Q&A: Greg Street, 'World of Warcraft' Lead Systems Designer (Pt. 2)

In part two of our interview with "World of Warcraft" lead systems designer Greg Street, he discusses what it takes to be a game designer and what we can expect from "WoW's" latest expansion pack, as well as MMO games in general. If you missed part one of Game Cache's Q&A with street, you can find it here.

The fourth "World of Warcraft" expansion pack, "Mists of Panadaria," just went into beta testing. How is that going so far?
This is a really fun time in the project for me. Once we get something in beta, there's enough stuff in there that players can try it out and there's still time to make changes. We get to find out are they having fun? Is the new stuff easy to understand? Are the dungeons interesting and fun? Is there anything in there that's redundant? So we have time to react and do things about it. It's different once we've gone live. We can still make changes, but changing things on players in a live environment is like pulling the rug out from under them. It is a fast, iterative process though and I think both the players and developers are bought into that.


Do you find time to play the game just for fun? Does it always feel like work to you?
I still play "WoW" all the time. It feels so different when you're playing as a player versus a developer. As a developer I can jump in and cheat and fly around and give myself any gear I want, but as a player it feels really different. There's such a sense of accomplishment when you advance in the game as a player. It would be hard for anyone who worked on the game not to play a fair amount. You'd just start to lose touch with the players and not see what needs to be improved.

Is there any anxiety about going back to your alma mater and getting on stage?
Unfortunately, it's been so long since I went there, even the professors I had at the time have moved on. It's not like I get to see them. It's a whole different place, it even looks vastly different. But it's not hard for me. The first time I got on stage at BlizzCon, someone pulled me aside right beforehand and said "there are 16,000 people out there." Once you do that it's hard to have stage fright ever again. I think it's mostly going to be a Q and A thing, so the toughest thing is that there will probably very hardcore "WoW" players there asking questions, and there will be a few people who only have a vague concept of what a videogame is.


What would you tell someone who wants to be a game designer like yourself? What steps would you take if you were just starting out right now?
There's two or three different routes I'd go. One is to get together with a buddy who can code a little and make an iPhone game. It doesn't need to set the world on fire, but it shows that you can make decisions and see a project to completion. So many amateurs start working, then get bored or distracted. Seeing someone finish a project is huge. I would also become super active in the gaming community online. We've hired people who ran fan sites, and they've become spokespeople for our games in their own right, by corralling peoples' attention just through being a superuser. Blizzard in particular promotes a lot from within.

We have had people people in quality assurance or customer service who get a chance to get a promotion in game design. So just getting in somewhere and not necessarily working in design when you get there is another way to go. Increasingly, there are college systems to teach game design, but that wasn't really around when I was coming up. There are all these new possibilities in education where a professor and group of students have an outlet to easily design a game for a mobile device.

So having those tools readily accessible makes the entry point a lot easier for budding game designers, but maybe harder to rise above the crowd?
Yeah, but it's also made it easier to show how good you are. We used to have to say, "send in this dungeon you made from Dungeons and Dragons," or "send us this short story you wrote" or even a board game they designed. The tools just weren't there for people. Nowadays you can make a Machinima video, create a mod or a UI add-on, or import your own textures into "Skyrim." It's a lot easier to show people how competent you are.

What traits does a good game designer need, what should people be honing if they want to get into game design?
Creativity is the easy part. Players assume that it's 100 percent creativity when really it's more like 20 percent. We like to say that good ideas are cheap, but getting them to completion is the hard part. It's really easy for other people to shoot holes in your idea if you haven't thought through to the all the ramifications. Senior designers poke holes in own ideas.

What other skills should future game professionals be honing?
Communication is huge. I'm not a programmer or an artist. I don't know how to write C++, but I know how to talk to programmers and artists, and explain what I'm looking for in an end product. You have to know how to ask for something without telling them how to do their job.

It's also important to be thinking like a designer instead of a player. A lot of the stuff we get is just people basically campaigning to have their player be more powerful. They don't think about the long-term about how that's bad for the game. All of the things they want to work on are for their selfish desires as a player. You also have to be a huge consumer of games. Anyone we've interview, we ask them what games are you playing now, what are your favorite games of all time and why? What flaws have you found in them?

I'd ask the same of you if you don't mind.
Sure. Recently I've played a lot of "Mass Effect 3," the latest "Assassin's Creed" game, "Kingdoms of Amalur," I think I mentioned "Skyrim," too. "Arkham City" was really great as well. I play a lot of the console games just to keep up with what's going on. All-time I really love "X-COM," "Civilization," "Doom" was great, too. Obviously "StarCraft" and "Diablo."

Everyone there must be excited for "Diablo III."
Oh yeah, I've been playing it for a while now, but I'm excited for it to feel real. For everything to stay around and not wonder if stuff will be in the next build. I'm worried we're not going get a lot of work done on "Mists of Pandaria" once "Diablo" ships!


What do you think is next for the lifecycle of MMOs? Gaming in general seems to be more and more about connecting to other people, and MMOs are obviously well-suited for that.
I think the social thing is obviously huge. Players are really used to being connected to all their friends, all the time. When I first had email, I'd check it once a day, just how we treat regular mail. With Facebook and things like that you could check in on what's happen every second, so now we're dealing that level of connectedness. We haven't been great at keeping "WoW" outside of the game itself. We're a little behind the ball and there's a lot of room to grow in terms of using social mobile to enhance the game experience.

The truth is that most of the MMOs that come out now, basically trying to do what "World of Warcraft" did. These games costs so much money and time to make, so publishers are scared of doing anything besides what's been proven to succeed. These games have to be smash hits. All those games unfairly get compared to ours, which is an eight year-old game. If I was at another company I wouldn't be trying to compete with "Wow," I'd be trying to figure out what the next thing is going to be. It'd be scary, and a big risk, but once that happens, whoever does it, it will be super exciting.