Developer Appreciation from the Past – The Legacy of Ghostcrawler

For a second post for developer appreciation week, and as a lead-in for a planned third part, I want to dive into the past and discuss a developer (well, designer) that I think set a bar that the game in question has not yet recovered from having set.

Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street is something of a mythologized figure in gaming and MMOs. A marine-biologist who found his way into games through Age of Empires II, before moving to Blizzard during The Burning Crusade and going on to be near the top of the design team of WoW in Wrath of the Lich King, where he became infamous for engaging with the community actively and openly via the forums and later on Twitter.

Ghostcrawler is something of a legend not because of any thing he did, but because of all the things he was blamed for by the community, a trope which continues even today on his new game home of League of Legends. To hear the forums tell it, at the time, he was responsible for buffing his favorite classes, nerfing ones he didn’t play, making raid content awful, easy, too hard, trying to kill the game, making the game only for himself, etc. A seed to plant for tomorrow – a lot of these things are said of Ion Hazzikostas too, which is…interesting.

However, to sane players, the legacy of Ghostcrawler is open communication. When things in the game were being changed, he’d often lead the charge of explaining why, trying to communicate the design decision and consolidate feedback into the threads he had made his presence known in. Players might not agree with him – and often wouldn’t, in fact – but at least the change was discussed in clear and often plain terms. The presence of the Blue Post tracker on many fansites started with Ghostcrawler, as means to try and find the threads he had posted in.

The thing about Ghostcrawler is that his engagement was odd at the time and almost unnecessary, yet has set something of a precedent. MMOs (most games, really) to that point, had their top designers and developers under lock and key, communicating solely through games publications via interviews and exclusives, while the role of a community manager was to be the voice of the game to the playerbase at large, with nearly no developer discussion directly happening on a public forum. Ghostcrawler saw the forums as something of an opportunity, and what I found interesting about his engagement is that for all the vitriol directed at him, his involvement kept players engaged too. These days, most of us writing about WoW (or most other MMOs, really) are left to hypothesize or extrapolate the reasoning for given changes based on what we can see in game. We’re all effectively guessing at the reasons why a given change is happening, as many of the reasons why things are changed aren’t shared publicly.

Ghostcrawler had thousands of posts and tweets sharing the reasoning behind nearly every major change made to the game during his time near the top of the team. It could very well be rose-colored glasses, and I would hesitate to claim he has much of any role to play in the statistic I am about to rattle off, but under his stewardship, the game added nearly 4 million players and kept a lot of them until into Cataclysm – which was, to be fair, also under his stewardship. However, it is worth stating that the game maintained a fairly high level of player retention until his departure in late 2013.

The team since then has shuffled to attempt to fill his shoes, with livestreams, “developer insight” blog posts, and the @WarcraftDevs Twitter account. All of these have some traction, but the problem is that in many cases, these methods fail to feel like sincere, live interactions. Ghostcrawler would respond to nearly anyone, even trolls, and wasn’t above dressing down a troll while answering the question or reframing it in a useful way. Interactions with him felt off-the-cuff and real in a good way – which maybe is a manufactured perspective, but I felt like he was often speaking candidly and wasn’t afraid to say something out loud and then have to correct or adjust later if he was wrong.

The bar he provided has not been met by any developer since then on WoW, and even the high-touch interactions of a developer like Yoshi-P doesn’t match the Ghostcrawler level. The current WoW team seems to have a conflict aversion, avoiding trolls and discussion of contentious decisions. WarcraftDevs is fairly quiet, developer insight blogs are largely saved for PTR changes or major topics, live Q&As are heavily filtered, and the mode of communication from the modern team is best described as “sterile.”

Ghostcrawler left to take on the design challenge of League of Legends, a game that is…not my cup of tea, but has challenges that play to one of the core roles that Ghostcrawler had at Blizzard – balancing gameplay, although across dozens of champions instead of across 12 classes. Since then, the WoW team has struggled to communicate a lot of their design philosophy publicly, with the most recent snafu being the Azerite systems launched with 8.0. I can’t imagine what Ghostcrawler would have said about such a system, but I would bet on the response being substantially better than what the team actually put out on the issue.

Since leaving the WoW team, Ghostcrawler is often held up as an example of the better way things used to be for World of Warcraft, even by those that often taunted and trolled him relentlessly. It is a very good example of not knowing what you have until it is gone – while his answers could be perceived by some as patronizing, too simple or overly explanatory, I think having that is better than the current state of communications from the team, where we have nearly nothing and the individual team members that are well known have retreated back into giving their information via more protected mechanisms like fansite and magazine interviews. When the team has responded to fans directly, like last year’s Reddit AMA, the answers given manage to not say very much – acknowledging that players feel pain, but not proposing a way forward out of that pain.

Outside of his interactions with the WoW community, his Tumblr blog actually has some really insightful and interesting posts breaking down game design, which included ideas that fundamentally changed how I look at games.

The current team has an unenviable task, with a difficult bar to meet, but I do think it is safe to say that they have not really stepped up to the standard of community interaction that Ghostcrawler set.

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3 thoughts on “Developer Appreciation from the Past – The Legacy of Ghostcrawler

  1. I believe he once said that while he wasn’t an expert on any specific class, if he saw a lot of confusion or talk that needed clarification he would just go talk to that team, get the bottom line, and answer the issue. Good or bad, he made the effort. When they locked up the CMs, forced all employees into the “these are my views not my employer” stance, the game suffered. Ion comes off as a lawyer talking down to you, answering his bullet points.

    It takes a thick skin to deal with the negativity, but overall, it’s appreciated by most everyone. Nobody is happy to hear bad news about their class, or a part of the game they love changing. But it’s palatable to an extent when you knew at least why.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While I do think Ion has some issues with interaction in general (more on that next post!), I do think some of it boils down to GC being more affable and friendly in personality type. Ghostcrawler was always quick to jump out and take charge of a conversation, while the modern team all seems more introverted and willing to let things build up and pile-on before taking action. As someone who used to (and sometimes still does!) interact with people in that way, I think it comes from a place of wanting to head off potential conflict, but the cost is that it nearly always is perceived as forced silence and that makes it more offputting, which only makes things worse. GC sometimes got too far ahead of himself, but I usually felt that he had a general excitement for the game and the audience that made him like that, and it was hard not to be excited along with him sometimes – which is definitely lacking in the current team. I don’t doubt that Ion is genuinely excited about the features and content the team is making, but I think he often fails to communicate that well in a natural, exciting way.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. He is very good at public speaking. But he comes off in a way that you feel he is talking at you as just an account number, not to you as a person.

        Like

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