Thursday, May 26, 2016

4.73. Temporary Hiatus

Members of DoD prepare for another
pull on Warmaster Blackhorn,
Dragon Soul

Treat the Disease, Not the Symptom

The forum thread was up to 188 pages. I read through each post, telling the tale of how wonderful the changes were, and how grateful the players were. Long-held frustrations with the pre-existing system were no longer an issue. The barrier to entry was gone. Blizzard happily acknowledged this shower of compliments on a job well done. Blizzard's goal of making a great game that was fun for everyone looked to, at last, be complete. Mission accomplished. After seven long years of iterating, they had finally achieved a fun, great game that everyone could enjoy.

Everyone in this thread, at least.

LFR was that last piece, the dangling outlier that answered the question: "What if I don't want to be in a guild? Can I still raid?" Wonder no longer. With just the press of a button, any player, regardless of their in-game affiliation, could queue for a raid, slaughter a boss, and walk out with loot. The tech behind LFR was a huge step forward in WoW's evolution.

One huge step forward, two huge steps backward.

I read on, though I really didn't need to -- the title of the forum thread said all that needed to be said: "I will never go back to normal raiding again."

A far less trafficked thread (28 pages) had a very different stance. Blizzard's response to "Raid Finder destroys communities" was that it was never Blizzard's intent to have LFR replace traditional raiding, yet there were no clear lines indicating where precisely they'd taken steps to ensure players didn't flock to LFR en masse to solve their guild membership woes.

I shook my head at those famous last words, "never our intent..." After this many years in the video game industry, knowing the volatility of their customer base, hadn't they learned their lesson by now? Just because you intend for something not to be misused...doesn't mean it won't be. Weren't all those years of rolling back exploitative raiding guilds for "clever use of game mechanics" enough of a lesson? What about all the DDoS's that Battle.net had suffered? The reason Blizzard had to build a Warden just to keep cheaters at bay, a fight that (even now) rages on?

Why not just design for evil by default?

That was the real answer, in the end. Allowing more people through the raiding floodgates wasn't evil, not by Blizzard's standards...it was the very opposite. At the end of the day, more players experiencing raid content was a win, not a loss. The difference was: it was a short-term win. Over the long-term, however, knowing gamers like I did, there was bound to be repercussions. If we can take the easy way out, we will.

It was never a raiding problem. It was always a guild problem. Players said they wanted an easier mechanism to raid; in reality, the request masked their real issue: they didn't want to be forced into guild membership. Players wanted the freedom to come and go as they pleased, no longer bound to the rigid schedule dictated by a faceless college kid with a misogynist streak and a propensity for dick jokes.

That really was the perception around guilds: huge collections of nerds with no social skills, a knack for cursing, and a chip on their collective shoulders for all players not geared to the tooth. This little experiment we were trying called "Descendants of Draenor" only represented a grain of sand in that vast desert of awful guilds; our ideals were not at all the common tongue. 

I can't blame players for not wanting to deal with all of that. But I absolutely can blame Blizzard for the band-aid that patched up the symptom, while the disease continued to fester. I can blame them, and I do.

LFR was easier both parties. Easier for players for to raid, and easier for Blizzard to implement, rather than attempting to shoulder the social issues of toxicity and personal accountability prevalent in WoW guilds.

Easier, but not necessarily right.

Kerulak attempts a 10-Man kill of Spine of
 Deathwing, after the 25-Man is put on hiatus,
Dragon Soul

Hemorrhaging

The 2nd weekend of Dragon Soul did not look promising. After completing the rotations early Friday morning, we were in a bad state. While Friday's sole absentee could be compensated for, Sunday's four-player deficiency was a showstopper.

Mortalsend was out, as were the shaman brothers Gunsmokeco and Deathonwings, and Sarge rounded off the missing persons list. Reasons were varied: Guns' new work schedule conflicted with our raid times, while Wings claimed he'd finally hit his threshold -- after six long years of raiding, he'd had his fill. Sarge's interest waned as well, and Mortal had holiday-themed family matters to attend to. Merry Christmas to us.

Neps was my first plan to tourniquet this gushing wound. I'd been in contact with him over the remaining weeks in 4.2. He was in the process of piecing together a new computer, one adequate for progression raiding. Neps' return to 25-Man progression would be a godsend, if he could pull it off.

There was a time where I was so dependent on Neps that I couldn't conceive of the 25-Man moving forward without him present. Of course, this wasn't true at all: DoD held the fort down throughout Firelands while still granting Neps much needed recovery time. In hindsight, this was another one of my inadequacies as a leader rising to the surface. I grappled with the kicking Ben out of the guild and the risk of losing Neps in the process. In the end, we were able to press on without him. It sucks to lose people...good people...but losing them doesn't mean the end.

I held out hope that Neps' new PC would be assembled in time to make up for the massive healing deficiency that now jeopardized progression.

---

On December 9th, 2011, the 25-Man progression team returned to Dragon Soul for its 2nd week of work. Extending the raid lock, we bypassed all bosses killed the week previous, went toe-to-toe with Warmaster Blackhorn encounter, beating the boss by the end of the night.

By Sunday we'd found our replacements and returned to pick up where we left off. Deathwing was such a massive threat that Blizzard had to split him into two separate encounters. Before facing the dragon's maw itself, we'd have to weaken the great aspect of death. That episode played out in the Dragon Soul's second-to-last encounter, Spine of Deathwing.

We lept off Blackhorn's airship, plummeted through the sky, and landed conveniently atop Deathwing himself, mid-flight. As the dragon scorched the ground below, the 25-Man steeled itself for attempts on a brutal fight.

The basic jist of the fight consisted of positioning ourselves in a spread across the breadth of Deathwing's back, while working through certain fire elementals that spawned as we ripped up the dark iron plates covering his burning flesh underneath. Killing all the elementals was too difficult an endeavor, so the tactic called for shifting the entire raid to one side of Deathwing's back. Noticing we were all near an edge, Deathwing would then barrel-roll, tossing the elementals to their death while we held on for dear life.

Deathwing rolled and bucked; we clung to his burnt metal blades. The 25-Man progression raid unleashed hell on the Spine with every bit of focus and energy I've ever witnessed from the team. On that night of work, the discipline present had a military feel, though I can't honestly claim to know what that is like from experience. How it played out in this raid was as follows: No complaining. No petty bullshit or ribbing. Blain made adjustments and the team responded. It was brilliant. It felt brilliant.

It seemed as though something otherworldly was driving the 25-Man that night. They were gunmetal polished and determined to see this thing through. If I didn't know any better, it felt as if extrinsic motivation has finally broken through, that the team had transcended the need to acquire simple golden banners and digital baubles of a game.

Maybe the team genuinely feared losing something important to them.

Try as we might to rip the great dragon apart and pull him from the sky, it wasn't enough. At the top of the fourth hour, we weren't even close to breaking into our final phase. No famous last pull would get us any closer. We called it for the night.

"Thanks, everyone," I spoke into Vent, "Keep your eyes glued to the rotation post on the forums and we'll let you know what the holiday schedule is looking like."

I logged off, removed my glasses, and put my head in my hands.

A wonderful game that tugs at emotional strings,
Bastion

The Force Awakens

"Bovie here. This'll be my last report."

"The 10's finished?"

Elaboration was unnecessary, but Bovie did so anyway. His team's reasons were the same as Zedman's, the same as Joredin's. Loss of interest. Burnout. Holidays. Whatever. Three teams with a combined size of thirty (plus) players were retiring from WoW for an unspecified amount of time. With them went any hope of their alts being available to fill the gaping wounds of the 25-Man.

I scoured forums throughout the week and pinged guilds in-game, trying to get a feel for recruitment without coming across as desperate. Just more of the same. Where once guilds might collapse and produce a swarm of stragglers we could scoop up and house, Deathwing-US was now just a blank faceless sheet of non-committals, forever hopping through Orgrimmar in their search for nothing.

Without a leg to stand on, I kicked off an early holiday for the raid. For the first time in nearly seven years, we broke for Christmas two weeks before normal. Both raid weekends that followed (Dec 16th/18th and Dec 23rd/25th) were pulled from the sign-up sheet. My last remaining ounce of positivity hoped that this extended vacation would center the team. Reinvigorated, they'd return in the new year, ready to clear Dragon Soul and put an end to Deathwing.

That 2011 holiday was surreal. I spiraled into a brooding state of unease. Most of the guild kept themselves busy with the hotly anticipated, freshly released MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic. A respectable contingent of the 25-man roster spent time in there, even Blain. I recused myself. A new MMO was the last thing I could stomach. My bitter cynicism would ruin the fun, and for all they gave to DoD, they didn't deserve that from me.

Instead, I spent a lot of those evenings in solitude, off of Vent and out of WoW. While the majority of them light-sabred it up, I treated myself to a game I'd been meaning to play for a few months, and picked up Bastion off of XBox Live.

Bastion's setting was surreal, both gorgeous and depressing. I took control of a white-haired boy that swung weapons to bash monsters' skulls in, wandering a desolate landscape. Each isometric area was beautifully drawn in a cartoonish-style, and appeared as if torn from the planet's surface, now suspended mid-air. The game's environments bore all the markings of a civilization abruptly vaporized. Each new area hinted at the lives that once played out here. Markets and streets abandoned. Empty houses with doors flung open. Lives interrupted.

Friends and support were scarce. Bastion's unique narrator calmly read back to me the details of the gameplay as they unfolded in real time, his southern twang also seemingly out of place in this cartoonish wasteland. When I finally managed to hook up with other characters to carry the story along, my trust in them ended up misplaced.

I beat Bastion over the 2011 holiday, but given all the circumstances, I don't know that it made me feel better...or worse.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

4.72. The Out Run Test

Sega's 1986 classic game,
Out Run

Checkpoint

When Out Run was released in 1986, it was not the first racing game. It wasn't the first to set the precedent of a third-person driving perspective -- that honor went to Turbo, some five years earlier. It was not the first to offer force feedback through its steering wheel, nor was it the first to allow players the freedom to choose their route. It wasn't even the first to pseudo-scale sprites at high speeds, making the player feel like they were racing down a real speedway. In fact, the only new feature that Out Run brought to the table was to allow players to pick their own background music. Wikipedia lists at least a dozen racing games that were released before Out Run. In the halls of video game history, Out Run wasn't the first to do many things.

But it was the first to do them well.

To Yu Suzuki, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, so long as each part received special treatment. He carefully chose the right elements from previous racing games, polishing each as it was added to the mixture. When Suzuki's refinements came together in just the right mixture -- not too much of one or too little of another -- the result was a video game racing experience vastly different from anything seen before.

What's so special about Out Run, when compared to its competition at that time?
  • Humor was injected throughout. Racing games ended with a "Congratulations!" and not much else. Meanwhile, Out Run's five endings all featured a comedic skit played out by the driver and his girlfriend. When the player hit an obstacle at high speed, the Testarossa flipped out of control, launching its cartoonish passengers into the air.
  • Video Game music had yet to leave a memorable footprint among gamers - Out Run's three main selections (chosen on a virtual radio station) were written by Hiroshi Kawaguchi, one of the most prolific composers in Sega's history. Kawaguchi was a member of the "S.S.T. Band", Sega's in-house rock group, known to play at festivals and conferences during the late 80's and early 90's.
  • Although Out Run was unmistakably a 2D experience, Yu Suzuki conceptualized his entire game design process in a three-dimensional perspective, stating "I calculated the position, scale, and zoom rate in 3D and converted it backwards to 2D."
Out Run was memorable, not because of its innovation in any one area, but rather, through the combination of all the fine details that breathed life and character into a genre, which -- up until that point -- had been primarily about boxes of pixels driving a track, over and over and over. It was the best selling arcade game the year of its release, went on to win countless awards, and is permanently chiseled into a myriad of lists that recount the greatest video games of all time. Out Run raised the bar to which all future racing games would be measured against...

...including itself.

At the end of his career, nearly two decades after the launch of Out Run, Yu Suzuki returned to oversee the production of Out Run 2.

There is only one game this could be:
Out Run 2

Changing the Formula

The video game industry bears the weight of Moore's Law more than perhaps any other; technological advances that span eighteen years are better compared to the journeys of ancient civilizations. The mind-numbing power of twin Motroloa 68000 CPUs (in Out Run's 1986 arcade cabinet) is mere flint-and-sticks when compared to the CPU in an iPhone 6. You can't really compare the speeds of architectures so vastly different, but a flat clock comparison yields a difference of about 11,000%. It's like they came from an entirely different world of hieroglyphics and clay pots.

"Super-scaling" sprites gave way to polygons, shaders, and riggings. Arcades rose and fell as home consoles and PCs obsoleted the need for bulky, rigid cabinets and expensive real estate. Even the medium itself moved from the dead language of archaic taped chips to instant downloads on internet-ready consoles. Our network connections today boast such available bandwidth that entire games can be streamed, complete with real-time voice over IP -- the long road of arcade cabinet manufacturing must have been like building the pyramids, in comparison.

But it wasn't just the technology that changed. After two decades, the competition not only drove circles around Out Run, few even remembered its existence. Entrenched franchises battled each other for market dominance: Need for Speed, Gran Turismo, Burnout, and more. Out Run wasn't even on the map.

Yu Suzuki could've made significant changes to an already winning formula in order to compete. And there were changes: A new drift mechanic, multiplayer challenges, a time attack mode, to name a few. They were the sorts of changes that, if done incorrectly, risked taking away the identity that made Out Run what it was.

Mr. Suzuki did not disappoint.

He took the features Out Run was known for, all those years ago -- the music, the humor, the candy apple red Ferrari Testarossa, the feel of all those outdoor zones, and simply made them better. The new maps felt like Out Run maps, kicking off with a contemporary version of the original Coconut Beach starting area. New cars were added, but true to Out Run form, it was a selection of only Ferraris. Even the casuals got a break: Out Run 2 allowed players to select automatic transmissions, if manual was too much to handle. He even tossed in a few new radio stations to choose from, but Out Run wouldn't be Out Run without remixes of its three original tunes: all three -- Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze, and Splash Wave -- were present.

When it came time to fold in some innovation, he did so with great care. Drifting wasn't nearly as complex as it was in those juggernaut franchises, and felt awesome...it felt like Out Run. Multiplayer challenges didn't force the game into a traditional racing pigeonhole -- other racers were represented via ghost cars, keeping the original challenge of "best time" being the true opponent, not the drivers themselves.

Out Run 2 may not have sold millions and millions of units like its contemporary competition, but it is undeniably Out Run. Everything that made the original great is also true of its sequel. For everything that was added, and what tiny adjustments were made to the original formula, the result is conclusively a return to greatness for fans of '86 title. It. is. fun.

Out Run 2 feels like Out Run. Other sequels aren't as lucky.

"So for your next game, we're going to put you in a
three-dimensional city and see if players can have you
not collide with furniture for more than three seconds."

Sonic the Disappointment

A polygon article on the history of Sonic quotes developer Bob Rafei as considering Sega "brave" for all of its attempts to breathe life into the franchise, himself believing, "If you stay the same, you stagnate, and that's a slow death." The irony of such a statement is not lost on fans of the series. Rafei co-developed one of the worst iterations of Sonic the Hedgehog in the franchise's history: Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. The game's a mess: at the 2014 E3, GameCentral described it as "so unspeakably awful we couldn't force ourselves to play through the entire demo."

The blue hedgehog's glory days concluded at the end of the 16-bit era. No platformer could compete with Sonic's dizzying speed at the height of his popularity. But the advent of 3D rendering in consoles like Nintendo 64, Sony PlayStation, and Sega Dreamcast put the brakes on Sonic, hard. Fans of the series struggling with awkward controls and an overabundance of cute partners "helping" Sonic thwart Dr. Robotnik were themselves thwarted at every step Sonic took. A series that once defined itself as a hedgehog with attitude that blazed across Moebius had somehow gained too much attitude, sacrificing control in the process.

It was not fun. More accurately, it was not Sonic.

In an ironic turn, some of the greatest Sonic the Hedgehog games released since the end of his golden age weren't even made by Sega. The fan-based Sonic projects Before The Sequel and After The Sequel are extraordinary pieces of work (considering they were built by kids in basements rather than professional development teams). If you have an ounce of interest in Sonic, I urge you to try them: the levels, artwork, music, and game design are all new, built from the ground up. Yet, these home-brewed titles immediately invoke the feel of the original, early 90's games. They get it.

There are even indie games that have no relation to Sonic whatsoever that get it. Within seconds of playing them, you know exactly where they draw inspiration from and what they pay homage to. You see it. You hear it. You feel it.

It is telling that basement-bred Sonic games and no-name indies blow the pants off of officially sanctioned sequels -- they possess something that those Sega sequels lack.

Heart.

---

If you're a game designer being pushed to innovate an existing title, the Out Run test is excruciatingly important to complete. Take your latest iteration and strip it of all identifiable assets that tie it to the franchise's brand: no more blue hedgehog, no more red Ferrari. With no celebrity to coast on, the game must now stand on its own. Put it in the hands of your current customer and let them play, then ask them, what does it remind you of? What game does it feel like? What game do you think inspires this unrecognizable mess?

Then, listen. What's the first title they name? Is it your game's origination? Does it take them back to where it all started? Do they nail it in mere seconds, and does identifying it come naturally?

Or are they puzzled? Do they rattle off titles you'd never expect to hear (or, worse, do they name the competition?) Are they hard-pressed to even identify it at all? Do they struggle?

And if it is this latter scenario that plays out, go back to your bloated feature list and your options now lying on the cutting room floor. Review. Figure out which one it was...what was the thing you added or removed...that allowed the magic to slip away. Restore it. Repeat. Continue until it feels as it should.

You can't have Out Run without the Magical Sound Shower.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

4.71. That Dragon, Deathwing

10,000 years into the past, Neltharion goes rogue,
Well of Eternity

Grains Through The Hourglass

Patch 4.3: Hour of Twilight was released to the World of Warcraft community on Nov 29th, 2011. It was an enormous patch. Three new heroic-only dungeons and a new raid. Transmogrification. Void Storage. An overhauled Darkmoon Faire. Legendary daggers for Rogues.

...and a little thing Blizzard called "LFR."

The fork stabbed in. We would not go down without a fight.

Blizzard carefully stitched End Time (the future), Well of Eternity (the past), and Hour of Twilight (the present) together so that players running the three dungeons would end where the raid began: Wyrmrest Temple. Our first night in Dragon Soul was Dec 2nd, 2011, entering the instance to witness a siege already in progress. The sky was filled with all manner of drakes blanketing the surface of Dragonblight with flame, while empowered earthen elementals emerged from twilight portals freshly ripped open. We cut these elementals down, working our way toward the first boss.

Morchok bore the familiar humanoid-mountain shape of a creature that could have been a distant relative of Lord Rhyolith. If fire burned within him at one time, however, those fires had long since died out. The burning glow of red hot lava was replaced with a deep violet color that complemented this walking mass, and he ran large, clumsy boulders through the strands of his phototrophic beard.

The encounter was a standard tank-and-spank, so Blain and Amatsu took turns eating stacks of Crush Armor. Red globes called Resonating Crystals spawned toward the outer edges of the attack zone, latching on to players and forcing them to converge in anticipation of soaking AoE damage. Occasionally, Morchok produced massive rock fragments along the perimeter of the fight. Then, Black Blood of the Earth oozed out from under our feet. We sped towards those fallen fragments and used them as a line-of-sight defense, repeating this process until he collapsed in a pile of lifeless boulders and rubble.

Next on the hit list was Warlord Zon'ozz. The raid descended into a fleshy, tentacled pit that jutted out from the surface of Dragonblight near the base of Wrymrest Temple. Zon'ozz was a nightmarish lobster-humanoid mix, invoking visions of General Vezax from the depths of Ulduar. An unmistakable servant of the old gods, Zon'ozz quickly became known as the "ping-pong" boss.

The encounter's core mechanic involved an orb called Void of the Unmasking. This orb needed to be bounced back and forth between several groups in the raid (melee and ranged were the obvious choices), delivering increasing damage with each impact. The key to both survival and victory was keeping the orb on our teams as long as possible. When the healers could no longer withstand the damage output, we lobbed the orb back to Zon'ozz himself. It struck the boss, weakening and enraging him, allowing us to blow our cooldowns and concentrate both damage and healing throughout the tantrum.

Blain coordinated the movement of the teams responsible for bouncing the orb. After several attempts, Zon'ozz was dead...along with a huge portion of the raid, unable to withstand his final tantrum. On the one hand, new content should have been challenging. On the other, I stood amongst a roster of players geared nearly head-to-toe in heroic Firelands gear. A 25-Man normal should not have been cutting it this closely, no matter how bizarre the mechanic. If you know the drill, you go through the motions, the boss dies. We knew the drill, we were going through the motions...and nearly all of us were dying.

Not at all comforting.

Mature and fellow DoDers defeat Archbishop Benedictus
at the conclusion of the new heroic dungeons,
Hour of Twilight 

Taste the Rainbow

The old gods were not done assailing us yet. Another creature of insanity blocked our way: Yor'sahj the Unsleeping. Yor'shaj was a void beast with long, octopus-like appendages and razor-sharp teeth exposed below its mask. Its armor style seemed Uldum-inspired; coppers, deep maroons, purples -- all fashioned into beveled shapes along its golden edges. Beautifully symmetrical and ornate, Yor'shaj's armor was a contradiction to the tentacled horror it protected.

The encounter began as any other tank-and-spank, but Yor'shaj soon brought multicolored globules of slime to the table, spawning towards the outer circumference of his underground domain. Each spawn constituted a set of three different colored oozes; Yor'shaj had a total of six to choose from. The rainbow of oozes worked to thwart us in clever, contradictory ways.

Purple caused heals to detonate after reaching five stacks, while green caused proximity damage to players standing near one another. Yellow empowered both Yor'shaj and the raid with faster, more significant attacks, and red caused us to take increased damage the further away from the boss we stood. Some oozes even produced new enemies: blue summoned mana voids, leeching mana from the casters and healers; black summoned Forgotten Ones that fixated on the raid and had to be AoE'd down.

While working through most combinations of oozes was trivial, others sets brought great pain and suffering upon the land...and the raid. Most notably, a spawn of green (don't group up!), red (group up near the boss!) and yellow (everything does more damage!) was particularly torturous. Each attempt spawned them in new, random orders. Early green/red/yellow spawns would wipe us quickly, freeing us to restart our attempt with haste. Late green/red/yellow spawns would turn an otherwise clean attempt into a wash, wasting precious time. We filled the better part of an hour on Yor'shaj before he met his deserved end, but were still on track to complete half of Dragon Soul by the night's end.

From here, we left the battle at Wrymrest Temple, and flew (via red aspect escort) to Malygos' domain, The Eye of Eternity. This time, no great blue aspect gone mad awaited us. In his place stood a single female orc, waiting to deliver our doom. The moment I saw lightning crackle off those instantly recognizable lionhead shoulder pieces, I knew we were up against a Shaman. Hagara was draped in a replica of Ten Storms off-pieces, mixed with a "wolf-head" helm synonymous with a shaman as far back as Warcraft II. Each hand clutched its own axe, and each axe bore the bright white glow of a Frostbrand effect, glimmering from snowflakes that fell slowly from each blade.

"I guess we get an ice phase first, eh?"

Hagara was divided into three phases: a main phase, and two enchantment phases (lighting and ice). Preparing for the appropriate phase involved a single step: noting the visual effect applied to her weapons. If snowflakes fell, an ice phase was due, but jagged streaks of electricity warranted preparation for a lightning phase.

While in her main phase, various players would be marked and frozen solid, requiring the team to break their incapacitated partners free. Focused attacks came in fifteen second intervals, locking Haraga in place while she swung her axes in a violent blur. Both Shattered Ice and Ice Lance worked to slow the raid's pace down, each constituting various degrees of damage.

In ice phase, Hagara protected herself with an impenetrable Water Shield while waves of ice chased the raid in a clockwise direction. To shut her down, the raid rushed to the outer edge of the platform, positioned themselves between the rotating waves, and destroyed their source: frozen crystals along four equidistant points. All this, while dodging bouts of falling ice, kept the raid occupied as Hagara mocked us safely from afar.

Ice phase caused much death amid its clockwork chaos. Many attempts ended poorly due to deaths in a phase dragged out far too long.

DoD barely pulls off a kill of Hagara
on the first night of raiding in 4.3,
Dragon Soul

Overtuned

Lightning phase wasn't much better. The same water shield protected Hagara, but this time the raid aimed to blow it apart. To do so, the roster formed a chain that conducted lightning from the outer edges into her protected area in the center, blasting the shield away and stunning the orc, leaving her vulnerable to a burst of damage. In order to form this living lightning rod, we first had to defeat a spawned Lightning Elemental, ensuring the creature was killed near a conductor. Wasting one by killing it in the wrong spot was a huge loss, as this was our only opportunity for a damage boost against the orc shaman.

Though the mechanics of the fight were relatively straightforward, the tuning was such that any excess time spent in ice or lightning phases seriously impacted our ability to beat Hagara. After polishing both phases, the remainder of attempts ended with Hagara enraging, slaughtering the roster in a span of several seconds. Every possible trick had to be pulled in order to squeeze out the last remaining points of health.

When we finally bested Hagara, it was during one such enrage. Players with the highest aggro frantically kited her in an attempt to tack on desperately needed seconds -- just enough to see her through. The "Siege of Wyrmrest Temple" achievement flashed up on our screens to indicate our arrival at the 50% mark. There were only seven of us alive.

"I may suck at math, but our heroic gear isn't going to sustain this."

---

We returned to Dragon Soul for our second night of work on Sunday, Dec. 4th. For our fifth encounter, we ascended Wyrmrest Temple and cleared numerous whelps and drakes that guarded the perimeter of the tower's apex. Then, we positioned ourselves in a small group only inches from the lip of the temple's edge, faced north, and awaited the arrival of a dragon.

The fight operated much like Algalon's Big Bang of Ulduar fame...though it borrowed a bit of flavor from the Majordomo Staghelm fight, too. Ultraxion was a twilight, like Valiona and Theralion, two tiers earlier. And, like Valiona and Theralion, his realm played an important role: we would have to fight him in the twilight realm for the entirety of the encounter. Most of us would. A select few, however, would have to step out. Who and when would be determined by Ultraxion's abilities.

Hour of Twilight was the first, which hit us every 45 seconds. All but three of us needed to click our new "Heroic Will" buttons in order to shift out and survive the blast. Those three players that remained blew whatever cooldowns were necessary to survive the onslaught of shadow radiation Ultraxion bombarded them with. Juxtaposed with those 45 second intervals were debuffs of Fading Light, applied to the current tank and several other random players. Those debuffs varied between 5 and 10 seconds in duration, demanding the afflicted's attention in order to gauge the appropriate time to click Heroic Will. Eating a Fading Light in the twilight realm meant instant death -- there was no negotiating. If you were fading from the light, you had to "click out."

This was the Ultraxion test: deal with the staggered swapping in and out of the twilight realm, ensure soakers that remained had the tools to withstand Hour of Twilight, and burn that enormous purple dragon as fast as possible.

Again, and again, and again, we smashed our faces against the Ultraxion wall. Our players bore the most powerful heroic weapons and armor in the game (at the release of the patch) -- the result of our successes in Firelands. It didn't matter. The 25-Man raid team pushed out every last ounce of DPS it could muster. But Ultraxion just sat there, laughing, spraying us with twilight bursts, the ever increasing unstable monstrosities coming faster and faster. It felt like we were all wearing greens.

In a moment of wakeful sleep, eyes glazing over after hours of attempts on Ultraxion, I thought back to DoD's initial steps in 25-Man (Normal) Ulduar, and how we dug in with our nails and peeled back those bosses like so much rubbery skin off an orange. The daydream channels flipped, and there was that godforsaken Blizzard development panel, claiming over and over, "Ulduar was still too hard, not enough people got to see it." The constant contradiction infuriated me.

Tuning in Dragon Soul was absolutely out-of-control. A heroically geared raid should have plowed through normal, ready to hit heroics by week two. I didn't see how that was going to happen here. But the raid never gave up. Blain spent the next four hours adjusting, tweaking, moving some people forward, others back (to gain buffs from the aspects), first preferring less healers, then more. I trusted him, but each adjustment just felt like we were rolling dice. The message was clear. Congratulations on all the work you did in heroic Firelands. It doesn't mean a damn thing.

At the top of the fourth hour, we gave Ultraxion one famous last pull. Blain tweaked our positions a bit further, re-synchronized the groups to change at different times, and hoped for the best.

The dragon fell.

"Great. Atramedes all over again."

Exhausted and relieved, we exited Dragon Soul with 5 of 8 defeated, and a grim outlook on what was to come.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

4.70. These Eyes

You should have to beat Sid Meier's Colonization
before you are allowed to colonize the new world and
declare independence from the King.

Hopeful Parents

Something about the Mind's Eye test continued to bug me, days after I'd taken the online quiz. I really wanted to believe it! As much if not more so than the previously debunked Myers-Briggs "personality sorter". After all these years of pulling strings behind virtual avatars, the thought that I might possibly leave with some marketable skill was endearing. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to thumb my nose at convention and prove to naysayers that, yes, a video game did have the capacity to teach a real world skill. It was a lesson many needed to hear.

There was no shortage of dismissive commentary from the public whenever the topic came up. "Video games teaching real world skills" has long been the subject of debate, though "debate" is often code for "mockery". Gary Larson's infamous "Hopeful Parents" Far Side comic remains forever burned into my brain as an accurate representation of how the world sees such a claim. Unless your job description lists leaping barrels or ripping people's heads off while keeping their spine intact as a requirement, video games offer few opportunities for a person to learn something they could turn around and leverage in the blinding brightness outside.

The worst offenders were the edutainment titles (you're not fooling anyone, Math Blaster). Attempting to teach a kid core curriculum while wrapped in a pretty pink bow of a video game struck me as pathetic and sad. An industry of "experts" that knew nothing about the medium, struggling to be "hip" and "cool" and "down" with the kids, while the larger educational problem went ignored. Trying to make learning fun was an act of desperation a gamer could spot a mile away. And nothing irritated a gamer more than someone faking it. Come back to me when you have the Konami code memorized, pleb.

Educators had it all wrong -- they were researching and reporting against the wrong games. Climbing the magic beanstalk to educational epiphany required burying the magic beans far more deeply than topsoil. The true teaching gems were the video games that were nothing more than simply video games....yet indirectly bestowed skill upon the gamer without anyone being wiser.

Build and manage a city, just like what is expected of an actual mayor. Drum to the rhythm of colored bars that just happen to coincide with the sheet music of the actual song. Blow zombies apart by typing words (ok, this last one walks that fine edutainment line, but I'll allow it: the intent is to kill zombies, not learn to type). New examples pop up all the time. Gamers have known for years what academics and legislators are only beginning to acknowledge: games teach through transference. You're welcome.

Which brought me back to the "eyes" quandary: were these video games really teaching skills? Or were they simply awakening talent already dormant in the player, flexing and strengthening a muscle that some of us possessed and still others lacked. Yes, I dealt with a lot of people problems over the past seven years. Some I controlled, some I let control me. But I resolved exactly none of these issues by looking the person in the eyes and getting a read, interpreting their awkward body language. Alas, this was the cost of doing business online. The missing piece eluded my left brain...

...how exactly had World of Warcraft made me any better at reading people...if I was unable to see them?

DoD completes the final meta, "Not an Ambi-Turner",
earning "Glory of the Firelands Raider",
Firelands

Famous First Pull

Apologies, reader. There is no great story about DoD's final accomplishment as a 25-Man raiding guild. I didn't have to make frantic phone calls at the 11th hour, looking for emergency fillers. We didn't secure our final kill amidst player disconnections dealing with hurricanes pummeling their homes or cars smashing through their living room walls. DoD didn't struggle with the achievement, going at it again and again and again, bleeding out past the four hour mark, exhausted and at the end of our collective rope. In fact, there wasn't even a motivational "famous last pull!" chant, inspiring the crew just enough to close the deal. In reality, it was over before it began.

Our final accomplishment took but a single attempt. "Not an Ambi-Turner" demanded we kill Lord Rhyolith by only allowing him to make right turns. We entered the instance on time at 7:00pm. By 7:14pm, Rhyolith had been spun in a clockwise circle, and lay dead at our feet. Glory of the Firelands Raider flashed across the screen of every player in the roster. The deed was done.

Only 30 minutes after the start of our evening raid, we gathered outside Sulfuron Spire, hopped aboard our phoenix mounts, and swarmed the top of the tower. As the raid positioned themselves for the shot, my screen was filled with bursts of a blazing deep violet that shimmered against the burning red sky. The mood in Vent was upbeat. DoD chatted away cheerfully, reminiscing about what they liked and what "sucked ass" in Firelands. They were definitely very happy. They were both relieved and fulfilled. It was another accomplishment that DoD could claim in a long, storied history of raid progression, something that my guild still cared deeply about.

Glory of the Firelands Raider meant as much to the 25-Man progression team as Icecrown's Glory, Ulduar's Glory, or any of the raiding milestones that came prior to the advent of achievements. I might go so far as to claim it meant more to us than usual, having missed Tier 11's Glory amid many stumbling blocks, both in the raid and out. DoD was excited to wrap Firelands and show off their Corrupted Egg of Millagazor to the rest of the World...even if that World no longer noticed nor cared about a fancy mount.

The memory of DoD's last accomplishment is sobering upon reflection -- we endured some shit. The evaporation of recruitment forced us to wring the last remaining drops out of player availability. The team took on increasing responsibility of our success, which equated to players rolling alts and gearing again and again. That encroaching feeling of the walls closing in meant constant people management, forsaking any semblance of game/life balance once formerly in check. Facing the weekly threat of losing good people to 10-Man guilds or teams.

Yet, we persevered.

I can appreciate athletes that train at high altitudes or piano teachers that insist on blindfolds. Firelands (and, to a larger extent, WoW at that time) felt as if we weren't just raiding...it felt as if we were raiding with our hands tied behind our backs.

So, reader, forgive the excess melancholy. If I come across too seriously about a video game, it's because I know the eventual outcome. As will you.

DoD poses outside Sulfuron Spire aboard their
newly acquired Corrupted Fire Hawks,
Firelands

Hard to Starboard

As I spun the mousewheel, 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. Descendants of Draenor.

Several of them raised a glass in toast, others grinned boastfully, proud to be a part of something bigger. Those who don't know or understand the gamer lifestyle will forever pigeonhole gamers into the antisocial stereotype, but you'd never know it by looking at this pic. This was just a group of friends, celebrating together, 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.

Near the lens, sitting directly across from me, one pair of eyes was turned to look at something off-camera, as if unaware a guild photo was being taken mere inches from his face. A smirk lay half-settled on his lips, partially here, partially distracted. With every single guildy focused on the shot, he was the odd-man out.

What the hell is so fucking interesting that you can't even look at the camera, Drecca?

I laughed at what had to be a simple case of bad timing. Everyone takes an awful photo now and again: eyes closed as the shutter catches you mid-blink, mouth agape as the photographer presses the button. It catches up to you eventually, that one photo that makes us look like we've been kicked directly in the junk during "Cheese!" I scrolled further, to see if there was another, more flattering photo of my least favorite ex-guildy.

Sure enough, a second photo scrolled up into view, taken moments later. It was the "just in case" photo you take when you want to be sure you capture everyone in their most devilishly handsome state. Again, all faces were turned to the camera, grinning. In this particular pic, Goldenrod raised a glass in toast, mouth most certainly forming the words "For the Horde!"

There he was again, the odd-man out. Instead of being distracted, this second pic was even worse. Drecca's face was painted with a dead, blank stare, contemplating absolutely nothing in particular.

I zoomed in. In this second photo, he was the closest to the camera. There was no possible way he couldn't have known a picture was about to be snapped. You could reach right into the photo and flick him in the head. Hey. Wake up. Over here. Picture being taken. The guild gets together for events like this never. Pay attention for five seconds.

Nothing. He was completely checked out.

I looked at the two photos, then thought back to that glare he gave me, arms crossed, leaning back in his chair, that smirk across his face in response to my proposal -- that I had a good feeling about DoD in Cataclysm, that "it was doable," so long as everyone was in it for the long haul. I remember reading that smirk of his, and ignoring it. I remember the drama, reflecting on the damage he caused DoD by ripping a portion of my roster away in the Herp Derp exodus. I remember thinking only one thing: he had it planned all along. I beat myself up for not catching it sooner. He had that same look in his eyes as thieves from childhood, ones that screamed you're a fool to have thought I was ever on your team.

I looked at the two photos, and knew better now. There were no plans.

There was never a scheme, no great conspiracy to break my guild up and take my members away. That look Drecca gave me from across the table in the restaurant at the conclusion of BlizzCon 2010 wasn't one that spelled manipulation, or cunning, or dishonesty. It wasn't any look at all. Play. Don't play. Raid. Don't raid. Guild. No guild. Whatever.

He simply didn't care, not about the success -- or even the failure -- of DoD. He didn't even care where the lens was. He was aboard a ship of one, sailing, with neither destination nor purpose.

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

Apathy.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

4.69. The Other EQ

Goldenrod acquires 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 the 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 smouldering essences 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, and Goldenrod siphoned his 250th smouldering essence from Staghelm's carcass. Ragnaros dragged on and on, still a painfully chaotic encounter. After the two-hour break, Insayno hopped online, again saving our collective assess. 45 minutes later, DoD slew Ragnaros.

A legendary awaited. As Rag's loot was handed out, Goldenrod ported away to Coldarra, handed in the quest to combine his smouldering essences into a Heart of Flame. Then, the raid joined Goldenrod back in Orgrimmar to celebrate the completion of Dragonwrath, Tarecgosa's End.

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 inconsequential. 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 a 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.