Q&A: Greg Street, 'World of Warcraft' Lead Systems Designer (Pt. 1)

"World of Warcraft" Lead Systems Designer Greg Street addresses fans at BlizzCon 2011.
"World of Warcraft" Lead Systems Designer Greg Street addresses fans at BlizzCon 2011. (Thomas L Hicks, Blizzard)

Greg Street took an unusual path to being one of the lead developers on the most massive video game in history. The McDaniel College graduate returns to his alma mater on April 30 in a free event open to the public called "SmartTALK," where Street will speak about how his liberal arts education prepared him for his current role as "World of Warcraft's" lead systems designer.

We caught up with Greg to discuss his path to Blizzard and his role in engaging with the huge community of fans "World of Warcraft" has. Look out for Part 2 of our talk tomorrow.


How did you end up going to McDaniel College (then Western Maryland College)? Did you grow up around here?
I was living in central Texas and had applied to a lot of different schools. I hadn't actually heard of Western Maryland before, but my grandfather had gone there. So, as a favor I applied and didn't have to pay for the application fee because he had gone there. Once I started getting the materials seeing how beautiful the campus was, I started to seriously consider it. What I think ultimately drew me there is that unlike a lot of the other schools, they seemed like they actually wanted me.

Then you ended up back in Texas studying marine biology, correct?
Right. After McDaniel I was looking for graduate programs. I was a dual major, biology and philosophy. I went back to Texas, but to University of Texas, not near where I grew up. It's a big state. So I got my doctorate studying marine biology, then did a postdoc at the University of South Carolina. That's where I got a taste of what the rest of my life would be like; writing papers, grant proposals, not really spending time in the field near the ocean. I was seeing all my colleagues competing viscously for tenure-track positions at major universities, which just seemed impossible.

And that drove you into game design?
Well I had always been a big gamer. I had a computer in high school, which not everyone really cared about then. In college we had a Nintendo in the dorm room that we spent a lot of time on. So I started working at Ensemble Studios and was an assistant there on "Age of Empires." I didn't really get RTS (real-time strategy) games at first, but after spending some time with it I fell in love with "Age of Empires" specifically because of the historical detail, the art style, just how charming it was.

"World of Warcraft" fans might know you as "Ghostcrawler" on the message boards. How did you get into engaging directly with players in that way?
That started back at Ensemble, just as a way to try and simply communicate directly with players. So often the players and the designers are separated by layers of PR people and community managers and everything gets diluted and filtered. Players want to give us feedback, and social media is a great way to have a conversation with normal people. Us being on there and interacting is how we get insight into our players. A single passionate user can steer the direction of the forums in a certain direction, but no one player can represent all 10 million. So it's great for us to actually ask questions when someone posts something and find out why they feel how they do.

From the gamer's point of view they like to know that they're being taken care of and that all the time and energy they invest is taken seriously and and not for granted. They're happy to pay a monthly subscription to play the game as long as we're going to continue polishing things, making new content, and recognizing the value of the customers.

Is your infamous crab avatar a nod to your time in Maryland?
Ha, no. I studied crustaceans, that was my thing. So at Ensemble I was "Deathshrimp." When I came to Blizzard, I just decided to change to a crab.

Are you aware of all the "Ghostcrawler" lore that's out there?
Ha, yeah a little, I know there's someone who does a fake Ghostcrawler Twitter account, that's kind of cool.

Yep, there's that, and have you seen Ghostcrawlerfacts.com?
I haven't, is that something different?

Yeah it's like those Chuck Norris jokes, but they're about you. For example: "Ghostcrawler once wrestled two sharks. Now he dual-wields them." There's also "Ghostcrawler once killed a dinosaur with a spreadsheet." There are dozens of these on here.
[laughs] I'll have to go check that out.

So is it challenging then to balance the player feedback against what your vision might be as a designer?
That's a huge challenge, once the players realise that a developer is reading their post. Some adopt this stance of "here's my idea and I'm not going to buy into anything you do until you listen to it." At Blizzard we like to make informed decisions, and ultimately it's in the player's best interest that a professional game designer is making those decisions. The feedback loop is good for getting info and answering questions, but it's not so great at designing cool things and working toward a consistent vision.

Speaking have which, have you been following what's gone on with "Mass Effect 3" and some of BioWare's community?
Yeah, it's been a really fascinating thing to watch. When you make a two-hour movie, and people like it, but they don't like the ending, they'll say "that was disappointing." But when you make three video games where players have invested 30-plus hours each, and the ending isn't good, they're mortified. That's been an investment in their life that now feel wasted, specifically because of what they did with it really rubbed a lot of players the wrong way. I could certainly point to lots of mistakes I've made that seemed good idea at the the time. The question is, should you cling to your artistic vision in the face of that? Obviously "Mass Effect" is much more story-driven, the kind of decisions I make are "how should healing feel in an RPG," "how quickly should players get a certain special item?"

It must be a little different because "Mass Effect 3" is a very final product that's almost like a movie. "World of Warcraft" is a little more fluid, isn't it?
Yeah it is a little different, but we certainly have passionate players who disagree with us vehemently all the time.

Speaking of which, have you ever had a chance to cross paths with "Red Shirt Guy"?
Yeah! I met him at BlizzCon last year. My side isn't really the lore and continuity, thankfully. But we made a mistake and he definitely caught it.

Eight years into "World of Warcraft"'s release, what is the goal for your team? Is it to keep the game fresh with new stuff, to make it more challenging as time goes on or to help it grow and make it accessible to new players?
Ultimately, the answer is "everything." We're in kind of a weird situation. We don't have a lot examples on how to do this. There aren't any games that have stayed this successful for this long, so we're a little paranoid about changing things too much. It won't benefit us at all to alienate our core audience to bring in new people. That's not a good business model. There are people who have been playing these characters for seven or eight years. While we obviously want to keep bringing in fresh, exciting things along the way, but we need stay true to our roots.