(Excuse the awful selfie, heh)
To continue on my developer appreciation posts for the week, one of the few times my posts are going to be fairly adherent to the Blaugust topic schedule, I want to touch on something controversial.
I like Ion Hazzikostas, or at least, I don’t blame him personally or solely for what has happened with World of Warcraft.
For those who don’t play WoW or follow the game, Ion is the current game director on WoW, a role he was in behind the scenes during early Legion development, before his promotion was made official (and public) around the release of Legion’s patch 7.1.
Ion is…odd, as gaming figures go. His ascendance through Blizzard and the WoW team is one of the weirder stories after WoW’s release. While the original team featured some people who were pulled in because they were in EQ guilds with Blizzard staff (most notably Jeff Kaplan), Hazzikostas was in a similar but different role. As the raid leader of Elitist Jerks, Ion played vanilla WoW and was most famous (or infamous) for having mathed out the fact that C’Thun, upon introduction to the game, was mathematically impossible. Nerfs followed, and by the time Wrath of the Lich King was in development, Ion was a member of the WoW team, working on encounter design.
Ion was responsible as a designer and later the lead encounter designer for some of WoW’s most memorable dungeon and raid fights – some stinkers, as well, but largely the increases in mechanical depth were started under his watch. Serving in this role from Wrath through Warlords of Draenor, a period for PvE content that is probably among the best in the game, Ion rose within the team to a lead game designer, and eventually, as Legion ramped up, assumed the game director role in an acting capacity.
Ion in this role is where most players will express distaste for the man, and in many ways, I don’t blame them. Ion is an easy punching bag as the pre-eminent public face of the game, the one developer that most of the modern fans of the game know, and as Game Director, that also means that ire for poorly implemented designs tends to fall on his shoulders as well.
Ion doesn’t always help this very much. He does a good job of speaking in a fun, exciting way in certain, limited settings – informally one on one, or on stage at Blizzcon. I’ve spoken with him a small number of times, once in his office during my visit to Blizzard last year, and the rest in the Hilton bar on the last night of a few Blizzcons, and he was always engaged and asked a lot of pointed questions of me about what I was excited about in-game. However, the team has moved to doing Q&A sessions on Twitch with Lore, a setting which tends to present poorly, solo presentations on Twitch to announce new patches, patch releases, or to discuss various issues with the game, and written text via mechanisms like Developer posts and Reddit AMAs. In these formats, Ion’s past life as a lawyer tends to bubble to the surface a bit too strongly. In Q&As, Ion seems evasive, with an aversion to committing to an idea or discussing anything in detail. The solo video format is worse, as he often struggles to maintain eye contact with the camera, making him look evasive and nervous (and I have the same problem when streaming, so I understand this feeling!).
When admitting problems, he tends to be late to the party – the launch video for patch 8.2 featured a sort of unannounced 15 minute addition from Ion at the tail end that included the admission that pruning had gone too far in Battle for Azeroth. It was about 10 months after the community had come to this same conclusion and been loudly pushing Blizzard to restore things, but late is better than never, I suppose. When addressing things the community is unhappy with, he either tends to simply not engage or to couch his language in vague, careful terminology – Azerite will be better once we get used to it, we’re working on changes (no mention of specific targets for said changes), and things of that nature. My other general issue with his presentation style is that he tends to be a very neutral speaker tonally, so it is hard to get really excited about something he’s introducing. I do think he does better at this 1:1 or on stage, but in the environs he is more frequently presented in, he tends to sound a bit flat and it is hard to get truly excited about the things he is discussing. These issues prevent players from being able to engage with him to an extent and always make his announcements feel like they are hiding something.
However, I think the thing that makes me like Ion is that there is a passion for the game in there. He worked extensively with the WoW Classic team to ensure the experience they presented was faithful to the original game (regardless of how you might feel about content he authors, he came to that role by analyzing the design of vanilla WoW and being correct). He is one of few developers who still very actively plays the game and because he was an infamous character, you can go on the armory and see him progressing. He still raids, he does Mythic Plus dungeons, and he clearly still enjoys the game to some extent. The thing about other designers and developers in similar roles is that I often can’t tell if they play or not – Ghostcrawler seemed to, but his Tumblr makes apparent that at some point, he stopped completely. Yoshi-P plays FFXIV, at least a little bit, but I can’t imagine him being a high level Savage player with the Japanese work culture and the prominence of his many roles at Square Enix. However, I can readily see that Ion still plays the game, and in a weird sort of way, that is more reassuring to me than a lot of things are. I trust that someone actively playing the game is going to be more motivated to make it fun and engaging and to understand what is exciting about it – even though that doesn’t always seem to bleed into the work done by the team.
That isn’t to say he doesn’t make missteps or fail to read the room – BfA is proof positive of that. Azerite armor was a gamble that ultimately failed hard, and the systems tied to it were perceived as worse for it. I also think that his strength as a player, going back to that EJ C’Thun math post, is encounter design and comprehension, and I think that the current raid game is worse off for not having his guiding hand in the direct role he once held. At the same time, I can see the fingerprints of a raid player all over the current gameplay and reward cycle of BfA – the concept of seasons, the constant scaling up of rewards, the “make it worth my time with difficulty and loot” thing all scream of someone that needs content with lots of active mechanics and a strong reward system – and that isn’t always a great fit, truth be told!
Having said that, however, I also find it hard to dislike the guy’s philosophy of design too much given how much I enjoyed Legion, which was really his trial run for his current job. I think that BfA proves that he needs a lot of polishing in his role – better delivery of content news, more willingness to engage candidly with players, faster evolution of stances on the current state of the game – but I think he is a fairly good designer who was thrown into the deep end right away. I think I’m a good games nerd who likes to believe that I could design a game or a system fairly well and keep it reasonably balanced, but the likelihood is that I’m not going to be asked to try for an audience of 10 million right off the bat. Ion went from corporate law right to encounter design for the biggest MMO on the planet, with no in-between. Sometimes, I get nervous when 1 person out of 80+ readers a day has a comment that is not in agreement with a post I wrote – I can’t imagine the pressure that would exist if one thing I signed off on for an audience of millions made someone unhappy enough to @ me on Twitter or start a thread on a forum about how bad I am at my job.
Now, he’s been doing design for over 10 years, so I won’t claim he is “new” to the industry anymore, and I think that Blizzard is risk averse enough that he wouldn’t be in the role he’s in unless they saw something in him – so what is that something?
A part of it is, I think, that he seems unwilling to rock the boat. Above, I said that he cares about the game and is passionate for it – and I do believe that, but at the same time, he isn’t going to pick fights he knows he can’t win. I don’t think that Ion himself really wants to be designing a game that ends up looking like it appeases the MAU metric, whether there is a motive to do so or not. I feel like he’s in a similar boat to most creative professionals who work for a company or under someone else – he got into the role to really make the things he wanted, and along the way, got swept up into having to fit the art to match the template Activision provided. If given the choice of making a thing that pleases the shareholders or pleases the players, I think we’d all like to think that we’d choose the players, but when your own personal livelihood lies in the balance, I think you’d ultimately end up taking a middle-ground. BfA is definitely a middle ground, and I think that is a weakness, but if the game had given fully over to MAU mania, things could be a lot worse. In a way, clearing the path for classic actually does this better – Classic will, like it or not, inflate MAU numbers substantially because of how long it will take to accomplish many tasks in the game.
However, most of this last paragraph is projection, because having had an actual conversation with the guy, I don’t think that he is some malevolent force that is ruining “my” game. I think another part of it is that I see a lot of what I think I would do in his handling of the situation – the realistic version rather than the idealized one in my head. I think, in a way similar to Ghostcrawler, there is a real Ion, and the fiction woven on forums, blog posts, and YouTube videos. There’s this pervasive almost taunting of the man, decrying his “ruining” WoW, giving him snide and dismissive nicknames, and I think that it often gets worse than it did with Ghostcrawler because Ion doesn’t speak up or confront it as often as GC did. GC’s trolls at least had ammunition to use, and GC wasn’t afraid of wandering onto the metaphorical battlefield to take it away. Ion often speaks in more protected venues – usually one way. Blizzcon What’s Next panels are too packed to feature long Q&As. Q&A videos feature pre-screened questions and no interaction with the chat. Patch reveal videos and streams have no viewer input whatsoever. Lately, Ion has also done a lot of magazine and fan site interviews, where the interaction is 1:1 in a more protected state – a professional journalist isn’t going to come into an interview and ask the kinds of questions a forum-goer would.
My assessment of Ion is thus – I think, somewhat due to projection and filling out what I know of him by using interactions I’ve had and witnessed, is that he is passionate about WoW and wants what he believes is best for the game. I think that his biggest failing as a designer is that he does not communicate that vision well at all, he doesn’t negotiate with players well, and he uses means of communication that are often one-sided or heavily filtered to interact with the fan community. I would like to think that if Bobby Kotick didn’t feel a need to stockpile an unearned horde of wealth, Ion would be able to make the WoW he wants, and as someone who raids, I would like to see that game (if you don’t raid, I’m not sure how that would go and it might not be great for you, so maybe sorry?). I think he was pulled into the metaphorical ocean of game design and taught to swim with the threat of a shark attack, and I think that while that was fine for a mostly behind-the-scenes role as an encounter designer, it is far less suitable for the game director and public face of WoW. I do find the game under his leadership to be inflexible in a bad way – the refusal to make necessary balancing adjustments short of numbers tweaks mid-expansion, the stubborn holding on to expansion systems like Azerite and excessive pruning, and the team’s lack of outside communication which started after Ghostcrawler left, when the game was still under Tom Chilton, makes all of that inflexibility harder to navigate for players.
Despite all of this, I still think that I’d rather have him than a numbers drone on the game, because while Ion can be dry and unexcited seeming, somewhere in there is still the firey Gurgthock, posting multiple paragraph diatribes about a game he cares deeply about.
Maybe that makes me an idealist, or overly naive, but I will say that I can’t think the worst of a person who led a majority of the effort on Legion, which was one of my favorite expansions of all time. He’s definitely 1 for 1 with me, and I certainly hope he finds his groove before 9.0.