Thursday, November 20, 2014

4.15. Same Team

"Gryph vs. Gryph"
Arwork by Ol'ga Bol'shakova

The Sickest Sense

One spring day in 1985 I learned two things about my friend Stephen: that my Coleco Vision's game controllers were compatible with his Commodore 64, and that he was a thief. Before I tell this tale, let me start with an apology. Perhaps I'm being hasty with my labels. "Friend" might be pushing it. Let's agree on something a bit more conservative, say "acquaintance".

This was my first lesson in reading people, and learning that ulterior motives were very real.

Geeks were a rare commodity in the small town of Parksville, so I took what I could get. I invited Stephen over after school, even though I knew I'd be a crummy host. Gaming options were limited. We were one year in on a digital deficit, thanks to the video game crash of '84. It would be a few years before the big N invaded North America, kicking off the 8-bit revolution. These were all minor obstacles in the quest to get a gaming fix. The biggest hurdle was keeping Mom at bay.

She hated video games. Hated the sight of them. Hated the noise. More accurately, she hated what they did to me. Sitting, staring for hours, wide-eyed, rolling games like Zaxxon and Donkey Kong, to the exclusion of everything else: all responsibilities, all homework, all chores. All common sense. Video games had a detrimental affect on me, and Mom read me like a book. She despised them, and so, my game library suffered as a result. I owned the two aforementioned cartridges, and a third: BC's Quest for Tires, based off a Sunday comic strip where the only thing more prehistoric than its setting was its jokes.

Donkey Kong, Zaxxon and BCs Quest for Tires...that was the extent of my video game library for nearly a decade; I wouldn't be allowed to make another video game purchase for six more years.

I wanted to race straight to my room to fire up the Coleco Vision, but manners compelled me to introduce Stephen. Mom smiled, shook his hand, and asked him how he liked our school, the teachers, his classes -- typical small talk one might expect of a mom. He rattled off a mix of "yah", "nah", "I dunno", then excused himself to hit the bathroom. I spun to resume my race to the bedroom, images of spaceships and explosions dancing in my head. A firm grip on my arm stopped me. Before I had a chance to give her a what?, she leaned in and delivered a commanding order under a hushed tone,

"Do not bring him around this house again...ever. He is trouble waiting to happen."

Her words only registered for a split second, quickly erased by images of Mario leaping over barrels. But in that split second in the mind of an 11 year old, I had to wonder one thing: What was it exactly that she sniffed out? He couldn't have been in her presence for more than a couple of minutes. How he spoke? What he wore? Uncombed hair? Or was it something else entirely, something you can't put your finger on, but you know it when you see it. An uneasy feeling in your gut when you look it straight in the eye and you know something isn't right. Mom called it a vibe. And whatever vibes Stephen was giving off, I wasn't getting them. Was it youth? Inexperience?

...or a mad addiction to video games suppressing them?

---

Three weeks later, Stephen returned the favor, and invited me over to his place for a gaming session. Unlike my sparse options, however, Stephen's bedroom yielded a mother lode of Commodore 64 games. The computer's little details didn't escape my notice: the tan coloring of its plastic casing, the single row of brown "F" keys along the right edge (holding one of them down was a common requirement in loading C-64 games)...and, of course, the two 9-pin connectors engineered into the right wall of the computer case.

Game controllers in the early 80s were pretty much the same. They were either analog or analog/digital hybrids (8-way controllers usually fell into this latter group) but most all shared a common connector: the DE 9 Subminiature or "D-Sub" for short. Forming the shape of a trapezoid, the joystick cable led to a female connector in two rows (5 bottom, 4 top), and the game console provided the male counterpart. D-Sub controllers were prolific, compatible with Atari 2600s, 7800s, the Intellivision II, the ZX Spectrum, the Amstrad and Amiga. Eventually, D-Subs would provide support for the Sega's Mark III and Mega Drive...or what we'd call the Sega Master System and Sega Genesis, respectively. The pinouts -- how the 9 pins actually mapped to their respective game controllers -- didn't always match up exactly, but in most cases, compatibility was surprisingly good.

One such compatibility was the Coleco Vision and the Commodore 64.

The Commodore 64 computer had two game controller
ports that were compatible with Coleco Vision paddles (right)

Blinded by Obsession

After the thirty minute bike ride to Stephen's house, I dropped the navy green backpack on the floor of his bedroom, unlaced it, and produced two black Coleco Vision paddles.

"You think they'll work?" Stephen asked, grabbing the connectors and jamming them into the ports.

"One way to find out..."

The game of choice to test the two controllers was Spy vs. Spy, a simultaneous 2-player game pitting the infamous cone-nosed MAD Magazine characters against one another in a battle of tricks, traps, and treasure. Two player games were rare in 1985; if they existed, players typically took turns try to beat each other's high score. A game supporting two players at the same time was a rare luxury.

The controllers worked beautifully.

Stephen shared a bedroom with his older brother Cameron. Once Cam saw the dual joystick action, he wanted to get in on it, so we rotated him via "winner stays" rules. Round after round, traps were set and triggered, heads were cracked with batons, bombs exploded in unsuspecting faces, and angelic spies floated up to heaven. It was a blast. But like all blasts, time flew by, and eventually, the time came to depart. I bagged the game controllers back up, hit the bathroom before the long ride home, then said good-bye to Stephen and his brother, and headed out.

There were no surprises on the way home. I took the same route I always took, taking a short cut through a wooded area along a bike path worn down by kids in the neighborhood, cutting across a shopping mall's parking lot, and down through a neighbor's unkempt yard. I never fell of my bike. I wasn't robbed at gunpoint. There wasn't any period of time I was without my backpack; it was cinched closed and laced tightly, and hung off my shoulders for the duration of the ride.

You can imagine my shock, then, when I got home, opened it up and found...no controllers inside.

I frantically rewound the memories of my ride home, but there was no event to single out. I grabbed the phone and called Stephen. Had I left them there? He checked...nope, not there. Must have fallen out on the way home. I hung up, and tears began to well. Could they have possibly fallen out? It made no sense; the backpack was closed the entire ride home. The more I wracked my brain for an explanation, the more upset I became. Most frightening of all was facing Mom's wrath -- the only thing she hated more than video games was dealing with the fallout. Those game controllers were not cheap, not replaceable, and would bring a swift end to my video game addiction. I half expected her to rejoice in hearing they were gone.

Mom had a very different response than what I expected.

As I stood in the kitchen, blubbering, and still clinging to the empty backpack, Mom picked up the phone and began dialing. She butted a du Maurier cigarette into an ashtray as she waited. Someone picked up. Her tone was cordial, with perhaps just a tinge of condescension.

"Yes, Hello? To whom am I speaking? Cameron? Yes, hello there Cameron, this is Shawn's mother. Are you Stephen's brother? Oh, you are! Good, well, I'm calling to let you that you Shawn seems to have forgotten his game controllers at your house. Is someone going to be there at the house in the next hour? Because he's going to be coming by to come pick them up, so when would be a good time for that?"

A pause.

"Yes, I heard the conversation earlier, I'm not interested in listening to any of that right now. Yes. Uh-huh. Yes, well I really don't care about that story, Cameron, as I said earlier, perhaps you weren't listening. His controllers are at your house, and he's going to be coming by to pick them up..."

A longer pause. I watched Mom's face. Her eyes narrowed.

"...Well, if that's your story, Cameron, then I have a story for you: I've called the cops on you and your thieving little brother, and they are going to be at your door in the next fifteen minutes unless you cough those game controllers up. I'm gonna wager a guess that your parents won't be too thrilled about that. We'll see you in fifteen minutes!"

...and she hung up.

I stood for a moment, wiping the tears away, staring wide-eyed at Mom. She hadn't called the police. Can...can you do that? She drew another cigarette from the pack, looking back at me in...disgust? Or was it pride? How much longer am I going to have to fight your battles for you, son? Or maybe, it was sometimes, when people play dirty, you have to play dirty.

The minute of silence ended abruptly as the telephone rang out. Mom answered, speaking in the faked politeness.

"Hello? Yes, he's right here, just a moment!", and she held the phone out toward me.

"...Hello?"

"......yeah, this is Cam. Come get your controllers."

In-game screenshot of Spy vs. Spy,
based on the MAD Magazine comic strip
created by Antonio Prohias

Two to Tango

Parksville grew rapidly in the 80s, and "Town of" had to be replaced by "City of" before I left grade school. Rapid growth forced limited classrooms to deal with their size by instituting a 3/4 and 4/5 split. This was how I first met Stephen's older brother Cameron, who (in Grade 4) ended up seated across from me, a lowly Grade 3er. Cam was a smug piece of work with a penchant for flicking stones as adeptly as he flicked insults. But his true versatility came in how he affected the room.

He hung with the best and brightest bullies in school...or at least they seemed to be bullies. By themselves, a good number of those kids were no worse nor better behaved than the other. For whatever reason, Cam brought out the very worst in them. He was a button pusher, and knew what buttons of mine to push. Say the right thing, and watch Zurba fly into a rage -- it must have been hilarious for him, a free show every day with minimal investment on his part. I was small, weak, and Mommy fought my battles for me, so "crybaby" worked particularly well; I was a bully's dream come true. What upset me more than the name calling was his affect on people. With Cam in the room, everybody was a bully.

I had few friends, and even fewer that shared a passion for video gaming. In that small town of Parksville, a gaming nerd was a rare treasure to stumble upon. So rare, in fact, that it was easy to turn a blind eye to any riff-raff it happened to attract. It was our mutual love of video games that brought us together and allowed us to leave our differences at the door. This was my reasoning, at least... my naive and inexperienced reasoning.

I was quick to forget any atrocities Cam committed against me on the school playground, if it meant looping him in for the next round of Spy vs. Spy. I never stopped to ponder whether or not it was all just an act, that he was excited because of his own self-interests, especially at the convenience of having game controllers where, formerly, there were none.

There was nothing complex about this first lesson. No diplomacy required to understand motivation, no finessing people to extract any subtext. It was very simple: some people want what you have, and they'll do whatever it takes to get it. And when it happens, it won't be a series of strategic moves to topple you from a kingdom, no mosaic of plotting, no navigation of political minefields. They'll take what they want, and the story will end. You'll want an explanation for why you were betrayed, but you won't get one...because there won't be one.

There is no betrayal where loyalty never existed.

When I showed up to collect my controllers, Stephen didn't answer the door. There was no apology. No hung head in defeat at being caught red-handed, and no show of remorse. Instead, the ringleader was the one with the balls to face me, standing on the front steps with the controllers jammed into a plastic grocery bag. Hours earlier, we were all on the same team, playing video games and having a blast, and all was right with the world.

"Here" was the only thing he said to me as he shoved the bag in my face. I looked back into his eyes, to see if I could get a read on whatever Mom got from Stephen. He stared back with a cold smirk, no hint of defeat, no acknowledgement of loss; an unremarkable vibe of apathy. I got the message, loud and clear:

I was never on your team, loser. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

4.14. Leaders By Proxy

Blizzard's newly revealed Demon Hunter
wanders the convention center,
BlizzCon 2010

Guildies For Days

Two men stood on the steps of the Anaheim Convention Center. The first, easily six feet tall, wore a pair of rectangular glasses similar to my own, had thinning hair, and bore a tanned complexion that only nerds local to California could enjoy the luxury of. The other was shorter than I, a bit paler, with more meat on him. His black hair was thick and curly, and greeted me with a smile more appropriately described as a smirk. Both were guildies, both also former Avatars, acknowledged for their exceptional contribution and dedication to the guild. Both members of the 10-Man squad recently tasked with rolling Alliance alts and defeating the Lich King "because they could." One was Moolickalot, and the other was...

"Drecca?" I presumed, pointing.

The shorter of the two gave a single wave.

"You, my friend, are the savior of the guild."

He nodded and said "cool" as if I had complimented him on his shoes. I don't think Drecca understood how vitally important his role in the guild was. He joined DoD at a crucial point in ICC progress, both as Bretthew was strategizing an exit from raiding (and raid leadership) while his partner, Omaric, grew increasingly dissatisfied with tanking. To Drecca, it seemed a simple thing: come in, tank, kill some bosses, walk out with loot -- all in a day's work. It was much more than that. Tanks are the pillars of a raid team's foundation. It isn't enough just to have them present. They have to own it.

The tank sets the pace of the pulls and bears the brunt of the boss's force; they drive the charge and you follow. Even if you don't place them in a role of responsibility, your guild will grow to see them as leaders over time -- it happens organically. Drecca may have been "cool" with my praise, but I made it a point to remind him of the precedent he was setting. He was quickly becoming the type of guildy I hoped my team would mimic: having a practical, laser-like focus on getting the job done, no matter the cost. I never heard Drecca drop phrases like "yeah, but..." or "maybe if we..." Here's the obstacle, this is what we need to do. Get it done. Pulling in 3...2...1...

I led them back into the convention center, and shot Drecca a quick footnote, "I need to show you the next rev. of our website. I think I've found a way for you to keep your own DKP pool for the Alt. 25...and it even works with players that aren't in the guild."

---

"I swear to God Almighty, if he texts me 'LOL' one more time, I'm going to stab myself in the face."
Joredin laughed while I thumbed another SMS message back to the perpetrator. DoD was deep in recruitment mode as the weeks ticked away toward Cataclysm's release. Just prior to the 'con, we gobbled up another tank, and a torturous stream of messages beginning and ending with LOL was proof that the kid was near. As Joredin and I sat in the foot court, my phone vibrated with updates from a player perpetually lost.

LOL where are you?

having a hard time finding u lol

lol which sied is the food on

"I don't know how many more ways I can describe 'the place where you go outside to eat' here. Atrium? Vestibule?"

Joredin wiped a tear of laughter away, "that would probably make it worse!"

"Seriously. Can this guy not get a map? There is a map of the convention center, isn't there?"

"What's his deal?" Joredin asked.

It was a very common story. Reasonable tank, adequate skills -- a role that was always in high demand. An opportunity arose to get his foot in the door with a hardcore guild, but the guild leader had other intentions. Once baited in, the guild leader used him to make a sales pitch to more dedicated, hardcore raiding tanks. "Oh sure, we're raiding today, here's our MT. But...with you on board, we could be so much greater." The directionally-challenged kid had been made a stepping-stone, catapulting the raid to greatness, leaving him benched in the process. I carved a spot out for the kid, and looked forward to seeing what he could.

That is, if I didn't go insane first.

which side again lol?

I stared at Joredin a moment, stunned with disgust, then thumbed a text back:

I will murder you in your sleep.

A few moments later, the phone buzzed with with a response:

Sorry, not good with directions :(

Let's hope you tank better than you navigate.


Bretthew (Taba) and Kadrok ride the Gyroscope,
BlizzCon 2010

He Has It

Most attendees would agree that the most memorable moment from the BlizzCon 2010 panels was the Red Shirt Guy, famously taking Alex Afrasiabi and Chris Metzen to task by calling out a plot hole with the Wildhammers. For me, an unrelated question had a far greater impact...

...or rather, its answer, and the person who gave it.

QA sessions were pure entertainment. Attendees generally pitched softballs at the designers. things like why doesn't (insert class) have its own special mount? and weren't we promised a Moose? and where's the dance studio? I'd hear questions like these and immediately have one of my own: Why are you wasting our time? I had to hand it to Blizzard, they were always incredibly patient and gracious with their fans, regardless of how inane the questions might be.

Class QA was a bit different, though...it caused the real hardcore math nerds to emerge. Why don't you add a glyph to make this ability's cooldown line up with other attacks? How do you plan to keep Mastery from making us too bursty in PvP and too dulled in PvE? Why hasn't rage normalization solved the warrior's resource management issues, and how do you plan to address? They were the types of questions that got you leaning forward with your bag of popcorn.

Blizzard's class team, led by Ghostcrawler, always responded with thoughtful professionalism, yet astute listeners could often pick up on those tell-tale traits of uncertainty. "...we're still looking at this," "...we'll continue to tweak and tune as necessary," and ", that's a very good point, and we'll be keeping an eye on it." These types of answers left me cringing; they translate into "I don't know," "I'm not at liberty to say," or "My answer is probably going to infuriate you."

But it was during a question about a perceived unfairness favoring a paladin's holy damage (along with a subsequent lack of holy resistance) that an unfamiliar face came out of the woodwork. I'd never seen this Blizzard employee before, did not recognize the name or face, and wasn't sure where they fit in amongst the typical Ghostcrawler-dominated media blitzes. He had a quiet yet extraordinary delivery: he spoke in rapid-fire bursts, pausing to accentuate the most important points in his response.  

"As an additional quick followup, I think it's worth nothing: I think the advantage of holy over other spell schools isn't quite as large as it used to be in the past. We don't generally make resistance-oriented gear anymore, and so if you're facing a paladin...really, the difference between facing someone that deals holy damage versus facing someone that does fire damage is maybe your blessing of kings or mark of the wild...maybe mitigating 10% of the fire damage and not the holy...

...but that's not really...that's not the reason you're losing to the paladin...if you are."

He ended the barrage with a smile and a nod as the crowd slowly caught up to him. Once they 'got' the answer and the joke, laughter and applause followed.

I glanced at Drecca, impressed, "Oh, I like this guy. That was a hell of an answer right there."

Ion Hazzikostas would come to provide many more insightful answers in the months and years to come.


DoD leaves its mark on the "Guild Wall",
BlizzCon 2010

The Con Concludes

Goldy managed to find his way in on the second day, taking advantage of a huge line of ticket holders requesting refunds for last minute cancels. I joined him, acquiring a second goody bag to be shipped back to New York for Hellspectral, once such cancellation that was a result of work. Shortly after, we waited in line alongside Bonechatters, Borken, Larada, and others from DoD, to try our hand at Diablo III PvP Arena. Goldy and I formed a team: I drove a Barbarian while my guild mage manned the Wizard (unsurprisingly). The PvP in Diablo III was coming along nicely; it was definitely faster and more raw than the arenas I was accustomed to in WoW. Diablo III had secretly been in development for so long, and was such a cherished franchise to so many players, that its eagerly anticipated release was certain to be memorable. When that day arrived, I wondered how I would ever fit the time in.

While waiting in line for Diablo III, Goldy tugged my shirt, then pointed across the room, "Pretty sure that's Taba and Kadrok over there."

I squinted, trying to zero in on the faces across the room. Sure enough, the two of them were strapped into a device known to spin humans until sick. I snapped a photo, and looked forward to hearing about their lunch.

There were many more sights to take in: server blades that made up the original launch of WoW back in '04, many pieces of officially sanctioned artwork that could be bid on, even life-sized statues of their many heroes. Eventually, I came across a "guild wall" where attendees could permanently etch their presence into the Blizzard's history, scribbling messages and sketching pictures to prove they had been there. I grabbed a marker and penciled in our guild tag where I found room. Below it, I left Ater's famous quote: a guild motto that made no secret about our strategy.

---

The BlizzCon festivities ended tenaciously. We spilled out of the convention center in a daze, the DoD cavalcade marching south in search of food and drink. We made our way to a Pizzeria / Sports Bar called Oggi's. The wait staff jammed five tables together in order to seat the party. Pitchers of beer cycled through the procession. We drank. We told stories. We laughed. For a short time, surrounded by guildies in real life, the concerns of DoD's longevity and of Cataclysm were forgotten. In that evening of cheering nerds celebrating their victories over Internet dragons, the six years were worth it, and had renewed confidence that this group could stick together. It was a trip both exciting and informative, granting me a rare look into the people on the other side of the screen.

"I feel good about this," I said, nodding, "We've got the right changes in places. This is doable. The guild's still got some life left in it, and if we band together...yep. I think we can pull this off." I looked back at the guildy sitting across the table from me, and got my final read of the night.

I've made many mistakes as a guild leader, but none were as egregious as the one I was about to make. My first lesson in reading people had come many years before. It should have prepared me for this moment...and I looked away.

You should have known better.

I should have known better.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

4.13. Return to BlizzCon

A mage with polymorphed target,
BlizzCon 2010

If You Could See What I Hear

In the first episodes of "The Guild", a hyperkinetic gamer faces her worst fear: the people she games with become a part of her real life. As Codex's dual realities collide, awkward shenanigans follow. The show's beauty is in how comically accurate Felicia Day's characters mirror common stereotypes: The Antisocial Introvert, The Model Parent, The Infatuated Stalker, The Bitch, The Commander Obsessed With Practicality, The Kid That's Not a Kid And Tired of Being Treated Like One. The Guild's portrayal of gamers is meant to be light-hearted and satirical, but peel away the jokes and the show's accuracy hits closer to home than you might think. We don't often get an opportunity to interact with our rosters in real life -- it's an invaluable trove of peripheral data that helps you understand motivations and intent. Navigating the personalities of your guild is already a challenge, and if you aren't paying enough attention, you may miss the cue that walks you directly into a tree.

Options for getting face time in Descendants of Draenor was limited. The locals were the most obvious contenders: Graulm, Evilexan, Selga, Volitar, Kizmet. Those who traveled to (or through) Denver were the next best bets. Burburbur flew in for his twin brother's wedding one year, and we hooked up at the Mongolian BBQ near Market Street Station. He was burly, with a thick head of hair and a beard covering a wide grin. Bur was the kind of guy you'd expect to prefer game hunting as a hobby, rather than moving a digital warrior in and out of a Vaelastrasz rotation. As if to fulfill some prophecy, he famously held up a boss pull one evening to put a bullet between the eyes of a raccoon getting too familiar with his garbage.

Bheer was another visitor, showing up for a conference one year. I bolted out of the office and raced down 16th St., to meet him for beers in a hotel lobby. He was a big boy, perhaps a reflection of the love of his namesake, but to be fair, it isn't difficult to dwarf me. We sat for hours in that lobby, drinking and sharing tales of Vanilla raiding, how the game had changed, and what was next in store for DoD.

Last on the opportunity list were those I visited when travelling, and those options were far and few between. Work took me to Dallas, TX on corporate sponsored trips, stomping grounds to my warlock officer Eacavissi. I got a chance to sit down and listen to him unravel the mysteries buried deeply in organic nanomaterials. His Ph.D. was still several years away, but Eaca's knowledge of solar cells was intimidating, if not borderline obsessive...at least, to the lay person.

Those who lived near me, those who came to visit, and those who I visited, didn't even add up to a baker's dozen. The only other opportunity to meet guildies face-to-face was at the pivotal event for all things Blizzard. This time, I'd face nearly twenty of them at once.

Chris Metzen delivers the "Geek Is" intro,
BlizzCon 2010

California Dreamin'

BlizzCon eluded me for four years. I was able to fit the initial event in, back in 2005, but obstacles conveniently got in the way in the years to follow. Blizzard took 2006 off, assumedly to focus on getting The Burning Crusade out the door. When BlizzCon returned in '07, the fall date had been pushed forward, conflicting with our trip to the Great White North. The timing was right for '08, returning to October, but their freshly launched online ticket purchase system had other plans. I spammed F5 as best I could, but only the very lucky made their way to the 'Con that year. As for BlizzCon 2009, it once again crossed over the family vacation, so I traded the company of nerds for those invested in hydraulic fracturing.

At long last, plans to attend BlizzCon finally came together in 2010.

Goldenrod was my host and chauffeur. Slightly taller than me, his brownish hair and beard bore the faintest tinge of red, and he greeted me at the airport with a warm smile and a firm handshake. We darted through the traffic of a surprisingly busy parking garage, ending up at his Scion, which he affectionately referred to as his "toaster on wheels". As we drove off into the night, my phone unrelented with non-stop arrival announcements.

"This is my life," I said, Goldenrod laughing in response, "even when I'm not online, I'm guild leading."

---

The morning of October 22nd was layered a thin, almost fog-like mist. It was nothing at all that I expected of California, but Goldy confirmed it not uncommon in that climate, guaranteed to pass. We ate at Ruby's on Balboa Pier, the pacific ocean painting a backdrop behind my guildy. I watched his mannerisms carefully as he spilled his guts. The breakfast confessional began with his history in DoD, WoW in general, his love/hate relationship with mages. Soon, he transitioned into real life: relationship struggles, his faith, career aspirations, and living in California. As the conversation carried on, he was attentive and nodded frequently, shoegazing at times with particularly difficult reveals, but looked directly at me when acknowledging his past. There were no surprises here: he hated his mistakes. I reassured him not to dwell, "Join the club." I told him to put his first guild exit out of his mind, and agreed that emotions govern more than what we'd like to admit. "You're aware of it, now. That's huge. More than can be said for a huge group of humanity that lives in denial." The rattle of my phone snapped us both back into reality, and it was then that I noticed Goldy's prophecy fulfilled -- the mist was gone.

Goldy dropped me off at the convention center, then disappeared back to work, hoping to finagle an early dismissal. I meandered my way through the massive line-up wrapping around the convention center, snapping pictures of cosplayers and searching for my next guildy: Joredin. He found me, and spent a few minutes catching up, having to yell over the occasional wave of FOR THE HORDE screams that cascaded across the crowd. It was great to have him back, and the work he'd done for the guild's 10-man team management helped set the stage for the Tactician rank I was about to bestow upon him.

The line began to move, and we wove our way into the convention center. Before long, we were seated and watching Chris Metzen deliver his infamous "Geek Is" introduction. After digesting a barrage of reveals like the Demon Hunter and DOTA for StarCraft II, I was eager to navigate the conference floor, but the loss of time was dizzying as we bounced from one display to the next. The buzz of incoming text messages continued to flood in, and I elbowed Joredin, "That was Taba. There's a handful of them at the hotel." As we headed toward the doors, Chris Metzen himself stepped out of the crowd of faces, just long enough for me to stop him for a picture.

Joredin (left), Chris Metzen, and Hanzo,
BlizzCon 2010

Information Overload

Taba waved me up to second floor from the balcony. I climbed up the steps, slapped Taba on the back, and shoved my way into his hotel room as a pushy guild leader should. Four more faces awaited Joredin and I. Taba's girlfriend Nikada, freshly inducted into DoD as a Death Knight, was there, her most noticeable feature being long, dark black hair. Omaric rose to meet me with a handshake, "In the flesh." I was immediately struck by how short he was. "Omaric, what the Sam Hell is going on?" I glanced past him to see Sixfold and his girlfriend, immediately locking in on his hair swept up into a fauxhawk,  and a single silver loop punctured through his eyebrow. I bypassed the formalities, "Did you bring them?" Six rustled around his suitcase and produced a small red box with a label that read du MAURIER. He handed me the familiar Canadian brand of cigarettes, and I tore the plastic off. Taba looked surprised, "Wow, Hanzo. I didn't know you smoked."

"I don't," I said, shooting him an unwavering stare while I lit and inhaled, "Let's eat."

---

Sixfold lounged in his chair, the glint of the afternoon sun occasionally bouncing off his eyebrow ring. His ultra laid-back casualness was in stark contrast to Taba, who seemed to fidget in his chair, shifting constantly as he discussed the 'Con. Omaric reached across the table to grab a handful of nachos, "So, Hanzo. You upset about them cancelling the contest?" Both Omaric and I came to the 'Con prepared with a arsenal of possible options for this year's voice talent contest, only to find that the contest had been cancelled due to lack of interest.

I took a drag off my cigarette, "I'm fucking distraught over the decision, to be honest."

He laughed. It would've been a great challenge to go up against Omaric's incredible vocal talent. My plan was to hit the audience with a recreation of the entire Wilfred Fizzlebang/Lord Jaraxxus intro, complete with a new hilarious ending that the raiders of the 'Con would appreciate. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. As Omaric revealed his own plans to knock out a kick-ass impression of Prince Malchezaar, I was continually struck by how much presence his voice carried, not at all matching the frame of the guy sitting next to me. Omaric was easily the shortest and youngest looking of the group, with large blue eyes and tufts of whiskers struggling to burst forth from his chin. He was tearing his way out of boyhood with ferocity, his commanding, deep voice leading the charge.

Taba definitely gave off that youthful vibe; easy, considering he was ten years younger than me. I kept going back to his glasses: rectangular (like mine), but with much thinner frames, and more prominently squared off at the corners. I can't tell you why I hyper-focused on this particular attribute, yet I was continually distracted by it. I watched as he trading talking for drinking, slowly bleeding the pitcher of beer away amid random bursts of cheers and excitement that he'd been known for over Ventrilo.

I turned to the gal sitting next to Bonechatters, revealed as Rainaterror, who had been quiet thus far. I quizzed her on career choices in an attempt to learn more about the people comprising my guild, "So what do you do?"

"I'm a teacher."

"Ah, nice. Education. And why'd you go that particular route?"

She shrugged, "I dunno. Something to pay the bills, I guess."

Who becomes a teacher...to pay the bills?

My phone rattled again, this time, from Moolickalot:

Drecca's here.

I thumbed back a response that we were on our way, then sat up and made an announcement to the table, "Let's wrap this up, folks. We've got another Pally in the house."

Thursday, October 30, 2014

4.12. Water Under the Bridge

The first gift my wife bought me.
Supports the swap trick without a mod chip.
I know. She's awesome.

Intake

Being married to a probation officer has its perks.

The biggest regret, looking back, was how easily I swept family under the rug. This was the six year mark as guild leader, but my sixteenth year as husband. Neglecting her to ensure the guild stayed focused through 40-Man raids was poor judgement on my part; very representative of life decisions thus far. Turn the clock back a bit further, and you'll come to learn about the day my wife was keeled over, puking her guts out with the stomach flu on the very day movers were arriving. They continued to cart boxes out to their truck, while I wrapped up "just one more round" of Team Fortress Classic. I was bona fide "Husband of the Year" material. One of my first offenses involved the purchase of a PlayStation game with money set aside for groceries. Street Fighter Alpha, to be specific. Great port, by the way. Included a fantastic remixed soundtrack that could be toggled on/off in-game; I highly recommend it if you enjoy 2D fighting games, and own a classic PSX.

Did I mention that the first generation PlayStation was the first gift she ever bought me? True story. So, on the downside, we ate a lot of ramen that month -- but if you came over to visit, there would definitely be some SFA going down.

Jul and I had come a long way from those early days of marriage, but it was only really now coming to fruition, sixteen years later. I hate thinking about how much she shouldered, particularly when Descendants of Draenor was birthed. It was unfair and unkind, wholly representative of my fixation on video games. It wasn't until around Wrath of the Lich King that I started to become aware of the impact my decisions were having on her, and slowly, I began trading excuses for acceptance. Eventually, we could have evenings together again, share in the day, and just plain talk. And Jul always gave an ear, particularly when it came time for me to broach the subject of people analysis.

I like to think my wife has proficiency in reading people -- since she made it her career.

---

"The word you're looking for is 'recidivism'."

"Sure, OK. Repeat offenders, right? And what's that look like for alcoholics?"

Jul shook her head, waiting for a response. She hoped I would finish the sentence, "...in what context? What kinds of crimes are we talking about?"

"Oh, I get it. Like domestic abuse or theft..." I said.

"Yeah! The demographics change based off of the type of crime."

I paused, cycling through all the ways I might try to criminally classify inappropriateness and abuse, which is about as close to a "crime" as a guild leader could get in categorizing d-bag guild members.

"Well, if someone is out wandering randomly in public, drunk off their ass, hurling insults."

"That could still be a number of different types, it could be civil disobedience...if the person is directing threats to someone in particular, it could be public harassment. There's public drunkenness, the list of statutes is long, and quite often it isn't really clear!"

"Public intoxication isn't really punishable in the state of Colorado is it?"

"You can plea down, though, from a more serious offense, and still end up serving probation."

This was becoming more complex than what I gave the original question credit for. Jul sensed frustration, "...what are you really trying to ask, here?"

"I...am struggling with whether or not I should let someone back into the guild. Someone that was verbally abusive to another player. The guy has a history with the drink. We've talked about it. He's remorseful. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt but...I just wish there was a way I could make a better judgement call on this."

"Look. Just because we have a by-the-book classification for each offense, that doesn't mean there's an answer for each individual person you can just look up. If you go into the office and have a pat response for each and every case that gets dropped on your desk...you're not doing your job."

She was right. The college kid that had one too many drinks after a party and killed his friend might be the same offense as a tipsy constructor worker accidentally dumping a load of lumber on a co-worker...but they're still two human beings. They have histories. They have agendas. Remorse is sincere or manufactured. People regret their decisions, or are indifferent. They are capable of growing...or not. What it takes to sort this all out is the read. Sitting them across the desk. Smelling the alcohol on them after getting a denial that they've gone near a bottle at all. Watching them fidget and turn away when asked if they're attending alcohol treatment classes. The crime is important to sort people into generalized punishment categories, but getting a read on someone is crucial in determining who gets another chance.

Except that I had no desk to sit them down at. No way to smell breath. No way to see fidgeting and dishonesty. All I had to work with was their voice over Ventrilo, and a history of bad behavior.

My wife passed her own sentence on the case, "Without knowing anything else, I'd say give him a second chance -- after it is made clear that this behavior won't be tolerated again. After that, he's out."

Mature assists Mashakana in clearing elemental
rifts, earning "Tripping the Rift",
Blade's Edge Mountains

Little Miss Chatterbox

"I've been contemplating having Bulwinkul come back to DoD. How do you feel about that?"

Lexxii seemed surprisingly casual about it, "I'm fine with it."

I checked again, offering her another chance to back out, "You sure? I mean...I'm not at all comfortable with his treatment towards you. It was completely out of line."

"No, it's fine. I mean, I was just really surprised...is all. When I started to make the suggestions about bite orders on blood queen, he just blurted that shit out over Vent and I was really just not expecting that at all. But...y'know. No big deal. Whatever."

"Ok, well...I'll have another chat with him about it. And to be clear, he'll be on an extremely short leash."

"Thanks. It's good to finally get some support around here. Y'know, Bullshark and I really feel like we've been welcomed by you guys, and to be honest, haven't really gotten any kind of support like that from guild leaders in the past. I mean it really got going with the some of the drama queens in Final Hour, and they would just throw us under the bus, y'know? It happened a lot. This is the thanks we get? It's pretty sad."

"We're thankful to have both of you. Have you given any thought to healing leadership in Cataclysm?"

"No! I mean, no, not at all, I didn't even know that you were changing the line-up!"

"Well, I'm not entirely sure what's going on with Guns, yet, but there may be a spot in the near future." The guild survey told a clearer story. Guns tied Eacavissi for "Officer Least Noticeably Helping Hanzo run the Guild." Not the greatest badge you'd want to pin to your chest. "Do you think you're up for the task?"

"Well, yeah, I mean, I have a lot of great ideas about how we could really get the healers more involved in some overall strategy discussion, I mean, when we get down to it, there could a lot more adjustment that we do between our specs, especially since I've already sort of bounced a lot of those ideas off Neps and he gets it, y'know? I mean, if we can push our throughput by going with more disc, I'm perfectly fine with that. I mean, I've pretty much been Holy this entire time, but switching to Disc was phenomenal on Sindragosa, it made that fight so much easier to deal with it. and we could do a lot more of that in Cata. As long as people chill out."

Discussions with Lexxii very often went this way; I didn't mind. It gave me a chance to practice listening, which is something a few guild leaders could use a lesson in.

"Give it some thought, and we'll talk more as we approach raid ready. I feel you're the best candidate because you know the healing assignments now, you're proactive, involved, and you're a first class healer."

As it stood, Lexxii was the strongest healer in the line-up. If the raid team could see past the chatter, she'd be fine.

Mature kills one of Falnerashe's alts,
wrapping up "Wintergrasp Ranger",
Lake Wintergrasp

Leveling The Field

Lake Wintergrasp was barren and empty. News of elemental spawnings began to trickle in from all corners of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms. Players going about their business were subjected to tremors, as the earth slowly shook, preparing to birth Azeroth's next coming attraction. As such, players diverted their attentions away from Northrend in an attempt cast themselves into aforementioned elemental invasions. And so, with the playerbase migrating away from Northrend, the scheduled outdoor warzone of Lake Wintergrasp held little value for players preparing for the next iteration of war.

I surveyed the list of outstanding achievements and noted that Wintergrasp Ranger remained unfulfilled. And it was here that I drew Shadowmourne once more, preparing to sink it into the alter ego of a ex-guildie who hadn't set foot in our guild in many moons: Falnerashe.

Years had gone by since The Tantrum. That's a lot of time for players to walk past one another on the same server. Each time Falnerashe ran by, en route to a dungeon, or off to participate in some makeshift raid somewhere, I took note of the guild name Triple Zero, for no other reason than it was not Descendants of Draenor.

Her exit had not been kind. She left us in the worst way possible, scathing accusations, fingers pointing and all of the blame sat squarely with me and my mistreatment of her group. She was disgusted, watching half-assed players rise to prominence in the 25-Man roster while she and her friends, folks like Lhaktar and Teras, remained sidelined. Though she never actually asked me for my reasons, I wouldn't have been able to pin them down. All I had was the gut to help govern my decisions; to an outcast guildie, it must have looked at lot like favoritism.

I didn't know much about how things went for her, post DoD. A few in the guild stayed in touch with her, Annihilation, Neps, the PvPers that would make the rounds, and throw together unofficial raids in the wee hours of the morning when the rest of us were trying to plan for the next work day. I was curious if she was still resentful, bitter about the exit. At the very least, I knew the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Lhaktar's passing, and knew that they were close friends. As much as Falnerashe and I had not seen eye to eye in those earlier years, I had to think the loss of her friend was rough, I would never swear that on any of my worst enemies.

So, I was surprised, then, when Drecca mentioned her in passing, over a conversation we discussed about knocking out a Heroic Lich King in 10-Man. Drecca said she'd been offering up services and they had been getting unofficial help from Fal for quite some time -- there wasn't a lot of activity in Triple Zero these days. I had doubts about approaching her, but Annihilation helped push those aside. "Dude, just send her a tell. Get the cricket chirping. You know she will..."

So I did. And she responded.

We talked about DoD, about Triple Zero. We talked about Lhaktar and about Cataclysm. She admitted there were things that went on that she wasn't happy about; I too admitted fault at not giving people management the focus it deserved. We talked about the proverbial water potentially having the possibility...maybe...of running under the bridge. And, of course, I had to make my pitch. Cataclysm was going to be rough, especially for the old-schoolers. Guild structures were going to come apart and pugging dungeons and raids would be a thing of the past. Did she want to put up with that? Should she have to? If I could commit to keeping her away from the drama, and mediating issues so all she needed to worry about was raiding, perhaps the 2nd time around might have a better outcome.

And lo and behold, Wintergrasp Ranger was something she was looking to wrap up as well.

So, Falnerashe and I agreed to wipe the slate clean, and start from scratch. And what better way to do that, then by driving our weapons into each other?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

4.11. Cataclysmic Tactics

Vanilla era, Zanjina prepares to PvP while Bovie makes
an excellent suggestion for the future of WoW,
Orgrimmar

The Unforsaken

When Bovie confessed to us that she was, in fact, a 'he', it was admittedly both historic and awesome, but was not the most impressive thing I remember about him/her. S/he came out of the woodwork of Deathwing-US very early in DoD's history, when Vanilla was ripe, gold was scarce, and soloing level 60 quests often ended tragically. I secretly suspected. There were no shortage of female toons; digital busts, hips and waists powered by the hormones of teenage boys and middle-aged men uninterested chase-camming a dude. I was as guilty as any of them, having already rolled Uld, a female orc rogue, and Zanjina, a female troll priest. Gal players were out there, but they were far and few between. Many chose to downplay their gender in real life, an unfortunate necessity of the culture: in my experience, they were nearly always subject to harassment and rash judgement of their ability. Now, Bovie certainly didn't run around Orgrimmar announcing her lady parts to the server -- s/he was quite demure about it...which is exactly why DoD never really knew for sure.

I got that it was a tremendous weight lifted off his shoulders. The guild got a good round of jabs in, and the druid took it all in stride. For DoD, it was historic and awesome, but not the most impressive. The most impressive story about Bovie is that, mid-way through TBC, he took me aside in vent and made another confession: he was headed to law school. I asked how long it would take him; he guesstimated about three years, from baby to the bar exam. I told Bovie that we would miss him, but that as long as WoW wasn't going anywhere, neither would DoD, and I assured him that I would keep his spot warm in the guild. The virtual seasons came and went. TBC carried on, as did our struggles and redemption, concluding with Illidan's defeat. DoD was torn down and rebuilt. New stories unfolded in Northrend; Death Knights were everywhere. Naxxramas, all over again. The epic adventures in Ulduar. Breaching the gates at Icecrown, slicing through rotting flesh and undeath to put an end to Arthas. Now, WotLK was at the end of its life. And in the entire time, Bovie sat offline in the roster, his 'last logged in' status a constant reminder of the promise I'd made. 1 year offline. 2 years offline. 3 years offline.

...and then, one day in October of 2010, I opened the roster and saw his last logged in status: Today. DoD's official litigator was ready for his opening arguments.

---

Thorim's voice called out from inside my jacket. I was parked outside my son's school, concentrating on capturing Ho-Oh when Thorim began repeating his infamous phrase. I flipped the DS into the passenger seat and answered the phone. It was Joredin. I hadn't heard from him in years. He quickly brought me up to speed on the events that had transpired since he'd last set foot in Azeroth. We exchanged stories of job changes, of life changes. I told him of changes that were coming, both to the game and to DoD. He revealed the hacking event that caused his first retirement from WoW. How many players were lost to hacking over the years? Only Blizzard knows. Thankfully, they did something about it.

I told Joredin about the latest addition to the game: authenticators applied to player accounts could now be verified by guild leaders. I'd be tying certain ranks to their presence; additional permissions to the guild vault that wouldn't normally be considered sane. Trust goes both ways, and if I gave a little, I expected a little in return -- authenticators would be the first way to guarantee that trust was in place. In a virtual world shrouded by so many layers of anonymity, players sloughed off accountability like so much dead skin. "My account is secure, Hanzo, honest!" carries very little weight. In Cataclysm, I wouldn't be able to promote you to raiding status until an authenticator was attached and confirmed -- the game would physically prevent me from pressing the promote button.

Joredin liked the sound of that, and wanted to know what he could do to return to DoD.

"You've already done it," I told him, "be ready for your re-invite when I log on."

One of the few rare moments Mature pulled ahead
of Zedman in achievement point whoring
(Source: wow-achievements.com via The Wayback Machine)

Unhealthy Obsessesions

I stalked the shaman relentlessly for the better part of Wrath of the Lich King. Who was this orc that had the audacity to stay ahead of me in achievement points? Folks in the server-first raiding guilds like Enigma and Inertia had a valid excuse: they got through the toughest stuff before we even had a chance. But Unbridled Apathy, as far as I could tell, were either neck and neck with DoD, or falling behind. Yet, this player named for the last letter of the alphabet was continuing to stay first in this unofficial race to who had less of a life. And it ate away at me like "nerd world problems" tended to.

It was at the point where I was filling out spreadsheets just to determine the fastest, most efficient path to beating him. Some achievements might only take a few hours worth of work, while others would take weeks and weeks of grinding (particularly the ones involving reputation gains). Every time I gained a small lead on the Zed Man, it would only be a matter of days before he closed the gap and pulled ahead once more. I carried on in tortuous agony, queued for the worst kinds of PvP, participated in mindless clickfests, and camped for desperately sought-after creatures. I was determined to stay ahead of a make-believe nemesis who, quite possibly, had no idea I even existed.

[From: Zedmann]: Loq? He won't be up for another 3 hours. :(

I eyed the random whisper.

[To: Zedmann]: I hate my life.

He'd spotted me, hiding near some foliage in the southeastern corner of the Basin, one of the known spawning locations of the rare spirit beast, Loque'nahak. I needed him to finish Frostbitten. Every other hunter needed him to bring some concentrated coolness to their Beast Mastery game. The result was that he was never up. Never.

[From: Zedmann]: I've got them all on a timer now. It's a 6-to-8 hour window, his comes up again around 10:00pm. Only way to keep ahead of the hunters.

[To: Zedmann]: Staying ahead of you is a full-time job. You realize that, don't you?

[From: Zedmann]: lol, only thing we can do to compete with the hardcore raiding guilds.

The in.

[To: Zedmann]: So what's the deal with UA? You making progress over there or what?

[From: Zedmann]: Long story. It's all over the board, and I have RL stuff that keeps me out of the regular schedule. People are losing interest at the end. Raids are spotty.

The pitch.

[To: Zedmann]: Come join us. Our forces combined, no other guild could compete with such ridiculous levels of achievement whoring.

[From: Zedmann]: lol. It's complicated. ;)

[To: Zedmann]: Try me.

He was close friends with the leader of Unbridled Apathy, and in discussing it further, felt an obligation to remain. He was loyal, to a fault. Zedmann shouldn't have had to suffer the failings of a disappearing raid roster because of his friendship with the person in charge. I would never have demanded the same of my own people, nor expected such blind faith during imminent collapse. But Zedmann truly felt a bond with his guild leader, and assured me that he would be staying in Unbridled Apathy.

...which is exactly the reason why I continued to stalk him.

That kind of loyalty is hard to find. If I could wrap it up, package it, and sell it as a How To Guild Leadering LOL, I'd expect to make a small fortune. So whenever I re-engaged achievement whoring mode, I sent him whispers, and continued to harass him. I explained how he shouldn't have to bear the brunt of a collapsing guild, or a raiding roster not in tune with his restrictive RL schedule. I broke the Zed Man down, chip by chip, until eventually, the guild title underneath his name read Descendants of Draenor.

You've made a wise decision, achievement whore. It will be you, Joredin, and Bovie, that take up the mantle of our first 10-Man Tacticians.

If you're reading this caption, Zedmann, then
you know why I'm including this screenshot,
Zul'Gurub

Why We Want Your 10-Man

In order to support official 10-Man teams in DoD, I put together a list of all the things 10-Mans had failed at in the past.
  • Assembled via word-of-mouth, leading to hard feelings / ostracization / accusations of double-standards
  • Poaching of members between teams, due to miscommunication
  • No guild-sanctioned title or leader, thereby shirking responsibility / accountability of the behavior of the team
My attempt to solve these problems came in the form of a new rank I introduced to DoD for Cataclysm: the Tactician. Tacticians were the new pseudo-officers of the guild. Thanks to the flexibility of eqDKP-Plus, I was able to grant them the ability to announce and schedule their own signups. This was especially helpful, as players like Joredin were forced into managing a schedule on a shared spreadsheet. Workable, but we could do better.

eqDKP-Plus took it a step further: they could even manage their own DKP pools, if they chose. These tools, coupled with the ability to see all the other 10-Man team schedules (and, of course, the 25-Man schedule) meant that the Tacticians weren't only asked to keep in communication with one another, they had no excuse not to. All the data they needed to coordinate schedules between teams was a single click away. My intent was to have this be the end to poaching, once and for all.

Outside of all the publicly announced rules and perks associated with running a 10-Man, players who chose to take up the Tactician mantle received an unofficial briefing from yours truly, to ensure there was no opportunity to misinterpret the needs of the guild:

The health of the 25-Man is of the utmost importance in DoD. Anything your 10-Man team does to jeopardize that health will fall harshly on your shoulders. Do not, under any circumstances, appeal to the members of the 25. If they reach out to you, fine; I'd ask that you clear 25-to-10 transitions with me first, before you approve their induction into your team. You will not sell the magnificence of your team to the 25.

If they could do me this one small favor, I guaranteed that they would be subsidized in raiding costs, guild repairs, ample raiding resources (flasks, mats to craft, etc.) from the vault, as well as granting them first dibs on any BoEs that the 25 produced. I would also expedite any recruitment they brought to the table, getting individual players or groups of players, grandfathered in -- so long as they met our minimum requirements. On digital paper, we had many rules, the result of so many common-sensical decisions gone horribly awry. Behind closed doors, I shared with the Tacticians the only one true law they needed to abide: Wheaton's Law.

Joredin, Bovie and Zedmann all fit the requirements for Tactician beautifully. They very much wanted to be a part of the 25-Man, but had their own reasons for spinning up a 10, whether to sate an unbridled hunger to raid non-stop (on alts, if it had to be so!), the unpredictability of their careers intervening at impromptu times, or of the demands placed upon them by their families. Each had their own reason to lead a 10-Man, and with Tactician in place, we could scratch each other's backs.

Heed my words, Tacticians: Do not let the 25 die.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

4.10. GFY

Mature participates in the reclamation of
the Echo Isles, earning "Zalazane's Fall",
Durotar

Keeping Tabs on Tyranny

The Echo Isles were under attack. I raced Mature to southern tip of Durotar, preparing to rid Kalimdor of Zalazane. The troll's never-ending cycle of life and death had been in the hands of millions of Horde toons leveling their way out of starting areas, but this transition promised to end the cycle. Zalazane's Fall, the first of several events indicating the coming Cataclysm, would forever change the course of the zone. Future generations of trolls would begin their lives here, once the Echo Isles were returned to the Darkspear Tribe. In doing so, players implicitly restored Vol'jin to power in that part of the continent. Vol'jin had long acted as a faithful adviser to our warchief, and the troll had been rising in prominence, as of late.

An adviser of my own was about to get similar treatment.

"I'd like to give you a bit more authority than what you're used to."

Jungard sounded curious, "Oh yeah?"

"Look, you remember how it was. Bustin' ass in Mount Hyjal. Raids weren't easy. We needed discipline..."

He finished my thought beautifully, "...and the 'tyrant' was there to dish it out."

Jungard knew exactly who I spoke of. When he was a freshly recruited warrior, participating in his first DoD raids, Jungard kept his mouth shut, listened and learned. He knew how Blain led every raid with precision, the rogue's ability to pinpoint and correct minutia remained unmatched in DoD's leadership history. But with Blain's perceived super human attention to detail came the drama of players unable to handle his critique, his adjustments, his identification of their badness. They called him a tyrant, and Blain owned it. He even insisted that his rank be displayed as such, continually harassing me to update it to display "Blain - Tyrant" after every rule revision.

"You may have heard that our infamous tyrant is making his return to raid leading in Cataclysm."

"It'll be a welcome return."

I continued my broken responses, in between driving Shadowmourne into Zalazane's followers, "...here's the thing, Jung. I know now, after having lived through it the first time...Blain's honesty doesn't often mix well with the majority. Any other situation...I'd put this out of my mind. Except..."

I paused to gauge my phrasing.

"...we aren't going to have the same luxuries in Cata as we do today. Recruitment is going to be much more difficult. We're going to have to nurture more of who we have, rather than straight up discarding them. This is where you come in."

Jungard was the compassionate one. He, much like Neps, was the type of player who would drop what he was doing and help a guildy in need, regardless of their tenure. I never intended to be completely hands-off with mediation in Cataclysm, but I had the sneaking suspicion that my administrative needs would increase. Anything I could hope to delegate had to be identified; game/life balance was still a priority to me. Blain needed a better half; a number two that kept him in check.

"There's no more Ater, Jung. They worked very closely together. Ater mapped out strategies; Blain implemented them. Blain had no interest in putting up with people's excuses, but Ater added that human touch...he fought a lot of fires. There's no more Ater...but there's you. I want you to take this role up in Cata."

"Co-Raid Leader?"

"Well, I was thinking a little bit more..."

Blain fields a complaint from a guildy that was left
out of a 25-Man raid due to poor performance,
Black Temple

Who Offices the Officers?

The plan was as follows: restructure the guild ranks, putting Jungard above Blain in the hierarchy. Responsibility wise, they would lead raids together. Jungard would be Blain's backup to help manage the menial tasks that were proven to drive him overboard. My former raid leader attributed his burnout to the constant re-explaining of strategy, and to his lack of patience toward excuse makers. Having Jungard take these responsibilities off Blain's shoulders was a burnout reduction tactic...but it was only one part of a larger strategy.

Blain already shared his own plan with me for Cataclysm, and promised to make an announcement post on the forums to set the record straight. We had gone soft. We had grown too fond of farming as means of excusing progression decay; it was the Loot Paradox, all over again. Blain blamed this on Bretthew and Omaric's style, having shifted the mentality of the 25 too far into casual-land. It was music to my ears; I loved everything he planned to solve. But, it would be a tough pill to swallow, especially for the "Wrath babies": players who'd never experienced the pleasure of four hours a night, twice a week, for five weeks...on a single boss. I wouldn't have questioned Blain's iron fist in any other situation, but Cataclysm was too grim. If I'd learned anything thus far, there was an identifiable absence of self-esteem among a vast majority of the player base. It didn't make them all bad. Some could be saved: turned around, re-trained, and sculpted into half decent human beings/raiders. They just needed a bit of extra TLC, and this is where Jungard came in.

By putting Jungard over Blain, I explained to him, I could give Jungard final say. He could sit alongside Klocker and Neps in the advisory pool and give another empathetic, thoughtful voice to our progression strategy. Blain would push hard, that was never in question...and we needed to. But, by having Jungard above Blain in the pecking order, I'd have a solid enough voice to back me up, in the off chance we were pushing a little too hard.

"You have the eye for it. I trust your judgement. You'd co-lead in the instances, keeping Blain's plate clean. And in the off hours, keep your finger on the pulse of the guild. Are we keeping a good pace? Or pushing too hard? Those are the kinds of questions you'll be asking yourself."

Was Jungard up to the task?

"Oh, definitely...I'm definitely up for it. There may be a bit of scheduling I need to work through with my night classes, but I think I can manage."

"Good, let's make it last as long as we possibly can."

I told Jungard I would announce the co-raid leadership appointment next, then deliver the actual promotion in October. Keeping the two announcements separate was by design. To every guildy, Blain needed to be seen as the ultimate raid authority for DoD, and if there was even a hint that Jungard's promotion might undermine that, it was my responsibility to eliminate it. Once we set foot into Cataclysm raids, Blain called the shots. No questioning, no second guessing.

Tyranny would lead us to victory.

Elephantine and Graulm pose outside of Gadgetzan,
Tanaris

Sentimental to a Fault

"Gettin' a little work done, there? Good for you!"

Dave's voice was loud enough to break through the WoW music coming from my earbuds. I popped them out and spun around to face him, the eqDKP-Plus site behind me, and gave him my best Peter Gibbons impression,

"...well, I wouldn't exactly say I'd been missin' it, Bob..."

After slaving over the company websites for nearly three years, the boss and I both earned the right to mock the work (or lack thereof). Whether it was he, cursing at ridiculous requests behind his office door, or myself, cursing at ridiculous bugs behind my code, we'd gone through it together. We understood one another; we both wanted things to not suck.

Dave and I shared our love of things that sucked the best way we knew how: sarcastic mockery of items broken, and of attitudes needing adjustment. You can't always get away with that tone in a professional environment, though. But where there's a will, there's a way: a client-facing "code phrase" to use in public situations, free from HR scrutiny, and we'd wield it like a fucking machete. You'd like another round of completely unwarranted changes that have absolutely no merit whatsoever? Good for you!! You'd like me to undo all the work that I've just done? Good for you! You're having me stay late on a Friday because you left things to the last minute? GOOD FOR YOU!!!

"Good for you" happened to share its initials with another three word phrase...one that more accurately conveyed our feelings on the subject:

Go Fuck Yourself.


---

I took advantage of the downtime between projects, loading screenshots into the eqDKP-Plus gallery. I was a sucker for sentimentality and lingered on shots featuring the core's first appearance; players that made DoD what it was. A shot of me helping Kadrok with a quest in Ashenvale. A shot of Kerulak doing the happy dance alongside Gutrippa, shortly after purchasing the guild tabard. A shot of us about to take on Immolthar in Dire Maul, partnered with a priest who would go on to become my healing lead through the duration of Vanilla. So many faces...gone. Waxing melancholy skewed my focus, wishing for things that once were. Looking back with fondness was a perfectly human thing to do, so long as it didn't cloud your judgement.

I browsed through disorganized images hastily burnt to CD, and pulled one up that hit me right in the feels. It showed two players on mounts, just outside of Gadgetzan. One was an undead mage, an alt of mine named Elephantine. The other was a warlock, sitting atop his dreadsteed, his violet robes and shoulders matching a purple mask that covered an orcish grin.

Graulm.

Memories rushed to the surface. In the days before Graulm, guild leadership was little more than /ginvite and /gkick. Back then, "difficult" decisions were whether to run Zul'Farrak or Sunken Temple (it wasn't ST!), and the most complex logistics of any guild-related coordination was figuring out who had the key to Upper Blackrock Spire. Ater may have dominated my leadership mentoring-related memories, but turning the pages back further reminded me that others were no less important.

A Quiznos between Arapahoe and Curtis on 17th St., was where Graulm and I met for several lunches, back in '05. He told stories of EverQuest, and the demands of running a guild in a day where the 1% was a measure of who raided, rather than of financial worth. He gave me those first steps; the sorts of things that were taken for granted today. Why take the extra time to hand out Zul'Gurub tokens to guildies, instead of letting them roll? Loyalty. When you hold the keys to the car, players are less willing to look for another ride. Why do we need a private area of the forums, specifically for officers? Discretion. You mediate behind closed doors, particularly when the strategy isn't agreed upon. When officers debate an upcoming decision, it gives off an appearance of instability to lower ranks. For leadership that extended beyond basic button presses, Graulm advised on appropriate behavior, and helped keep tabs on unruly players who ran the risk of tarnishing our reputation. DoD had a six year long, rock-solid foundation underneath it, and Graulm was one of the first to pour the concrete.

The feels continued to ache from the blow of pulling up that screenshot. I considered Graulm a friend. I'll never forget the day he showed up at my front door, an air conditior gripped tightly while he barked out, "Where do you want this thing?" I pointed up our rickety staircase. With a single shake of the head, he gave me a "Damn!", then stomped upstairs with the 100lb unit in tow.

Over an in-game conversation, Graulm discovered I had no AC in my house. Jul, the kids, and I were at the mercy of a ventilation system from 1890, far too old to support a centralized air system. Without giving me a chance to decline the offer, Graulm produced one of his own unused units from his garage and brought it to my house as a gift, latching it in place in our master bedroom window. It ran faithfully for about 10 months before coughing and sputtering in a final gasp of freon-scented smoke.

...and it was the best 10 months of sleep I'd had since moving in. Before the unit, and after, my bedroom doubled as a kiln in the summer months.

I missed Graulm, and I hated how things had ended. I missed the early days of Vanilla, partnering up with him, exploring Azeroth, running dungeons, helping set the stage for our raiding days. I missed his screams of victory in those early months of our first steps into 40-man content. I didn't expect that Graulm would ever come back to the game; an unavoidable tragedy. When some players walk away from WoW, it's official. But perhaps some could be coaxed back, those still floating in the amorphous soup that was Deathwing-US.

I believed wholeheartedly what I told Jungard: when it came to recruits, the pickens would be slim in Cataclysm. Anything we could do to build and maintain our core was of the utmost importance. And if I was directing Jungard into putting effort into those who might be, did it not make sense for me to put effort into those who were? Forgive. Forget. Reach out to former guildies that I'd wronged (or had wronged me), agree that we'd made mistakes, come to terms, and move forward. Band together, for one last hurrah.

Oh, so that's what it's come to? That's what Cataclysm is going to force you to do? Sacrifice any remaining integrity and self-respect by going back to the people that wiped their feet on DoD and compel them come back to progression?

Good for you.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

4.9. DoD+

"WoW Fan Art - Page 3"
Artwork by Jiein Hyun

There Will Be 10s

My guild revisions sat untouched. All the work to lay out a 10-Man culling strategy no longer applied; I couldn't remove them. My conscience, dulled over the course of the last two years, enjoyed a reawakening by staring at itself in the mirrors of my Mother's house. I didn't want to be like her, making decisions on no other grounds than because I can. Effort was necessary in order to make great things happen. DoD had long stood as a place for players uninterested in immature leadership and arbitrary rules. That summer vacation compelled me to reassess my strategy surrounding the 10s. Instead of lancing them like boils, I contemplated the other end of the spectrum: could DoD seduce 10s into joining?

It was a ludicrous question; I shook my head in disbelief frequently while walking this alternate path. A 10-Man team in Cataclysm was a self-sufficient guild. Logically, there was no reason whatsoever why a clique of tight-knit friends would feel the need to have themselves assimilated into a "faceless" organization like Descendants of Draenor...at least, at initial glance. The more I put myself in their shoes, however, the more reasons floated to the surface. Members of a 10-Man guild were no different than any other players I marketed to. 10s thought they were free from the complex underpinnings of a 25-Man guild, but I was skeptical. They shared the same stresses as any other team, just ot a much smaller scale. And when a guild mishandles those stresses, each member was an unwilling customer, discreetly shopping for a better deal.

I walked through the list of my own pain points, converting six years of workable solutions into a packaged product. Recruitment was always a worry. Let me take that off your hands. Bring your 10-Man team to us and you'll enjoy the benefits of DoD's never-ending recruitment. We have a wide array of people to choose from, and not all of them will be able to participate in the 25. Maybe they can help your cause?

Raiding can cost gold, both in repairs and flasks. The situation wasn't nearly as dire when compared to Vanilla and TBC, but the costs do add up over time. Let me subsidize your efforts. Bring your 10-Man team to DoD and I'll commit to issuing you a weekly kickback from the guild vault to help take the edge off. Why stop at gold? DoD's vault was thick with unused BoEs from the 25-Man efforts; Neps and I could only auction off so much, so fast. Why not reinvest those profits back into the 10-Man teams? BoEs might not make-or-break a 10-Man's progression, but perhaps such a gesture would give 10-Man guilds pause before rejecting a radical offer from a guild they'd otherwise never do business with.

There was no question in my mind that 10s would proliferate in Cataclysm. 25-Man guilds would collapse in great numbers, and while I scrambled to pick up the pieces of those fragmented teams, the 10s would overflow and dominate the server. It wouldn't be long before those 10s felt the same pressures I felt, as players acclimated to their more compact environment. Sooner or later, frustration and turmoil would lead to the grass-is-greener syndrome. For those teams with few people-management skills, miniature explosions would paint the server like a fireworks display -- my signal to come knocking. I'd offer my condolences to the formerly-known-as-10s, pitching Descendants of Draenor to those grieving widowers. But for the 10-Man guilds who fought desperately to keep it together, they would need help. They would need guidance, direction, and tools, so they could focus on enjoying the game. DoD could provide all these perks, and more.

It wouldn't be an easy sell; many would deny our necessity. It was the nature of the gamer to shove a big middle finger up toward anyone telling them what was good for them.

So, I wouldn't tell. I would show.



The "face" of DoD, circa May 2010
The main guild website (top), eqDKP
site (middle) and phpRaider site (bottom)

Look On My Works, Ye Mighty

Two and a half years had passed since I bid my previous job adieu. I still remembered with fondness the many conversations I'd shared with Ater as a fellow employee, side-by-side as programmers during the day, guild leader/raid leader pairings in The Burning Crusade by night. But I shed no tears for the working conditions and abuse. At my present job, life was spectacular. The boss trusted my judgments instead of challenging them. The positive feedback loop encouraged me to push myself even harder, hold my own work to a higher standard, deliver something I could be proud of. And when the time came to fire up some distractions at the office, I was never once made to feel the pangs of guilt.

Pushing the quality of my work produced a wonderful side-effect: free time. Late into 2010, I had more and more opportunities to break from coding, putting time into research. Traditionally, I sought knowledge of a technical nature: programming languages, debugging and troubleshooting, understanding what was happening at the bare-metal of the processor. But these days, I found myself seeking more "right brained" knowledge. Architecture and design considerations, usability, what makes sense to do when, based off of context. Inevitably, I often ended up back at people: their nuances, what drives them subconsciously, what motivates them. My intent was to become a better coder, but my research kept pointing me toward becoming a better leader.

My boss, Dave, repeated the message at every opportunity, "You really ought to think about management." Each time, I humbly thanked him. Professionally, I never saw myself trading code for people; I loved to fix things. Programming is a canvas that's never complete.

---

The quiet hum of a smoothly running company website freed me to investigate our own guild "face" on the 'net. It was sad. There sat the same dull, static HTML, unwavering since the game launched in '04. A single central column acted as our news of latest boss kills. To the left, I'd recreated progress bars to indicate how far along the 25-Man team had progressed through the current content. "APPLY TO THE GUILD!" yelled out in tiny caps above the faux progress bars, while an "Application" link on the right clung desperately to a PayPal button. This had been DoD's sole means of lead generation since the guild's inception.

There was a second site, charged with the responsibility of tracking the guild's DKP. I'd been using eqDKP for this task, built in the days of EverQuest, receiving minor updates along the way. Customization existed only in the form of alternate color schemes, which was about as effective as a can of spray paint on an Excel spreadsheet. I'd be foolish not mention the third site, our raid management tool. This was an implementation of phpRaider, which grew a bit over the years. The majority of changes went in by my own hands, fixing bugs that allowed players to sneak out of raids they'd been confirmed for, well after the cancellation window had closed.

All three sites needed some serious love. Guild portals were all the rage, jamming a million widgets and scrolling text down your throat like they were the natural evolution of Geocities. I refused to pay for a "solution" I could install and configure on my own. What good is a mechanic that can't fix his own vehicle? I dug deep into the web until my screen was filled with Umlauts.

The character profile management tool
 featured in eqDKP-Plus (Source: eqDKP-Plus.com)

Germany Is Our Only Ally

It wasn't difficult to see I'd landed squarely in Deutschland, given the huge black, red and yellow striped flag at the top of the page. The language barrier had minimal effect as my attention focused squarely on the screenshots. Character profile panels boasted in-game rendering, thanks to an integration with the World of Warcraft Armory. At the time, the WoW Armory allowed players to pose their character in one of many different frames of animation. You could have this in your guild site. Aesthetical niceties aside, the content management system boasted full character statistic importing, gear and glyph display, even supporting multiple specs. When compared to the ridiculous hacks necessary just to display an item hover in eqDKP, this package delivered functionality well beyond anything I expected to find....and the character profile was only the beginning.

Named in homage to the original eqDKP tracking system it was based off of, eqDKP-Plus was, quite possibly, the most advanced guild CMS I'd come across. The configuration panel alone listed 41 custom modules that could be enabled and displayed wherever I chose. Some of them actually didn't suck! Automatic achievement tracking? Check. World of Logs report integration? Check. GuildOx rank badges? Check. When I stumbled across the full phpRaider implementation, I just about fell out of my chair. And of course, there was the eqDKP system itself, tying loot earnings directly to the raids in phpRaider, which in turn, cascaded up into the news items. With a single button click, I could post the news of a boss kill to the homepage, include a photo of the kill, and display the loot that was distributed. It was the complete package.

...include a photo of the kill...

---

That evening, I dug into the photo gallery module. It allowed administrators to upload and tag images that could be featured across the site, in such places as news headlines or via a random "Pic of the Day" rotating widget. I pondered our six year history of screenshots buried on my hard drive as marketing collateral. If nothing else, DoD was stable. In my vision of 25-Man guilds collapsing around us, stability would be the most important selling point. The last thing anyone freshly ejected from a guild relationship would want...was to suffer through it again. The gallery module, an otherwise frivolous gimmick in the grand list of eqDKP-Plus functionality, suddenly became the single most important tool in my repertoire. If six years of screenshots couldn't vouch for DoD, what the hell else could?

And thus began the burning of 918 screenshots to CD.