There are very few developers who are willing to wade into the forum of public opinion and not just spar with players, but actively engage them in discussion to sort out problems, concerns, answer questions and validate useful feed back.
And the lack of communication is something that has always bothered me. It’s the primary reason I started the Geek Infusion; to be that method of communication using my experience in PR and Communications to dissect the information being handed down from the development teams and publishing houses around the world.
There has always been one Dev, however, who hasn’t needed any help. If anything, he is the quintessential communicator and the guy you want leading your team and focusing player feedback.
He has worked on such illustrious titles as the revered Age of Empires, World of Warcraft and is now in the employ of Riot Games.
Those of you who are in any way connected to WoW will remember him fondly both for his crusatceous avatar and his lack of pony-giving. I am, of course, talking about Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street, who was kind enough to sit down with GI and answer a few questions.
I think you’ll like this one folks. Greg is exceptionally intelligent, and well spoken (I’ve had the privilege of hearing him at Blizzcon), and he really gets into the nitty-gritty in his answers.
So without further ado, I give you Greg Street!
GI: First, you started as a marine biologist. How does someone go from that to working on video games, and do you still get out on the water?
G: When I was in graduate school, I did a lot of field work. I spent a lot of time out on research cruises on the Gulf of Mexico, waist-deep in salt marshes, collecting samples on the beach and so on. After I got my PhD, I spent much less time out in the field and much more time sitting in front of a computer writing grant proposals and publishing papers. That’s what much of the work of a research scientist turns out to be. I looked around at my colleagues who just loved what they were doing so much and I realized that I just didn’t have that passion for science the way they did. I did have a passion for games, and at that time the game industry was just taking off and it was still possible to get a design job with no prior experience. Somehow I got a gig as a super junior designer on the Age of Empires series. I’ve been making games ever since, and I still have the passionate that I was lacking in science. I do still get out on the water — it makes a better hobby than a career, for me anyway. Incidentally, I still laugh when I see players say “That’s what happens when they have a marine biologist doing game design.” I’ve been a game designer for over 16 years. Lol.
GI: How did you mentally make the transition from WoW to LoL, and are there any over-lapping skills?
G: Certain skills translate really well, such as being able to run a large team, prioritize tasks and features, communicate with players, analyze large data sets, and so on.
In terms of game design specifics, I find that League development is much more like designing an RTS than it is an MMO like WoW. I’m back to the world where movement, positioning and responsiveness are so incredibly important. In some ways it feels like the old days working on Age of Empires.
Riot is also a different company than Blizzard, with different values and work systems. Neither is a right or wrong way, though for me personally, I find the Riot way more compatible with the way I think and work. It took some time transitioning as it does with any new job when you’re meeting a million people and figuring out how everything works. But because my values were so aligned with the company, I felt like I could start getting into the thick of things pretty quickly.
GI: What do you find is the best way to motivate your team?
G: Riot Games is fortunate that we attract really smart game designers who have a strong entrepreneurial spirit (and I’m using that term in the sense that they seek out and solve problems). Morale is high and overall, motivation isn’t something I have to spend a lot of energy on. I do try to provide a safe environment to experiment and even make mistakes, so that the designers don’t become too cautious. I also help remind them how many players are out there just waiting to see the next big thing from them. The response from players is always super rewarding. The team doesn’t want to disappoint League players, which provides plenty of motivation.
I’m a strong believer in the concept that providing autonomy, the ability to learn new things, and a sense of purpose are the best ways to keep your team engaged over the long haul. Riot has a lot of great perks, but research has shown that long-term those perks aren’t what keep people happy. It’s autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose.
GI: How important is communication with the player, and what is the best location and way to foster productive discussion?
G: Extremely important. Perhaps even the most important aspect of the job. At the two previous studios where I worked, I’d say my efforts to reach out to players were mostly tolerated more than encouraged. At Riot, communicating with players is expected and celebrated. I am held accountable by Riot (as I should be!) when we cause a breach in player trust about game design decisions.
Having open communication with players just accomplishes so much.You get direct feedback from players about the state of the game. You have the opportunity to explain your intentions and direction, which in turn improves the feedback you get from players. You can earn trust or even advocacy from players, so that when you do screw up (which, let’s face it, is going to happen) they are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you’ll eventually fix things and even help talk other players back down and provide context. (“I think what Riot was trying to do was X, and they just missed the mark. Have faith. They’ll fix it.”)
We use a lot of different ways to talk to players. Talking at conferences is one of my favorites, because you get to do it face to face. We also read Reddit and our own Boards religiously. I still use Twitter a lot (it’s @occupygstreet by the way), though I have found so far that League players tweet me a lot less than WoW players did. We also watch streams, read blogs, listen to podcasts, and other forms of one-way communication.
Strategies I use personally to try to foster good communication are to never talk down to players, never insult them, and never tell them that their opinions or feelings are invalid. I screw that up sometimes, but it’s a strategy I use overall. If players feel respected and when they believe you are being open and honest with them, it improves the tone of the conversation. I try to address a wide audience, even when answering a specific question, because I know my answers will often be read and shared more than the original question, and because I know there will always be more questions than I have bandwidth to provide answers.
GI: How do you manage to coax relevant information out of a player who has gone off the handle a bit, how do you bring the discussion back around?
G: It’s not particularly fair, but developers always have to stick to the high ground, even when confronted with players who are being antagonistic or vitriolic. I always tell myself that the players in question are just passionate and want to make the game the best it can be, even if they are struggling to represent their feedback in a professional way.
I try to never back down to players. If they are spewing hate, I gently remind them that I can’t do much with feedback that is nothing but insults. Specific, discrete and brief feedback is the most useful to us — that’s the sort of thing I can take into a design meeting. I’ve been doing this for long enough, that players more than likely aren’t going to be able to hurt my feelings, which stops things from elevating into a flame war.
Empathy is huge here. If you acknowledge someone is angry and has a right to be angry, they feel validated, which helps to diffuse the heat and get them to actually talk about problems and solutions rather than just venting. I think some developers are worried that if they publicly apologize or even admit a mistake, that it’s going to somehow erode trust of the community (or the trust of their bosses). A not-so-secret secret is that the opposite is true.
GI: If you were heading out for a day of sailing, which npc would you take with you from any game/expansion you’ve worked on?
G: My first response was Alexstrasza from World of Warcraft. She could heal me if I became injured and could fly us both away if I wrecked the ship. If we’re limiting the answer to LoL,I’d say Gangplank. It’s not clear to me if MF can actually sail a ship, and she doesn’t have that orange….
Once again, Geek Infusion would like to thank Greg for taking the time out of his week to answer our questions, we greatly appreciate it, and we’re looking forward to seeing where he and his team take LoL over the next while!
You can find Greg on Twitter here!
You can also find League of Legends over here!