Among the bits of information dropped during last week's PlayStation 4 announcement was this from PS4 lead architect Mark Cerny, as he discussed the system's enhanced social features:
"[With the] PlayStation 4 we are transitioning to a friends network based on real world friends. We'll keep around the alias and icon used in today's multiplayer matches. These are great to have when anonymity is important. But most of the new social dimension to PS4 will be interacting with friends using real names and profile pictures most likely seeded from your existing social network."
Some crucial-sounding words in there: "Alias." "Real names." "Profile pictures." "Anonymity." But what exactly does all that mean? Like so many other things introduced at the PS4 event, it's not entirely clear.
Since its inception, the PlayStation Network has for the most part been a gateway to buying content and a loose way to connect with your friends to play games. But Sony appears set to turn their service into much more of a "proper" social network. And parts of that social network are going to involve your real name.
Let's scrounge for crumbs of information and see if we can't get a sense of what Cerny is saying, as well as what he's purposefully leaving unsaid.
1. "We are transitioning to a friends network based on real world friends."
Vague language, but he's really just talking about emulating Facebook. When Sony launched PSN, Facebook wasn't nearly the juggernaut it is today, and it stands to reason that Sony (and likely Microsoft) will be taking cues from Facebook when designing their consoles' new social environments. From the look we got at the PSN's new social profile page, it appears as though your friends list will made up of "real" people, by which Cerny just means that you'll actually see the name behind the alias.
I actually like that, as a broad idea—I've found that on both PSN and Xbox Live, I've lost track of who a lot of my "friends" are. Often on my Xbox, I'll see pop-up notifications that "Player X has come online," but it'll feel like I've never even seen that gamertag before. Have I simply forgotten? Or did the person change their tag? It's difficult to tell who they are. It'd be nice to simply see peoples' names.
I've found that on both PSN and Xbox Live, I've lost track of who a lot of my "friends" are.
2. "We'll keep around the alias and icon used in today's multiplayer matches. These are great to have when anonymity is important."
This bit is the escape hatch Sony has left, should the whole real names idea fall flat. An assurance that feels designed, more or less, to circumvent the sort of user-outrage that rained down on World of Warcraft- and StarCraft-makers Blizzard when they announced their Real ID program back in 2010. Blizzard's thinking was that by forcing users to post in the Blizzard forums under their real names, it would cut down on jerks and trolls. But the community quickly pointed out a lot of unforeseen downsides that Real ID would have, in particular that it would make women much more visible than they had been and therefore even easier targets for creeping and forum stalking.