In early 2009 I wrote about The Ghostcrawler Experiment. In it I asked the question if Greg Street's (aka Ghostcrawler's) unique communication has helped or hindered World of Warcraft. Today, five years later, he departs from Blizzard as their Lead Systems Designer amongst the cheers and jeers of the community. Now is a good time to revisit the question as the experiment conclude: was Ghostcrawler's presence good or bad?
It's my contention that overall his presence has helped not only World of Warcraft succeed but has also evolved the level of discourse in the industry. Prior to Ghostcrawler's prolific writing, developer communication was often scant for AAA titles. There'd be the canned press interviews (notice that gaming press interviews are almost always the same), the short blog or video post saying nothing revolutionary and just acting as a marketing tool, and a series of social media interactions that only showed off a few new graphics.
While Ghostcrawler was not the first game designer to provide an abnormal level of insight behind the scenes, he is the largest and most public. The stage given to him was gigantic, and he took control of it unlike few people could. Ghostcrawler's words, quite literally, reached more people than the nightly news some days. Tens of millions tune into the Warcraft media sites for BlizzCon, and he was front and center with the nerfing of paladins.
But in all this attention, there's a central theme to Ghostcrawler's discourse, and a theme that resonates well with the player base. He's a professor, the cool one that you'd like to have a beer with while watching the game at the bar. He doesn't talk down to players, he isn't afraid to get into deep philosophical discussion, but at the same time he has a wit that lets him smack down the grandest of trolls. It's through this style that he's been able to connect with the community.
To answer our experiment, we must look then at if not only his presence was good, but if his design matched his musings. A good presence in the community should be measured not by the popularity of the person, but by the long lasting positive social impact they have. Similarly, a game designer's success shouldn't be measured by how many units the game sells, but by the innovation and creativity he brings to the table.
In all these aspects, from both the public view we have of Ghostcrawler and the internal (and private) one we've heard about, he's succeeded.
His community presence fundamentally altered the view of Blizzard. He personalized a game that is played by millions of players. His interaction with the fans brought the game down to an individual level, where a single person could have a huge impact. He was approachable and friendly -– he was interested in having a discussion and listening to what you thought of the game. Few public figures have such attitudes.
As a game designer Ghostcrawler revamped and refined a system that continued to age. In a game in which the core systems were developed over a decade ago, the challenge was to modify and expand the design to match modern systems (which seem to change every couple years). While it is a fair criticism to say that Ghostcrawler was around for the loss of millions of players, it's also equally true that he was there during the ascent of WoW. He began working for Blizzard during The Burning Crusade and presided over Wrath of the Lich King – the very time that many in the community consider the golden years.
Ghostcrawler's presence in the World of Warcraft elevated the game to a new level. He lead the team that designed the core of the gameplay we're familiar with and has helped WoW become of the longest-lasting success stories in the industry. In his departure, as any good leader ensures, he leaves behind a remarkably capable group of individuals that will usher WoW into the next decade of its life.
Wherever Ghostcrawler goes to he's guaranteed to positively impact the game. The current experiment is over, and it's been a success. The only thing left is for the torch to be picked up by future designers in WoW and carry forward the level of personal engagement and discussion the community has come to expect. Will someone step up and do it? We've seen some do so now, yes, however only time will tell the true success of such attempts.