A View From The Road: An Uphill Battle.net

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Having played the StarCraft II beta for almost two weeks now, I can conclude two things: One, SC2 is absolutely incredible. Two, Battle.net 2.0 is actually kind of cool. While none of the cross-game functionality is live yet (no chatting with my WoW guildmates as I’m prepping my Zergling Rush), its current integration into StarCraft II is sleek and stylish. Unfortunately for Blizzard, this is also why it probably won’t be quite as popular as Valve’s Steam client.

A quick aside: it’s true that thus far, no plans have been announced for Battle.net to be used for anything other than just Blizzard games. But let’s not forget that Valve’s ubiquitous Steam started out as a distribution system for Valve-related products like Day of Defeat and Counter-Strike, with third parties only getting on board a bit further down the line. Given its integrated cross-game socialization tools and use as a digital delivery network for Blizzard’s games, the idea that Blizzard will use Battle.net 2.0 as a potential multi-party competitor isn’t quite as far-fetched as you may think, especially now that its parent company Vivendi owns Activision, too. But for the moment, the idea – and all of the conjecture to follow – is just my own speculation.

Let’s be honest about Steam here: as convenient as it is for buying games, and as much as I love it, Steam is pretty clunky as a social tool. Its presence in any game comes as an overlay that you can theoretically bring up at any time with Shift+Tab (though it isn’t as responsive as I’d like), and it never quite feels like a cohesive experience. Whether I’m chatting with one of my Steam friends or just looking to see who’s on in order to wrangle up some rounds of Scavenge in L4D2, Steam opens up a separate window that I need to tab out of the game to access or check. Frankly, I might as well just be using AOL Instant Messenger.

In comparison, Battle.net 2.0 is 100% integrated into StarCraft II. The sleek blue sci-fi interface matches the StarCraft II UI perfectly, and I never once had to leave the game to check my friends list or to chat with one of my buddies (though if you can make small talk while micromanaging a desperate base defense, more power to you). At a glance, I can tell how many friends I have online, whether they’re real-life friends or just StarCraft buddies, what game they’re currently playing, whether they’re in a match or just socializing – you get the picture.

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Taken purely at face value, Battle.net 2.0’s social mechanics blow Steam out of the water because so much more time has been taken to integrate them into the game itself. I have no doubt that the blue-tinted sci-fi Battle.net I see in StarCraft will be red, black and heavily Gothic in its Diablo III incarnation. It’ll be similarly adapted to fit the aesthetic senses of both World of Warcraft and whatever the hell Blizzard is doing for its next-gen MMOG.

But that’s its weakness, too. If Steam looks like a clunky, unintegrated overlay, that’s because it is – but that means that it can be put into any game from crappy low-budget fare to mega-sized blockbusters like Modern Warfare 2 and be equally clunky, but still work. Blizzard has designed Battle.net 2.0 and StarCraft II concurrently, which explains why it works so well. Can you really imagine a small but talented studio like Torchlight‘s Runic having the time or manpower to spend on flawlessly integrating a third-party social network into their game when they could be spending that on, y’know, the actual game itself?

Steam works so well and is so popular because it can be slapped onto any game easily and painlessly. It’s a comparatively tiny amount of work for a comparatively huge potential audience; why wouldn’t you use it? Blizzard may ensure that Battle.net 2.0 works and looks perfectly with its own games, but unless something changes it will never get the number of games on Games for Windows Live, let alone the 1,000+ games currently available on Valve’s own service.

Of course, some could argue that a better experience is still worth the effort, and some third-party devs might go the extra mile to fully integrate Battle.net with their upcoming games. Besides, the number of games isn’t necessarily proportional to the number of users: Even with just WoW, StarCraft II and Diablo III, Battle.net 2.0 may not be that far behind Steam when it comes to the number of active users (Valve just announced Steam had 25 million users, WoW alone has “easily more than double – maybe closer to triple” its eleven million current subscribers).

Even if Battle.net 2.0 doesn’t ever have as many games or gamers using it as Steam does, I doubt Blizzard will be crying itself to sleep over it every night. As I said before, the company may not even be intending to take Battle.net in this direction – it might not be in the cards at all. But between Battle.net and Steam … well, constant revenue stream from taking a percentage of all Steam transactions, or constant revenue stream from World of Warcraft. Who wins?

John Funk actually runs the StarCraft II beta through Steam, just to make his Steam friends jealous.

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