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November 5, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Blizzard's Greg Canessa explains his company's vision for, 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 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 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.

Diablo III

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 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.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Ian Livingston
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I've personally really enjoyed my experience with the new system, and Blizzard has shown that they are willing to put the same care and consideration into their support systems that is seen in their games.

The only negative experience that I've had so far has been with the RealID system. When the social system first came out I eagerly added all my real life friends to my list, and happily chatted away in World of Warcraft. However, after about a week I found that I was playing less and less. I'd log in, look at my characters, decided to play an alt (of which I have many), but then decide against connecting. I found that I didn't feel like chatting to anyone. The anonymity offered by my alts was lost, I could no longer play privately - or as Nicolas Ducheneaut et al. put's it "Alone together."

Obviously RealID is an optional service, so I decided to stop using it. I deleted all my contacts, and blissfully lost myself in my private play. However, I quickly began to miss the connection to my friends. I had a stark choice: I could not use the system and have my private play, or I could use the system and communicate with my friends. The choice seemed unnecessary, why can't I have both?

At the time I considered how other similar systems worked, systems like Steam. There where two fundamental differences that I found, one in the way I use the system, and the other in the functionality the system offered. First, when I use Steam, unlike, I leave myself logged in. I realized that to other I must always appear to be online, even when I'm not. I didn't use in a similar manner, I logged in to play and then logged out. When a friend saw me online in it was easy to assume that I was actually there, instantly available for communication. Second, and perhaps a more importantly, Steam offered the functionality to appear offline (even when you're not). A feature I use rarely, but I do use it.

It's interesting to hear Canessa talk about Steam in this article, especially since I personally view the two services very differently. I'm very curious about where will be in 10 years.

Jan Stephan Pontzen
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The matchmaking system for Starcraft2 really is awesome. It matches you up with players in a way that you will roughly have a 50-50 win-loss ratio. This is really encouraging for you as a player, as you are almost always up against players that you have an actual chance to win against (the opposite was usually the case for Warcraft3 matches).

I'd be very interested to see if Blizzard can find a similar way of matchmaking for Diablo3 co-op pick-up groups in accordance to the users' playstyles.

Boto Gatas
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It's a very exciting time for gaming.

Victor Soliz Kuncar
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The matchmaking works great and so far my experience with it has been positive.

RealId seems unnecessary. I am yet to try it because the normal friends system works just fine. Facebook integration sounds similar.

My major point of concern about BNET 2.0 is the current implementation of map publishing. It has turned very discouraging for map makers due to various issues. Let me explain. In order for you to play a map you first need to download it from bnet. BNET makes it so that any map not in the 'popular' list is very hard to find and it is also very difficult to know what the map is by just reading a description. Popularity is completely broken because it only takes into consideration the number of downloads and there is no way to give feedback to bnet about how much did you like the map. Worse, once downloaded, you need to invite people to your party to play it, and the lack of chat channels makes it much harder.

Compare it with wc3's method, it just showed a list of custom games available for you to join, so it was easy to find what the most played game was and it was easy to find an active custom game. It was not perfect but many people in the map making community think it at least worked.

The current system so far has become discouraging for map makers. The answer from Blizzard about it during Blizzcon was disappointing. And there is no mention of it in this interview which is discouraging. It is difficult to perceive how the market place will work. If map makers don't really have a way to get their maps to be known, how is blizzard going to be able to pick those that could do premium maps? If the system discourages people from developing maps it is also very difficult to find people willing to make the premium maps.

Victor Lara
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I think the problem's not with the popularity system, as a matter of fact I think it's a good idea to rank maps by their frequency of play.

The real problem is with map filter and search options. Players can only see maps arranged from "most popular" to "least popular".

Players should be able to search maps by name, # of player slots, game type (Melee, Free for all, Custom, etc.) and popularity. And they should be able to reorganize the results by any of those criteria.

The system works, they just need to work on how they're presenting the maps to the players.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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If Blizzard just wanted to offer a great custom game browser and marketplace, they could have made maps work exactly the same as they worked in SC, WC3 and most non-Blizzard games out there - maps are local and players freely choose what maps to host/join - and then added their "better" solution when it's done. And if it really was better, people would flock to it. Instead they shortchanged map builders and players alike, caused themselves the extra expense of managing and censoring every map released, and quite possibly opened themselves to legal action when they fail to censor something. For the life of me I can't imagine why they would take on such a task when it results in no additional money in their pocket.

Victor Soliz Kuncar
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Another outstanding issue is the lack of LAN play. For people that think this is not relevant. Notice that Starcraft is supposedly an e-sport. Earlier this Sunday, there was a BNET crash during a tournament's finals. Although the reason for the crash are not clear (Some people are rumoring a DDoS attack) it does show that internet play is an unnecessary, unreliable layer that causes both gameplay to become slower than it could and also these risks.

There was quite clearly some backlash at Blizzard forums regarding this. Unfortunately, the treatment was to delete those threads and -as it seems- ban the people that bring the subject from the forums.

Jose Resines
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This. Blizzard has completely lost its way.

Before, customers were the priority. Post-Kotick, only money matters.

A sad end of affairs to 'our' relationship.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Yep, Canessa can name-drop "e-sports" all he wants, but the lack of LAN play is a clear indication of their *actual* level of commitment to supporting serious tournament play. As any software developer understands, omitting it is strictly a control thing - they could offer LAN play next week if they wanted to.

Gregory Kinneman
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LAN play is not supported because then piracy becomes a bigger problem. For a game the size of SC2, a 1% change in piracy rate means over 20,000 in sales to date, or about a quarter million in revenue (not exactly, I'm skipping a lot of the math). If you feel that Blizzard should make a 500,000 commitment, then they should ask to the hardcore e-sports community to foot their own bill, since most casual players don't really care. Don't talk about how only money matters because the developers at Blizzard need to get paid for the work they do.