking victims, gays, women, whoever; no one’s had a single specific complaint acknowledged.

Some people are just hoping it doesn’t happen; others have left.

On July 5th, if you’d asked me about upcoming plans for Cataclysm, they would have included at least three, probably four or five, collector’s edition copies, and talk of seeing if I could shake loose a few thousand dollars to get a faster machine to play it. I was actively discussing Cataclysm, enthusiastic about all the amazing new content and the improved game mechanics, and so on. I was telling people that they should try WoW, and helping them have a good experience if they started, by getting them set up with starting money and helpful tips.

By the evening of July 6th, I was an ex-customer. I logged in enough to collect my stuff from the auction house and send my loot on to guildies. Haven’t been back since.

WoW isn’t fun anymore, because Blizzard has made it clear that my transgendered friends are not a welcome or valued part of the community. Blizzard has made it clear that, even after having this kind of issue pointed out, they are not planning to consider it, take it into account, or make allowances for it. Similarly, people whose names identify them as Arabic, Chinese, Mexican, or Jewish might not feel safe using Real ID; in-game channels are full of blatant and open racism, complete with threats of physical violence.

Every voice counts, but only if it’s the voice of a white male teenager with nothing to lose.

You can still fix this, you know. All you have to do is something that most people regard as one of the essential skills that distinguishes adults from children: Admit you were wrong.

Acknowledge at least a few of the many complaints about this proposed scheme, and give us a real, honest, explanation of how they could possibly have gotten overlooked in your internal planning. Did you think about them and just not care? Did you just not think of any of them? What happened?

Without that, all we have is an official statement that you’re glad to see us going, because it’ll make for better forums when all the the people who don’t want to be identified by their legal names leave. Either you think that the only reason people wouldn’t want to be known by their legal name, to everyone, is that they’re bullies or trolls, or you just don’t care about the exceptions.

If you want people to think you are neither stupid or callous, you must fix Real ID so that it can be reasonably used by the many people who have really good reasons to avoid using their legal name to identify them in gameplay, and explain how on earth you could have thought that option wasn’t necessary to begin with.

Peter Seebach

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