In a notice posted on the Zone home page, Microsoft had informed people that they must sign up for the Passport online identification service, a controversial element of the company's .Net online services push. "The Zone is now a Microsoft .Net Passport site!" the notice read. "Your existing Zone account still works, but you must first sign in to .Net Passport or register for a new .Net Passport account."
The Zone is a part of Microsoft's MSN online empire. It includes hundreds of games, ranging from role-playing fantasies to card games, where people compete with one other online. Some games, such as the popular role-playing game "Asheron's Call," require monthly subscription fees.
Under the Passport switch, all Zone users have to link their Zone accounts to an existing or newly created Passport account.
Darren Gasser, a Ventura, Calif., software developer and regular "Asheron's Call" player, said he had no problem creating a Passport account Tuesday. But he couldn't complete the process on the Web site that was supposed to link the new Passport account to his existing Zone account, an experience echoed by numerous Zone users reporting their experiences in online forums.
"All I got was a whole load of 'server overload' and other kinds of error messages," Gasser said in a phone interview. "That's what I'm hearing from everyone I know--they can't get through to link Passport to their Zone account."
CNET News.com was repeatedly unable to access the Zone home page Tuesday.
Microsoft acknowledged problems with the site in a letter posted on the Zone late Tuesday.
"Currently, the Web pages to access the Zone and 'Asheron's Call' are responding significantly slower than normal," the message said. "This is a result of a bug that appeared during the deployment of our .Net Passport changes. We are actively diagnosing and fixing this bug, but we do not yet have an ETA for the final fix...We apologize for the inconveniences while we change to our new authentication system and hope to have everyone back in and playing as normal very soon."
Microsoft spokeswoman Rebecca Holmes confirmed that portions of the Zone that require users to log in were inaccessible to many users Tuesday, as Microsoft encountered problems hooking Passport into the site's login system.
"The small difficulties that knocked the site down yesterday have all been fixed," she said Wednesday. "The Passport integration process was heavily tested offline, but those tests aren't foolproof. They're going through everything to find exactly where those snags were."
Holmes said that despite the sticky start, the shift to Passport is a plus for Zone users. "Passport will provide increased security and ease of use for the users," she said.
"Asheron's Call" subscriber Andy Augustine, a Boston software programmer, said he was able to log in Wednesday morning after being shut out all day Tuesday.
"It was pretty painful yesterday," he said. "I've heard from a couple of people where this was the last straw; they just quit the game. This has happened so many times, and Microsoft has never taken responsibility for it."
Gasser said many "Asheron's Call" users were locked out for three days or more in October, which was the last time Microsoft did a major overhaul of the Zone. The company had promised in various messages and online forums that this transition would go more smoothly.
"They kept assuring (us) this was all done using proven .Net technology," he said.
Augustine said the access problems were particularly galling to avid "Asheron's Call" players, who spend considerable time and effort collecting virtual items for the game, such as keys and armor, some of which are resold on eBay for hundreds of dollars. Items can disappear if a player doesn't log on regularly.
"There are valuable items you can collect that are worth real-world money," Augustine said. "l lost something I probably could have sold for $100 because I couldn't get in yesterday."
Microsoft is pushing Passport as a one-stop service for identifying people at online outlets, ranging from calendar services to shopping sites. Privacy groups and others have complained the service lacks adequate safety measures for securing sensitive consumer information--charges that Microsoft denies.
Passport came under even heavier scrutiny last month, after a computer programmer found a security flaw in the system that could have allowed intruders to gain access to consumers' confidential financial data.
Such glitches come at a difficult time for Microsoft, as the company tries to build support for Passport and associated .Net technologies in the wake of renewed competition, including the formation of the Liberty Alliance Project, a Passport rival created by Sun Microsystems.
Giga Information Group analyst Mike Gilpin said Passport-related blunders will just make it harder for Microsoft to sell businesses on the idea of trusting all their vital data to Passport.
"It sounds like the kind of example that would further erode the confidence people would have in Microsoft's ability to provide 24/7 service," he said. "I think image is the No. 1 issue associated with Passport and online services generally."
Matt Rosoff, an analyst for research firm Directions on Microsoft, noted that the Zone glitch appeared to stem from linking an older authentication system to Passport, exactly the type of transition Microsoft will be asking numerous companies to make.
"Maybe this is the first time Microsoft tried to transition from an old database to a new Passport system," Rosoff said. "It's a difficult task, but other companies have done it--Starbucks just switched their old log-in system to Passport and did it smoothly."
"It's kind of surprising," Rosoff added. "If anyone should be able to implement a Passport switch, it's Microsoft."
Microsoft's bCentral portal for small-business services also required people to switch to Passport this month, Microsoft spokeswoman Melissa Harris Thirsk confirmed. But the transition there appears to have occurred without widespread problems.