Apr 282011

Assuming you’ve jumped off the Sony bandwagon given everything that’s happened and how it was handled, what would it take to get you back on board?  Sony says it will evaluate compensation options after they get PSN back online, so now is a great time to give them some suggestions.  When Xbox Live went down for a couple days around the holiday season 2 years ago, Microsoft gave everyone a forgettable XBLA game.  Of course, the PSN downtime and the fallout from that is much more catastrophic.

In discussing the issue with various friends, family and colleagues, the question came up, what would it take to turn this negative into a positive?  Obviously, the answer would be different for everyone, with some people actually defending Sony to the bitter end.  I’d call those people foolish, but to each their own.  Anyway, let’s take a look at some ideas Sony could use to “win back” and even earn some loyal customers.

From what I understand, some US states actually require companies to pay for a year (or even two?) of credit monitoring when personal data is stolen.  So an easy one would be to provide this service for all of their customers.  This should be a no brainer.  ArsTechnica has already posted some reports of credit card fraud that could be linked to the Sony breach, but in actuality, there is no way to verify those claims.  Whether it’s true or not, expect to see more stories like that for months and years to come.  At least Sony offering monitoring services will help quell customer complaints and provide an nice PR image boost for them, as a gesture of showing they care.  That last bit is important, since the general perception, valid or not, is that Sony does not care, as implied by their poor communication and perceived tone taken in their updates.

Other options that people will look for is some sort of financial compensation and/or free content.  Giving users free PSN games, or even going as far as giving everyone a free year of Playstation Plus should be fairly easy for Sony to do, would quiet most of their customer base and allow many to quickly forget this whole unpleasant experience.  Current Playstation Plus or Qriocity subscribers should most definitely get some sort of partial refund, no question.

While the options I’ve listed so far are nice, when you boil them down, they are just PR stunts to help boost a tarnished image.  The one area I feel that Sony could really make a difference and go a long way into (re)building a loyal fan-base is to take this experience and use it to become a champion for customer privacy and security.  They would do their customers a great service by taking the lead in providing customers greater control over their own data.  Let customers delete and permanently purge their accounts from Sony’s system, if they choose to do so.  Let customers permanently delete their stored credit card data from PSN.  Lead the industry in system security and privacy by having users opt-in to data gathering services that are currently in place.  Ditch the arcane and purposely confusing EULAs and provide clear language agreements.  By becoming a dominate player in consumer rights, they can start to build a reputation of a company people can trust, and gain customers who will fiercely loyal.

While I’m on my soap box, since they are rebuilding PSN from the ground up, fix the painfully slow PS3 update process that is way too frequent and often provides no new features.  Don’t forget that the past few months we saw numerous firmware updates all to bolster the security of the PS3 & PSN in their seemingly pointless war with hackers.  In the end, it was their customers who got caught in the crossfire, not to mention the inconvenience of loading 30 minute updates on their consoles before they can even start to use it.

Is this all pie-in-the-sky over optimism?  Probably.  But that’s how I’d answer the question.  Sony would win me back and keep me as a customer if they proved they were serious about security and privacy, let users control their own data, and throw a few freebies our way for good measure.  What other ideas do you have that Sony could do to make things right?

Apr 272011

According to Crytek staff posting in the official game forums, a hefty Crysis 2 patch is on the way. The promised changelog includes some welcome bugfixes, but the most striking improvements are at the top of the list: “Vote-kicking feature added; Further improvements to anti-cheat measures.”

I found the multiplayer side of Crysis 2 to be consistently more enjoyable than online play in both Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops. That sound like damning with faint praise, but the core shooting and movement systems are polished and satisfying. Maps are generally better than we’ve seen in recent online shooters, too. On the other hand, this patch reminded me of the game’s biggest problem since launch: rampant cheating.

Crytek seems to have shipped the game with no anti-cheat protection, a baffling decision which undermined its viability online. Funkmaster and I ran into cheaters only a few days after the game’s release. When I fired up Crysis 2 again last week, I had to try out several different servers before finding one without an obvious cheater.

I’m conservative about calling hacks. I’ve dabbled in online competition for shooters like CoD4, and most experienced gamers I know have been falsely accused of cheating in public servers. In Crysis 2, tho, I was encountering players with names like “CRYN3TkillahLOLOLOL”, racking up 55-0 nets with 100% headshots. The glaringly obvious killcam shots were just icing on the (exasperating) cake. And with no vote-kicking, honest players had no recourse but to move on and try to find another server – or “Quit to Windows” and choose another game.

With Crytek giving more attention to anti-cheat measures, will this patch make Crysis 2 playable again? It may deserve a second look from those who, like me, shelved the game due to the rampant cheating. But it’s notoriously difficult to rebuild multiplayer communities once they begin to contract, and Brink’s release is less than two weeks off. Time may have already run out for Crysis 2.

Apr 272011

Apple today posted a Q&A piece on their website, outlining exactly what location information the iPhone stores and how it is used.  The short version is that the iPhone maintains a cache of wifi hotspots and cell towers in the area to help better assist apps that use location services.   This allows your phone to find your location much faster than if it used GPS alone.   So even though the tracking is no where near as invasive and sinister as many media outlets have incorrectly reported, Apple will be making some changes in an update in the near future.  They will no longer store a backup of this cached data on your computer and fix the supposed bug that when you turn off location services, the location data cache will be permanently deleted.


Why is my iPhone logging my location?
The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested.

Can Apple locate me based on my geo-tagged Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?
No. This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form. Apple cannot identify the source of this data.

Why is Apple tracking the location of my iPhone?
Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.

Full Official Press Release here.

Apr 262011

So, I totally acknowledge that we’ve done nothing but Sony/PSN stories for close to a week now, but this unfolding saga has been dominating the news.  I figure one more post on the subject was important, more from a public service announcement standpoint.

Sony finally admitted that during a security breach last week, an outside source gained access to all PSN usernames, passwords, email address, mailing addresses, phone numbers, birthdays and most likely, credit card data.  That’s pretty much the worst case scenario picture I painted last week.  We already know that Sony has handled this crisis totally wrong, as detailed here, which is further exacerbated by waiting a whole week to notify their customers that all their personal data had been exposed.  On their blog post, they even go as far to recommend users continually check their credit reports and provide info on how to do that.

At this point, the footnote to the story is that PSN will be up in about a week.  The real story is that this was a complete and total failure by Sony.   A few recommendations:  If your PSN username/email and password combo is used on other sites (i.e. you’re one of the many who reuse the same password with different sites) now is a good time to change passwords to at least some of your most critical sites like email accounts, banking accounts and anything else that is super-sensitive.   Using a browser plugin and mobile app like LastPass is great for managing passwords and generating unique passwords for each site.  It is less convenient to have different passwords for all your sites and services, but Sony has taught us a valuable lesson:  your data is not safe with anyone.  Also, it should go without saying that you should closely monitor your accounts for any anomalous activity.  Plus, now’s not a bad time to start looking in to enabling two factor authentication on sites like Google and Facebook — something that’s automatically enabled on Steam now.

To wrap up my words on the Sony issue, I wonder where it leaves consumer support on current and future Sony products.  While security breaches can happen anywhere and at anytime, Sony’s complete mishandling of this major incident will be hard to forget.  Do I want to reward a company by continuing to purchase their products and services who not only lost my data, but at first lied, then delayed telling me about it?  Not really.  That doesn’t mean I’m throwing out my PS3.  That won’t accomplish anything.  Sony already has my money and the data is long gone, but it will be hard to support that or future Sony platforms going forward.  How about you? Has Sony made your “must avoid” list as a consumer or has this debacle left you unfazed?


Apr 262011

I want to follow up on yesterday’s post with a question: What would the past week have looked like if Sony actually understood the current research into effective, real-world crisis management? How could Sony have handled this situation if they’d wanted to, you know, do a good job?

Let’s see how things might have turned out differently.


Within an hour of the outage, Sony posts an official statement on its PSN blog and Twitter feed – maybe something like, “PSN is currently down. We hate downtime, and we’re working as hard as we can to get things running again. A lot of new games came out this week, including PS3-exclusive SOCOM 4 and Valve’s Portal 2, which has exclusive multiplayer with PC and Mac gamers. We want you to be able to get back to your games, movies, and other entertainment as quickly as possible!”

Regular Twitter updates are posted every few hours throughout Thursday, reinforcing the message that Sony network engineers are working around the clock. Each update is another opportunity to acknowledge additional, specific customer frustrations, like the lack of Netflix availability in the US. This focus on Twitter updates also affords Sony PR staff the time to begin networking with gaming journalism sites, so that the company’s viewpoint will be fully represented in blog posts and news stories going forward.

By the end of Thursday, Sony realizes that the situation is more complex than originally hoped. A more detailed statement is needed: “Our engineers are still working on restoring PSN, and they think this might take an additional day or two. They’re doing the best they can, but we’re frustrated by this delay because we know it has a big impact on all of our customers. We know you’re waiting on us so you can play games like SOCOM 4 online, or participate in the beta program for upcoming PS3 exclusive Infamous 2. You want to access your music through Qriocity or your HD video streaming through Netflix. We know this is frustrating for a lot of our 70 million customers worldwide, and we’ll keep working around the clock to restore all of the services you rely on.”

At this point, company PR staff arrange for journalists to interview Sony execs and team leaders. All spokespeople follow the same message playbook, while still contributing unique perspectives from their individual roles. For example, a lead network engineer is available for interviews alongside a top company executive. This shows the world that Sony is addressing this challenge at all levels, and that everyone inside the company recognizes the negative impact on customers.

This is also the right time for the company to contact all of its PSN users by email, with a more formal version of their Thursday night message. The important thing is for Sony to broadcast its message via all available outlets, including direct contact with customers. The latter medium will be especially vital once Sony recognizes that private data – including credit card numbers – may have been compromised for tens of millions of customers worldwide.

Because Sony responded to the outage immediately, accurately, and consistently, they’ve built credibility for their continued handling of the situation. They’ve showcased their concern for customers, and they’ve cultivated relationships with journalists to ensure that the unfolding story will centrally feature Sony’s perspective. Sony has a strong foundation for its evolving response to the crisis.

Reality check

I could go on, but it’s pretty tiring to see the vast gulf between efficient, effective handling of this situation and Sony’s actual response.

My point is that this stuff isn’t rocket surgery. Sure, it might help to have a little bit of management training and experience, but Sony is one of the largest multinationals on Earth. It’s crazy to think they don’t have the resources or know-how to do this right.

It’s also crazy to think they weren’t prepared for this outage before it even happened. I don’t just mean on the technical side, tho that’s obviously a fair point. I mean that Sony should have had a detailed crisis management plan in place, ready to execute at the proverbial press of a button. Crises are a common fact of global business, and Sony’s approach has been bush-league.

Especially now that customer privacy may be at stake, this situation perfectly illustrates one of the basic rules of crisis management: respond early and often. Customers and journalists decide within hours whether the crisis is your fault and whether you’re acting in the public interest. Once the story gets written without you, good luck getting your spokespeople any significant airtime until the lawsuits hit.

Oh, and failing to plan might just be planning to fail, epicly.

Apr 252011

More to the point, actually, might be the question: What is Sony not doing? One no-brainer answer is “effective crisis management”.

It might seem a little over-entitled for a bunch of relatively affluent gamers to whine about being locked out of one online network for a few days. From Sony’s perspective, tho, this is a massive crisis – one of the biggest hits to their brand in a decade or more. The PS3 has long struggled in the marketplace, especially in the US, and Microsoft seems to have lost little time in capitalizing on Sony’s most recent problem. Destructoid reports that a Microsoft spokesperson commented, “Of course it’s regretful that Sony is encountering issues at such a busy time, and Microsoft takes no joy in the problems gamers are having playing their favourite games online…. That being said, we are expecting Microsoft’s robust online network to see an increase of traffic from those gamers who own both systems.” (To be fair, sourcing on the original article at Electronic Theatre is a little sketchy. Even if the quotation turns out be to a hoax or a mistake, tho, there are at least a few dozen leaders in Microsoft’s XBox division who desperately want to say something like that. And if they haven’t already, they will.)

What have we seen from Sony? Very little communication at all – when they weren’t actually lying to us. (Don’t forget that they originally claimed the outage was due to “maintenance”.)

Dispatches from Sonyland

To appreciate the extent of this crisis for Sony, keep in mind their motto for the PS3: “It Only Does Everything”. Sony wants you to see the PS3 not as a gaming machine, but as a media server and digital entertainment hub. They want the PS3 to be your platform for hard-copy games and Blu-Ray video, but also your platform for digitally-delivered games, music, TV, and movies. They want you to access all of this digital stuff through Sony services like Qriocity, as well as through third-party services like Netflix (which, as Sony was happy to note, offered HD streaming to the PS3 before the XBox 360). Funk did a great job of covering all of that yesterday.

What do these digital services have in common? They’re almost entirely dependent on PSN. (Sure, some people have had success with Netflix after allowing the program’s login screen to repeatedly timeout, but this isn’t a universal fix. It’s also not a reasonable fix for any mass-market rollout.) The potential damage to Sony’s brand is nicely summed up in today’s Penny Arcade strip.

On top of all that, it’s important to recognize other impacts this might have – on customer data and security, not just on entertainment. Sony has now admitted that PSN was brought down by an “intrusion”, but they still won’t confirm whether PSN customers’ private data is secure. I’m one of millions of people who have given Sony my credit card information in order to purchase content over PSN, and Sony’s current word is basically “Your data may or may not be secure – we really don’t know. But hey, we’ll tell you as soon as we find anything out.”

Crisis management and Sony

Instead of rehearsing the crazy things that have come out of Sony’s various, not-always-identifiably-human PR mouthpieces, I want to focus on what they might have done instead. Let’s take a quick look at effective crisis communications, based on the work of Timothy Coombs, one of the current leaders in academic research into this area.

According to the work of Coombs and others in the field of crisis communication, there are some clear commonalities in effective crisis management. The Institute for Public Relations publishes a freely-available whitepaper/summary by Coombs, focusing on the current (ca. 2007) research in the field. Based on his own research and that of others, Coombs identifies the following traits of effective crisis communication:

Be quick and try to have initial response within the first hour.
Be accurate by carefully checking all facts.
Be consistent by keeping spokespeople informed of crisis events and key message points.
Make public safety the number one priority.
Use all of the available communication channels including the Internet, Intranet, and mass notification systems.
Provide some expression of concern/sympathy for victims.
Remember to include employees in the initial response.
Be ready to provide stress and trauma counseling to victims….

The field of crisis communication/management looks at a broad range of challenges – from issues like the PSN outage, to last year’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of Coombs’ points don’t apply directly to the current situation with Sony, obviously. For example, my girlfriend and I probably won’t need trauma counseling because we haven’t been able to watch Buffy: The Vampire Slayer via Netflix. But keep in mind what that list represents. It’s not a prescriptive list of tactics that egghead professors think companies should use. Instead, it’s a set of approaches that have shown real-world effectiveness. That list is based on research into hundreds of real-world crisis situations, looking at what worked and what didn’t.

Where does Sony fit into this? Well, you tell me. As far as I can see, they’ve failed on every single applicable category. Maybe they’ve come closest to expressing sympathy (“Provide some expression of concern/sympathy for victims”), but even those statements have sounded pretty insincere to me; Sony spokespeople have only spoken generically about gamers’ “frustration”, rather than acknowledging any specific problems caused by this outage. Overall, Sony’s record over the past six days has been unambiguously dismal. They responded late, they lied early, spokespeople have been inaccurate and inconsistent, the company buried updates in a Twitter feed or a PSN blog, and they just don’t seem to understand the magnitude of their problem – nor its effect on all of Sony’s customers.

Or, as Tycho over at PA wrote,

[Sony] have a serious problem here, and as serious as their technology problem might be, it’s not the biggest one they have. Their problem is that they don’t know how to communicate about anything but their legendary prowess. …  They need to find a human being, or hire one, and start an actual dialogue with users.

They need to do this last Friday.

Apr 232011

So it’s all over the internet about how the Playstation Network has been down for 4 days with no indication as to when it will come back online. Some may not express much concern about it, by just dismissing it as some whiny gamers not being able to play online, and state the fact that PSN is free compared to Xbox Live…what’s the big deal?

It’s actually a fairly large deal, if you look at the whole picture. No PSN has lots of ramifications. Let’s start with the easy ones. No PSN means that the heavily-used-by-many Netflix app is completely useless. The MLB.TV app, much like Netflix, refuses to work unless you are signed into PSN. Other services like the oddly named Qriocity music service is unusable, not to mention a fair amount of games that require a PSN sign-in just to play single player or local co-op. If you bought into Sony’s marketing tag lines that the PS3 just does everything, you are probably shocked and dismayed to learn that without PSN, the PS3 doesn’t do much of anything. One could make an argument that being locked out of these subscription services could warrant some sort of compensation for lost time — and definitely would seem appropriate at least for Playstation Plus subscribers.

But what about other, less obvious problems this has caused? Consider the developers who released games on the Playstation Store this week. Developers and publishers usually pick specific release-date windows and rely heavily on first-week sales for revenue. It’s hard not to imagine it negatively affecting sales dollars for these games like Telltale’s Puzzle Agent, or Fancy Pants Adventures, made by an indie developer and published by EA. Then there’s free Easter weekend promo Q-Games’ had planned to celebrate a big update to Pixel Junk Shooter 2 that had to be canceled. Also don’t forget Valve’s PSN to Steam integration for Portal 2, the new Mortal Kombat and the PS3 exclusive new SOCOM, all released this week. Will Sony be compensating these developers?

While Sony has vaguely placed blame on hackers in their latest update, the amount of communication has been stunningly sparse. Many people do understand that problems happen, but being kept in the dark about the issues and no rough estimate of service restoration is not good PR. With this outage beginning to reach epic proportions and the apparent nonchalant attitude in what few updates Sony has given on the issue will lose good faith with end users and developers. And then there is the unknown. If PSN has been fatally breached, what type of information has been exposed to these nefarious hackers? Credit card data, names, addresses, usernames, passwords and emails could all be potential targets. Of course this is all worse case scenario, and I hate to start fear-mongering, but things like that are very real possibilities, especially when an outage lasts this long. However, at this point, can we really trust what Sony says? First they started off by saying it was maintenance. Then they changed that and said they were investigating it, which later became an “an external intrusion.” Would Sony admit their own internal maintenance went wrong and ended up in days and days of downtime? They’d have a lot to answer to from customers, developers and content providers if it was their fault. Even if it was nebulous internet hackers, I’m startled that a billion dollar international company who supposedly specializes in internet entertainment delivery cannot recovery in less than 4+ days from a breach.

For Sony to save face, they’ll need to have a lengthy description of what went wrong, what data, if any, was compromised, and what they’re doing to prevent it from happening again. Also, I think they’ll need to offer their customers something of a peace offering. Maybe it’s not direct financial compensation, but something along the lines of free content that Microsoft offered when Xbox Live went down for just over a day a few years back. Something to help restore faith in all parties involved in the PS3 platform.

Apr 222011

Some good noteworthy deals worth passing along:

First off, you can get 25% off of orders over $19.99 at Direct2Drive when you use coupon code “bunny”.  While you’re at Direct2Drive, Crysis 2 is even a bit steeper discount at 30% off, today only.

Also, if you’re looking for a little iOS gaming, be sure to check out Dead Space HD for the iPad, as it’s on sale for the magical price of $0.99. This game has been optimized for the iPad 2 (although still compatible with the first iPad), so it’s a great game to show off what the new iPad can really do — it rivals and even surpasses the current gen of consoles. As a nice throw-in / cross-over, playing the iOS version of Dead Space will unlock some stuff in Dead Space 2, in case you needed additional incentives.

If you’d rather get the iPhone version, Dead Space for the iPhone is also $0.99 for a limited time.

Apr 222011

Ah, Sony. As if annoying us with frequent, slow as molasses updates that provide no additional functionality wasn’t enough, they give us vague explanations as to why PSN has been down, and nonchalantly tell us that it’ll be down another “day or two.” Yeah, you read that right.  The “hacker group” Anonymous claims they played no part in this recent outage, and had previously vowed not to attack any Sony services that would effect end users, so something else is going on over at Sony HQ.   Good thing there wasn’t any new releases this week that Playstation users would want to play, except for Portal 2, the new SOCOM and the new Mortal Kombat.

While we are investigating the cause of the Network outage, we wanted to alert you that it may be a full day or two before we’re able to get the service completely back up and running. Thank you very much for your patience while we work to resolve this matter. Please stay tuned to this space for more details, and we’ll update you again as soon as we can.

Source: Playstation Blog

Apr 202011

Okay, that might be an exaggeration. In particular, Another World (originally titled Out of this World in its North American release) could be criticized as featuring too much of the trial-and-error gameplay that was common back in the ’80s and early ’90s. But the same criticism could be leveled at classics like Prince of Persia – which raised the bar for games, spawned a 20-year franchise (including new classic The Sands of Time as well as a vacuous Hollywood blockbuster), and was recently remastered for PSN and XBLA. Eric Chahi’s Another World may not have launched such a far-reaching brand, but it set a similar high-water mark for the medium.

Another World modeled new approaches to animation, music and sound, gameworld design, emotionally-affecting characters, and non-verbal storytelling. The game’s Wikipedia page cites its influence on the creation of PS2 masterpiece ICO (itself soon to receive a remastered release for PS3), as well as accolades from rockstar game designers like Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid) and Guichi Soda (No More Heroes). On a personal level, Another World also contributed some serious lack of productivity to my freshman year of college. Along with Prince of Persia and Bungie’s Marathon, this was one of the games that made me a gamer.

Because of this, I was happy to see GOG.com put the 15th Anniversary Edition of the game on sale for $3.99. The deal is basically for today only, ending tomorrow morning at 6am, so don’t hesitate. You can’t beat this price for one of the most influential games of the past two decades.

GOG.com describes the 15th Anniversary Edition like so:

In the 15th Anniversary Edition, apart from a remastered version of the game, you will find a 20 minutes long “making of” video of Another World, the technical handbook, the development diary and the soundtrack remixed by the original composer JF Freitas.

In other news, Eric Chahi has resurfaced in recent years and is helming the upcoming game From Dust.