Blizzard Entertainment hosted their fan convention Blizzcon this past weekend in Anaheim, California. Blizzard's relationship with it's fans is one that has changed drastically with the huge success of market-leading MMO World of Warcraft, but one thing remains the same: after eighteen years of excellence in producing single player and multiplayer video game experiences, Blizzard’s fan base is willing to wait for the good stuff.
So, when Blizzard creatives tell fans the game will be ready "when it's done" they get more leeway than most. Wings of Liberty, the first installment of Real Time Strategy sequel Starcraft 2, won’t be “done” until online service battle.net is fully revamped. Or so the unofficial story goes. However, Blizzard went into greater detail on their plans for battle.net over the weekend, and if they achieve what they want to do, it will be worth the wait.
It will be a complete revamp; a drastically improved UI, a World of Warcraft style party system for playing with others, sophisticated matchmaking (particularly good news for Starcraft 2 players) and a chat system that will leave its competition in the dust. Microsoft’s online service Xbox Live does a great job of integrating an online presence into the experience of playing games on the console, but that presence is becoming increasingly muddled. Micro-transactions and a proliferation of virtually anonymous gamertags hinder the development of genuine online communities. Blizzard creatives made this point over the weekend. Many Xbox players have a lengthy list of gamertags on their friends list, but not necessarily a clear idea of who half of these people are.
Blizzard, looking to solve this issue, have moved beyond video game examples to study other online communities including Twitter, Myspace and Facebook. The ultimate goal here is something more than improved matchmaking or a more pleasant experience for people who play games for a limited amount of time per week. The goal is to make the experience of being a member of this online community more personal. The new battle.net will share a common community across all Blizzard products, including World of Warcraft. The idea is simple: people should have more fun, and people should know the players with whom they are killing aliens or wizards.
The whole basis of how you “know” someone carries no assumptions of having physically met that person. World of Warcraft has shown Blizzard that people are willing to develop extremely complex personal relationships via an online community. Blizzcon featured a confessional booth that filmed players telling their own stories of friends made and romances born through friendships made in-game.
Companies across the world are spending millions in a desperate attempt to understand this phenomenon, and thus make money from it. Blizzard is leading the way. Battle.net will have an online marketplace, but the emphasis is on improving the player experience rather than trying to sell them the meaningless micro-transactions of the sort that infest Xbox Live. Blizzard’s emphasis on the player community and their decision to make the continuing development of this community the driving force in their business is the future of video games, and the future of online communities. The issue of how to capitalize on social media to generate revenue is being taken very seriously across many industries, but people are extremely sensitive to crass attempts to make money or advertise across services like Facebook or Twitter. Blizzard will make plenty of money from their new approach, not least if they succeed in getting sizeable portions of the nearly twelve million strong World of Warcraft player base to purchase copies of Diablo and Starcraft. That’s not to mention the unannounced MMO that they are working on.
Blizzard have a major advantage. They have an installed fan base that exhibits intense loyalty to their brand. Whatever service the company could provide would be a huge success. However, Blizzard is a company with a culture of creativity that has earned that loyalty. The achievement system that has proved popular on World of Warcraft servers will be shared across all games. Players can earn in-game rewards, as well. Starcraft 2 players can earn special decals to put on their individual in-game units, to distinguish their online personality and show off a bit of bragging rights. Similar graphic touches on Xbox Live go for at least $0.99; see the difference?
Of course, there will still be an online marketplace. However, this marketplace will have user-generated content at its heart, not meaningless corporate virtual baubles. Starcraft 2 modders will have a chance to earn money from their work, so long as their work is good enough for enough of their fellow players to be willing to buy it. This generates further good will. If the ability to instantly antagonise thousands if not millions of people with a crass attempt at online advertising is the true sin, Battle.net is looking to be holier than most.
The signs are good. Blizzard will be raking it in. And millions will be happy to hand the money over. This is the future.