At BlizzCon on Sunday we were fortunate enough to meet Rob Pardo, Blizzard's Executive Vice President of Game Design. He allowed us to put some questions to him about Battle.net 2.
Pardo made some interesting comments about how Blizzard views the PC and console game markets, saying that although all their games at the moment are on PC, they are open to doing console games in the future. But the key question for them is what platform a particular game makes sense on, and he clearly believes RTS and RPG games are best suited to the PC. "I think in the past we've made the mistake of taking certain games and porting them to whatever system, not necessarily thinking about how high quality a game the experience will be."
Blizzard still has plenty of faith in the PC gaming market, said Pardo, and "it sometimes confuses me why some developers have abandoned PC, because if you do a great PC game, it actually financially makes a lot more sense," because there are no license fees to pay to Microsoft or Sony as there are with console titles. "So I don't know why everyone's leaving it to us and Valve and a few others!"
However he conceded that it tends to be primarily multiplayer games that are successful on the PC platform now, because of piracy. Pardo does not expect Battle.net to completely stop piracy - "pirates are pretty clever guys, so I'm sure there'll be certain things they can do." He said this was why Blizzard has put such a lot of effort into Battle.net 2 - to "incentivise everyone ... to want to play on Battle.net." By making the multiplayer experience better on Battle.net, Blizzard hopes to discourage people from wanting to pirate their games.
When asked about the beta for StarCraft II, Pardo replied that he did not expect it to be as long as five to six months, rather it will be more like the WarCraft III beta which was three to four months long. But Blizzard is not yet saying when this might start.
Full interview below:
GP: Are you planning to do digital distribution on Battle.net, in the way that Valve does with Steam, so you would actually be able to go online and buy a copy of StarCraft II for download?
RP: Absolutely, we actually already have it - if you go to the Blizzard Store today, you can buy digital copies of our games and attach them to your Battle.net account. So that's something that will carry over.
GP: Cool, so that's going to happen with Diablo III as well obviously?
GP: The SC2 Marketplace concept, where map-makers will receive a portion of the revenue for premium maps they sell, have you decided what sort of proportion that's going to be and how you're going to distribute that money back to them?
RP: We're still working on that, so I don't really have any details about it yet. We're still doing a lot of research around how to do it and looking at some of the other communities that do this.
GP: What we saw with the Battle.net shots on the projector screen at the discussion panel, it looked like that was all StarCraft II themed. If I'm playing Diablo III on Battle.net, will that be customised with a Diablo III skin?
RP: What will happen is you'll still double-click on the .EXE of the game you want to play, and that will determine what the look and feel of it is. Once we get to Diablo III, if you remember what the (Diablo/Diablo II) user interface was like, you've got single-player and multiplayer, you've got certain buttons up there... so some of that functionality will come over but also there will be new functionality for Diablo III, like for example - and this is not a feature reveal or anything like that - but as an example let's say we want to do something like a WoW auction house in Diablo III, well that would be something that would go into the UI that you would have no need for in StarCraft II, right? So it will be customised to the game that you're in, and whichever game that you go in through will be what determines the (Battle.net) UI for that game. Which is also kind of how it's always worked in the past.
GP: Would it be fair to say that the integration of Battle.net is really the final nail in the coffin for any suggestion that you might be porting these titles onto console platforms? Because you obviously couldn't have Battle.net 2 working in conjunction with Xbox Live, it wouldn't really make a lot of sense...
RP: Well you know, if we wanted to we could put Battle.net on Xbox Live, Xbox actually is very open with services like ours. So to me it's always the same determination that we always have, which is determining does the game make sense? Because, you know, I think in the past we've made the mistake of taking certain games and porting them to whatever system, not necessarily thinking about how high quality a game the experience will be. So we definitely have the approach now of looking at the game in order to determine what system it should be on. It just so happens that all the games we've done recently have been on PC. But at the same time, we had the idea of (StarCraft) Ghost, that we felt was console-appropriate. It's unfortunate that it never came out, but that's kinda how we approach things. We come up with the game we want to make, and say, OK, what's the right system for that game? And maybe in the future there'll be games that we'll go to consoles on. So I think there are certain genres that work very well, like if you take first-person shooters, they port just fine.
GP: Can you give us some idea just how technically complicated Battle.net 2 has been to create, has it taken a lot longer than you expected?
RP: Yeah, I'd say that's true. There's a lot of reasons for that, I mean, it's not just the features - which I think are pretty ambitious - but also if you look at just how big our service has grown. So there was really an opportunity to re-engineer the service, from an infrastructure level. So I don't know if it's taken longer than I would have expected, but it's definitely taken a while and the (Battle.net) team's much, much larger than it was for WarCraft III.
GP: The 12 million (users) figure that was quoted yesterday for Battle.net, does that include the likes of smurf accounts?
RP: I think what that is - and I'm not one-hundred per cent sure, I'd have to double-check - but I believe those are all unique users who have logged in during a certain time period, probably in the last month...
Chris Evans: I can kind of back that one up, Greg (Canessa) specifically referenced that in the presentation.
RP: Yeah, that's what I thought it was.
GP: That's very impressive! Do you believe that the integration of Battle.net 2 is going to stop all piracy of your titles?
RP: I don't know if it will stop it entirely, I mean pirates are pretty clever guys, so I'm sure there'll be certain things they can do. But I think it will be difficult and I think the best way to combat piracy is not so much trying to stop them as trying to incentivise everyone else to want to play on Battle.net. That's one of the reasons we put so much time and effort into coming up with these compelling services and features, because you're not going to be able to get that someplace else.
GP: If when StarCraft II is released it sells just as well as a top of the range triple-A console title, something like Gears of War for example, if the sales figures are as powerful as that, does that just mean that everyone else isn't really doing PC gaming right?
RP: I don't know if I would say everybody else, I think there's some companies that do PC gaming exceptionally well, like Valve would be a great example. It's just, I think there's a lot of challenges with the PC market for people. Single-player games struggle on PC because of the piracy challenges, so I think the games that you see do really well on the PC tend to be multiplayer games. To be honest it sometimes confuses me why some developers have abandoned PC, because if you do a great PC game, it actually financially makes a lot more sense, because you don't have to pay Microsoft or Sony, so cost of goods stays low. So I don't know why everyone's leaving it to us and Valve and a few others!
GP: With the map creation features and custom maps, will there be a feature where perhaps community members can advertise their own maps on Battle.net? Possibly even pay money to advertise a new map that they've created?
RP: I think that's a real possibility, it's something we've looked at. You know, we're still developing all the Marketplace screens and what that's all going to look like, and I tried to be as up front as I could about it not being there for launch. It's something we've definitely talked about.
GP: It seems like Facebook has pretty much won the war of the social networking sites. Will I be able to play a skirmish, and then output stats to my Facebook page? Are you thinking about that sort of thing?
RP: It's definitely something we're thinking about, but stuff like that would probably be a little bit further down the line. I think right now a lot of our focus is just trying to do everything for our service. But it is something we're really interested in doing, as you can see with stuff like (WoW) Mobile Armory. So we are trying to look at these peripheral areas to be able to link better to social networks and mobile, we want to do that stuff.
GP: Right - that was kind of going to be my next question - getting a Battle.net iPhone app, so you can shoot down the road to get some beer and keep track of when your guild's about to raid, that sort of thing?
RP: Yeah, we have so many of those ideas, it's just the major functions of the company are getting StarCraft II and Battle.net done. There's a few people out there we've got doing some of those sorts of things, but the list of things we want to do is gigantic (laughs).
GP: So do you think that we're still looking at at five- to six-month beta period for StarCraft II?
RP: It's hard to say, but I actually doubt that it would be that long. I believe WarCraft III was somewhere between three to four months, so I would guess StarCraft II would be similar to that.
GP: How many people have you got working on Battle.net 2 at the moment?
RP: Probably around 25, I think. It's hard to say exactly what the number is, too, because other people are in peripheral groups that help out, like the web team isn't included in that number.
GP: And you guys are hiring quite aggressively at the moment too. Is the majority of that going towards this new, unannounced MMO?
RP: It's actually pretty well spread, I mean just about every team has positions listed up on the web site. So Battle.net's growing, cinematics is growing, and I think StarCraft II still has a couple of positions open, because we still have a couple more games to make for that. Just about everybody's hiring. But yeah the unannounced MMO's got some postings up there too.
GP: Do you think perhaps next year we'll learn more about this MMO, possibly some kind of setting?
RP: I doubt it (laughs).
GP: Have you personally had much to do with Diablo III?
RP: My role on Diablo III is - I'm actually the Executive Producer, so I pretty much built the team, almost from scratch. We had like seven guys from Blizzard North left, so I was pretty involved with building the team out and making sure we hired all the right people. So early on I was really involved, and now the team's pretty stable and kicking a lot of butt, so I'm less involved, but I'm still the Executive Producer on the project.
GP: Was there ever any doubt that you were going to make Diablo III?
RP: I don't know if there was really ever any doubt, it was just a matter of when. It was kind of like that with StarCraft II, even though we didn't make StarCraft II right away, we kind of always knew that we would eventually do it, it was just a matter of time. But that's the way we approach what games we do make, we don't just make a sequel for the sake of making a sequel, we make it when we really have a great vision and idea to make it good.
GP: Is the Lost Vikings side of things dead completely?
RP: Umm... it's dead for now. There's definitely no ideas floating around on that.
GP: What is the Blizzard game that you've spent the most time playing and enjoying the most?
RP: I don't know, I haven't really logged the hours, but I've played all of them so much! Probably just for hours logged it would have to be World of Warcraft, you know, because it's still going and I played all the way back from pre-alpha all the way through to today. I logged on just a few days ago, so I'm still playing. But I played all the Blizzard games, even before I worked at Blizzard - I started in the industry at Interplay Productions, I was one of the WarCraft II champions at Interplay, and that's actually one of the ways I got known at Blizzard, because the guys started hearing about me! (laughs)
GP: Looks like we're out of time - thanks very much for talking with us.