The RealID controversy – a management studies perspective

13 July 2010 § 1 Comment

In the last week, Blizzard has caused much unrest in the fan community by announcing that, come Cataclysm, everyone would be required to post in the official forums using their real name. The official thread ran at 2500 pages (read again – pages, not posts), and most blogs ran negative comments about it, citing privacy issues, possible harassment, and the lack of any real advantage. After a very vocal week, Blizzard’s CEO Mike Morhaime issued a statement, retracting the earlier position.

This is a case where the management student in me comes to the fore, and would dearly love to know more about the company’s internal processes. In general, Blizzard needs to play a very difficult balancing act: on one hand, listening to the customers is as essential as in any other business; on the other hand, Blizzard’s customers tend to drown any signal with noise, and are notoriously bad at taking a step back and making suggestions that are good for the whole game, and not for their favourite class/spec/role. So, much more than a simple listening job, Blizzard employees need to develop sensitive filters, to find out the good feedback they can use to improve the game while standing firm on the simple qq-ness of most posts.

Blizzard’s attitude to the forums has changed a lot with Wrath – and the arrival of Ghostcrawler was probably a big part of it. The presence of a friendly crab who knew how to keep his cool even in the face of the most virulent flames, and always offered some friendly advice, information and clarification means that the forums suddenly became a much more active, more two-way form of communication. I’m not saying the trolls went away – simply that GC (and the rest of the blues active on the forums, from Nethaera to all the others) helped clarify what people could expect as information coming from them, and this created some more structured posts.

The thing that struck me the most about the whole thing is that, from the announcement onwards, Blizzard never stopped listening. It would have been easy to lock any thread that started to complain about it, or to ban everyone. Quite the opposite, Blizzard made an active effort to keep the thread up: 2500 pages is a LOT of time over the thread limit on the forums, so I’m sure they increased the limit manually multiple times on that one. They banned people that went out of bounds, of course, and made sure the feedback was consolidated in one thread as opposed to spread over multiple ones. They also refrained from intervening often (which probably would have derailed the debate), but did let us know a couple of times (through Neth, if memory serves) that they were listening and reading all the posts.

This suggests that their position was a lot less clear and definite than their initial statement led us to believe. There probably were some doubts or conflicting opinion within the decision making team as well, and the fan reaction gave one side additional arguments to block the change. I’ve heard many theories that this was all part of an Activision ploy to turn into a social network site – but while I can agree that the goal indeed seemed to capitalise on social networking, attributing it to Activision over Blizzard seems, at the very least, unproven, if not outright convenient for a “heroic game publisher Blizzard” vs “big corporate giant Activision” narrative that seems a bit simplistic.

There is one other thing that struck me: most of the blogs I follow had a restrained response to the change. No-one threatened to cancel their subscription or worse: most remarked that, if the change went live, they would stop posting on the forums, and limit themselves to the actual game. Maybe I was just lucky, and I know that some blogs DID actually stop over this (and I know of at least one person who decided to take a break from the game in part as an answer to the RealID change), but for the most part I did not see a “this is the end” (at most I found comments about “it would be ironic if Blizzard killed their own game with a change they themselves made”, which is a legitimate concern, imho). So the inner troll in me that rages at people raging actually had to be pleasantly surprised and go back to his cage.

As always, it’s not clear what the long term effects of this controversy will be. Many people are saying that they lost their trust in Blizzard (like Panzercow), while others are proud that Blizzard had the courage to change their mind so publicly (like Miss Medicina). I think it is too early to say which side is right: I am probably more in Medicina’s camp than Linedan’s, but this is much more due to a general attitude in life than any hard data. What I think is clear is that Blizzard is made of human people: they can make mistakes, and they can change their mind, and we, the fans, can help them if we argue our case coherently and clearly, instead of raging and trolling.

Also – damn, I would love to study Blizzard’s inner organisational workings more closely. Looking for anyone in a management position, Blizzard? ;-P


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