[Blizzard's Greg Canessa explains his company's vision for Battle.net, the pitfalls that the company encountered while building it, and the challenges unique to such a complex endeavor.]
When Blizzard needed someone to head up the development of its next-generation Battle.net service, it turned to Greg Canessa. He had been deeply involved in the development of Xbox Live -- which shows you the scale of the scope that the developer anticipated needing for its own service.
In this interview, Canessa explains the vision Blizzard had and continues to have for the service, the pitfalls that the company encountered while building it, and why you don't see more integrated community and matchmaking services in the market, given the complexity of the endeavor.
The service launched alongside StarCraft II, but is also designed to integrate into past and future titles -- World of Warcraft and Diablo III, namely.
He also discusses whether or not the moves he's making will have a direct on the larger vision of how Activision Blizzard runs its games, as we move into an ever-more-connected world.
Everyone's saying, "Oh, games as a service, games as a service," and nobody's really going out and talking about what it takes to make a service. Is this something that you just think is going to keep on getting more valued as a job?
Greg Canessa: Absolutely. I mean, I would love to see more of a subsection of the industry really addressing the online game service opportunity because right now it's kind of a footnote, or it's uncommon enough because building a game service is hard. It's complicated.
There aren't many of them out there for a reason, right? Because it takes a lot, and building a platform, then gaining software support on top of that platform, and getting people to use it, is really hard. It's really daunting. There's been a lot of failed examples in the casual games space that I'm aware of.
There have been a couple successful examples in the console space. There are some successes coming about of course in the iPhone, iPad space. There aren't that many in the PC space. It's really Steam. Steam has been very successful. You know, and now Battle.net... That's what we really aspire to.
It's an area where there's a ton of complexity, there's very specific knowledge around design and engineering. Going and building an achievement system or a meta-game reward system requires as much game design expertise as building a level or play-balancing an RTS. It’s the same thing.
I mean, it's a different thing, but it should be as respected in the industry as those things are. It's just not as well-known.
This isn't like the first time you've worked on a network. You worked on Xbox Live. Over the years, how have you looked at Facebook and MySpace and things like that, and applied those kinds of ideas to gamers and the gaming space? How much influence does Facebook have?
GC: Facebook has had a lot of influence -- a lot of influence on me personally, in both positive and negative ways. I love and respect aspects of what Facebook is trying to do -- not just Facebook, but the larger social networking space -- Twitter and MySpace and so forth.
I think there are some very interesting social dynamics that are going on... around the perception of anonymity and what social networks like MySpace and Facebook have done to interfere with that veil of anonymity in the online space. I think it's an interesting sociological phenomenon, that you have people that are completely comfortable putting their name, their face, their wife, their personal information out there for the world to see in Facebook, yet in some cases they're not willing to do similar things in the game space.
This perception of this suspension of reality that people seek out in certain online multiplayer gaming experiences like World of Warcraft, I think, is a very interesting thing from a sociological standpoint. Why they're interested preserving their anonymity there but yet throwing themselves out there for everyone to see in the social networking space, that has been a very interesting thing for us to wrap our heads around at Blizzard.
We're interested in creative ways to introduce the concept of real identity into gameplay but not done in such a way -- and this is what the learning experience has been over the last couple of years -- not doing it in such a way that will place people in uncomfortable situations or create reasons for them to not participate.
Not everyone, but lots and lots of vocal people got upset about the whole Real ID forum policy fiasco, and then you guys went back earlier this year about having to use your actual name. Were you guys surprised with the response that you got?
GC: We were a little surprised by the the forum controversy mostly because it was kind of wag the dog. It was not where our focus was. Our focus was really on the in-game, social suite, the cross-game chat, the cross-game communication, all the great features that we introduced as part of Real ID in World of Warcraft and StarCraft II. That part was really, really positive, and that's where the development team focused.
The Battle.net development team has been focused on building that out for a long time. The forum stuff was just kind of a side thing. Forums aren't that big of a deal relative to Blizzard's overall business, and so we were a little surprised, but, you know, we were...
But it had enough of an effect for you guys to rethink the decision.
GC: It did, it did. You know, we listen to our community, and the community didn't like it, and we quickly moved off of it. But really, like I said, that isn't really the focus. The focus for us has been the online social network we're creating around Real ID in-game and in-client, cross-game chat, some of the features we introduced, the broadcast message, the rich presence. Those things have really been the focus of Blizzard, and they're going to continue to be the focus going forward.
You believe it's really important [for the service team] to be integrated, working closely with the game design team. Did that you think that caused the delay in launch?
GC: Oh no.
But it certainly didn't help things, as far as the timeliness of the game?
GC: It was one of many factors. There were a lot of risk factors, a lot of complexity. There was a lot of engineering complexity. There was a lot of risk related to the WoW integration, risk related to being able to staff up a team, risk related to being able to deeply integrate -- certainly design and coordination with the game team. [Figuring out] what the meta-social Battle.net experience will be around StarCraft was a challenge for us. It was a contributor.
I wouldn't say it was a primary driver, but it definitely was kind of more of a cautionary note for everyone to realize that there's a lot of complexity there when you're working with two different teams and you're working on a unified experience that's supposed to be deeply integrated.
It's a very complex thing to do and to pull off really effectively. It's one implication of the deeply integrated approach, right. If it's a platform -- like Xbox Live, right? It's a platform, there's a dashboard, and then there are games that sit on top of it. Those two don't really interact with each other that much. There's the heads-up display where you can access your friends list and such, but that's kind of an overlay.
Bungie can do whatever they want underneath with Halo: Reach, and this is kind of an overlay. That's not the approach we took. Battle.net is not an overlay on top of a StarCraft experience that would be, "Those guys would own that. We would own this." No, it's a meeting of the minds.
Why does Blizzard need this platform? Why not just use something like Steamworks?
GC: It might make sense [for other companies]. It really depends on the platform and the opportunity. If you're in the console space, you really don't have a lot of choice. You really have to use one of the game services. They do a really good job, right? If you're in the PC space, there are a number of different solutions for you. If you're looking out there and you want to deeply integrate with a game service, there's Steam and Steamworks.
Battle.net is very focused on Blizzard titles today -- but who knows, in the future? There are other services out there like Games for Windows Live. There are a few players.
In the iPhone space, that was really kind of what I was thinking about. There is more opportunity to innovate, I think... You have Game Center. This has come along recently, but you've got OpenFeint and [Ngmoco's] Plus+. Those guys are willing to work with individual game developers, even small developers, on some really unique integrated scenarios that I think are more akin to the Battle.net integration that I was talking to.
[Activision Blizzard CEO] Bobby Kotick is always talking about using Blizzard's knowhow and technology. Would it be feasible to put Activision games on Battle.net? Or would it just be something more like, for example, a Call of Duty team using the service framework that you guys developed in for their own games?
GC: Well, I'll tell you this. Bobby Kotick and all the folks at Activision are very, very supportive of Battle.net and what we're doing. They've listed this as one of the top strategic initiatives -- I mean, to the shareholders. They've said that Battle.net is one of the top five strategic initiatives going on at Activision Blizzard.
Having said that, as you know, Blizzard and Activision are really two separate entities, and we really do our own thing. For Blizzard, I think back to what Mike Morhaime said at Blizzcon , which is that Blizzard is all about focus, and we have so many things going on right now.
We have this vibrant World of Warcraft business. We have the StarCraft II business and eSports. We've got Diablo III and what's going on there, and that's going to be a huge phenomenon for us. We've got so many opportunities in front of us, I think the mistake that we could make as a company, and I don't think we are making it because we're aware of it, is to get spread too thin and go in too many directions.
There are huge opportunities in front of us with new games, with licensing opportunities, with movies, and other things we have going on, and the risk is that we get distracted off of what we're really good at, which is making kick-ass entertainment experience.
And so, for us, by extension, for Battle.net, what does that mean for me as the guy driving Battle.net? That focus is what I am looking for. So, for today, it's Blizzard games. It's making sure that Diablo III has a kick-ass online experience. It's making sure that we evolve and add features to StarCraft II. It's making sure WoW kicks ass for Cataclysm and beyond. Those are the focal points for my group going forward and the foreseeable future.
Some day, maybe we add other titles in there. Who knows? When we really feel like we've really delivered that kick-ass set of experiences for Blizzard games, and we feel like we've grown the team -- and you've heard some of my challenges growing the team and finding the talent -- when I've got that sustainability, when we really feel like we've got that dialed in and nailed down, you know, who knows what the future holds.
There are definitely a lot of things I can imagine. Even Valve has started doing the Mann Co. Store for the virtual items with Team Fortress 2. I can see somewhere down the line where if you guys want to do something like that, Battle.net is there.
GC: Sure. Well, look at our own StarCraft marketplace. We talked about it at last year's Blizzcon. That's still on the roadmap. We do plan to put out a whole marketplace for our content. We've got a huge vibrant map community -- maps and mods for StarCraft II. We have our Galaxy Map Editor.
Just for StarCraft II, there are over 50,000 maps just in the U.S., maps and mods. There are puzzle game mods, first-person shooters, tower defense games, you name it. Maps, mods. We have this huge vibrant community.
We're going to roll in at some point in the near future with a StarCraft II marketplace. We're going to provide an opportunity for people to distribute those maps at a central location for free if they want, or to even charge for them and share in that revenue, so the map creator or mod creator could gain some revenue from it.
We've got a lot of huge ambitious plans. It’s just really hard to build this stuff. It goes back to your first point... which is that it really is hard attracting this talent, and people underestimate the complexity in building these things.
So, I hope, and my hope and dream and aspiration is that we can draw some attention in the industry to this space, and we can attract that top talent into the game service space because there's such untapped potential.
I feel like honestly we've tapped 5 to 10 percent of what's possible ultimately out there, and in 15, 20 years we'll look back at this time, [and realize] we've just scratched the surface of what's possible with the game service by way of social features, community features, meta-game features and competitive features... The sky's the limit, and there's very little out there right now.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Some people do just have this idea of a game service, that it's just about throwing some achievements on there, and support some matchmaking.
GC: [laughs] The point is the game service, if done right, can enhance the gameplay experience in ways that are totally critical to the game's success itself. Let me give you an example. The example is StarCraft II with the matchmaking system. The automatic matchmaking system in StarCraft II, the leagues and ladder system, has become the meta-game, and it has become really the way that StarCraft II is played.
Because the matchmaking system -- personally, I have a lot of pride for what the team has done -- the matchmaking system is probably the single-best thing we've accomplished in the whole new Battle.net. It is super accurate. It always gets you a close game. It's to the point where it's actually begun to change the meta-game, the way that people are playing the game. Like, their league placement and their division placement is influencing how people are playing StarCraft II.
We're seeing all kinds of that type of stuff with the way people are using achievements and the fanaticism around getting that little badge on your profile that says "Campaign Complete" or "Campaign Ace Hard" or "Campaign Ace Brutal." People are playing through the campaign five times just so they can get like all the achievements. We see that.
And it's nice because Battle.net is set up so that you can feature certain achievements on your profile page, and highlight the ones that you want.
GC: Exactly. The sky is the limit with this stuff. And we're getting into spectating, tournaments, the marketplace and other stuff going forward. We've just got so much potential here, I only wish we could stop time and get some of this stuff sooner. It takes a long time to build this stuff.
But you guys have a 10 year roadmap.
GC: We do. We have a 10 year roadmap.