Many interesting bits and pieces are being revealed at this year's BlizzCon, with the revamped Battle.net stepping into the spotlight as Rob Pardo and Greg Canessa finally shed some light on what's in store when the service relaunches with StarCraft II.
Firstly, with 12 million players (that's more than the 11.5 who currently play WoW, for reference), it's obvious that Blizzard got something very right with the original Battle.net. However, they're the first to admit that they also got some things fairly wrong, and that's what they're aiming to fix with the new release. This time around, the focus is on the "always connected experience" that will see Battle.net and StarCraft II woven together into one unified experience, plus the introduction of persistent characters and new Battle.net Real ID accounts that will keep everything neat and tidy.
We were given some sneaky peeks of how the system might work in future - and if you've ever seen the WoW login screen, imagine that with a space / sci-fi theme and you're on the right track. Even though StarCraft II isn't an MMO, the devs have decided to log you into the service from the very beginning, offering various widgets on the screen to bring you the latest news, new content, and information about who's online.
We also got some clarification on the whole LAN gaming issue, although it's still a little fuzzy. At this point, it looks like only the LAN's host will have to be online to auth and start a match, with the rest of the gaming group connecting to that computer. Doesn't sound ideal, but much better than requiring every single player to connect.
While this system is all new for Blizzard, a lot of it isn't that new to the world. The eagerly-anticipated revamp to the Battle.net system brings with it an achievement system stored online (which promises to be an improvement on the one used in WoW, and using avatars and decals as a reward system), as well as an automatic patching service (much like WoW) and a new cloud storage system that will mean you can pick up your saved games no matter where you are, without transferring files. The new system chat has also changed dramatically and is now much more IM like (looking more like MSN, actually), which should help keeping your conversations separate.
Then there's the matter of ladders and the competitive arena. As Rob Pardo explained, "Ladder play isn't just for hardcore gamers", with the new system putting each gamer into a league system, based on their abilities and level of play. While you might start out in the Practice League (where rules are relaxed, game speed is slower and maps are easier), after playing a few matches and getting your skill level up, you will be bumped to Copper League, and from there, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum and even Pro ranking. Within each league level, you will be ranked against 100 other players of comparable skill, which means that everybody has the chance to win their specific division.
It's also worth noting that your gaming history will be recorded and tied to your ID, finally making smurfing a thing of the past. The new Battle.net account ID system will mean that you can't simply create a new account unless you go out and purchase an all-new copy of the game.
Custom games were touched on briefly - taking inspiration from how it all worked in Warcraft 3, the guys have gone back to the drawing board and improved the process. Now you'll be able to search by gametype, map and genre to find the perfect game - and if you can't find what you're after, it'll be pretty easy to create your own. The beauty of the process is that when you create a new game, it's set to private by default, so only your friends can join unless you decide to open it up to the public.
All of these changes are largely made possible thanks to the all-new Battle.net Real ID - designed to connect the Blizzard community. If you're in the middle of a game of StarCraft II, you'll still be updated with news about WoW or other Blizzard games you have installed on your account - with your ID linking it all together. Blizzard sat down and looked at various social networking systems around today, noting problems and limitations of the WoW system, the strengths of Xbox Live, and how easy it is to find friends on MySpace and Google Talk.
In the end, they rolled it all together and came up with a system that is reminiscent of Twitter or Facebook, where you can see and communicate with your friends based on how you know them. These real-world friendships are mutual (like on Facebook), and there's plenty of privacy options and parental controls for the cautious. When you're logged in, you can talk to your friends cross-realm but also cross-game (so you can squeeze in a quick game of StarCraft while you're waiting for that raid to start in WoW, and your guild-mate will let you know when to jump in). Even better is the news that this friend network is completely different to any in-game character friends list you might maintain, and it promises to stay intact over all future Battle.net games.
There's so much packed into the new Battle.net that we weren't able to look at today, but if you want to know more, we've organised an interview with one of the developers while we're here at BlizzCon. Leave us your questions and we'll ask them for you... don't worry, we're already planning on finding out about those elusive Australian servers!