Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The PSN Outage - Playstation 3 Online Facts, History, and Wild Suppositions.

When it comes to geeky news, the last few weeks have been particularly interesting. One story that has set a lot of people, particularly gamers, to chattering has been the recent and persistent outage of the Playstation Network. As a video gamer, this is the sort of story I'd usually jump on right away. I didn't because I don't own a PS3, never really gave serious consideration to buying one beyond initial week one fantasies of selling one on eBay. However, the longer the outage continues the more interesting the story becomes even to someone who would never have any desire to connect to PSN.

I like to imagine lots of smoke and the clanging sound of a wrench thrown into gears when the outage started.

Sony has done pretty well for themselves in the console gaming world, especially considering they very nearly partnered up with Nintendo and never got into the business themselves. (What a different world THAT would have been.) One area where they've found it difficult to compete, however, is in taking their consoles online. The PlayStation 2, their largest commercial success, only even had online capability fairly late in the product's lifecycle, support for online play was sparse at best, and there was no consistency between game publishers regarding fees for online gaming, matchmaking or anything of the sort. Xbox Live, by contrast, was sleek, internally consistent, easy to use and it was completely supported by Microsoft from the Xbox 360 launch. It seems they worked out the kinks in gaming online on the original Xbox, and had it down.

When the PS3 came out, it at least had the hardware built in for gaming online to be a priority. The Playstation Network launch was rocky, with multiplayer gaming still not as streamlined as audiences prefer, and many other features copied from the Xbox360 or the Wii (custom player avatars, achievements in the form of trophies, etc...) One of the few unique things about the PSN, the Home social network/virtual avatar lobby was criticized for being a solution to a problem gamers didn't know existed. You could take your Mii... err... Avatar, and customize an apartment for them, walk them out in public spaces and interact with other Avatars, but like a lot of people, I asked “What's the point?”

Soo... they are like Miis, but you can dress them up as hipster d-bags.

Now, I've declared my bias as a PC gamer, and admitted that I've never even wanted a PS3, but I have to give credit where it is due. Features have been added and improved over the years to the consoles online capabilities, and it has a few distinct advantages over the competition now. The PSN service is miles ahead of the Wii's clunky “friend code” handwave at online capability, but to be fair, faulting the Wii for being a poor online console is a little like complaining that your melon baller is a bad soup spoon (you COULD use it for that, but it isn't really what the device was made for.) And what about Xbox Live? The venerable titan of online console gaming services has a lot to offer, but there is a monthly fee to play games online. Sony's PSN has that beat cold. It is hard to compete with free.

All of the childish racism, sexism and homophobia as XBox Live with none of the monthly fees!

So, the PSN is coming into its own, the lack of a subscription fee has it moving into position to finally challenge the Xbox for dominance, and then the worst happens. On April 20, 2011, without warning, the service is suddenly shut down. At first, customers are told the outage is “for maintenance” and that the cause is “being investigated”. Sony representatives apologize to customers, thank them for their patience, and say it may be “a complete day or two” before service is restored. Boy, was that ever an understatement of a huge problem that created an industry scandal.

The outage of the PSN began to spark rumors almost immediately as to the cause, malicious hackers bringing the network down over a beef with the company's practices concerning a user who hacked his PS3 (I'll be vague, as that story is long enough to merit an article all its own someday) being the frontrunner. These rumors grew in strength when, a few days after the outage started, Sony confirmed that the downtime was the result of an “external intrusion” which affected their network and services. Fans continued to become upset as “several days” turned into “several weeks” with no projected date of return of service, and little new information from Sony itself. The worst was yet to come.

Almost certainly NOT behind the outage.

Nearly a week after the system was first shut down, Sony told its customer base that consumer data may have been accessed in the intrusion into their systems. Personal contact information, all account data including purchase history and even credit card numbers may be at risk, and Sony doesn't have any information about what, if anything, was copied or accessed. The bad press surrounding this event immediately went supernova, critics blasting Sony for the delay in communicating to their customers about the potential theft of data, and class-action lawsuits were prepared to be filed.

So what really happened, and can Sony's reputation recover? As of the time of this article being written, the PSN is still offline, though services are supposed to be restored within the next day or two. Anonymous sources from within Sony (so take this “leak” with a HUGE grain of salt, it may well be pure fiction) claim that the issue lay within a “Developer Network/Mode” in the PSN that was susceptible to hacking. The Developer Network purportedly allowed settings concerning individual accounts on PSN to be changed, including removing bans on accounts from use of pirated software, and setting up other accounts so that violating terms of service would not raise a red flag at Sony, allowing copied games to be played online without repercussions. The lack of proper network security on the internal developer network was supposedly due to the fact that most people didn't know about it, or what it could do. Time will tell if this tale is an outright fabrication or merely a plausible explanation with a few missing facts, but it is a good story, which is why I relate it here.

This event is not a good sign in this stage of the game for a console already declared "3rd Place" in this generation's console wars.

Sony is preparing to compensate subscribers for the time they lost access to the network, and continues to apologize and thank fans for their continued “extraordinary patience” as they redesign the network from within to keep events like the intrusion from ever happening again. The process has been time-intensive, and with the recent release of Portal 2 and Mortal Kombat, the timing on such a scandal could hardly have been worse for Sony's brand image. Gamers tend to be a lot more forgiving once they are happy and playing again, and compensation after the fact doesn't hurt.

I planned to start passing out “Stylish Blogger” nominations today, but this article ran a little longer than I thought it would, and I just got a new toy partway through writing, which I will probably feature tomorrow. Sound off about the PSN outage scandal in the comments.   
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PeaceLoveandSharpies said...

Ah, now I finally get what happened.
I don't have a PS3. Really, Wii is all I need.
After Sharpies, Mario Kart is my next favorite lover. :D

The Angry Lurker said...

As a disgusted PS3 owner and online addict, this post was very relevant and told me more than I knew, thanks I need to call my lawyer.

Biff Tanner said...

epic fail

Astronomy Pirate said...

I hadn't heard that rumor yet, but it does sound plausible and would explain the amount of time spent on fixing the issue.

The Happy Whisk said...

We're a 360 family but this was interesting. Thanks.

Alpha said...

Still trying to wrap my head around Sony + Nintendo.

What a company that would've been.

=dgrphx= said...

it was bin ladin

Patti D. said...

let the conspiracy theory begin!!

Dave said...

Dont really fancy this. following.

Kelly said...

I didn't really know about the whole Sony trouble until I read it here. You explained it quite well. Even though I don't have much interest in owning a PS3, this story is still interesting.

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