Thursday, January 22, 2015

4.24. Fat Man and Little Boy

The 25-Man progression team claims
its first victim, Magmaw,
Blackwing Descent

Welcome Back, Fodder

Magmaw thrashed about as we struggled to gain control. The enormous faceless worm emerged from its molten tomb, towering above the raid, white hot blood vessels like bolts of burning lightning painted across its body. A pillar of flame burst out of the floor leaving parasites in its wake, wandering, hungry for warm flesh. Lava Parasites. They carried an infection which caused unsuspecting victims to projectile vomit onto the raid. More damage to have to heal through. Damage everywhere.

With parasites spreading disease, Magmaw continued to flail, impaling the tanks, slamming its entire body down onto the platform, stunning all in its path. If we could somehow manage to get two players to leap onto Magmaw, wrestling with it like something out of a Frank Herbert novel, we could trick it into impaling itself on a large spike in the middle of the floor. Do it, and we could be rid of this first boss, officially cutting the ribbon on 25-Man raiding in Cataclysm.

It was taking longer than expected. Exactly where things fell apart was hard to say. The parasites were biting too many people, spreading nausea, turning our strengths into liabilities. Getting people up onto Magmaw was a chore. It wasn't always working: UIs were glitching out, unable to target the spike on the floor with constricting chains -- the ability that would pull Magmaw down onto the spike for a burst of damage from the raid. And it was a challenge to keep the tanks up. The damage we took felt as if it got worse as the fight progressed. Insayno had graciously filled the second tanking position, after Drecca was unable to attend the kick-off of the 25-Man. It was just Insayno and I for the first attempts on Magmaw. And it was rough.

[To: Blain] Welcome back to raiding. :\

DoD's raids were split into two nights a week, four hours per night -- since as far back as Serpentshrine Cavern. Each night began precisely at the top of the hour; invites started thirty minutes prior, fillers came in fifteen minutes till. We made our attempts for two hours, granted the raid a 5-10 minute bio break at the halfway mark, then reconvened for the remaining two hours.

It was the entire first hour, on Friday, January 7th, 2011, that we worked on Magmaw. It was no Razorgore-style brick wall, but it was certainly no Naxxramas-25 pushover, either. Roughly eight attempts was all it took to send the worm into a twitching spasm of death. A glance up at the raid frames confirmed our suspicions: of a 25-Man raid, 9 of us lived. In a normal mode, this was evidence that the difficulty had indeed increased since the days of Wrath.

[From: Blain] I like these odds.

Omnotron Defense System wasn't nearly as difficult. When the four automatons finally toppled over, we had fifteen minutes remaining before the break. The learning curve was flat on these robots; most of the challenge was simply in transitioning from the two trons being tanked to the ones preparing to animate. Other challenges, such as dealing with each tron's shield -- two of which happened to cause massive raid wide damage if accidentally burned through -- were handled with relative ease. The days of hammering nails with bare hands were distant memories. DeadlyBossMods gave us the visuals, and precise calls from a veteran raid leader filled in any gaps.
Mature stands down while the raid
unleashes hell into Maloriak,
Blackwing Descent

Bang the Gong Quickly

After the bio break, we returned to Blackwing Descent to face our next challenge: Maloriak. This boss took us the remaining two hours of the raid. Maloriak kept changing things on us, tossing red potions into his cauldron, followed by blue ones -- or was it blue, then red? Each attempt was different, so understanding each vial's ramifications and learning how to adapt simply took time and practice. Blain controlled the abberation spawns with extreme precision, letting certain casts through while interrupting others. I had enough on my plate as it stood, without having to worry about which interrupt strategy was best for us. Thank God for Blain doing the math.

The 25-Man progression team triumphed, killing Maloriak in DoD's infamous last pull of the evening. We were 50% through Blackwing Descent by the end of the first night of raid progression, and well on our way to wrapping up the normal modes by the end of the weekend.

Or so I thought.

Atramedes brought our progression to a sharp halt the following Sunday. The entire four hours was spent wiping to a blind dragon.

He lay sleeping at the far end of a keyhole shaped room: a large circular arena at the base of a thin outer foyer -- at its tip, the smooth edges of the walkway dropped off sharply into smoldering lava. We entered the main arena from a southern doorway, and were treated to a cinematic explaining the dragon's pitiful state. Maloriak was responsible, the self-proclaimed mad scientist of Blackwing Descent headed all of Nefarion's gruesome experiments in manufacturing augmented dragonflight. His ineptitude promised all-encompassing sight, resulting instead in total blindness. The dragon quickly proved it was no worse off.

During the fight, Atramedes sent out sonically charged discs, attempting to locate us by sound. Any player struck by the discs caused a thermometer-like gauge to slowly fill. Top the gauge off completely after being hit enough times, and Atramedes would issue a killing blow, having fully detected the player.

It's funny how a simple command like "dodge the rings" becomes a four hour nightmare of explanation, coordination and subsequently failed attempts. Even after being instructed which direction to move, players panicked and ran in random directions. Sporadic movement seeded the next set of discs in an unpredictable direction, and the attempt would spiral downward into tragedy. Blain insisted on a tight group and a single direction to move to. The discs would not control us, we'd control them. Getting players to think and act uniformly with precision took much longer than expected.

In flight, Atramedes posed another risk, targeting people at random and blanketing the room with fire until either they were burned to a crisp...or one of several gongs was struck. The sound from the gong counteracted his echolocation, stunning him in the process -- our window of opportunity to grant him another burst of damage. But there were a fixed amount of gongs, so those being chased had to do everything in their power to avoid the incoming flame, striking the gong at the last possible moment.

The grueling four hours finally came to an end with five minutes to spare. Once again, DoD ended victoriously in our famous last pull of the night. After the first weekend, we were 2/3rds through Blackwing Descent. Chimaeron and Nefarion would have to wait.

Atramedes is defeated in the final pull of the 2nd night,
Blackwing Descent

You Dropped a Bomb on Me

The raid dispersed amid congratulations on a job well done and reminders to get signed-up for next week's run. As the raid dismantled, a whisper caught my attention.

[From: Bheer] You and the officers have a few moments to chat in vent?

[To: Bheer] Of course! Will ping them and drag you in.

I shot a message into officer chat, calling whomever was available. Blain, Sir Klocker, Neps, and Jungard answered the call, joining us in the private vent channel.

"Go ahead and grab Drecca, too," said Bheer.

Drecca?

"Sure thing," I said, noting that Drecca had joined vent. I moved him down into the officer channel. "So, what's this all about?"

"We've decided to step down from the 25-Man progression team."

What?

"...uh, may I ask why?"

"To be honest, it's really just more of the same stuff we've always had problems with. People fuckin' around in raid chat, lots of downtime between pulls, lot of wasted time on re-explanations...the usual stuff."

So, basically every raid we've ever been in, none of which is news.

Sir Klocker was the first to point out the obvious, "You do realize that this was our first weekend in raids. This is the first time we've seen any of these bosses."

I continued his thought, "Do you really think it's appropriate to make a judgement call on the 25 this early?"

"The inefficiency of the 25 is just one part of it. There's other reasons as well."

Inefficiency? I'm sure Blain loved hearing that.

"I'm all ears. Please, by all means."

Bheer took a deep breath, "Well, some of us aren't a big fan of Lexxii, so making her healing officer wasn't the best decision."

I skipped the part where I gave a shit about his opinion on who would've been a better choice and cut to the chase, "Is there any particular reason why you felt the need to string me along? I mean, here you both are, updating your position on the raid slot template, gearing up, maxing out reps, giving me every indication that you're loyal to the 25...I mean, Bheer, we're practically in constant communication every day over IM. I'm sorry but I have to ask: why even participate at all this weekend?"

"I did it as a courtesy to you."

Well, thank you very fucking much for gracing me with your presence. For future reference, it would've been a "courtesy" to let me know you planned to skip town, so that I could recruit in your absence.

I took a deep breath while my inner monologue vented like a steam pump bursting under pressure.

"If you insist on this, I'm sorry to see you go. I only hope that this doesn't cripple the 25-Man."

Drecca butted in, "I think there's certainly going to be some opportunities where we're able to help with the 25. Just not a week-to-week thing anymore."

"That was another one of the reasons," Bheer added, "we can't really be expected to demonstrate any loyalty to the 25-Man if you're unwilling to do the same."

You mean how I carved a spot out for your shaman in Wrath when your druid was on the verge of being squeezed out? You mean how I ensured that a loot whore like Crasian would never set foot in the guild again, making the guild a safe place for you? You mean how I didn't think twice to re-invite you after walking away from Elite, without explanation? No, I've never demonstrated loyalty to you. Ever.

"I don't follow, Bheer. Explain."

"The whole business about guaranteed spots in the 25-Man going away."

"Bheer, the whole purpose of re-writing that rule was to prevent players from getting up on their high horse and treating everyone like shit, remember? Remember how it wasn't that long ago that some folks with guaranteed spots started to become awful people? Besides, we've been over this. As long as you are a constant, reliable raider in the 25-Man, the end result remains exactly the same as it was in Wrath: you get every raid you sign up for."

"See, that's what I’m talking about. There are so many rules now. I hate to say it, Hanzo, but the guild is really losing its old-school family-oriented appeal. Everything is so rigid and structured now."

I wanted to scream at him.

YOU WERE ONE OF THE PEOPLE THAT DEMANDED MORE RULES!

But there was no point in yelling...or being civil. Their minds were made up long before the "courtesy" first weekend in raid progression.

Bheer left the 25-Man to join Drecca's newly created 10-Man team. And I had no choice but to put on a good face and support their decision, just as I committed to supporting all the 10-Man teams in DoD. But I didn't have to like it. The fact that I lost Bheer to a 10 wasn't what upset me the most...it was his delivery that left me gutted and used. Bheer had many weeks to approach me about his intentions, but left it until the absolute last possible moment, explaining it away with a myriad of excuses that hid the truth behind his motives. The truth, in turn, would slowly start to fall into place over the weeks and months to come -- pieces of the puzzle coalescing into a much clearer picture. For now, however, I was left only with his "reasons", and processed them as best I could: I deferred to my inner voice.

So, you want to leave the 25-Man progression team high and dry, eh?

Good for you.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

4.23. I Solemnly Swear That I Am Up to No Good

Kerulak wades into a world PvP battle as
the Horde lays siege to the human capital,
Stormwind

Killing in the Name Of

A mess of unintelligible names filled the screen. Under normal circumstances, I would've loathed being here. Buried in the dark recesses of their subconscious, all of these players did. But I had good reason to jam myself into the crowd. Never say "No" to a free lunch. Any opportunity to squelch the pain and humiliation of fruitless battlegrounds became a reasonable option. For many of us, it was our shared hatred of PvP that was the very reason we formed a unified front, fingers twitching, watching, waiting. A fleeting moment on that bridge was a shot at salvation, a chance to save ourselves from the villainy of Alterac Valley, the atrocity of Arathic Basin, the wretchedness of Warsong Gulch. No special sign-up was needed, no vetting necessary. Meet us on the bridge and stand by for the signal.

---

World PvP evolved significantly by year seven. In the days when Shamans ruled wide, grassy fields between Tarren Mill and Southshore, Hillsbrad was a perpetual warzone. Favored by PvPers due to the close proximity of the two opposing towns, battles erupted out of thin air, playing out for days at a time, with neither faction maintaining control for long. The warfare in this zone was not unlike early Alterac Valley. In those days, Alterac Valley was considerably epic: you could participate in a match on Tuesday afternoon, then return Saturday night to join the very same battle still in progress. "Rushing" was not an option; it was an amusing consideration at best.

Alterac Valley had structure with defined points of contention. It required tactics and coordination to successfully end a game...with PvP rewards waiting for those who did. If only there was a way to capture the intensity and incentives of Alterac Valley and instill them in the outdoor world, Blizzard thought, the resulting PvP could be elevated to something much more.

About the time that the members of Descendants of Draenor were taking their first steps into 40-Man Naxxramas, Blizzard took a stab at tackling world PvP in a more organized fashion. Control points popped up in the Eastern Plaguelands and Silithus, towers marked on our maps with icons both red and blue, indicating faction ownership. This initial implementation led to further control points revealed when we stepped through The Dark Portal into Outland. Flagpoles driven into the ground among the ruins of Hellfire Penninsula, and in ancient Draenei ruins in Zangarmarsh conveyed their same red and blue faction ownership.

Beyond these control points, Blizzard constructed an entire town around faction control: a hub in the center of Nagrand called Halaa. This town, when controlled, granted access to specific vendors, allowing us to purchase a couple of fun mounts and other miscellaneous items that a player wouldn't find elsewhere.

Response to this first attempt of world PvP was mostly apathy. Control Points held little interest for players constantly in search of bright shinies. Hey, I love killing Night Elves as much as the rest of 'em, but what's in this for me? With few explicit rewards for controlling said points, Eastern Plaguelands, Silithus, Hellfire Penninsula, and Zangarmarsh all went ignored a few short months after being introduced. And as for Halaa, it saw the highest concentration of PvP activity...but even that tapered off. You came, you killed, you collected tokens, you bought your two Talbuk mounts...and never returned.

DoD defeats Koralon the Flame Watcher, 2nd of the
four raid bosses in the Vault of Archavon,
Lake Wintergrasp

The Secret Garden

Lake Wintergrasp was Blizzard's next attempt at wrapping their arms around world PvP. In Wrath of the Lich King, an outdoor PvP zone was baked directly into the landscape. Blanketed by snow and ice, the zone served as both a questing area and a place where players could work on leveling professions. These were distractions from its true purpose. Nestled in the northernmost point of the zone, half buried into the mountains, sat Wintergrasp Fortress. Defended by cannons situated around its perimeter and in strategic points throughout its outer walls, the fortress was the goal, both for those defending and those attempting to sack. The fortress, you see, kept a secret, and it was this secret that kept players returning to the zone even as Wrath's life trickled away in the final weeks before Cataclysm. 

Controlling Wintergrasp Fortress not only granted players tangible, practical rewards (beyond the aforementioned "fun" mounts), it also opened access to a raid instance for the victors. Inside, four bosses revealed themselves over the course of Wrath's life, each one an opportunity for players to seize gear upgrades. And these weren't any old one-off pieces -- these were set pieces, pieces PvPers wouldn't normally see...if said players happened to steer clear of raids. The beauty of these bosses was that they were a two-way street: they also had a chance to drop PvP set pieces, the likes of which strict raiders might never see otherwise! Neither PvP nor PvE pieces were top-of-the-line, but they were something, and as we are prone to thinking about risk aversion in a certain way...something is always better than nothing.

Fighting in Wintergrasp was also loads of fun due to varied and unique tasks. Attack the towers, crippling the defense. Gain control of the workshops, to man a vehicle and lay siege to the fortress. Hunker down behind the castle walls, shutting down any attempts to infiltrate the base. Engage in the all out assault on the fortress walls. I didn't often enjoy PvP as much as those early days where Kerulak stormed a battle at Tarren Mill, but for a non-PvPer, I had to admit that Wintergrasp was enjoyable. Upon reflection, those Tarren Mill/Southshore battles typically ended when one side put more skin into the game. So, how was it that Wintergrasp, an outdoor zone, was able to maintain the balance between both sides, keeping the battle fair, but fun?

A very simple mechanism monitored the battle of Lake Wintergrasp. Since it was outdoors, players could potentially come and go as they pleased. Each time a player entered or left the zone, the balancing mechanism monitored both sides. If one side was too deficient in manpower, that faction was granted a bonus to health and strength. Individual players on a lopsided team carried the strength of 10, 20 or 50 players; watching a single player waste an entire warfront was hilarious and cool. But this balancing mechanism went both ways. If a player entered the zone and their faction was already at full strength, a warning popped up: Warning! Battle in Progress! You will be Teleported Out in 10 Seconds! Lake Wintergrasp not only kept the weak from being overwhelmed, it kept the strong from getting stronger...

...and it was this mechanism that brought us here today, waiting to exploit it, by any means possible.

A massive gathering of the Horde march
across the bridge in the final moments of battle,
Tol Barad

The Bridge Exploit

Tol Barad was the culmination of all that Blizzard had learned in their quest to polish world PvP. An island off the coast of Khaz Modan provided to the setting of a former stronghold, now converted to a prison. Baradin Hold, like the Vault of Archavon, granted secret raid bosses to the faction capable of capturing the island. Additionally, those in control would gain additional daily quests, which they could use to stockpile a special currency for Tol Barad-specific rewards.

Tol Barad was popular. It was new; it was accessible. And, just like Wintergrasp, if one side was deficient, they gained strength. Conversely, attempting to join when your faction dominated the roster ended with a 10-second warning, alerting you to the impending ejection you were about to receive. We understood the ejection, but I can't say with certainty that all of us understood the ramifications of attempting to side-step it. At the very least, I can promise you that I did.

Word traveled quickly of this exploit. All that was required was a player on the inside to count down the final moments of the battle over Vent. As the remaining few seconds ticked away, those waiting on the boundary burst forward, unfairly forcing their way into a battle they had no business being in.

You will be teleported out in 10 seconds.

It counted down. Six. Five. Four. Another message flashed up on our screens. 

The Horde has claimed Tol Barad!

Voilà. Honor points for the Horde on the island. Not the just Horde that participated in battle. All the Horde on the island.

Everyone.

---

Anyone who claimed this wasn't an exploit is a liar. Everything about it screamed violation of the rules. Yet for some strange reason, Blizzard hadn't officially gone on record to condemn the behavior. Exactly why this was is unknown, but the problem remains: the absence of clarification acts like a "Get Out of Jail Free" card to many. The first half of my WoW career as guild leader to DoD can attest to this. If I didn't explicitly say it was a rule...someone...somewhere...would pitch me this line:

"You didn't say I couldn't do this."

Whatever helps you sleep at night.

Not everyone in DoD participated. Goldenrod, for one, felt uncomfortable about the entire situation, choosing to step away from the bridge entirely. But there were others bearing the Descendants of Draenor tag that joined the well-orchestrated march across the bridge.

I was one of them.

I did it knowing full well that, eventually, something was going to happen. I accepted the responsibility of that decision, but never once tried to claim that it wasn't an exploit. Most likely, Blizzard would return from Christmas holidays, fix the exploit, and all the honor / Tol Barad tokens earned as a result would be rolled back.

Blizzard closed up the exploit on January 6th, but never actually rolled back the honor accrued during its presence. That was surprising; a bullet dodged. I would have accepted the loss if it had been stripped from me; I have a feeling few others shared my point of view.

...but it didn't make them right.

My reasons are my own, but for you, dear reader, I'm happy to share. I exploited this bug with other players because PvP didn't really matter to me in the grand scheme of things. PvP is an afterthought, an appetizer, a side-dish that plays a very small roll in a much larger feast. It was easy for me to justify breaking the rules (whether unofficial or not).

Therein lies the rub, for this is a point of contention that permeates my entire experience in World of Warcraft. When players so easily defend their actions by saying "Calm down nerd, it's just a game," they give themselves a free pass to misbehave -- they justify their actions to themselves because nothing is in writing. One thing, however, was very clear about the Tol Barad exploit, regardless which direction each player's moral compass happened to point...

...if players can take the easy way out, they will.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

4.22. The Loose End

Jungard shares his opinion on the possibility of
allowing Crasian to return to DoD (1/3),
Vashj'ir

 Regarding Collusion

[To: Crasian] I'm afraid I can't give you a re-invite.

[From: Crasian] Why not?

Because you're a selfish, ungrateful bastard that conspired against my guild.

[To: Crasian] I have reason to believe you were at the forefront of loot collusion during Ulduar and ToGC

[From: Crasian] What?! What are you talking about?

[To: Crasian] Do you deny that you were involved in any loot manipulation while a part of Eh Team?

[From: Crasian] Can we go to Vent?

[To: Crasian] Sure.

He was irritated and bitter. Crasian sounded as if ready to pounce on the real perpetrator. I had yet to be convinced that anyone was more guilty than him.

"Alright, that's better. So, who was it that said this?"

"Doesn't matter who said it; we can deal with that later. What I want to know right now is, in your own words, how and why you felt it was OK to manipulate the loot rules of this guild for your own personal benefit."

"Hanzo, I swear to you, I have no idea what you are talking about."

You're lying.

"Start at Ulduar. Eh Team is in its prime. You all decide to set up a private chat channel to talk shit about fail players in the 25. Continue."

"Ok, yeah...yeah we were in there. But it was just, y'know, like you said, there was some stuff people wanted to get off their chest, but it was mostly just a bullshit session in there."

"What was Eh Team's loot distro?"

"Need Before Greed. We worked out amongst each other who could really benefit the most from each drop."

That's not Need Before Greed.

"You actually just described 'Loot Council'."

"OK, I guess you're right, it was more of a loot council, then, but we were pretty fair about it, how we worked out who got what."

In your eyes, perhaps it was fair.

"How exactly did you 'work it out'. Describe the process to me."

"Well, it was just like you'd expect. We'd take a look at the piece, and figure out who it would benefit the most and then hand it over. Y'know? And if multiple people wanted something really badly, we'd work it out. Like I'll take it this week and then maybe you get the next one."

If there was a next one.

"Name some of the pieces you remember this situation coming up with. Where you decided to work it out with someone else, to take 'turns'."

"Ah, jeez. Ok. Let me think. Well the trinket in ToC was one for sure, what was that, Death's Choice?"

"Death's Choice drops in 25-Man"

"...What?"

"The trinket you just named, Death's Choice. It drops in 25-Man Tournament of Champions."

I know because I ended up with Bheer's after he left the guild, thanks to your stellar people skills.

"Right. Er, wait. Maybe that wasn't the one I was thinking of."

"This 'agreeing' beforehand that you did while in Eh Team may have been your business, Crasian, but when you started doing it in the 25-Man...that's collusion. Friendly or not. I'm sickened by the mechanics of Loot Council in general...but to hear that it was going on in that private chat while a part of the 25-Man? I'm sorry, chief. It's inexcusable. I can't have it in DoD."

I could hear the frustration building in his voice, trying to solve a puzzle with missing pieces.

"God! Listen, Hanzo, I am truly sorry about this. I'm telling you that I really had no idea this went against the rules, I mean, I never once thought about it that way. I never once considered it to be collusion. I mean, there were a bunch of people doing it, and I thought it was the right thing to do, to be fair to folks on the team, so that we could divvy things up. But when we chatted about it, everyone was participating."

Everyone? Or just you.

"I know you're smart enough to know that doesn't make it right."

"So, why are they all still in the guild?"

"Because a single person was responsible for facilitating this 'tit-for-tat' looting behavior. And they've put the finger on you."

"That's completely unfair!"

"Actually, let me back up a step, Crasian. Here's where it gets great. The official word from Eh Team is actually...nobody! Nobody is the ringleader. Nobody was in charge of the decision making. Which is extraordinarily convenient. But what they do say, individually, when questioned...is that when it came to working out 'deals' on who got what and when and who should take the next turn and who should step back...they all agree that you drove the conversation."

Jungard shares his opinion on the possibility of
allowing Crasian to return to DoD (2/3),
Vashj'ir

Regarding Officership

Crasian was stunned. He scrambled for the words to explain his behavior in Eh Team, making every attempt to draw attention to the group as a whole, rather than his own personal behavior in the matter. But before he had a chance to gather his thoughts in his defense, I shifted into Round 2.

"The problem, Crasian, is that you're greedy. Your focus has been on loot for a very long time, but you've played the political landscape very well, chumming up against folks, offering to help with dungeon runs and heroics and achievements and all that...so you gave off this great perception of being a super awesome guy in DoD. Meanwhile, you're making deals behind closed doors to ensure you have a steady stream of loot funneling your way."

"Hanzo, I genuinely did not do this with ill intent. Honestly. I never meant to wrong you or go against the guild rules."

I doubt you've even read the rules.

"Oh? So it wasn't your intent to break the rules when you stormed off in a huff when you lost your shot at Shadowmourne and officership?"

I waited a moment for him to process the topic shift. He'd have to build up an entirely new defense; it was only fair to pause for reconstruction. And I'm all about being fair. Being fair is my middle fucking name.

"I admit that I was pretty upset about losing out on Shadowmourne to Jungard. It was shitty."

"Yes, it was. But see, here's the thing, Crasian. You were an Elite. Remember? Elite! That means you're expected at every raid. You're raiding. You're signed up and showing up every Friday, every Sunday. Without question. Not just when it was convenient for you. Not just 'until skiing season starts'."

"Right, but I told you I was planning on skiing, didn't I?"

"No, no you didn't. And even if you did, and I just forgot -- because, it can happen, right? I miss things, sometimes. So, let's say I did forget, and you really did tell me you were planning on skiing in December, effectively taking you out of the 25-Man...then why would you have ever accepted your promotion to Elite? Why wasn't the very first thing out of your mouth, 'Hanzo, thanks so much for the promotion, but I have to respectfully decline as I'm going to be flying down a mountain in a couple of months'?"

"...I...see your point. That was a bad judgement call on my end. I guess I was a little more upset about losing the officer position to Jungard than I thought."

"So, as you can see, the case building up against you is not good. You made deals for loot in private chat channels. You took a promotion to Elite, a rank that mandates your presence, knowing full well that you'd be taking off in December. And you have the nerve to be offended that I chose a player over you that has been here longer, proven himself to be more objective, and more concerned about the long term health of the guild?"

Crasian was silent, processing my diatribe.

"Y'know, Jungard confided in me that he did actually try to work with you over a couple of items. So, even he isn't perfect. But, at the risk of making you look worse, Jungard claims that you never even bothered to follow through."

"Which items?"

"The cloak off Vezax was one. He passed to you, with the agreement that you would squeeze him into an Eh Team Algalon run. It never happened. As long as you get what you want, there doesn't really seem to be a huge priority for you to make time for others to get their stuff...even though the guild sees you as this 'super helpful guy that loves assisting with achievements'. Or is it really that you're assisting with achievements that you yourself still need?"

"That's not fair."

"Neither is loot council. Jungard says you tried again in ToC, to barter with him on passing for Death's Choice, with the plan that you'd then let him get Dual-Blade Butcher if it dropped. What's really great about that story is you already had a ilvl 245 weapon out of 10-Man heroic ToC. So it must have been just such a huge sacrifice for you to offer up a weapon you didn't need for an item you did."

Crasian still had no response to the repugnant claims being vomited into vent. It was time to wrap this up.

Jungard shares his opinion on the possibility of
allowing Crasian to return to DoD (3/3),
Vashj'ir

Regarding Bheer

"So, before we conclude this conversation detailing the many reasons why I cannot, in good faith, extend you a re-invite to the guild, I have to ask: what was it exactly that you said to Bheer to make him leave the guild?"

He paused a moment, then replied, "You mean when we were re-assembling Eh Team? He left because of that?"

What do you think?

"Yes."

"Bheer and I never really got along all that great to begin with..."

No shit?

"...and I was just getting tired of dealing with him. A lot of us were. He was very combative in vent, always arguing about a particular strat, how we were doing things. He'd bitch and moan during repeated wipes on some of the really hard stuff, and constantly question how we'd do things. It pissed me off and really just didn't have the patience for it...for him."

Carry on.

"So, I came back, and was like, look, we're going to do this ToC shit, and we don't really want you along this time around. Y'know? I mean, no offense, Bheer, but you're annoying the hell out of me. And if you decide that you're going to stay with Eh Team, well...then I'm just going to go ahead and start a brand new 10-Man, and there's a pretty damn good chance that the majority of Eh Team are going to come with me."

Wow.

"So, you squeezed him out."

"I mean, I personally didn't tell him to hit the road...I'm pretty sure it was Taba that gave him his marching papers."

"...but under your order. Under your very strong recommendation."

"I guess so."

"I have to say, Crasian, in a team without leaders, it sure seems to me like some people called the shots more than others."

"I guess when you say it that way, it really does make me out to be the bad guy. Which is totally unfair."

"Well, in my mind, I have the word of folks like Jungard and Bheer, both of whom I trust, both of whom are loyal to the guild. Both have made sacrifices to make this guild what it is today. Versus you. A player that's constantly demonstrated two sides: this wonderful make-believe side that everybody loves and thinks is awesome, and a second side, carefully navigating his way through loot tables to get what he wants until he's the #1 geared death knight on Deathwing-US...and then leaves the 25-Man progression team in the midst of its work...to go skiing. Now. Put yourself in my shoes. I decide to favor you and your story vs. theirs. What do you think DoD would make of that? Do you think they'd think I was being fair?"

"Look. Let me at least talk to them. Will you do that? Can I at least send them some kind of apology or message or something? I mean, I really want to fix this. At least let them hear my side of the story, before you make any final decision."

I stared at my screen and shook my head in disgust.

"Sure. Whatever. If you think that'll make a difference. Why not? I haven't disabled your forum access, you're clearly still able to get on Vent...though I don't know for how much longer. But yes, I think it's perfectly fair for you to try to make amends. And I'll see what the officers say. But I wouldn't get my hopes up."

Word on the street was that there was some finger pointing going on in the old Eh Team chat channel. A private message did go out later that evening, sent to the entire officer core, and as many members of the 25-Man progression team that phpBB would allow Crasian to jam into the CC: field. It did little to change people's minds. The court of public opinion had already cast its verdict, and the sentence was for Crasian to find a new home, far enough from Descendants of Draenor so that his selfish behavior became someone else's problem.

---

The next day at work, I fired off an IM to Bheer.

"Crasian won't be a problem anymore. We can rest easy."

"I appreciate it. Can you do me a favor, though?"

"Of course," I typed back, "Ask and ye shall receive."

"You have administrative privileges on the forums, to do things like delete threads and posts and such, right?"

"Yup, I can pretty much do anything."

"Can you go ahead and just delete Crasian's message out of my inbox for me?"

I furrowed my brow, "Um...why?"

"I just don't want to have anything to do with it. I don't even want to look at it."

So...why don't you delete it yourself? It's just a message.

It was no secret that Bheer wasn't Crasian's best friend...but full avoidance behavior? It struck me as very odd. Very surprising.

Very...red flag...ish.

Friday, January 2, 2015

4.21. Moebius

Mature tanks Foremaster Throngus while the
guild  completes its 15,000th daily quest,
Grim Batol
"There is the theory of the Moebius. A twist in the fabric of space where time becomes a loop."
                                                                        - Lt. Worf, Time Squared (S02E13)

History Repeats

Applications trickled in at the start of Cataclysm. I poked and prodded, harassing the guild to "sell, sell, sell" the DoD way of life to anyone who happened to show any interest...so long as it wasn't in /trade. Dredging the slimy reef of /trade for fresh blood only guaranteed that a good roster would quickly fall into disrepair. DoD's pitch spread by word of mouth, most often in LFD. There was definitely some interest in what we had to offer, but it wasn't as overwhelming as the nearly daily apps that filled my inbox during Wrath. Apps that did arrive were oddly familiar. I began seeing reflections of the past in my newest recruits, and caught myself comparing them to players from DoD's youth.

A husband / wife team, comprised of a resto druid and a shadow priest, were one of the first newcomers to DoD in Cataclysm. The druid, Beefsupryme, was droll and affable; his wife, Physica, was a smart match. As with all significant-other teams, I made it clear that pairing them could never be guaranteed, but I would do everything in my power to make it happen. They integrated into DoD's culture seamlessly, never once giving me push-back or cause for concern. The shadow priest even earned her own song: I'd swap her name into a horrific rendition of Olivia Newton John's 1981 hit, whenever we waited on her to accept an invite. Beefy and Physica very much reminded me of that first husband and wife team, long before DoD even began raiding: Hend and Chariot -- good people I lost over a difference in playtime preference.

Ignismortis was brought out way via Goldenrod; they were friends in real life. A fan of classical music, he came from the Malorne server, which he could not recommend under the warning of "low population, high idiocy." Ignis's warlock and Goldy's mage maintained a playful rivalry; the lock poked fun at the mage, soloing content and laying waste in battlegrounds. He wanted an opportunity to raid competitively three days a week or fewer, and Goldy was quick to point him to us. Ignis was charming, dedicated, and well-played; by recruiting him, I essentially gained a second Goldenrod. I was completely fine with that.

Insayno was a death knight who didn't fit the mold. He was gung-ho about PvP, but also about achievements...including those having nothing to do with bashing another player's face in. He filled up vent with "Awesome!" and "Dude!", yet could also channel those passionate outbursts into a fastidious dissection of the game's mechanics, breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of not only each class, but each spell. This was unbecoming of a death knight: they were long seen as the douchebags of the game. Insayno was the furthest from this stereotype. I was happy to have enthusiastic players in DoD, but as the 25-Man raid start date closed in, I contemplated what role he'd play, if any. At the very least, I had to give him props for the name; pop-culture references were my Achilles heel. Insayno very much reminded me of Annihilation, a DoDer often dismissed upon initial impression by way of crude language and a propensity to talk for hours about gaming -- yet hid vast knowledge of people once the onion was peeled back.

Littlebear, a hunter, joined up in the weeks leading to Cata's launch. His story was like so many that applied to DoD: he pushed past the boundaries of his former guilds, excelling where they fell short. In my interview with him, I couldn't help but be reminded of McFlurrie, back in The Burning Crusade. McFlurrie, like Littlebear, was one of the older players, but not entirely set in their ways. Both McFlurrie and Littlebear were open to innovation and new tactics. Neither balked at a lesson in their class, which nearly the entirety of the WoW community is known to not do well. Littlebear joined our crew, and immediately began consuming all of the necessary requirements to be vetted for the Raider rank.

Another Death Knight came to DoD, a tank by the name of Soot. Soot's interview was textbook. Well spoken, he had a deep, powerful voice that commanded attention over vent. Soot immediately struck me as the type of person to assume a role of leadership (as many tanks do). The interview went off the script multiple times, transforming into an open conversation touching on WoW, gaming in general, and even real life reveals. We shared a career path: he was a .NET Web App developer...

...Ater.

The initial Cataclysm recruits invoked quite a few memories of the past. But then again, I'm a bit of a sentimentalist.

Screenshot of the GCG addon interface
(Source: MMO-Champion)

Returning

The raid slot template bustled with the familiar. The officer core led the charge: Neps, Jungard, Blain and Sir Klocker, and my newest promotion to healing officer, Lexxii. Following closely were names committed to DoD finest from Wrath and earlier: warlocks Mangetsu and Vrykolakhas; hunters Larada and Jemb, the mage Goldenrod, the shamans Bheer, Gunsmokeco, and Deathonwings; paladins Drecca, Fred, and Falnerashe; rogues Bonechatters and Riskers, and the death knight Hellspectral.

Some familiar faces took new forms. After playing a warrior and druid, Omaric was now Zuzax, the Goblin shaman, changing his stripes once more. Moolickalot the druid was now focused on Cainh, a shadow priest. Lexxii's significant other, Bullshark felt the sting of the Hunter's lost mana pool (the Hunter resource became a Focus bar in Cataclysm) and shifted his attention to a mage named Bullsharq. Kizmet the druid was now Dkizmet the death knight. Even Bretthew returned to his old warrior Taba, formerly relegated to alt status at the end of Vanilla.

Rainaterror was a Troll shaman who joined us toward the end of Wrath. I first met her face-to-face at BlizzCon 2010, a friend of Bonechatters the rogue. My initial read of her left more questions than answers, but she seemed interested in participating in the 25-Man and, like her fellow guildies, began immediately to hit the necessary 25-Man raiding requirements. I wasn't convinced on her attitude, however. It seemed to carry a hint of indignance with it, a sort of "why do I have to do these things?"mentality that is so often a product of a player unfamiliar with raid demands and the frustrations of raid wipes. I pointed Rainaterror to the many posts we'd made on those subjects to answer her questions, but was left with the suspicion she didn't read them, and was merely complaining...to complain.

Immortalus the paladin, known by Sarge in Vent, also joined us during Wrath. He contributed to 25-Man progression with a youthful, perhaps slightly arrogant demeanor. I suspect it came more from the gamer mentality and less from an exaggerated perception of self-importance. Sarge was pro-DoD, which meant he was anti-everything else, and I was fine with that...especially if a few Alliance bit the dust in an unfortunate crossing of paths. His Alliance baggage kept him focused; formerly of The ORLY Factor, a known Alliance guild of dbags on Deathwing-US, he made every attempt to smoke his former partners in battle. But Sarge's biggest contribution to the 25-Man came in the form of GCG, short for Gentleman's Club Gambler, an add-on one of his former guild mates threw together to break the monotony of trash pulls and raid wipes.

GCG worked like this: an initial stake was placed, you voted in or out to participate, then everyone performed a /roll X, where X matched the stakes. The winner was the highest roll, and the loser (the lowest) paid the difference. High stakes meant lots of gold exchanging hands, peer pressure from the guild kept people participating, quitting cold turkey, then returning to lose once more again. The never ending cycle of gambling addiction could quickly become a distraction under the wrong conditions, but rather than ban it outright, I drafted GCGs' usage directly into our 25-Man raiding rules: only on trash pulls and during raid wipes. A possible detriment to the 25-Man’s focus quickly became a perk to raiding in DoD, and I have Sarge to thank.

Mature spots his guild's first 2nd-in-command, Graulm,
Orgrimmar

Leave the Past Behind

Operation "Water Under the Bridge" continued, opening the window of recruitment options further. Holding grudges got us nowhere; more important was bolstering the strength and confidence of the 25-Man roster. Putting drama behind us allowed me to extend an invite to faces I hadn't seen in years. My original number two, Graulm, made his way back into the game for a brief moment, and I was happy to have him rejoin, reminiscing about old times and pointing him to the new guild website. He clicked through the screenshot gallery, arriving at the pic of his warlock staring out into the Tanaris desert.

"I had no idea you felt I was this important to your guild."

"Well the secret is out," I told Graulm," you were one of the most important people to happen to DoD."

I'd already made amends with Falnerashe; she was now back in DoD and leveling alongside her bf Phil (he played many characters). Both held spots in DoD years earlier, and were quick to resume their old habits, shimmying up to their old crew, preferring to hang with the PvP crowd. I checked in with Fal at random to make sure things were going well. Whenever she opted to confide her frustrations with me, it was merited; Fal didn't just complain about anything and everything, she only got frustrated with idiocy. Sooner or later, we all end up in that unmentionable group of baddies; it's how we choose to react to that defines us. Anonymity can never be a justification for mistreatment. I compelled her to vent privately, and gladly received that barrage of frustration.

More big news for the changing roster was the return of Bulwinkul, another player that deserved a second chance. Axing him for mistreating Lexxii was extreme, but necessary. He repented, she accepted the apology, and we moved forward...but the re-invite came with strings. I warned Bulwinkul in the most straightforward language possible: Disrespecting other players maliciously will not end well for you the next time it happens. Of all the leashes on people in this guild, yours is the tightest. Bulwinkul agreed one hundred percent, wishing only to return to the team that made him feel excited about WoW. And while I kept one eye on the guild, the other was fixed squarely on Bul. Would he stay on the path this time around, or give me another reason to drop the axe?

---

With both old and new guildies in Descendants of Draenor, our roster was well prepared for Cataclysm. But there was one player, however, who I could not extend an invite to, someone whose past could not be so easily forgiven and forgotten. Three days after Cataclysm launched, the whisper arrived:

[From: Crasian] Yo, Hanzo! I'm back! Looking for a re-invite.

I'll bet you are.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

4.20. Samurai Shodown

Mature gets direction from Drecca on Foe Reaper 5000,
as the guild cooks its 10,000th recipe,
Deadmines

Heroic

Achievements procc'd non-stop throughout December. Every glance at the familiar green chat window revealed yellow text punctuating the conversation. There was always someone vying to complete the Ring of Blood in Twilight Highlands, winning a rated battleground in Gilneas or Twin Peaks, forming up for Tol Barad and securing Baradin Hold, or simply sitting in a corner of Orgrimmar, cooking their 10,000th recipe. Nearly everything we did had an award attached to it, but the majority of those golden banners came from dungeons.

Heroics got most of our attention, thanks to another concept that Cataclysm introduced us to: Championing. In the past, players were relegated to the monotony of dailies and specific dungeon runs to max out their reputation with a given faction -- and there were quite a few of these factions in Wrath of the Lich King. Other than the shiny achievement placards that some arguably didn't care about, the reason why anyone would want to grind out those factions were for the rewards: a few pieces of gear that might offset a missing slot of raid-ready equipment, or perhaps a shiny new mount, pet or other toy. But dailies dragged, and forcing players into the same dungeon over and over was a recipe for burnout. In Cataclysm, wearing the tabard of a specific faction meant all rep-based quest turn-ins and dungeons completed would yield rep for that faction alone. It was a fantastic, flexible solution to the reputation grind of yore. The grind was still necessary, but at least now we chose how to approach it.

Dungeons were difficult once again, and the new difficulty fed our hunger; few in DoD drew satisfaction from heroics you could AoE your way through. Players adapted or were chewed up and spit out. Mobs hits like trucks; health bars spiked frantically. Enemies left unattended would run for help and casters had the tendency to summon in additional forces, both of which would overwhelm groups that weren't paying attention. Trash in Throne of Tides tossed healers up into the air, interrupting them long enough to prevent that one life saving heal from landing. And of course, there was fire everywhere...and players stood in it.

And I haven't even gotten to the bosses yet.

Ozruk, an elemental lord comprised entirely of stone, broke us on at least more than one occasion. Both Asaad of the Vortex Pinnacle and Erudax of Grim Batol had insta-death mechanics promised to those who didn't move into safety zones. Foe Reaper 5000, a harvester boss halfway through Heroic: Deadmines, caused grief even for tightly honed groups to come out of DoD. Throne of Tides (when not tossing healers up into the air) was, for the most part, one of the less intimidating instances, yet it required party coordination on nearly every boss in the instance.

I had to wonder how anonymous, random players in LFD were handling the new difficulty.


Merry Christmas, hon!

Booked Solid

What is December without a frantic mess of holiday related preparations? Buying gifts, sending out cards, coordinating family get-togethers -- it was a seemingly infinite to-do list. A well-adjusted gamer might consider Cataclysm plus Christmas more than enough to keep someone occupied every day of the month. For me, the demands stretched further.

A healthcare system dependent upon co-payments, minimum deductibles, and in-network referrals has the unfortunate side-effect of trending inconvenient surgery schedules that skew toward the end of the year. For my wife, this led to the decision to take care of not one, but two artificial replacements: a compressed disc in her spine near the base of her neck, and her right knee, a joint that had long since worn away its cartilage. Jul came out of both surgeries with flying colors, but the recovery was long, onerous, and would require a near full-time attendant.

Guess who?

While Jul recovered from her surgeries, I was shuttling the kids to and from school. That meant cutting into my work day to pick them both up, making up any missed hours in the evenings. The boss, Dave, was never high-pressure about this, yet I felt compelled to make up lost time -- I'd invested so much of myself in my work that guilt quickly set in if there was any hint of neglect. Some nights I spent rewriting code that didn't need to be re-written, to feel like something...anything...was getting done. Progress, even baby steps, meant forward movement.

I handled the dinners, the laundry, the gift purchases and wrapping. I sat down at the kitchen table with the kids in the evenings, helping them with their end-of-semester school projects. I made sure we had the necessities, and that Jul's knee-cuff compressor had a fresh batch of ice in it every twenty-four hours.

...and, I still made time for the guild.

Each time I logged in to WoW, exhausted from the day, I was greeted by the DoD machine running on autopilot while yellow achievement text spammed its way through chat. Yes, I had a full plate, but it was a plate fit for a king, and not one I ever took for granted. The guild was focused on leveling, repping up, acquiring raid-ready gear, awaiting the crucial announcement that we would begin 25-Man progression raiding. Blain shared the date with me, and planned to post it to the guild very soon: January 7th, 2011. So, I took advantage of DoD's self-sustenance and devoted time to administrative tasks. I reviewed emails of applicants, cleaned up the forums, and fielded recruitment requests from the Tacticians as they began to wrap their arms around their own 10-Man teams.

I won't lie to you: I couldn't do it all myself; frankly, no leader (in their right mind) should. Delegation is key, an absolute necessity. I learned this by Wrath, leveraging it by assigning certain tasks to officers and role leaders. But I felt I could push this a step further in Cataclysm, and did so by baking delegation into a new guild rank, one I felt we desperately needed.

Mature wraps his final heroic dungeon in Cataclysm,
earning "Cataclysm Dungeon Hero",
Throne of the Tides

Neither Casual Nor Hardcore

With Saint now a more exclusive rank replacing Elite, I took a hard look at those formerly falling between the cracks of lower- and upper-tiered raiders. Exiting The Burning Crusade, I saw players of two types populating DoD: those with casual level attention and priorities in the video game world, and hardcore, top-end players whose fresh cuts would bleed raiding. I singled the two categories out in Wrath, identified them, and empowered them to change their titles (if they were unhappy).

In practice, however,a  third type of player emerged: one with the tenacity and skill of a hardcore player, but lacking the motivation / schedule / priority to dedicate every waking moment to the game. In examining this third group, I realized my oversight in Wrath: my former ranks improperly married skill with gaming priority. It was, in fact, a matrix of player types:


Skill \ Priority
Plays Whenever
Plays All the Time
Beginner
Raider
???
Expert
???
Elite/Saint


While the upper right quadrant seemed awkward (and we'll get to that later), it was the lower left quadrant that caught my eye. Beginning raiders intent on working towards a spot amongst the Elite were doing so by putting their best foot forward, devoting untold hours to the game to hone their skill, but the same couldn't be said of a raider in the reverse position. If you were already expertly played, you came and went as you chose -- you needed to prove nothing to nobody. Players choosing this path, therefore, were clearly in a league of their own, frozen forever in a position that was too good for Raider, yet not good enough for Elite. Treating them as either ran the same risks as treating a Raider as an Elite -- the worthy feel neglected and move on, and you're left with what collects at the bottom of the barrel.

No player represented this category better than Ben.

Ben's lone gunman style mirrored that of his brother, Ouleg, whom I bonked heads with in TBC: magic behind the wheel...when you manage to strap him in place, taping his hands to the controls if necessary. When harnessed, however, Ben could be pointed down the right path, turning the lone gunman into the gun for the hire, the samurai of the guild. He proved it to me, going from drunken tirades to texting me when he'd be late for a raid so that we could hold him a spot.

With the proper measures in place, you can empower this vast majority to do great things, meet (or exceed) expectations, and cause your team to be an overwhelming success. These are the 'Save-ables', and they are the topic of this book.

In Cataclysm, I created a third rank for the Bens of the guild: Samurai, and for the first time in DoD's history, I put the guild in power of helping decide who was worthy of the title.

In order to qualify for Samurai, the first requirement was to be sitting on at least 50 forum Karma, the current quantifier of guild contribution via peers. Potential Samurai would be posted in a nomination forum and vetted on their knowledge of both the game and their class. How they answered would help the peer review pool determine if a promotion was the correct course of action for the player.

And what of closed-door politics? If nominations were jaded, or accusations of playing favorites were made, those responsible for the conflicts-of-interest would themselves be dinged karma. Make enough bad judgement calls, and a Samurai could find themselves back amongst the Raiders.

This seemed to be a very straightforward loop of accountability. Perform, be rewarded. Make bad choices, suffer the consequences. No longer would it be just "the hand of God" making these decisions...it was the core of the raid team, the very individuals themselves that healed you, tanked for you, and helped you bring the internet dragon down. With the guidelines in place, this new delegation would afford me the time I needed to split my attention between guild and life, as life was quickly taking precedence.

---

"Well, what do you think about being the inspiration for a new guild rank?"

"Cool!" Ben replied. Silence followed in Vent.

"So...are you looking forward to getting started on the 7th?"

"I dunno what my schedule is gonna be like here, I have a lot of stuff coming up that I gotta work out with the wife."

Schedule? You don’t have a job, Ben.

"I see," I said, disappointed, "Well, that'd be a real shame to not have you present for 25 this go-around. You were crucial in Wrath."

"Yeah, I'll check on some stuff, but I dunno, I may have to move stuff around a bit. Might even just see what the 10-Man options are like for this tier."

Ben never signed up for, nor attended a single 25-Man progression raid throughout Cataclysm...not on Aeden, not on Scruffiebear...nothing. The one player I designed Samurai to appeal to, a player unable to meet harsh requirements of a former Elite, to enjoy freedom of rotations but be acknowledged for superb play...never earned the rank. Before the 25-Man progression even got off the ground in Cataclysm, Ben's career in it had come to an end.

His story, however, did not.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

4.19. Little Details

"Welcome to Vashj'ir"
Artwork by Ikameka

The Dark Below

There are only two times in my life I can recall a piece of music that made me feel as if I were drowning.

In 1994, Zoid introduced me to a band named Delerium. I'd describe it as an ambient, almost hypnotic genre of music, famous for layering electronic soundscapes and euro-dance rhythms atop angelic vocalists -- some reaching seemingly inhuman octaves. This side project of Front Line Assembly heads Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber seemed a more likely extension of Enigma, rather than the industrial sound Skinny Puppy.

Semantic Spaces turned me into a Leeb/Fulber zealot overnight, and in my excessive style, I dove deeply into any other side projects they produced. My research revaled a prolific, multi-volume career: three albums under Intermix, four as Noise Unit, a single-album stint as Cyberaktif, and perhaps most surprising of all, eight Delerium albums preceding Semantic Spaces. These earlier Delerium albums were dark, moody, and in some places, not much more than disparate sound effects (particularly true of Morpheus). Their sound was nothing like what I expected.

Sematic Spaces' follow-up, Karma, paved the way for DJs like Tiesto to help shape a new genre of music: trance. Invoke the name to a fan of the genre, and it will most likely summon up visions of ecstasy-infused glow stick raves at Ibiza. I wager very few Delerium fans will instead conjure up an image of Willem Dafoe, bloodied and nailed to a cross in The Last Temptation of Christ, yet samples of Peter Gabriel's haunting Passion is sprinkled throughout Spiritual Archives, a Delerium album that predates Semantic Spaces by three years.

It is this same haunting music that is ever present in another Leeb/Fulber side-project: Synaesthesia.

A person experiencing this "juxtaposition of sensory information" might taste the heat or smell the silence; even those ravers might feel the rhythm (if they're prone to cliche). Synaesthesia is a grammatical term, a neurological phenomenon, and thanks to Leeb/Fulber, a side-project rich with sonically submerged imagery. Their first two albums, Embody and Desideratum, weren't anything spectacular; most tracks were slow and odd, aka "experimental". But it was their third release, Ephemeral, that the underwater chord was struck.

Naked Sun weaves its hypnotic tentacles into your brain, implanting uncanny impressions that these sounds come from a mysterious and frightening source, many fathoms deep; all the tracks on Ephemeral are like this. Intelligence Dream had such a profound effect on me that I laid it into our High King Maulgar kill video. You listen and cannot help but feel you are sinking down toward the darkened ocean floor. Pardoxically, it is peaceful yet nerve-wracking, and is one of the few times such a distinct image of being underwater came from music.

The only other music to do this was Vashj'ir.

Mature notes consumer interest in his gem auctions,
Vashj'ir

What Goes Unnoticed

What is it, exactly, that Russell Brower, Derek Duke and David Arkenstone honed in on when building this musical landscape? The commonality between Vashj'ir and Ephemeral is subtle yet important. We hear those gongs, low pitched piano strings, granularized and slowly rippling outward in waves, like a ping from some ghostly sonar. Above the surface, air would deaden their duration, but sound waves suffer no such encumbrance under frictionless water.

The strings and flutes repeat their somber melody, two measures of four notes each; they're sad and empty. Yet, listening closer reveals a striking similarity to an alarm in slow motion, repeating its warning, eating into your consciousness, conveying both weightlessness and loss. The music of Vashj'ir is a cascading terror of the deep manifest, and is one of the most unappreciated aspects of Cataclysm.

In what should come as no surprise to anyone, Vashj'ir annoyed nearly every player who quested there. Any recognition of the zone's good qualities, particularly that of the music, was drowned out by focusing on their personal inconvenience. This was truly a tragedy. Lore nerds knew Vashj'ir was coming, knew it had to be completely underwater to be canon, and Blizzard pulled it off. Gorgeous visuals, immersive music, they even adapted our characters to bound quickly across the ocean floor.

Nobody cared.

Complaints flooded the forums about how annoying it was, and how Blizzard was "forcing players to think in 3D" -- as if by some strange miracle we had been playing two-dimensionally since 2004. Whatever little support the Vashj'ir zone received was deafened by the cries of the confounded and the perplexed.

I still love it, as does my daughter, but we are a sad and small minority. As with so much of the World of Warcraft's incredible attention to detail, Vashj'ir went misunderstood and underappreciated.

While Moorawr congratulates Moolickalot and Mature preps
his gear, DoD completes Heroic: Blackrock Caverns,
The Stonecore

This Isn't Canon

Leveling in Cataclysm wasn't a chore. For the first time in Blizzard's history, the expansion only extended our cap by five levels rather than ten. For those unable to withstand Vashj'ir, leveling kicked off in Mount Hyjal. This zone was locked away for years, visible only through a sealed gate that was buried deep in the back of a Winterspring cave.

There were, of course, other...more unconventional means...to catch a glimpse of Hyjal.

Our experience rested firmly within the Terms & Services: via the Caverns of Time, as a 25-Man raid in The Burning Crusade. Aside from raiding and exploits, Hyjal remained all but closed off to the WoW gaming community at large...until Cataclysm.

In the present day, Mount Hyjal was now accessible to all, blown wide open...
...and on fire.

I wasn't surprised to see an old friend emerge from the fire and greet Mature, as I made my way from Nordrassil to Sulfuron Spire. Ragnaros rose out of the flames to greet us with a warning - we were on his turf now. Molten Core, it would appear, was merely a setback.

One of Cataclysm’s central themes was that of the elements, taking us from the depths of the Abyssal Maw to the searing brimstone of the Firelands; from the majestic architecture of Skywall, miles above the surface of Azeroth, to Deepholm, the earth beneath the earth. I remember exploring the ebon rocks and cave formations in this latter zone, weaving Mature in between tiny bits of rock and stone that floated inches off the ground through unseen magic. When you turn your head to the sky and strain your eyes to see, far off in the distance above you, the bottom of the ocean -- the feeling is unmistakable: you are deep within the mantle's crust -- and a long way from home.

From the unimaginable depths of Deepholm, players next traveled to Uldum, another location just out of reach for years. Prior to Cataclysm, the only hint of Uldum's existence was a quest in Uldaman. A titan recording played back references to Norgannon and his discs, leading us to a fractured entryway in southern Tanaris. The great doors wouldn't open and its only exposure was a dark, black hole partially collapsed like a puzzle missing its final piece. The quest ended, and we returned to our Vanilla duties, while the doors remained silent and untouched, throughout Vanilla, TBC, and Wrath.

No longer.

We rushed through the now open gates, inviting us into a land inspired by Egyptian themes, hieroglyphics, and bizarre humanoids one might mistake for centaurs...if it weren't for their predominantly cat-like features. Uldum also buried secrets of a dwarven nature, and if Uldaman and Ulduar were any indication, those secrets in Uldum would hopefully wrap up unanswered questions. What of Norgannon's discs, and of the titans? What other Earthen spawned here and evolved into the dwarves that populate Azeroth today. And perhaps the biggest question of all: Why Azeroth? I geeked out in preparation for the final chapter of the three ancient titan cities, and couldn't wait to get started, arriving in Uldum three days after launch.

Two days later, I hit level 85 while handing in a quest in Uldum. I finished what remained, and never returned to the zone. No questions were answered, no great titan cities were exposed, no secrets revealed. I spent the majority of my time chasing Brann Bronzebeard who seemed more like a loose end left from Ulduar that a core piece of narrative driving the Warcraft story. The only connection to the titans, it appeared, was that these cat-taurs, the "Ramkahen" were left behind by the titans to guard their secrets.

What secrets?

No earthen or dwarven history was made mention of. In their place stood these cat people, tending to fields among the sands. There was no Norgannon. No Khaz'Goroth. No references to Algalon or anything of his kind -- nothing. If Uldaman was the appetizer and Ulduar was the main course, Uldum ended up a very disappointing desert.

Friday, December 12, 2014

4.18. Minmaxxing

"Deathwing"
Artwork by 陈晨巍 (可奥拉夫)

Cataclysm

Cataclysm launched at midnight on December 7th, 2010, and within 24 hours, Blizzard began backpedaling. With any software launch, bugs are bound to pop-up. Ask any player that's been present for Blizzard's major game launches and they'll tell you it's often a storm of chaos and confusion. Servers buckle, LUA errors appear on the screen like advertisements, and players wait at the character selection screen, the "Logging in…" message never quite delivering on its promise. Eventually, bugs are fixed, servers are rebooted, and the World of Warcraft resumes its quiet hum.

Fixing code that malfunctions is what's needed when results do not line up with vision. Designers govern the rules; to them, all the World of Warcraft's a stage -- the programmers, artists, and musicians are merely players. If designers decree that "the world should turn from day to night in real-time", is a rapidly-cycling sky truly a bug? Well, if the previous rule was to spin the sun and moon like a top, then technically, no, it is not -- but it is also not behaving as intended. These are the three words programmers focus on when determining what is broken and what needs to be fixed. Bug fixing is never an existential question to a programmer; code fails to meet requirements, and therefore must be adjusted. But the requirements define the boundaries of what's expected and what's not, and those rules come directly from the designers.

In a sense, designers have the power to will bugs into existence.

Let's be realistic, here: we're not talking about magically causing the game to crash...we're talking about defining what's allowable yesterday vs. what's allowable today. When the game doesn't behave as intended, it's the designers' intentions we are talking about.

---

The collector's edition arrived at my door around noon on the 8th. Within a few minutes of tearing into the packaging, I had the serial number attached, and was logged in, ready to get started on my path to 85. By this point, Cataclysm had only been live in North America for around twelve hours, yet the re-designing was already in motion. Guilds of every shape and size, of every dedication level from the ultra-casual to the most extreme of hardcore, were noticing their Guild XP levels backed up like a stopped toilet. A blue post from Nethaera explained the stoppage:
We have decided to remove the added bonus of gaining Guild Experience from Guild Achievements earned. This change will realign Guild Achievements with our philosophy held for normal Achievements, which are intended to be predominantly their own reward (barring the rare exception of special achievements that grant an additional reward.)

During the beta, we greatly increased leveling speed across the board and since most characters were copied from templates, guild experience from Achievements didn't seem imbalanced. It has become clear that an imbalance does exist and should be addressed to ensure that guilds progress at the rates expected within the daily Guild Experience limits.

For guilds that are currently above the normally possible experience limit, we will be readjusting it back to the expected limit once more. This will not affect Guild Reputation gains at this point in time.
Translation: we were consuming content too quickly.

Mature takes a group of DoD through one of
the new 5-man dungeons in Cataclysm,
Blackrock Caverns

Good to the Last Drop

One could argue that their original weekly caps were intended to curtail this behavior, long before the game launched. But it was never really clear what those caps were; even the Elitist Jerks weren't certain. WoW historians/nerds will point out the very real post made on the EU forums, indicating in bright blue text that some guilds were indeed leveling past the cap for unknown reasons, fulfilling the aforementioned requirements of a bug:
Unfortunately, due to an error, some guilds have been able to gain more experience in the first few hours of Cataclysm than was initially intended. Your guild is one of those affected and as a result, has had the guild rank moved back to level 1. This has been done to all guilds that had this issue.

The reason for this is that guild experience has been intentionally capped at a certain amount a day. Tomorrow you will once again be able to gain experience as normal.

We apologise for any inconvenience this has caused you and your guild. The issue should now be fixed so this will not be a recurring issue.
The game, as perceived by the European crowd, was not behaving as intended.

But, without knowledge of the official weekly reputation cap values, combined with how much personal achievements actually contributed to guild experience, no one could definitively say whether or not the changes were truly the result of design decisions gone wild. What we do know are the results: that very early into the morning of December 7th, across the ocean, the hardest of hardcore guilds were well into 3rd guild level before they saw it magically back itself down to 1, freezing in position only hours later.

When I logged in at noon on the 7th and pulled Lil' Deathwing from my mailbox, Descendants of Draenor was already capped for the week; I'm sure many other guilds were as well.

Well, the large ones were, at least.

Perhaps the smaller, more casual ones took the rest of the week to hit their caps -- but many managed to squeeze it in. By Tuesday, we were all back on the same page, all equal in the eyes of the designers once more.

Most don't remember nor care about a change as trivial as this, a hotfix rolled out in the early hours of the morning of Cataclysm's launch. It was just another bug fix, all part of the launch process -- many bugs are fixed during launch. Caps were in place to keep the content gated, and for progress to move at a distributed pace. Move on with your life.

All of these explanations make sense, but aren't answers to the question at hand.

The question is: what was it about this bug that caused it to be perceived as imbalanced in their vision?

17 hours and 11 minutes after Cataclysm's launch,
Gunsmokeco becomes Deathwing-US's first level 85 Shaman,
Blackrock Caverns

Cataclysmic Converter

Seventeen hours after the launch, the guild glanced down at their respective chat windows to see an incoming realm announcement:

Gunsmokeco has earned the achievement [Realm First! Level 85 Shaman]!

The long term vet of DoD had slaved out a 17-hour all night session, attempting to beat out every other shaman on Deathwing-US at their game. Guildies snapped screenshots and congratulations were spammed toward the exhausted but victorious shaman. When asked why he did it, Guns simply replied, "Dunno if I was gonna get the chance again, so why not?"

We don't put enough value in how important it is to be able to play as much (or as little) as we want; ask any casual WoW player what they think of being forced to play beyond their means. I doubt many would argue that Vanilla imposed an artificial minimum amount of hours necessary per week in order to see any real in-game progress. It isn't until we opine on what an appropriate maximum should be that the opinions of us old-schoolers begin to diverge, even Gurgthock felt most guilds raided too much, back in the day. This vision was borne of a very old-school (and hardcore) way of thinking about content: accessing it is a privilege, not a right. You earned your rewards through concerted, concentrated effort. Just like anything in life: practice makes perfect.

From a hardcore perspective, it makes complete sense -- from a business perspective, it makes none.

Throughout the years, design decisions conveyed a more accessible vision, one that diminished the importance of that artificial minimum. I hold that nearly all of them were the right decisions: alternate currencies to purchase welfare epics in TBC, alternate smaller raid sizes facilitating easier coordination/execution in Wrath. These were the kinds of quality-of-life tools necessary for players with reduced schedules or alternative preferences in play...but took nothing away from the hardcore gamers, who could earn the most glorious rewards in the blink of an eye.

The investment needed to progress withered away, conveying the message loud and clear: eventually, you will earn your way toward victory. Players were then free to choose how little or how much they devoted to the game. I followed suit with DoD and rewarded my own members in kind: you won't be punished for not meeting a minimum -- there is no minimum.

As for maximums, we'd seen them before: the weekly cap of honor points, the monthly-gates that slowly revealed deeper, more challenging encounters in raids, and these systems served their purpose. Regardless of whatever spin is put on the "official" statement, we can nearly all agree that the intent of gates were to extend the life of the content. If you could burn through it all in one session, what would be the point of coming back? Or going again? Or renewing your subscription?

What caused Vanilla players to come back, in a World of Warcraft devoid of gates?

For me, it was the challenge and the community. I came back to Vanilla, night after night, because we had more content to work on and it was thrilling to work on that content with the people of DoD. And back then, WoW barely had 5 million subs; we were more than double that by the end of Wrath. Surely, community should have existed in spades and the coming raids were not going to be as easy as those of Wrath. It seemed counterintuitive, then, for Blizzard to begin imposing caps on how fast we chose to consume content on day one -- the speed at which we chose to dive into WoW never affected our subscription before, so why would it now?

If they were so concerned about us feeling obligated to play a minimum each week (then fix it), what compelled them to dictate how much we played?

Allow me a slight rephrasing to quash those who might think I’m about to accuse Blizzard of acting solely out of greed:

What non-monetary reason exists to force a customer to consume goods at a restricted rate, if the quality of the products has remained the same?