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July 7, 2010 at 6:32 pm (WoW General)

One fairly common refrain, when people express angst about the RealID/forums announcement, is that it’s much ado about nothing – after all, many of us participate on Facebook under our real names.  What’s the harm?  The two are, of course, not directly comparable.  Like many, I have a Facebook account using my real name.  It is, however, accessible only to people on my friends list, save basic name/photo info that confirms nothing more than that I have a Facebook account, and that I am not the world’s most graceful photography subject.  Nothing about that is likely to cause me harm.  Facebook is sufficiently ubiquitous that nobody is going to hold the existence of a profile against you, and my photos online are quite innocuous.

Alas, rightly or wrongly, playing World of Warcraft carries a stigma.  Rightly or wrongly, in many industries, it is a black mark against you in hiring.  I blog under a pseudonym because I do not want potential employers discovering I play WoW.  It’s not worth the potential cost to my real life – I would quit the game first.  So the comparison is not germaine.

In one way, however, the comparison is prescient.  Facebook has come under some considerable scrutiny of late for the ways in which it has slowly diminished its users’ expectation of privacy, and that has called attention to the fact that, at bottom, Facebook’s users are not its customers.  Facebook’s advertisers are its customers – they pay the bills.  Facebook’s users are the product being delivered to the advertisers.  Their personal information is the commodity.

Blizzard’s subscriber list is potentially a gold mine source of revenue in much the same way Facebook’s is.  Activision-Blizzard are not unaware of this – they’re not fools.  The obstacle, to this point, to developing this revenue stream is that the sudden discovery that our data was being sold would result in mass departure from the game – it would cripple WoW and any goodwill associated with the company’s name.  How to get around this?  Slowly, piece by piece, erode the user’s expectation of privacy.  First, your ID is only exposed to your friends.  Then, only if you participate in what is (unless you count tech support and customer service) an optional “add-on” – the forums.  The end result is WoW as true social network, surrounded by a game (Farmville on steroids, essentially), with advertising and microtransactions the primary revenue stream.

Blizzard’s revenue stream is subscribers, you say?  Well yes.  For the moment.  Products have a lifecycle.  After a time, when growth slows or reverses, it becomes time to figure out how to eke out new revenue opportunities from the product.  WoW-as-social-network-and-targeted-advertising-platform would be a heck of an opportunity, if they can acclimate their users to accept it.

If this is the future of WoW, I want no part of it.

EDITED TO ADD:  I could have done research on this before I posted, I suppose.  Exhibit A.

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