The man behind Blizzard's big online push is Greg Canessa, former head of Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade division. During an interview with Shacknews this weekend, Canessa touched on topics such as the marketplace, console potential, LAN play, and whether we might see games other than Blizzard's on Battle.net in the future.
Shack: I was talking to you guys around two months ago, and nobody knew exactly what Battle.net was going to be. Now it's this huge thing. What's that process been like?
Greg Canessa: It's been great, and you know, we actually had a sense back then, we just weren't quite ready to talk about. We wanted to give it a little more time to percolate internally. As you know, Blizzard is pretty careful about making sure we don't over-promise. We wanted to make sure that the design was in great shape, that the product was in some form of production, and we really had our ducks in a row before we decided to talk to you guys about it. It's super cool being here at BlizzCon being able to talk to you guys, because it is a big project to keep under wraps. You look at the extensiveness of the game service, and the ambition of the project, it's pretty..
Shack: ..pretty surprising. Right down to the priced community maps. Is that something you guys have been wanting to do for a long time?
Greg Canessa: It's something we've had in development for a little while. It really predates even the new Battle.net vision, if you go back to some of the success that the company's had with WarCraft III. The mod community was huge. It was a huge part of the success of WarCraft III. [Defense of the Ancients] and other mods have been the reason why that game is still popular today.
And if you look beyond our games, you look to Day of Defeat or Counter-Strike, these user-created mods, they've done huge things toward extended the shelf-life of a multiplayer game's franchise. And that's something we aspire to do, and continue to do. StarCraft 1 has had a 12-year lifespan because it's a really successful, popular title, particularly in Asia. Those are the types of franchises that Blizzard is in the business of making.
And so mods have always been part of the culture, and has been part of the design of Battle.net from the ground up. Not only some of the stuff that we were talking about with the Marketplace, but also you look at things like our custom game and join game interfaces, our matchmaking system, our leagues and ladders architecture--there are a number of areas where we've built them specifically around being extensible and accommodating new types of games that haven't even been invented yet. We've built the system to accommodate those types of things without having to redo Battle.net.
Shack: Is there a chance you'll look at selling and supporting the games of other publishers on Battle.net in the future?
Greg Canessa: Yeah, I'm getting this question a lot. [laughs] I can tell you that we don't have any specific plans to talk about today, but it's our first step. Obviously Blizzard is all about the game, and we're focused on quality and a world-class experience. This is a very ambitious project; as you can see it's a very complex service we're providing, and our goal is to make sure StarCraft II is a world-class experience. And so that's our focus right now.
Then of course we're building this system, this online games service, to serve all Blizzard games going forward. So you look at Diablo III, there will obviously be a very deep, integrated experience there. And then you look at World of Warcraft, and some of the things we're doing just even at the ship of StarCraft II to integrate with World of Warcraft, facilitating cross-game chat, cross-realm chat, friends list--those are examples of the type of things we're doing and going forward. That's a lot of work.
And so, future titles--who knows. I can tell you that one of the things we're proud of and excited about with the new Battle.net is the fact that, since we are focused and have a small number of titles, we're not constrained by the need to be a platform, in the same way that Xbox Live and Steam and PlayStation Network need to be a platform, and need to provide that lowest common denominator set of features that all games can plug into despite what genre they are. We're not bound by that constraint at Blizzard; we can build deeply integrated, super-cool scenarios for our games.
The decals stuff is an example, that's a StarCraft II-specific feature. The leagues and ladders stuff is a StarCraft II-specific feature. We can afford to do those types of things that are deeply integrated, that nobody's been able to do with these generic platforms, because it's too much work. They can't support hundreds of games and do that level of integration. So that's really a competetive advantage.
Shack: At the same time, everyone always asks about Blizzard doing a console game. Are you planning for that possibility? Because obviously at that point, you're on the 360 or something like that, and you're on Xbox Live already, so you'd almost have to do something like what EA does, with its account system.
Greg Canessa: Well, I can tell you, we are building, we're building the--I'll put it this way: that's a hard question to answer. The Battle.net service is being built specifically around the PC, and specifically around our games. What we do in the future, I obviously don't have anything to talk about with regard to Blizzard porting consoles or not in the future. I can tell you that philosophically, the company is interested in consoles. Many of us are console gamers. We all have Xbox Live gamertags, and we all play Xbox at home, and so we love Xbox. And we love Sony and other platforms as well. We have a great deal of respect for them.
Philosophically, the company is interested in--you know, we feel like if we would ever want to go into the console, we'd want to know that from the get-go when we're developing a game, and not spend a lot of time retroing games that aren't designed for consoles. So I think it's more of a go-forward thing if we were ever able to do it. And with regards to Battle.net, it is very much built around those awesome integrated gaming scenarios for our specific games, so if we were to ever do anything on the console, we would want to make sure that those scenarios carried across to the console. How that would work, the details, I have no idea. Couldn't tell you today. [pause] I actually do have an idea, but I can't talk about it. [laughs]
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Shack: I wanted to ask you about the figures quoted yesterday--12 million Battle.net users vs. 11.5 million World of Warcraft subscribers. I thought that was really interesting, because nobody ever really thinks about that.
Greg Canessa: That's why we put it up there. [laughs]
Shack: Yeah. And actually, I logged on to Diablo II last night, and there were something like 37,000 people playing at like 2am. Tons of people are still using the old Battle.net. Do you see the older games' popularity staying strong mostly in specific regions?
Greg Canessa: Yeah, we don't actually disclose regional breakdowns of our service. It's something we try to mostly keep to ourselves. But I can tell you overall that a lot of the data that you're seeing there is very true, and that we do have a very high population for our games across the globe. Diablo II, for StarCraft, obviously we know StarCraft is particularly popular in Asia. WarCraft III and the DotA community are still very popular and successful.
We've got a lot of users, and that was really why we stuck that slide in there, because a lot of the audience, frankly, is new to Blizzard. New meaning the last five years with World of Warcraft. They're WoW players, and haven't played some of our older games. Some of us old-timers, back in the days of War 1, War 2, we all remember playing that. A lot of these guys are like "Battle.net, what's Battle.net?"
Shack: I remember using IPX. Battle.net was a great new feature.
Greg Canessa: [laughs] Right, because we were playing on Kali. We were all back there doing that, but some of these youngins don't, you know.. [laughs] They haven't seen that stuff. So we were like okay, we want to remind people. It's very well publicized how successful World of Warcraft's been with 11.5 million subscribers, but it hasn't been very well publicized by Blizzard or anyone else that Battle.net is actually a service as well.
And the company has a lot of experience doing online gaming services. So even though those are older game services, they haven't been upgraded in many years.. the concept of an online game service has evolved so much, it's a much higher bar now. And you know, with the redesign and overhaul of Battle.net, we're really setting our sights high, and doing that while paying homage to that great history that we have.
Shack: And that 12 million figure--are those "active users" that have played a game recently?
Greg Canessa: That was a unique user figure, in terms of across all of our games. You could point out that there are 11.5 million subscribers, and they're all monetized differently, and that's fine.
Shack: There are always different ways to break it down.
Greg Canessa: There are always different ways to break it down, but really the point we were trying to make is that there was a huge community of people over here, and another huge community of people over there, and wow. If you were to redesign and overhaul Battle.net, thinking the scale of Xbox Live or bigger. You think about how many users play StarCraft II, and users that play WarCraft, we're talking about large numbers of people here, millions of people. This is a large opportunity.
Shack: I can imagine the World of Warcraft user that doesn't know anything about Blizzard's other games, seeing his friend's avatar switch to a Marine, and saying, "What the hell is that?" From a business perspective, that must be very attractive.
Greg Canessa: Absolutely, and capture all of our consumers and all of our gamers as "Blizzard gamers." It's the same reason why we do Blizzcon; it's our way of physically connecting the Blizzard community together in a physical location. It's the same inspiration that we have for the design of the new Battle.net. A lot of our investment in social networking features to connect the Blizzard community is the same thing we want to do in the Blizzard space.
And with the introduction of Real ID, we're going to not only be able to see people at the character level, but you'll be able to build those real-life consensual relationships with people like Facebook. And then that community carries with you, across all Blizzard games, not just stopping at StarCraft. When Diablo III comes out, you don't have to start all over again, build up another friends network--no, screw that. You just have it all carry forward, and you have one consistent Blizzard persona and identity in the community.
Shack: Can you clear up this whole LAN issue? How is that actually going to work from the end-user's perspective? Are you looking at a pseudo-LAN solution? Is that something that's on the table?
Greg Canessa: Well really the goal with Battle.net is to maintain a high-quality, always-connected experience that Rob [Pardo] and I talked about on stage. We want to eliminate griefing, we want to eliminate smurfing, we want to eliminate all these things. We want to give people that persistent character and the attachment to that character, so they're not going to misbehave. It's about community enforcement, and it's also about piracy and other things.
So the new Battle.net is an always-connected experience. Well, LAN, if you think about it, LAN play underpins--now that you understand our design, and you understand what we're trying to do, hopefully it makes a little more sense--because it kind of undermines what we're trying to do with the always-connected experience.
So we are looking at--we do understand and acknowledge and sympathize with some people's concerns about latency in certain scenarios, in certain regions of the world, location-based tournaments--and we are working on solutions. With regard to things we can do that maintain connectivity to Battle.net in some way, but also provide a great quality connection between players playing.
Shack: Maybe something where you connect once to Battle.net, but from that point on you'd only connect every now and then, and the connection would essentially act as a zero-ping LAN?
Greg Canessa: Something like that. Maintaining a connection with Battle.net--I don't know if it's once or periodically--but then also having a peer-to-peer connection between players, so that it'll facilitate a very low-ping, high-bandwidth connection between two players. Those are the types of things that we're working on. So we understand and acknowledge and sympathize. I think part of this LAN thing was that people saw that out of context, without understanding what we were doing with the service. And hopefully now that people understand this huge service we're building.
Shack: And you couldn't possibly be abandoning the competitive leagues of StarCraft II.
Greg Canessa: Right, and we have solutions for location-based tournaments and other things. We just haven't announced the specifics for a lot of things. But we're working on it.
Shack: Thanks Greg.