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No Country for Old Blizzard

One of the more… persuasive talking points when it comes to World of Warcraft is that there is an Old Blizzard and a New Blizzard. The Old Blizzard are the people responsible for the most successful MMO ever created, and the New Blizzard is everyone that is sailing the ship into icebergs. The evidence for such a dichotomy seems almost, well, self-evident:

Whiplash.

Whiplash.

Syncaine, who is much a fan of the two phrases, likes to point out that the breaking point between the Old and the New came in Wrath of the Lich King. From the graph, that is when WoW stopped growing. There are also a few philosophy changes that occurred during that expansion, such as the introduction of the fully automated LFD system, a full embrace of the Badge system, “bring the player, not the class,” and similar things.

Personally, I think Cataclysm marks a much more sensible breaking point, but nevermind.

As I said before, the Old Blizzard vs New Blizzard narrative is pretty persuasive. Which is rather unfortunate considering how it is factually incorrect: Old Blizzard never left. Below are the Credits screens from vanilla WoW and all the expansions, focusing on Lead Designers or Game Designers. I’m formatting it this way because it’s better than a table that won’t fit on the page:

Apologies for the formatting.

Apologies for the formatting.

The source is the Credits screen accessed from within the WoW client (Character Select screen // Menu // Credits), which appears to be the only way to access the names. Luckily, you do not need a subscription to the game to access it. I typed it all by hand after taking screenshots, so feel free to check my work¹. Alternatively, just look at this Google Docs spreadsheet.

Notice anything? Like maybe all the duplicate names? In the spreadsheet, I highlighted anyone credited as a Designer in vanilla or TBC and who went on to be a Designer in any other expansion². Of particular note is the fact that of the 20 Designers of TBC, 15 of them went on to be Designers in Wrath. In other words, 68% of the design team of Wrath came from TBC. This includes Tom Chilton and Jeffrey Kaplan, both of whom were credited as Lead Designers in both expansions (and Designers of vanilla WoW besides).

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Rob Pardo is the missing link!” He was, after all, the Lead Designer of vanilla WoW and TBC before seemingly falling off the design map. Well, allow me the distinct pleasure of destroying your revisionist narrative dreams once and for all. See, Rob Pardo gave a rather sweeping interview back in 2009, almost at the midpoint of Wrath. The link points to the 1st page of that interview because it’s still that good, but money shots are on the 3rd page:

We had all these suppositions, and as the years went on and we had more and more experience living with WoW as a live game, we realized that they weren’t just truths. They might affect a hardcore minority, but the people we saw weren’t really as hardcore as we thought they were. If we reduced raids from 40 to 25, we saw, it makes it more fun. You might have some hardcore players who get upset, but keeping people out of content isn’t right for the game overall. We mellowed sometimes, and realized we were wrong.

The other piece is that the WoW playerbase is becoming more casual over time. People who were hardcore into MMOs, they joined us first, but the people we’re acquiring over the years are casual. They heard about the game from a friend of a friend, and maybe it’s their first MMO – maybe it’s their first game. The game has to evolve to match the current player.

And what did Rob Pardo think about the much maligned LFD system?

That segues in nicely to this question: Cross-server gameplay. It’s convenient, but do you think that it runs the risk of destroying server communities?

To be completely honest, [the Looking For Group tool] is a feature I wanted in the game when we launched the game. I was really unhappy when we didn’t have it when we first shipped, so it’s been 5 years coming. Maybe it wasn’t the number one thing I wanted in, but it’s definitely one of the top 5 things that I wanted in the game. It’s actually our third try at a proper LFG tool, and this one gets it right. With the Meeting Stones, we didn’t put enough attention into it, we just tried to jam it in, and people didn’t use it. The second tool, it ended up being compromised feature – we tried to cater to too many different audiences.

As for the community question, I used to … I think that 5 years ago, I would have answered this question differently than I would today. I was all about preserving the small realm communities, but already… Well, look at Battlegrounds, it’s a good case in point, because it doesn’t diminish social relationships that matter on a realm. Sure, everyone can bring up “that one guy” that they know, the ninja looter who stole his stuff. But I think your real community isn’t the whole realm, but it’s your guild and the friends you group with, and the cross-server LFG won’t undermine that at all. The Dungeon Finder – by the way, I think we just renamed it the Dungeon Finder last night – We designed it in such a way that it serves the need for guilds and groups and friends. You don’t have to always [join a Pick-Up Group]. If there are four guildies in a group who just need a fifth, they can do that. You can also use it if even you have a full five-person party.

Or, you can do it if you’re on your own and just want to run something, so I don’t think it diminishes it at all.

*mic drop*

*picks mic back up*

The argument I’m making is not necessarily that there hasn’t been a decline in quality WoW game design over the years. The argument I’m making is that there isn’t an Old Blizzard vs New Blizzard dichotomy. Tom Chilton has been at the head table every expansion. Jeff Kaplan was still Lead Designer for Wrath, and while he was absent after that, it was because he became the Game Director for Overwatch. Rob Pardo didn’t stick around for Wrath… as a designer. Instead, Rob Pardo became Executive Vice President of Game Design for Wrath and Cataclysm. And, don’t tell Syncaine, but Pardo is also Chief Creative Officer and Executive Producer of Hearthstone.

So who exactly is Old Blizzard again?

The alternative title I was going to use for this post was “the M. Night. Shyamalan Effect.” For those that might not know, he was the Director and Screenwriter to an enormously successful and critically acclaimed film called Sixth Sense – it is a cultural touchstone film still used in comparisons today. His follow-ups included Signs and Unbreakable… followed by 13 years of utter garbage. If you choose to believe in a narrative of WoW’s decline from quality, it is this comparison that fits. We would not say “Old Shyamalan vs New Shyamalan,” and we shouldn’t do the same with Blizzard.

¹ The one conspicuously missing name is Greg Street, aka Ghostcrawler. Greg Street is listed as Lead Systems Designer in Wrath, Cata, and Mists, and that role undoubtedly has something to do with design. However, the position doesn’t exist in vanilla, TBC, or Warlords, and there is another “Additional Designers” category I didn’t include either, simply because I can’t be sure what they do. In any case, they always say design is a collaborative process, so even if Greg Street is the cause of it all, that doesn’t get “Old Blizzard” off the hook.

² I have since color-coded all the designers who had carryover between expansions, and the results are interesting. For example, all but one of the designers from Wrath came over into Cataclysm, making up 91% of the final total. This is both baffling and makes perfect sense, assuming The Shyamalan Effect.

Ghostcrawler’s Unexpected Exit

Greg Street is stepping down from Lead Systems Designer at Blizzard to “pursue an amazing opportunity.” It is hard to imagine that there is a better opportunity out there to pursue than being a Lead System Designer for a billion-dollar MMO, but I suppose we’ll see what exactly that could be soon enough. My money is on it not being a switch back to marine biology.

No doubt there will be a lot of people out there whose alternate post title would be “Christmas Comes Early” or somesuch. Certainly, the small corner of my gaming soul that remains a paladin is cheering vindictively. “Hybrid tax my ass!” But before the rest of the internet drowns itself in schadenfreude [edit: too late], I think it’s important to look back on what Ghostcrawler actually accomplished. Namely, if not actually throwing the doors open to the Ivory Towers of game development, at least coming to balcony and engaging with us rabble down below. As I mentioned early last year:

I am not sure if I mentioned it before, but I genuinely enjoy having Ghostcrawler around. He may be the face of the B Team, he may be a straight-up design troll in some respects, but hey… at least he has a face, yeah? In a world of Bobby Koticks and David Reids and faceless community managers, I am all for more Greg Streets and Curt Schillings, even if they get things wrong.

People seem to forget how WoW actually was back in 2008. “Back when it was good, you mean?” Yeah, back when designers thought a 25%-30% DPS difference between pure and hybrid classes was the epitome of balance. You can point to TBC as some golden age of pre-LFD design, but you can’t tell me some of that shit wasn’t dumb, arbitrary, and had nothing to do with why WoW was “better” back then.

And, worse, it was so often opaque and unexplained. The devs would come down from the mountain with patch notes written on clay tablets and that was that. Ghostcrawler literally changed all that. Even when he was getting it so wrong it hurts, the fact remains he has pretty much been the sole voice on the other end of the table regarding design and direction of pretty much any MMO then and since. Or maybe I’m mistaken? Does Guild Wars 2 or SWTOR or The Secret World or any of the rest have a lead designer come out and explain their thinking damn near every patch?

So as the confetti settles on the remnants of your Thanksgiving plate, I hope you’re sober enough to take stock of what we’re likely losing. Love him or hate him, Ghostcrawler was at least willing to get out there and tank the entire community (even as a Holy Priest, apparently) in an age of PR weasels like David Reid. If you think someone like Rob Pardo would have been better (to stay) in that hotseat, keep in mind that Pardo wanted LFD in WoW at launch. Hell, that interview from 2009 pretty much confirms that the exact same steps would have been taken no matter who was Lead Systems Designs. Could we have gotten someone better? Maybe. Or we might have ended up with Jay “and double it!” Wilson.

So as you’re soaking up the last of the gravy with a dinner roll, I recommend pouring yourself a cup of gin and raising it in the simple thanks of the common man: it could have been worse. I’ll miss your face Ghostcrawler… even if I could never tell you and Tom Chilton apart.

It's like Where's Waldo for bald guys.

Seriously, who is who?