Thursday, April 7, 2016

4.67. The Ghostcrawler Effect

Separated at Birth?

Popping Tabs

BlizzCon 2011 wrapped, but the partying was far from over. Several of us made our way to the neighboring Hilton. The lobby was wall-to-wall nerds. Shimmying through the crowd in search of the bar, Goldy and I kept our eyes peeled for celebrities. Word spread quickly that some of the Blizzard folks were here, intermixed among the commoners. I steered clear of as many costumes as possible and motioned Goldenrod over to a lounge area where there was some room to breathe.

"Don't look," I said, catching a glimpse of a familiar face.

"Who is it?"

"The entire cast of The Guild is behind you. Felicia Day is only five feet from us."

"Go talk to them!"

Save yourself the embarrassment of being shut down. You have nothing to say to Felicia Day.

"Mm, pass," I replied, "They look busy. Signing autographs and meeting crazed fans all day? They probably just want to be left alone for five seconds. Next time."

Goldenrod surveyed the room, focusing in on a small swarm of people crowding around the right side of the bar.

"Ghostcrawler's over there."

Greg Street leaned up against the bar, listening to the ongoing conversation while drinking what I could only assume was gin.

There's someone you have something to say to.

"I'll be right back."

My mind raced with statements I'd meant to tell him if given the chance -- the kinds of things you don't say out loud. Public decorum took precedence, but internally, rage went to war with good judgement. I stood beside him several moments, waiting to catch his attention while I worked through it. As a break in the conversation opened up, he glanced over and caught my gaze. I reached out my hand and he returned the gesture. Then, I looked Ghostcrawler straight in the eye and lied to his face.

"Thanks," I said, "for all the work you put into this game. I get the feeling that you don't get a lot of support from us."

He nodded, shrugging, "Eh, it's a job. I have a thick skin, I can take it."

Get over yourself. You weren't lying to Greg. You just wish you were.


There was a time, not long ago, when the player had no voice.

At the start, we didn't even know who they were. Logos on shiny labels affixed to black cartridges were our only means to identify who was responsible. Atari. Activision. But these were merely employers, hiding the actual visionaries away from us, heads down deep in their cube farms. Howard Scott WarshawCarol Shaw. Brilliant men and women slaved over our digital Shangri-La, working tirelessly in our honor so that our television sets might bathe us in a moment of exhilaration and wonder, and grant us a brief moment of overwhelming power and control. We didn't even know who to thank.

When the PC gaming market emerged, the wall between gamer and developer started to show cracks. Boxes packed with comedic manuals revealed unto us the Hollywood-style celebrities behind our beloved titles. Whether pranking us by donning pink mohawks and pig snout masks, or striking a more reserved pose, the magicians carried a message: gaming is serious business, and we've got more hits coming your way. Company logos took a back seat to the person whose fingers weaved these interactive dreamscapes. We knew Sierra On-Line by name, but cared more deeply about what was next from from Ken and Roberta Williams.

We wondered, though, was the feeling mutual?

Being the creative geniuses they were, game developers found ways to solicit feedback. Upon completing Ultima, Lord British reached through the electronic nether, wishing to hear from us. "CONGRATULATIONS! Report thy feat unto Lord British at Origin Systems!" We obliged. We wrote in with our fan letters, sent photos, hand-drawn maps, sketches of dragons and spaceships, pages of scribbled notes as we worked through those many puzzles and secrets. Some of us even dreamed of becoming game developers one day. Our heroes sent back their words of encouragement; a crazy, mythical race of adults that not only believed our dreams could be realized, they were living proof.

Developers and gamers drew closer with the rise of gaming conventions. Not only did QuakeCon expose us to John Carmack, it proved what we secretly wished all along: they weren't aloof, out-of-touch celebrities; too good for autographs while gated off in their million-dollar mansions. They were gamers, just like us. Our celebrities pulled up a chair and joined us in a deathmatch. Then, as the convention ended, those same developers drove off in their ruby red Ferraris, retired to their darkened caves to resume the coding grind. Their internal fire was reignited, wishing only to deliver an awesome gaming experience. They couldn't let us down, they'd shaken our hands and seen that same fire in our eyes. To them, we were real. We were their heroes.

By the rise of the internet, barriers between gamers and developers were all but non-existent, catapulting gamers from never having a voice to being involved every step of the way. Usenet, forums, blogging, and eventually, real-time access via social media accelerated our ability to reach out to one another. Technology facilitating such unparalleled communication matured because of that shared spark, that symbiotic relationship that never died: game developers wanted to reach out to the fans as much as we wanted to share with them. And today, we can tell them everything. What's fun. What isn't. What works, and what doesn't. What we love.

What we hate.

Sweet Emotion

Customers that frequent Whole Foods have been called "useless, miserable, ignorant, and angry." Social psychology studies reveal that drivers with bumper stickers are 16% more likely to unleash road rage. Apple fanatics swarm memorials for Steve Jobs without ever having met the man or sharing a story over an Odwalla.

Why do we behave so inappropriately toward inanimate objects?

Researchers in industrial design claim they convey personal meaning rather than simple utilitarian intent. Sociologists say it is a part of our evolutionary makeup, that we're territorial and go on the defensive whenever any predators threaten to take away what is rightfully ours. Organizational psychologists build on this, categorizing our needs in three main areas: Security, Justice and Self-Esteem. Independently, this research offers insight into a human's crazy obsession with a trophy that isn't real...but is. When considered holistically, an interesting picture develops.

The industrial designer focuses in on four factors to develop a bond between a customer and a product: group affiliation, memories, pleasure, and self-expression. The first three are easy to unpack. When we indignantly march across the parking lot, Wheat Grass smoothy in hand, towards our vehicle adorned with peace symbols and left-wing messaging, we announce to the world what personal and political movements that ring true to us. Likewise, we'll caremad when said car is damaged or some fool gets in our way to the Kale aisle. Losing photos hurts more than breaking the camera -- there is no way those memories will be recovered. As for pleasure, well, we do what we enjoy...even if we can't agree on what's enjoyable.

Self-expression is a big one. Similar to group affiliation, as a product is molded or shaped to fit us as individuals, our physical (and emotional) investment grows; as we invest more effort in the product, the closer it represents our identity. There's no mistaking a product in this type of category: clothes with dozens of options of fit, shape, style and color. The more customizable the clothing, the more it accurately represents our identity.

It doesn't take an industrial designer to see how beautifully World of Warcraft falls into these sweet spots. Group Affiliation (gamer, casual/hardcore, horde/alliance, profession, race), Memories (discovery, achievement, quest completion, meeting new people, defeating players, raiding), Pleasure (duh), and Self-Expression (naming, gear choices, guilds, talent choices, online personas) all present in abundance. It's as if Blizzard read the book on how to design products that people become passionate about!

The question is: did they read the book on customer satisfaction? I'll save you the research and get right to it.

A satisfied customer is one whose self-esteem is inflated by their experience, and who feels secure in their purchase. Security comes from a company's ability to meet a customer's needs, often by effectively communicating how the product will work for said customer. Done correctly, the customer feels as if they are important, as if the company care specifically for them. Done poorly, and a customer will most certainly go ballistic.

A customer turns sour when they feel they're no longer being treated fairly, and three forms of justice are often demanded. Distributive justice covers our need to be treated equally, while Procedural justice demands that promises be kept and commitments followed through on. Finally, interactional justice is that which describes how a company's employees relate to the customer, their friendliness, their honesty, their ability to help solve the problem at hand.

And this, dear reader, is where every good intention Greg Steet ever had for WoW is yet another reason for us to levy unwarranted hatred upon him.

Reverse Midas Touch Method

The Ghostcrawler Effect is not, as some might argue, the devastation Greg Street levies on any game he comes into contact with; it is not some reckless reverse Midas touch which turns all his designs to shit. Instead, it's what happens when a company builds a passionate product, empowers an advocate to allow the customer's voice to be heard, changes the very elements that made the product passionate to begin with, and ensures that the advocate has no possible way of resolving said conflict. It is a game in which there is no winning outcome; indeed, it was his very own Kobayashi Maru.

Corporations: Listen up! If you suspect The Ghostcrawler Effect might be right for your company, simply follow the handy steps listed below!

1. Build and sell a customizable product that appeals to a territorial niche. This will very often be a product designed by a single person or a small group of people sharing a common vision. This vision is often fueled by personal interest to solve a gap in an existing niche group (eg. a game targeted at a very select audience for which there is no/few viable alternatives). Increase emotional investment by crafting the product so that it is highly personalizable -- the more a product can be customized by the end user, the greater the product becomes an extension of the customer's choices and beliefs.

2. Give the customer the illusion of co-producing by giving them a "voice" in design. If possible, leverage a spokesperson that's already motivated to "hear the customer" and empower them to address concerns in public. Be sure the advocate blurs the lines between personalization (how the product can be customized) and design (the rules of customization itself). Do this by using the same medium to address both additions to existing options (trivial), and long-term fundamental changes in the product's features (impactful). Forums and blogs are a great way to achieve this effect; they reinforce the perception that no matter what impact a customer's demands have on company's resources, schedules, man hours, or the product's long-term viability itself, no issue is too big or small to not be heard. The customer matters!

3. Reaffirm the customer's perceived involvement by publicly agreeing with any recommended changes that just happen to coincide with the company's design strategy. Be sure to use pronouns when addressing the customer to reinforce this effect. The goal is to have your customer advocate appear to be speaking directly to each customer individually, eg. "...we've heard your concerns and agree..." or "...but it's clear from your feedback you didn't really like what we've proposed, so we're changing our stance..."

4. Once ready, redesign the product to reduce the impact of customer choice. Whether financially motivated or ideologically driven, eventually, you will have to get your product in front of a wider audience. To do this, reduce the product's niche appeal, paying particular attention to the features that helped define the niche originally. By diminishing the importance of specific choices a customer makes when customizing, the wider the appeal of the product becomes.

5. If customer outrage ensues, leverage your spokesperson in order to provide reasons why the customer is wrong. You are under no obligation to cater to the customers for whom you designed the original product -- they have no perspective of the complexities involved in becoming a business leader in a particular market. If you experience customer dissent, lean on your advocate to communicate the various reasons why the base is being alienated. A useful technique is to have your advocate back up the company's decisions by referring to your wealth of analytic data on said customers -- by claiming the data are proprietary, you are under no obligation to reveal its specifics; your customer data falls under fair "trade secret" rules, which frees your advocate to cherry pick what information will most appropriately defend the product's changes.

The Ghostcrawler Effect, then, is what happens when a customer identifies with your product, and you decide to try to convince them that they don't know themselves; it is consumer revolt for which there is no resolution.

It's easy to blame Greg. His resting-Macklemore face, industry expertise in marine biology, and design skills honed in a game constantly confused with World of Warcraft are all ripe for the picking. They're convenient excuses that allow us to ignore the truth. That he is a gamer, like us. That he cares passionately about keeping an open channel of communication between a game company and its fans. That his job was to meet as many of our needs as possible. That "fun" trumped all else, but none of us could agree on exactly what that was.


Legends Anonymous said...

I have to disagree slightly.

Ultimately the saying "The Customer is Always right" is a self-defeating prophecy.

I know what I like as a consumer, however, I don't always know the best way to create new things I may like.

I find that 99% of the vocal WoW player base suffers from the False-Consensus effect and their perspectives are usually drawn upon selfish reasons ie: Nerfing/buffing a class. I want Warriors to be buffed because I play one and am emotionally attached, when they nerf them I get emotional. And for good reason.

However, designing a game towards mass appeal, or designing anything to be sold, should not come from an emotional/biased perspective.

Most of Blizzard's best macro decisions of the last few years were never mentioned on the forums, never brought up on a podcast, or though up from some guy sitting at his computer. It came from developers.

I come from the camp of you can't be an expert swimmer if you've never jumped in a pool. Every WoW player thinks they know the best design decisions, but they're coming from the wrong perspective.

In contrast, one of the lead designers is Ion Hazzicostas, the former GM of Elitist Jerks. His design choices may reflect that of a hardcore raider (which is what most people think is the best perspective if you go on the forums).

The fact of the matter is this, consumers sometimes don't know what's best for them. Or can't understand the ramifications of their ideas because of personal bias.

Hence why the Ghostcrawler experience should be talked about in college courses or even management training. It should be a cornerstone case of what not to do: Actively engage in dialogue with a restive population hell-bent on shaping the product to their own individual standards.

Aedilhild said...

Yeah, not sure what to make of the GC Effect — it comes across like a conspiracy theory. Just seems to me that Blizzard misread cues as its flagship product matured, and more recently, development culture has not equated to productivity. I'll think about your idea and look at it again.

Anyway, visible designers. In the mid-80s, Electronic Arts shipped PC games in luxurious, heavy-stock foldout sleeves, some of which showcased the developer(s) and the design process. I was given two of these: Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set and Starflight. The liner notes (adapted interviews with Bill Budge and developer Binary Systems) are fun reads.

Pam said...

Resting Macklemore Face. Brilliant!

Shawn Holmes said...



Shawn Holmes said...


I've got two more posts that complement this one, so there's plenty more conspiracy theory to come. Did they misread? Or did they purposefully ignore?

I know both the Pinball Construction Set and Starflight (played I and II; Starflight inspired one of my all-time favs, Star Control II).

One of the sad side effects of the "Steam" generation, no more cool manuals. :(