In a postmortem for Blizzard's Battle.net at Austin's GDC Online today, project director Greg Canessa warned developers about underestimating the difficulty of creating an integrated online gaming network.
"It's really hard designing and building this stuff," said Canessa, who was also a key leader in the development of Xbox Live at Microsoft. He said it's a "common and frequent" misconception that developing an integrated online gaming network is an easy task. "Design iteration is just as important here as it is with game titles," he said.
The new version of Battle.net launched alongside July's release of StarCraft II, which is tightly woven into the Battle.net system. Canessa revealed that Blizzard had been developing and iterating on the network since 2007, making changes right up to StarCraft II's launch. "Build enough time into your schedule to iterate on these services," he advised.
One of the numerous hurdles that Canessa said Blizzard encountered in developing Battle.net was aligning efforts with the game design team for StarCraft II. Battle.net is deeply integrated with the actual game, so features of the service could have a profound effect on the StarCraft II experience, and vice versa.
"Make sure you're partnering 50-50 with the game dev team," Canessa suggested to game network creators. "It can help out with time to market and stress level." He said it "took a long time" for the teams to get on the same page, but Blizzard gave itself enough time to work out the issues.
Before Stacraft II, Blizzard hadn't released a non-MMO game for several years -- the studio's business had been all about the massively-successful World of Warcraft since 2004. "Blizzard is a company that back in say 2002, 2003, when we were launching Warcraft III, that's the last time the company shipped a non-MMO boxed product. ... It really was an adjustment for us, thinking beyond the MMO."
The original Battle.net, which launched alongside Diablo in 1996, claimed 12 million users, half of whom were from Korea, as of a year and a half ago. That matches the number of World of Warcraft players registered today.
The new Battle.net didn't only have to integrate with StarCraft II, but also with the pre-existing World of Warcraft. The Battle.net team had to listen closely the that huge fanbase, try out social features, and try to developer deep integration without disrupting the MMO's audience or the game itself.
"Integrating with a community of 12 million users and not screwing it up is a huge challenge," said Canessa. "...Integrating a game service and an MMO is just challenging from a technical and compatibility standpoint across the board."
Battle.net technical director Matthew Verslyus added, "This is easily the most complicated launch I've been a part of at Blizzard."
Since its inception, Blizzard's Battle.net team has expanded from one person to about 50 people. Blizzard will be expanding its team substantially in the coming years. As part of what Canessa called a 10-year roadmap for Battle.net, Blizzard plans to create a "living game service," tightly integrate the network with each Blizzard game and development team, and "build and scale a Battle.net team to pull it off."
Finding that talent can be difficult -- while many graduates and industry workers have skills related to art, programming and design, there are relatively few with real know-how about creating an integrated gaming network, Canessa said. And finding key talent is the difference between success and failure.
"The bar has gone way up from 10 years ago," he added -- customers expect a lot from these networks. "It's completely different today than it was in the year 2000." Canessa also warned that "it's really, really expensive to go this route." In fact, Battle.net required a full client rewrite for each iteration: "Just know it is very expensive and very time-consuming."
For Canessa and the Battle.net team, the key to success is to "think through this stuff early, really understand what is important to your customers in each market, build in the tracking mechanisms to evaluate success and failure and understand regional challenges."
Canessa said, "Launching the service is just the beginning. I can't emphasis this point enough."