[Blizzard is readying a massive upgrade for in-house game specific online game service Battle.net, to debut alongside StarCraft II, and Gamasutra sits down with recently appointed Battle.net head Greg Canessa to hear about the philosophy and practicality behind those plans.]
Blizzard recently announced that development on the next generation of its Battle.net PC online game service -- a much more ambitious project than had been previously realized -- was responsible for the delay of the eagerly anticipated StarCraft II.
The service is being headed up by Greg Canessa, who most notably spent time as a Microsoft executive, working closely on Xbox Live. That service, which features many of the community features that are slated to be introduced to Battle.net in its next version, has proven to be integral to the popularity of the Xbox 360 platform.
Gamasutra recently had a chance to speak to Canessa about his transition to working as the project director on Battle.net, his thoughts on online platforms, and about what the announced features of Battle.net really mean for gaming, and for Blizzard.
How did you end up at Blizzard? There's certainly a lot of technical overlap between this and your work at Microsoft.
Greg Canessa: Well, I did a stint at PopCap in between. But I spent seven years at Microsoft, mostly Xbox, where I was the creator of Xbox Live Arcade and one of the executives over Xbox Live. I left there and went to PopCap, and ran their gaming and some of their online businesses.
And then I started talking to [Blizzard design VP] Rob Pardo and decided to come down. It was really because of the vision behind Battle.net, obviously. Rob and I share a very common vision behind the opportunity behind the new Battle.net and the ways to extend some of the great successes that services like Xbox Live and Steam have had in the marketplace.
We feel like those are just scratching the surface of [what] a company like Blizzard -- with the critical mass of community, brands, and marketing position -- could do in building an online game service. We had a very common vision. So, we decided to team up, and I decided to come down a few months ago.
So you've just been here a few months? Are you still getting settled in?
GC: Yeah, about three and a half months now. [laughs] It was kind of like parachuting into Omaha Beach. There's a lot going on obviously, and Blizzard's a very fast-paced company.
But I've definitely got a handle on things, and the team is very busy and in production on the shipping feature set for the new Battle.net for Starcraft II. It's incredible exciting to be able to finally talk about this, because it's been a very secret project for some period of time.
There must be big operational differences between designing a system that must allow for every publisher and every developer on a platform, as opposed to a developer-specific system like Battle.net that can cater exclusively to that developer. Can you talk about that at all?
GC: Totally. This is actually one of the main things. It's a consumer message, but it's also an industry message. [It's] one of the key things that distinguishes Battle.net from other competitive services like an Xbox Live or a Steam or a PlayStation Network.
This goes back from my time helping to manage Xbox Live. That system, as brilliant as it was, was a platform. And PlayStation Network and Steam, they're also very platform-based.
The set of online game services we provided over there, whether it was GamerScore or TrueSkill matchmaking or achievements or any of those systems, had to be build with the fact that they were a platform in mind. Call of Duty and Lego Star Wars and Bejeweled all had to sit on that platform.
To a certain extent, that drives how deeply or not deep you can integrate those game services with specific gaming scenarios. We were bound by that constraint. At Blizzard, we are not bound by that constraint, and that's actually one of the key aspects of the vision that attracted me to the company when Rob called.
He was like, "Hey, listen. What if you could build an online game service that had that level of sophistication or greater, but you weren't bound by the constraints of being a platform provider? You could come out of it from a perspective of, 'What you could you do with those online game services by deeply integrating them into specific games?'"
We just scratched the surface with Xbox Live of what you could do with achievements. Wow, you can earn achievements. Great. But what if you customize those achievements really deeply and build really compelling meta-game scenarios around unlockable rewards, or decals and avatars, and ladders and leagues for StarCraft II?
Those things would be really hard to do for Xbox Live. Believe me, I was on the other side. We would have loved to do that stuff, but we couldn't do it because we couldn't integrate it. Some games, it applies; some games, it doesn't apply. You can't do that sort of custom stuff.
At Blizzard, we're not bound by that constraint. We have a small number of titles we can deeply integrate in and create these kick-ass custom around-the-game features and meta-game services for a small number of games. That is our key distinguisher, and that is something I'm super excited about.
I believe the industry just collectively has only scratched the surface on what's possible with these online gaming services. I think the real next generation is about being able to pay off with some of those deeply integrated scenarios.
It must go the other way too, though. I know some Xbox Live Arcade developers -- say, of single-player-only games -- who are not thrilled that they always have to find some way to shoehorn a competitive leaderboard into their single-player game. Not every single game needs every single feature.
GC: That keys exactly off what I'm talking about. We have a great series of game services that we're providing and building with all these different games in mind, but the individual game [team] comes in and defines what they want their online experiences to be.
These are tools in the toolbox, and then we can build very specific custom scenarios. If Diablo III were a single-player-only game -- which it's not, obviously, but if it were a single-player-only game -- we could work with the game creators and the game designers, since they're co-owners of the vision of Battle.net along with me and Rob.
We could decide to build a very custom set of online game services and features that specifically paid off the single-player scenario. It doesn't have anything to work multiplayer. We have the ability to do that because it's Blizzard Entertainment owning the game service and not trying to plug into somebody else's stuff.
I want to talk a bit about PC gaming generally, because you're ex-Microsoft and you've worked at PC-heavy PopCap and PC-centric Blizzard. Xbox Live is a fantastic service.
But I've also spent a lot of time observing Microsoft, Games for Windows, Valve, Blizzard, Stardock, and all these companies invested in PC, and I do feel Microsoft has neglected and in some ways harmed PC gaming more than it has helped in the last few years. What are your thoughts on that space? I know it's a complicated area.
GC: No, it is a very complicated area. The PC space, the important thing to understand... You know as well as I do that PC gaming is alive and thriving. The way that certain folks in the industry have spun it is not accurate.
If you look at NPD, there's a very large console business, of course. We all love consoles. We're big console gamers ourselves. Obviously, Shon [Damron of Blizzard PR] and I worked at Xbox, so we love consoles.
If you look at NPD with its old PC retail data -- yeah, it doesn't look good. But it doesn't take into account the casual industry like non-retail revenue produced from digital distribution, casual games like PopCap, or revenue from massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft.
The PC business is thriving, and Blizzard is in a leadership position in that PC industry. I think the industry needs a little bit of reinvigoration. Blizzard Entertainment is at the forefront of that, and it's our responsibility in the leadership position in the industry to help lead the charge.
What we're trying to do around the new Battle.net, starting with StarCraft II but really for all games, is to connect our community together, to unify them, and to provide these really compelling online gaming scenarios that will help the cause of PC gaming overall by aggregating the community and connecting them together.
We're putting ourselves as a PC industry on par with, if not in a better position than, the consoles. The consoles had an opportunity to kind of leapfrog the PC industry, and it's kind of ironic because the PC has always been a more connected device than the consoles. For some reason, the PC industry couldn't get it together collectively.
There were individual efforts here and there -- Gabe and the guys at Valve doing interesting stuff with Steam, and Blizzard's leadership with World of Warcraft. But there have been very few collective efforts or larger multi-game efforts. Xbox Live kind of came in and really set that standard in a console space, and now PlayStation is responding. I think it's our opportunity to get the PC back in parity, if not at a superior position, with services like Battle.net that connect a community together.
How necessary is it for Blizzard to see the PC industry beyond Blizzard -- not just Blizzard games, I mean -- to stay vibrant and successful? The breadth of genres and experiences on the PC is traditionally a strength of the platform, but one gets the sense Blizzard could probably still do fine even if it was one of the only major publishers on the system. Do you want to avoid that?
GC: It's absolutely critical. Blizzard is committed to PC gaming. The success and the health of the PC gaming space even beyond our titles is an objective and a priority for our company. Absolutely.
The way we help in making games is to make world-class, high-quality games that everyone loves. Through our games, we build communities, and we help the overall PC space. And we help the prominence of the PC overall relative to consoles and in general.
Beyond that, it's hard to answer what we would do beyond that. Obviously, our next step is to have successful games and connect them together through a service like Battle.net, to make sure all our games are talking and our community is collected and communicating and playing our games together is a great next step.
What's beyond that, and what the future holds -- who knows? We've got some great ideas about things to come.
It's probably fair to say though that Blizzard is a more insular company than some. You mentioned Valve and Steam, but Valve is in fact doing what you you describe in a sense, in terms of trying to bring all these different gaming communities together by allowing everyone onto Steam.
GC: Sure. Blizzard at its heart has always been about the game. It's always been about making world-class games of the highest quality, and taking the time we need in order to ship them. As Mike [Morhaime] mentioned, sometimes it takes us a little while to get the games out into the customers's hands, but hopefully they're not disappointed when they do get our games.
We have always led and will continue to lead the charge by way of our games. Our games are what it's all about. Battle.net is a service that is connecting all of our games and connecting our community and providing those cool, deeply integrated scenarios that we talked about. But it is all about servicing the game, and the game is the way we're going to express ourselves in the community.
Steam -- and we love those guys. We love those guys at Valve, and have the highest respect for Gabe Newell and the organization of Valve. They make excellent games. They make games we play all the time.
I've heard a lot about Left 4 Dead matches in the Blizzard office.
GC: Absolutely there's Left 4 Dead in the Blizzard office. And we do Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat. We love those guys, and they have really led the charge with the user mod community. I think we actually put some of their stuff in our slide deck about that.
Yeah, there were Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat images. Rob Pardo said with the StarCraft II marketplace, he wants to see modders making games for StarCraft II rather than Steam.
GC: Exactly. Valve has really led the charge on a lot of those things, and we're taking our cues from some of that. But they've taken a little different approach. Obviously, they are very game-focused, but they also have Steam as a platform, and they've taken a pretty broad umbrella approach. That's a little different from the approach that we've got right now.
Who knows what the future holds, but right now we're each tackling and helping the industry, I think, in our own way.
Going back to that mod marketplace, in our news piece on that, one of the first comments was something to the effect of, "Oh, so now I have to pay for all my mods?" Presumably, that is not the case.
GC: Absolutely not. What Rob and I were talking about yesterday was creating an environment. The whole Battle.net experience has been designed around facilitating the mod community.
[WarCraft III custom map Defense of the Ancients] was a really important event for us. We've kept it in mind with the construction of the new Battle.net from the ground up. We're doing all sorts of things with the matchmaking and with the ladders and leagues and stuff to accommodate things like DOTA.
We're investing a lot in the map editor, making sure that is a world-class set of authoring tools. Completely free. Everyone can create all kinds of free maps. They can publish them free of charge, with no fees in either direction.
What we're doing with the marketplace -- and that's again a post-ship future -- is to provide a common aggregation point like the iPhone's App Store or, to a lesser extent, Xbox Live Marketplace.
It's creating a mechanism for people to find that free content. If someone wants to charge for it, the map creators can actually make a little bit of money off of it. We're hoping that ecosystem will create better quality maps with higher production values that will benefit the whole community and extend the longevity of the StarCraft franchise, if you think about StarCraft II as a platform.
Rob Pardo recently said Battle.net is still bigger than World of Warcraft in terms of raw users numbers. Obviously WoW generates much more revenue, but can you shed any light on how that Battle.net user figure is generated?
GC: Yeah. That point was just intended to communicate that a lot of users are in Battle.net -- the original Battle.net; the old Battle.net, if you will. Blizzard really didn't do a whole lot of advertising of that fact, that there are 12 million people playing the old Battle.net.
It's just to give people a sense, because many people in the audience, frankly, are new to Blizzard, and they're younger, or they've learned [about] Blizzard through World of Warcraft. They don't remember some of the older history of some of the earlier games.
Some of us old timers, we got to know Blizzard through War II, War III, Diablo, and StarCraft.
I was playing WarCraft via direct modem connection in 1995.
GC: Exactly! So was I. I was in grad school connecting RS-232 serial cable -- you know, room-to-room -- to play War 1.
So us old timers remember Battle.net, but a lot of new users don't. So we were reminding people that Blizzard, even before we decided to completely reboot Battle.net and rebuild it, has got experience in the space, and we've got a lot of users there.
With World of Warcraft you always specify that its user counts are unique active users. Is that the case here?
GC: The 12 million is unique user numbers based on Battle.net accounts on the original Battle.net across Starcraft, Diablo II, Diablo, Warcraft III, and so forth. That was an accumulated user figure for those games.
A friend and I loaded up Diablo II last night, and there were 40,000 people playing on a single server at 1am. It was surprising.
GC: There are still a lot of people on old Battle.net. Some people don't know that. And Blizzard hasn't even disclosed any statistics about it for years, because we haven't updated the service since 2003.
The new Battle.net is a completely new service, and it's something that we're super excited about. It is a separate service. The two will continue to exist in parallel, so we are going to be starting from zero, but with the launch of StarCraft II and that deep integration, the number will go from zero to millions hopefully in pretty short order.
Another thing Rob mentioned yesterday is that there might be potential in taking games like Diablo II and StarCraft, and retrofitting them to work with the new Battle.net system. You've released patches for both of those decade-old games in the last year, so it seems like you're willing to keep working with them.
GC: We definitely have an eye towards it. We don't have any specific plans to announce, but we would love to bring our legacy titles back over to the new Battle.net. The new Battle.net is 15 years beyond where it started, so we would love to do that.
I will tell you that we are a company that needs to stay focused. Per Mike Morhaime's keynote [at BlizzCon], we have a lot of stuff going on. Obviously, we've got the launch of StarCraft II. We've got Diablo III coming up, and that will obviously need to be deeply integrated with the new Battle.net. And we've got some other games in development that are unannounced.
So we want to make sure that we're staying focused and doing the right thing and building a world-class online game service for those products. Where the legacy titles are in the priority queue, I can't speak to. We'll see. Hopefully, if we can bring them over in some form or fashion, then we would discontinue the old Battle.net. For now, though, they'll exist in parallel.