Thursday, September 11, 2014

4.6. Alignment or Death

Sir Klocker displays his Tabard of the Lightbringer, while
Neps and Ben (Aeden) stare into the light,
Dalaran

Doing the Devil's Work

Preoccupation defined the weeks ahead. Mapping it all out helped focus on the solution, rather than languish on the inevitable. Getting the dots on the page, connecting each one, painting the picture of where we were, and what we were about to take on. I followed in the footsteps of my Wrath rewrite, building on what had already proven successful. A bump to the minimum age requirement. The handling of the 25-Man progression team. New ranks. Loot rule revisions. It was the path to Cataclysm; the mother of all to-do lists. Knocking out a bit each night was also healthy. Idle minds are far more sinister than hands, and mine had a tendency to chip away at positivity. Keeping busy kept the inner voice at bay.

If I wasn't raiding, I was back in Google Docs, scribbling digital notes, analyzing lessons learned from Wrath. How had the Raider / Elite ranks worked out? My gut said overwhelming success, but there were still edge cases like Ben: expertly played, yet still immature enough for me to exercise restraint in promoting. The shadow priest that was equally loved and loathed in DoD struck me as a kind of gun-for-hire, showing up conveniently at Lord's behest, then exploding enemies with an ear-piercing digital scream. He had his own code, but honored DoD's as well. Romanticizing Ben's loyalty might have been a stretch, but there were hints of a Samurai in there. The prospect of a third rank warranted further investigation.

Thinking of Ben chained into thoughts of other candidates rising above, particularly the warlock Mangetsu. His bursts of silliness macro'd into raid chat were mixed wonderfully with steadfast determination at "rocking the meters". I dropped the Alt-25 on his shoulders and he rose to the occasion, not only taking it on, but cultivating progression-quality expectations in the process. He took a rag-tag bundle of players not quite ready (or able) to hit progression, and schooled them in the ways of the guild. Mang was professionally played, yet humble. Serious enough to lead, yet loved laughing and making people laugh. Officer material, but not an officer. Something needed to be done, because there were more like him. Most notable of these newer faces was the paladin Drecca.

A meteoric rise to stardom wasn't pushing it. Drecca joined DoD at the most opportune time: Bretthew was "done" at the wrap of 25-Man ICC (normal), leaving Omaric to shoulder the raid-leadership load by himself...and not the easy part. He tired of his tanking role and I wanted to free him to join DPS, but that meant a dedicated tank filling that spot...and certainly not one that required training. Drecca required neither training nor flexibility in his schedule: he began one Friday and was present every progression night from that point forward. From the moment we hit go, Drecca behaved like the most expertly played folks in the guild. It wasn't long before you couldn't really tell the difference between him and a long-time, weather-worn veteran of DoD.

Team BoA Alliance defeats The Lich King in 10-Man,
Icecrown Citadel

Push It To The Limit

Drecca's dedication wasn't easily rivaled. He quickly offered his services to Mangetsu in assisting with the Alt-25, carrying with him that same DoD mindset: expect more from yourself, put in a bit of effort, do a little reading, a little gear tweaking. There are no excuses for bad play, so get in, and get going. Drecca's natural tendency to take charge, clean up mistakes, and point people down the right path eventually freed Mangetsu from having to be present at every Alt-25. For many that ran it in those later months of 2010, the Alt-25 was, for all intents and purposes, Drecca's raid. This worked extremely well, as putting all the eggs in Mangetsu's basket would've left the Alt-25 hanging, if the off chance something horrific were to happen to the 'lock.

In a guild where there is no mandate to be online for x amount of hours, I was very thankful for the select few that were always available, and Drecca was certainly near the top of this list. Beyond his participation in both progression and Alt-25, the paladin answered Neps' call in joining up with a group of similar hardcore folk. Neps' challenge: roll Alliance alts, and with BoA gear, grind them up to 80 and knock out ICC again. And so with names like Phame, Moolickalot, Fishee, Sarge and others, Team BoA Alliance wrecked the Lich King by bringing three bloodlusts. In Drecca's words, it was an "undeniably pro strategy." It was fair to say I was colored impressed:

Hanzo » Drecca: (+5) For being hardcore enough to level Alliance characters and kill the LK again.

Drecca held the limelight so well, I wasn't even aware that Neps was the one responsible for the idea.

---

"You really have him wrapped around your finger, don't you?" said Blain, catching me off guard.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Blain noted the green text of guild chat. People were up in arms over the proposed incoming changes to Real ID. In typical form, players that didn't understand what was involved were bent out of shape. It appeared Drecca's stance was that of my own: It's a bit too early to be freaking out over any proposed sweeping changes. Nothing's in stone. Keep calm and loot the hound.

"He uses your name like you're the leader of a cult."

I continued to scroll through guild chat. Yadda yadda yadda, I agree with Hanzo. Yadda yadda yadda, Hanzo's got a post on the forums. Yadda yadda yadda, if you don't believe me, check with Hanzo.

"So what? He's keeping the peace. It's nice to see players moderating. Guy's only been here a few months and already knows what's inappropriate to be bitching about."

"I changed my mind," he added, "I don't like him. He's too negative." Negative about what? Blain was being indignant. Or jealous. He of all people should have known that hard truths don't often come with a silver lining. It struck me as ironic that Blain, who had been called 'dictator' by those unappreciative of stark criticism, was telling me that a practical rebuttal was coming across as 'negative'.

Why obsess over things that might be? Let's solve problems we face in the here and now. I could spend these next few months buried beneath layers of doubt and depression, wallowing over what might transpire in Cataclysm. Or, I could sit down and attack it with every bit of energy at my disposal. We might go down, we might not...but we wouldn't be doing either without a fight.

I needed pragmatism now. I needed folks to be the pillars of DoD by marching forth with solutions, not long diatribes on how Blizzard's great conspiracy is to rob people of their money or their privacy. That meant calling upon anyone in the guild that could act as the best and brightest of us, reinforcing what it means to be in DoD. That you give a shit. That you're not looking to make excuses. Let's all be on the same page.

And if players like Drecca chose to invoke my name to add some punch to that reinforcement, so be it.

Blain summons Mature for tanking duty,
Orgrimmar

Corporate Misalignment

I faced a sickening decision: banish all 10-Man teams from Descendants of Draenor. The thought crossed my mind increasingly as summer vacation approached. 10s had traditionally been an afterthought in DoD, so much so that our earliest 10s managed to send hardcore raiders scurrying to new guilds. Lesson learned: don't forsake its importance in progression if the 10 and 25 are tightly coupled...say, for example, on the off-chance Blizzard randomly decided to include tier 4 tokens in Karazhan.

Luckily, I was able to side-step administrative scrutiny of the 10s in Wrath, thanks to Blizzard's very clean, well-drawn line in the sand. 10s and 25s were two different worlds. Different effort, different reward. All my focus could therefore be poured entirely into the 25-Man. Aside from general guidance, I left the 10s to fend for themselves. And they performed admirably, I might add. Aside from the occasional misunderstanding regarding poaching, the 10s managed themselves. Starflex did its thing independent of Eh Team, which in turn had no need to submit to the whim of Si Team or Cowbell. They set their own schedules, their own priorities, their own loot systems. As long as their overarching goals remained aligned with that of DoD's, they required no intervention.

The thought of potential 10-Man administration in Cataclysm gave me pause. Not many details were yet in stone, so I worked with what was available. The most recent reveal came a month earlier, providing insight into a concept the community referred to as downshifting. 25-Man raids would gain the ability to split into multiple 10s to further their progress. Additionally, the raid lock system would gain flexibility in that Raid IDs would be as tradable as Pokémon cards, freeing players to move from one lock to the next in order to proceed through the instance. On top of all of this, Blizzard clarified once again that while 10s were intended on being easier in Wrath, this was not to be the case in Cataclysm.

Piecing together a solution was difficult, as little of it made sense. Would it become commonplace for players to hop Raid IDs, exacerbating the potential for poaching? It certainly could! I would have to put rules in place to govern how the 10s interacted with one another, carefully outlining the etiquette for exchanging members without burning bridges. Would the 25-Man progression team start spouting excuses on "why aren't we just dropping to 10-Man to finish this?" Blizzard claimed the two difficulties would match, but would my most hardcore raiders be convinced? The 25-Man raiding rules would have to include clarifying text: "Dropping to 10-Man will not be considered as an option to overcome obstacles". I suspected many would secretly think it, whether told or not. The one thing players were good at were giving me reasons to doubt their alignment with the guild -- so much so, that an entire rule was crafted to shutter the lack of common-sense.

None of these changes (and their to-be-determined solutions) spoke to an undeniable fact: as long as loot/rewards remained equal, the 10s would forever undermine the work that was being done in the 25. I already learned this lesson when adopting The Five Dysfunctions of a Team into Why Raid Teams Fail. Two different levels of contribution with one set of rewards produces resentment, hatred, in-fighting -- all viruses to team health. Yet, this is what I was facing. Preference A vs. Preference B. Old-schoolers vs. scrubs. The personable vs. the awkward and anti-social. The rep-grinders vs. the altoholics. The gamer mentality vs. "I prioritize real life first!". Solutions vs. Excuses. The melding didn't strike me as an incredibly alien concept -- it happens in the real world all the time. When it does, the results often end so predictably bad, it's a running joke in professional circles. Alignment seemed nigh impossible; a stretch, at best.

So...set a new rule to cut that 10-Man cancer out before it spreads? Or become the cliché mirrored in corporate America?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

4.5. Slay It Forward

The DoD guild forums, displaying the karma leaderboard

Your Name In Lights

Along the top of the forums were a list of names, each paired with a conspicuous number. Every day the numbers changed and the names shifted positions. The first few weeks saw the greatest fluctuation as the guild gradually dipped their toe in the karma pool. As one traversed a forum topic, each entry displayed two new buttons: one labelled +, the other, -. Clicking them produced a message, "Here you can explain, or write a reason why you are increasing or decreasing this user's karma". Most important of all was the public record: clicking a user's name allowed you to access their karma changelog, an audit trail of goodness. All the info you needed to battle your way on to the leaderboard was to see what others were doing, then take the initiative yourself.

I scanned through the list of recent adjustments:

Goldenrod » Dalans: "Because this linked me to the Mega Man hoodie, which I will be buying." 

Jemb » Randyflagg: "Made a very lovely CSI image of me, props to him :D" 

Kedavra » Omaric: "Mad rapping skills"

Klocker » Bheer: "Dear lord cat is funny." 

It was good to see them taking to the tool, playing with it, experimenting in trading karma for cat pictures. But there was so much more potential buried there. The course of action I knew best was to lead by example, so I joined the karma pool party.

I issued my first karma reward on the 8th of July:

Hanzo » Kizmet: "for filling an empty spot in the raid."

In a not-completely-hardcore, not-quite-casual guild, roster backfill was a weekly necessity. A slow, deliberate re-education brought the guild to a point where Raiders just knew to be online at invite time. Standby was their best shot at getting into a raid they couldn't commit to. And while my Elites' competitive drive was the fundamental force in our raids, it was the Raiders that were the unsung heroes of progression. They were the battle tested, loyal members of our guild who waited patiently at the sidelines to fill, not always gaining a spot, nor proclaiming to be entitled to one. Thanks to karma, I was now able to issue a public thank you to those who helped make it possible...and the public record helped remind others of its importance.

The guild wasn't often privy to the level of effort necessary to maintain itself. People gave up their time slaying internet dragons (or the Alliance, depending on your preference) to sit down and work out the kinks with me...and these weren't always officers. Cheeseus and Bheer both spent a hefty amount of time testing the forum karma implementation, coming back with display issues that needed fixing, numbers that needed tweaking, and suggestions that polished off the rough edges. For this work, I issued out karma as well:

Hanzo » Cheeseus: "For contributing QA to me on the Karma implementation."

...and received karma in return:

Bheer » Hanzo: "Yup, the post box and + - buttons all look perfect now. Well done sir!

And... How am I the first person to have given you karma? :p"

It was only a matter of time before those investigating the leaderboard began to get ideas of their own on how to make contributions of value.

The administrative view of forum karma

How Do I Love Thee?

The first signs warmed the cockles of my heart. I found guild members thanking those who gave of their extra time to provide more raiding options to the guild:

t@t » Mangetsu: "for doing the alt run."

There were examples of selflessness between players with regards to loot:

Helmeron » Deathonwing: "For the great action of passing loot on when he could've had it!"

Officers thanked non-officers for officer-like behavior:

Jungard » Joredin: "Doing a good job keeping our 10-man raid information organized here on the forums."

Fellow raiders thanked one another for insight into the wonderful world of theorycrafting...

Bheer » Jemb: "Useful posts are useful."

...as well as acknowledgement of expertise at the wheel:

Drecca » Blain: "For being Blain, a rogue that actually knows how to use tricks of the trade"

This exchange of make-believe points for qualified effort soon reached beyond the confines of the guild. DoD took karma a step further, and used it to thank people for helping with concerns not bound to the guild or even World of Warcraft:

Goldenrod » Omaric: "Help with my computer"

Random acts of support and encouragement:

Riskers » Lexxii: "Good luck with the grant!"

People that had otherwise never met each other before in real life offered their beds up for BlizzCon:

Moo » Goldenrod: "Um, that is such a nice gesture. I have accommodations but i just think it's really nice of you and your girlfriend to be so generous. I look forward to meeting you both!"

The members of DoD laid their feelings bare like never before:

Borken » Larada: "Because I love you."

Jokes aside, it was encouraging to see the guild treating each other with that kindness and respect I had hammered home for so many years. I resisted considering forum karma anything more that a fun toy, but watching those initial exchanges gave me hope that the guild really did consider itself an extended family. It was the bond of family that was going to have to carry us through an approaching storm.

Any opportunity that arose to supply positive feedback, I jumped on it. If players advocated for DoD, I rewarded them for selling the guild. If officers moderated the forums, I thanked them for their work. If I messed up the raid rotations for the week, and players corrected me, their honesty would not be taken for granted. And if they invoked concerns of their class or upcoming changes in Cataclysm with care and insight, rather than blatant whines and complaining, I was certain to reward that good behavior.

Anyone was capable of good behavior, with just a touch of effort:

Hanzo » Ben: "For being passionate and vocal about the Shadow Priest situation. Now, go tell Blizzard."

---

Forum Karma was a great addition to the DoD boards. It was fun, inspired the guild to spend more time participating in discussions, and acted as self-perpetuating conduit of positive guild culture. But forum karma had one other unintended benefit buried in its use: it gave me a window into the guild's state of mind.

Lexxii and Immortalus prepare to run
 down Dirty, while Rainaterror looks on,
Dalaran

Cake and Eating It

When Bonechatters approached me with the option of bringing in Rainaterror's shaman for a solitary achievement, I hesitated. What was intended as a gesture of kindness could easily be perceived as selfishness by others. A loose set of attendance restrictions was already a courtesy DoD extended to Raiders that couldn't...or wouldn't...re-arrange their real-life schedules around our raid times. Fair enough, that was their choice. But to duck out of raids, yet still want help to wrap up an achievement felt very much like the proverbial cake, complete with a layer of entitlement-flavored icing. DoD's mission was to go above and beyond for one another, so this decision teetered dangerously between helping out a guildy and supporting lazy selfishness. I deliberated briefly, then told Bonechatters that I was fine with allowing it, but that there were no guarantees we could fit her in. Secretly, I suspected this wouldn't go over well.

I wasn't too far off.

Neps, an officer known for sardonic yet lighthearted wit, pulled no punches in his criticism of Bonechatters' request,

"Aight, I'll be the assholedickpieceofshit again. I love you, Bone, but there's no way in Hell you're bringing her toon. I hate being mean and shit, but we can't be carrying peeps to get drakes. I know a bunch of raiders will agree with this too. If people miss runs or are just bad and don't get to come again, then we shouldn't be going out of our way to get them some drakes that the rest of us put in a shit load of time to get. I just don't like giving peeps free stuff that we we're working so hard to get. Sorry."

Drecca was next to respond, "I don't really want to raid normal modes for people who were/are too busy to raid with us most of the time, or got rotated out for whatever reason. It's completely unfair to the people who've spent months, nonstop, in ICC and still continue to do so."

Pulling back the curtain mirrored these sentiments. A flow of karma issued to Neps reflected that same mentality:

Bheer » Neps: "Karma for this. Holy shit, you're always the nice guy Neps!"

Ben » Neps: "I think you know why."

Jungard » Neps: "Good point. We aren't exactly worried about the status of players like Raina and aether on drakes lol."

Randyflagg » Neps: "FATALITY!"

Klocker » Neps: "For bringing sexy back."

All doubt on which side of the fence this issue fell was obliterated in that moment. The reason why didn't come to me until I chatted with Jungard on the subject later.

"Yeah, I wasn't too keen on the idea, but I also felt the guild had a bit of an obligation to at least extend Boney the option. Seeing your response in Neps' karma history lumped in with everyone else helped set the record straight."

"Oh, that's public?"

"...uh, yeah. Didn't I show you this part? See, you can list Neps' entire history from his profile."

"Hm, I don't think so. This is a pretty cool feature. So...you can see all the karma changes and reasons and such?"

It appeared that some people still thought their karma exchanges were private.

In "public", out on the forums, guildies would be more inclined to edit themselves, or often just go with the flow. If they had a mechanism to keep their opinions private, however, they might be more inclined to speak the truth, without fear of repercussion. And if by chance, it wasn't entirely well known that every guildy's history was accessible, then taking the guild's temperature via karma carried a lot more weight.

I kept further announcements about the karma mod on the down-low, watching and waiting to see what they would do next, while I brainstormed other ways to take the guild's pulse. Knowing where their heads were at was vitally important to a decision I was giving serious consideration to: excising the 10-Man teams from the guild completely.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

4.4. Fools Seldom Differ

DoD congratulates Jungard on acquiring
the guild's second Shadowmourne,
Icecrown Citadel

Number Two

It was time to celebrate. Spell effects filled the screen as guildies hopped like freaks or knelt in nerdy honor, paying respect to DoD's second Shadowmourne. For once, I was satisfied with my decision. Months earlier, it came down to Jungard or Crasian, and Jungard's long, patient wait from promotion to prominence was over. The warrior that Annihilation took a chance on, that fateful day back in The Burning Crusade, had come far. Today, we celebrated him. Jungard proudly wielded the frozen axe, and assured me that my short-lived days of dominating the melee meters were about to end.

I felt a strong kinship with Jungard; we both believed in the value of effort. In his early raids with the guild, he never once demonstrated fatigue, insolence, or rage. Jungard was every bit enthusiastic to participate, whether it was the first attempt on Illidan, or the forty-first. When I reflect on my guild, wondering why everything went the way that it did, I can't help but feel a certain extra bond to the guildies that predated Wrath of the Lich King.

They knew the meaning of difficult.

Jungard's ideology transcended WoW. He erred on the side of treating people with kindness and respect and watched his words carefully; he knew how easily a lack of context could so ruthlessly corrupt a simple message's intent. Jungard took care to consider people's feelings, even if discussing unquestionable math -- a topic people still felt the need to interpret. It's easy to tell someone they suck. With all things he approached in the guild and in life, Jungard preferred not to take the easy way out.

Having an officer that thought as I did worked wonders for DoD leadership -- trust came much more easily, felt natural. I felt relieved to have him in charge while I was away. In a game of cretins perpetually brofisting each other, Jungard's attention to social skills was a rarity that few awkward gamers could claim. And his hard-working ethic translated from the real world into WoW, demonstrated by his exceedingly high damage and constant focus to improve. Jungard didn't tell people how to play...that wasn't his style. His was more of a set of friendly suggestions, things to try, interesting facts to point out. He humbled me, in both his treatment of the guild and how he inspired the 25-Man progression team to accomplish great things.

Shadowmourne found an adequate home in Jungard's titan grip.

---

"I wanted to talk to you about a possible recommendation, if you're interested."

"I'm all ears. Whaddya got for me, Yungard?"

I took pleasure in keeping the J silent. It's the little things that count.

"I think you should give Fred a chance. He's put in a lot of hours, and not just with the 25-Man. He's been in nearly every Alt-25 since starting. Really trying to better his play and grasp on the game."

I wasn't surprised at the suggestion. I knew they were close: Fred had ties to Starflex, the 10-Man team (formerly a guild) run by Jungard's brother, Randyflagg. "It's nice to see someone dedicate themselves to improving. Especially in the healing department. So many players sweep it under the rug...what did you have in mind?"

"I really think he'd do well as a Healing Officer."

Officer? That seemed a bit much. I filtered my response; I knew Jungard would pay me the same courtesy, "I'm not certain he's ready for that level of responsibility." He's not a good enough healer.

Jungard acknowledged my concern, "There's been some rough patches, sure. But he's definitely working on improving, and really has the guild's interests at heart. He's a team player, first and foremost."

"I wouldn't argue that for a moment. But healing lead requires more than just being a team player. It means being sharp across the entire role. Knowing the strengths and weakness of all the healing classes, being able to direct traffic, assigning the right people to the right responsibilities." And those were just game mechanics. None of my speech addressed his ability to lead people, which he couldn't do if he didn't have their respect. I couldn't say for sure that DoD saw him as credible; I needed that consistent demonstration of proven knowledge. And if my optimism couldn't put a finger on it, how would skeptical Elites see him?

"Maybe you could talk to him, discuss a few things he could work on?"

I agreed. It was a perfectly fair starting point. Fred was making noticeable improvements in healing, and was a likable, friendly guy. But when it came to leadership vibes, I drew a very weak signal off of him.

Finish It

"It's all lies, I swear." Fred joked as I pulled him into officer vent. We both laughed. "What's Jungard said about me this time?"

"Retadin - Blood Elf Paladin"
Artwork by Duneboo
"There's no need to mention any names. Jungard told me to tell you that."

"I'm in deep shit now, aren't I?"

"Breathe easy, Fred. In fact, there's good news here: Jungard's recommended you for a promotion."

"Wow, really? That's cool."

I slowed down, punctuating words with the hopes of conveying some significance in what I was about to say: "I like Jungard. A lot. I trust his judgement. The guy's been one of the most consistent people ever to set foot in this guild. He's earned his stripes. So, when he has a good thing to say about a person, I take it seriously."

I paused, in case Fred wanted to inject anything; he remained silent, so I continued.

"I think there's a little bit of housekeeping in order, first. I haven't made any decisions about changes in the lineup yet. But I am in the midst of revising rules. So, if a position opens up, you're going to want to have your ducks all in a row...if it interests you."

"Right."

"What that means is: I need you to be an expert healer. Hear me on this. Not just an expert pally healer. An expert healer, period. You need to have all the bases covered. Be able to know the strengths and weaknesses of each healing class. Be able to look down the list of healers at your command and determine who is the right guy or gal for the job, boss-to-boss. The raid leader is going to rely on you to deliver healing assignments that are appropriate for the boss and for our group."

"Got it. What would you suggest between now and then?"

"Well, Jungard tells me you've been contributing to the Alt-25 in your spare time. Get with Mang and Drecca. Offer up your services for healing assignments. Keep a cool head, get some practice leading people....which also means practice dealing with their shit."

"Well, I typically don't do a lot of healing in the Alt-25...mostly I just bring my enhance shaman...."

I waited for Fred to finish his sentence. The part where I expected him to say "...but I can switch to heals next week, to get started mastering resto..." His sentence dangled, and I waited for him to finish. Hoped he would finish it. For Jungard's sake. And for Fred's.

The ending never came. 

His answer just trailed off into silence, silence that told an entirely different story, "I only bring my enhancement shaman, so I'm not really sure how I could possibly begin the task of learning restoration." He never spoke those words, but that's what I heard.

I came out of the conversation no more convinced of Fred's ability to assume leadership than I was going in. Time would tell if he had the inclination to turn it around. But time was limited, and Cataclysm drew near. I hoped Jungard's recommendation panned out, because I trusted his judgement; he thought as I did. I hated the thought of having to tell him his first bad call was one that misjudged a close friend.

Neps powers up his rocket-powered ram,
with help from Drecca and Mature,
Dalaran

Everyone Has One And They All Stink

"F U Cata, and F U Blizzard, this is so fucking dumb", said Riskers, "These changes have really been pissing me off as of late."

"I actually like the change," said Omaric, "I can spend the same amount of time in game that I do now, but have two fully geared characters instead of boring myself to death on one."

I watched the forum drama unfold to see where allegiances would fall. Drecca's topic, "Looks like no more 10 man teams in Cataclysm...", produced a variety of stances. An astute observer might catch a glimpse of a guildy's future, just by watching how emotional they got over this touchy subject. Perhaps someone might even play their hand unintentionally.

"It's not so much about the same character in the same content," Drecca replied to Omaric, "The social dynamic is different as well. I’m all about killing internet dragons, but I want to have fun doing it -- which includes people."

I couldn't agree more. Again and again, players wanted to see how they could bend and shape the game to suit their own needs, forgetting that this was WoW, that dealing with other human beings was baked into the admission fee.

Jungard remained skeptical, "Sometimes the difficulty difference between 10 and 25 comes from the margin of error you have, based on who you bring. If WotLK was any indication, I'm not entirely convinced they can balance the difficulty between both." Jungard continued to demonstrate the traits that drew me to him initially: a perceptive eye and a cool head, so necessary in analyzing every change that trickled down through the patch notes. Jungard understood as I did: It's OK to be critical of the things you love.

"It reminds me of TBC," added Lexxii, "If you'll recall, our T4 tokens came from Kara, Gruul and Mag," referring to Blizzard's insanity asking us to collect our first tier from both a 10 and a 25 man. It was a situation that had less than stellar outcomes for DoD. "I'm still debating the positives of this. Not everyone can be a part of progression. Forcing us to spread our time across alts would definitely liven things up. But, it could also mean the death of the 25. Personally, I don't think Blizzard will let this happen." Lexxii was optimistic, but concerned.

Anyone worth their salt would be concerned.

Bonechatters was next, "25s will always have a different setup than 10s. If anything, this means we'll be able to gear out toons faster. I don't see anything negative to this. Maybe someone can explain?" Bonechatters was still reasonably new, still had that tinge of youthful naiveté common amongst the younger crowd. I didn't hold it against him; we all start somewhere. Guild leaders rarely get the chance to bring any insight on people to the table -- it isn't asked for. Their concerns were of raid rotations, of forum account activation, and of adequate repair gold subsidies. Few cared about behavior. I wasn't an expert yet, but offered what I could to this seldom broached topic:

"Pretend for a moment that you're the leader of guild comprised of multiple cliques. Some of the players in one clique aren't necessarily the best of friends in a group from another clique. Also, both cliques participate in the 25-Man Progression team. Now tell them they can reap the same rewards from their own clique running a 10-Man version of the raid, as opposed to running with a bunch of people that rub them the wrong way. Do you ever think they would show up in the 25 again? If you believe so, explain how."

A few minutes later, Boney changed his stance completely, "In posting, I didn't see the part about the 10 and 25 locks being shared. I retract everything I said. This is a shitty decision and fails hardcore."

Allegiance pledged.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

4.3. The Karma Initiative

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

A Most Appropriate Phobia

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

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

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

---

"The infamous Kaleu!"

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

"Kerulak, right?"

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

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

"Are there any others?"

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

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

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

"God, where does this thing even start?"

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

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

Panic at the BlizzCon

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

"It's sort of a Catch 22 with the community aspect of running a guild. You want them to be on the forums, talking, chatting, but nobody wants to do that. They just want to play. The players you need the most participation from...those are the ones least likely to show up."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovely.

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

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

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

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

"Thanks!" came her reply.

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

"...what?"

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

The Gamification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

4.2. To QQ or Not to QQ

A photography advertisement featuring
Annihilation's license plate

No Tolerance For Tantrums

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

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

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

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

"Quit whining and QQ already."

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

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

Take a guess which type of gamer this computer belongs to

What Change Tears Bring

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quixotic Quandary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 7, 2014

4.1. The Beginning of the End

Part IV: Cataclysm

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

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

We Meet Again

Doubt.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

No Scrubs

"Daaaaamn, you just got royally fucked up!"

"Another? That quarter yours?"

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

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

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

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

Scrub.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, but the substance...

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

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

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

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

Identifying With Neither

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

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

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


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

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

They owed me nothing.

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

You're failing. Fix it.

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

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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

3.78. Epilogue: Growing Apart

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

A Christmas Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I see that. It's bizarre."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What was the last subscriber count?"

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

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

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

"Any of the old gang around?"

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

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

"I gave Kurst your old job for awhile."

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

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

Stop.

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

"Oh?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But they know how to complain!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~