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.
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.
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 should 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.