Blizzard's director on Real ID, cross-game integration and BlizzCon

During GDC Online, Blizzard's project director Greg Canessa presented a "postmortem" for the latest version of the service, which enables online play and discussion for Blizzard's titles, most recently StarCraft 2. Speaking to Joystiq before the talk, Canessa was happy to discuss the recent past of the service with us, and talk a bit about the future. is in use by all 12 million World of Warcraft players, three-plus million StarCraft 2 players, and other users, but it recently came to the attention of an even larger audience when controversy arose over Blizzard's decision to implement Real ID, requiring users to identify themselves by their real names on Forum users did not respond kindly to the sudden and mandatory attachment of their real names to their comments, flames and LOLcats, and that part of the plan was cut, with Real ID still being implemented in non-forum features.

"The vision behind Real ID," Canessa said, "was to maintain parallel levels of identity: we have that sort of anonymous character level of identity, and then that Real ID tier that spans games, and there are incremental features that you get for being part of the Real ID community. The vision for that spanned games, got into cross-game chat and so forth. In reality, the in-game social suite was very popular, the cross-game chat that we did, the stuff within StarCraft 2.
"Of course it was less successful in the forums, you know. Some of the lessons we learned there -- maintaining some form of anonymity is important to gamers and the gaming community, hence the two-tiered model that we embraced ended up being the right call."

The forums, interestingly, were kind of a side note, to be honest. It wasn't really the focus of our efforts at all.- Greg Canessa

From the Real ID episode, Blizzard learned to emphasize additions rather than subtractions from existing users' feature sets, saying, "Loss aversion is a very powerful thing." Some of the forum furor, Canessa said, came from users reacting to the changes as a loss of the existing service, rather than the addition of new features. "People are used to using our forums in a very specific way, and once we wanted to change that, people viewed it as loss, and they reacted very differently to 'hey, over here, we're adding cross-game chat,' or adding a new social suite, or adding this cool identity-enriched presence, or this other stuff we're doing, so those two things are very different." Blizzard recently rolled out new privacy features, allowing users to opt out of much of StarCraft 2's Real ID social integration.

Though the majority of the outcry came from users of Blizzard's forums, Canessa said that "The forums, interestingly, were kind of a side note, to be honest. It wasn't really the focus of our efforts at all." He pointed to the positive reception to the new features by the BlizzCon 2009 audience, and to the announcement of Real ID-based features in WoW. " To this day," he said, "the in-game stuff and the cross-game chat is received very well by the community, they love it. That was our focus. Ninety ... eight percent of the work we've done is against all of that stuff, and the technical complexity, the design, and everything."

Canessa admitted that Blizzard could have allayed the problems by being more communicative about the changes. "We just didn't think it was as big a deal in terms of a story as the stuff we were doing over here. We miscalibrated; we miscalculated. We very quickly changed our position on it once we realized it was a serious issue for our community."

One of the strengths of is Blizzard's ability to tailor it to each individual game and tinker with the feature set per game. Unlike, say, Xbox Live -- "and believe me, I have a lot of love for Xbox Live, I worked on it for a long time" -- Blizzard isn't bound by the need to make a unified platform for wildly different games. "We can do custom RTS-specific leagues and ladder systems," he said, "or unlockable decals for your RTS units. We can do stuff like that other platforms can't." It's no surprise, then, that Canessa said Blizzard has no plans to expand to other Activision or outside games. Jokingly asked about introducing for Guitar Hero, he quickly said "nothing really to announce around that," followed by a protracted "Noooooo."

But Blizzard games interacting with each other to unlock bonuses? That's a possibility. "We definitely would love to head in that direction, and we have some plans." No specific plans yet, but Canessa noted that Blizzard wants to "kind of enhance the social and competitive and community features around each one of our games collectively in the Blizzard family," without affecting play balance in any game. "We believe there are ways to add on and enhance the individual game offerings through achievements, unlockables, social networking features and such, and do it in such a way that it doesn't unbalance any one of the games, or provide commercial advantages for owning all of them," he said. "That's not Blizzard. We don't want to create layers, 'Hey, if you buy all our stuff ...' That's not the focus."

We may hear about some of these new features at this week's BlizzCon -- we may not. We honestly couldn't get any announcements out of Canessa beforehand -- and with WoW's sales announced and Cataclysm dated, two major reveals are already taken care of. "We've always got a few tricks up our sleeve to talk about. we can't tell you now, that would spoil it!" Blizzard PR manager Bob Colayco told us we can expect "a good focus on Diablo 3," and Canessa noted the importance of BlizzCon as a gathering for the community rather than a news source. "We throw it every year because it is, really, an opportunity for our community to come together physically, and celebrate the games that they're so passionate about, be able to share their stories with us, be able to cosplay, participate in tournaments," he said. At least, it's an opportunity to do that for those lucky enough to get tickets.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.