[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.