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.

5 comments:

Rehbero said...

You are exceptional when it comes to building tension through every post. I've been hooked since I discovered this blog through Wow Insider, look forward to reading every week. Keep it up!

Shawn Holmes said...

@Rehbero,

Thank you, sir! Spread the word!

Aedilhild said...

". . . [I]t was doubt in Blizzard."

Oh, that look a designer gets in his eyes when he's going to prove everyone wrong about his work.

Shawn Holmes said...

@Aedihild,

They had it all figured out, didn't they? ;)

Littlebear said...

"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."

This.

I was only in for Cata. I had no idea of the history, I just wanted to DO MORE in this game.

I found myself in something much greater than that that, and it made me a better player, and a better human being. Some of those lessons are just becoming clear to me through this blog.

If I've never clearly expressed my gratitude, let me do so now. You have all of my respect and admiration.

LB