Battle.net is the renown online multiplayer service for all Blizzard games and it looks set to change greatly with the impending release of StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty. Blizzard has gone in a new direction with this service and intends to make it a social portal that connects all gamers that are using the Battle.net service, rather than limiting them to connecting within a single game.
During the past few months I’ve been participating in the StarCraft 2 beta and gotten in a good sneak-peek at the current implementation of the new Battle.net. There’s no doubt about the fact that it’s still incomplete, with several promised features, such as an in-game shop/listing for custom maps, still missing. It’s likely that Blizzard will change a lot during the upcoming down time of several weeks, but I’d still like to talk a bit about this reinvisioned Battle.net.
So I’ll be going through the entire thing and highlighting its good and bad points, while speculating about some possible additions in the future. The new Battle.net service will not be a static thing, for Blizzard has indicated that this is just the first step on the path towards a unified Battle.net service. Blizzard’s desire to update and improve the service beyond ‘good enough’ has already been apparent during beta, which has seen several major Battle.net overhauls ranging from layout reworks to entirely new features being added into the mix.
It’s already possible to register an account for the new Battle.net, which utilizes an email address as the login rather than a chosen name. This account will be used for all games that utilize the new Battle.net service, which ensures that gamers no longer have to create a new account for every Blizzard game. There’s even a Battle.net website where players can register all their Blizzard games, including the old ones, and download them directly from Blizzard after registering a valid CD key.
Another important thing to note here is that these Battle.net accounts can be doubly secured in order to counter possible account theft. World of WarCraft’s authenticor application has now been expanded to encompass the entire new Battle.net service. This means that if you want extra security, then you simply download an application for your cellphone and tie it to your Battle.net account. This application then generates a random keycode every minute that is used secondary to the account password on the login screen.
There is one last new aspect to Battle.net accounts in StarCraft 2, namely the in-game account name and identifier. When first logging in with your Battle.net account you’ll be asked to fill in a unique account name and an identifier. The identifier is the name by which you’ll appear in game and doesn’t need to be unique, so you can have the same identifier as all of your friends. This allows players to always get the nickname they want, while maintaining uniquely identifiable accounts, because your reference in someone’s friends list would equate to account.identifier, like Game.drone. This all ties in to the new friends system.
A key feature of the new Battle.net service is that it connects gamers across different Blizzard games. If you have friends who play World of WarCraft, then you can add them to your friends list and talk to them in-game, while you’re playing StarCraft 2. This is done by sharing your RealID with these friends, which is the e-mail address you use for your Battle.net account. These players can then see and contact you in any Blizzard game you play.
In most situations you probably don’t want to share your email and full Battle.net visibility to people on your friends list, which is where the account name and identifier come in. Sharing the account.identifier combination with players allows them to add you to their friends list withing StarCraft 2, but nowhere else. Now it’s worth noting that the identifier system has been removed a few weeks ago, but judging by Blizzard commentary this is a temporary measure in order to promote the testing of RealID and Facebook friends.
Indeed, it’s possible to add friends via Facebook. The catch here is that they need to have a Battle.net account on the same email address as their Facebook account, which is unlikely. I haven’t actually been able to test it at all, because none of my Facebook friends have accounts for the new Battle.net.
There will be no LAN functionality whatsoever in StarCraft 2!
The problem with this new interconnectivity concept is that there is very limited use for this sort of thing, or at least for StarCraft 2 players. Without chat channels to keep people inside Battle.net and out of games, where the friends functionality cannot be accessed, there are very few conceivable instances in which you would spend time chatting with someone raiding in World of WarCraft or playing Diablo 3.
Which brings us to another problem, namely the lack of chatrooms in the new Battle.net. Chatrooms have always been a key feature of previous iterations of Battle.net, but now they’re nowhere to be found. This is not only detrimental to community building, because you don’t exactly chat much during intense matches, but it also makes organizing non-ladder matches and tournaments a lot more difficult. Supposedly there are forms of group and clan chat being worked on, but these will not be in at release and it’s unclear how exactly this will function.
More troublesome for competitive player is that custom games are hampered by fundamental flaws. It’s not possible to name a custom game for instance, which removes the possibility of making games with custom rules. Similarly there is no proper way to organize a private match, with no option to password protect a custom game. You can organize a private custom game by forming a party and going in from there, but anyone in your friends list can still join, which can also hinder competitive or simply private matches.
Another notable absence is LAN functionality. This has already been discussed to death, but still bears mentioning: there will be no LAN functionality whatsoever in StarCraft 2. It was previously indicated that Blizzard was working on pseudo-LAN functionality with authentication via Battle.net, but by all accounts this rectification looks to have been thrown out of the window. As it stands, the only way to play against (or with) other players at a LAN party is to login to Battle.net and create a party for online play.
Other upcoming features include challenge missions to prepare newcomers for online play and clan support.
A major issue with the new Battle.net service is region locking. In previous Blizzard games, except World of WarCraft, players could switch between realms (regions) to play against people from all over the world. This will not be possible in StarCraft 2 at launch. If you’d like to play with your American friends from StarCraft, then you’ll need to buy an American copy. Supposedly it is in the long-term plans for the new Battle.net, but that might take a while…
Thus is no automated tournament system in place yet. I’m fairly certain that they’ll implement this feature post-launch, because it was a very popular feature of WarCraft 3. I’m presuming that Blizzard intends to focus phase 1 of beta testing on ladder play so this might be a feature added in phase 2 or post-launch. It wasn’t a launch feature for WarCraft 3 either, being added sometime after the launch of The Frozen Throne expansion pack I believe.
Some other features are currently lacking, but will be added prior to launch or shortly thereafter. This includes an in-game digital shop, similar to Steam, for custom maps. Other upcoming features include challenge missions to prepare newcomers for online play and clan support.
The new Battle.net service would be much improved by the removal of divisions, while sticking with leagues.
A potentially good feature is the introduction of placement matches and a variety of leagues. There are five leagues (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond), which correspond to a certain level of skill. Players are placed in one of these leagues after playing a number of placement matches, which is currently 5 in Europe and 10 everywhere else. This is true for all modes of play, namely 1vs1, 2vs2, 3vs3 and 4vs4. These game modes can be played with both pre-arranged and random teams.
The idea behind the league system is that Gold league players will not be competing against Diamond or Bronze league players, which should make the matchmaking system a lot more balanced. The problem is that it doesn’t function as intended during beta, because the player counts are too low and it’s set to go for speed rather than viable match-ups. As a result, low-league (Bronze, Silver, Gold) players have an 8 in 10 chance of playing against high-league (Platinum, Diamond) players, who tend to be much more active participants in the beta. This should not be the case in the retail version.
A more fundamental problem with this league system is that each league is divided into many hundreds of divisions. As a result you can be ranked #1 in Diamond league, yet have no clue as to how you stack up against the hundreds of other players who are ranked #1 in Diamond league. It’s a confusing and delusive system and the new Battle.net service would be much improved by the removal of divisions, while sticking with leagues. So a player who ranks #1 in Diamond, would rank #1 in all of Diamond league and everyone in Diamond league can compare their progress relative to that player.
There are also numerous smaller bugs that need sorting out, such as how accepting game invites while watching a replay doesn’t work (everyone else in the party gets to play and you’re still watching your replay) and the game tends to crash if Battle.net goes down. These will almost certainly be fixed prior to launch. It also appears as if custom maps are currently severely restricted in size for custom games at a maximum of just 10MB per map, which will hopefully be increased before phase 2 of the beta.
I’d also like to see multiplayer replays be added. After losing a 2vs2 match it would be nice to be able to watch the replay together with my teammate. It would also be helpful for cooperating shoutcasters, who can then be certain that they’re watching the replay at identical times while casting. I do have to mention that the current replay system is fantastic. There’s a very useful dropdown menu in the top left corner during a replay, which can display all sorts of useful statistics such as army size, resource collection rates, production queues, actions per minute, etc.
More welcome additions include achievements, which unlock account portraits and in-game decals which are displayed around your buildings. And there’s the help menu, which provides an excellent in-game overview of all the tech trees and units per race. This even includes counters, so on the marauder page it says that it’s weak against zealots, zerglings and marines. It’s unfortunate that the Battle.net help menu doesn’t yet contain the same amount of helpful information, but its tips and basics of the game do provide a fair introduction. I’m positive that Blizzard will eventually include all the in-game information on the Battle.net help menu as well.
Blizzard will take the StarCraft 2 beta test down tomorrow for launch preparations and it will return a few weeks prior to launch. Hopefully these launch preparations will include an extensive Battle.net revamp, because there are still many issues left to be resolved and features to be added. Blizzard has at least indicated that they know the Battle.net service isn’t up-to-scratch yet and that they will be working to improve it both prior to and after launch.
As it stands, the only possible conclusion to make is that the new Battle.net isn’t as good as its predecessors. It’s up to Blizzard to change that in the coming months and with a wealth of constructive criticism out there, the goals should be clear.