Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Ghostcrawler Legacy, Part I

Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street has announced that he is leaving Blizzard for a new opportunity. Ghostcrawler has been with Blizzard for about six years now, and was an important part of Blizzard's interaction with the community. This is a look back at Ghostcrawler's tenure.

Ghostcrawler essentially held two different jobs at Blizzard. He was the Lead Systems Designer and he also became the public "face" of the WoW dev team. Let's take a look at each aspect separately. In this post, we'll look at the public nature of Ghostcrawler's interaction with the player base.

Public "Face"

Before Ghostcrawler, devs really did not interact with the playerbase. All communications would go through the community managers or public relations people. As a result, communication was rare and somewhat opaque, tending not to be specific. Under Ghostcrawler, that changed. He was willing to talk specifics, to talk math with the theorycrafters, and outline Blizzard's reasoning on issues.

There were three primary mediums in which Ghostcrawler communicated. Each had their positives and negatives. This is how I saw each medium,.

In talking about each medium, I'm going to reference a technique called 5 Whys. In engineering circles, this concept is used to find root causes of problems. X happened. Why did X happen? Because A. Why did A happen? Because B. After asking Why about 5 times, you get to the true cause of the problem. I find that this technique explains a lot about what Ghostcrawler got right and got wrong when interacting with the player base.


The first place Ghostcrawler started posting was the WoW forums. He would jump in threads and answer questions, or provider the developers' point of view on certain topics.

I regard this era as the best era of communication with Ghostcrawler. His posts could go into detail, and convey some of the nuance and trade-offs. Because he was always responding to threads, his posts were always directly on point for player concerns.  In terms of the 5 Whys, I felt that these posts would often cover the second through fifth Whys, the root causes, and not just the surface cause. Almost every Ghostcrawler post was insightful and worth reading.

However, Ghostcrawler's presence warped the forums. People ceased to make threads to communicate with other players, and made threads to "bait" Ghostcrawler, to get him to respond. While Ghostcrawler's posts were always worth reading, the rest of the forum often became worse, and more noise than signal.

Dev Posts

After a while, Ghostcrawler gave up on the forums and tried writing regular columns on the WoW site. While these were okay, they suffered from two problems. First, Ghostcrawler wrote at too high a level. Essentially, he would talk about the problem and the first Why. But what we really cared about were the deeper Whys. Dev posts need a certain level of detail, of getting into the weeds and nitty-gritty. Ghostcrawler's dev posts often eschewed detail and talked about changes as high-level, obvious concepts.

The second problem was that Ghostcrawler was no longer responding to players. He was initiating the conversation. Thus he wrote posts on topics that no one really cared about, or that were obvious to the player base.

The best posts that Ghostcrawler wrote in this era were the ones where he went through the patch notes and explained the reasoning behind each change.

The lesson I would draw from this era is that dev communications are best when they start from concrete detail and examples, rather than high-level concepts. As well, they need to respond to player concerns, not what the devs think are player concerns.


After a while, Ghostcrawler moved to Twitter. Here, pretty much everything he posted was a response to a question from the community. But the major problem was that nothing he tweeted was worth reading!

I don't really fault Ghostcrawler for this. I think it was just a limitation of the medium. 140 characters are not enough to get into details, into nuance and trade-offs, to talk about the deeper Whys. Most of his responses are facile "first Why" responses.

In my mind, Twitter is a good medium for quick answers, to point to better sources, or to be snarky. It is not a good medium to try and convince people of things. You need long form writing to be able to do that.


Ghostcrawler created a new template for dev interaction with the player base. He showed that he could talk reasonably to us, to outline the devs' thoughts on issues, and that the players would respond favourably to this. He may not have been perfect ("Nerf Ret paladins TO THE GROUND!"), but he made talking about the game and changes far more insightful and interesting than they were previously.

Unfortunately, Ghostcrawler could never capture the same magic as his forum posts. His two other attempts, dev blogs and Twitter, did not work. In my opinion, they failed because he was unable to reach the proper level of detail, to delve into the 5 Whys of issues.


  1. I'm curious now as to whose idea the "alternate reality/Earth 2" solution for the next expac came from.

    Obviously the development of WoD had been proceeding for a while before the announcement, but GC's exodus at this point in the critical path makes me wonder if the reception of announcement of WoD influenced GC's decision to leave.

    I also wonder where he'll turn up. They most likely have a non-compete clause for a certain amount of time, but it wouldn't shock me if GC turns up at another MMO's development offices.

  2. @Redbeard

    Some insight to the answers to all those questions have already been given, some even on Twitter!

    The original idea for WoD was for Garrosh to unite all the NPC races of Azeroth such as gnolls, centaurs, troggs, etc. into a Horde, and then someone came up with the idea of bringing back the old orc heroes on Garrosh's side. Then they had some debate on how to actually do so - one suggestion included Garrosh just straight up resurrecting them somehow - before they came up with the current idea.

    GC has also said that he knew he was going to leave Blizzard before Blizzcon, which means WoD's reception had nothing to do with his departure, and he's already stated that his new job is not working on an MMO - he's also stated that working on any MMO after WoW is bound to be a disappointment.

  3. I prefer the original idea, myself. That's the sort of thing that makes sense, in that all of the "leftover" races would band together under a common banner and seek to defeat the current factions. But naturally that would cause problems with yet another "Cata" style update to the Old World, and we know how that first one ended up.

    Maybe GC knew he was going to leave before Blizzcon, but if Blizz itself knew about it, they kept extremely tight wraps on it. Even tighter than WoD itself, it seems.

  4. Blizzard keeping GC's departure under wraps isn't that unfathomable. At my current company, most higher ups don't announce their departure to the rank and file under a few days before they go, and the folks that do know generally don't say anything that could potentially destabilize a release or announcement.

    Basically, there's no business justification for announcing GC's departure earlier, but there's plenty for keeping it quiet until that last moment.

  5. Love this 5 Why's process you mention. I think it cuts to the point much more efficiently than Six Sigma (a process flaunted but as far as I can tell unimplemented by my plant manager) so long as you're careful to remain objective and branch into multiple causes. And I love asking why, just never consciously thought to continue asking it down a causal path. Think it might just simplify what I've been trying to suggest for the last few months if management actually deigns to listen.

    Can't speak for GC, as I haven't kept up with the WoW forums or the "Blues", but I agree with you that the best communication a game company can entertain is transparent and detailed/low-level discussion with their community.

    I don't think there's a better medium than forums at this point. Can there be?

    Stellar communication is the first thing that caught my attention in the GGG forums and the primary reason why I'm willing (and continue) to support their development so heavily.. I mean, where else can you enter a dialog with the founders, directors, and/or devs at will after a company has made several million dollars? That's really impressive. And I don't know why other gaming companies don't seem to understand this - why even Blizzard is so generally closed to (and evasive of) their community.. so very legal.

    Anyway, definitely some good insight. And thanks much for the 5 Why's concept.. will bring this up at work w.r.t. solving some of they myriad of issues plaguing the facility - suggesting that they actually implement Six Sigma seemed rather counter-productive.