Thursday, April 26, 2012

Marine biologist turned game designer ‘World of Warcraft’

Photo by Gary Moss
Greg Street is a former marine biologist who became lead systems designer for the online hit “World of Warcraft.” He will speak at McDaniel College on Monday.<B><I></B></I>Life as a marine biologist was not quite the splash Greg Street thought it would be. In the late 1990s, he spent years going through school only to find that studying the environment at times meant spending little of it in nature. Bored by the administrative side of his career, Street looked to video games instead.

“I ultimately [decided] if I was going to spend so much of my time in front of a computer, I may as well be playing computer games instead of writing grant proposals.”

Street managed to arrange an interview with Ensemble Studios, which was planning to release the real-time strategy game “Age of Empires.” Although a gamer at heart, Street had little knowledge of the intricacies of design.

“They wanted a sample of my work and I had never made anything, so I stayed up all night making levels for the game they were working on and they really liked it,” Street says.

On Monday, Street will speak at McDaniel College as part of its SmartTALK series, which brings accomplished alumni back to campus for a public chat with president Roger Casey. Street will discuss how his liberal arts education served him.

Street graduated from the school in 1991 with degrees in biology and philosophy, and then earned his doctorate at the University of Texas. McDaniel became Street’s number one pick on a lark. His original pick was Columbia, but Street’s grandfather was a McDaniel alumnus, who asked him to apply. Street did apply and the more he learned about the school, the more he was enticed by the notion of attending.

“I just got this sense that they really wanted me and they would be excited about my being there and, ultimately, that was where I wanted to be,” Street says.

He says the school prepared him not only for graduate school, but also how to approach and interact with his professors without apprehension.

“I feel like there’s a real quality of learning that could occur in that environment that you just couldn’t get in a larger state school. And I feel like interactions like that gave me a lot of self-confidence that when I went to graduate school [I could] try to talk to professors ... as people,” Street says.

After working at Ensemble for a decade, Street joined Blizzard Entertainment in 2008. In addition to “World of Warcraft,” the company is known for its massive franchises “StarCraft” and “Diablo.” Street says a business toss-up at Ensemble and the studio’s impending closing prompted his decision to leave.

“I worked at Ensemble for almost 10 years. About halfway through that, the studio was acquired outright by Microsoft, which was super exciting at the time,” Street says. “But it seemed to me that over the years Microsoft was placing less emphasis on PC gaming.”

Once Street joined Blizzard, he became lead systems designer for the massive multiplayer online role-playing game hit “World of Warcraft.” As Street says he tells new employees, he enjoys working at the company.

“This would be a fantastic place to work even if we made light bulbs or batteries,” Street says. “The fact that we make games is icing on the cake.”

At Blizzard, Street says he emphasizes more overlap between developers and designers.
“Blizzard tries to avoid what we call ‘the grand reveal," Street says. That’s where a designer sits and works on something and says, ‘A-ha, there it is.

Science itself also plays a role in Street’s work. He says he regularly interacts with fans on forums or at conventions for feedback. They also test complaints, create statistics and rely on numbers as much as possible.

For Street, science and video games share some of the same philosophies, a lesson he began to appreciate while studying at McDaniel College.

“Scientists learn early on how to fail,” Street says. “You make a ton of mistakes. You set up an experiment and the experiment fails or you have a theory and you’re totally wrong.”