Virtual gardens with real-world walls

Here is a fascinating piece from OZYMANDIAS that oozes with grist for the User Centric mill.  This seems to be about walled gardens with barbed wire.  Please don't take what I'm saying as being critical of Sony in order to puff some other company (like, er, my own).  I'm talking about the general problem of identity in the gaming world, and the miserable experience much of the current technology gives us.  I think I should be able to represent my gaming personas as Information Cards – just as I would represent other aspects of my identity – and use them across games (and one day, even platforms) – without linkage to my molecular identity. 

News on the web today is that Xfire is suing GameSpy for how their GameSpy Comrade “Buddy Sync” feature creates friends lists. To quote:

Now Battlefield 2142 is caught up in a legal tangle between rival in-game instant messaging programs Xfire and GameSpy Comrade. On October 16, Viacom-owned Xfire filed suit against News Corp subsidiary IGN Entertainment over its GameSpy Comrade program, which comes on the Battlefield 2142 disc. IGN Entertainment also owns, a GameSpot competitor.   

Xfire is claiming that GameSpy Comrade's “Buddy Sync” feature illegally infringes on its copyrights. Buddy Sync retrieves users’ friends lists from other instant messaging programs like AOL Instant Messenger and Xfire, and gives players the option of automatically inviting those friends who have GameSpy accounts to join the users’ friends lists on Comrade.

If you read a bit deeper you find that what's basically being challenged is GameSpy's use of information (friends lists) that has been publicly published by Xfire on their website. Xfire claims that GameSpy's reading of that data is to enable GameSpy to bolster their own friends lists:

In a filing in support of the restraining order, Xfire CEO Michael Cassidy specified how his company believes the Comrade program works. First, Cassidy said it reads the user's Xfire handle from the XfireUser.ini file, then visits a formulaic URL on the Xfire site to get a list of the user's friends (for instance, to find the friends list of Xfire user Aragorn, Comrade would go to The names on that friends list are then compared with a central IGN database of Comrade users’ Xfire handles, and if any matches turn up, the user is asked if they want to invite those people to their Comrade buddy lists.

I am not a lawyer, and can't definitively comment on whether information that's made public in this fashion can or cannot be harvested. My gut is that it's probably kosher – we have plenty of website scraping applications in the wild today that do just this, including best price searching sites. What does fascinate me is how this suit highlights how busted Sony's PS3 online network is, and how companies are fighting to position themselves to take advantage of this financially. Bet that seemed to come out of right field. Wink But here's where I'm coming from.

I wrote earlier about why Sony's enabling of Xfire for PS3 games wasn't as exciting as it might seem. Take a read, and then let's talk about just what the experience of being an online user on PS3 is likely to be like.

So I buy my PS3, bring it home, and go online. The first thing I'm going to be asked to do is create some sort of Sony Network ID. That “Sony ID” will apparently bring basic presence and communication features via the crossbar interface. So far so good. Now I decide to play Insomniac's Resistance, which recently stated the following:

Insomniac's Ted Price: “The buddy list is specific to Resistance. And we decided not to bother people in-game with messages. If you have a new message sent to you while you're in a game, you'll see your “buddy list” tab flashing when you re-enter the lobby after playing a game. The buddy list tab is where you can access your friends, ignore list, messages, etc.”  

1Up (to reader): “Does this mean there's a system-wide friend's list, but you have to compile game-specific friends lists for each online game you participate in? That doesn't make much sense, and hopefully today's event will clear up the situation.”

Yes Virginia, that's exactly what this means. Even though I already have a “Sony ID”, I may have to create a new “Resistance ID” to play. And then start thinking about just how broken the experience is when you try to invite someone to a game. Do you send it via the Resistance UI? What screenname do I send it to? If I want to add you to my “Sony ID” friends list, do I need to send you an in-game message to ask you what your real “Sony ID” name is? What about game invites? How does that work across even just these two IDs?

You think that's bad? Now let's open up a few more games from different publishers. Each of these publishers had to make a choice of what online interface to use – again, because Sony's online network just isn't ready. So they'll choose between writing their own (as did Insomniac for Resistance), or perhaps licensing Xfire, or GameSpy, or Quazal, or Demonware. So now we have five potential networks with different namespaces, and an inherent  lack of ability to communicate (chatting, voice, invites, finding friends, etc.) between them, and even across to just the “Sony ID” namespace. Think we're done? Nope… what happens if each publisher doesn't stick with the same online solution for all of their games? This is very likely as most publishers use different developers – so even across a single publisher, you may find fragmented communities.

The only consistent tie all of these different community fragments has is that a user should always have their Sony ID. That gives you a lifeline to be see friends when they are online… but only in the crossbar UI. Will you even be able to see what game they're playing? What about what network that game uses, and whether that friend is logged into it? How will you get messages in a timely manner? Remember Ted Price's quote above? “And we decided not to bother people in-game with messages. If you have a new message sent to you while you're in a game, you'll see your “buddy list” tab flashing when you re-enter the lobby after playing a game.” Doesn't sound like a user-centric design decision to me.

So… back to Xfire and GameSpy. I said earlier this suit is a direct result of how busted Sony's online network appears to be, and I just described some of the issues you'll likely be facing later this month. Yes, it's targeted at a PC title right now (Battlefield 2142), but that's just noise. What we're really seeing with this suit are online middleware companies trying to position themselves to become the eventual defacto solution that publishers will use. Just as with web search and instant messaging, these companies are trying to get momentum and user base that will cause them to be the “PS3 online” solution of choice. And this suit is simply one of many battles we'll see in this space, especially as PC and console crossplatform connectivity becomes more important in the coming years.

When my role as a player is really valued, I will be seen as owning my own buddy list.  Using zero knowledge technology, it will be possible for me to hook up with any of my buddies’ personas – across various games and without committing sins of privacy.


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Kim Cameron

Work on identity.

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