Snowden papers allege NSA/GCHQ are monitoring World Of Warcraft, XBL conversations

Agencies monitor individuals, recruit players and record conversations

An extensive report by the Guardian has claimed that there is evidence that both GCHQ and the NSA are involved in heavy monitoring of online games and networks, including World of Warcraft and Xbox Live.

The piece, which cites unreleased information which came as part of the secret dossiers obtained and leaked to the paper by Edward Snowden, says that the agencies have collaborated heavily on information gathering processes which have targetted online gaming communities. The agencies, it is claimed, have been using them to identify and track suspects, as well as form pictures of their social networks and recruit embedded agents of their own.

“The agencies, the documents show, have built mass-collection capabilities against the Xbox Live console network, which boasts more than 48 million players,” the report reads. “Real-life agents have been deployed into virtual realms, from those Orc hordes in World of Warcraft to the human avatars of Second Life. There were attempts, too, to recruit potential informants from the games’ tech-friendly users.”

According to the 2008 paper acquired by Snowden and seen by the Guardian, titled Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments, no acts of terrorism have been prevented by the monitoring, nor have any criminals been apprehended. The document is due to be released Monday, December 16.

Further to that, the Snowden papers allegedly hold information which shows that some of the companies which run the games and networks affected have been complicit in the process, with Second Life being singled out as being particularly pro-active in the encouragement of espionage. In May of 2007, Linden Lab’s Chief Operating Officer is believed to have given a presentation to the NSA in which he eulogised Second Life as a perfect “opportunity to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviours of non-Americans through observation, without leaving US soil”.

“The agencies, the documents show, have built mass-collection capabilities against the Xbox Live console network”

The Guardian

Not only would that provide access to geographically and ideologically remote users, it would also handily circumnavigate international protocols surrounding spying on foreign soil, ameliorating the risk of potentially embarrassing diplomatic incidents.

The article asserts that the agencies, which were recently revealed to have collaborated on a vast network of intelligence gathering operations which has included monitoring the communications of foreign leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel, has established these “mass-collection capabilities” within Xbox Live by utilising biometric data provided by Kinect in addition to more traditional information like email address, messages and IP locations. It’s also claimed that various games had private chat channels, both voice and text based, monitored and recorded for future analysis.

Both Linden Labs and Microsoft declined to comment on the allegations when questioned by the Guardian. Activision Blizzard released a statement claiming that “We are unaware of any surveillance taking place. If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.”

The UK’s spy agency had this to offer: “All GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that its activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee.”

Scant comfort to those who have been involved in the communities of online games in recent years, or to those who feel the beady and ubiquitous red eye of Kinect 2 upon their backs, especially given that other allegations have already emerged regarding email networks and other databases which paint major corporations as all too enabling of the monitoring of citizens’ data.

Nolan Bushnell, however, thinks it’s unlikely to damage the sales of Xbox One.

Microsoft and Activision’s UK representatives have been contacted for further comment.



Xbox One Twitch streaming coming in 2014

Microsoft’s console won’t have built-in Twitch streaming at launch.

Sony’s Playstation 4 can already stream gameplay to viewers around the world over Twitch and although Microsoft has announced that a Twitch app will be available on Xbox One at launch, Twitch streaming from the console won’t be available until the first half of 2014. The Twitch app can be downloaded by Xbox Live Gold members and will include Xbox One media achievements.

“We know the ability to instantly broadcast gameplay is something the gaming community is excited about, and we are too,” said the company on its Xbox Wire news site. “We are working to ensure the initial Twitch on Xbox One broadcasting experience meets the expectations of the Twitch community, so while this feature won’t be available right away, we’ll let you know as soon as it is ready. Our goal is to deliver it during the first part of 2014.”

Xbox One owners will still be able to share their video via the Xbox One Game DVR and Upload Studio, which can upload gameplay clips to Xbox Live or Microsoft’s cloud-based SkyDrive service. Once on SkyDrive, the game clips – which will be 720p mp4 files – can be downloaded for editing or upload to another video service.



Bethesda wants Elder Scrolls Online accessible without Xbox Live Gold

elder scrolls online

Bethesda is working with Microsoft to possibly get the Xbox maker to drop the Xbox Live Gold requirement for its upcoming MMO, The Elder Scrolls Online. The publisher wants Microsoft to make a special exemption for their MMO on the console, in hopes that more people will be able to play the game without having to be an Xbox Live Gold subscriber.

“We have been in talks with Microsoft about that very thing, and seeing whether or not there’s any room to change their minds about that,” Hines told OXM. “For folks who are only paying for The Elder Scrolls Online and don’t want to pay for an Xbox Live Gold Subscription, just to pay for The Elder Scrolls Online.”

It’s unclear what type of progress Bethesda has made with Microsoft about waiving the requirement. According to the recent statement, Hines doesn’t sound like Microsoft is going to bend on their long time policy. However, if successful, it could set a precedence for other subscription based or free-to-play games to arrive on the console that aren’t stuck behind a paywall.

Right now, this is one of the major differences between the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. While both Sony and Microsoft will both offer subscription based games like TESO, and other free-to-play titles, Xbox Live Gold is required for any online play on the Xbox One. Sony’s PlayStation 4 free-to-play games are not gated behind the subscription service.

We’ll have to wait and see if Bethesda is successful in swaying Microsoft’s policy.



Free-to-play set to take off on consoles?

Chris Morris talks to devs about F2P and how it may actually be better suited to consoles than the PC

World of Tanks

Consoles, traditionally, have been centered around the traditional retail model. Pay for a game. Take it home. Enjoy. (And, lately, pay again for DLC.)

But the rise of mobile has made free-to-play titles one of the fastest growing segments of the industry. And Microsoft and Sony are attempting to position their current and next generation systems to capitalize on this growing segment.

So far, for Microsoft at least, there has been a definite learning curve., which is currently in the midst of a public beta for its World of Tanks on Xbox Live, made waves last month when its outspoken CEO Victor Kislyi called the quality assurance and certification processes for the Xbox 360 “totally unacceptable“.

“Since these are dedicated gaming systems, you’re more predisposed to try something, whereas when you’re on the PC, you might get distracted by, say, Facebook or something”

SOE’s John Smedley

Some news sites ran with that sound byte to imply Wargaming was fed up with the console manufacturer. However, Kislyi was making a larger point – and the team that’s working directly on World of Tanks for Xbox 360 says that while there have certainly been hiccups, Microsoft has been working hard to accommodate the free-to-play gaming giant.

“I’d be lying if I said this is clear and precise,” says Denny Thorley, head of Wargaming’s Chicago-based studio and former president of Day 1 Studios. “What we’re trying to do is something Microsoft hasn’t attempted to do before, but they’ve been terrific partners in trying to be flexible where they can.”

For instance, he notes, incremental changes to the game are now being certified faster than they have previously – as testers are already familiar with the game.

While Microsoft is working through some issues, Sony has a bit more history in the space. Its Sony Online Entertainment unit has been the internal torchbearer for free-to-play games – and it has seen notable success.

“The single fastest growing segment of our business is DC Universe Online on the PS3,” says John Smedley, president of SOE. “70 percent of our revenue [on that game] comes from the PS3 and 70 percent of our players come from the PS3.”

Because the company has been offering deep free-to-play experiences longer, it also has worked out a system to more quickly approve updates – something that could aid it in the next generation.

“One of the advantages we have had is we were the first with Free Realms,” says Smedley. “With that, we’ve helped the QA group set up the system. What happened is there’s a trust level that builds up. They do certain checks every time – but over time, if you don’t screw up, they start to trust your [internal] QA.”

Consoles, he says, actually have some notable advantages over the PC when it comes to free-to-play. There’s consistently stable hardware and software and the installed base is constantly growing. Most importantly, though, the barrier to microtranscation purchases is lower.

“There’s a higher likelihood of having a payment system on file,” he says. “And since these are dedicated gaming systems, you’re more predisposed to try something, whereas when you’re on the PC, you might get distracted by, say, Facebook or something.”

When it comes to monetization of free-to-play titles, Microsoft and Sony approach things differently. While both take a cut of microtransaction sales, Microsoft gets two bites at the pie, since players hoping to play World of Tanks for more than a one-week trial must be Xbox Live Gold members.

(Wargaming, Thorley notes, will not begin monetizing the game until it is out of its beta period – something that will happen “real soon now”.)

“They’re looking at what we’re doing on the [Xbox] 360 to understand all the issues and I’m convinced it will get easier and easier on the next platform”

Wargaming’s Denny Thorley

While the console audience is certainly vast, not all free-to-play game makers are interested in pursuing that audience. Kabam, for instance, says there are no plans to work on a console version of any of its games at this point.

“Sure, there are games you absolutely want to play on the console, but there are plenty that people want to play with convenience [in mind],” says Chris Carvalho, Chief Operating Officer of Kabam. “They want to play in the living room or the kitchen or wherever. … There’s a huge growth factor in the table market – and consumers are saying loudly that they want the convenience.”

The factor that’s driving that decision is less about the longer certification process – and more about growth forecasts of platforms. Juniper Research estimates there will be 64.1 billion games downloaded to tablets and smartphones in 2017, which is more than triple the 21 billion downloaded last year.

Those are impressive numbers, to be sure. But it’s certainly too early to count out consoles. Both Microsoft and Sony have shown in their pre-launch maneuvering that they plan an all out war against each other – and other platforms – to retain their strength in the gaming world.

“They are a very sharp group of people and are clearly paying attention to the questions we ask – which usually begin ‘why can’t we?’,” says Thorley. “They’re looking at what we’re doing on the [Xbox] 360 to understand all the issues and I’m convinced it will get easier and easier on the next platform.”



Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse Comes to PS3 on September 3rd, Pre-Orders Get the Genesis Version Free


Giving a release date to the “complete re-imagining” of the original 1990 game, Sega has announced that Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse will come to the PlayStation Network (and XBLA and PC) on September 3rd in North America and September 4th in Europe for $14.99/£9.99/€14.99.


As an added bonus just for PS3 owners in North America and Europe, any pre-orders for Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse between August 20th (NA)/August 21st (EU) and September 2nd (NA)/September 3rd (EU) will be met with the original Genesis version game, an exclusive dynamic theme, and three avatars. You also won’t have to wait to play the Genesis version, as it becomes available for download immediately after pre-ordering.

To get a little backstory, here’s Part 1 and Part 2 of the Behind the Scenes video feature: