[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.