Synopsis: Sharing much in common with the IWNet fiasco as made famous with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the Battle.net 2.0 public relations failure is what happens when company politics and the pursuit of profit interfere with game design philosophy. Not only does the online gaming service pose critical ramifications for consumer rights to this day, but is a markedly inferior iteration of Battle.net as compared to the 2002 version launched for use with Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. Though Battle.net 2.0 was a decision made by executives and coin-counters, numerous Blizzard Entertainment game designers and employee figureheads were put forward to defend these business decisions from a game design standpoint. The resulting chaos proved largely detrimental to the company, and here is the 2010 rant that captured it.
This article was published in June of 2010 and largely reflects an impression of Battle.net 2.0 as published at that time. The article was edited for structure shortly after going viral (through Reddit and Fark) and the content remains unedited.
I’m late to the Battle.net 2.0 Hate Party, but I brought a keg, so here goes.
I don’t get angry about video games. Passionate? Yeah, it’s pathetic. But no, not angry. Game developers are people, too. They got bills to pay. But Battle.net 2.0 makes me angry.
StarCraft II is excellence. It’s sensational. Dustin Browder knew this game was his legacy and his squad delivered. And it’s a fucking shame people are going to turn on this product for things Browder has no control over. Right now, the Battle.net Forums look like the Battle of the Somme and StarCraft fan site TeamLiquid is trying to disown the game. The internet has shat a brick. What the hell happened?
I wasn’t around for the “Atari owns the industry” days. But in my lifetime, nothing tops Activision-Blizzard, a corporate culture whose roots lie in four developers who escaped Atari’s corporate culture. I have never seen one company try so hard to tell me this is the product I want.
Battle.net 2.0 is supposed to be the future of online gaming. Instead, it is the antithesis of consumer confidence, a combination of corporate suits who don’t play video games and game designers who can’t do damage control.
Fine, tell me it’s wrong to assume an Activision corporate culture would impact its corporate partner. You know, where the President of Blizzard Entertainment answers directly to Thomas Tippl, an executive who answers to Activision C.E.O. Bobby Kotick. The Bobby Kotick who disowned projects that lacked “the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential”. The Bobby Kotick who stated he wants to “take the fun out of making video games.” Or you can see what happens when an online gaming service is not a game design decision.
The Battle.net 2.0 marketing approach has been simple: “We removed [function] because of [scapegoat].” It’ll sound good to the GameStop crowd, and Starcraft players will call bullshit. Since computer gamers have a habit of organizing boycotts on the grounds of crappy box art, the mainstream will throw up their hands and say “There they go again.” And then when Blizzard releases the game, computer fans will say “We told you so.”
Look at LAN. In June of 2009, Blizzard Entertainment revealed there would be none.* The reason? Blizzard wanted to give its fans a quality product.*
“While this was a difficult decision for us, we felt that moving away from LAN play and directing players to our upgraded Battle.net service was the best option to ensure a quality multiplayer experience with StarCraft II and safeguard against piracy.” – Bob Colyaco, Blizzard Public Relations Representative
That’s right: Battle.net 2.0 is going to be so awesome, you won’t need LAN. May surprise you: Many months ago, I defended it.
“Eliminating the ability to play Starcraft II through a Local Area Network does not mean you won’t be able to play the game through an equivalent. You can’t cut through a Battle Report or Q&A Batch or Dustin’s Terrible Terrible Blogspot without having it drenched in e-sport. Blizzard didn’t build the game for competition, for television, simply to decide we can’t fight it out latency free. This is the sequel to gaming’s biggest spectator sport. “What we can say is that you will have to hook into the internet to play the game. This is a piracy thing, and the Steam approach appears to be the compromise being offered by developers. Ten years ago, a CD-Key was good enough. Today, Blizzard does not want to get snakebit by another case of Garena, where hundreds of thousands play Defense of the Ancients with illegal copies of Warcraft III. My guess is that Battle.net 2.0 will emulate Steam’s product. Players looking to LAN will log into Battle.net to verify the game’s legitimacy, and then proceed to play on an emulated equivalent. … “If you are playing somebody through Battle.net via a local network, you will have LAN latency, and you will not be disconnected from your local game if your internet connection dies on you. There. I just eased eighty percent of the concern.” “Keep Your Government Out of My LAN Party!”, as published on The Ghetto; published August 20, 2009
I made a mistake. Not just assuming “There’s no way Blizzard can be that dumb.” I thought LAN was about piracy. If piracy was the concern, it wouldn’t make sense to pass up internet-authenticated LAN. But piracy is an easy target. Especially when the real reason is a laughingstock in the Western World. Already discussed it in detail: The elimination of LAN creates a world where Blizzard is the unquestioned overlord of “StarCraft II: The Sport”. Read the Terms of Service lately?
Want to run a major StarCraft II tournament? Hope you got money. Blizzard wants a cut. Yeah, Blizzard isn’t tossing lawyers at your college tournament. And why bother? Saw what happened at the University of Central Florida?* Where 100 gamers showed up for a tournament and found out Battle.net could only handle twelve university network users at once? And then Battle.net crashed during the round of sixteen and threw the legitimacy of the event into question? Blizzard isn’t worried. The company set up the system so you can’t compete with them. It just sells the message: “Thanks for making StarCraft a spectator sport, fans. Now fuck off.“
That’s why your game is region-locked. Got friends in Europe? Too bad. You can’t play with them. Blizzard has international StarCraft tournaments to sell. They can’t have Germany’s Dario Wunsch (TheLittleOne) and American-in-Korea Greg Fields (IdrA) playing each other whenever they feel like it. That’ll dilute the demand for Major League Gaming’s “Europe versus America” event, brought to you by Mountain Dew: Rainbow Seizure. Your “official reason” for the omission?
“Yes, when it releases on day one, if you want to connect with your friends in the US, get the US box or if you want to play with Koreans, then get the Korean box. However if you want to get the best experience out of your game here in South East Asia, you should get the local boxset. The latency, the community, those things are going to really define the experience, and you don’t want to miss out on that.” Kevin Yu, Blizzard Community Manager; May 28, 2010
Blizzard Entertainment eliminated LAN on an implied premise that everyone has broadband internet and latency will not be an issue. According to the company, the game is region-locked because latency will be an issue. StarCraft features an internationally-diverse competitive gaming scene. According to the company, confining them to regional servers will foster community. Can’t make this stuff up.
Next? Battle.net 2.0 limits you to a single CD-Key per person. That’s it. That’s your sixty-dollar purchase. According to the company, this is because you are an asshole.
“Really good players, they don’t necessarily want to play themselves. They want to go beat up on the noob because that’s really fun.” Rob Pardo, as written in The Escapist, “Battle.net StarCraft II Matchmaking Too Good?”; March 17, 2010*
Blizzard Entertainment paints smurfing as an ego boost. That Blizzard gamers were beat up in school and need a trauma bandage. Forget that smurfing is a necessity for learning off-races and honing gimmick strategies. I played Warcraft III. We don’t smurf because we enjoy it. We smurf because in 2004, the company’s matchmaking changes were designed to eliminate smurfing. Search criteria is configured for 2004’s player activity. 2004’s crappy Warcraft III players are now 2010’s crappy Defense of the Ancients players. Smurfing has evolved from a scapegoat to a necessity.
Consider Warcraft III Four vs. Four Random Team. “Top-level play” is dominated by posers, players who managed enough mediocrity to find games and max out their experience level. Elite players can’t find games. In my last season with substantial playing time, my Warcraft III record was 55-39. During the day? Hour search times. Night? Forget it. When all I want to do is play, it’s easier to make a new name and start over.
What Blizzard Wants You to Believe
Blizzard doesn’t care about a level playing field. It’s used game value. And the company didn’t get the memo the CD-Keys they popularized destroyed resale value. Remember why Blizzard included a “Spawn” function in StarCraft, where four players could use one copy to play over a Local Area Network? How that was advertising for a popular-but-fledgling Blizzard Entertainment? Well, they’re rock stars now. Want to play? Ruin your friend’s record, explain to his built-in friends list why “you’re back on Dave, I thought you quit”, or buy the game. No more “used game acts as a demo”.
Then you get to public chat rooms. (Note: Chat Channels were finally implemented in a January of 2011 game update.) Given Battle.net developer Greg Canessa worked on Xbox Live, it’s not a surprise they’re gone. That takes us to Frank Pearce, the Blizzard co-founder whose “Battle.net is shit, I admit it” interview may have been the most damaging moment in the StarCraft II beta cycle.
“You’ll be able to open up chats direct with your friends, and when we add clans and groups there’ll be chats for your clans and groups, but no specific plans for chat rooms right now. Do you really want chat rooms?” Frank Pearce, Blizzard Entertainment Vice President of Game Design, speaking with StarCraft IncGamers; May 28, 2010*
Pearce is also the executive producer of World of Warcraft. Nobody plays this video game for the gameplay. They play it because chat rooms develop a sense of community. You meet people. You talk to them. Guess what happens? You join their guild. You raid with them. You embrace that community. The core of World of Warcraft’s addictive qualities are built on a feature that Pearce is burying.
You got rid of public chat channels to stymie elitism? Where people pick on others for being inferior at the game? Wait until people realize that post-game chatter will be limited “Wow, that kid was really good at the game, I should add him!” or “Wow, he sucked. I need to make fun of him!”
Getting rid of those chat channels and the ability to name custom games sure stopped spam, didn’t it?
Yes Mr. Pearce, we really do want chat rooms. Maybe your company’s annual investment report can explain why we’re not getting them:
“We are subject to risks associated with the collaborative online features in our games, such as World of Warcraft’s online chat feature, which allows consumers to post narrative comment, in real time, that is visible to other players. Despite our efforts to restrict inappropriate consumer content, from time to time objectionable and offensive consumer content may be posted to a World of Warcraft gaming site or the sites of other games or game services, such as Battle.net, with online chat features or game forums which allow consumers to post comments. We may be subject to lawsuits, governmental regulation or restrictions, and consumer backlash (including decreased sales and harmed reputation), as a result of consumers posting offensive content, any of which could harm our operating results.”
Activision 2010 Annual Investment Report; filed March 1, 2010*
You thought Blizzard cared about your nine-year-old? They do. They don’t want him slitting his wrists and spraying “BLIZZADR MADE ME DO IT” with the blood of his dying breaths. (Credit to H4x for the reminder: There is no ability to ignore individuals. So Blizzard eliminated chat channels to prevent spam and harassment but neglected to add a /squelch command to stymie anyone who wants your juice money. Fun, huh?)
But maybe these communities were built on custom games. Mapmakers will rally the troops! Guess what? Battle.net 2.0 got cloud computing in your mapmaking. You’ll “publish” maps to Battle.net. And you’ll enjoy it.*
Sound innocuous? In an internet where Google can supply seven gigabytes of storage for a free e-mail account, the Battle.net map publishing system gives you twenty megabytes for your five maps. (Update: You now get fifty megabytes for your ten maps. Problem solved! Yup!) And in a world where Defense of the Ancients uses extensive in-game Warcraft III models to cap its size at seven megabytes, your maximum map size is ten. Oh, and no dirty words in the map, either. Or various country names. Or adding “Suicide” in a map trigger related to Banelings.
Hey, can’t let custom games use the old model. That promotes piracy. “Any map you want to make” on a peer-to-peer Battle.net 2.0? Pretty much eliminates first-person shooters and action games. Too much lag. “Browser bombs” that lock your client and Rick Roll the hell out of you?* Already in the wild. Oh, and maps aren’t universal, so enjoy when someone publishes your map on another server and takes credit for it.
But Blizzard has your back.
“User Content” means any communications, images, sounds, and all the material and information that you upload or transmit through a Game client or the Service, or that other users upload or transmit, including without limitation any chat text. You hereby grant Blizzard a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, paid-up, non-exclusive, license, including the right to sublicense to third parties, and right to reproduce, fix, adapt, modify, translate, reformat, create derivative works from, manufacture, introduce into circulation, publish, distribute, sell, license, sublicense, transfer, rent, lease, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, or provide access to electronically, broadcast, communicate to the public by telecommunication, display, perform, enter into computer memory, and use and practice such User Content as well as all modified and derivative works thereof. To the extent permitted by applicable laws, you hereby waive any moral rights you may have in any User Content.” Battle.net Terms of Service, current as of June 2010
Or they can throw legalese at mapmakers. Where the community can be terrified the overseer will take credit for their work without their permission.
See, all these headaches create is paranoia. Activision-Blizzard made a series of decisions that were very unpopular. Now, people who aren’t “in the know” will read into other minor mistakes made by the company like they’re the fucking plague. “Blizzard was mum on LAN. They removed it. Blizzard was quiet on chat channels. They removed those. Mapmaking? It’s completely restrictive. They haven’t said anything about the Constitution of the United States…oh dear God.” Expansion pack pricing? Nobody expects anything below sixty dollars. Credit card? That’ll be mandated. You know, to “streamline premium content purchases”.
Enter Facebook and RealID. Because nobody’s had issues with “Mr. Dumb Fucks” lately.*
Facebook is human hypocrisy. Remember what the internet was? A gathering site for outcasts? A gateway for wasting time on Everquest? The people who bashed the internet are now playing Farmville on Facebook, the social networking site where you can express your individuality by copy-pasting funny pictures someone else created.
But I don’t care if StarCraft II integrates it. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is one of my favorite games of this generation. It had Twitter capability. Never gave it a second thought. The difference? When Uncharted was reducing Twitter accounts to rubble, Naughty Dog toned it down.* Blizzard wants me to marry Facebook.
Battle.net integrates Facebook alongside RealID. RealID friends will see your first and last name. It’s Blizzard’s way of giving internet enemies a reason to hack your account. Have a common name? Think they can’t discover your identity? Those other RealID names are just the missing puzzle pieces. Plan on using a fake name? When your account is compromised, good luck explaining to Blizzard why you can’t supply identification to prove you’re Michael Lowell from Plant City, Nebraska.
“And as is the case with previous Blizzard Entertainment titles, you can form friendships with other characters on Battle.net while preserving your anonymity.”
Battle.net 2.0 Preview, Starcraft II Web Page
The issue with RealID? It usurps functionality. On Battle.net 1.0, I could use “/f m [message]” to message every player on my friends list. Simple, easy, etc. In Battle.net 2.0, this function is replaced with the ability to “broadcast” messages. In order to use this, you must use RealID or Facebook. You have to render privacy a lost art to get something I had six years ago.
Back to paranoia. Blizzard used the tail end of the first beta-testing phase to curtail the ways a player can add regular friends to their tally. That is, modify the system as “RealID or bust”. This is presumably to gauge interest in the feature. If Blizzard said this was the case, I can’t find it for you. So the message won’t be “They’re testing RealID and Facebook out.” It will now be “Facebook integration and RealID are mandatory!!!”
And then you get a Blizzard that thinks it can conquer Russia without conquering the the fears of its fans. How? Strip down StarCraft II and sell it cheaper.* Then charge a monthly fee. All to breach a country Hitler and Napoleon couldn’t conquer. To counter piracy. Should be an ominous footnote, right?
As of now, the game displays creepy messages. After a mid-May beta patch, the client proudly announced that “Play time has been added to your account! Game on!” So read the fine print: Monthly play is a Russian thing. Except for that part where the capability is clearly in every version of the game. No LAN? No chat channels? Now, “Starcraft II is going to be pay to play!!1”
Beta tests are not only designed to fix bugs. Beta tests generate hype. They convince people the finished product will be worth their time. Blizzard Entertainment believes this as well. In April of 2010, Blizzard Entertainment launched a Gamestop-Amazon “pre-order, get beta” promotion.* One month prior, Dustin Browder stated their goal was to maintain approximately 10,000 concurrent beta testers. That was achieved very early. Companies don’t contradict their lead producer’s desires unless word of mouth and pre-order tallies aren’t matching expectations. And currently, the most common defense of Battle.net looks like this:
“I know that SC2 beta is having problems and u guys r talking about should we buy the game or not but this is just a beta and u are playing it for free! july is yet to come and they are still working on the beta to make it more stable so do not complain about this problem. When this happens after the beta that is the time u can complain about the lag and balance problems” – Typical idiotic Battle.net forums post.
Here’s the problem with Battle.net 2.0: 2002’s Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos is one of the most underrated video games ever created. And that’s before you learn its online apparatus is the foundation for modern matchmaking, where Blizzard Entertainment should get royalties every time you brag about your Xbox Live Trueskill rating. (Then again, I shouldn’t be giving Blizzard ideas right now.)
Here’s how Warcraft III matchmaking worked: Everyone starts at level one. The maximum level is fifty. You play players within six levels of your own. Win five games, gain a level. Lose five games, lose a level. The penalty for losing is reduced during levels one to nine. Thus, players who win half their games will become level ten.
It was simple and transparent. That was the hook, and people choked on it. It turned Warcraft III ladder play into what ICCUP serves for Starcraft players, a stomping ground so competitive that climbing the food chain gave you a shot at the guys who played for a living. That’s what a good online gaming system does.
In my “Blizzard gives me a blank check to develop StarCraft II” universe, Battle.net 1.0 was the fourteen-year-old beta test for Battle.net 2.0. If StarCraft II was packaged with the Warcraft III online approach, there wouldn’t be a single person who would be disappointed. Underwhelmed? Maybe. But they wouldn’t be burning cars in StarCraft message boards like they’re doing now. And right now, there is not a single attempted accomplishment of the Battle.net 2.0 service that draws upon its predecessor. All of the omissions play into a narrative where Activision-Blizzard “doesn’t care about their fans anymore”.
Even without these issues, StarCraft II is a marketing nightmare. It is the sequel to a twelve-year-old computer game, a beacon in the forgotten era of Deus Ex and Baldur’s Gate. Why forgotten? “Computer gaming sucks ass. It’s true, the video game industry told me it! If you aren’t playing Modern Warfare 2 (latest in a series popularized on computers) on your Xbox 360 (manufactured by the producer of Windows) on Xbox Live (Battle.net, Yahoo! Games, The Zone, etc.), you’re a fucking pussy!” Console gamers have spent the last decade hearing just that.
The greatest test of skill in video games: A niche market.
So what market does StarCraft II fill? Remember the last hardest-of-the-hardcore competitive gaming to hit market? Come on, we’re not that removed from Street Fighter IV. Considerable hype? Check. Universal respect amongst gamers? Check. Sensational review scores? Check. Sales tally? In sixteen months, Street Fighter IV has sold three million copies. Modern Warfare 2 did that in twelve hours at retail. There is no guarantee StarCraft II shits money.
The company wants a real-time strategy game that appeals to your mom’s bridge club. I see a game that needs its “base” to succeed. In the grand scheme of things, Starcraft II is not just a video game. It’s an attempt to consolidate a competitive gaming scene under the banner of its creator. It’s another effort to consolidate control of what you can do with a computer game. And to do this, Activision-Blizzard needs the people who will create the next Defense of the Ancients, who scour Youtube for shoutcasts, who rattle off the CJ Entus roster like it’s their Dallas Cowboys. And you ain’t sold Battle.net 2.0 to us. You ain’t got our confidence. Instead, all we’ve gotten is an Activision-Blizzard that appears doomed to repeat its own history.
The company’s marketing contradicts the body language. It’s phony. Game designers are built to create really good video games. Right now, Blizzard game designers are being required to sell decisions to the public that they had no say in. So every time Dustin Browder, Greg Canessa, or Frank Pearce goes to bat, gamers are doing a collective “Okay, I can buy it, well, maybe, wait, uh…you’re full of shit.”
There’s precedent for this failing. We already got one “upgrade” on the traditional server model. Don’t remember that heavily-hyped, Activision-Blizzard-published sequel to a beloved game? Say hello to Modern Warfare 2 and IWNet.
Most computer-based shooters use dedicated server technology. Players connect to a server that handles the flow of game data. IWNet employs peer-to-peer matchmaking where one player becomes a “host” and data duties fall on his crappy broadband connection. This isn’t a problem on the similarly-modeled Xbox Live because thumbsticks don’t provide the same precision. Now saddle mouse-and-keyboard play with peer-to-peer latency. Remove the ability for players to purchase round-the-clock (i.e. dedicated) servers for clan warfare. Then tell them IWNet can handle a maximum of eighteen players, rather than the sixty-four they were accustomed to. I think we found the problem.
Infinity Ward’s damage control was pure insanity. A week prior to the launch of Modern Warfare 2, Best Buy hosted a developer chat where lead developer Mackey McCandlish turned the thing into a George Bush press conference. Why did the ability to “lean” (peek around walls) get the axe? McCandlish stated “[t]he game is not balanced for lean”. Is the computer version of Modern Warfare 2 a direct port of the Xbox version? Nope. McCandlish rightfully noted “PC has custom stuff like mouse control, text chat in game, and graphics settings.” (Knowing now that IWNet is a direct port of Xbox Live, this is even more hilarious.)
Modern Warfare 2 For The PC: Where Reconnect To Xbox Live Happens
Lead developers don’t say these things unless somebody is playing puppetmaster. So nobody was surprised when Activision said “We’re going to storm your headquarters with private security!” and Infinity Ward countered with “Pay us the royalties you owe us first!” Blizzard public relations is now the deer in the headlights for the Activision corporate strategy.
In August of 2009, it was announced the beta-ready StarCraft II would be delayed. Because of Battle.net 2.0. A couple of weeks later, Battle.net 2.0 developer Greg Canessa alluded that pseudo-LAN would make the cut. Perhaps Blizzard was listening to the angry mob? An extra year to prep New Super Battle.net Steam? The only questions remaining were “How could Blizzard possibly top the original Battle.net?” and “How many kittens and rainbows will this service shit?” Our confidence in this system’s ability to bring utility-and-or-enjoyment to our lives was immeasurably high.
And then we got this:
Someone on the internet does with one picture what it took me four-thousand words to explain. Maybe I should take note.
Air out of the balloon. Losing your horny. Crowd-killing three-pointer. The metaphor doesn’t matter, Blizzard put up an air ball. Blizzard Entertainment is protecting both children and company profits from the pedophiles, liberals, and pro-gamers that inhabit the internet without understanding they have just given all the incentive they need to anyone who wanted to jailbreak this game. And the company can’t sell the reality with a straight face.
Battle.net 2.0 reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons where Bart goes to Kamp Krusty. The warning signs were there. Bart trudged through sweatshops, imitation gruel, and death marches on the premise that Krusty would come. And then he did. But it was Barney Gumble in a clown suit. And Kamp Krusty burned. *sniff*
Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been to Yahoo! Games, The Zone, and Xbox Live, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together.
Wrong game to to play games with. Blizzard needed core consumers. Our confidence. You ain’t got it. To quote Icesong of the Battle.net forums: “Battle.net was fucking name brand. Battle.net wasn’t some fucking trash service you should be lucky to even have working, like ESO or The Zone, it was the fucking standard. We had Braums, they promised to give us Blue Bell and made us wait a year, and then gave us Kroger brand and called it gourmet.”
How depressing. I could go for some ice cream right about now. The way I want it.