The bosses called a company-wide meeting. It had been several months since our web agency merged with a design firm. We had doubled in size, both in amount of employees and in amount of projects. What we hadn't doubled, however, were the necessary funds to maintain upkeep. Ater, who had been working with me for nearly six months, had been assigned a project to deliver a custom timekeeping application for a well-known chain of restaurants. But, things appeared unwell with the project. There were missed deadlines, a lot of late nights, frustrated customer calls when expectations were not being met. Ater withdrew increasingly during this time. He was already separated from me by office, and the demands this project levied on him reduced his in-game face time to practically nil. The writing was on the wall. The bosses handed down the order that we were to be re-adjusting our priorities, and sadly, some of that meant laying people off, and shutting certain projects down.
And just like that, Ater lost his job at my firm.
I remember watching him take the news, which I expect he was already well-aware of, and take it in stride. My gut ached with disgust and frustration. When the opportunity first arose to hire Ater, I lobbied hard. For two and a half years, he had been a stalwart representation of leadership in my guild, and someone whom I continually sought advice from. He had a way with people, knew what drove them, knew how to speak to them, and how to garner loyalty. In raids, my guild naturally followed his direction; it was never questioned. A person with that command of people should have been a no-brainer in the professional world. I fought to have my company fly him in to be interviewed; I even said he could stay with us to save the company a buck (in fact, I insisted).
I’ll never forget Ater setting up his laptop in my computer room, as we prepared for our weekend raid. I saw him unravel his headphones and begin to hook everything up. Glancing over at his rig, I noticed a bizarre device: half-keypad, half-gamepad...resting where his mouse ought to be.
“What the hell is this?” I asked, picking it up.
“A Nostromo!”, Ater replied, “It’s the only way to play this game.” He detailed all the crazy assignments he’d programmed into the controller. It explained his extreme level of control as the main tank in our raids. I had never even heard of a Nostromo. There was always something he had to teach me. That “celebrity” raid weekend was incredibly cool. Glancing over and seeing my main tank in action for the first time brought back memories of LAN parties, spending all night playing Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, Quake, Unreal Tournament, Diablo II (hardcore, of course), to name a few. He was an incredibly gracious guest, and even sent flowers to my wife, thanking her for the hospitality. Ater was genuinely a class act...
...which is what made it so hard for me to deal with his being let go.
Ater, as upbeat as always, informed me that some of the opportunities he was seeking lay outside the state of Colorado. He’d be moving. As a result, there’d be a few weekends coming up where he would be missing the raid, and I would need to start thinking about finding a replacement to cover. We had limited options to work with. One of my Warrior tanks had recently gone missing; I would come to find out later it was due to intra-guild dating--a wonderful source of stress for guild leaders. This was especially tough to manage during The Burning Crusade, due to the unfriendly keying requirements, coupled with a significant lack of options to acquire gear outside of raids. My remaining main tanks would most likely be Kurst, a well-liked, long-time Warrior of the guild, and Dalans, a younger, hot-headed Druid, who joined Descendants of Draenor along with Ater. Blain and I worked with who remained, playing with flipping various DPS Warriors to tank as needed. A steady, dependable Warrior named Abrinis opted to take this on, as a new and upcoming Warrior, Jungard, was making a name for himself on the DPS charts. We also pulled Kizmet as needed, the infamous Druid who was hacked mid-raid months earlier. With raid lineup changes, so too, came inconsistency in progression.
After the death of Archimonde, it took three weeks for us to defeat Teron Gorefiend. Ironically, this was yet another personal responsibility boss, so the failure of one individual person meant an unrecoverable wipe. We had a number of weekends where the same folks seemed to get picked early for Shadow of Death; those folks also just happened to suck at the encounter. Ater managed to arrange his schedule so that he was present for the kill. As luck would have it, Kurst would suffer computer problems for our next bit of work on Reliquary of Souls; thankfully, Ater was available--and we wrapped that encounter up by the following week. Ater stood proudly amongst us in the "kill shot" I was now regularly posting in our Accomplishments thread on the DoD forums.
Reliquary of Souls would be the final boss that Ater was present for.
For weeks after Reliquary fell, I remained in a perpetual state of denial. I fully expected to log on, and see Ater, back in action, signing-up for raids, taking control of situations, providing me with advice on the guild’s direction. Part of what helped me deal with his absence was my own acknowledgement that it was time to move on from the web agency that laid him off. Within a few months, I too, had left the company, and landed a solid position at a new firm in south Denver. It was a better team, a healthier atmosphere, and the chance to take ownership and drive real product development--something I never had the chance to do at the old company. I lucked out in the interview; my boss-to-be dropped the “Do you play World of Warcraft?” bomb mid-way through, and the floodgates blew open. I showed him WoW Lemmings, the site Ater had given me advice on months earlier, and passionately dove into how it scours the forums, analyzes certain posts, indexes them, and provides them in a search. The staff seemed to appreciate my enthusiasm for software development, carefully wrapped around a love of World of Warcraft. I also began searching for a second leadership book, with the hopes of gaining insight that Ater once provided.
Distractions remained. Wither Ater gone, Blain became more abrasive with players, venting his frustration with their inability to adapt to the demands Black Temple imposed. As his patience grew thin, more of the emotional raiders began to take offense to his commands. Players began insisting that they were being singled out by Blain and bullied by his actions, both in raid, and on the forums. It wasn't long before they began to call him “Blain the Tyrant” under hushed tones; a label he wore proudly, once aware. Again, I found myself attempting to mediate issues, keeping players from jumping ship when we were so close to our goal of killing Illidan. Blain's disgust began to permeate amongst the long-time veterans of DoD, and soon, players like Klocker and Dalans were also expressing their distaste publicly. It was a challenge not to fall into the trap myself which I did with great frequency. This only added to the guilt I felt post-raid, going back and seeing the posts I wrote about “building great teams”--and failing on every point myself.
I continued to ignore that truth that Ater was gone, now moved to Chicago and deeply involved in his work at a new company. I held back from making a goodbye post, thanking Ater for all the great things he had done for Descendants of Draenor, not believing his guild career was over. I was struggling with leadership direction, and my own focus, to stay on the straight and narrow; to practice what I was preaching, and not devolving into a hypocrite. I’d hoped that a player would come along and solve all those problems, that could magically snap their fingers, and make all the difficulties melt away.
What I got, instead, was a Mage that would push my people management skills to new extremes, granting me the perspective I needed to re-evaluate what it was to be in charge, and how to handle leadership without guidance.