In 1996, Battle.net — Blizzard’s online gaming service — launched alongside Diablo offering players the opportunity to socialize with their friends in-game. Now, after over 20 years, and over 20 games and expansions, Battle.net will be home to its first non-Blizzard game with the launch of Destiny 2. What seems like Activision Blizzard’s first step towards making a competitor to Valve's Steam is likely anything but that. To understand why, you have to look at what Battle.net is and what that means for Destiny 2, not what Destiny 2 means for Battle.net.
When Battle.net first launched, it was a tool to let Diablo players connect and play together online. It offered rudimentary social features, and the ability for players to join or host Diablo multiplayer servers. With each subsequent game Blizzard released, the developer continued to expand on what Battle.net was capable. Ladder ranking and copy protection (Starcraft), server-side character data storage (Diablo 2), and anonymous matchmaking for players of similar skill ranking (Warcraft 3). Battle.net 2.0, which debuted in 2009, brought all of these features under one application, giving players of World of Warcraft, or any Blizzard game, the ability to communicate with friends across games, servers, or characters.
The release of Diablo 3 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2013 allowed Battle.net to link with consoles for the first time, although in a very limited capacity. Then in 2014, with the release of Hearthstone, Battle.net expanded its connectivity to iOS and Android as well. That same year, Bungie released Destiny on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. Being a console exclusive let Destiny leverage Sony's PlayStation Network and Microsoft's Xbox Live services as a way to handle much of the heavy lifting for player communication and social tools. Important features like voice chat, friends lists, and party systems are already built into those services.
With Destiny 2 coming to PC, there aren't many digital distribution platforms that can do what PSN and Xbox Live can. Electronic Arts’s Origin and Ubisoft's Uplay are obviously not options since they are run by rival publishers. Steam would normally be the de facto choice for games not published by EA or Ubisoft.
However, a unique set of circumstances make Battle.net not only possible but a better solution for Bungie to use on PC. For one thing, Destiny 2’s publisher Activision, and Blizzard are both subsidiaries of the same company, Activision Blizzard. So while the two might be separate from each other, it certainly makes it easier for Blizzard to provide this service to a game within their company than one being made outside of it. But utilizing Battle.net also provides Bungie all of the functionality it needs for Destiny 2 now and in the future.
For Blizzard, Battle.net has been a selling point for its games. It’s a service that can be tailored to fit the needs and unique features of each new game. Steam, on the other hand, isn’t able to provide that sort of bespoke functionality for each of the 11,000 plus games that are available on the service.
Battle.net also not only gives Destiny 2 the same functionality as its console counterparts, but it also provides the potential to link the console and PC versions together. This was something Valve incorporated into the PS3 version of Portal 2, even allowing PC and PS3 players to play co-operatively together, but nothing came of any further Steam integration with console games.
Even if Bungie doesn’t want console and PC players to play against each other, it still creates the option to potentially let players move between the different platforms. This became major feature for the console versions of Diablo 3. It let Xbox 360 players move their characters to Xbox One, and PS3 players transfer to PS4, and for a short time it even let players transfer between Sony’s and Microsoft’s platforms. Being able to do something like that with whatever the next generation of console hardware ends up being, or even letting players transfer to PC or vice versa, would be a huge feature for Destiny 2, providing a persistent platform for players.
Of course, Battle.net is obviously more profitable for Activision Blizzard, since Steam and other digital stores would take a cut from every sale. Which makes it easier to justify porting such a large and costly game to produce like Destiny 2. That said, it’s unclear whether or not other non-Blizzard games might be released on the platform in the future. Blizzard says that it’s “potentially evaluating needs or opportunities for future Activision games.”
Destiny 2 on Battle.net was a surprising announcement -- but maybe the biggest surprise is how well they fit together.