Thursday, April 28, 2016

4.69. The Other EQ

Goldenrod collects his 1000th Searing Flame, crafting the
Heart of Flame, the prerequisite to Dragonwrath,
Firelands

Dragonwrath

I scrolled through the various pictures of people in costume, relieved that they were in photos and not standing behind me. Paladins in Judgement, Night Elves, one dressed as Nova, another as the silver-haired, unnamed female monk from Diablo III. I clicked on the photos and labeled them "BlizzCon 2011," then spun the mousewheel to review my photography under duress.

Photos shot up to the top of the browser, disappearing from view, while older images emerged from bottom of the screen. Pictures of my kids and of my house, of a trip to Dad's farm. Visions of pugs being petted scrolled by, of my new job, and soon...of my old job. In moments, I was back to our last Christmas, kids tearing into presents intermingling with shots of snowstorms slamming in Denver. Unsurprisingly, a picture of a freshly opened World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Collector's Edition appeared.

And just like that, more costumes appeared -- costumes from a year earlier. More Nova. More Kerrigan. An unmistakably brilliant tree druid who tragically missed the costume content registration by mere minutes. It was all coming back, in digital form.

Then, a picture of smiling faces scrolled into view. The faces collected around several tables shoved together at a restaurant, all smiling, all turned to face the camera. The guild.

Several of them raised a glass in toast, others grinned boastfully, proud to be a part of something bigger. Some will forever pigeonhole gamers into the antisocial stereotype, but you'd never know it by looking at this pic. It was a group of friends, together, celebrating, partying, reminiscing. And all the pairs of eyes looked back at the camera, as if saying, "Here's to DoD, Hanzo. Here's to you."

All but one.

---

[From: Xane] Only one Hunter?

[To: Xane] Yep. Cynergy is all we have. LB on vacation, returns next week.


After losing a week of progression to the festivities surrounding BlizzCon 2011, the 25-Man progression team prepared to close out October with unfinished to-do items. We had exactly one month left before Patch 4.3 hit. Of course, no one knew the official patch day. I simply acted as if it were fact. Better to err on the side of sooner rather than later. I kept the pressure on the guild, keeping watch for burnout, motivating as necessary, and reminding them of how close we were to wrapping things up.

I returned home from the BlizzCon trip-turned-work-week the night of Thursday the 27th and was welcomed by yet another incomplete signup sheet. The Oct 28/30 weekend was short, one for Friday, two for Sunday. I thumbed text messages out in an attempt to plug the holes. Insayno answered the call once more, this time bringing a freshly leveled rogue -- currently relegated to arenas. Players wearing PvP gear to progression had long been a pain point of mine. Insayno's enthusiasm and ability to fill trumped any antediluvian beliefs I clung to.

Sunday remained unfilled, permanently stuck at 24.

With the roster comprised of more fills, coupled with the fact that Goldenrod was mere shards away from completing his legendary staff, we opted to clear and gear. By prioritizing Goldy's completion of Dragonwrath, Tarecgosa's Rest, a healthy boost of DPS would take the edge off November's most brutal, final achievements. That Friday, we cleared Shannox, Lord Rhyolith, Beth'tilac, and Alysrazor...all heroic. The ilvl 378 gear was nice, but even if a fractional improvement could be gained from ilvl 391, we had to make the effort to acquire it.

For Sunday, October 30th, DoD targeted Baleroc, Majordomo Staghelm, and big Rag himself. The two formers were non-factors; conversely, Ragnaros dragged on and on, still a painfully chaotic encounter. After the two-hour break, Insayno hopped on, again saving our collective assess. 45 minutes later, DoD slew Ragnaros, and the 1000th and final Searing Flame was sent to Goldenrod's bags.

It was the last legendary item DoD would see.

Goldenrod complete DoD's final legendary quest item,
earning the guild "The Ultimate Collection",
Orgrimmar

This One's For You, Ekasra

Three Metas remained for Glory, two were non-factors. Bucket List saw us dragging Shannox around the entire wasteland, touching five checkpoints, up to the mountain of Shatterstone, along the Path of Corruption, across the Flamebreach, over to the Ridge of Ancient Flame, and finally, back towards Beth’tilac’s Lair. The most strenuous exercise (if you can call it that) involved clearing extra trash. It was accomplished in one pull, with 45 minutes to spare, at the end of the November 4th raid.

A second trivial meta, Not An Ambi-Turner, required us to kill Lord Rhyolith by spinning him in place, preventing him from making a left turn. None of us were eager to return to Rhyolith, and although it was rudimentary achievement to execute, nobody spoke those words aloud. We came to an silent agreement to leave this to the end.

That left the one difficult meta: the Ekasra-themed Do a Barrel Roll! The achievement demanded a clean execution of Alysrazor -- so clean, that no one person in the raid could suffer an attack. Four attacks were on the to-avoid list: Brushfire, Incendiary Cloud, Lava Spew, and Fiery Tornado.

Do a Barrel Roll! sparked seizure-inducing memories that made me break out into a cold sweat. Those memories were of a different time, one fraught with mistakes so minute, so surgically precise, anyone could make them (and everyone did). Thankfully, Blizzard had long since loosened the rope they gave us to hang ourselves with achievements such as these. No longer was it a one-attempt-per week type of achievement; if someone messed up, we called for a reset. We could also knock out parts of it across raid-locks: If it came down to the wire, we’d focus on avoiding Brushfire one week; another week, we’d avoid Lava Spew, and so on. The day after my birthday, we returned to Firelands to do exactly that.

There was only a brief moment of stress after the first hour, when it seemed like we might be there all night. In the end, we had nothing to worry about. After 90 minutes of work, Alysrazor collapsed and the achievement splashed up on our screens. The “worst” of it was behind us.

"Happy Birthday to you, Hanzo. 38 is it?"

I feigned grumpiness, "I was 30 when I started this damn game."

Get the hell off my lawn.

Aw, man, that dude is totally panicked!
(Source: QuestionWriterTracker.com)

Not EverQuest

"Overall, feeling pretty good. We're on track to wrap things up very soon. There's...definitely some pressure near the end, but nothing insurmountable. I've had to ask them for a bit of flexibility, but so far, they've been very accommodating."

"No concerns with attitude? This is usually where you'd see it."

"No, I really don't think so. I mean...I'm sure you know the drill: each of them handles the stress a bit differently. Just last week one of them was hesitant to give me a straight answer. It didn't take a mind reader to tell. You know it when you hear it, right? The pauses, the waffling, remaining purposefully vague...it's like, 'Hey. Time to give me a straight answer.' Right?"

"Quit equivocating!"

"Exactly! 'There's clearly something going on you need help with, let's talk through it. Let's figure it out.' So I'll hammer on that until I get somewhere."

"And?"

"It ended up being he couldn't figure out how to find his old code differences in the repo. Just didn't know the tool as well as he let on. No big deal. Solved it in five minutes with another quick lesson. No rocket surgery at all."

My boss leaned back in her chair, "Remind me again...you've had no professional training as a manager, right?"

I shook my head, "None. All the management I've done has been...shall we say...unofficial...in nature."

Hope you like the laugh track that accompanies the "World of Warcraft Guild Leader" references on your CV.

"Some people are inherently good at that sort of thing, though," she continued, "I'm starting to suspect you have a naturally high EQ."

"A...what now?"

"EQ. It's your Emotional Quotient, or 'Emotional Intelligence'. It's how well you recognize other people's emotions, how effectively you adapt in order to establish rapport. You said yourself: each person requires an appropriate communication style. People with high EQ make good managers."

The manager bit again? Really? You really think you're going to leave coding behind...for people management? Enjoy irrelevancy.

"Hm. I've never heard of EQ. Is there a way to measure it?"

"There's official tests and training courses and such. You could start with an online test to get a general idea...look for something like 'Reading the Mind's Eye'. There's a lot of great material out there, but start with that quiz."

Sure enough, a little Googling revealed a site titled "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" test. I sat up straight, focused, and began clicking through each question -- each of which came with a set of eyes staring back at me.

Each black-and-white photo revealed eyes fraught with emotion. Some narrowed in inquisition, others looked away, suspiciously. The question remained the same with each set of eyes: "What word best describes what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling?"

Contemplative. Panicked. Desire. Jealous. Indecisive. Playful. Guilty. Bored. Upset. Confident.

I clicked through each pair of eyes, making my decision. The quiz concluded and the results splashed up on the screen: 33/36.

Don't get your hopes up, chief. Just because everyone says something over and over doesn't make it true. For all you know, this could be more MBTI junk science.

...maybe. Then again...maybe not.

Friday, April 15, 2016

4.68. Stay Awhile and Listen

Everyone dies, but DoD wins,
at the defeat of Heroic: Baleroc,
Firelands

A Farewell To Arms

"Can you hear me?"

"Yeah...kind of. Where are you?"

"I just walked out of a Lego store, and am now talking to you from a parking lot somewhere outside of Disneyland."

"Nice. Is Goldy with you?"

"Nah, he's picking me up later. I'm killing time."

"So, Pandaria..."

"Yeah…"

BlizzCon's data dump on the next expansion was not why I wanted to talk to him. I steered the conversation back, "...listen, I have a question for you...and I mean this in the nicest way possible...but where the hell is Charcassone?"

"What do you mean?"

"What I mean is, why did she suddenly stop signing up for the 25-Man right around the same time she became a regular in Starflex?"

"Oh, she just had a change in her schedule, no big deal, Fridays and Sundays just don't work as well for her. I had a long talk with her about it. That's all it is."

Bullshit.

"And you gave her the same speech we agreed on? That it's not OK to use Starflex as a back-door out of the 25-Man just because it's 'inconvenient'..."

"I definitely did. This really was a schedule conflict she couldn't get around."

Happy hours. Movie nights. Birthday parties. Social gatherings. I rescheduled my life around raids for years. It always stunned me when players claimed they couldn't possibly make the Friday/Sunday schedule work. How much of it, I wondered, was truly unsolvable, and how much of it was I just hate raiding on the weekend, no offense. She could have told Jungard anything. How could he have known differently?

I took a deep breath, steeling myself for a request I wasn't happy about.

"I need you to do me a favor, Jungard. I hate...hate...to ask you to do this. But...I need you to hold your 10 back from completing Glory."

"Sure. I mean...are you thinking Starflex is going to motivate more to try to step out of 25"

"It absolutely will motivate them. Even the nicest, most dedicated people have a breaking point. I need to eliminate any excuse they might use to reach that breaking point early. And let's face it, who wouldn't want to raid with Jungard?"

He laughed.

"Yeah, no problem, we can totally hold off on Glory."

I sighed with relief, "Thanks. And please...express my gratitude to the team for this request."

"Oh, they'll be fine about it. They support DoD 100%," he said, adding "I assure you there are no Eh Team shenanigans going on over here!"

I chuckled at Jungard's jab. It was all still fresh in my mind -- the accusations, the collusion, the denials, and Bheer's eventual true colors revealed. It felt like it had just happened. Reality quickly set in, however. The events transpired a year earlier. 

A moment of introspection brought the impact of our relationship to bear. Jungard and I had seen many things together, having raided side-by-side for years, sharing screams of triumph as readily as we shared our misgivings with various folks who set foot in DoD's halls. Both video game bosses and human beings had agendas. Learning to keep that knowledge in perspective strengthened our ability to lead...and our friendship.

I stared up the sky and remained silent, letting Jungard talk as long as he needed to. I ignored the depressing reality of the situation. This is how it was all coming to an end: phone calls about administration and politics. One of the greatest Arms warriors ever to set foot in Descendants of Draenor...had been reduced to taking phone calls from his guild leader requesting he not be so good.

---

How the attempt was considered a kill was beyond me. Even the photo finish betrayed our knowledge of the game. When the golden achievement pennant "Heroic: Baleroc" flashed up on our screens, it took no fingers to count how many were left standing. Every single player in the 25-Man raid lay dead in the charred earth. Yet, exactly on the one hour mark, the fiery demon bellowed in agony, shrugged and writhed, until his empty armor collapsed in a heap alongside the fallen.

That same night of October 16th, 2011, a little more than an hour after our inexplicable defeat of Heroic: Baleroc, Heroic: Fandral Staghelm also fell. With the Majordomo's defeat, the heroic portion of Glory of the Firelands Raider was complete. The metas that remained were the unorthodox kills -- killing bosses while standing doing handstands, drinking a glass of water, patting our heads and rubbing our tummies. These were the hoops Blizzard gave us, and we jumped. The tanks have to kite Shannox? Fine. Watch us kite him around the entire map.


DoD defeats Heroic: Majordomo Fandral Staghelm,
Firelands

Answering The Call of Duty

The strategy was straightforward. Knock out as many individual metas as possible, focusing only on one at a time, with the sole exception of Do A Barrel Roll!. This Ekasra-themed achievement demanded that no player in the raid be struck by one of four specific attacks during an Alysrazor kill. Do a Barrel Roll! smacked of nightmares long past, namely The Immortal. But unlike The Immortal (and thankfully), avoiding the named attacks was no longer limited exclusively to a single week/raid lock. Somewhere, someone behind the Blizzard curtain had shown us mercy.

We tackled each achievement until it was complete, rather than trying to do everything each week. Then, for that same raid lock, we'd look at what attacks were left to collectively avoid in the Alysrazor encounter and made adjustments to specific players in the raid to give us the best chance of knocking at least one of the four attacks off the to-do list. This was our regimen, week-to-week and we stuck to it, counting down to Goldenrod’s 1000th Seething Cinder, and the guild’s next legendary item.

Even amid good progress, something was off with the group. We weren’t stalling (not nearly as horrifically as Heroic: Lord Rhyolith) yet raids were still heated, tempers flared more readily, and strategy was openly challenged and debated. Fun, it seemed, was in short supply. With no bench to support players walking off on the job, I increased my sensitivity toward signs of burnout. If I picked up on any frustration, inappropriate arguments, or even unexplained changes in tone-of-voice, I had to intervene to keep things together. Even the loss of one key person from the roster could bring DoD to an abrupt end.

--- 

One evening, Mortalsend broke down. On the surface, she appeared frustrated at a combination of random dungeon runs filled with the very worst kinds of personalities on Deathwing-US, and a hyper-critical view of her new role as healing druid. I suspected she missed leaving behind an easier (and perhaps more enjoyable) warlock.

It didn't add up. 

Having only played with Mortalsend for these few months, I knew enough of her personality that these trivial game-related concerns would not be enough to crack through her emotional armor. Something was up, and it had to be family related.

Mortal's husband, also a guildy, was stationed overseas. Shore leave had only just ended, a few weeks earlier. The highs of temporarily reuniting with her significant other had shifted to depressive lows, mired with loneliness and unwarranted guilt. Couple the sum total of that psychological weight and mix in a healthy dose of "LEARN 2 PLAY FUCKING MORON!!!1!1" spewed from randos in LFD, and you begin to see why the pressure of a video game might seem insurmountable.

I intervened the only way I knew how: I directed Mortal to call me, right away. My intent was to get her talking, to get things off her chest, and hopefully, to feel better as a result of offloading the pressure to someone else. 

I exited the computer room and shot past my wife as I headed to the back yard, the only place I got decent reception.

"What's going on?" she asked.

"Problem with Mortal I need to address."

The phone started vibrating before I even got to the back porch. She unleashed. I listened. Thoughts, feelings, emotions, all poured out. I waited for the right time, then reminded her of her importance to the guild, that what she was feeling was perfectly normal, and that things would get better.

"Sometimes things are up, sometimes things are down. Funny how they're never either for very long, eh?"

When I wrapped up the call and wandered back into the house, Jul glanced up from the couch.

"How long did you talk to her?"

"Uh," I fumbled with the phone to pull up the call time. 55 minutes. "...Wow, I guess...nearly an hour."

"That's a little inappropriate, don't you think?"

I stared at her a moment, contemplating the question. Inappropriate how? Was it the stereotype of spousal jealousy at hand, convenient that Mortalsend was a woman and I was a man? Or was it to draw attention to old habits growing more prevalent, once again invading family life -- my preoccupation with a video game over all else. I wanted balance and sanity; this longer-than-was-healthy call was yet more evidence to the contrary. At the start of WotLK, I had it all worked out. I would pick my battles and delegate the rest. Problem was, there was nobody left to delegate to.

"Yeah," I replied, shoving the phone back into my pocket, "you’re right. It was inappropriate." Then, I marched back into the computer room, leaving Julie to believe whatever she wanted.

DoD defeats Shannox after kiting him around the
entire map, earning "Bucket List",
Firelands

Pack Your Bags

I could hear the frustration in Fred's voice. I was running out of things to say to convince him to stick this out, by whatever means possible. We were so close. Now, he was on the verge of stepping down from not only healing officer, but healing, period.

"Wings fights me on nearly every decision.  I can't get any kind of consistency with the healers, we take new people every week now. It's...really wearing me out. It really isn't as enjoyable as it once was."

I needed an entirely different approach with Fred. The situation with the roster was dire, but Fred was promoted in good faith to seize the role and take command of the healers. I extended the benefit of the doubt to him. This would not be how he repaid me. It was time to take a hard line.

"I understand your frustration. It's a rough patch now, but we can't do this without people like you. Remember: I opted to promote Lexxii over you and that was completely on me. But now, even against my better judgement, I've given you the reins and...so far...you have stepped up to deal with some extreme shit. You've definitely shown me that you can do this. And you have."

"...But," I continued, "now it's on you to follow through on your commitments. You agreed to take this on because you believed you were capable of shouldering this load. I find it hard to believe you'd want to suddenly back-pedal and give me a reason to say 'Ah, should've known he wasn't up to the challenge.' You don't want to give me that excuse, do you?" 

I heard a digital sigh cross Ventrilo as he contemplated my words.

"We need to get through this, Fred. We need to wrap up Glory...one final thing we can say we accomplished together, as a team...because you and I both know that anything past Firelands is a crap shoot at this point."

"Yeah," he said, coming around, "Yeah we do."

"One day, we're going to look back on this story, Fred. We'll reflect on all our accomplishments and all the shit DoD had to wade through. That story will have a lot of people...great names who stood by us, along with a handful of fuckin' losers like Drecca that gave us the shaft. So, when that sad day arrives and we've all gone our separate ways...and our story gets told...I have to ask you: do you want to be remembered as one of the good guys? Or one of the villains?"

When all else fails, pack your bags for a guilt trip.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

4.67. The Ghostcrawler Effect

Separated at Birth?

Popping Tabs

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

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

"Who is it?"

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

"Go talk to them!"

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

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

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

"Ghostcrawler's over there."

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

There's someone you have something to say to.

"I'll be right back."

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

We wondered, though, was the feeling mutual?

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

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

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

What we hate.

Sweet Emotion

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

Why do we behave so inappropriately toward inanimate objects?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reverse Midas Touch Method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 31, 2016

4.66. Pander Express

The Priest talent tree in Cataclysm (left) vs. Mists of Pandaria
(Source: GKick.net)

You Say Potato, I Say Casual

The remainder of BlizzCon 2011 played out like a turn-of-the-century medicine show. Every new "feature" and each new "bonus" filled me with suspicion rather than excitement. Each presenter traveled down that familiar road with, "Players are really gonna love this new ______" Which players were they referring to? I was an in-the-flesh representative of their core demographic, having loyally contributed my $14.99 for seven years, never wavering, never cancelling. They might as well have been speaking another language because few of their proposals made sense to me. And so my suspicion grew as I tried to figure out exactly who was getting the short end of the stick.

The Mists of Pandaria panel went off the rails faster than a Sony executive giving a security presentation. Talent Trees, long the staple of character progression in WoW, were gone for good. In their place were flattened, non-hierarchical utility rows sporting exactly three options. The developer panel declared that this new type of talent specialization allowed players to "geek out with more interesting character builds than ever." Interesting was a stretch, to say the least.

When questioned about the failure of the old trees, Blizzard stated they "provided false choice, constantly forcing players into the same cookie-cutter builds." Who decided that was necessarily a bad thing? The panel made zero acknowledgement of legacy talent trees serving a vital game design purpose: confirmation of proficiency.

There is something to be said for learning the ropes, playing around with options, discovering newer, stronger combinations, eventually working your way up to maximum effectiveness. That a select few theorycrafters streamlined this process didn't render the design of hierarchical talent trees ineffective, obsolete, or most importantly not fun. Recruitment just became an order of magnitude more administrative. If Blizzard thought I was going to believe that "all players spec'd into X" were worth vetting, I'd have asked them if their hiring practices allowed for a trial period of every single applicant that sends Blizzard a resume.

Suspicion eventually turned to outright disbelief as the panel revealed more planned features for the next WoW expansion. I shook my head through the entire portion of the panel dedicated to Pet Battles. Instead of watching their PowerPoint deck unfold, I just kept looking at the developers on the panel, trying to get a read on what they actually thought about their intention to blatantly ripoff Pokémon. Were they sitting upright, leaning forward, eyes wide, excited, thrilled even? Or were they lounging in resignation, tired, disengaged from the presentation. I had to know. Were they personally invested in these new changes? Or were these the actions of acceptance in surrender, like a Hemingway in search of shells?

I didn't get any vibes. Neither excitement nor complacency. Nothing. The developer panel carried themselves with the reserved professionalism of a corporate seminar delivering a road map.

The level of detail Blizzard put into the
Pandaren facial expressions was especially vivid and lifelike.

Reading From the Script

A few other DoDers managed to make their way to BlizzCon that year: Insayno, one of our newest members, met up with Goldy and I, as did Bonechatters, Zedman, and even-old schoolers Turtleman and Volitar made the trek to Anaheim. It wasn't nearly the showing that DoD made the previous year, but was respectable nonetheless.

I wandered the conference room floor aimlessly, sometimes with guildies, sometimes by myself, bumping shoulders with both civilians and Minecraft-themed Paladins. Goldy and I waited in line for a shot at the Diablo III PvP arena; it was surprisingly fun and was one more reason to look forward to the game's release.

Having come all this way meant a hands-on taste at the next expansion as well. I leveled a Panda through the starting area with conflicted emotion. The visuals, especially the animation, felt more alive than ever. The Pandaren were incomparable to any previous race added to the game. But the feel of the Monk and its resource system just felt...off. Their energy bar regenerated exactly as a Rogue's would. This new class was an opportunity for Blizzard to do something radically new, something unheard of in an MMO. Something (dare I say it) cool.

In my mind, I pictured an alternate resource system: a pendulum swinging back and forth (think Boomkin Eclipse bar, but at the speed of a metronome) that would reward a player for timing their attacks. As a player successively nailed each attack with the tick-tock of the pendulum, this would, in turn, increase the speed of the bob, faster and faster, eventually capping out at a frequency just fast enough to warrant practice and mastery. If successful, this would transport the player into a Kung Fu movie -- the player would feel like Bruce Lee, chaining attacks together with lightning speed. How awesome would that be?

But of course, that resource system would never fly. Too complicated. Too inaccessible. Too many moving parts and things to learn and guides to read and timings to master. Strategy guides would be replaced with forum rants, like BS monk resource system forces me to practice, or Thanks Blizzard, Monks unplayable because I lack rhythm. Players don't want homework. They just want to press buttons and get loot. 

Which players wanted that?

---

The dungeons and raids panel was more of the same. "We really want you to feel special" came across as inauthentic against the backdrop of a game increasingly designed to ensure no player could make a bad decision. Cory Stockton explained their approach to Raid Finder, slated for 4.3, reiterating the message that raids were still inaccessible.

"I never disagreed with that," I leaned over to Bonechatters, "but this isn't the right approach."

Dungeons from the outside! flashed up on the screen, as if this was some new concept never before heard of in WoW.

Bonechatters leaned back to me with a hint of sarcasm in his voice, "So, you mean like Zul'Farrak?" I nodded.

When the Q+A began, I crossed my arms, "This ought be good." What colossal injustices had been levied on the community? Having to work with other players to earn achievements cramping your style? Pressing a button to join a raid still too complex a task for you to wrap your head around? Typing in your username and password too much of a chore?

One of the Blues Brothers asked how kicking and the queue system would work in Raid Finder. Cory responded with Blizzard's algorithm intending to monitor abusers historically. "We want to allow people to kick, but we also don't want people to be kicked for no reason."

"Good answer," I said to Boney, "but it doesn't work today in Dungeons. Rando players make boneheaded judgement calls all the time."

"I've been kicked from LFD plenty," Boney whispered back.

"Exactly. How's this gonna suddenly start working for Raid Finder?" Boney just shrugged back a response.

Another fan stepped up and asked why legendaries couldn't be designed so that guilds could assign it to the most deserving player rather than a class, letting the item take the form appropriate for that player's role. I loved that question. I struggled to find ways to acknowledge specific star performers and wished for flexibility like this.

Cory rebutted the idea by starting off with, "I think you'll lose the luster of the fact that anyone can get it at that point..."

"Wait a second," I whispered back to Boney, catching the contradiction, "It's OK to get everybody into raids, regardless of their competency, but it's not OK to give everyone everything they want?"

Boney broke out the self-deprecation, "Sounds a little duplicitous to me."

Handy translation for the BlizzCon 2011 Dungeons & Raids panel:
1. Make the game easier.
2. Make the game easier.
3. Make the game easier.
4. Do things we've done before but call them something different.
5. Throw 1% of our players a bone, since 99% of them will queue
for a dungeon with a button click.

Poker Face

One player asked if Blizzard might consider splitting the 10- and 25-Man achievements back up, in order to more accurately acknowledge the effort, and difference in difficulty, separately.

But I thought 10s and 25s were exactly the same in difficulty!

That's when I caught my first vibe of authenticity. Not in the answer, but in what came before it. Just before responding to the question, Scott Mercer let out a deep sigh. Frustration. Contention. An ongoing battle waged behind closed doors, of designers divided, and of second thoughts on good intentions. It didn't really matter what Scott said after that. The tell said all that needed to be said.

The panel announced the final question. A kid in a hoodie, braces across his teeth, and Scott Pilgrim hair, leaned into the mic.

"Hi, what's going on? I was just wondering how, in Ulduar and, y'know, heroic Lich King...like, when you did Zero Light and you did heroic Lich King, you would get Invincible...you would get...uh... y'know, the no-head mount. It was 100% on hard mode. But in Firelands, you guys made normal mode people get the firehawk mount. And it made people, like, who got Firelord...it was just kinda like a bummer that...you can see these, like, noobs or whatever...running around on mounts that you kinda have to work for to get, y'know? Do you, like, plan on continuing to do that? Just keep giving these awesome mounts to people who don't deserve it?"

The crowd cheered for the first time during the panel. Had the kid struck a nerve? I leaned over to Boney, "You need to recruit Michael Cera after this raid panel is over." Color me impressed.

Less impressive, by far, was Blizzard's answer.

Scott looked at Cory and began his response after a chuckle, "On heroic you did get them every single time you killed them, on normal I don't think that's the case..."

Cory shook his in his disagreement, confirming Cera's observation, "It was random drop."

As if he had said nothing at all, Scott ignored Cory's clarification and continued his response, "...so, you were rewarded more, like...y'know..."

Cory tossed in some help to save his drowning teammate, "...and it's a different color!"

Silence washed across the crowd, save for mild muttering amongst one another, musing on the non-answer. To break the awkward silence, Cory immediately rolled into why good rewards would be kept out of raid finder and reserved only for the normal/heroic raids in Mists of Pandaria.

I looked back at Bonechatters and said, "I think my favorite part of Cataclysm is how it was all just one big experiment."

I left the Dungeons and Raids panel rethinking my stance on Mike Morhaime's free Diablo III offer. The more Blizzard opened their mouths, the more I came to believe there was a new WoW demographic they were targeting. It disappointed me to think that the core subscribers -- those diligent, loyal subs that had paid the bills all these years -- were now the guinea pigs.

Blizzard's attention was solely focused on ruining their MMO by designing for players whose defining characteristic was that they didn't like MMOs.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

4.65. A Con at the 'Con

Not a great toy for kids

Twenty-Twenty

I woke up on Goldenrod's couch and was certain something was picking my eyeball out of its socket. Jarred from sleep in a frenzy of blinking, the haze lifted. A spider-bite reaction at 2:00 am gave the sensation of a thousand eyelashes stuck in my eye. Sleeping bags apparently offered little protection from insects, even from within the comforts of honest-to-god living quarters. Bugs get what they want.

I washed my eye out in his kitchen sink, struggling to keep the volume of my late-night disturbance to a minimum. Eventually, my eyelid twitched less, returning to its usual hyper kinetic state, and I caught a glimpse of the moon from the window above the sink. I decided to slip out back for a quick breath of fresh air.

Even in the dead of night, the warmth of California was a pleasant break from Colorado’s altitude. Jealousy set in. I had no qualms when traveling to the coast for business. The heat was wonderful. I also missed the ocean, something always accessible growing up. I never made time for it as a kid; my mind was on other things. How next to score some computer or video game access. Always scheming, plotting by circumstance.

The business portion of this trip hadn't started yet. In a few days, I'd march into our El Segundo office, training teams by day and enjoying the luxuries of an all-expense paid five-star hotel by night. But before that, there was more important "business" to attend to: A two-day visit to the Anaheim Convention Center, and an all-expense paid sleeping bag on my DPS Officer's sofa, keeping company with the various parasites hiding away in the cracks of his house, thirsty for eyeball juice.

It wasn't the first time I'd had a run in with insects harboring an ocular fetish.

One cold afternoon in the fall of 1980, a much smaller version of myself snuck into the thick brush that lined the backyard of our mobile home, far up in the snowy northern town of Flin Flon, Manitoba. I was armed with a tree branch and an intent to stir up some shit. With several neighborhood kids in tow, the lot of us edged up carefully to the grayish paper-mache looking bag hanging from a tree. I tuned out the ominous, faint buzz coming from the gray bag, and with a deep breath, I mustered all my childhood courage and plunged the tree branch deeply into the center of the nest.

Then, I ran like Hell.

A six-year old's legs are no match for the ferocity of a wasp swarm when it comes to collect. Pack instinct defending its nest far superseded the best laid plans of a young child now panicking, arms waving like an inflatable tube man on a used car lot. Inevitably, a trusted soldier landed his stinger directly above my left eye. The sensation of a hot poker sent me screaming for Mom. In tears, I found myself sitting atop the kitchen counter, while my Mother pressed a ziploc bag of ice against a now swollen-shut eyelid.

"Bet you won't try that again," Mom said. Her voice bore the tone of an impending lesson, "What were you thinking?"

"The kids...said I'd be cool...if I did it."

"You mean 'foolish'."

My six-year old brain didn't get the message, "No! 'Cool'!!"

Mom looked back, knowing more but always refusing to play her hand, and answered simply, "...what's the difference?"

Tyrael's Charger,
An exclusive WoW mount announced at BlizzCon 2011

The Right Frame for the Picture

"How's the eye?"

"I can see, Goldy! Here. These seats right here are perfect."

The main conference hall was packed. Goldenrod and I maneuvered through the crowd as quickly as possible, securing a pair of seats reasonably close to the main stage. Every year it got a bit tougher. Each new 'Con filled the hall faster and faster. It wouldn't be long before the best seats in the house were well behind the concrete pillars in the furthest extremities of the auditorium. Good for hiding restrooms; bad for catching a first glimpse at the next big thing.

Excitement kept my realism at bay. A year earlier I was at the head of a wildly successful raiding guild, casual in its treatment of members, hardcore in its approach to getting things done. We were poised to enter Cataclysmic territory. I harbored doubts, but chose to meet them head on by doubling down on discipline and accountability.

A year later, our success was debatable and measured. We held on to progression...barely. Slots were increasingly filled by new recruits (when available) and veterans were doing double- and sometimes triple-duty, leveling alts for the roles that were needed. DoD suffered its third exodus, something I'd formerly felt capable of steering DoD away from. More vets were retiring, pulling out of progression. As a realist, the future looked grim. The energy surging through the BlizzCon attendees helped suppress my concerns, a temporary but welcome distraction.

My unease would return before Mike Morhaime even left the stage.

I liked Mike. He was never smug and forever grateful for Blizzard's fans. As always, he was thrilled to have such a dedicated, supportive community, bringing his trademark youthful, humbled geekiness front and center. He sung the praises of Cataclysm, chatted up patch 4.3: Hour of Twilight, and the legendary rogue daggers. He made mention of WoW's 10th localization, planned for Brazil. And he broke out the nostalgia by reflecting on how Blizzard hadn't changed in its twenty years. I drifted a bit when the topic shifted to the upcoming Heart of the Swarm expansion, transitioning to his infatuation with eSports (I get it Mike, you really love eSports!), but when Mike made mention of an old familiar franchise, I immediately sat up in my chair.

Diablo III had been in development, quietly, for nearly ten years; now, the beta loomed and keys were coveted. Would he surprise the audience and grant us all some keys? As the crowd chanted for the beta, Mike waved down the rising commotion and announced he had something better:

World of Warcraft players would get Diablo III absolutely free.

Goldenrod and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised, silently exchanging a Scooby Doo WHA??

Settle down. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Someone always pays.

Mike then explained the details of the offer. Diablo III would come free to WoW players committing to one year of subscription fees. In doing so, WoW players would not only get Diablo III free of charge, they'd also secure a guaranteed spot in the next WoW expansion beta, and access to an exclusive in-game mount, Tyrael's Charger.

Mike's reveal sent the BlizzCon crowd into chaotic elation, eyes focused on the screen behind the Blizzard CEO, mouths agape at the awesome looking mount. Something didn't feel right. My mind began putting the numbers together in different combinations, trying to decode the pitch and identify this uncomfortable vibe now taking a hold of me.

Framing a deal
(Source: "Framing" @ Medium)

Spinning the Wheel

In seven years of playing World of Warcraft, of all the players that crossed my path -- the casuals and the hardcores, the PvPers the PvEers, the decent and the indecent -- I cannot recall a single instance of a WoW player ever uttering these words, "Yeah, gonna be cancelling my sub next month, got a new game to play!" The notion that WoW players would decide between WoW and another game struck me as surprisingly shortsighted, almost as if Mike, himself a gamer, didn't know his own audience. If we were a WoW player, chances are, we fully intended to return to Sanctuary for the loot grab.

I gave it another consideration. Was there truly a portion of the WoW community that played WoW and nothing else? Ok, perhaps there was. But what kind of a gamer was this particular player -- a gamer for which WoW defines their gaming experience. I imagined it very unlikely this demographic would be interested in anything other than WoW. Their choice would be WoW, period. So, throwing in a free copy of Diablo III made no sense. They wouldn't play it.

To summarize:

  • WoW + Diablo Fans: Already in their year long sub. Planned to spend another $49.99, extra, no longer necessary.
  • WoW-Only Fans: Already in their year long sub. Never planned to spend $49.99 on Diablo III, was never a "choice" to them, but were happy to enjoy the mount / guaranteed WoW beta pass for spending nothing extra.

So, if the entire WoW community was already in it for their year long subscription, and that community was made up of either players already committed to playing Diablo III or players with zero interest at all in playing Diablo III, where did this "either or" part of the deal come into play? Who was it that Mike was truly pitching this offer to?

The Diablo III-only fans?

A WoW-subscriber paying $14.99 / mo. x 12 months was already in with a commitment of $179.88 for the year. Purchasing Diablo III traditionally (at a retail cost of $49.99) would have upped that investment to $228.87 for the year. By contrast, a Diablo III-only fan's annual investment in Blizzard amounted to the mere retail cost of the game: $49.99. Blizzard stood to make far less money on Diablo III than it did off WoW subscribers.

...unless, perhaps, they could make one last move to increase a Diablo III-only fan's ability to pay a little more. Convincing Diablo III players to commit to a WoW sub they had no interest in, carried the potential to increase these players' investments into the company by about 3 1/2 times.

Even before the pitch left Mike's lips, Blizzard was guaranteed to sell many millions of copies (let's call this 'x amount of copies') of Diablo III at retail ($49.99). Now, with his "free" offer, a percentage of that same 'x' were now going to sell for $179.88. None of this considers the potential that a few of those Diablo III players might convert to full-time WoW players, the game that keeps on paying (Blizzard).

If Mike had gone up on stage and said, "Diablo fans, I've got a great surprise for you all this year. How would a handful of you like to pay us  3.5x the retail cost of Diablo III, and we'll give you a mount you'll never use in a game you'll never play?" I'm fairly certain the audience would've gone silent, though knowing gamers, the boos and profanity would've followed quickly. But this is exactly what the deal was, spun to the hypothetical WoW player, struggling to decide which game to play.

Framing our consumer perspective is nothing new, and certainly, nothing new to Blizzard. Those who might take an even strong conspiratorial stance, blaming greediness as a result of the Activision/Blizzard merger, I can assure you it wasn't. Take two minutes and read about how the rested XP system, developed for Vanilla WoW, was first designed as a penalty.

As early alpha testers earned less and less XP the longer they marathoned their playtime, they grew irritated at the perceived lack of freedom to play as they chose. Did Blizzard pull the system? Quite the contrary. They raised XP 200% across the board, then slowly reduced the player's gain back to 100%. Perceived as a bonus, alpha testers carried on, without a further complaint. Yet the end result, taping a person's effectiveness off after extended play, remained intact.

Traditionally, I'd never been suspicious of Blizzard's intentions; I understood they were a company and, at the end of the day, had their own upkeep. But everything about this deal gave me pause: who it was targeted to, the claim that WoW players would be deciding between one game or another, the actual profit gains they'd enjoy as a result of giving out something for "free." The BlizzCon crowd screamed "COOL", but I couldn't shake the feeling we were all being taken for a ride.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

4.64. Play Different

DoD defeats Heroic: Beth'tilac,
Firelands

Round Pegs

Back into the fray, the progression team diverted immediately to the western side of Firelands, satisfied that they never again had to cast their gaze eastward. Those blackened hills along the west corridor snaked upward into a hike that ended at Beth'tilac's lair. I prayed for a quick death -- either her own or my guild's, rather than suffering the torment of another month long encounter. No player deserved to repeat such indignity.

Other than the requisite "has more health, hits harder" changes we'd come to expect in heroic encounters, Beth'tilac's Cinderweb Drones now randomly fixated on players, forcing healers to treat them as mini-tanks for short bursts. Cinderweb Spinners would flail while dangling from their strands of fiery silk, causing bursts of magma to spiral out and stun random members of the raid. Also worthy of note, Engorged Broodlings scurried towards random players at high speed, detonating with significant AoE damage once reached. 

Beth'tilac was already a DPS check and one of the tighter encounters of Firelands. It was anyone's guess as to say how many attempts these changes would impose on the progression team. It ended up being roughly a dozen pulls. Three hours in, DoD claimed its first defeat of Heroic: Beth'tilac.

"We should've just done Beth'tilac second," said Klocker.

"Somebody please shoot him," I replied.

"Happy to oblige," said Blain, "Klocker, send me your home address."

"It's easy to remember. I actually live at your Mom's house now."

---

Sunday, we were down a healer. Lexxii's permanent absence stretched the thin membrane of the roster even further. With no replacement, I leaned heavily on the goodwill from others in order to keep the machine humming. The commitment I made to DoD to provide them with a stable raiding guild felt more like a fraud with each passing week. Suppressing this growing guilt was a far more dominant thought in recent months. Whatever it takes to get the job done. Your rules are in place to keep repeat offenders on the straight-and-narrow. You're not undermining your own authority. You're negotiating.

The brothers shaman were out for a camping trip the entire weekend, putting me up against a management wall. Do I continue to grant them the freedom to take time off for a job well done and put progression at risk, or guilt-trip them into staying late like some pointy-haired boss who cared more about the menial work than an individual's mental health?

As it turned out, both Gunsmokeco and Deathonwings returned from camping with only minutes to spare before the start of the raid. After flipping a coin, Guns offered up his heals for the twenty-fifth spot. I showered him with thanks for his generosity, and made no mention of his on-going resistance to install add-ons -- mandates meant for the ignorance of amateurs, rather than to patronize the experts. I didn't even bust his balls about continuing to raid on a MacBook, as he was one of the few Apple nuts among a trove of PC master race folk. It was neither the time nor the place.

We headed straight for Alysrazor. The chaotic four-phase fight bearing traits of both Pilotwings and Star Castle remained almost entirely unchanged in heroic. Phases two, three, and four presented no new obstacles to learn; it merely asked us to take the stone we already had, then squeeze just a bit more blood from it.

DoD defeats Heroic: Alysrazor,
Firelands

How It Works

Phase one, however, took on a new mechanic. Several gigantic meteors would plummet to the ground, then slowly roll across the cavern floor, not unlike the meteors from the Ragnaros encounter. They had low health and were easily dispatched, but rather than explode and disintegrate when killed, the meteors simply stopped moving, converting to a semi-permanent obstacle that hindered us. Or...from a different perspective...protected us.

The addition of the meteors were a component to Alysrazor's new Firestorm ability: a blast of fiery winds pummeling players with enough force to incinerate them on the spot. The trick, then, was to use the now-dormant meteor as a line-of-sight shield, hiding behind its girth while a sheet of flame painted the entire cavern floor. 

But...from which direction would the winds come? The only way to know how to position oneself was to look at Alysrazor herself, observe her position and angle at the moment preceding Firestorm, then adjust around the meteor appropriately. There was usually less than a second to adjust before a torrent of flame drained your life.

Positioning ourselves around the meteors was chaotic; someone always ended up making a bad call, diving when they should have dodged. But the progression team had dealt with much worse torture for far longer. They stuck it out, until Heroic: Alysrazor finally fell with 30 minutes to spare on the evening of Sunday, October 2nd. DoD had dangled at the bottom of server progression lists at an embarrassing 1/7 for an entire month. Over the course of two raid weekends, we shot up to 4/7. Kicking and screaming, my guild clung to life.

"MVP goes out to Guns for this one, folks," I added in Vent, "thank you for stepping up and filling in at the last moment."

"Just a good thing that I got back from camping in time," he replied.

The outdoors are highly overrated.

---

Wednesday, October 5th started as an otherwise ordinary day. I went to work and focused most of my time on preparing training materials that I was scheduled to deliver at my company's El Segundo branch. Seven months after being hired as a senior developer to support legacy code, I now found myself in the position of managing two teams of developers on two separate products, while putting an actual process into place for a third.

It never failed to amaze me how a multi-billion dollar organization still managed to retain so many dysfunctional teams. Red tape has a habit of obstructing one's ability to get shit done. Some might argue that excessive rules help keep the herd from wandering off the cliff, but structure is only one prong under the leadership umbrella.

I kept my plans simple to understand, straightforward to execute, and left little room for guesswork. Check these files in. Run this deploy script. Verify these tests. When they fail, it isn't anyone's responsibility but yours to fix. Own it. There was no rocket surgery in my training. It was a programmer's ode of Move Out of the Fucking Fire.

Personal responsibility was a common theme in my process plan, but so too was another equally important concept: the ability to adapt. If process is becoming an anathema to productivity, learn when it is appropriate to detour. If rules feel like they're suffocating you, certain situations call for personal discretion. You might actually have to slip past the guards once or twice, get into that burning building...and come out a hero. That can only happen when you know your stuff inside and out. Be an expert. When the day arrives that you no longer need a healing add-on to provide world-class healing, then...and only then...will you be in a position to make such rule-breaking judgement calls.

My phone buzzed and vibrated across the white desk. Messages arrived from several people at once. The ambient conversation at work also began to pick up around my cube. I glanced at the phone, reading the text message, demanding that I pull up the news immediately. I ventured online, pulled up the news, and stared dumbfounded at the headline.

The awful news that spread across the Internet,
October 5th, 2011

The Man in the Machine

The passing of Steve Jobs sent a cascade of unchecked emotion through me. Sadness. Regret. Frustration. Anger. Technology was my life, and Steve very much shaped a part of the industry that I held dear. And because of how much of a role tech played in my life, you can probably imagine the sorts of beliefs I harbored towards the famously opinionated CEO of Apple.

I was not, what you might call, an Apple "fanboi". I detested the overpriced hardware, seeing it for what it was: a sham, meant to trick the layperson out of additional hard-earned cash for equivalent processing power. I saw his stubborn finger-pointing antics as theatrical, meant to add a dash of controversy to an ostentatious bisque that was Apple PR. And it goes without saying that I saw an always inadequate lineup of games. I didn't dislike Apple because they were disingenuous, but that they were disingenuous and wildly successful.

Steve's attention-to-detail was unparalleled in the industry, he noticed the little things far more acutely than the average person. He understood the complexities in design at a level most others could not. This foresight manifested as technological prophecy: he knew what people wanted before they even knew themselves, a master trick in any magician's repertoire. Those who worked with him spoke of his ever present "reality distortion field" -- an otherworldly power that convinced ordinary people they were capable of extraordinary things. 

Steve's many critics point out that these are the traits of a narcissistic master manipulator; I consider myself amongst that camp. But while that may be true, I could not, however, deny the end result was a message steeped heavily in my own ideology. Do whatever it takes. Make it happen. Jobs may have been outlandish, and an awful people manager, but his approach was practical for a leader who consistently saw a picture far bigger, and with much greater clarity, than the many individuals he chose to realize that vision.

I clocked out of the office a bit later than usual that night. The streets of Denver were emptier, as I drove home in quiet contemplation. I thought of Steve and of Apple, of his vision and insight, of his miraculous turnaround of the company he built. And while I may have detested his hardware or his methods, I was thankful for Steve's inspirational impact on a great many people in this world...a few of which who might never have set foot in DoD otherwise.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

4.63. Underwhelmed

Seraphine spies the Pureblood Fire Hawk,
freshly looted by The ORLY Factor,
Stormwind

Et tu, Douche Canoe?

"I'm out this weekend," Blain's tone was jovial in Vent, bordering on relief, as if to say have fun with all of that. It only pissed me off more.

"Didn't you just take a weekend vacation?"

"Yeah...that was two months ago. And I need to do it again!"

"Is this absolutely the best fucking time to be vacationing? I mean, we're at what could be considered the worst possible brick wall in DoD's history."

His tone shifted. It was subtle, barely enough to register on the average person's radar. Blain kept to an affable demeanor, but paused ever-so-slightly on words where it was appropriate for the listener to take a hint. He'd taken this posture with me at various points throughout our raiding career together, most notably when I neared the line of inappropriateness. And if you were a sharp enough people reader that you could catch what he was throwing down, while blindfolded (as so many of us gamers are forced to be), you'd know what he was aiming for -- that you were one of the few who'd earned a spot in his good graces, and now teetered precariously on the brink of falling out of favor.

"Well...that may be true...but I'm still going to be out...Friday. I should be back for the Sunday raid, and if I'm going to be late, I'll text you."

It doesn't matter how greatly / poorly we're doing. I have plans. I'm letting you know what they are. Respect them. 

Message delivered.

"Thanks," my tone could've been less snotty, but with all energy fully allocated to rage management, little remained to fuel social grace.

September of 2011 wound me into a bitter, cynical state. After spending only two nights on Heroic: Shannox, there was no indication, no hint at all, of the torture we were about to endure as we headed toward Heroic: Lord Rhyolith. Night after night, weekend after weekend, we smashed our faces against molten rock, again and again, battered and beaten, until our virtual eyes welled up with bloodied mucus, and drool lingered from each digital lip. Each night, those digital avatars trudged slowly out of Firelands, shoulders hunched, spitting bone fragments on the way out, not for convenience. For contempt.

My state of mind grew weary, thanks in part to both direct and indirect psychological attacks, constantly challenging the decisions I'd made for seven years. Leveling alts to clear my mind may have freed me from Drecca's coordinated harassment campaign, but I didn't have to travel far to see Blizzard's changing stance on rewarding a guild's commitment to backbone. There was a time when a player might look to the sky in awe of raiding accomplishments. Bearing witness to such incredible rare mounts got the juices flowing, the gears turning. A player coveting such treasure might consider how s/he could acquire one, eventually working their way into a well-respected raiding guild. Dedication and hard work were no longer requirements for such rare treasures. To the shit-show went the spoils. To the rest of us, with fingers raw and wrists cramped sore with carpal tunnel, went nothing. A sigh forever exhaling.

If there was a payoff out there, stretched thin across the horizon, it grew dim with each failed week on Rhyolith.

An early version of "Lord Rhyolith Footers" addon in action
(Source: "Suspicion vs. Lord Rhyolith")

Footsies

DoD's roster splintered. Sarge was still out (blown video card), and now the healers would suffer an additional tragedy: the loss of Beefysupryme. Still young in the eyes of the guild, he (along with wife Physica) contributed exceptional heals and damage, respectively. The couple had grown to become loyal, dedicated members of the DoD family in a short time. Alas, Beefy scored a new job, and the schedule disallowed him from concentrating on progression. He stepped down from the core and hung up his healing Resto Druid branches, leaving Physica to carry the torch in his name.

The worst hit of all was losing Jungard, whose college fall schedule had finally kicked off, shattering any chances of his availability on Friday night progression. I'd watched Jungard for years, slowly making his way into late TBC progression after getting his first shot via Annihilation. Over the many months and several expansions that made up Jungard's raiding career in DoD, he'd grown from a humble warrior looking for glory, to a trusted friend and confidant, and eventually, an officer of the DoD court. His compassion and kind nature toward even the scrubbiest of players often reminded me of the proverbial "catch more bees with honey" strategy that I desperately needed now, more than ever...as the frustrations of Cataclysm mounted. The holes in the officer core formerly filled by Neps and Jungard were sucking chest wounds that DoD had no choice but to suffer.

On the eve of the sixth week of attempts on Heroic: Lord Rhyolith, the night Blain informed me he'd be missing one of the two nights on a business trip, I opened up a chat with Bonechatters and began typing instructions.

"Ping Fred, and ask him if he is willing to take the reins Friday, and if he has too much on his plate, that you are happy to take it off his shoulders."

"Got it. Tanks?"

"Most likely Amatsu and Unchained. I can pull my bizarre avoidance out if necessary for Baleroc."

"Roger. I want people to be using Footers tonight, melee is accounted for. If its successful, perhaps we might consider having everyone use it."

Boney was experimenting with a new addon that raiding guilds were catching wind of, a panel that displayed the names of each player doing damage to each particular foot, as well as an estimate of DPS being applied to each foot. With it, he hoped to gain more control over the chaotic, unstructured "left foot/right foot" calls in Vent.

"Oh, and Boney...plan for heroics, across the board."

Moments later, Fred connected with me over instant messenger.

"I feel like I've lost some man points. My wife had me log on to Pinterest."

"I dunno what that is."

"It's a new favorite site amongst women that love to drive their husbands insane."

I focused Fred back to the topic at hand, "So, you're comfortable leading Friday?"

"Ya, shouldn't be a problem."

"This may be our shot," noting the upside of the nerfs, "most heroics will be well within reach now."

Honestly, having been unable to attempt anything past Heroic: Lord Rhyolith, I will never know what else we might have accomplished. But Blizzard's blanket nerfs to Firelands only nights before ensured that nearly every boss suffered at least a 15% hit in health and damage. Amid a never-ending list of setbacks, the nerfs stood to be our last remaining motivator.

"Did Alysrazor in the 10 last night. The tornadoes move so slow now. It's like a geriatric parade."

"Boney's having melee get the Footers addon, you may want to have it as well."

I fired up Pinterest, and scrolled through the sea of women's fashion.

"Pinterest, eh? Needs more Hanzo."

DoD ends their ordeal, defeating Heroic: Lord Rhyolith,
Firelands

Miracle

We cut Shannox immediately out of the way at the start of the Friday raid, focusing all of our attention on Rhyolith for the duration of the night. Shannox keeled over with less grief than previous heroic kills; the effects of Blizzard's nerfs were noticeable. We accepted the handicap as a commander might accept the loss of a good battalion in order to gain a necessary foothold in the ongoing war: outwardly optimistic and focused on the brass ring while remaining humbly aware of what that cost came with. Bragging about "awesome deeps" would be left to another day.

Heroic: Lord Rhyolith attempts resumed. Having clocked as many hours on Rhyolith as we had on Kael'thas Sunstrider in TBC, it is fair to state that our newest members to progression rightfully earned a place among honorary veteran raiders of the old world. Those Wrath- and Cata-era raiders who stuck this out were part of a rare crew -- they weathered the grueling, repetitive demands of month-long practice attempts that formed the cornerstone of Vanilla and TBC raiding, and they did so with grace.

Progress! By the end of the evening, DoD experienced more transitions into phase two than ever before. All that remained was an employing a workable strategy to deal with Rhyolith's eye-beams, which cut the roster down before being able to extinguish that remaining fire. Blain would see to that, come Sunday.

---

An hour before the raid, my phone buzzed.

Still at least an hour away. Start without me.

I thumbed back a response, asking him where he was.

Greenville SC

An hour? Google Maps estimated Blain had closer to two hours before getting near anything that resembled a gaming rig.

"We're clearing bosses first," I directed Fred. He and Boney led the charge, clearing to Beth'tilac, Baleroc, and Alysrazor. All three were done by the first hour, planting us firmly at Rhyolith's godforsaken feet at the top of the 1st hour.

I called Blain, and quietly left my press-to-talk key down, while I feigned a serious tone.

"Blain. You are an hour late. This is completely unacceptable behavior. Especially for a Tyrant."

I could make out the car engine in the background.

"Sorry," this time his tone was that of genuine defeat, perhaps one of the rarest glimpses into Blain's vulnerabilities, "I guessed pretty bad on this drive. Give the raid my apologies."

Holding the phone up to the speakers so that he could hear clearly, the raid gave Blain a round of boos and insults, not meant to disparage, but to humor and lighten the painfully dark mood Rhyolith had brought. It was another rare glimpse of DoD sticking together. On the other end of my phone, Blain laughed.

"Ok, I'm hanging up. We're going to go kill Heroic Rhyolith now."

"Alright, everyone," he replied, "good luck in there."

I turned back to the raid, "You heard the man, folks. End this suffering."

It took only two attempts.

Twenty-two minutes after I hung up with Blain, Rhyolith's shell broke off, exposing his body of liquid flame. All twenty-five players remained alive, carefully inching their way around eye beams while unleashing the pent up rage of ten nights of practice. His great liquid magma body crashed to the ground and the screams of victory filled Vent once again. Dead at last. The nightmare was over. Sanity became reality. For a brief moment, all was right with the world.

"Ok, let's see," started Fred, "ok we have an Incendic Chestguard. Maybe for a boomkin? Taking bids now. Ending bids in 3, 2, 1...no bids?"

Mortalsend spoke up, "Well...I’ll take it for off, but only if nobody else needs it."

"Looks like you're it. There you go. Next up we have, uh....Earthcrack Bracers. DPS melee bracers. bids to Fred."

I looked at my bracers. The difference (if there was any to speak of) were negligible. Inspecting Hells revealed the same bracers.

"Ok, counting down, 3...2...1. And, winner is Unchained. There you go, sir."

"Thanks, Fred."

"Cracked Obsidian Stompers are next, bids to Fred. Bring in the bids, folks. Let's go. Counting down...3...2...1. Winner is Amatsu for 5."

"Wow, an actual upgrade for someone with the appropriate spec!"

"Meh," Amatsu added, "They're marginally better, but 5 DKP won't break me."

"Ok last up, we have Entrail Disgorger. Bids to Fred. Anybody at all. Send 'em in. Counting down in 3...2...1. Entrail Disgorger goes to Boney for 35."

I stood in silence a moment.

"...so, I guess...Staghelm, folks."

The raid headed off of Rhyolith's plateau, and back down the ravine, heading towards Staghelm's bridge. I stood another moment, staring off into the brimstone.

One of the most excruciating, torturous bosses ever confronted by DoD over its seven year history...depriving us of nearly thirty-two hours of forward movement in the instance...produced:

- one upgrade,
- two side-grades, and
- two off-pieces.

Evidence of anything else was forever banished to a shapeless pile of enchanting dust, cast away, like so many good intentions.