Thursday, June 16, 2016

4.76. Epilogue: Onward and Upward

Mature arrives in Pandaria,
The Jade Forest

At Least I Got Chicken

Two years passed. By the spring of 2014, there'd been a lot of change. Jul was back to being a full-time stay-at-home Mom. I didn't have kids...I had teenagers. In games, Flappy Bird was dominating much of the mainstream muggle news, while the majority of us glanced over with a troubled, concerned look. It would be a few months before Destiny released to mixed reviews, revisiting the hotly contested topic of addiction-by-design. Streamers were the new normal, with Felix Kjellberg leading the pack in what many of us still consider a profoundly bizarre turn of cultural events.

The hotly anticipated Diablo III finally launched, complete with its real money auction house. Gamers around the world converged on the infamous franchise, only to walk away a short time later with a very bad taste in their collective mouthes. Something was missing from the carpal-tunnel inducing game that Blizzard was famous for. The thrill of the treasure hunt was gone, a cruel side-effect of the alleged necessity to ensure items had some real money value. Uniques in Diablo II came at just the right time -- when they dropped from the hands of zombies or demons, they filled players with newfound uber-power, renewing the player's descent into clicking madness. By contrast, "Legendaries" in Diablo III were but shadows of their predecessors. The end end game lacked any semblance of balance, nigh impossible to master -- a shoddy design bent out of fear that players would clear it too quickly. Eventually, Blizzard admitted defeat, and promised to make things right.

Blizzard released a free card battle game, Hearthstone, which saw immense popularity and growth. I immediately recognized the battle mechanics, mirroring an older, lesser known game for the NeoGeo Pocket, SNK Vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash. It made sense, considering how often Blizzard employees were self-proclaimed fans of SNK's various fighting game franchises, particularly Samurai Shodown. I'm sure it only took them a matter of minutes before deciding it was a game they could do better. Just like Dune II. Just like EQ. Just like Team Fortress.

Of course, the WoW landscape continued its evolution. Eight months after the 25-Man progression team threw in the towel, Mists of Pandaria was released. Many familiar faces returned to DoD, each of them displaying varying degrees of interest in a radically changed game. For a great majority, they came, consumed all that MoP had to offer, then left. Only the truly hardcore stayed on, tending to their farm on every single alt.

During that initial burst of interest, stories about former guild mates trickled back to me. I discovered (not to any great surprise) that our server's #1 raiding guild, Enigma, floundered and retired only a week or two after us. I can't say for certain what the root cause of their collapse was, but I suspect many of the same variables that affected DoD were involved.

I also learned of Herp Derp's fate, which wouldn't be fair to keep from such a loyal readership. Shortly after Ben acquired Tarecgosa's Rest, the legendary staff, his computer broke down. To keep things moving forward (as we know Drecca was an expert at), HD's infamous leader purchased and shipped a MacBook to Ben to immediately get him back into progression. Shortly after this -- and without Drecca's knowledge -- Ben up and switched servers, leaving his Herp Derp guild mates behind. In his inimitable style, Ben was off to PvP in a new battlegroup, armed with a fantastical staff and a shiny new laptop to power it. 

Things did not go too well for Herp Derp after that. Rumor has it the guild finally imploded under the weight of a forum argument. The topic? Star Wars. DoD may not have been perfect, but at least we were able to keep things running for more than a single tier of raid content.

Many months after the end of the 25-Man,
Mature's mediation continues,
Valley of the Four Winds

Achievement Unlocked

One thing had not changed, however: I was still at the same job. Now celebrating my three year anniversary, things hadn't quite played out to my favor. My new boss didn't possess that same set of nurturing, mentoring genes I'd enjoyed in previous managers. My current project was embroiled in a daily design-by-committee battle, its most important goals now lost to petty arguments among the "experts" at the table. I longed for a new challenge.

An email arrived from a familiar name. Dave, my former boss -- the same one who shared an airplane flight with me while I typed up a guildy's "dismissal" letter -- posed a question to me.

"Read this, call me."

I navigated the job description, skimming past the buzzwords and perusing for anything concrete. Health Data and Analytics company. Corporate website and SharePoint intranet. Lead a team in development and maintenance. Work with the business to establish and implement ongoing vision, ensure best practices. The company was looking to hire a Senior Manager of Web Services.

Senior Manager.


"You know they use SharePoint in Hell, right?"

Dave laughed, running with the joke by rattling off an ad-hoc sales pitch, "Hey, 'If it's good enough for Satan, it's good enough for HR'."

We both laughed.

"Good times, good times," Dave replied, then cut the looming awkward silence, "So, other than the CMS from Hell, whaddya think?"

"Well, I really reads like your old job, back when I was missing meetings on account of dragons."

"Actually, it is my old job. I moved to a different department, another guy came in...then he left...and now they need someone."

"I'm honored that you thought of me, but this 'manager' thing, I mean..." I hesitated, "It's, Allison, Dawna, Diane, you all keep saying it, but..."

"It'll be fine," Dave dragged the long 'i' out, as if to make it sound like a thousand acre forest ablaze was merely a campfire that 'got a little crazy'.

"Hey, I appreciate the support. But let's face some facts. You've got a degree in business admin. I took, like...two years in liberal studies and dropped out. I'm just a code junkie. I've never professionally managed or lead anything."

"Remember that flight back from Dallas? You know, the one where you were typing that thing up for that guy in your guild?"

All too well.

"You cared more about your guys in that WoW guild of yours than I've seen from most of the professional managers I've worked with in my career."

I stayed silent, took a deep breath, letting the impact of Dave's compliment soak in.

"Look. What is it? It's tactics. It's managing up and down. Right? It's motivating a team and keeping them happy and making hard decisions when you need to. Ok? It's mentoring...negotiation...knowing when and where to pick your battles. It's delegating and taking care of rockstars and knowing when to say no. It's giving a shit. Like I'll be fine!"

I stood in silence a moment, still clutching the phone, contemplating the possibility. The feeling was not unfamiliar -- fear of the unknown, of complete and colossal failure. But like all of the things Dave named, my first experience of that feeling was perhaps the most important lesson I had as leverage. It was the one key take away from guild leadership that was most important: failure is only one potential outcome; it's a possibility, not an inevitability. Once you embrace that, a logical conclusion falls easily into place: there's a chance you might actually succeed.

So, why not?

"Fuck it. Let's do this."


Thursday, June 9, 2016

4.75. Songs About Bikes, Gnomes, and Scarecrows

Descendants of Draenor's final 25-Man raid,
December 9th, 2011

Out of Options

Three weeks went by. December 30th/January 1st was also a wash -- too many people with New Year's Eve plans to assume the raid would get off the ground. In their minds, committing to a "maybe" raid was a foolish endeavor. They played it safe and bowed out, forcing me to begrudgingly cancel the raid from the sign-up sheet. It was the longest DoD had ever gone without raiding in seven years.

I took every opportunity to hammer home our restart date, there was to be no guesswork nor excuses when it came time to verify the date as players meandered around in-game. Announcements in big, bold letters were plastered all over the forums and sign-up sheet. The guild message-of-the-day was updated: January 6th/8th - Dragon Soul. I whispered people. I texted people. My harassment went to such extremes, I felt like a headhunter demanding attention on LinkedIn. When notifications alerted me that players were logging in, I'd re-edit the Guild MOTD just to make sure it flashed on their screens -- that single line of green text, telling you to pay attention to something important.

Please. Sign-up. Do whatever you have to do. Don’t let it end like this.


12:31pm, January 2nd -- four days before the return to raid progression.

Amatsu's still in-flux work schedule risked keeping him from being available at the start time. Fred was out for surgery and was playing the weekend's sign-ups by ear, though he promised to keep me apprised of his situation. I desperately needed him, but assured him that we would make it work if he wasn't well enough to arm his keyboard and mouse. Thankfully, Fred didn't ask me how I would have made it work.

I wouldn't have had an answer.


1:52pm, January 4th -- two days before the return to raid progression.

I was treated to a PM from Goldenrod offering up his two weeks notice, stepping down from raiding and officership. Fuck. But, wait...that was still two weeks away, right? We were still short only on account of his not signing up for this week's, right? Quickly, I flipped to the raid signups and noted his original sign-up, then cancellation. Oh, I see how it is. The subtle yet important distinction was just enough fuel for me to fire off a response I'd later regret.
I was going to write up a "sorry we're losing you, best of luck to you with your schooling, we're very grateful for having you thus far" post, but then I noticed your note on the cancellation of Friday's Raid, which hasn't officially been announced either way.

I was disappointed.

Officers are expected hold themselves to a slightly higher standard than the remainder of the raiders -- not "everyone's gonna go do this one thing so I might as well..."

Especially someone who was granted a legendary first-in-line above everyone else on the basis of said officership.
With or without Goldenrod, I still couldn't complete raid rotations. At least ten people were missing.


9:53pm, January 5th -- one day before the return to raid progression.

My tone on the forums shifted from diminutive pleading and harassment to flat-out commands dressed up in passive-aggressive guilt,
It's up to you. I can't make people magically sign-up. Holidays are over. It's time to return to progression.
Turtleman made an off-hand joke alluding to Star Wars: The Old Republic as the reason for everyone's absence. Not amused, I shot back a response,
It's nice to know Star Wars was the reason behind flushing a successful seven year run down the toilet with a bunch of random no-shows and no communication to me about their departure.
Blain called me out on my digital temper tantrum,
Actually, with the exception of Insayno and Amatsu (who just forgot to sign up), the rest of our normal raiders quit the game before the holidays. That, along with a massive number of unexpected cancellations. It really has nothing to do with Star Wars.
He was right. But it was much easier to blame Star Wars. Much easier to fire off a hateful PM to an officer who'd been dedicated and loyal to DoD. Much easier than facing the now unavoidable, grim truth.

Fred shares his raid availability with Mature,
Darkmoon Faire

The End

6:55pm, January 6th -- five minutes before first pull.

Fifteen of us were online. Every Friday and Sunday for the past seven years, like clockwork, DoD had enough players in-game to field a raid. Even under the most dire circumstances, someone was still available. Unlike those countless raid days gone by, however, there were no more fillers on this evening. No more people to call, no remaining bench to text. No crazy PvPers hanging out in another Vent channel that we could lean on in a pinch, and no fresh recruits waiting patiently, eager to prove their worth on the front line of 25-Man raid progression. All that remained was an incomplete contingent, a mere handful of players. But a handful does not a raid make.

The final roll call consisted of:

1 tank: Blain. DoD's longest running raid leader, forced in year six to cut over from melee DPS to tank, due to an overwhelming shortage over a role nobody wanted to play.

5 melee: Lead diligently by Bonechatters, he took the reins from Jungard and wrung as much blood from a stone as his strength allowed. Hells, Dewgyd, Insayno, and I rounded out the melee.

3 healers: Still partially out-of-commission from a surgery earlier in the week, Fred nonetheless mustered the strength to be ready to give us what he could. Joining Fred was Sir Klocker, one of DoD's longest running vets (and longest running healers). Last, but certainly not least, was Vexx, a healer that felt DoD was important enough to be a part of that she was willing to withstand a sixteen-hour time difference and the latency that comes with playing on a North American server from Australia.

6 ranged: With no officer leading them, the six ranged present were disciplined enough to sally forth and carry the 25-Man torch. Mangetsu, the waifu loving warlock; Turtleman, the veritable master of fire; Littlebear, the once-green-now-competitive Hunter; and Blackangus, our sole Boomkin, stood ready for the return to Dragon Soul. Even former Eh Team members Larada (via his mage Doja) and Bulwinkul (via his Shadow Priest Stimpi) were present, demonstrating a stalwart dedication that far outlasted their Wrath-era critics.

These final fifteen players were all that remained; not enough to power through. In our heyday, we snuck by with 24...on a very rare occasion, 23. But not tonight, not with a raid as aggressively overtuned as Dragon Soul. Weeks earlier, a full heroically-geared 25-man battalion, armed with the legendary staff Tarecgosa's End still wasn't enough to defeat a normal-mode Spine of Deathwing. We weren't getting anywhere with fifteen raiders, no matter how well played.

I stood in Orgrimmar a moment, staring out across its once busy streets, waiting for the reality of the situation to set in. The activity of the horde capital had always conveyed the immediacy of World of Warcraft's success: a city packed full of residents going about their business reflected a thriving, robust server population. Dragon's heads were plunged onto massive stakes and you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a server-first raider decked out in gear so powerful, the only thought filling your mind was how can I get my hands on that?

In the place where Orgrimmar's streets once bustled, there remained only ignorance and depravity. The top-end raiders were long gone, replaced by players hopping stupidly between the auction house and the bank, the names floating above their heads unapologetically disrespectful. These players of unknown origin bore the armor and weaponry of Dragon Soul, of LFR, and either belonged to guilds of one or swore allegiance to no guild whatsoever. I stared at them in seething contempt, imagining them chatting away with their friends about nothing of importance, mindlessly rapping on their space bar while blathering on about bikes and gnomes and scarecrows. They personified everything World of Warcraft had become.

My jaw relaxed. I took a deep breath and spoke into Vent.

"Ladies and gents, it's been an honor. Based on the circumstances...and the hand dealt to us today, I think it is time we officially close this chapter on DoD. For those of you who stuck it out, I thank you. The 25-man progression team is done. Thank you for your loyalty and your service."

The response was equal parts denial, bargaining, and anger -- emotions typically reserved for that moment one stares into the abyss. The guild was moved at the loss of something that, at the end of the day, we all agreed was just a video game. But their seriousness didn't match the situation -- nobody I know ever shed a tear over their last game of Civilization or Dungeon Keeper. Why would they, or anyone, demonstrate such alleged grief over the loss of a game. We'd been losing (and winning) at games our entire lives!

Your mind clouds over with a million thoughts. You find yourself brokering internal deals like this can't be happening, I wasn't prepared, there must be something I can do, someone I can call, one more switch in the roster I can make. Perhaps we could have called another person we didn't think to call. Perhaps we might have tried a little harder to find a filler, some random pug we knew nothing about that was geared and ready to go. Before long, you realize you're not internalizing it at all. Those aren't voices in your head, they're human beings on the other side of Ventrilo, struggling just the same as you. In that moment, you're reminded that it isn't the loss of World of Warcraft that's sending you spiraling down this path, it's the loss of the people you play it with.

For a group of individuals known notoriously to be awkward, anti-social loners, a loss of online gaming relationships hits with the force of a nuclear blast, its impact all-consuming, and its mercy relentless in its choking grip. We won't admit we care, opting instead to take to the forums or the comments section and double-down on our denial. But the empty isolation of absent relationships is something gamers know all too well -- it's why so many of us turned to gaming in the first place. We leave the confines of the physical where we are nobody, unaccepted and ridiculed, and join a virtual fantasy world where we are somebody, accepted and have a social status. In a world that fails to acknowledge our leadership ability, we can be guild leaders.

I don't condone a gamer's tendency to violently defend their hobby, but I can understand it.


I stood up from my desk, dropped my headphones on the chair and walked out to the living room. Julie was watching some TV, and glanced up at me as I spoke.

"It's over."

At first, her brow furrowed, working through my melodramatic ambiguity.

"...'It' over?..."


"...Oh! The guild. Oh, no. Oh, I'm sorry...what happened?"

It all spilled out. Fury. Rage. Guilt. Frustration. Disgust. Disappointment. I blabbed on about what must have sounded foolish, referring to a "journey cut short." Everything I'd attempted to keep things together and how it all ended in a colossal failure. The ignorance of former guildies. Blizzard's new fangled framework that made it nigh impossible to repair the damage. How a hole in my stomach was growing, a hole in which all the self-doubt and mistakes and guilt was drawn in, vacuumed into a ball of queasiness that grew worse as I continued to spit on the furniture. The weight hadn't been lifted from my shoulders -- it merely changed places, now resting comfortably in the bowels of my gut.

I had to give her credit. My relationship with World of Warcraft over the span of seven years and two months was contentious, particularly when considering how often it drove a wedge between my wife and I. Yet through this entire emotional collapse, she was never cruel or dismissive. There was never a snide "grow up" or "It's just a video game." She of all people had every right to verbally assault me -- God knows she'd earned it. Thanks to my decision of being a WoW guild leader, I forced her into putting up with its constant presence in our lives, always taking precedence...far more than it needed to.

But she did not deliver any such verbal assault. On a day where my wife had at least a thousand different openings to take a cheap shot, Julie took none. Any relief she felt at the announcement of my guild's end she kept to herself. Instead, she sat and listened, taking it all in, bearing the full brunt of my barrage on unfairness amid an inferiority complex. And when the chamber was empty, she stood up and offered a sympathetic embrace. After everything I'd done, all the jeopardy I'd put our family in, this act of unconditional compassion and support overwhelmed me. I hugged my wife tightly, and broke down.

No, Julie. I'm sorry.

Life After WoW

Skip, skip, skip.

I did not do well in the weeks that followed. Trying to stay busy to keep my mind off of World of Warcraft was like trying to take a test during the blast of an air raid siren. I was constantly interrupted at work, but not by co-workers or muddling micro-managers. No, my own fragile psyche compelled me to continually alt-tab to iTunes and skip to the next track. Every ten minutes it happened, though honestly, it seemed twice as frequent. The reason? I couldn't get through ten fucking minutes of my own iPod without coming across a piece of music from World of Warcraft. A little over two-thousand individual tracks, all hand-extracted from WoW's MPQ data files, continued to come up during random play. Hearing them made me sick to my stomach.

Skip, skip, skip.

Weekends were the worst. As the clock ticked up to 6:30pm Friday evening -- the time we'd be getting logged on and ready for invites -- a gaping absence emerged, ripped from my once structured schedule. I wanted to play something else, but all gaming paths led back to my PC, back to a filthy keyboard and mouse whose insides were caked with years of grime, dead skin, and sweat. Even clicking on the desktop was an ordeal. Launching another game meant glancing at a sea of icons, which in turn, meant giving the launcher more attention than it deserved. I couldn't set foot in my computer room without instantly thinking of what used to be, what we had. What we lost.

I took solace in the familiar voices that gamed on through defeat. True, WoW had been our mutual online gathering location for years, but so too had our Ventrilo server. If nothing else, I could log in and hear their voices without having to step into Azeroth. There, familiar conversations carried on, unaffected by the collapse of the 25. Annihilation going off on one of his rants about people being too uptight. Hellspectral's recognizable self-deprecating style layered underneath a thick Brooklyn accent. Jungard's familiar warm, friendly tone as he and Team Starflex sallied forth into 10-Man Dragon Soul. I didn't even want to hear the words "Dragon Soul" at all. But I stayed and listened. Their camaraderie trumped my contempt.

Both Julie and an old friend urged me to put a digital pen to paper. So, when Friday and Sunday rolled around, instead of wallowing in self-pity, I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. The first document I drafted, aptly titled "The End," was a concentrated outpouring of emotion, a result of the death of the 25-Man progression raid. It may not have been grammatically correct, or even coherent. But it was accurate. It was a start.

Eventually, my computer room nausea waned. I returned to keyboard and mouse (now cleaned), looked at every single video and computer game that had been released since November 2004 and vowed to play through all the games I'd ignored as a result of World of Warcraft's dominance over my attention. There were plenty to choose from: Fallout 3, both BioShocks, Grand Theft Auto IV...I even commandeered my son's Minecraft account for awhile. He still bugs me to finish Borderlands. I'm getting to it! Have you even played Bastion yet? As is the life of a gamer, the list of games to play continues to grow. There are far more unplayed titles in my Steam library than completed ones. All in due time.

I received a generous gift: a Rock Band 3 Squier Pro. Time to take it to the next level. Put down the plastic toys decorated with multicolored buttons and learn to play a real guitar. I picked up enough of the basics that the constraints of RB3's interface felt like they worked against my progress. So, with all the nervousness of a teenager buying his first car, I threw down a wad of cash at Guitar Center, bought the real deal, and plugged directly into Rocksmith. I'm terrible, to be clear, but on a good day I can knock out a 94% on Muse's Supermassive Blackhole. When the imposter syndrome creeps in, I'll unplug from the XBox and go directly to an amp, just to make sure what I've learned is applicable in the real world.

And yes, World of Warcraft's music found its way back into my playlist where it remains to this day. No skipping necessary.

Months after the end of the 25-Man,
Mature returns for unfinished business,
Dragon Soul

We Slew Dragons

I've moved on. Whatever loss I felt at the collapse of the 25-Man is now long behind me. Telling my story was immensely therapeutic, so if you're reading this, give yourself a round of applause. Also, let's cut the shit: writing for yourself is great, but stories can't be told if there is nobody to listen. If you're a gamer, you probably picked a side long ago. I've had plenty to say that's alienated both sides of the casual / hardcore spectrum, so if you made it this far, kudos to you.  And if you're not a gamer, I hope my story gave you some perspective into this bizarre culture that keeps creeping up in the media. It's not just about gamer rage and cleaning yourself of Doritos overflow...though that does take up a pretty significant margin of our time.

Not a day goes by that I don't think about Descendants of Draenor. Thankfully, those memories no longer encumber me. To the contrary, I look back with fondness about the entire experience. What we accomplished fills me with a great deal of pride and satisfaction. The things we saw, treasure we collected, and dragons we slew are all testaments to the dedication a bunch of random online strangers had toward one another. When I consider the logistics of it, how an online game renders personal responsibility nearly impossible to enforce, the fact that each and every one of DoD's members could flip it on and off like a light switch -- but chose not to -- is the biggest achievement one could hope to ever unlock.

My four months of EverQuest in the fall of 1999 were awful, not because EQ was a bad game, but because I didn't get the MMO genre. I'd come from Donkey Kongs and Outruns and Sonic the Hedgehogs and Street Fighters and DooMs and Quakes and Team Fortresses and Counterstrikes -- all games that can be played with "friends optional." Those in this list that are playable with friends share an interesting trait: the fun factor tends to go up. But, as any good introvert knows, sometimes its best (even preferred) to be alone. Having that choice is important, whether your game of choice is a platformer, a racing game, a fighter, a first-person shooter, or even a strategy or puzzle game.

MMOs are different.

The MMO genre was never meant to be experienced in isolation. The clue you seek is buried in the acronym, self-describing this key requirement: It is a game that is massive, is multiplayer, and is online -- three words that, when combined, are the very antithesis of single-player. My own gaming ego couldn't reconcile the dissonance I experienced in EQ. I considered myself a hardcore gamer, but any player wandering the vast polygonal Norrath -- absent guild mates to group with and internet dragons to slay -- was not hardcore, not by any definition. There is no single-player mode in EQ.

An MMO comes alive because of its players, not despite them. Whatever a game company's motivation eventually becomes when attempting to grow its customer base, take comfort in knowing that the motivation began in the right spot; they needed us before we needed them. Once I became a guild leader in World of Warcraft, the importance of the players themselves immediately became clear -- they were as integral to the game as the steering wheel on a racing game. And every day I worked to ensure that there were guildies present, to keep that raid machine well-oiled, I gained invaluable insight into the motivations and the nuances of the human beings behind the paladins, the warlocks, the warriors and the rogues.

Game designers have a tough job. Trying to land a role at a AAA game development shop must be a lot like becoming a famous Hollywood actor -- you keep waiting tables while auditioning for that one big break that makes you a celebrity. If you're one of the lucky few, congratulations, you're now cursed to balance the weight of your corporate overlords with the "needs" of a furious, entitled horde. Fold in nearly year-long crunches, along with your public life scrutinized for every misstep you make balancing a game, and you get a job that reads more like a punishment than a career. I'm thankful they do it. I have a great deal of respect for the people who man the ship, and even more respect for those whose tight grip on the wheel can keep the boat steady through storms of discontent.

The motivations of game companies to innovate and change their product, much like the motivations of players to raid in guilds (or not), aren't always clear. People aren't clear. Intent stated in public isn't always true, just as a player's commitment to the raid can't always be as easily confirmed as checking a box off a list. Continually trying to convince yourself that you're entitled to know is, to quote myself, a complete waste of time and energy. 

There is another way.

Arm yourself with knowledge and tools to stay out of the fire. Just as add-ons help with whack-a-mole healing, the info we've data-mined on human beings thus far is a great aide to keep us sharp when dealing with other people. Come to terms with the fact that while people can change, you can't change them...and attempting to do so is fated to end poorly (for you). Instead, use the tools you've acquired to construct appropriate guard rails, keeping them on a fixed, straight-and-narrow path. And above all, practice being critical without being disrespectful; being inclusive and demanding excellence are not mutually exclusive -- a point that both gamers and game developers should make note of. Whether we prefer the speaker-breaking screams of a 40-man raid, or the quiet isolation of Farmville, eventually, we all have to deal with other people, and when that day arrives, I firmly believe it is in your best interest not to attempt to hammer any nails in with your bare hands.

You're going to need that clicking hand when the internet dragons arrive.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

4.74. A Series of Unfortunate Events

Preach's LFR experiment, in an attempt to determine how
far he can get by doing absolutely nothing

Picking Cherries

"Q. Why not just let casual players get rewards comparable to those from raids?

A. It would be almost impossible for us to do, and this is a philosophical decision. We need to put a structure in place for players where they feel that if they do more difficult encounters, they'll get rewarded for it. As soon as we give more equal rewards across the board, for a lot of players it will diminish the accomplishment of killing something like Nefarian."
- Former WoW Lead Content Designer Jeff Kaplan, on why raids like Naxxramas aren't intended for a casual audience.
The New York TimesKill The Big, Bad Dragon (Teamwork Required) January 28th, 2006

"Dungeons too, we wanted them to be a much more hardcore experience, we wanted only groups in there, and so on. The dungeons are there to serve more of the core market. It's something to strive for, a bridge for the casual players to become a little more hardcore."
- Former Blizzard VP of Design Rob Pardo, speaking at the Austin Game Conference on WoW design strategy.
Raph Koster's WebsiteAGC: Rob Pardo's Keynote September 6th, 2006

"The whole point for a lot of hardcore players is to show off your advancement. So we chose the best gear to be from raids, so we can recognize someone’s achievements based on their gear. The tradeoffs is that you lose everyone looking different and users expressing creativity. And if you try to have both, you'll end up muddled and somewhere in the between."
- Former Blizzard VP of Design Rob Pardo, speaking at the Austin Game Conference on WoW design strategy.
Raph Koster's WebsiteAGC: Rob Pardo's Keynote September 6th, 2006

"[Game] designers need to understand human psychology, sociology, and philosophy behind design. They need especially to understand how persons and groups behave when anonymous...Balance is in the eyes of the player. It doesn't have to be balanced; the average player just has to feel like it is balanced. Totally balanced PvP means losing half the time. Losing half the time is not necessarily fun....the community is good at identifying problems. The community is bad at designing games and generating workable solutions. The community disagrees tremendously but does not recognize its disagreements. The community, though, is always right."
- Ethan Kennerly, recalling a talk given by Jeff Kaplan at USC's Videogame Production class (ITP 280).
Fine Game DesignWorld of Warcraft Content Design October 10th, 2007

"I think it's a great idea...The only caveat for me is that I feel that the highest-tier zone at a given time should start off as a 25-man-only experience and then have the 10-man version unlocked once the zone is defeated on a server, or once a given amount of time passes, whichever comes first...I do feel that 10-man-only players should get to experience the same lore and ultimately see the same content, but I don't think that the easier alternative should be available right away."
- Gurgthock, on the introduction of 10/25 raids in WotLK.
Curse, Interview with the Guild Leader of Elitist Jerks June 27th, 2008

"I'm not super interested in compromising LoL design in the name of accessibility. Yes, League is obnoxiously hard to learn if you don't have a friend showing you the ropes. That sucks, but it's not worth stripping away the depth or potential for mastery for our core audience -- you guys -- in order to attract new players. That's not an approach every game can or should take, but it's the right call for League."
- Former WoW Lead Systems Designer Greg Street, addressing the League of Legends community speculation about his charge at Riot Games.
ManaflaskGhostcrawler on WoW's casualization, accessibility, and raiding August 26th, 2014

"First and foremost, I learned that you must put game quality and player experience first in everything that you do. Gamers are not driven to buy games because they have a clever business model, they buy games that are fun and immersive that deliver on what was promised. I also learned that being a trend chaser or first mover is not a key to victory...force feeding a development team to chase a business model or game type trend when the team doesn't love it is a likely losing proposition."
- Former Blizzard COO Paul Sams, reflecting on lessons learned., Blizzard's Paul Sams joins Ready at Dawn as new CEO June 8th, 2015

"We would have been in bad shape had we not done that,"
- Current WoW Game Director Tom Chilton, commenting on what state World of Warcraft would be in had Blizzard not embraced casual-centric features.
PolygonWorld of Warcraft would be 'in bad shape' without embracing the casual revolution August 23rd, 2013

"How is your gaming experience diminished by it? I can't honestly understand what's the big deal on people that isn't you doing something that you don't want to do...Perhaps we should just tell the devs that we should close all raids until the Top 10 guilds clear them on heroic, so that they can feel superior to everyone else as they are seeing content that you, the raiders not-as-good-as-them aren't seeing."
- Blizzard Community Manager Draztal, responding to community concerns over a lack of staggered endgame content between LFR and traditional raids. Europe Forums, we consume content too fast? March 8th, 2012

The "strategy game of money, power and wealth,"
Capitalism II

Whatever Fits the Narrative

"For a developer to acknowledge that their TWO YEAR OLD game is still one of the best multiplayer games around, to continue to support it through a FREE online system...and STILL patching the damn game? How many games don't get a single patch? For Blizzard delevopers [sic] to still be updating and fine-tuning a game this long after its release, and for people to STILL enjoy playing it is fucking incredible."
- Slashdot user Trillian_1138, commenting Blizzard's dedication to its community.
Slashdot, Diablo II 1.10 Patch Finally Released, October 28, 2003

"Outside resources don't play into it - no gold buying, etcetera. We take a hard line stance against it. What you get out of micro-transactions is kind of the same thing and I think our player base would feel betrayed by it."
- Former VP of Design Rob Pardo, on Blizzard's philosophy regarding in-game purchases.
Eurogamer, Micro-transactions "betray" players February 21st, 2008

"In an industry full of passionate gamers, Kotick stood apart: the guy who never picked up a joystick."
- ForbesGuitar Hero, February 6th, 2009

"In the last cycle of videogames you spent $50 on a game, played it and took it back to the shop for credit. Today, we'll (charge) $100 for a guitar. You might add a microphone or drums; you might buy two or three expansions packs, different types of music. Over the life of your ownership you'll probably buy around 25 additional song packs in digital downloads. So, what used to be a $50 sale is a $500 sale today."
- The EscapistActivison's Bobby Kotick hates developers, innovation, cheap games, [and] you, October 23rd, 2009

"Bobby, you're not on the fucking Death Star. You're Palpatine...You didn't get there by accident, you got there by the decisions you made."
- Game Lawyer Tom Buscaglia, responding to Bobby Kotick's involvement in the Infinity Ward fiasco.
The Escapist, Game Lawyer Calls Bobby Kotick "Emperor Palpatine", March 17th, 2010

"Well, he makes a big deal about not liking games, and I just don't think that attitude is good for games in general,"
- Tim Schafer, when asked why he thinks Activision/Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick should care more about how gaming consumers perceive him., Tim Schafer: Activision CEO Bobby Kotick is a 'Total Prick' July 4th, 2010

"Huge deal. The Chinese claim that they will put up between 1-2[billion dollars]...The boys are meeting with [Warren] Buffett on weds in Omaha. We are the only pe firm. Super confi[dential]"

Ex-Activision director Peter Nolan commenting on the stakes of the then-proposed buyout of Activision/Blizzard from Vivendi Universal.
Bloomberg, Vivendi Considered Firing Activision's Kotick Over Buyout July 16th, 2014

"Q: Will there be any management changes at Blizzard as a result of this deal?
A: No, there won’t be any management changes at Blizzard as a result of the combination."
Activision / Blizzard FAQ forum post on December 2nd, 2007

"This is an important change as it will allow me, with Thomas, to become more deeply involved in areas of the business where I believe we can capture great potential and opportunity..."
- Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, in a memo to employees, on his reassignment of Mike Morhaime's boss, Thomas Tippl, to COO.
Los Angeles TimesActivision quietly restructures senior management and internal organization March 30th, 2010

"In short, he has to either break even or make money to get the stocks, and he has to maintain that for the next four years."
- Ben Gilbert, commenting on the Tippl Amendment that outlines the requirements of his financial reimbursement plan as COO.
Engadget, Activision CFO Thomas Tippl now COO, March 30th, 2010


"[Franchise fatigue] is something that I have not bought into...I think it's an excuse for lack of innovation. If you have a great franchise and you stop innovating, then yes, you will lose your fan base."
- Activision Blizzard COO Thomas Tippl, on his opinion regarding franchises getting too old to retain consumer interest
Gamasutra, Activision COO Tippl: 'Franchise Fatigue' Is An 'Excuse' June 17th, 2010

"We're happy to announce that through the wonders of modern gnomish engineering, you are now able to change your characters' names."
- Engadget, Finally Paid Name Changes! October 26th, 2007

"Blizzard just announced that StarCraft II's single player campaign would be split into three separate products."
- Kotaku, StarCraft II Single Player Is A Trilogy! October 10th, 2008

"In short, for a fee of $15, you can rebuild your character, with some restrictions. You can change your gender, face, skin, hair, and name, but not your race or class."
- Engadget, Character Re-Customization available for a small fee December 10th, 2008

"...players wanting to 'switch teams' will only need to shell out [...] $30 USD before applicable taxes."
- Tom's Hardware, Paid Faction Change Now in WoW September 4th, 2009

"Purchase queues began forming soon after the virtual item went on sale, with players in the forums reporting upwards of 12,000 folks waiting at the virtual cash register at one time for a chance to purchase the translucent flying mount. reported yesterday that at one point the number topped 140,000."
- Kotaku, Blizzard is Selling World of Warcraft Mounts Because Players Demanded Them April 16th, 2010

"'They can also claim that by bringing in the secondary market under their umbrella, they will be providing a better quality of experience for their players. And that's true, certainly, but it's also certainly true that if there was no additional money to be made, they wouldn't be interested.'"
- Wired, Sold! Hawk Your Diablo III Loot for Real World Cash August 1st, 2011

"On the heels of Hearthstone®: Heroes of Warcraft™ surpassing 50 million registered players, Whispers of the Old Gods™, the third expansion for Blizzard Entertainment's award-winning online strategy card game, is now live."
- Activision Blizzard Press Release,
Whispers of the Old Gods™ Takes Hold of Hearthstone® as Registered Players Top 50 MillionApril 26th, 2016 

"...there's a lot of distrust out in the community, because I think a lot of players have felt like they've been burned in the past."
- Jeff "Tigole" Kaplan, on his observations regarding pricing skepticism following Blizzard's announcement of Overwatch
GameEspresso, Blizzard Still Debating Microtransactions for Overwatch December 11th, 2015

In-Game Store,
World of Warcraft

In-Game Real Money Auction House,
Diablo III

In-Game Store,

In-Game Store,
Heroes of the Storm

In-Game Store,

Context is King

"I know that if something is instantly gratifying, it will be repeated."
- Casino Mogul Steve Wynn

"Each year [casino] revenues in the US yield more profits than the theatrical movie industry ($US 10.9 billion) and the recorded music industry ($US 7 billion) combined. Even the $US 22.5 billion combined revenue of the four major US sports leagues is dwarfed by earnings from the commercial casinos industry."
- The ConversationLosses Disguised As Wins, The Science Behind Casino Profits November 3rd, 2014

"(High-rollers) drive business. They drive revenues. They drive profits."
- Las Vegas SunLV Casino Host Spoils His Big-Time Losers, April 22nd, 2002

"Of the 4,222 casino customers, just 2.8% -- or 119 big losers -- provided half of the casino's take, and 10.7% provided 80% of the take."
- The Wall Street JournalHow Often Do Gamblers Really Win, October 11th, 2013

"In general, [Casinos] need [whales] to stay in business. Atlantic City can no longer survive on a steady stream of casual east-coast gamblers."
- The EconomistMaking the House Beat Itself,  May 5th, 2012

"I told [Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates] 'The most I can make from you is $10,000 a night -- my guy bets that on his first hand. You can move now or security will be here in an hour.'"
- Steve Cyr, on courting high-rolling 'whales' that become big spenders at his casinos
Sabotage Times, The Las Vegas Whale Hunter, June 26th, 2013 

"And if you are a whale, we take Facebook stalking to a whole new level. You spend enough money, we will friend you. Not officially, but with a fake account. Maybe it's a hot girl who shows too much cleavage? That's us. We learned as much before friending you, but once you let us in, we have the keys to the kingdom. We will use everything to figure out how to sell to you."
- TouchArcadeWe Own You: Confessions of an Anonymous Free to Play Game Producer September 16th, 2015

"It's a weird hybrid of gambling addiction and more traditional video game addiction, neither of which is anything new, but the combination of the two is a relatively novel emerging phenomenon, and one all the mobile games giants are taking advantage of to full effect."
- ForbesWhy It's Scary When 0.15% of Mobile Gamers Bring in 50% of the Revenue, March 1st, 2014

"...if you're the CEO of McDonald's, you should not feel good about your job, you should feel ashamed. We don’t have that in the games business -- we don't have that sense, because we feel like they're 'just entertainment.' We don't feel like we can do things we can be ashamed of yet..."
- Jonathan Blow, on the ethics of certain reward systems in video games
Gamasutra, MIGS 2007: Jonathan Blow On The 'WoW Drug', Meaningful Games November 28th, 2007

"I'd use birthday money, I'd eat cheaper lunches, I'd ask my wife to pay for dinner so I'd have a spare $10-$20 to spend in the store."
- Gamasutra, Chasing the Whale: Examining the Ethics of Free-to-Play Games July 9th, 2013

"The illusion of control is a crucial element in the maintenance of gambling addiction … [as it] instills a feeling of skill or control...there are a number of in-game features [such as the boosters in Candy Crush] that allow players to believe they are affecting the outcome of the game, and in some cases they are, but those instances are rare."
- The Guardian, This is What Candy Crush Saga Does to Your Brain, April 1st, 2014 

"More effective treatment is increasingly necessary because gambling is more acceptable and accessible than ever before...Today you do not even need to leave your house to gamble -- all you need is an Internet connection or a phone."
- Scientific AmericanHow the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling, November 1st, 2013

"[World of Warcraft] didn't even account for the majority of sales. For the first time, that honor went to a batch of different titles: Diablo and two new brands, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm."
- Fool.comActivision Blizzard Inc. Doesn't Need "World of Warcraft" Anymore, August 18th, 2015

"There are other metrics that are better indicators of the overall Blizzard business performance."
- Activision Blizzard, at the Q4 2015 earnings call, after revealing that World of Warcraft's subscription numbers had dropped to 5.5 million.
Gamespot, Blizzard Will No Longer Report World of Warcraft Subscriber Numbers November 3rd, 2015

"These companies were really smart around analytics and monetization and very light in terms of product and content creation. I'm not sure any of those things are particularly sustainable. The future lies in going into the larger part of the market which is people that self-identify as gamers, and where the user acquisition and long-term value creation comes from making great games."
- Paul Thelen, CEO of Big Fish, on the decline of profitability in the casual gaming market,, Gamers rule: Only 10% of the industry's $50 billion comes from casuals December 12th, 2012

"He's like my dad,"
- Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, referring to the influence and impact Steve Wynn, Casino Mogul, has had on him
Kotaku, A Delightful Chat With the Most Hated Man in Video Games June 14th, 2010

Thursday, May 26, 2016

4.73. Temporary Hiatus

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

Treat the Disease, Not the Symptom

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

Everyone in this thread, at least.

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

One huge step forward, two huge steps backward.

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

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

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

Why not just design for evil by default?

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

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

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

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

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

Easier, but not necessarily right.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe the team genuinely feared losing something important to them.

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

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

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

A wonderful game that tugs at emotional strings,

The Force Awakens

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

"The 10's finished?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 19, 2016

4.72. The Out Run Test

Sega's 1986 classic game,
Out Run


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

But it was the first to do them well.

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

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

...including itself.

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

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

Changing the Formula

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

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

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

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

Mr. Suzuki did not disappoint.

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

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

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

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

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

Sonic the Disappointment

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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