Thursday, December 27, 2012

2.22. Blain Returns

The Alliance wins a battleground despite
Blain's domination of the killing blows,
Warsong Gulch

Back in the Saddle

"Everybody head to TK."

The chatter of the raid picked up somewhat. What was this? Something new and unplanned?

"We're switching gears?" someone asked in Vent.


Blain was a man of few words.

"Get inside when you get there, get eating and buffing. We're pulling at 7:00 o'clock."

When I first met Blain, his abrasiveness put me on edge. I questioned Ater's choice in leaders, looked at the gear the Undead Rogue walked into Molten Core with, and wondered if it was some sort of joke. Yet the joke was quickly on me as Blain proceeded to tear the Core apart, along with a number of whiners and excuse-makers in the process. Yet this time around, it wasn't a worry about incompetency or a lack of people-skills; I worried about whether or not he could bail the water out. We'd stagnated in progression for months, barely able to claim a couple of kills on The Lurker Below. Players were leaving to join guilds that were proven and successful, and we were left with the bottom scrapings. Was it too late? I wondered. I was well beyond concern that people's feelings would be hurt by this point.

"So we're just heading to TK out of the blue, what about all the work we've put into SSC?" What work, I thought to myself, while the hackles continued to go up. Ater boldly played his hand,

"Quite frankly, morale is low. We could use a boss kill to pick people up. Blain says we can knock out Void Reaver, so it's time for a change of scenery."

In typical Blain fashion, he ignored any sort of acknowledgement that credited his decision making, and kept focused on the coordination. "Your tanks are Ater, Rocraw, Bretthew and Dalans, the kill order is skull, then X, assist off of me or Chopliver if you aren't sure. Turtleman, sheep diamond."

When I hopped off the taxi and zoned into Tempest Keep, the raid was seated, eating and drinking, and the first pack of Blood Elves that guarded the door had been marked. Gunsmokeco sent me a whisper,

"So when did Blain decide to come back to leading?"

I got my own flask up, and sat down to join the crowd in the midst of buffing.

"Last week, when we decided we were done wasting time."

I moved into position after hearing the countdown to the pull, and lit up the raid with Chain Heal. Gunsmokeco didn't know the news yet, nor did any of the shamans. I didn't want to burden them on the day we planned to turn things around. For now, I kept the news to myself, so that everyone could focus on this change of scenery and the return of their old raid leader, hoping it was enough of a morale boost to start cutting notches in our belt again. The news would have to wait. For now.

Kerulak prepares to head into Tempest Keep: The Eye,

Void Reaver

The roster was reasonably solid that evening of July 22nd, 2007, and my sanity rested on a number of familiar faces. Joining Ater and Blain from the 40-Man days was Neps, faithfully running the priests since Haribo's retirement, as was Zyr, infamous for his dead-on impression of cricket sound -- the perfect follow-up to horrible jokes. Dalans was the lone Feral Druid, backing up Ater's tanking alongside Bretthew the paladin. Turtleman held the longest running mage spot, as did Houla with the hunters. Even Annihilation was present, now laying waste on his warlock Fatality, side-by-side with another 40-Man vet named Eacavissi. And, standing by my side was Gunsmokeco, a Resto Shaman who had been with us since early '06, flooding the raid with chain heals. Rounding out the vets was Abrinis, a down-to-earth, no-nonsense undead warrior that delivered consistent, top-notch melee damage -- when he wasn't talking sports with Neps. Of the 25 folks present that evening, 14 had come from Vanilla. It was time to see if the remaining 11 were carries, or something better.

Rather than two separate instances with two individual paths of progression, Blain lumped Tier 5 into a single pot. Our best chance at success in pulling out of this nosedive meant attacking the bosses from the least amount of difficulty to the most. Lurker was down (though its bugginess was still a concern), and everything that remained in SSC was non-trivial. Logically, that meant the next easiest boss would have to be Void Reaver, hiding in the western wing of The Eye. The change of scenery would not only breathe life back into the raid, but boost morale -- if we could do it. On top of it all, the reward would be significant: Tier 5 shoulders. Blain may have taught me the fundamental rule about gear not making a bad player good, but at the same time, understood the impact the reward had on the crew. We needed to get people's minds out of the sinkhole and thinking about killing bosses, if there was any chance in Hell at one day defeating Illidan.

It was a massive mechanical contraption with a tiny head, rumbling while it idled in the center of a circular room. It eyed us and revved invisible motorcycle handles, waiting to peel out and attack, while Blain led the raid through the Fel Reaver's trash packs. Once the room was devoid of any backup, Blain instructed the raid to take a circular position around the outside ring. The rest of us would move in tightly, tanks, melee, and the shamans with their chain heal at the ready. Breginna had taken up the task of helping out with healers, and assigned them locations around the ring as well. Once in position, Ater pulled the gargantuan machine, and I raced into the center of the room to wind up the chain heal spam.

Descendants of Draenor defeats Void Reaver,
Tempest Keep: The Eye

Pounding It In

There was no real "trick" to Void Reaver, from the inner circle looking out. Void Reaver would Pound the tank, knocking him back, cycling over to the next tank highest in threat. The somewhat-diminished chaos arose in determining which tank would ultimately have him, as the contraption was immune to taunt. Watching Omen was usually a good sign, but calls were made in Vent regardless. Dalans has him. Taba has him. Ater has him. An excess amount of communication was a good start for a raid that had been troubled for so long.

I can imagine the ranged had their hands full with Arcane Orb, Void Reaver's slow-motiong ranged attack that he lobbed at our ranged casters like an electric bomb caught in a space-time warp. It was slow moving for a reason; if you saw it headed your way and ran away in fear, it was already too late. The blast radius for Arcane Orb was so wide that you needed a solid head-start at getting the hell away before it caught you in its dome, silencing you for a full 6 seconds. The silence added to the arcane damage was brutal, especially to healers caught unaware. Players should have been able to track their own orb, but Blain was taking no chances. He called out every person that was targeted and whom needed to move, while juggling melee DPS and mitigating damage from Pound at the same time.

Yet once again, Blain came out on top of the damage meters, just like he had that first day of setting foot in Molten Core. Even after calling out Orb targets. Even after surviving Pound. Even after dealing with the threat of being one-shot by a boss that couldn't be taunted. A heavy sigh of relief washed across the raid that night. My players were thankful for Blain's guidance and motivated once again to tackle content. The coming months would be telling, as we set out to regain control of progression and set upon a path that would lead us to the death of Illidan. It would not be a straight path, more obstacles would throw us curveballs and the lineup would change. But at least for now, we enjoyed a momentary victory after eating weeks of crow.


The bids wrapped up on Pauldrons of the Vanquished Champion. The winner wasn't Kerulak. Voices in vent showed their surprise and confusion. My shaman had gone months without an upgrade, the side-effect of failing to progress, coupled with my duties driving Breginna's druid while she was away on business. The raid clearly expected me to be one of the first shamans to walk out of The Eye with Tier 5 shoulders.

"The winner wasn't Kerulak?" someone asked in Vent.

"I didn't bid."

"Why not?"

"Because," I answered, "I won't be returning on Kerulak."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

2.21. The Thin Yellow Line

Blain displays his Armored Netherdrake from Season 1,
Shattrath City

The Prodigal Son

"If I'm coming back to lead raids, there's gonna have to be some changes."

Blain made his expectations abundantly clear. My former 40-Man raid leader had been primarily responsible for driving progression throughout Vanilla. Along with Ater, the Warrior responsible for bringing Blain to me, Descendants of Draenor had blown through Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, ½ of Ahn'Qiraj (40) and ¼ of Naxxramas (40). Blain's no-nonsense and often brash style was pivotal in pushing our raid team to their maximum capabilities. But, when The Burning Crusade launched, his priorities changed, and he took to PvP while Ater was left to fend for himself as the driving force behind raid progression.

It hadn't gone well.

Several months in, Kadrok had thrown in the towel. Losing my Paladin officer was a nasty wound, as he was also one of our key healers. His second-in-command, Volitar, had been hand picked by Ater to take on Blain's responsibilities and help direct our raid traffic. But our stagnation in progression had eaten away at what remained of Vol's sanity, driving him to frustration and anger. Rather than face further disappointment from a group of fire-eaters, Volitar had gone AWOL, a second deep gouge in an already infected wound. Star players were walking away, and I was holding the bag of leftovers, while Ater turned to his work as a means of funneling his own disgust away.

The class pool was horribly askew; I had so many shamans, I felt a guilty sense of duty to sacrifice my own shaman in lieu of a shadow priest for the sake of progression. Without a leader, the paladins were in a constant state of flux; I didn't have a solid grasp on who my tanks or healers were. Entropy begets regression, and where we could once kill the most simplistic of bosses (namely The Lurker Below), we would instead spend hours wiping like amateurs. Once again, the threat of a guild collapse loomed, and any potential of us defeating Illidan had long since gone out of sight.

Ater wields Zin'rokh, Destroyer of Worlds,
Blackwing Lair

Resetting Expectations

Blain, fresh off claiming a victory at the end of Arena Season 1, was my only realistic hope at realigning the raid team. But the truth of his departure still had to be addressed. It was public knowledge he stepped down to pursue Arenas, but he had ultimately revealed to me the real reasons behind his psychological leave of absence: he had become fed up with the whining and excuses, and was tired of having his leadership challenged and questioned by kids who thought they were gods at the game.

"The problem is they are not taking it seriously enough," Blain stated over Ventrilo, "we can't continue to cater to casual players who aren't dedicated."

"That's the type of guild we are, though", replied Ater, "we need to be able to allow anybody who wants to raid...y' do so!"

I tossed my two cents into mix, "The problem isn't that we are allowing everyone to raid, it's that everyone’s opinion of raiding is different. They come to have fun isn't wiping for four hours on a boss we already know how to kill."

"That's common sense," Blain answered, "we shouldn't have to tell them that."

"I think we've gone long enough assuming people have common sense. We need to tell them what we think 'fun' is."

With the margin of error now a practical negative value, personal accountability was that much more important. There simply wasn't any opportunity for people to be "carried" any longer. Everyone had to pull their own weight. At the start of The Burning Crusade, we had enjoyed so much success in progression, I merely assumed this sort of thing would be common sense! 

The problem with Descendants of Draenor at this point was everyone's common sense was different.

"Well, sounds good so far," Ater replied, "so what's your plan on telling them this?"

"I'm gonna write up a post, tell them Blain is returning. Clear the air on a brand new set of expectations." I took a deep breath, "and then, I'm gonna do exactly what you told me to do, Ater. Acknowledge them."

Hanzo continues to level Zanjina the troll priest,

The Bridge From Both Ends

In order to have Blain return to raid leading, change was needed at the top. His expectations of a player were very high, but that hadn't been communicated properly to the officer core. This was my own fault, and was due to a lapse in judgement regarding the chain of command. In Vanilla it was an assumed title -- but without making an official statement, officers let their egos grow into TBC and the result was unpleasant. Blain had to deal with back-talk, arguments, and debate regarding strategy, when it hadn't even been open to discussion in the first place. This was a plight often known as "too many cooks in the kitchen." I was determined to set the record straight. Blain was in charge and was doing the work necessary to build our raid strategy. Unless the officers wanted his job, they would need to keep their comments to themselves and stick to the micromanagement of their respective classes.

Additionally, we would need a unified goal; something that each individual player would need to be able to see, absorb, and relate to. We all knew we were raiding, and the goal was progression, but that wasn't finite enough; it didn't quantify any particular grade of success. So, I re-clarified the goal to Ater and Blain, who in turn, insured that the rest of the raid team knew exactly what we were pushing for:

Descendants of Draenor was going to kill Illidan the Betrayer, before the next expansion rendered him obsolete.

Once leadership was aligned, I had to do work from the bottom up as well. We had imposed no hard restrictions on raiders in the past, with the justification that we weren't a hardcore raiding guild. It wasn't enough. Some level of responsibility needed to be placed on the individual player, otherwise I would lose Blain again, possibly forever. With Blain setting the bar high once again, coupled with Ater's moral obligation to uphold our guild's ideals, I turned to the single unifying thread that defined Descendants of Draenor: to have fun. 

So, what did 'having fun' mean? It meant that what separated a Raider from a Non-Raider was you gave a shit about progression. In order to hammer this thought home, I created new ranks in the guild: Raider and Veteran. With a visual title associated to the concept, players now had a concrete way of describing their level of dedication to the team. And, to reinforce that concept of teamwork, I imposed a 3-wipe maximum on bosses we had already defeated. We would succeed together -- and we would fail together, but we would not force an individual to demoralize and waste the time of 24 other individuals.

With the bridge rebuilt from both ends, it was at least time to clarify to the guild what our definition of "fun" meant: Constant, consistent success.

To help catalyze these changes into the guild bloodstream, I drafted up a forum post which was previewed to a select few guild members. I wrote as I never had before, funneling every emotion that had wrecked me over the last few months, gutting me, leaving me worn out and exhausted. In that email, I indicated that we would be adjusting our raid schedule, so that we could begin the process of embracing structure; a constant, consistent schedule of raid evenings that the players could come to rely on. If they were going to commit to becoming a true Raider and leave Veteran behind, then I should be able to commit to them a schedule that they could arrange their own lives around.

I felt the reins tightening in my hands. It was time to turn this stagecoach around.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

2.20. Replenishment

"Sabrine of Runetotem",
Artwork by Sabrine

The Forsaken Role

I couldn't sit back any longer. We hadn't made progress in months. I was losing Ater to work, only able to call on him in needs of great emergency, yet these were happening nearly every week. I couldn't stand by and let the guild implode out of raw apathy. I had to do something. The most logical place to start was with myself. Get my own shit straight. Figure out what the guild needed from me and make it happen, rather than sit around wishing people would do the right thing, or that the right player would fall into my lap. The shaman core was now reasonably extensive. Gunsmokeco and his brother Deathonwing had joined the crew, as had an older crew member named Deathflurry -- he would go on to rename himself Mcflurrie, in an attempt to diminish confusion. With these three grouped next to Ekasra to soften the blow from a chain heal perspective, I gave serious thought to benching Kerulak, filling another much needed role that we lacked.

In Vanilla, raiding specializations were rigid. Each class had 3 talent trees, which changed the way that class was played. Spec into Protection, and your Warrior becomes a tank, wielding a sword and a shield, standing at the front of the raid, holding the boss in place and bearing the weight of its attacks. But, change that same Warrior’s spec to that of Fury, and now the Warrior wields an edged weapon in each hand, and instead of tanking, the Warrior is now relegated to melee DPS, burning the boss’s health down as fast as possible.

During that era, multiple specs existed, but only one was viable per class due to the way in which the numbers broke down statistically. Only the Warrior could ultimately bear the immense burden of a boss pounding on it, even though two other classes could technically tank. And so, those two other classes that could tank...didn't. Blizzard aimed to fix this in The Burning Crusade. They granted a few new abilities to some of the other hybrid classes. Druids and paladins received a few new tricks that made them viable tanks. shamans and druids began contributing to DPS instead of always healing. There was one other class that received changes in The Burning Crusade that gave it more flexibility in raids, but unlike the others, this class was the only one to receive a very special ability that was essential to raiding: the Priest.

Hanzo (playing as Breginna) eyes Melkezadek's
place on the damage meters for Shadow,
Gruul's Lair


When we were felling bosses like Ragnaros and Nefarian, Priests were healers, end-of-discussion. They had two styles of healing that they could adopt, either Holy or Discipline. Discipline was simply not viable in Vanilla. It couldn't match the healing throughput needed to raid competitively and make serious progression. Our priests certainly wouldn't have been able to keep our Main Tank up through Maexxna if they had been "Disc" in Vanilla. In fact, the Discipline tree itself wouldn't be reworked by Blizzard for another year-and-a-half. As a result, all priests were least, all the ones we were privy to, in our research of the furthest progressed hardcore raiding guilds.

Those were the two healing specs a Priest had as an option. The third option, however, was vastly different than Holy and Discipline. It was a class archetype that simply hadn't been heard of before (at least, in the mainstream MMO sense; I'm sure it exists in the annals of Dungeons & Dragons lore). In this third specialization, a priest no longer healed, was no longer a being of the light. Instead, a dark shadow draped down across the player, nestling the priest in a shroud of violet fog. And, rather than mending the wounds of her party members, this "shadow" priest would hurl dark energy from a distance, loading up their targets with curses, plagues and diseases. Where once there existed a Power Word for a player's savior, in its place was a Shadow Word for the target's suffering, pain...and eventual death.
It was the shadow priest who melted faces in World of Warcraft.

Shadow priests were an incredibly cool option when WoW launched. Visually, it was stunning; no other class had the unique look of a player surrounded by a swirling shadowy mist. But like the other hybrid classes, the damage a shadow priest produced simply couldn't be matched by its ability to heal. The Burning Crusade changed all of that, and did so in a very unique way: Aside from the standard "buffing its damage to competitive levels" that Blizzard applied to the other hybrid classes, they bestowed upon the Shadow Priest a uniquely important buff, one no other class provided:

When the Shadow Priest dealt damage, she would replenish the mana of all of the casters that shared her group.

Vampiric Touch, one of the tools in a shadow priest's belt, was the only spell that brought this game-changing buff to the table. Its value was unmatched -- by bringing a single Shadow Priest to a raid, the casting classes that shared a group with a shadow priest would gain a huge boost of endurance, allowing them to last much longer into a difficult fight.

A boost that could easily turn a 1% wipe into a kill.

Hanzo continues to level Zanjina for 25-Man raids,
Thunder Bluff

Perfect Timing

The end of the Arena season was fast approaching, and awards were soon to be dolled out to those on the server that had proven to be the best and brightest PvPers in our battlegroup. It was no surprise at all to hear that Blain and company had earned Armored Netherdrakes for their dominance against other players. But the end of the season also meant the chance to stick my foot in the door, before Blain committed to another season of mindless PvP. There was work to be done. In his absence, things had crumbled. Without him to crack the whip on the whiners, we had grown weak and full of excuses.

I jumped into Vent and called Blain in to chat, while I flew my priest Zanjina across Nagrand in an attempt to collect Clefthoof dung.

"I'm retiring Kerulak," I told him, "Shadow priests are consistently absent, and we're overflowing with shamans."

"What about Melk?" Blain named Melkezadek, one shadow priest that melted faces like a champ when he was available.

"His schedule is all over the place."

"Isn't Ben using Anni's account now? The one you gave him for his High Warlord present?"

"Yeah, he is. He renamed it. I think it is Aeden now. Anni's basically given him the account to use, but he mostly PvPs on it. I mean, he comes to the odd raid, but it's a crap shoot. I need a consistent one there every week."

"Yours isn't even 70 yet." Thank you, Captain Obvious.

"Gimme a break, I'm working on her now! Anyway...I'll craft the Frozen Shadoweave set when I get her leveled. In the meantime, I'll bring Kerulak to the last few raids and step down from any loot that drops."


The awkward silence loomed.

"Volitar is skipping out on raids. He's not helping Ater anymore. Unreachable. I don't have a contact number, I don't know who to call or what to do...the guy is shutting down. Things were much easier when you ran shit."

"Nobody listened to me," Blain fired back, "Too many cooks in the kitchen. Tired of having to re-explain myself over and over to people who don't listen."

"What if we could change that?" I proposed.

"Then I would come back and do it. But not without control, not without support."

"Ok. I get it. I will give you that support. If it means me telling each and every officer to shut their mouth and take direction from you, I will do it."

"What makes you think they'll keep it in check this time?" he asked.

In a moment of confidence, I blurted out something that sounded like what a leader might say.

"They'll have no choice in the matter. The alternative is to dismantle and go join PPP."

Blain chuckled at the prospect, while I sunk Zanjina's blue troll fingers into piles of excrement.


The next day, July 16th, 2007, I emailed Blain:

So, yeah...Volitar MIA. What can I do to convince you to going back to the full on raid-leader? What were you missing from me the first time around that I can make happen this time so your life is easier/job is done better, etc? I know you got harped on a lot and I can shut that down right quick, but the discussion that went long in vent last night kept pointing back to having you be a single solitary raid-leader, and that if that was indeed your role that people would shut the hell up and follow. I would like to discuss it with you if you have time. Volitar did mediocre but this uncommunicative shit is upsetting me a lot and the Paladins are spiralling out of control.

He called for a meeting with Ater and I in Vent, to put all our cards on the table.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

2.19. Blizzard's First Mistake


"People want to be considered good at something," Ater said, taking a bite out of a BBQ chicken sandwich. We used our lunch hours to get caught up on guild-related tasks and discussion, the majority of which centered around bracing for Tier 5. The locale was a Brother's BBQ on the corner of Washington and 6th, not far from the downtown area where we cranked out ColdFusion sites by day. For over two years, Ater had been a key figure in my guild, one of the many benefits I enjoyed as a result of assimilating The Final Cut many moons ago. He was a non-stop source of insightful leadership. I picked his brain at any opportunity. I expected today's conversation would touch on such items as Volitar joining him as a new Raid Assistant, the ever-fluctuating roster, or my recent assignment of being tasked with keeping Breginna's Druid active while she was away at work.

As it turned out, Ater had another topic on his mind altogether: losing our raiders to competing guilds.

"You're going to have regular performers, and you're going to have star performers. That doesn't make the regulars any less important, they're still very valid and play a very important role. But, if you had your choice of picking a regular or a star performer for the raid, who would you pick?" he asked me.

"Obviously, the star performer", I replied.

"Exactly! So, what makes them the star performer?"

I thought a moment, "Well, they're more than likely going above and beyond the call of duty. I mean, they kick ass. They seriously raid like professionals."

"That's exactly right, they play well. They do their job well."

I leaned back, and crossed my arms.

"I still don’t see what this has to do with us losing players to a shit-box trash-talking guild like Pretty Pink Pwnies."

"If the guild was a company," he said, "would you treat your sub-par employees and your star performers the same way?"

I laughed. "Hell, no! The star performers would get promoted."

He smiled in silence, taking another bite of his sandwich.

"...I'm not going to promote a bunch of people to officership because they top the damage meters."

He shook his head, "You're not thinking about it the right way. Forget promotion. I'm talking about acknowledgement. Re-affirm to them that they're valid -- that what they've done here....what they are doing important. They're a contributor. Remind them that they have accomplished something significant...otherwise, there's nothing that differentiates them from the carries."

I paused to let it sink in. If I had paid more attention in my college psychology class, I'd probably already know this. We have a desire to be noticed, to feel like we matter, and when we contribute to the social community, we seek approval for our efforts; we want to know that what we've done has some significance. This is why I was losing players to Pretty Pink Pwnies. Not because they were a better guild, or further progressed, but that players felt accomplished. Bru might not have patted them all on the back each and every time they had a successful raid (because that was certainly not his style), but his guild members already had something to fill the void left by his personal appreciation and acknowledgement:

They had gear.

In the absence of that gear, what did I have to acknowledge my raiders' contributions? Nothing. They were all being treated kindly, respectfully, fairly and equally.

But they didn't want to be treated equally.

Graulm displays the completed Warlock
Dungeon (Tier 0) Set "Dreadmist",

The Problem With Equal Treatment

To feel confident and have the respect of others is the reason people seek out a hobby or area of interest - something that they can contribute to or gain recognition from. This need affects people with both low and high esteem, which makes it cover a wide gamut of individuals. Whether seeking fame and glory, or simply the label of an expert, a person will only pour effort into such a task if they believe it is attainable. Once a realization sets in that the recognition they seek cannot be attained, the person is very likely to shift gears -- turning to new places for acceptance.

We had players that busted their ass to get into our raids, performed at the top of their game, and could be considered experts on the server, but when it came to raid rotations, they were treated no differently than a person who played at an amateurish level. This problem existed as far back as Vanilla, but the difference in Vanilla was that the scale of a 40-Man raid effectively covered up the handful of players that were "carries". Now, being forced down into a 25-Man size, but with difficulty being just as unforgiving, the carries were all too apparent. After wasting weeks on Gruul's Lair and Magtheridon's Lair, stalling on boss kills, the star performers felt more like their efforts were going unrecognized, which in turn, led to the resentment of fellow raiders that were holding us back.

By incorrectly assuming "equal" and "fair" were interchangeable, I bred an environment of mediocrity instead of one that prioritized excellence.

And as my eyes widened with realization during that lunch-time conversation, while Ater finished his chicken sandwich, suddenly, the subtle everyday things that I previously paid no attention to had meaning and ramifications. Images flashed through my head as the last several years of my raiding history cycled back like an old movie projector. I saw our Nefarian kill, and players walking out of Blackwing Lair and into Alterac Valley, taking their newly acquired gear and blowing the Alliance apart. I remembered Taba and the excited dance and scream that followed his acquisition of Ashkandi. I remembered the day the final piece of Ten Storms dropped, and Kadrok graciously stepped aside, allowing me to complete my set. I remembered taking a screenshot of Graulm in Orgrimmar after finishing his Dreadmist Warlock set.

In that moment of epiphany, it all became clear what it was that frustrated and angered me to no end on the day we killed Magtheridon -- I knew why the Gruul kill had left me empty and dissatisfied.

It was Blizzard's First Mistake.

Left: Malefic Raiment (Warlock Tier 6 - PvE)
Right: Vengeful Gladiator's Dreadgear (Warlock Season 3 - PvP)

Consensual Worlds

There are two different schools of thought within World of Warcraft on where the depth and richness of endgame comes from. On one side of the argument are the raiders. These are the players that push as hard as they can to execute raid encounters, and they quantify their success by their speed, their efficiency and their overall world/server ranking. This school of thought considers the most important attributes of a player to be how well they work in a large team, do they communicate and respond to commands quickly? Are they expertly played, and can they react with lightning-fast reflexes to emergency situations? Can they contribute to a thoughtful, intelligent decision on the min/maxing of their raid makeup in order to most effectively execute a boss encounter? And, will they have the capacity to endure a fight, over and over, until they get it right, while they race other guilds at exactly the same time for a world first title? This is the raider, the player that pours their time and energy into PvE (Player vs. Environment), and this is one school of thought.

Another school of thought is that man vs. machine is not the real test of skill, but instead, when human minds are pitted against one another. Like so many games throughout history that pit a human being against another in a battle of wits and skill, whether it be Chess, Go, Poker, or any number of other games, skill comes down to a mastery of the game's rules and the ability to predict what their opponent will do -- and then counter it. To this school, "reading the opponent" is the true test. Within this school, players build strategies to defeat other classes, studying the enemy, hoping to discover where each of their strengths are... and what weaknesses can be exploited. In their quest to master PvP (Player vs. Player), they strive to best all human opponents who dare challenge them; undefeated champions in their own right -- the ultimate accolade of a PvPer.

While each school of thought maintains its own unique acknowledgement of success, these rewards are intrinsic, and therefore internalized by nature. A PvPer knows his worth by how how adeptly he slays other opponents, while a PvEer knows her worth by her completion of raids. Intrinsic motivators, however, fail to act as a validation when outside of their social groups, cast out into a virtual sea of faceless strangers that are constantly judging. It is at this point that humans turn to external validators; the more overt, tangible, easy-to-read and easy-to-understand types of rewards. Players fall on to these validators as a crutch, wiping away the friction, removing any doubt from their mind about their quest to attain expertise -- and not look dumb. And what better way to externally validate a player's performance in PvP or PvE than by the gear that they have acquired as a result of their effort.

Therein lies the dilemma.

Players that have turned to external motivators to validate their expertise have already given up on the internal, truer quantifiers. To them, the knowledge of defeating 10,000 players in a battle, or being the first on the server to clear all the raid content is not enough. All they have to lean on is the physical manifestation of their effort, the gear they wear and the weapons they wield -- so that in the sea of faceless strangers, their mind can take comfort in knowing they are perceived as successful. So, what happens when the internal motivators are absent, and the external motivators are null and void?

They are at a loss. They have no way to validate their quest to become good.

And what might cause those external motivators to be null-and-void?

When others acquire the same rewards for a completely different level of effort.

Ater taught me a valuable lesson that day, one that started me thinking about how I could no longer treat my amateur players the same as those who were truly experts. Lacking that external validation, that acknowledgement for their efforts, the experts were becoming resentful. They felt used, their time wasted...and they would move on to greener pastures to seek validation for accomplishment elsewhere. And in opening my eyes to this very real concern regarding my leadership of DoD, he solved the equation of my own inexplicable frustration and apathy toward Tier 4 -- which turned out to be much larger than just Tier 4.

In a sea of faceless strangers, our validation -- our contribution to the social environment of Deathwing-US -- came in the form of showing off what we had accomplished, the physical manifestation of our prowess. Our gear. But that gear no longer held any value or worth, for that very same gear was seen everywhere across the city of Orgrimmar. Everyone had that gear because everyone was PvPing. A few weeks in some arenas was all it took. Technically, the stats were different on each set, but visually, PvE gear differed in no way from PvP gear, save a minor palette shift in color. All the work we had poured into Maulgar, Gruul and Matheridon -- instantly invalidated. In my mind, PvPers were being treated exactly as PvEers, for an entirely different level of effort and dedication -- the qualifiers weren't even the same! They were being judged on their ability to stomp opponents into the ground; I couldn't care less! Yet there they were, hopping around Orgrimmar like rabbits, throwing their Season 1 gear in my face, while my guild bashed their faces against raid content.

I didn't want them to be treated like us. We were not equal.


We hear "never judge a book by its cover" and we know the idiom is a valuable edict to live by. It means well. It's the right thing to do. But it also takes effort, and doesn't come naturally to everyone. Only through growth, maturity, self-awareness and an ability to introspect can many of us rise to that level, and put our mind at ease in the knowledge that we have become great in the absence of external validation, that other people's judgement matters little. But to many in the faceless void, the quest to be accepted never ends. Their efforts must be validated, otherwise, they seek it elsewhere -- or worse, resent the success of others. Blizzard's decision to use the same sets of gear for two different schools of thought was most certainly one of practicality. From a business perspective, the costs of reducing labor by recoloring a pre-existing set of armor was a sound decision; it allowed them to hit their delivery date that much quicker. But the psychological impact it had on the player-base was vastly underestimated, and may have even been a contributing factor as to why TBC still struggled to grow interest in PvE after Vanilla.

I can only speak for myself in that it devalued our accomplishments, made us feel like raiding wasn't nearly worth the effort, and provided a backdoor to personal responsibility, as players gave up raiding and moved to arenas to acquire the same gear. To this day, I feel that it was Blizzard's First Mistake, and I hoped that they would not repeat it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

2.18. Decay

Hanzo's alt Uld digs into Bael Modan with Neurcrotic,
The Barrens

The Weight of the World

I woke up screaming.

It was 2:00 a.m., and my jaw ached as if I had been struck by a drunken biker. The pain from an impacted wisdom tooth seeped through the barrier separating the woken from the asleep. Although video games had been my life for the better part of thirty-six years, I rarely had dreams of them. This night was different. Concerns had been weighing heavily on my mind. The exit of Kadrok. A roster of players unable to stay out of the fire. My responsibility to play a restoration druid while the owner was away; my own shaman collecting cobwebs in the process. Feelings of guilt about our lack of progression. My wanting Ekasra to excel, to be accepted by his peers, only to see him continually ridiculed while he played at a sub-par level. Ater becoming more focused at work, putting extra hours in on projects I wasn't involved with, spending less time in-game, less time mentoring me in management and leadership. And now, a new threat loomed: players were starting to check-out.

I dragged myself out of bed and went downstairs to the computer room. I needed painkillers, the best I could hope for was a handful of Advil to keep me going until the Dentist's office opened. I wasn't going back to sleep with my jaw ablaze in agony, so I sat down at the keyboard, logged on, and began leveling my rogue Uld in Hellfire Penninsula. In solitude, mindlessly jumping through the hoops that Thrallmar sent my way, I couldn't escape the problems of the guild. My mind continued to dart back to them. We'd defeated The Lurker Below weeks before and had yet to secure another kill. Of course, any sort of work on any other bosses was laughable at best. Initial attempts on Hydross the Unstable had been complete and total failures. The threat wipe between transitions was so incredibly touchy that even the slightest bit of aggro at the wrong time meant Ater would lose his grip on the Corrupted Water Elemental. Ekasra struggled here, and managed to drop his totems at the wrong time, causing a double set of Water Elemental minions to spawn. The attempt was a wash.

I flew Uld over to Zeth'gor, trying to keep my mind occupied, keep it from drifting back to the pain in the recesses of my jaw. The guild's problems continued to be my dental relief. When Breginna returned from her work project, resuming control of her druid, I hopped back onto Kerulak to try to show Ekasra the ropes as best I could, keeping close tabs on those transitions and being mindful of threat. Yet we stagnated on Hydross and lost whatever temporary gusto was present during The Lurker's defeat. Once again, we were wiping to farmed content. Volitar became a no-show, absent from the signups and missing-in-action come raid time. The load then fell back onto Ater's shoulders, who remained silent in Vent as he carried the weight of a failing raid while his work piled up at the office. And like the pain in my jaw, I could do nothing. Just sit back and watch the tower crumbling.

A player swooped down out of the sky to mine some ore near Uld and I glanced up the guild tag; the pain resonated deeper into my head, throbbing and aching.

PPP prepares for an Illidan kill, boasting
various ex-DoD members in their roster,
Black Temple

Management By Fear

The furthest progressed Horde raiding guild on Deathwing-US was Pretty Pink Pwnies. They raided twice as long as us each week (4 nights, minimum), and destroyed us in terms of progression. They had a colorful roster of players who wouldn't think twice about tossing some racial slurs your way. Led by a blowhard named Bru, they were difficult to keep up with. I never had the luxury of speaking to him myself, but whenever I asked for people's opinions, players lavished him with praise:

"He's a genius."

"Superb raid leader."

"Doesn't take a lot of shit."

"I've heard the guy make people cry in Vent."

"Only speaks in a steady stream of curses and insults."

Bru was famously recorded tearing a guild member to pieces during an Archimonde attempt -- a boss we wouldn't see for months. I listened to this clip and was astounded. All I could think of was how am I losing players to this guy?

My aversion to such disgusting treatment of people was entirely the reason I had folks like Ater in place, preferring kindness over abuse. Ater knew how to call people out while keeping the belittling in check. Derogatory name-calling had no place in our guild. That was, after all, one of our selling points in Descendants of Draenor: a tiny bit of humanity, as opposed to the standard guilds where the underlying rule was "If you fuck up, you're out."

But all the touchy-feely mutual respect we preached in our ideals did nothing to prevent DoD from hemorrhaging players to guilds like Pretty Pink Pwnie. I stood in the dark, unaware of what motivated them, what drove them to blindly follow a person that was devoid of any real people skills. Annihilation shared his opinions with me on this bizarre tendency of human nature.

"He's not a bad guy, Kerulak. Bru's actually cool, once you get to know him. His management technique just happens to be different than what you're used to."

"How can you say that? I mean, the guy has made people cry in raids. That is some stellar people management!"

"Some people need that. People flock to what gives them a sense of comfort. A sense of being part of a family. He runs it like a business, but that isn't what everyone strives for."

"Yeah, but a boss doesn't yell at people and make them cry like babies. What's the point of being such a d-bag to your people?"

"Every leader is a d-bag to someone down the chain. Doesn't matter how nice you are. Someone is eventually going to think you're a tyrant. Bru's just cut-to-the-chase and gotten it over with early. Result? He can focus on what he does best: Get a raid going and get shit done."

I didn't like Anni's answer. He was touching on something deep in the recesses of the human psyche, but I remained doubtful. There had to be more to this condition that simply "they feel like they belong". Would I get to meat of this mystery?


Elephantine examines Xplotos of Depraved, getting a
first glimpse at what raid rewards lay in Molten Core,

Own Up

I couldn't waste time worrying about other guild's management techniques, no matter how much of the douchebag quota they fulfilled. Like the impacted wisdom tooth, I continued to ignore problems until they reared their head, out of fear and ignorance. If I ignored them, someone else might take over and handle them on my behalf. That may have worked to a degree in Vanilla when my guild was bursting with officers and people-friendly role models; folks with natural leadership qualities. But I didn't know the first thing about dealing with people, about encouraging or motivating them. I didn't want to have to manage by fear, but my passive, family-friendly way wasn't working. And the longer I sat on my heels, the faster my guild would float to the surface, belly up.

Sooner or later, I had to take control. I had to own up to my responsibility in leading the guild, as opposed to taking a passive approach on the sidelines. Continuing in this manner would lead me down a path destined for failure. Members chose their own path, used their own interpretations of my unwritten rules to excuse inappropriate behavior toward one another -- and their laziness upon setting foot in our raids. The order of execution was as follows: Find out why our guild wasn't taking raids seriously enough -- find out the root cause of their myriad of excuses. Find a way to get a hold of the stagnation of our progression, flatten the slump, and get us focused again on a schedule that would lead us to Illidan.

The most important tasks on my to-do list was to put a stop to the endless "woe-is-me" perception of the brutality in these raids. Guilds like Depraved and Pretty Pink Pwnies didn't boast successful raid histories because they were experts at whining and complaining. Yes, raiding was hard, but not impossible It only felt that way because we weren't exploring every option, weren't looking at the minutia that we once held as gospel: those tiny bits of theorycrafting that would reveal great secrets in performance gains. These fine details should have been the focus of our research in the off-hours, like a change in keybindings or adherence to the 5-second rule. Utilizing all available tools is what turned the tables on bosses previously immune to our many charms. There had to be an explanation to the practically nil margin of error that we continually faced. What was the secret? What was the thing that we were missing that would turn our weekly raids from depressing 1% wipes to consistent executions?


I glanced up from my monitor, noting that the sun was starting to rise. Thank God. In a few short hours, the Dentist's office would be open, and I could at last get some relief for the pain. In my half-asleep, semi-distracted state, I failed to notice an Alliance Shadow Priest close the distance on me. The priest sent out a bolt of dark blue energy and proceeded to melt Uld's face off into the dirt, finishing her health bar off with dark tendrils swooping downward into her skull.

Shadow Priest, I thought to myself. What I wouldn't give for a few more of those in the roster.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

2.17. Digging in Another Man's Graveyard

Descendants of Draenor defeat The Lurker Below,
Serpentshrine Cavern

Captain Obvious

The Lurker Below sprang out of the water and we immediately came to life. The rules were simple: keep the damage steady, keep the tank alive. Keep the raid healed through Waterbolts and Whirls. Then, when Spout approached, dive into the water, lest we get struck with a hyrdoblast so hard it would knock us cleanly across the instance -- if not killing us entirely. Most of this phase was easy, except for the fact that people could not get back on to the wooden platforms to save their life. Getting in the water was easy, but for whatever reason, jumping back on to the boards was an exercise in frustration...and stupidity.

Phase two was worse. Once submerged, The Lurker sent forth Naga minions to pull us apart. Mages had to Polymorph, the tanks had to leap across the water to individual platforms to tank their adds, and DPS had to focus-fire in order to clean the fish guts up before The Lurker resurfaced. My favorite part of this phase occurred when certain Naga aggro'd on the far side of the platforms, causing them to bug out, teleport over to an unsuspecting player, and kill them in one hit. It had happened more times than I care to talk about. There was no sense in complaining to Blizzard about it. "As designed" they'd often respond, as a means to excuse themselves of accountability. All we could do was be aware that it was a danger, and plan as best we could to manage our threat.

This was looking like the best attempt yet, but as his health wound down, and we risked another submerge/ Naga nightmare, Ater died. We had 1% of his health remaining but no way to burn it away. We had no choice but to go through the motions. Deal with the Naga. Hit the water during Spout. And then, pouring the damage into the Krakken before the lack of a tank did us all in.

When The Lurker Below turned belly up, we knew it was over, and scrambled to clean up the remaining Naga. Volitar was supportive, congratulating the raid for pulling off their first boss kill in Tier 5 at long last. As we resurrected the dead, to divvy out loot and take our kill-shot, Turtleman the mage spoke up:

"If you get that low, you should probably just pop Shield Wall."

As if Ater, who'd been our Main Tank since Lucifron, needed instruction on how to play a Protection Warrior. It was the end of June; the 26th, to be exact. Five full months into The Burning Crusade, and we were only just beginning to scrape the thin scummy surface off of Tier 5 content. But The Lurker Below would not be killed again for weeks. That was the good news. The bad news was that, for one officer, the end of the rope had been reached.

Kadrok asks Kerulak about the "The Lost Pages",


It was shortly after the week of Lurker's death that my Paladin Officer, Kadrok, came to me with the news. I knew what he was going to say.

"When we killed Gruul, it felt different. Something was missing. I could not describe it," he said to me in Vent that evening. Kadrok's voice was deep, marked by a familiar lack of contractions. When you listened to Kadrok speak, you got the sensation that he was a 6 foot 7 inch, 320 lb. monstrosity that could pound you into the ground, Bugs Bunny style, with a single punch.

"I know the feeling. Maybe a little less yelling in Vent, now that the size is smaller. Maybe that's it."

"That feeling of accomplishment...just did not seem to be there. A noticeable lack of...excitement."

"You think you're burning out?"

"Possibly. I am uncertain where to go from here. Which is why I wanted to talk to you."


It was deep within a violet forest that the two cows first bumped horns. I had been wandering aimlessly throughout the dense forest, scavenging up Shredder Operating Manual pages, crossing paths with Kadrok multiple times. I would /wave. He would return the gesture. We'd exchange observations, two strange Tauren going from leading our own separate virtual lives in solitude, to working together toward a common goal. Before long, the conversation had turned to that of guild recruitment. He wanted a home, I had one to offer him. Descendants of Draenor was created out of a group of players I went to LAN parties with, played Quake and Counter-Strike with -- Kadrok was the first stranger to join our family. But, once a part of us, he became an essential key to its success.

As my guild assimilation tasks continued to grow DoD to 40-Man raid size, Kadrok took an early role as Shaman Officer, helping me with the tasks of administrating a guild. His previous experience in EverQuest came in handy, and was soon confirming all of the advice that Graulm was handing down. In the early days when officership had no real definition, and mindsets were all across the board, Kadrok erred on the side of the aggressive, end-game focused group. He was ever pressing me to get us 40-Man ready, taking a shot in Molten Core at the drop-of-a-hat, even if we only had 30 players available, and zero raid experience to boot. He suffered through countless failed attempts with groups I'd thrown together, groups far too incompetent to work together, far too casual to take their gear and their role seriously enough to survive the impact of the Core.

Kadrok, displaying his Wild Growth Spaulders
and Red Dragonscale Protector,
Blackwing Lair

A Change of Scenery

Kadrok was there the day I made the awful decision to merge with Juxta's guild, forming a temporary stain on Deathwing-US named Ugly Black Warhorses. I'd been warned against making such a drastic move, but Kadrok stood by me, and supported the decisions I made, regardless of how foolish they may have been. And as expected, Kadrok returned with me to face that decision as we watched the guild slough off a layer of guildies that had grown tired of my elitist attitude. My early days of leadership were wrought with poor decision-making, yet Kadrok never doubted me, and stayed on to represent the family he'd been invited into.

There were many moments Kadrok had in those progression raids that were unforgettable. His deep, booming voice would call out in Vent as we made our first boss kills. Him chanting Dandrak's name in the final moments before our first Vaelastraz kill. The many silly arguments he'd have with Volitar about which was the most cost-effective way to buy Ankhs. His stubborn insistence on wearing the Wild Growth Spaulders from Majodomo's cache; a leather piece that didn't belong on a shaman -- but you would never be able to convince him otherwise. I would berate him about his decision in front of the other shamans, but always knew that he was the better healer than I. For that I was thankful, and felt lucky to have him run my shamans.

The night The Burning Crusade launched, Kadrok retired his shaman and pulled an all-nighter to level a Blood Elf Paladin alongside many other folks in the guild. Folks hopped into Vent in order to hear the insane ramblings of a player on the tail end on a 72-hour bender. There, they found Kadrok, rambling incoherently as he claimed responsibility for the invention of time, and that he all WoW players...God incarnate.

At one point in his bout of wakeful sleep, we listened in while he worked to end the suffering of a talking severed head on Fenris Isle. Suddenly, Kadrok broke the silence in Vent with the stunned realization of what he was doing:

" I this man's...graveyard?"



"I feel like my only chance to keep interested in the game now is to change the scenery. I would like to try to find a place in a world-first guild."

I knew what he was going to say. For all he had done for me, the last thing I wanted was to make this more difficult for him. His hesitancy told me he was struggling with it, that by asking me, he was essentially admitting to me that we were no longer the home he wished to be a part of. We were no longer a family. So I saved him the grief and offered it up on my own.

"Would you like me to speak to Zoid over at EJ? I'm certain he could put in a good word for you with Gurgthock."

"Thank you, Hanzo. They are asking me to fill out an application..."

I stopped him, "Say no more. It's done. Kaddy, for everything you've given DoD, it's the least I can do. I'll talk to Zoid and if Gurg has any questions he can reach out to me."

Kadrok knew that Zoid and I had been friends long before World of Warcraft existed. That I pinged Zoid throughout Vanilla to validate my thoughts on strategy, either in regards to a boss kill, or the proper way to organize a raid. All the stories Zoid told me about Gurgthock made me idolize the Orc Shaman and his clean-cut crew of hardcore raiders. I wished that I could become a leader like that, trying to extract whatever hints or clues Gurg might leave in a trail of crumbs while I followed behind, scavenging and learning. It made sense for Kadrok to go to Elitist Jerks. He deserved an exceptional guild, not a mediocre one that flailed for weeks on The Lurker Below.

So I let Kadrok go. He joined Gurgthock's infamous guild, and went on to greatness. But we kept tabs on each other. He would hop back in our Vent on occasion, giving us updates from "the other side", and we'd pick his brain for any little tidbit of info that we could glean. And when things got somber and lonely in Vent, late at night, I would flip over to the EJ website, scanning through their screenshots, seeing him standing amongst his new crew in front of a fallen Vashj, a fallen Kael'thas, a fallen Archimonde and Illidan. Waving to me.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

2.16. The Underwater Cavern

Serpentshrine Cavern

Gone Fishing

Eager to get started on Tier 5, we began the mad search for answers on what lay below the waters of Serpent Lake in Zangarmarsh. Swimming through a series of pipes, and up into an underground cave protected by a pocket of air, we not only gained access to three dungeons, but our entry into the next tier of raids. Behind the waterfall that poured down the back of the cave revealed an elevator boss that claimed many lives with its frightening depth and propensity to hypnotize players into leaping to their death. For those patient enough to wait for the platform, however, it would transport us into an underwater lair hiding the Naga, an amphibious humanoid creature that swore their lives to Azshara. We'd navigate broken wooden bridges, scour caves and tunnels, and ultimately activate a bridge that rose out of the waters, draped with seaweed. This bridge would lead us to Azshara's reluctant handmaiden, a serpentine female known as Lady Vashj.

This was Serpentshrine Cavern.

Ater was now gaining assistance from Volitar in our quest to execute raid content. Volitar had been with us as one of the most qualified, reliable priests in Vanilla. He joined many others in the re-rolling marathon that accompanied The Burning Crusade's launch, starting from scratch with a Blood Elf Paladin, one he felt would bring a entirely new level of healing control to raid progression. Volitar had great leadership qualities, and stayed calm under duress, and Ater relied on him more and more to make calls and adjustments in Vent, while he stayed quiet and focused on tanking. Volitar assumed Blain's role with a dedicated professionalism that I was thankful for, and I hoped that our raid team remained equally thankful.

Breginna was still away with work, post Magtheridon, and so I continued to bring her Druid to raid progression, providing the ever-essential HoTs and battle rezzes that Druids contributed to PvE. Heading into Tier 5, I was unconcerned about Kerulak falling behind in gear; it was an eventuality, but not something I worried myself with in the short-term. What was more important, in my eyes, was the success of the 25-Man, and if it meant bringing another loyal player's Druid to the table, I never gave it a second thought.

What did give me pause, however, was the absence of my shaman in the healing make-up. As easy as the druid was to play in a healing role, the shaman still brought vital tools to our group, the most important of which was Bloodlust. Beyond that, a shaman's chain heal was extraordinarily powerful, and their totems brought crucial buffs like Windfury and Wrath of Air, buffing our melee and ranged casters, respectively. All of these abilities added up and could easily have made the difference between a 1% wipe and a boss kill. Without Kerulak, I needed a responsible, reliable shaman to put in that spot, to keep it warm, and to keep the totems planted firmly in the ground, while chain heals leapt across the raid like flashes of yellow lightning.

Kerulak links loot over to Ekasra during a 10-Man raid,


I reviewed the list of shamans we were taking, searching for the one most consistent with signups. A lot of them were coming and going, filling in whenever possible. One stood alone that had been present in signups, week-after-week, a younger up-and-coming player who had been with us since Vanilla. He provided the best chance of filling in for me on a consistent basis. Upon speaking to Ekasra, he confirmed my suspicions -- he wanted to do whatever it took to get into our 25-Man raids each and every week. Because of his late entry to the guild mid-way through Vanilla, he'd been unable to secure a foothold in the 40-Man. As a result, he spent most of the end of Vanilla on the sidelines, yearning for bigger, more exciting adventures. He yearned for inclusion. Ekasra wanted the chance to leave his mark, to make an impression with the officer core.

It was now time to give him that chance.

I took Ekasra aside and let him know I would be playing Breginna's character for several weeks while she was away on business. I let him in on the intent of this alleged selfless act: Continue to provide a Resto Druid for HoTs and battle rezzes, while keeping the character geared for her owner's return -- ensuring a seamless transition back into the roster. In doing this task for Breginna, I would be leaving a shaman spot open, and would need to rely on him to be present each and every week, even if the other shamans continued to use the sign-up sheet like a revolving door.

Ekasra was ecstatic.

It was as if I had just handed him a winning lottery ticket. He thanked me for the chance, swearing up-and-down that I would not be disappointed, that I could rely on him to take up this responsibility. I was happy to have someone as excited and passionate as he was. As long as he could channel that passion into his healing ability, both of us stood to benefit from the arrangement. Problem solved, time to begin work in the Cavern.

As with many of my early leadership decisions, problems had a tendency to appear solved...when they weren't.

"The Lurker Below"
Artwork by YeastSoldier

Evil Lurks

Dalans stood on the edge of the wooden ring, formed by a series of wooden planks laid out in a circular fashion, and tossed his fishing line into the water. Watching the bobber bounce suspiciously, he clicked it and drew up the line, hoping a for a bite.


"How long is this gonna take?" someone blurted out into Vent, frustrated at waiting.

Another person answered with a short, annoyed tone, "We've been in here for three weeks. I think you can wait a little longer."

Three weeks.

At the dawn of Tier 5, preparing for yet-another-attempt on what was considered the easiest boss in SSC, The Lurker Below, we braced for another pull. In comparison to the nightmare we'd been through dealing with Tier 4, The Lurker Below's straightforwardness should have been a reprieve.

Yet here we were.

Dalans tossed his fishing line back into the pool.

"C'mon guys, we got it this time." said Volitar, a little less enthusiastic, a little more war-torn, and noticeably running low on patience. I could tell he was forcing himself to keep positive; it must have felt like a prison to him, jailed by the constant reminders all around that progression had come to a dead halt. Again. Ater sat silent in his position, weapon at the ready, shield in hand. He said nothing in Vent and typed nothing into raid chat, nothing into officer chat. Everyone has a breaking point. Had he reached his, I wondered? How much longer were we going to put up with mediocrity?

"Yeah, guyth. We got thith," replied Ekasra, his lisp thick and unmistakable in Vent. Chuckling followed, and I had to remind them to all to keep it down. Forever the babysitter. Common sense had long since gone out the window. The roster was filled with players who thought it was "no big deal" to pick on someone with a speech impediment. And I wondered at what point had I thrown in the towel. At what point had I made the decision that it was OK to allow that kind of behavior. How many raid wipes had gone by before I was so desperate to see any kind of progress that I scraped together any sort of bottom-feeders available.

What had we become?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

2.15. The Merger

Send a Memo: let's throw these two companies
together and see what works!

Culture Clash

The office was humming with new energy and chatter. My colleagues were getting up from their desks, folding their arms, listening to what the new bosses had to say. It was official and the news was now making the rounds around Denver. Our web agency had merged with a digital marketing firm across the street. Long competitors of ours, the bosses upstairs had decided to finally pull the trigger, and merge. By working together, they reasoned, we would be far stronger than if we'd remained individuals. Old Aristotle was rearing up his ugly head once again, letting loose with a barrage of flames and fury: "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts" was tossed back at my lap. I glanced over at Ater, who was focused intently on what the bosses had to say. Exciting? There was no question. The right move to make? Possibly, I'm certainly no expert in business affairs to say.

But 'The Whole'? Was it truly greater than the sum of its parts?

I glanced around at many of the new faces that had joined the office. Logistics were still being discussed; it would be some time before we determined which of the two downtown locations we'd flock to. There was even a discussion into keeping both. Splitting the newly formed team back up. That seemed a bit...odd, I thought. Part of the merge would involve us needing to get to know the new faces, where their expertise lay. The digital marketing firm had a deep history of creative under their belt, which bled back into their culture. Guys with frizzy haircuts, pierced lips, and tattoos of dragons with chinese kana inked into their arms made up a good portion of this culture -- the other side. They would just as easily flop down on to the company couch and fire up a game a Gears of War, rather than punch in the corporate approved 9-to-5.

This culture seemed at odds with the stiff, more traditionally run business that my agency's history was rooted in. Ran by an ex-Air Force man, things around our office was far more crisp and shiny, the khakis and business-shirts left little room for more creative work attire. If there were tattoos, I wasn't aware -- all were covered up under a sense of modest professionalism, and the 9-to-5 was not only the norm, it was expected. Sure, I got the occasional call late into the evening to fix a mistake -- but it was usually something I'd done, and was cleaning up my own mess. I was deeply curious to see how this experiment would pan out, as both firms had a solid book of work under each's respective belt, clients varying from The Denver Broncos to Quiznos. That was exciting. Something new to challenge us. Yet this would have to play out in order to truly understand what impact this merge would have on the company, on Ater, and on me.

DoD joins Dirty Horde in a clear
of a 10-Man during Vanilla,


It was during an otherwise uneventful, straightforward clear of Serpentshrine Cavern one evening, that an event took place which I will forever remember. As we moved from pack to pack, clearing Naga trash, mentally preparing for The Lurker Below in the hopes of moving through him quickly and on to bigger, better bosses, it happened. One of our main tanks, a Druid named Kizmet -- who had been with us since the early days of Vanilla -- stopped pulling trash. At first, he seemed a victim of momentary Internet lag, so we waited a few seconds to see if he would catch up. A moment later, he shifted out of his bear form, and began hearthing back to town. I had imposed a strict "you're-here-for-the-full-four-hours" rule on our raids, so players did not leave early unless it was a dire emergency.

I inquired quite rhetorically, " there a problem, Kiz?" 

His response caused my eyes to narrow with concern.

"I'm...not in the game. Trying to log back in now. My password isn't working."

The rest of us saw that someone was most definitely still in-game on his character. Kizmet's account had been compromised. We called out to people in the guild who were back in town to find out where his character was. Within seconds, reports were coming in from players who were watching Kizmet disrobe, as the hacker proceeded to vendor all of his raid gear. Guild members fired off whispers to the player, demanding they identify themselves and respond. Of course he didn't. Others started opening customer support tickets, desperately trying to contact a Blizzard Game Master to catch this person in the act of hacking an account. It was useless. Getting a hold of a GM at a moment's notice was unheard of. Support tickets sat in the queue for hours, sometimes days, before speaking to someone about a problem in-game. I sat back in my chair, and took a deep breath, while my fellow guildy tried everything he could to get his account back. Eventually, you stop struggling, when you realize there's nothing to save you from drowning, so you relax and let the water fill your lungs as you sink into darkness.

Another tank down. The keying process would need to start all over again.

In The Burning Crusade, there was only one way to acquire the gear necessary to raid. And that was to raid. Players that didn't possess the appropriate armor and weaponry were completely unable to participate in even the most rudimentary of encounters. There were no alternatives. 5-Man Heroic dungeons dropped blue quality gear, worse than Karazhan. There were no tokens, no valor or justice, and the only redeemable set of crafted gear that had any hope in Hell of working in raids was the Frozen Shadoweave set, popular among Shadow Priests. And Frozen Shadoweave itself was a known joke among the raiders of TBC; the only reason it was viable was because itemization in TBC was an embarrassment. The Tier 4 and 5 sets for a Shadow Priest were pathetic in comparison, and they weren't the only ones suffering out of the gate. Paladins were now viable tanks in Protection, yet the appropriate defense gear to make them uncrittable didn't exist at launch. It was through heavy advocacy on the forums from players like our own Bretthew that Blizzard finally swung around and fixed those gaps in gear.

Should it come as any surprise when I reveal to you that Bretthew also suffered a loss of his character at the hands of a hacker? Of course he did.

Another tank down. They keying process would need to start all over again.

Zanjina watches as players from And Justice For All
and Legion of Zek attack a griffon,

A Modest Proposal

They were a familiar face on Deathwing-US, for at least as long as we had been around. Perhaps a little more casual, maybe a bit less hardcore, but the guild name was recognizable as we passed by each other in Orgrimmar. The Legion of Zek took their name from Tallon Zek, a popular EverQuest server back in the day. EQ servers were named after popular characters in their game's lore, a pattern World of Warcraft followed suit with. And, much like World of Warcraft and each server's individuality, those players who stuck to a particular server took great pride in their home, as these players clearly demonstrated by carrying the name with them to WoW. Although I didn't pay much attention to their goings-on, I felt they were a tight knit crew of close friends that perhaps shared a similar mindset as ours. The only indication that we were aligned was due to a general lack of drama on the Deathwing-US forums coming from or pointed toward them. I compelled DoD to keep any volatile opinions to themselves. By flying under the radar, we were rarely the target of any public drama.

Legion of Zek, it would seem, agreed with this tactic.

I got my first indication that things were hitting rough waters for LoZ when their guild leader, Syldhor, reached out to me. I was surprised, at first, because my days of assimilating guilds during Vanilla were long behind me; these days, I would pick up the occasional player here and there as options made themselves available to me. So for a guild that was smaller, tight-knit, and kept to themselves to option up the automatic assimilation of their roster into mine seemed bizarre. But in talking with Syldhor, the reasons were made clear, and were all too familiar. They were struggling on the unforgiving content in The Burning Crusade. A few star players were enshrouded by a much a larger crew of complainers and has-beens, players focused heavily on the "fun" part, and not so much on the "serious" part of raiding.

"Why us?" I asked Syldhor.

"Well, you guys have a proven track record. It's no secret that you guys pulled off Magtheridon, that fight is a nightmare."

At least we agreed there.

"But more importantly, I like the way you run things here. From what some of the guys have told me, in running with your crew through the heroics and stuff, there's a noticeable bit of maturity in your group. You go the extra mile."

"That's very generous, thank you for the compliments. I certainly try, though it seems lately that it's tough to keep your arms around it. Mutual respect, that is."

"Oh, no question. I mean, I've played with these guys a long time. Long time. Well back into EQ. We're all good friends. And I don't know how much longer I have, my interest in WoW is really kind of waning. So before I cut out of here completely, I'd like to be able to leave my crew with folks I can trust to be treated the same way."

"Do they all want to come over?" I asked, "I mean, I may have spots in raid progression for some of them...but I can't guarantee out of the gate."

Syldhor hesitated.

"Some of them are opposed to this idea. And I get that. I don't hold it against them. But, they'd rather go down with the sinking ship than take one of these lifeboats. They're stubborn."

"Do you think it would help if I talked to them?"

"Well, you're certainly welcome to. But I wouldn't expect miracles."

Syldhor granted me access to their guild forums, and I introduced myself, extending an olive branch as best I could to those holdouts that stood their ground as the boat continued to spring leaks. I wasn't able to bring them around. We were the enemy, this big bloated monstrosity that stomped around Deathwing-US with an enormous roster and a multitude of boss kills they lacked. The holdouts felt we weren't small enough, family-oriented enough, that our goals were different.

What goals? To have fun? Isn't that everyone's goal? It boggled my mind why any player in a guild like LoZ, whose interest was clearly to enjoy their time in WoW, wouldn't want to spend it with a similar group of like-minded folks. We wanted to have fun in WoW, too?

Why would their idea of fun be any different than ours?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

2.14. Pulling the Pin

Descendants of Draenor defeats Magtheridon,
Magtheridon's Lair

An End to Tier 4

Magtheridon finally met his end at the hands of Descendants of Draenor on June 4th, a grueling six encompassing twelve individual nights of work. Bloodied and beaten, we scraped ourselves up off the floor to take our final kill-shot, while I ran through all the failures of this boss's design in my head. How many wasted attempts had we endured due to a lag spike or a disconnect from a cube-clicker? It was both an insufferable and inconsequential end to the first tier of raiding in The Burning Crusade. When Ragnaros fell by our hand, we raced into Blackwing Lair. But when Magtheridon died, we collapsed in exhaustion and disgust.

Were there screams of excitement in Vent? Absolutely. It was nearly as deafening as our first Nefarian kill, another boss that marked the end of a tier of content. Were we excited about the kill? Without question! We knew this was an incredibly difficult encounter that did not have a lot of kills on our server. Were we relieved? Most definitely. It was a huge relief to finally have the Magtheridon notch on our belts.

Did we want to go back?

Not a chance.

After spending that amount of time and effort for something so trivial in the end (several tier 4 chest tokens) we had no interest in returning. And that distaste towards the first tier of raiding in TBC set the stage for a multitude of problems we would soon have thrust upon us. This was the first real difference between raiding in TBC and raiding in Vanilla. When Nefarian finally fell by our hand, we couldn't wait to get back in Blackwing Lair the following week, clearing all over again. Mind you, we didn't always get him, even after we officially declared him on farm status. Our second 40-Man cleanup crew often left a mess themselves, which we had to sacrifice progression time for. Amid these apparent inconveniences, we cleared every boss along the way, which meant gear for many, many raiders, and plenty of practice on a wide variety of raid mechanics.

Descendants of Draenor celebrates their
kill of Magtheridon in Thrallmar,
Hellfire Penninsula

Regaining Control of the Situation

By contrast, there was really nothing to be gained by returning to Magtheridon's Lair; it was a pit of despair and sorrow. The trash prior Magtheridon dropped nothing of value, and only taught our raiders how to be disgusted at having their time wasted. Magtheridon was a linchpin boss that set the stage for a variety of encounters we would be force-fed throughout The Burning Crusade, all delivering an alleged common-theme from the powers that be at Blizzard: 

There is no margin for error in raiding. We demand perfection, regardless of the technical limits of the game or your system.

And while I am most certainly up to the task of meeting this new raised bar set by Blizzard, the linchpin encounter -- as designed -- demands that a certain margin of error exist, to adapt to those limitations that are implicit by nature. I cannot control the latency of my players, I can't control the performance of their computers...and perhaps with a hardcore guild, in which kicking the player to the curb may be an option, it wasn't for the type of guild we were striving to be. In order for the zero-margin-of-error linchpin to work, to provide adequate challenge but still work within the confines of the World of Warcraft infrastructure, one facet of control needed to remain intact:

If you insist on reducing the margin of error to nearly zero on a linchpin, then you must give us the ability to control who becomes the linchpin

Without that control, what practical options remain?

Yell at the player for failing? That only upsets the player. It doesn't make them play any better.

Keep practicing until they get it? Some players won't ever get it. In the real world, there are players that simply lack the capacity. No amount of practicing or yelling will make them do what you want them to do. They either lack the coordination and reflexes to perform the task you want, or their latency prevents them from doing it in a timely manner. If a person prefers a melee class over a tank, perhaps there is a reason for this. Perhaps they've come to terms with the fact that they aren't comfortable playing a tank, and never will.

Deal with the network disconnects / lag spikes and keep re-trying? If anyone at Blizzard is reading this blog, here's the secret: If you're worried that a duplicate raid (say, for example, a raid that exists in both 10- and 25-Man formats) expedites burnout, I'm here to tell you that it doesn't.

Giving us a raid like Magtheridon's Lair expedites burnout.

Kick them out of your guild and bring someone that can do it? Well, that works for hardcore guilds that care only about progression and not about the people themselves. That didn't work for us. We were trying to be respectful and supportive toward each other. That meant bringing players that didn't have the necessary reflexes to react in an emergency to filling in as a cube clicker.

An example of a well-designed
Linchpin boss: Professor Putricide,
Icecrown Citadel

The Right Way to Pin It

The best example I can think of in an encounter such as this is Professor Putricide. There are a wide array of complex mechanics at play in the Putricide encounter, but the success of the raid ultimately hinges on the player chosen to drive the Abomination. This is how a linchpin encounter with no room for error must work. Without that control, infrastructure impurities multiplied with personal incompetencies equate to an encounter that the raid is unable to adapt to when randomness spikes up. True raiders understand randomness, and know that it must be dealt with. But the tools must be present, a constant must exist to lean on, so that strategy can be built around such randomness.

We know that Blizzard had thought this through at least once before...back when we were in Naxxramas. Instructor Razuvious was a prime example of a zero-margin-of-error linchpin that allowed us some control over our own fate. Randomly forcing players into that role as a means of varying the raid's difficulty is lazy and short-sighted. Razuvious got it right. Remember, Haribo and Volitar weren't chosen at random to be Priest Tanks...we chose them. Give us the control to choose whom our weakest link will be, or widen the error margin enough so that we can adapt. You can have one or the other, but not both.


With a deep sigh of relief, we officially stuck a fork in Tier 4 and called it done. It was ridiculous, logistically skewed (especially in regards to Karazhan's role in the mix), widened our eyes to accentuate personal responsibility, and set the precedent for how much forgiveness we could expect in the raids to come...

...little. If any at all.

We returned to Orgrimmar after celebrating the death of Magtheridon, and two of our players now boasted a complete set of Tier 4, the end result of a grueling ten week ordeal. It felt like we had been through a dozen bosses, yet we could only claim three completed encounters as our prize. As we wandered around the Orc city, one of only a skant few guilds on the server that had completed Magtheridon, I began to notice something that both startled and confused me. This thing was a direct result of a decision Blizzard had decided to go forward with in The Burning Crusade, without giving it a second thought. A decision that, in the face of the brutality dealt to us in the form of these past three encounters, was the equivalent to a slap in the face.

A decision that is undeniably Blizzard's First Mistake in World of Warcraft.