Thursday, August 21, 2014

4.3. The Karma Initiative

Kaleu, DoD's hunter officer during Vanilla,
stands atop the bank for an evening pic,
Orgrimmar

A Most Appropriate Phobia

Waiting solved nothing. The greatest of intentions weren't enough of a guarantee that Blizzard would backpedal on their 10/25 decision as readily as they had with Real ID. I posted what I could, trying to keep my emotions in check, providing a rational explanation as to why dolling out the same rewards for two different levels of difficulty completely undermined the entire raid game, then put it behind me.

Next came the hard part: finding ways to keep from hemorrhaging players.

I rewound the tape of our events and deeds, back to the very beginning, to see what it might reveal. We'd done things well in Wrath of the Lich King, perhaps buried somewhere in the recesses of my extraordinarily selective memory, a hint existed -- something to strengthen the bonds of the guild. When the tape of the mind came to a stop, I had just come face-to-face with one of my newest guildies.

---

"The infamous Kaleu!"

He gave a firm handshake while shielding his eyes from the sun. Behind him stood the Anaheim Convention Center, a grand building of never-ending glass. I twisted my neck to the side to take in the enormous banner draped above us: BlizzCon.

"Kerulak, right?"

"Kerulak, Hanzo, Shawn...whatever gets the job done."

He was a bit shorter than I, perhaps 5'9" or 5'10", but like nearly every person on the planet, had me beat in the weight dept. As the expression goes, I'm 140lbs soaking wet; any and all attempts to increase the load are met with abject failure. The side-effects of a gaming lifestyle are rarely observed when I enter the room, but I expect that I intimidate very few people as a result. When your qualifying metric is could he take me a fight?, you quickly learn your place -- and it isn't often at the front of the line.

"Are there any others?"

"I believe Kadrok said he'd be here as well. We'll keep a look out for him."

Kaleu came along as part of the package deal that was The Final Cut. Weeks earlier, one of Kaleu's partners-in-crime, a fellow by the name of Darange, emailed me. They had the 40-Man flu, they needed their drugs. At best, they were 12-15 strong. They were considering a merge with another top notch raiding guild, to push them over the hump and get into Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, etc. The meeting of the minds discussed everything from loot rules and ranks to guild ideologies. Both parties agreed to the terms and, with a virtual handshake, we absorbed The Final Cut. Part of those terms dictated a few promotions, and Kaleu was my new Hunter officer as a result.

We wandered through the convention center, meandering towards the massive lab of computers to the right of the entrance. The darkened room was easy on gamer eyes. Above us hung enormous posters from the roof, decorated with Blizzard's various franchisees. Podiums of artwork, books, and unrelated merchandise were a formidable distraction, but Kaleu and I would not be deterred. There was plenty of time for those trivialities; we were on a mission. We navigated through the crowd, circling around to the back of the computer lab. The entrance was roped off, a line of nerds quickly forming that wrapped around the lab's perimeter.

"God, where does this thing even start?"

"I see it now, back this way," Kaleu motioned to the side of the room back near the entrance. All other BlizzCon festivities would come later. For now, the #1 priority was to get our hands on a playable demo of the Blood Elf starting area in The Burning Crusade. It would be more than a year before we would see the next expansion.

We found the tail and joined the line, while I waited for the paranoia to set in.
BlizzCon: great for cosplayers, bad
for people with Cosplayophobia
(Source: Blizzcon.com)

Panic at the BlizzCon

The line moved slowly, so Kaleu and I got to know one another. He'd been a long time gamer, had known a good chunk of the folks in The Final Cut from before World of Warcraft, formed in a little game known as Star Wars Galaxies. He described the game as being innovative for its time, relying on customer created content. The casuals of the SWG crowd grew irritated at this design, and more vocal in their outrage. A patch eventually came to appease those casuals, but change was significant; the magic was gone. TFC exited. Kaleu also confirmed my suspicions as to the origin of their guild name: the Pink Floyd album that marked the end of Roger Waters' overzealous grip over the band's direction. Every song, every lyric, even the album's art bore Waters' name -- two years later, he walked away, leaving the band he created to fend for themselves.

"It's sort of a catch 2' with the community aspect of running a guild. You want them to be on the forums, talking, chatting, but nobody wants to do that. They just want to play. The players you need the most participation from...those are the ones least likely to show up."

I agreed, commenting on the sad state of our guild's out-of-game activity, "Our forums could use a little stickiness."

"Forum involvement isn't going to make good players. It builds community, but it's not necessary."

We know what makes good players. Keep the tape rolling. What was it that he said about community?

I've seen all kinds of gimmicks, too. Things like a certain amount of required reading over x amount of time. If you don't keep it up, you lose your posting privileges, and those are tied to your ability to sign up for guild events."

You’re already doing that now. Keep it rolling.

"Most of the time, people just post shit. Trying to sift through that is a pain in the ass. So when quality posts finally show up, they're buried in a mess, and..." Kaleu added with a sigh, "you have a handful of people with all this knowledge, but you don't know who they are. Nobody has a reason to contribute."

Lovely.

Kaleu gave a single chuckle, arms folded across his chest, "Yeah, I don't envy you at all. Trying to come up with solutions is a full time job."

We inched towards the front of the line, and watched a Blizzard employee routing eight more players to machines. I glanced at the floor a moment, contemplating Kaleu's thoughts on community building, and caught a glimpse of fuzzy white feet. Behind us stood a female cosplayer, armored completely in The Earthfury. It was an impressive representation of its virtual counterpart, immaculately detailed from horns to hooves. Hooves. I glanced up at her face, obscured by paint and a prosthetic bovine snout.

First came the beads of sweat, that sudden coolness that rushes over you as hysteria sets in. Next was the rapid pounding from deep in the chest, the twitching of muscles as they tense for flight. I couldn't explain it, yet there it was, just as it had been my entire life: the irrational fear of being around adults in costumes and face paint. I was the missing verse in an Alanis Morissette song.

"Nice!" Kaleu said, glancing over his shoulder.

"Thanks!" came her reply.

...and just like that, the panic was gone. I stared back at Kaleu, stunned by the sudden absence of anxiety. He gave me a puzzled look.

"...what?"

An early design of Stack Overflow
(Source: StackOverflow.com)

The Gamification

I snapped out of the trip down mammary lane and focused on my monitor, while Kaleu's words faded away. Builds Community. No Reason to Contribute. Full-time job. How could I increase the guild's involvement on our forums? A better question: what was the right kind of involvement? And how could I do it without increasing my administrative load? Mangetsu had the right idea with his recent forum topic, U RAFF U RUSE, DoD version, a game encouraging the guild to withstand his 4chan-esque sense of humor, with the losers posting their own comedy in return. It was a self perpetuating machine of contribution, the likes of which couldn't compare to any other thread the DoD forums had seen since creation. His forum game knew no ranks or titles. Present or past guildies, elites, raiders, officers and n00bs, they all participated. How could I build on that? The mechanism eluded me until I zeroed in on the website staring back from the monitor.

Stack Overflow was now two years old. I scrolled down the list of programming questions on the homepage. "Why doesn't SetInterval work properly in JavaScript?" "OnMouseDown vs. OnMouseClick problems." "Can't align my image correctly within an embedded div...help!" Next to each question, numbers marked how many times each question had been viewed, how many answers had been offered up, and whether or not an official answer had been deemed 'correct'. It was a surprisingly addictive experiment fashioned to solve programming problems...and it was working. Complete strangers were coming together for a common good, and no money changed hands. Instead, answers buried in the minds of geeks around the globe came forth by challenging each other to rack up reputation points, like a Counter-Strike squad member racking up kills.

It was no surprise to me that this game-like website came from the mind of a gamer who once set his computer up in my home for a LAN party. If you get the chance, be sure to ask him about the guinea pig cage.

That gamer mentality. What better way to draw out the introverted hacker than by the lure of badges and awards? Those reputation points were like a trail of breadcrumbs leading to a trap, and programmers slowly emerged from their digital caves, expertly exchanging their knowledge for a rolling score. The real power of the system came from how these anonymous peers evaluated each other, decentralizing its own governance. The highest quality questions and answers floated to the top in a flurry of votes, as these nerds battled each other for supremacy of their trade. The result: a self-moderated community producing exceptional content as a result of their primal instincts to climb a virtual ladder.

That was it: the ladder. Stack Overflow's scoreboard was front-and-center. Where was ours?

I scoured the interwebs looking for such a thing, if it existed. My search ended on a page within the phpBB support forums; a plugin called "Karma MOD". It worked like this: users would be granted the option of issuing virtual points to one another, assigning comments for their reasoning. I began to see examples in my mind, "Great strategy guide!", "Thanks for filling in on last night's raid", and "Appreciate the help on adjusting my healing spec."

I read on. Karma could also be taken away, inspiring thoughts of long-term veterans assisting in the education of the newer recruits -- subtle hints to point new people in the right direction, keeping them from flying those red flags. The self-moderating capabilities of this tool appeared to have far reaching effects.

How exactly Karma would play into the grand scheme of my guild's administration in Cataclysm I wasn't quite sure...but I suspected it was a step in the right direction. I cracked open the phpBB code, reviewed the docs, and began to implement.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

4.2. To QQ or Not to QQ

A photography advertisement featuring
Annihilation's license plate

No Tolerance For Tantrums

It's a little known fact that a pair of capital letter Qs predates WoW.

Gamer rage is a staple in our community; we recognize it, are not surprised by it, and in the grungiest of circles, feed off of it. Extra-curricular sports had their share of kids stomping off the field, but always under the watchful eye of adults. Nearby parents and coaches curtailed unsportsmanlike behavior; gamers bore no such burden. The older, wiser versions of us rarely involved themselves in our video gaming hobbies. We were left to treat each other as we saw fit, a society based entirely on not sucking. And as our enemies lit up in flames, we punched the air and screamed in victory. Losing was no less emotional; many of us took it to a dark place. The keyboard graveyard is very real, a cardboard box full of cables and tragedy.

First Person Shooters were easier to digest. You could count on your loss being painless and quick -- all it took was one perfectly aimed shot to the head. A bad decision took you out of the round, but you were back and seeking revenge within minutes. The concept of failure had no time to sink in. By contrast, the beauty of a game like Warcraft II was in its slow, tortuous loss that you watched unfold over ten excruciating minutes. As you sat back helplessly while your village burned to the ground, all you could think about was how many bad decisions you'd made along the way, how much better the other guy was. It was a front row seat to the grand symphony of failure. At least the kids that played sports had someone waiting on the sidelines, ready with a pat on the back and a "you'll get 'em next time, champ." Our demise usually provoked a different sentiment -- the kind that ends peripherals.

Many players couldn't deal. Rather than being force-fed their failure, they opted to take control of their losing lives one last time. Before "DEFEAT" splashed up on the screen, players on the short end of a Warcraft II match would fire off a hot key combination: ALT+Q+Q, bailing them out before the jury read the verdict. This act came to be known as ragequitting, and those who partook were the subject of great ridicule. Winners saw through the veil of excuses, of claims to unfair advantages, of plastic keys flying out of keyboards, and saw their tears. Winners wanted nothing to do with such childlike behavior. With little tolerance for tantrums, the bullies of the playground soon wove the hot key combo into a taunt of their own. With their devilish grins, they typed:

"Quit whining and QQ already."

Eventually, the ragequitter and their hot key salvation became synonymous. The act of quitting in a rage equated to crying; to cry was to 'QQ'. Those who sought the thrill of competition loved nothing more than to stumble across a ragequitter. The bullies of our virtual playground taunted ragequitters relentlessly, as if taking on a personal challenge: watch how fast I can make this one fly off the handle. And as they poked and prodded the lion, watching as typed responses shifted from lowercase to uppercase, those gaming bullies would pull out their ace card, shutting crybabies down with a simple "QQ More"; it was our shorthand for why don't you go home and cry to your Mommy?

The same behavior driving us off the playground and into our antisocial gaming havens ended up being the very same behavior we adopted once hands rested squarely on the keyboard and mouse.

Take a guess which type of gamer this computer belongs to

What Change Tears Bring

The binary society of gamers, those who cried and those who taunted them, were easy to sort out. Raging was a stigma no gamer wanted to bear. Who in their right mind would actively seek out crucifixion? Crying, whining, complaining -- those of us with the scars of our former rage, those of us who knew better, maintained a healthy distance from those enabling behaviors. Many of us figured out the secret: there was nearly always a rational, logical explanation. It simply took effort to discover what that answer was. You need to improve your initial build strategy. You're spending too much time micromanaging peons and not enough time expanding your town. Back we went, trying again, practicing, refining, working through new solutions. With enough dedication, we'd emerge triumphant. The satisfaction came as a heavy relief, because it was less about being wronged, and more about being educated.

The sharpest of us continued down this path, applying the same logical rationale to every malfeasance threatening our place in gaming society. Meanwhile, rage took on new forms, breaking free from the muddy underbelly of IRC and QuakeWorld, making its way to the sunlight on gaming forums and communities...and Battle.net wasn't safe from this evolution.

---

My earliest memory of WoW outcry took place a few weeks after launch. It was a nightmare of playability that few younger gamers of today have had the luxury of experiencing. The first sign was the rubber banding. I would travel along the Mulgore plains as a level 4 tauren shaman, then be intermittently frozen as if Blizzard had pressed the pause button on a old VHS tape. The screen shook violently as it struggled to render forward movement, but the tauren only cycled through the animations of movement, never actually covering territory. Data packets flew out of gamers' computers at lightning speed, never completing the round trip. Blizzard's infrastructure buckled under the duress of millions of players demanding Azeroth. Minutes later, packets of data found their way back to our gaming rigs, WoW clients suddenly catching up by fast-forwarding the VHS tape, and my tauren shaman slingshotted across the plains. No player should have dealt with such torture. According to the rage that filled the forums, it appeared no player deserved to.

I can't even begin to imagine the horror of the Blizzard developers in those early weeks of Vanilla. A shattered vase can be glued back together, following the picture of the vase in your head. But what if there was never a 'fixed' state to begin with?

What frantic chaos took place behind the Blizzard curtain during those first several weeks? Around the clock meetings to share updates, walking through the laundry list of issues. Did the last workarounds take? How bad was the situation now? What more could be done? How much longer until the new servers arrive? How quickly can they be spun up? It is one thing to plug holes in a leaky boat, but how exactly does one surface a vessel that's already at the bottom of the ocean? I've been on the receiving end, albeit on a smaller scale. Launching a web application, only to see it buckle and collapse. Back in I went, cracking open code, staring at it for hours on end. The phone would ring endlessly, people dressed better than I wanted to know what was taking so long and where was the work they were promised. When were they to get the answers they deserved? I know the struggle, I've lived it.

Before WoW, there was nothing comparable. Nobody had done what Blizzard was attempting to do. Certainly, there were functional MMOs in place: EverQuest, Ultima Online, Meridian 59...these games inspired Blizzard and paved the road ultimately leading to WoW. But even the most rudimentary concepts, the ones we take for granted today, hadn't been attempted by any other game company -- if they had, their failure was disappointing enough to be forgettable. Seamless zone transitions without loading screens, instanced dungeons and raids, transport across continents via boat or airship, millions of concurrent online players...no other company could claim victory over all these features. It was through Blizzard's dedication to the quality of their game and the kinship to their community that the rules changed. Concepts that were once dismissed as technically impossible were magical realities in Azeroth.

So while the forums filled with entitled rage and hate, I stayed my hand. They were working on it. I wasn't going to be one of the QQers. How would my complaining help anything? And just as they had with the Diablo II launch, just as they had when cheating ran rampant in the first iteration of Battle.net, Blizzard owned their mistakes and fixed them. The QQers were none the wiser: the issue was far larger than they could comprehend. If they had taken it upon themselves to understand why the game was unplayable, they might have thought twice about drafting hate mail. The game eventually smoothed out; ironically, the crybabies were the first to claim it was due to their voices being heard...

...because as we all know, it is the tears of the marginalized that stabilize servers, rather than actual hard work.

Blizzard backpedals on their stance regarding
RealID and revealing players' Battle.net email
addresses in forum posts.

A Quixotic Quandary

It was happening even now. Blizzard's latest announcement turned attention to their upcoming Real ID system, a new way for us to communicate, both on the forums and in-game. It looked to be a convenient feature facilitating both inter- and intra-game communication. To be able to chat with someone in Diablo or Starcraft while playing World of Warcraft -- I had to admit it sounded very cool. But there was one fatal flaw with their proposal: the violation of privacy.

Real ID, as proposed, would force a user to reveal their email address on the forums. The theory went that if a player had less anonymity, they would be less likely to abuse and troll other players (or Blizzard themselves). They knew as well as we did that the bullying gamer mentality would thrive and prosper if not checked; it was a strategy in volatility management. By now we'd amassed a community 12 million strong; there simply wasn't enough time to police each and every player. How many times would they have to repeat themselves? No, it is actually not OK to threaten to rape and murder a Blizzard developer because you don't like the next round of Paladin changes. As the QQ runs long and deep, so too, does the vitriol and hate that feeds off it.

Revealing email addresses seemed like a reasonable solution; I was perfectly fine with it. I'm a firm believer in online transparency, and my reasoning is simple: I'm not ashamed of what I do online, and welcome the mockery of muggles who get a kick out of the Time Lost Proto-Drake story. If this change helps curb the QQing, all the better. Besides, if you have nothing to hide, what's the problem? It was probably best that I again refrained from joining in any QQ games, because this was my exact stance at the time Real ID was proposed. I wasn't in any position to speak about things I had little expertise in.

What I've come to understand since then is that people have a right to privacy. Whether you like it or not, everyone should be able to keep their online and real-life personas apart. Some people have no choice in the matter. It isn't their biases or hatreds we need to be concerned about, but those in close proximity to the person in question. What if a person's Battle.net email address is tied to their place of business, and that business engages with clients legally bound to extreme levels of secrecy? Surfacing a person's email address might jeopardize the person's livelihood. What if the person in question belongs to an LGBT guild, but hasn't yet revealed their sexual orientation to friends, family or employers in real-life...and are suddenly forced to do so? Had they even considered the millions of female gamers dealing with sexual harassment and abuse on a daily basis? Suddenly, an innocuous post on "What's the best gearing strategy for a Resto Druid in ICC?" has serious real life consequences. You may claim to not hold biases, but that doesn't mean the rest of the world lives in harmony.

Do these scenarios sound a bit far fetched? A year after Real ID was proposed by Blizzard, Google announced the exact same change to their authentication system. In an attempt to promote some sense of online civility, they tied Gmail, YouTube and Google+ together, revealing people's real names in the process. Guess what happened?

Long before Google embarked on a tragic road now referred to as the nymwars, Blizzard brought it to the table under the label of Real ID. As expected, the QQ that followed was a deluge not seen since Vanilla. The WoW community flooded Battle.net with their objections to Real ID exposing email addresses. And was it the earth-shattering volume of dissent that ultimately coerced Blizzard into backpedaling? Or was it the few insightful observations from privacy experts, the ones that understood the issue far better than the vast majority, that provided the necessary evidence to turn the Real ID ship around?

The most upsetting reality was the one in which I considered both outcomes: either Blizzard was making decisions on systems they didn't fully understand...or they were weighting importance by forum temperature rather than by careful analysis.

Until you actually try to acknowledge those who do not speak on the forums, for whatever reason they have, you will not understand.                                                                                                          - Tseric

Thursday, August 7, 2014

4.1. The Beginning of the End

Part IV: Cataclysm

"Great countries have fallen under less tyrannical rule than what you impose upon this guild."

World of Warcraft login screen,
during the Cataclysm ('11-'12) era,
Copyright © 2012 Blizzard Entertainment

We Meet Again

Doubt.

It's you again, old friend. That infection of the mind I just can't seem to shake. Battle scars from our former meetings are extensive. Whenever the biggest risks come to the table, when I have the most to lose, the marks are a reminder that I fought and won. You knocked at the door when I decided which guilds to assimilate and which to ignore. You had Graulm and Ater on a first-name basis at a time when it wasn't especially clear where my loyalties should lie. I remember you being clingy when it was time to shift out of AQ40 and into Naxxramas, leaving the bug-ridden instance unfinished.

You were out of sight for a bit, back when I thought I was untouchable. You got your little jabs in when I lost folks in Karazhan, when we took weeks on Magtheridon, when we wiped an embarrassing amount of times on The Lurker Below. I have to hand it to you, you've got spunk. You're like every man's personal forum troll and hater rolled up into a convenient little package. When my main tank and mentor left the game, there you were, with your sympathies that reeked of "told-you-so".

You were practically my copy-editor when it came time to rewrite the guild rules, my own personal YouTube commenter. Every word I typed was a joke to you, and you were certain to point a finger and laugh when I left loopholes for people to exploit, shirking morals in their illustrious rise to power.

You're tenacious -- if but a bit predictable. Didn't see you come out to congratulate us on all the bosses we dropped, and you certainly weren't there to pat us on the back as we took on the competition without losing players. See, that's the tricky thing about you. You don't really like to show your face when you're on the losing end of a debate, when you've been proven wrong. You linger, hovering over my shoulders when I know I'm about to make a decision I'll regret. But when that decision turns out beautifully, you're nowhere to be seen. How convenient that must be. You take off when things don't go your way; I can practically set my watch to it. Which begs the question: why are we squaring off again today?

The end of Wrath is only a few months away, and we've cleared nearly every boss in both normal and heroic mode. My guild is made up of some of the best played, best geared folks on Deathwing-US. Everywhere I turn, I see the Descendants of Draenor guild tag, so many well-known and accomplished folks on the server. They're already deep into the planning stages for Cataclysm's raid content. From all angles, we've nailed it, chief. And so, old friend, this is the part that confuses me, because under any other circumstance, you'd be as far away from this success as possible. Under what guise do you feel you still have authority over me?

I couldn't shake the feeling I had seen this all before.


A comparison of hit combo values between
 Street Fighter Alpha 2 (above) and Marvel vs. Capcom 2

No Scrubs

"Daaaaamn, you just got royally fucked up!"

"Another? That quarter yours?"

"Bullshit. And yes, I am going again. This fuckin' stick is busted."

The kid next to me dropped another coin into Street Fighter Alpha. The joystick movements hadn't changed much through the iterations. Ken had pretty much always been Ken, right from the first quarter sunk into Street Fighter II. Since then, Capcom rode the gravy train to success, rolling out sequel after sequel. Street Fighter II: Champion Edition let us choose the same character for hot Chun-Li on Chun-Li action, Super Street Fighter II added four new characters. Trip Hawkins made a horribly expensive console that I wouldn't have dreamed of purchasing, had it not been for Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Which led us to this prequel in the franchise, taking place before the events of the game that originally hooked me. I dug Alpha, and was particularly fond of the alpha-parry system, turning an opponent's attack into a block-counterattack in a swift 1-2 punch. With it, I could be on the offensive, even when on the defensive.

Hadoukens and Shoryukens glided out smoothly, muscle memory from years of performing the quarter-circle and zig-zag motions mapped to their respective abilities. I held the joystick with the tips of my fingers, believing it to give me a slight edge in precision. "Underhanded" was another popular style: the hand is turned upside down, nestling the joystick between middle and ring fingers. It was easy to size a player up that chose either grip: they knew their shit.

My opponent backed into the corner, nervous, waiting to see if I'd unleash another barrage. I snuck a glance without moving my head, trying to get a read on whether he was about to leap forward: the subtle nervous shake in a player's hand before his next move. The move that gives him away. He gripped the joystick with a fist, as if to pound a nail into a board. His movements were jerky, panicked, and he looked to tear the stick right out of the casing at one point.

Scrub.

He made his move, telegraphing the Titanic in the process. As he leapt, I caught him with another Shoryuken. He hopped off his back just in time to get a foot in the face, which I chained into several jabs, a low sweep, and a final Hadouken, sending him flying backwards through the air in slow motion. The screen read "5 Hit Combo Finish".

"Thanks a lot," he said, as if to imply we were taking turns trading wins -- a common tactic to make your quarters last longer. Quarters among friends. I didn't know this guy, or his pal...the one who spoke next.

"What's the highest combo you've ever got?"

"Ah, Christ, no idea. 11, 12 maybe? I can't even remember the last time I got into the double digits. The timing is insane." I was good, but not that good.

The guy I beat puffed out his chest, "I nail 30 hit combos all the time in MvC." I glanced over my shoulder at the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 machine. MvC took the SF franchise in a drastically different direction. Playing off the licensing behemoth of Marvel Comics, Capcom facilitated a tournament of infamous faces from their games, pitting them against super heroes I'd known since childhood. Matchups like Venom vs. Mega-Man, Spider-Man vs. Captain Commando, and Zangief vs. The Incredible Hulk were now a reality. The collective star power was unparalleled in MvC, and it drove some mad lineups to the arcade. For a time, at least. Players soon got wise to the gimmicks.

From the moment a seasoned SF player cast their eyes on the four buttons, something was amiss. Every SF game in the franchise delivered the standard six-button layout... but not MvC 2. Technically there were six, but two "assist" buttons masqueraded under the familiar layout. What was once a tried and true system, was now ever so slightly watered down. There was more.

The game diverged from its Street Fighter brethren in its over-the-top combos system. Basic joystick movements coupled with button presses yielded instant double-digit combos. Chaining these abilities together, then, caused ridiculous numbers to spin up. The average player rocked out with these Hyper Combos. A seasoned SF vet knew better.

MvC gave you the illusion you were doing better than you actually were. Comparing a 30 hit combo in MvC to SF was ludicrous, unless you scaled it appropriately: ratios varied from 1:8, to upwards of 1:30 in the most bizarre cases. Was the game less fun as a result? On the contrary, MvC was an absolute blast in terms of entertainment. It was easily the most stylish one at the party, and had plenty to go around.

Ah, but the substance...

You came to expect certain things from the SF franchise: Ken's red, tattered gi, Chun-Li's hair done up into two buns...and scoring a combo in the double digits took practice, patience, and timing. The numbers lied to you. With MvC, anybody could hit the double digits, and those who gloated were the least qualified to understand why it didn't matter.

"MvC is way easier than Alpha....game's insane!" one of them spoke, trying to sell me on the adrenalin. My eyes darted to the kid and his proclamation, then back to the MvC 2 cabinet. It stood alone, ignored. Yeah. 'Crazy fun'...that's why everyone is knocking down its door to play. On its release day, MvC had a lineup of kids walling me off from the machine. The jig was up.

I turned back to Alpha, the announcer's voice barely audible against the backdrop of relics that lined the room.

The 25-Man progression team takes a photo
on the back of their respective mammoths,
Ruby Sanctum

Identifying With Neither

I sat, staring at the monitor, not knowing what to type, not knowing what approach to take. The document title stared back: Descendants of Draenor - Changes in 4.0. The cursor blinked on the plain white screen. I was at a loss. What's your strategy, chief? How exactly do you plan on getting people to stay? I didn't know. No matter the angle I framed each possible solution, a logical solution failed to present itself. Antisocial players submerged in mediocrity would have no incentive to grow. Not with the back door left wide open by our friends in high places.

A week earlier, screenshots of the 25-Man raiders floating above Dalaran on their Frostbrood Vanquishers went live on the forums, signaling our last great accomplishment in Wrath. Plenty of time remained on the clock, if we so chose to eek out Heroic Lich King, but people wanted their gear, wanted to finish off their Tier 10 four-piece bonuses. Some would want breaks, gone for the summer months. And they'd earned it. Pushing Heroic Lich King ran the risk of burning players out, discouraging them from returning. Better to give them a breather now so that they could come back refreshed later, ready to pound the virtual pavement. If a tactic had the remote possibility of regenerating stamina in the roster, I had to employ it. We'd need every last drop.

From the moment it was made public, Blizzard's announcement of merging the 10-Man and 25-Man raids into a unified lock never left my mind. I carried the baggage to and from work, and played WoW like a zombie, contemplating possibilities. Each time I thought I had it, nope...that simply won't do. The back door is wide open. After the propaganda of the Blizzard PR machine settled like so much dust, one fact remained perfectly clear: once a guildy made a choice to run a 10-Man each week, they'd be systematically locked out of contributing to the 25. It didn't help that both sizes now shared the same loot tables, but Blizzard even went so far as to claim that the difficulty would remain the same between both sizes. It was an absurd claim. Most preposterous of all: Blizzard claimed to be returning a level of difficulty more in line with The Burning Crusade. It didn't take a genius to determine how this would play out.


  1. WoW would become brutally difficult.
  2. 7.5 of the 12 million WoW players, groomed on the Wrath content, would very quickly get a wake-up call -- having never known the way things were.
  3. They would do the napkin math in their head, and leave the 25s behind, joining the far more digestible (in theory) 10-Man content.
  4. Without a healthy pool to pluck from, the 25s would collapse.

Players...guildies...would choose the path of least resistance. No offense, old-school raiders, this was a simple reduction of risk. How could I convince them otherwise? Players owed the guild nothing.

They owed me nothing.

Sure, some people might stay. I wasn't happy with 'might'. Lessons learned from Vanilla and TBC proved to me that reliability wasn't built on good intentions. You had to provide structure, rules, and a system that acknowledged and rewarded players for their contributions in order for them to make the right choice. All the structure in the world didn't account for this new threat. Part of being in the DoD team meant you were never done learning, you were willing to grow, improve, seek new ways to be a better player, a better person. What if at the end of the day, all you wanted was some phat lewts and to not have to deal with people? To not have to be told you need to shape up. Your heals need work. Your DPS is at the bottom of the charts. You're dying in the fire too much.

You're failing. Fix it.

So, given the option of taking criticism or not taking criticism, how could one hope to keep this Mediocrity Swim Team pushing for the gold? The casuals would flock together, frolicking across the land without a care in the world, while the hardcore, 5-day-a-week raiding crowd would demand excruciatingly skillful guilds as their base of operations. Where did that leave us? As I stared at the empty screen, unable to type anything, unable to even begin to guess at what the answer might be, an upsetting reality set in...

For the first time in my career as a guild leader, it wasn't doubt in myself that I feared stood in the way of our success...it was doubt in Blizzard.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

3.78. Epilogue: Growing Apart

"Leaked" warrior talents from The Burning Crusade
Friends & Family alpha (Source: Fires of Heaven Forums)

A Christmas Present

The weeks before Christmas typically experience a lull in traffic. On this particular year, present opening would fall squarely on one of the two raid days; I cancelled both. You'd still get the stragglers, bachelors, college kids, and of course, the die-hards. The ones that played every. single. day. I made my regular rounds, even during these holidays, doing dailies or wrapping up achievements. Typical upkeep. It was during one of these vacation evenings, while I re-arranged some items in Kerulak's bank, that a stranger appeared in game and whispered me. I had to re-read the source a couple of times, and when the name came into a focus, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

[W To: Ater] Ater!! Jesus Herbert Christ, how the hell are you?!?

[W From: Ater] Hey. :) What's going on?

[W To: Ater] Not a whole hell of a lot, but what's going on over there?

[W From: Ater] Had some time to kill. Fiancee is visiting her family for xmas. I'm hanging around the house alone. Thought I'd fire up the old game and check in.

I sat upright with a surge of energy, fiddling with the headphones as I jumped into Vent and sent him our new server's info. There he was. It was like he'd never left.

"This is pretty crazy, ya? They've changed a lot of stuff around."

I got right to it, "Oh my God, tons. Tons! You remember when they leaked out those bullshit talents just before Burning Crusade, and some guy photoshopped Titan's Grip into the warrior tree? You got it now, buddy."

"I see that. It's bizarre."

"Shit, I'll bet you haven't even seen the LFD tool yet. You remember when we had to spend 30 minutes coordinating a run through Sunken Temple, UBRS, all those damn heroics in TBC? Just press the 'I'."

"Oh, Wow. So this just puts you into a group now?"

"Yup. They just added this feature a couple of weeks ago. No more portal stones or whatever-the-fuck that shit was, no more waiting around -- dude, it even puts you in there with random players. And you would think that players are pretty bad, eh? But it's working surprisingly well!"

"This is a really great change. The old system was pretty broken, those meeting stones were especially bad. They've put a crazy amount of work into this."

I felt like a kid dragging their parent through Toys 'R Us, pointing to every incredible new thing on each shelf. God, how much the game had changed since his last raid...his last login.

"So you're back on Kerulak now? Or are you still playing Zanny?"

"Neither. I'm a death knight now, baby...death knight or GTFO."

"Is it as OP as I've heard?"

"It's tight. I kill everything now. Everything dies. And you know me, I'm an idiot...so that's saying something." I walked Ater through the ins and outs of the death knight's talent trees -- the Unholy, the Frost, and the Blood. My former raid leader sounded intrigued.

"So you're saying you can tank in any tree? Without a shield?"

"Well, you know crushing blows are gone now, so that's one of the reasons why it works. I mean it's already a bit spiky, but there are a lot of emergency buttons to press, too. Honestly, I don't know how you did it back then. Tanking must have been a bitch. Now, not so much. To be honest, a lot of the game has been made more approachable."

"It's a smart decision. They lower the bar, get more people in, get more players in front of their content. It's nice to see they decided to start going this direction." I could hear that UX brain of Ater's thinking aloud. Usability. Streamlining interfaces. Smoothing difficulty curves. All necessary components to building a successful product.

"They've really got us hooked with this Achievement thing. Every little thing you do now, BAM, achievement pops up. Achievement for finishing 100 quests. Achievement for clearing a dungeon. Achievement for wiping your ass."

"It's addictive, isn't it?"

"I can't stop! There are people in the guild who just constantly look for ways to get each and every achievement in the game."

"They're definitely adding the right buttons to push. The old ways were incredibly archaic. If Blizzard really wanted to catapult WoW into the mainstream, these are the kinds of changes that demand it. The most impressive part of it is that it's a six year old game. That's unheard of it from a domestic MMO. Think about it. Name any other game that's not only lasted this long, but doubled its subscriptions in that amount of time."

"I know. It boggles my mind. I have to laugh whenever anyone claims WoW is dying, or when we lose several hundred thousand subscribers, they blame it on 'the game is old'. Fuck that! The game was ancient by any other measure by the end of The Burning Crusade! Now two years later, it's even more popular than it was then."

"What was the last subscriber count?"

"It peaked around 12 million. I think they took a hit recently when something went south in China. They had a falling out with their distributor out there or something. Piracy maybe? I dunno. That was a chunk of change. Still..."

Ater agreed, "Yeah. 12 million is amazing. No other game comes close to this."

We both sat a moment in silence, reflecting...as conversations in Vent are apt to do. Ater spoke next.

"Any of the old gang around?"

"Well, Blain's recently returned to the mix, he took a bit of a hiatus at the start of Wrath. Let's see. Kaddy, of course, has gone over to Elitist Jerks, but he still pops in to Vent. We usually see him at the end of an expansion -- when EJ's done their progression. Uh, who else...who else. Dalans is still good, he's been tanking away there. Taba's here, he's helping lead the 25 with another fellow, I don't think you ever met him, he came in just as you were heading out, guy by the name of Omaric. Good kid. Sharp with a warrior. He's moved over to a druid..."

My mind drifted as as I rewound my thoughts about Omaric's origin, the advice Omaric gave me toward my then newly promoted Warrior officer, Kurst -- who was Ater's replacement.

"I gave Kurst your old job for awhile."

"Kurst! I remember him. He was solid."

Instantly, a wave of doubt washed over me. Did he remember him the way I did? Or did I miss something...did I make some grave mistake in prom...

Stop.

"Yeah, he was a solid guy. Good tank. But not ready for leadership."

"Oh?"

"It didn't work out. I don't know that he had it in himself to lead, or had the right mindset. He was an absolutely loyal follower, though. We were very lucky to have him for as long as we did."

"Ah, that's too bad. Anybody else?"

"Uh, let me think...Anni is still around, he's on his warlock now, doesn't raid, but offers advice when he can."

Ater laughed, "And is Anni's 'advice' still causing people to ragequit?"

"He's been on very good behavior recently!" I rolled my eyes and imagined Ater doing the same.

"God, the complaints that came my way because of his language were ridiculous."

I laughed, "Oh, I know! He had to have his own Vent channel! Password protected!"

"People would complain about him, then turn around and go sit in his channel, back for more."

"Funny how that works, eh? How some people just don't seem to know what they want?"

"But they know how to complain!"

"Of course! The complaining's the best part!"

We both laughed. Ater and I talked late into the evening. I told him that I left the agency he and I used to work at, how it reignited a passion for work and to build quality software. He gave me the thumbs-up, then had me connect to a remote desktop session, sharing out some projects he was working on at his new company in the windy city. I marveled at the complexity of these new interfaces he'd toiled over; they made the sandwich shop's project management tool look like child's play by comparison. The app itself pushed massive amounts of data, far more than the tech had been known to withstand. If anyone could've pulled it off, it was Ater.

Ater asked if I was playing any XBox games, and raved about the latest Call of Duty. I stood my ground and refused to play a first person shooter with my controller, deferring to my son as the one playing the console more than I. He sold the game's improvements like he worked for the company, describing in exquisite detail what made this particular iteration, Black Ops, the best-in-show. Without giving me an opportunity to protest, he ordered a copy of the game for Hunter; I made sure to have Hunter jump on Vent and thank him for the gift.

Eventually, we chatted about the guild. How I had reshaped things at the start of Wrath. How I had taken his advice and was now acknowledging people for their contributions, and we were enjoying our greatest successes to date. Administration was light, real life had better balance, and I felt like I had done a good thing. Ater seemed pleased.

When the holiday week came to a close, his fiancee returned from her trip, and Ater resumed his daily life. I never saw him in-game again, but before he left, I made sure we had each other's contact info in real life. Those nights over the '09 Christmas holiday were memorable for no other reason than being given a few extra hours, hanging out with the player who I called my mentor. I didn't need to drag up old hard feelings, interrogating him about why he left the guild, why he left me hanging. The truth was that he'd simply grown apart from the game that was once familiar. Many of the old faces were gone, only handful of names remained. Our reasons to start playing WoW may have all differed, but there was a noticeable common theme in why many of them continued to play. They played because of the people. The people made it fun. Working together, tackling problems together, overcoming problems together. Teamwork among peers. Family.

People slowly drift away from World of Warcraft as time goes on, it doesn't matter the reason. What matters is that for a short time, they were a part of something big, something meaningful, something that took effort; blood, sweat and tears to make something great. Something fun. It was hard to predict how my own longevity in the game would play out, but I knew that as long as it remained fun, I'd be here.

~~~

Thursday, July 24, 2014

3.77. My Third Mistake

"Epilogue"
Artwork by Kala-A

The Fourth Marx Brother

It was Monday, December 6th. To millions of World of Warcraft fans around the world, it was the day before Cataclysm launched. To me, it was like any other day at the office. Steam rose from the coffee in my cup as I caught up on the morning gaming news. My fellow co-workers drifted into the office behind me; I nodded and waved without diverting my gaze. Eventually, my IM window sprung to life with conversation, chatting with people thousands of miles away. It was my intent to give this particular day no special treatment. I wanted no vibe, no hint, no miniscule clue that could tip anyone off that anything was wrong. And as I began my conversation with Cheeseus, I repeated the mantra in my mind. Nothing is wrong. Everything is cool.

At the start, I shared the results of a new DKP tool Drecca and I had been testing. Getting Cheeseus chatting casually about numbers was something I knew spoke to his interests. Forever the number cruncher, his love of mathematical puzzles got him focused on what he did best....which was my strategy to catch him off guard. He was about to be hit with something I knew he wouldn't expect that particular Monday morning.

"Hey, when you get a minute, you mind giving me your straight-shooter, from-the-hip post mortem on Eh Team?"

"Could you rephrase?"

"I'd like to hear your thoughts on what transpired in the Eh Team chat channel, back around Ulduar."

Cheeseus seemed confused, "Hm, do you mean what I thought our strengths and weaknesses were? Or the sort of stuff that went into day-to-day decisions?"

"Not really, no."

"Do you mean like, where egos were clashing? Who rubbed who wrong?"

I dropped a few more breadcrumbs to point him in the right direction, "More like, guild manipulation-related decisions, who took part, who turned a blind eye, etc."

"Oh, you mean the Crasian thing?"

Interesting. "Sure, let's start with that."

He began detailing how he wished to put together his own 10-Man team after becoming jealous of Blain's success in the first tier of content in Wrath, about the same time as his promotion to Raid Leader for the 25-Man. After taking the reins, he felt there were only 17-20 consistent players week-to-week and the rest were continually carried. He grew frustrated with people that didn't improve. His lack of faith in the 25 was exacerbated as he flipped back to his own 10-Man, one with a very different mentality. The one trying to push realm-firsts. The one called Eh Team.

Things got worse as his 10-Man started to down hard modes; over and over, they were not getting the drops they needed. Thorim's AP trinket, the healing mace off of Vezax...week after week the loot tables failed to cooperate. Meanwhile, other teams like Starflex and Cowbell were hitting the jackpot, adding to the jealousy. In Cheeseus's eyes, this was when Crasian took it a step further.

"He began to ditch out on Eh Team raids and run with other teams, to try to score the items we never saw. He constantly talked about loot. 'If I got this so-and-so item, I'd be so much better off...', and how we shouldn't roll against him."

The seeds being planted.

Communism Works

"Eventually, we got Yogg+1, and that was when you promoted Taba, effectively turning the Eh Team completely Elite."

I remember the promotion. Struggling with it. For months and months, as the pressure continued to be levied on me. And then, letting my guard down, while cooped up in a hotel in Williston, ND, waiting for my car's transmission to be repaired. At what was my lowest point, I wanted to acknowledge something positive. Something good that was happening: Eh Team's success.

"We were struggling on Algalon, and then ToGC shows up and, surprise!...better loot. So Crasian falls back into his old ways, going on about his loot, and somehow, the idea of allocating loot vs. rolling on it was born. In general, I've always liked the idea of communism, but I was still getting shit loots, that wasn't why I supported the idea."

Cheeseus noted that this was when the major problems began. Omaric was winding up Ikey, so they agreed as a group to allocate more loot towards him to gear out the druid. Not everyone agreed to it. And aside from Bheer getting burnt, the allocation "worked'...which is when they began to slowly introduce it during the 25-Man.

"I'd like to think it wasn't me who was responsible, but I can say that in previous guilds, we commonly had a separate channel, say /rogue, in which we would work out amongst ourselves who was most appropriate for the next upgrade, and this often meant figuring out what other classes we needed to beat in the bidding. I understand if you consider this unethical, essentially ‘bid-rigging’ but even now I don't disagree with the concept."

The reason it worked, Cheeseus explained, was due to the 1st-round loophole: bidding 1st-round had no noticeable ramifications, so Eh Team's modus operandi officially set to "go all or go home". The minimum bid of 50 DKP for 1st-rounds meant nothing to players sitting on hundreds of DKP, the product of their consistent, reliable raiding. There was no reason not to go all in, even if members of Eh Team had differences of opinion on the matter.

"Deal making…'plotting'...was definitely happening. Crasian was guilty of this. Bheer was completely opposed. Omaric was probably a plotter, I attribute this to his need to gear the bear out, even though people like you and Dalans still needed that stuff. Guns was excited about the idea, but I don't believe he actually ever participated in it. The rest of them...I honestly can't recall, so I'm either ignorant, or it isn't worth mentioning. I think it is fair to say I used my power as Raid Leader of the 25 to plot on behalf of the Eh Team, to assist people like Omaric."

Whether my nonchalance strategy worked, or Cheeseus was naturally forthcoming, it was refreshing to see someone be so honest about the alleged events -- more so than any other individual member of Eh Team.

It didn't, for one moment, excuse the behavior away.

Good Crop, Bad Crop

When I shared the news with the officer core, the first thing they wanted to know was why hadn't I kicked each and every one of them to the curb. I would have loved nothing better. You've demonstrated what loyalty you have to me: none at all. Enjoy your permanent vacation. I couldn't. The situation had changed significantly in the months that had passed since ejecting Bukwinkul for what seemed like a trivial infraction by comparison. The roster was once again taking control over my guild, not the other way around. The difference this time wasn't due to a lack of experience or structure. Instead, a changing landscape was emerging, and any guardrails that once existed to keep from throwing gutterballs were evaporating within hours.

The consequences at my disposal were far and few between. Stripping anyone of their title had little effect. Elite had been reworked from the ground up, complete with a new name, and everyone would be starting from scratch in Cataclysm, anyway. Meanwhile, those formerly holding the role of an officer already stepped down by this point. At least I could take comfort in knowing they would never be given authority over any decision-making in DoD again. Expressing my disappointment in their behavior came off like a parent scolding an employee for stealing shit from the office. Wrong place, wrong time. So, I stuck to the unemotional pragmatism of a boss, and whatever employee perks they'd earned evaporated. Whomever remained into Cataclysm was nearly guaranteed to be shackled in political chains. With little else to work with, I got creative in making an example out of them.

The final order of business was to ensure that Eh Team's exploits left a message to future manipulators. Verbiage regarding who was guilty of what remained ambiguous on the forums, sticking to Ater's old adage: praise in public, scold in private. But, when guildies took me aside expressing interest in setting up their own 10-Man in Cataclysm, I briefed them with a conversation in Vent. "What we don't want is a repeat of what went down in Eh Team." This mysterious introduction would almost always be met with "Oh? Eh Team? What do you mean?" I'd tell the tale, expecting a little cross-pollination as word has a way of travelling. I made sure that players knew Eh Team put the traitor in "perpetrator".

In my research since the incident, I've come across many sociological explanations on what went down in Eh Team and why. Enclothed cognition causes people to take on the attributes of their clothes and labels, which may explain how a title like Elite and being draped in the most powerful gear could cause a player to act with disdain toward a perceived lower-class. Deindividuation happens when groups of people temporarily lose their sense of self, succumbing to a hive mind in which the group's actions protect against unethical behavior. Insulated from the guild's authority, it might have justified their choices as easily as a group of onlookers goad a suicidal jumper teetering on a ledge. Agentic State Theory supposes that people who see themselves as incapable of making authoritative decisions will defer to the group, thereby allowing atrocities to continue as they are no longer responsible, merely an instrument carrying out another's wishes. Pick whatever puts your mind at ease.

What picks away at me at night is the contradiction between Cheeseus's beliefs, and their actual effects in practice. Communism is a socioeconomic system in which everyone is treated as an equal. I'd already made it very clear that I intended DoD to be a meritocracy. Communism has no titles, we had very distinct ranks for Guildy, Raider, Elite, and Officer. Cheeseus's preordained allocation of loot was to ensure an efficient spread of wealth, yet the Raiders remained upgrade-starved while the Elite remain strong...and firmly in control. Everything Cheese said went directly against the new order of DoD, so why didn't I pick up on this -- perhaps the biggest red flag of them all?

Because I assumed that Cheeseus had an obligation to the guild first, before himself.

Just because you say a rule exists, or write it down on paper, doesn't mean it will be followed. Getting people to pursue the necessary steps to climb the guild ladder was easy because it's what they wanted, it was a part of their internal game plan. When their obligations to the guild no longer fit with their internal game plan, I lacked the checks and balances to hold them accountable, and this was My Third Mistake. I spent the better part of The Burning Crusade listening to excuses from the losers in my guild. Now, I was getting excuses from the winners. Perhaps there's some truth to the old Communist saying, "Good crops come from good farming, bad crops come from bad weather."

We don't live in a just world. People do bad things, sometimes without even knowing it, other times defending it as "not really bad". A smart leader knows the system can be broken, and takes measures to keep his or her people on the path. If a person's moral compass points the wrong way, you can't prevent them from following it. The job of the Guild Leader, instead, is to be the magnet under the compass. If my greatest triumph in the reworked rules was a system to acknowledge the star performers, my biggest failure was a system to keep them honest. If you wish to continue to believe that most people are inherently good, I will not dissuade you...but only a foolish leader would proceed without taking precaution to the contrary.

So, trusted blog reader...is your own conclusion similar to mine?

Left to his own devices, overwhelmed by frustration and jealousy, Cheeseus's ideals floated to the surface, let them get the best of him, let him excuse away the behavior that directly violated the rules of the guild. But without understanding his (arguably common-sensical) obligations to the guild, this belief system flourished long after his departure, perhaps made easier by Agentic State Theory (see above). Eh Team claims, to this day, that there was no true one person in power, that all decisions were made equally; I'll leave it to the reader to decide where authority in Eh Team truly rested, and who was ultimately responsible for collusion that followed. He who was smarter than all the others, who had strongly held beliefs in loot distribution that stretched further back than even their induction into the guild. He who had an unwritten responsibility to me to communicate the issues he saw unfolding and, given the right clarity of role by the guild leader, be expected to uphold what was I declared to be right...even if it meant going against his own idealistic system. He who had multiple opportunities to come clean, yet failed to do so until directly questioned.

Reader, once you have decided for yourself who the real perpetrator, the true villain is, let me be the the first to tell you:

You’re not even close.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

3.76. Burying the Leader

"WoW: Lich King"
Artwork by Grampsart

An Inconvenient Truth

Much transpired between the end of July and the launch of Cataclysm in December. The transition event marked the coming of Deathwing, and the land suffered many earthquakes as elementals sprouted forth, calling us to battle. The dedication of many players in the guild continued on into the summer months, returning to raids for gear and achievement acquisition. Players rolled alts, flipped to the Alliance to secure a Lich King kill on the enemy's side, and even returned to older content to wrap up outstanding achievements.

As you probably guessed, I headed off on my annual summer vacation, albeit taking a different route, likewise returning with a different mindset. The 4.0.1 patch eventually made its debut come October, and we settled in to our new talents and abilities. I even returned to BlizzCon that year -- my first time returning since the original "Deckard Cain" visit in '05. A great number of changes happened in the roster as we approached Cataclysm, and...just as I had done near the start of WotLK...I rolled out refinements to our guild rules, closing what I hoped to be the last remaining loopholes left unattended.

These paragraphs could produce a hefty amount of blog posts. And they will, I promise. But those posts belong to a different story, however, one we can't begin until the current story ends. In the meantime, there remains a bit of unfinished business to attend to. For this final part of the story, we'll have to leap ahead to the first week of December 2010, a few days before the launch of the expansion that ends it all.

---

I rolled the last of my raiding rule updates out to the guild forums that morning, preparing to answer questions as they arrived. I popped Pidgin open, fired off an instant message to Bheer, asking him what he thought of the updates. I expected he would be impressed and thankful; Bheer was in a group of a select few people to hold me accountable several times throughout Wrath, pointing out loopholes that needed to be closed. I remembered his state of mind when my Wrath changes were announced, two years previous. I remember being nervous, predicting the worst. And I remember Bheer being one of the first people to acknowledge the changes as exciting and beneficial for us, sating my fear and providing the validation I needed. He made me believe I was on the right track.

This time, he gave me a different response.

"So, no more guaranteed spots?"

"Negative. The day of the Elite is over. It had a good run, but...I'm concerned about how the title grew into their head, changed their attitudes over time. It changed how they treated people. Privileges became entitlements. That's not quite the direction I intended. Once their spot was 100% secure, they...well, some of them...began to act like they were untouchable."

"I'm not sure the new incentives are gonna be worth it."

Perhaps my wording wasn't entirely clear. "Look, functionally, it is the same thing as it was. If you behave responsibly and are consistent...essentially, the Elite of yore, you'll still have the same spot week-after-week. I've just removed the language about a permanent guarantee." To add clarity to my stance, I framed an example around Bheer himself, "Let's look at your spot. You were in a highly sought-after position. There were no other enhancement shaman. You were a model citizen. You signed up. You showed up. In this framework, you yourself would be present in practically every raid you request."

"But you still have the old rule written in the new Elite rank that they're expected at all raids."

"Absolutely. Again, it's not functionally different than before. The new Elite rank is still going to grant perks, but they're going to be held accountable this time. The same goes for the changes to 1st-round bidding. They're going to have to really think about what they want to burn their first round bids on, because in doing so, they reset their pool. Just additional guardrails in place to prevent people from abusing the loot system. They can still bid 1st round...it's just that now, the price to come to the table is far more significant."

I sat back in my chair, confident I'd clarified the change to Bheer. His response popped up a few moments later.

"Hopefully, that will fix the problem with folks like Eh Team colluding behind your back."

The excitement and energy in talking about my changes to the guild rules instantly came to a halt. At first, I thought I misread it. I tilted my head, squinting, leaning closer to the monitor, and re-reading the words next to his name.

.........What?

"What do you mean 'colluding'?"

As Bheer's words began to appear in the IM window, a debilitating rage welled up inside me. My teeth clenched as his story unfolded, and the glow of my monitor took on a reddish hue.

Mechanism of Convenience

A cycle repeated as Bheer revealed the grand conspiracy. Part of the story would appear in the IM window, causing my mind to leap back through time like a movie on rewind, trying desperately to pinpoint what happened when, and why I wasn't able to pick up on it. The further back I rewound my memories, the more lost in a trance I was, tightening my fists until my knuckles were white and my fingernails dug in to the skin. Then, I'd snap out of it, re-focus on the story, only to have each successive reveal toss me back into the projector of the mind, the anger blinding me to my own self-mutilation. And I scrambled to isolate the individual pieces. What had I not paid attention to? How had I let this happen? What signs had I missed?

It came about during Ulduar, Bheer claimed. The "initial discussions". They set up a chat channel in-game, protected by a password. Originally, it was to serve as a private bitching area for members of the Eh Team to collectively shit on players they felt were being carried in the 25-Man. Nobody was to share the existence of the channel to anyone in officership. Guild members that were deemed "too close to Hanzo" would also be excluded from this information. Once all of the individual members of the Eh Team acquired a rank of Elite, an alternate looting strategy was floated to the group. As items dropped from bosses, there would be a quick discussion among the group on whether or not the item would be beneficial to Eh Team. If it was, they coordinated their bidding, ensuring that someone locked down the item via a 1st-round bid, denying the item to any potential Raiders that were working towards their own upgrade.

"Were you in on this?"

"I refused to participate, as did Guns. Everyone else had a hand in it."

"Why didn’t you tell me about this before?"

"It was a mechanism of convenience that allowed the Eh Team to flourish, and we were doing well. Really well, actually. I didn't agree with it, but I also didn't want to jeopardize our track record."

I zeroed in on the irony of that statement, "...even though they kicked you to the curb, anyway."

"Well, yes, but that came later. I didn't know they were going to turn on me like that."

I took a deep breath. "Whose idea was it?"

"Crasian was the one who initially started suggesting it. The rest went along with it."

Crasian. The death knight who came and went as he pleased. The player who earned Elite, only to leave to go skiing, who claimed to have thrown a hissy-fit when I chose myself as the first to claim Shadowmourne. The death knight who lost a melee officer promotion to Jungard by a simple lax in judgement. Jungard himself had warned me about Crasian's two sides. There was the popular, guild-friendly face who loved to help fellow members knock out achievements. Behind closed doors, the other face emerged, following his own agenda to establish a steady flow of upgrades to himself, no matter what promises to guildies went unfulfilled. As long as he got his skiing in, that was the most important part.

Crasian.

He would never set foot in this guild again.

The Unusual Suspects

There was nothing I wanted to do less. Staring at the Eh Team's vent channel made me want to just draw a box around all of their names, right-click, and mass ban in one fell swoop. There's your mediation. But I owed it to them to hear them out. I was obligated to consider both sides of the story, to get a clearer picture of what actually went down. It was all part of the job. Kicking out a wife on account of her husband's bad behavior, or removing a stand-up guy from officership because he couldn't cut the mustard were tasks that seemed lightweight upon reflection. Now I was going to have to call people's credibility into question. Was Bheer's story a fabrication? Or had they genuinely lied to my face about their behavior -- Enron-esque loot funds diverted into their own accounts.

One by one, I plucked them out of the channel, dragging their name down into "Officer" for interrogation. The line of questioning was the same for each Eh Team member. I'd like you to take a moment and explain to me your point-of-view of the events that transpired in the private Eh Team chat channel with regards to loot. It should have been enough to convey exactly what I was speaking about, without playing my full hand to the table. They didn't need to know Bheer was the one who revealed the conspiracy; in the absence of that knowledge, I felt they'd give me a more accurate story.

In some cases, they really played dumb. When I fished the answers out of them, you would've thought they had just joined the guild yesterday -- manufactured shock and surprise to mollify me. They all told me something different, speaking as though they were an outside observer to something they had all been privy to. It only fueled my rage further.

Gunsmokeco: "That was going on? Really? I guess I wasn't paying attention to it."

Just like you weren't paying attention to your addons that I specifically required all players and officers to have configured for the 25-Man? At what point did you feel like you wanted to start paying attention?

Larada: "Had no idea anything was going on like that. I definitely wasn't doing it, though."

The ignorance defense seems to work incredibly well. I wonder how that works in the real world.

Sixfold: "I knew that they were trying to find a way to keep things in the inner circle, but it...I dunno...it felt unfair. I wasn't happy about them doing it. I didn't really like the idea."

...and yet you didn't feel the need to bring it to my attention, that perhaps maybe this was going against the rules.

Bulwinkul: "I dunno why I didn't say anything, but I'm not proud of it. It started as a way to vent frustrations at some of the other players who weren't contributing as much as we were."

Except that you don't get to decide what level of contribution is rewarded in this guild...I do.

Omaric: "Crasian got a little loot hungry, sure, but I wouldn't call it 'collusion'. They were just trying to work out what the most efficient path was for a certain set of upgrades."

And working together to decide who bids on what and when, under the guise of 'efficiency', you wouldn't call that collusion, eh?

Bretthew: "This is an absolute lie. Who told you this? I mean, this really pisses me off, Hanzo, I really really want to know who it was that gave you this info, because it is totally false and unfair. God, this makes me angry! The stuff that we chatted about in that channel was not collusion. Totally not collusion. The kinds of things we talked about regarding loot were no different than anything that was talked about in the officer chat. Officers did exactly the same things as we did, and nothing more. I'm offended, Hanzo."

So, what you're saying is that when I type "Please let it be heroic Deathbringer's Will" in officer chat, that's the same as you typing, "Anyone here need Voldrethar? Should we snatch it up?" Thanks for clarifying that for me.

One thing they all agreed on: when questioned on who the ringleader was, no individual member ever stepped up to take responsibility. Crasian certainly took the brunt of the bus' tire treads when it came time to place the blame on someone for the idea itself...but allowing the idea to take root and flourish fell squarely on the shoulders of the Eh Team's leader.  Yet in a stroke of either convenience, genius, oversight, or simple dumb luck, nobody in Eh Team claimed to be the one calling the shots! The one thing they all believed to be true was that they made decisions together -- a democracy of misfits and anarchists whose plausible deniability absolved them of any accountability.

What they didn't realize, however, was that there was someone who was responsible. Someone who had long since taken their leave from World of Warcraft. Someone whose ideals weren't quite aligned with my own -- especially when it came to loot. Someone who had the means to let their belief system justify a new world order of their own. Someone who had an obligation to the guild to report bad behavior and greed, rather than allow it to flourish.

Someone who really should have known better than all these bit players in the Eh Team show.

Someone that I trusted.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

3.75. Never Say Never Again

Si Team wraps "All You Can Eat (10 Player)",
completing Glory of the Icecrown Raider,
Icecrown Citadel

A Win is a Win

Sindragosa howled and filled my headphones with her threats, barking of betrayal. A barrage of arrows mixed amongst explosive buckshot loosed into the undead dragon's side as Bullshark and Cenadar strafed across her flank, their respective pets chomping in the hopes of hitting marrow. Neps and Lexxii zig-zagged across the platform while shields flashed around us, stopping occasionally as Penance spiraled out of their fingertips. Moolickalot the Boomkin dropped back, fading away from the iceblocked Phame. I watched for the timing to hand the bone dragon back to Klocker. The last remaining DPS came from Abrinis and Blain, maintaining their rotation, driving steel into bone. Her health dipped to 2%, then 1%. The flash of guild achievement spam signaled the fight's end. Si Team completed "All You Can Eat (10 Player)", the final meta necessary for Glory. And when it flashed up on the screen, cheers filled both Vent and the DoD guild chat. Finally, a 10-Man in the guild claimed completion of Glory of the Icecrown Raider...it was us.

Meanwhile, in another Vent channel, Eh Team ran back for their next attempt.

It had been neck-and-neck between Eh and Si in our collective attempts wrap up Glory. Of course, no official gauntlet had been thrown down, no line had been drawn in the forum sand. Nothing had ever been explicitly stated that this was a race. The competitive nature of raiding set us down this path. Beating Eh Team at anything stood on its own as a justifiable measure of accomplishment within the circle of cliques that populated DoD. Laying claim to the Bloodbathed Frostbrood Vanquisher certainly didn't hurt. It was a shame that no official rivalry had been digitally inked. As is often the case among "friendly" competition, being beaten in the absence of contractual obligations seemed to grant you a free pass...yet the reverse was nearly never the case. No player seemed concerned about a lack of officiating when they were the first to cross the finish line, and their chests were thumped with no less vigor. A win is a win.

Conveniently, losing the race suddenly doesn't hurt as much when you can tell yourself it wasn't a race.

"Gratz on sticking it to Eh Team," I whispered over to Blain.

"They're missing a few of their original roster." Big deal. So were we.

"Blain," I said, "you have my permission to enjoy the win. Just get the damn mailbox out already. Need to get screenies for the website."

Omaric swapped Vent channels, poking his head in to congratulate us on nailing the achievement. "Thanks, Om. Now get back in there and wrap it up! What's taking so long?" He chuckled before switching back to Eh Team's channel, a hint of indignance in his tone. I got the vibe, as if to say "Funny joke! Maybe you could take your joke and shove it straight up your ass." It's difficult to say exactly what was leaving a bad taste in his mouth, but losing Glory to Si Team by minutes didn't seem like it. Perhaps there was inter-Eh Team friction at play, drama we weren't privy to in our own private Vent channel. Perhaps he harbored resentment toward Blain pulling out another win, taking it personally; another lesson in leadership, as if to rub his nose in it without saying a single word. Or perhaps that tinge of disgust was more for me. Maybe I hadn't given him as much support as he needed as Raid Leader for the 25-Man, having to deal with being spoon fed help from a retired raid leader from a former era of WoW.

Or...maybe it was something else entirely.

Mature and members of Si Team pose with their
Bloodbathed Frostbrood Vanquishers,
The Storm Peaks

Cancelling Retirement

After collecting our mounts from the mailbox, I directed the members of Si Team to head toward The Storm Peaks for our victory shot. En route, I pulled Blain into the officer channel in Vent.

"Have you given it more thought?" I asked.

"He's definitely stepping down?" Blain responded with a question of his own.

"It's practically a done deal now. Omaric says he's fine with you taking back control of raid leadership whenever you want. He is completely done with it, chapter closed, end-of-story."

Bretthew's exit at the conclusion of 25-Man (normal) left Omaric to fend for himself, which most certainly contributed to additional pressure. He suffered a long history of struggling to take criticism and suggestions, and by this point, had expended all of his remaining energies as lead of the 25-Man. Blain's undercover adjustments kept the raid focused through those heroics, undermining Omaric's leadership in the process. Each whisper must have been like digital daggers in Omaric's eyes. Here's an example of why you're wrong. Here's another adjustment which proves you don't know what you're doing. But Blain never held animosity nor delivered malice with his adjustments. "Switch the tanks." "Let me call out the warnings." "Group further back on the steps for iceblock." What Blain typed and what Omaric read were two different things. Perhaps the differentiating factor was a simple lack of why such adjustments were needed.

Blain rarely explained himself. When he did, there were bigger problems at hand than simply re-positioning ourselves on the steps for iceblock.

"And Taba's out for good?"

"As far as I know."

"What was that all about, anyway?"

I took a deep breath. "Dunno, exactly...but I was pretty pissed off when he told me. He said something to the effect of 'killing the Lich King was my personal goal'...which apparently relieved him of any responsibility toward the 25-Man."

"Nice."

I popped open the roster and eyed the list of players that were still in Icecrown Citadel, Bretthew's name resting at the top. I guess another personal goal was Glory of the Icecrown Raider, Eh Team stylin'?

I took another deep breath and let the pulsing forehead vein subside.

"At least he stuck around as a backup while I got Kizmet situated."

Blain seemed disinterested in the whys or the why nots, "I don't know about all those crazy requirements you got now. I can't guarantee that I'll be there every. single. weekend."

The 25-Man progression team defeats Heroic Professor
Putricide, concluding "Heroic: The Plagueworks (25 Player)",
Icecrown Citadel

I shook my head instinctively, as if speaking to Blain face-to-face, "Don't let the fine print of the guild rules prevent you from taking up your old position. That's not what they're about, alright? The reason those rules are written like that is to prevent people from coming up with excuses to get away with shit you and I consider common sense. We avoided the catastrophe of TBC thus far, my plan is to continue to do so."

Blain remained quiet, which I can only assume meant he was still in contemplation. The group arrived in The Storm Peaks, and before long, were vying for position as the most prominent player in the shot.

"Look, you said yourself the raid's gone soft. This...mentality...of needing loot for progression has pretty much flourished under Om and Taba. I agree. I'm with you. I see it myself. This could be your last real chance to take control of the raid, and if the raids in Cataclysm are heading back to the difficulty of TBC, DoD's going to need someone like you to set them straight. I can't do that on my own. I'm gonna need some serious help from some serious folks."

"Ater was the one doing most of the research in the off-hours." It was as if Blain was giving me reasons to stay in retirement.

"That's no problem, I have a plan for putting people in place to take care of that for you. There are a few players left here that still give a shit, and they'll gladly step into that role...or whatever role...you need them to fill."

I thought back to those issues that manifested during Blain's career while at the head of the raid. Maybe it was best to revisit my stance on the most troublesome of those pain points.

"Remember, you will have all the support you need. The entire officer core would be behind your decisions. There will be no undermining, no questioning your strategies. I'm driving people to the forums for those discussions now. That haphazard shit is behind us. Too many cooks in the kitchen? We barely have enough now to fry up an egg."

"Who'll be my backup on the days I can't be there?"

I held back on naming names, only because I wanted to be 100% certain it was a done deal first. "I have a few people to talk to first, you let me worry about that. I'll put someone in place, that's my part of this deal. I have my eye on a couple sharp candidates already. Trust me. We can make this work."

Blain shifted amongst the crowd of frostwyrms in preparation for the historic shot. "Alright. I'm in for Cataclysm. After that, no promises."

"I'm fine with planning one expansion at a time. Anything beyond that, it's just a crap shoot by that point."

I positioned Mature in the middle, spun my camera around, and pressed the PRTSCR key. In a moment of daydreaming, my brain spun through the Warcraft lore, considering any number of possible futures beyond Cataclysm. I saw myself playing through The Frozen Throne, years before, guiding Rexxar alongside a familiar black-and-white bear.

"...I mean, Hell. For all I know, the next expansion will be filled with pandas."

Blain made his position abundantly clear, "The day they add pandas to this game will be the day I cancel my account."

The 25-Man progression team defeats Heroic Sindragosa,
finishing "Heroic: The Frozen Halls (25 Player)",
Icecrown Citadel

The Highest of Notes

Before officially retiring from leading the 25-Man progression team, Omaric pulled us through those last three meta achievements, all of which took the entire month of July to wrap. Heroic Professor Putricide was every bit as grueling as we expected, reminding us of the challenges we faced in the early days of raiding in Vanilla and TBC. It took three weeks of concerted, concentrated practice on the Professor, knocking out a kill on the 23rd of the month. Two days later, Sindragosa fell in her Heroic Mode, the progression team sprinting to the Lich King to knock out Neck Deep in Vile. And we did, in classic DoD fashion, in our famous last pull of the night. The raid had no qualms staying a few minutes late that Sunday evening, collecting their mounts and being captured in the guild's killshot.

DoD wraps the final meta, "Neck Deep in Vile (25 Player)",
earning "Glory of the Icecrown Raider (25 Player)",
Icecrown Citadel
DoD's last major accomplishment in Wrath of the Lich King was Glory of the Icebound Raider, granting the team their Icebound Frostbrood Vanquishers. On that day of July 25, 2010, the team proudly hovered over the landing pad in Dalaran and their accomplishments were digitally etched into DoD's history.

The percentage of raw content we claimed victory over, no other expansion came close...nor ever would. We left three quarters of Naxxramas and one third of Ahn'Qiraj untouched in Vanilla (not to mention three of the four outdoor green dragons). In TBC, the entirety of the Sunwell Plateau was left behind. By comparison, only three bosses remained incomplete from the 25-Man perspective, and all three were in their heroic forms: Halion in Ruby Sanctum, Anub'arak in the Tournament of Champions, and The Lich King himself. It wasn't a 100%, but I'd take a 96% over an 80% and 60% any day of the week.

The 25-Man progression team shows off their
Icebound Frostbrood Vanquishers,
Dalaran
From a camaraderie perspective, Descendants of Draenor couldn't have ended Wrath of the Lich King on a higher note. It was the first expansion we suffered no exodus; no massive group of players left us to greener pastures. And even in the day-to-day of wading through the celebrity of Enigma and their rise to prominence on Deathwing-US, we never lost a player to them...or to any competing guild that surpassed us in progression. The bonds of loyalty may have tensed, but withstood even the biggest of egos. Not even The Eh Team could be swayed to part ways with DoD; they never left our side, instead standing defiantly among the roster when approached by the competition. Wrath of the Lich King will forever remain the apex of Descendants of Draenor's success, from every angle.

Every angle but one.