The following is an opinion piece from guest blogger Phil “rootwyrm” Jaenke:
Everyone has been up in arms about Blizzard’s RealID stunt. For those of you who weren’t following, Blizzard came up with a strategy to reduce trolling and flaming in the forums—all of your forum postings would now use your RealID information (your real legal name along with your “main character” and server). They announced it publicly to much noise from customers who were understandably livid. This got customers talking angrily, but talking nonetheless. These customers posted blogs, which got linked, relinked, and relinked again, which drove more hits to Blizzard and World of Warcraft to see what the fuss was about.
I really feel like I’m the only one who realized that while the furor was genuine and legitimate—exposure of transgendered individuals, exposure of people to harassment in real life, a complete reversal of Blizzard’s stated “publish personal information and get a lifetime ban” policy—there was really no point to the reactions.
I am not a lawyer. But I don’t need to be a lawyer to tell you that this really was most likely a pure PR stunt. Legal never would have allowed this. Why? Because of any number of reasons; invasion of privacy, exposure of private information, unauthorized disclosure of personal information for starters. But much more importantly, Blizzard-Activision would have gotten sued. There’s some obvious laws it falls under, but they knew full well that if they did it, they would be in a great deal of legal hot water in nothing flat.
The Legal Problems
That 13 years old bit is the most important, and the big blockade that prevents Blizzard from ever doing this. You see, just like everyone else, Blizzard is subject to a law called COPPA. They would have to obtain new, specifically verifiable parental consent—just having Mom or Dad’s Visa number probably isn’t enough here. Then, and only then, after obtaining verifiable parental consent could they publish their real name—and Blizzard has absolutely no idea how many, which, or if players are underage. They presume the use of a credit card as verifiable proof that the user is over 18—which is not at all true of credit cards. I had my first Visa at the age of 15, in my own name. You can order a credit card in a child’s name, typically at no fee, from most issuers. If Blizzard had published even a single name of someone under 13 years old, they would have opened themselves to dozens or hundreds of lawsuits from parents, as well as investigations by the FTC.
It requires a new agreement between the player and the provider, a specific contract. In most states, a minor is defined as someone under the age of 18, and minors cannot enter into certain types of agreements. It is highly unlikely that it would be legal for a minor to enter into an agreement that requires the publication of their real name on a forum as a requirement for being allowed to play a game. This would open Blizzard up to another flurry of lawsuits from angry parents who are now getting harassing calls and death threats mailed to their house because little Jimmy ninja-ed some loot and everyone at school knows now.
No matter how Blizzard did it, they knew full well they would be sued. They would be sued in the most expensive manner possible, by thousands of people. Whether or not these suits would have any merit, any factual basis, or any chance of winning just doesn’t matter. They still would have to respond to every suit individually, make motions to consolidate as class actions, then fight for dismissals. If you’ve ever been sued, or your employer has ever been sued, you know that it’s expensive. It doesn’t matter if you can win—it’s still expensive. John Doe can sue you for $20,000,000 because he stubbed his toe on the sidewalk out front, and even though it’s completely absurd and he has no hope of prevailing, it will still cost you several thousand dollars to get it dismissed.
How many of you think Blizzard-Activision is stupid enough to invite lawsuits that would cost them millions of dollars to defend even if they knew they could win them? Exactly. They are not idiots. Jerks, narcissists, greedy? Possibly. But definitely not idiots.
So what is this?
Simply put, World of Warcraft and Starcraft II have not been garnering much press lately—especially not World of Warcraft, which is why it was announced there. It certainly drew eyeballs and minds right to World of Warcraft. Starcraft II will get its press come release—World of Warcraft needed more press, so they generated it. Think about it—when was the last time you non-players heard about World of Warcraft from someone other than a player? Probably not at all in the past 12 months or so—especially if you don’t play yourself. Show of hands, how many people here know about Cataclysm and when it’s coming out? Exactly.
It wasn’t the 30,000+ angry comments that drove Blizzard to change their mind on RealID; applying RealID to the forums was never real, and never would have been implemented. I very highly doubt they even seriously considered implementing it. Blizzard does not respond to customer threats or anger; they just ignore it completely. Starcraft II’s pricing model and “purchasable user maps” received an exceptionally negative response at Blizzcon and in the press, but they’ve stuck to it. BNet 2.0 has received an exceptionally negative response; Blizzard hasn’t changed it one bit. They get hundreds of thousands of complaints about changes to classes in World of Warcraft every time they make them, and they ignore nearly every single one. They have a very solid track record on this; when it comes to player complaints, the response is “go away. We’ll just sign up more.” But they were standing up for PRINCIPLES!
Their stated claims were that they hoped it would reduce the flames, trolling and hostility in the forums. Everybody should know by now that these statements are plainly absurd. Where real names are revealed, it does nothing to reduce the hostility or vitriol, and never has. If a sore subject is a sore subject, it will remain so under any circumstances. Again, Blizzard is not stupid. They already know all this. They also knew that doing so would open up green posters and the most vocal community members, pro and con, to real life harassment, death threats, and yes, likely violence in some cases. Would it be the norm? Absolutely not. But it only takes one incident to create a PR disaster of unmanageable proportions.
The one overriding principle at Blizzard-Activision, while they may or may not make great games depending who you ask, is profit. Just like every other for-profit company. The goal is the bottom line, nothing more, nothing less. If they can have fun doing it, if they can make great games, so much the better! But at the end of the day, they aren’t about to do anything that would imperil the bottom line—especially not something that would imperil the bottom line that greatly. How many companies do you know—still in business—that have basically walked up to their customers, slapped them and said “we dare you to sue us”? Nobody is going to actually invite lawsuits down on their head.
Where’s Blizzard-Activision’s real benefit from it? They get sued repeatedly, but what’s their financial gain? They would still have to employ the same number of people to monitor and moderate forums. They would still have to employ the same number of GMs and support staff. The staff already has your real name available from subscriber records. There was no clear or real financial benefit in doing something like this—unless you wanted to generate a great deal of noise for very little money.
So it’s a scam and a huge PR blunder?
Yes and no. Yes, it was probably a total scam. They convinced millions of players that personal information would be handed out to anyone and everyone with an Internet connection. And it was a huge PR win for Blizzard-Activision. Why? Because they convinced somewhere well north of a million people that they actually listened to the player complaints, which made Blizzard-Activision look good to all those players.
So now they have a huge subscriber base that’s suddenly happy with them and thinks they’re great. They have the people who don’t play World of Warcraft suddenly talking about it again. And their actual cost to achieve this? Two forum posts by a full-time employee who would have been writing forum posts anyways. Did they lose some subscriptions? Probably no more than they do to regular subscriber churn, and most of those will probably come back now. Did they make a lot of people angry? Yes, but with one post, they converted the vast majority of them to happy customers who are now talking about World of Warcraft and Blizzard-Activision positively. The folks who continue to complain, are the folks who always complain.
At the end of the day, we probably never will know the exact truth. In fact, it’s not even “probably”—for it to work, we can’t know the truth. But after careful analysis, I’m left wondering which PR or marketing pro cooked this scheme up. Because they pulled it off flawlessly; they even had me convinced for a time. Bravo.