Greg Canessa may not be a household name at this point, but in terms of gaming pedigree, he's been involved in some cool stuff. He was the Group Manager at Xbox Live Arcade, before heading for more casual fare as Vice President of Video Game Platforms at PopCap Games. These days, he's working as the Project Director behind Battle.net 2.0, the upcoming overhaul to Blizzard's outdated networking service.
We caught up with Greg at BlizzCon last month, and asked him to tell us a bit more about what's in store for the service, due to launch "when it's done", alongside StarCraft II.
The most important thing we wanted to know about was, of course, what was going on with LAN support for StarCraft II. We'd been given a straight out "No", which then changed to a "Yes with a 'but'", and now, it's looking like a "Not really, but kinda".
Unfortunately, it's looking like the story we'd heard about only the host needing to connect isn't quite the case, as Greg explains: "I don't know if we actually said that just the host needs to be online - we said that we need to maintain a connected state - you have to maintain a connection to Battle.net, but what we are doing is peer-to-peer play.
"So it maintains a ping state to Battle.net but you'll be able to play the actual game session peer-to-peer, for a low-latency connection. Really, in doing that, we've come up with a sort of hybrid, where you're able to maintain all the integrity and great things about what Battle.net is all about; maintain that always-connected experience, making sure that it's honest and fair gameplay - making sure there's no piracy or other problems going on, but at the same time, we're not making everything go through our servers necessarily - providing a great peer-to-peer experience (when necessary) when there's high latency or high ping time connection..."
Now, obviously down here in Australia high latency is a way of life, and something we'd really rather not have to deal with. And according to Greg, Blizzard are "very aware" of the problem, looking for ways around it.
"I don't have all the details for you right now," he tells us. "There're a couple of things... part of it is where we will physically locate the Battle.net servers...
(...may we suggest Australia?)
"My technical director is from Australia, so we actually have this conversation quite often!" he responds excitedly. "So yes - we are very, very aware about Australia and New Zealand... we're working through where we're going to locate the servers. My hope is that we're going to either do this Battle.net connected peer-to-peer setup - a combination of that and physical location of the server that we'll be able to provide a better quality experience for our consumers in Australia and New Zealand who are playing our game.
"I'm totally sensitive to the issue and very sympathetic to it, and it's just a matter of us figuring out a way to solve the problem given that you guys have a bit of a unique situation geographically... in that you're a western country in the middle of Asia, and you're surrounded by ocean for a thousand miles plus in every direction, and so...
"We're currently working through internally what we can do. We're totally committed to a high quality experience, and we need to figure this out, but we don't have a solution to tell you guys today."
At least they're working on it though, right? We asked Greg if this was something they were planning on having in place by the time StarCraft II launches, and he chuckled.
"I certainly hope we'll have a solution by then! I just can't commit to anything - I don't know what the solution's going to be yet. It's a tough problem we have to address."
From one difficult question to another. Obviously Blizzard has a pretty chunky back-catalogue of awesome games, and this new Battle.net system is looking awfully swanky. It'd be great to be able to play some old-school original WarCraft with all these added bells and whistles, so will Blizzard be making things retroactively playable?
"We don't have any specific plans right now," Greg responds. "I'll tell you that our goal is, with the overhaul and complete re-writing of Battle.net, that we would have all of our games on it someday, at some point. Just to be clear, we're building the new Battle.net experience with the launch title being StarCraft II, and that is, of course, the focus and where all the deep integration and feature-set (of Battle.net) centres on that.
"We'd love to bring something back onto the service, but that's frankly competing with a lot of other things, including making sure Battle.net is a world-class experience for our future games, like Diablo 3 and other games, as well as some other initiatives we have. And of course, evolving the Battle.net experience for StarCraft II, even beyond the things we talked about at BlizzCon; looking to things like marketplace, and other surprises we have in store."
Interesting. We pressed Greg to find out a bit more about this elusive Marketplace
, which had been first mentioned in the panel the day before. Basically, when launched (which won't be with StarCraft II and the rest of Battle.net), it will be a way for gamers to share the maps they've designed with the new editor - even selling those which warrant a price tag.
But why won't it be launching on Day One?
"It's really a combination of things, to be honest," he explains. "It's about focus and about making sure that we have a very ambitious service that we're building for Battle.net for StarCraft II - and that's taking quite a bit of time and making sure that it's a world-class experience for the ship of the product is our number one priority.
"Number two: Marketplace is a very sophisticated system, in and of itself, and if you look at other services, or competitive services, whether it's the iPhone App Store or Xbox Live Marketplace, they're pretty big, meaty systems - and we want to make sure that they're great quality."
Places like the App Store and Xbox Live both offer huge libraries of games, sourced from all over the place. We asked Greg if there was any intention, further down the track, of opening up the new Battle.net to bring in games from other developers ala Valve's Steam service.
"That's a great question," he responds with a smile. "Not one that I am, unfortunately, prepared to answer today.
"It's definitely a great idea - and I'll tell you that our focus for now is to make sure that we're connecting our own community, and that's the immediate focus. We have one game, StarCraft II - and a second game, World of WarCraft, with some minimal functionality sourced (from Battle.net). First, functionality in terms of the RealID that Rob (Pardo) talked about, and the cross-game chat, cross-realm chat is something we're doing early on, and then we're talking about our games going forward, we've already talked about our legacy titles. So it's definitely an interesting idea.
"I do think one of the benefits of the experience we provide over other similar services is that we're not necessarily bound and constrained by the fact that we're a platform - in the same way that Xbox Live or Steam are. Those services (as you probably know, I worked on Xbox Live quite a bit in my previous life at Microsoft) - the feature-set was, to a certain extent, driven by the fact it was a platform, and you had to support Call of Duty, Bejewelled and Lego Star Wars all on one platform - so you couldn't do really deeply integrated things with your online game service.
"We're not bound by that sort of thing. At Blizzard, we can deeply integrate scenarios specifically for our own games. we really think that's a key signature for Battle.net, vis-a-vis
some of those other services - things like the decal system, the unlockable rewards, the ladders and league stuff that are deeply, deeply integrated with the new line for StarCraft II, they're things that you could not do on an Xbox Live, or a Steam, or a PlayStation Network. They're just too broad of a focus; it's more of a lowest-common-denominator platform solution, as opposed to a really deeply integrated solution. That's what I think really helps Battle.net stand out."
All this talk of "platforms" made us think of the other, more conventional use of the word - so it was time to question Greg about what the current status was when it came to Blizzard and gaming consoles.
"Consoles are very interesting - we're console gamers ourselves, here at Blizzard" Greg reveals. "We're very aware of what's going on in console space, many of us are on Xbox live, of course - or we're on other services... we love consoles. We just want to make sure that if we ever did decide to go into the console market, that we did it the right way. We go in thinking about that from the get-go, as opposed to, y'know, retro-fitting games that maybe don't make as much sense.
"The console market is interesting to us, but we don't have any specific plans that we're able to discuss here..."
(*cough* StarCraft Ghost *cough*
Also in the BlizzCon panel the day before our interview, there was some discussion about how this would impact on Blizzard's best-seller, World of WarCraft. The introduction of real-world friends lists (separate to any in-game character lists), cross-game chat and other goodies implied that some big things are about to happen.
"There are definitely going to be changes - again," Greg says. "This comes back to the point of deep integration - we're building both a service that is deeply integrated for each one of these games, and also, the most scalable, agnostic system that we've ever built. So we're building these game services, whether it's ladders and leagues or statistics or profiles, matchmaking, Achievement system, Marketplace system... and on the back-end, are agnostic schemes. We can use them to power different gaming systems, in that scenario.
"Blizzard is a gaming company, and so we want to make sure that the presentation - to the gamer
- looks like it's very well integrated into the game, and it's that UI approach that is very deeply integrated with the StarCraft II experience, so any future games... we're going to take that UI approach also."
Finally, the all-important question - while we're getting more than a little bit excited about the game and the new technology from this side of the fence, Greg's been intimately involved in this project ergo running that risk of it all being a bit same-'ol, same-'ol by the time it's finally launched.
But he changes that concept through clear excitement as we ask him what is it that he, personally, is most looking forward to.
"Um... getting it out there!
"Getting it out there and in gamers' hands, because I think growing back that network, connecting Blizzard gamers, and having this awesome worldwide service with potentially millions of people on it, all connecting, socialising, connecting to our games - it's going to be awesome.
"In terms of specific features - I'm super-psyched about RealID. You know, our ability to connect our gamers at the RealID level, being able to chat across games... I think that's an awesome feature. I think that the unlockable rewards is something I'm personally really excited about, I love Achievements - I'm like an "Achievements guy" - so I'm going to go in-game, unlock all my Achievements; in particular the decals - a freaking cool feature - and I'll have these cool units that I can hang out and stuff... I'm super-psyched to see that happen."
So, we still have no news on when exactly we can expect this to be rolled out in all its glory, but rest assured it'll be pretty darn polished when it arrives. We're crossing our fingers for early 2010 - but, as with all things Blizzard, all they're telling us is "when it's done".