Thursday, March 29, 2012

1.3. My First Mistake

Elephantine opens up on Shade of Eranikus,
assisted by Hend, Chariot, Stein and Tandr.


By late August of 2005, the raiding roster still wasn't where it needed to be. I'd boosted the roster up significantly, and stuck to my guns on keeping our name, and retaining our officership. It was at this time that I was introduced to a player named Juxta. Juxta was doing the exact same thing I was: building up a raiding roster of folks to take on Molten Core, and poaching players from guilds he'd had some ties to. I wasn't clear on the history, only that he had come from Pretty Pink Pwnies, and was looking to construct a more robust raiding machine. His ace in the hole was another player named Atrocity, whom recently formed a new guild and brought Juxta in. Atrocity boasted experience in both leading and managing a raid team. I didn't foresee a merger working with them, so I tried an alternate approach: I began to quietly negotiate with Juxta behind the scenes, because although he wanted changes I was unwilling to compromise on (new guild, shared officership, etc.), I felt it necessary to try to have some kind of back-up plan in the event my guild mergers failed.

Initially, I had a lot of skepticism about dealing with Juxta. We would converse over IM during the day, determining the best course of action regarding schedule, rotations, how to issue loot out, and so on. I'd pitch my stance on DKP vs. Loot Council, he'd concur. Then, I'd find out Atrocity scrapped our mutually agreed upon ideas, in favor of his own. At times, they'd contradict one another: Juxta would track loot by hand, via a spreadsheet, then Atrocity would announce we'd use a mod to import a "DKP string" -- data generated in-game which listed out the details of our loot distribution -- into a website. I continued to negotiate with Juxta and flexed my diplomatic muscle. If I could convince Juxta to see my way on things, I reasoned, he would strong-arm Atrocity into seeing our side. 

Unfortunately, the reverse was becoming true.

As conversations continued between Juxta and I, it became clear that Atrocity was the player in control of this new grass-roots raiding guild, and that Juxta and I were being relegated to mere officership in their proposed structure. Juxta confided in me multiple times that he wished to retain the guild leader position, but it wasn't going to happen. Atrocity was playing favorites to people whom helped form the guild. Was signing a charter a reflection of management experience? Yet it appeared through our discussions that Juxta's players thought he was the Guild Leader. He even went so far as to ask for my vote in determining who the next GL would be. I played the game and assured him I'd be on his side. But his jaded views on loot continued to unnerve me. He claimed running a loot system in his manner "for four months without problems" was a clear indicator that it would succeed. 

Four months wasn't nearly enough time to see the long term negative effects of a poor loot system.

Uld captured in Blackrock Depths.
Also present: Knall, Churaliya, Gutrippa, Sassin,
Chariot, Hend, Yurimaru, and Creepindeath

Ugly Black Warhorses

Juxta claimed that he was fast approaching raid-ready, and wanted new forums setup, along with the loot rules posted for all to see. They had even decided on a name: Ugly Black Warhorses. I felt the guild name left a lot to be desired, but continued to play the role of diplomat and fed him my recommendations; I even went so far as to offer to buy the domain name and set up the website. Besides, owning the domain name was strategic; it might prove useful if I needed leverage down the road. I continued to play the game.

Then, on the evening of September 18th, Juxta dropped a bomb on me. He stated it was time to institute the merge, and we would proceed into Molten Core for our first official unified raid. I had only shared my negotiation strategy with a number of the DoD officers, so my guild was largely unaware of what was about to transpire. I issued out a quick message to those folks that were currently online, stating "not to freak out" and what was about to happen was "only temporary". And just as curious question marks began to arrive in guild chat, I /gquit Descendants of Draenor and accepted an invite to Ugly Black Warhorses, with my officers in tow.

The DoD officers and I sat in this uncomfortable, awkward guild, and a feeling of dread began to sink in. There was absolutely no organization or consistency in communication. People didn't know who was coming, going, in charge of what, or where we even planned to go. Guild chat became an unreadable mess of sentences beginning and ending with "LOL". I whispered over to my DoD officers and sized things up, "this isn't happening." Juxta ordered us up to Molten Core to begin pulling trash, but things fell apart long before we even caught a glimpse of the first boss. As I had suspected, the Ugly Black Warhorses were to become yet another failed guild merger of players unable to coordinate and tackle raid content.

The only problem was: I'd made a terrible mistake in judging how it would affect DoD.

Uld dances next to Jundar and Maergon in Scarlet Monestary.
Jundar would go on to form the guild Horderlies.

The First Exodus

When the officers and I returned to Descendants of Draenor later that night, expressing that...sure enough, it was a failed experiment, and that we were to continue on our own, we were welcomed back with disgust and disappointment. What had been the point of this experiment? Were we really intending on moving forward long-term with Ugly Black Warhorses? Why hadn't the rest of the guild been looped in? What would've happened to DoD had UBW succeeded in Molten Core that night? They were all valid questions, and my guild had every right to know those answers. I had been purposefully ambiguous because I truly didn't know how it would play out. The thought of trying to explain my strategy seemed like it would have confused people, and pissed them off even more. But, keeping silent had the same effect. They felt I betrayed them and their trust. And I had.

I was painted in a new light. The officers may have understood and felt the pain of this failed experiment, but I couldn't say the same for a handful of guildies. They began to challenge the long-term direction of the guild, where we were headed, and even if I was the right person for the job. Passive aggressiveness ensued. Biting remarks and smart-ass comments were directed at me, both in-guild and on the forums. I deserved it. But I didn't it want it to continue. I encouraged those players who truly felt our direction wasn't aligned with their own goals to re-evaluate. So, a handful of them did exactly that.

And so it was, the first exodus of Descendants of Draenor spawned a new guild on Deathwing-US, Horderlies.

I bear no ill-will toward them, because in the end, our goals were different: We wanted to focus more on raid content, they preferred to remain small and casual. But, far more important than that, I wasn't honest with them. They had every right to be looped in on sweeping guild changes, even if my changes had a hidden agenda which favored us in the long term. You reap what you sow. In my attempts to ramp up the guild to an adequate size, I was actually losing people. Things were starting to look grim.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

1.2. The Casual and the Hardcore

Kerulak assists in a 15-Man pickup
group or "pug" circa Vanilla,
Upper Blackrock Spire

Casual is Bliss

If you've never played World of Warcraft, there are a wide array of dungeons to explore. These dungeons very typically take 5 players, which consist of a tank (the person responsible for grabbing a hold of a pack of monsters and keeping their attacks focused on him), a healer (a person responsible for keeping the tank from dying), and three miscellaneous players which fall into the category we call “DPS”, which is WoW-speak for “Damage Per Second”. Those three remaining players focus all of their attacks on the monsters, and kill them as fast as they can, before the healer runs out of mana, which in turn, causes the tank to eventually run out of health and die, causing the monsters to turn their attention to the rest of the party, killing them off one by one. This chain of events ultimately leads the entire group of players falling over dead, and having to run back from a graveyard, this is the act of “wiping”.

For seasoned WoW players, this is common knowledge, but what may not be so obvious is that, back in Vanilla, there were a few endgame dungeons that required more than 5 players. Scholomance, for example (a dungeon dedicated to the schooling of dark wizards) wasn't a 5-Man dungeon, it was a 10-Man. And it was not something that was done quickly, it took hours to complete. It took patience and very slow, methodical execution; one wrong move would lead to a wipe, and it could be caused by something as simple as standing 2 ft. to the right of a pack of monsters (“trash” as we call them), rather than 2 ft. backward. Scholomance was an end-game dungeon, and it required everyone to be at the max level (60, at the time), and it was unforgiving to the general populace, because it demanded exquisite control and discipline of your character and the ability to work together.

However, most of the players in World of Warcraft didn't posses this sensibility, having grown accustomed to the lightweight dungeons they experienced during the 1-60 leveling grind. Today, a multitude of online resources exist, that have combed the depths of WoW and provided guides, tutorials, tips and tactics for players, but in Vanilla, these resources simply did not exist. As a result, the majority of the WoW player-base ultimately remained in a sort of “blissful ignorance”, unaware of the game’s depth and mechanics, and didn't have a clue that their skills could be refined, taking their play to an entirely new level. They were forever lost in the illusion of The Matrix, logging in, checking their auctions, cooking virtual food and mixing/matching sets of armor to tweak their character’s costume.

We called these players casuals.

Uld flirts with Maxxum of Dirty Work, Inc.

Eyes Wide Open

Several months into Vanilla, I struck up a friendship with a player named Maxxum. I had tried (unsuccessfully) to recruit him away from his guild on multiple occasions. He was always polite when he refused, but he would still strike up a chat with me whenever possible. One day he invited me to help fill the 10th spot in a Scholomance clear. I wasn't particularly looking forward to another 2 hour dungeon run, but to help break up the monotony, I said I’d come along. When we got into the dungeon, I was still getting adjusted and settling down in my chair, making sure all my macros were set up when the chaos erupted. Like some kind of bat shit crazy insane players, Maxxum and his guild began tearing Scholomance apart. They moved from pack to pack in a blur, having some kind of unspoken system; their efforts were completely synchronized and coordinated. A Rogue would sap one monster, stunning in position, a Priest would shackle another undead minion, locking it in place. All of the players then focused their attacks onto a single monster at once, the remaining targets left alone, incapacitated. With everyone beating on a single monster at once, it was annihilated.

Maxxum and his guild had a system, and it was like nothing I had experienced before. It was fast, efficient, disciplined. Each member of the team was mindful of every piece of info available to them; where they needed to stand -- the tank facing the mobs away from the party, while the melee DPS positioning themselves carefully behind each target, thereby reducing dodges and parries. The healer took a proactive approach to each pack, contributing to crowd-control, winding up large heals in preparation for big damage, then cancelling if the heal wasn't needed, thus conserving mana. When we walked out of there 45 minutes later, I was stunned. I'd never seen a group of players clear Scholomance in under 2 hours. There was a term that WoW players used to describe this level of dedication to the game, this expert-like knowledge of the game's mechanics, which led to a flawless execution of content.

We called these players hardcore.

Having experienced both ends of the spectrum, I knew that Descendants of Draenor would have to lean less into casual and more into hardcore, in order to truly stand out and provide a respectable, successful home for players on our server. I wanted to know what it would take to get my guild to this level. When questioned, Maxxum gave me two words as a response: Molten Core. I didn't know what it was, only a few people in my guild seemed to have a idea, it was something that was referred to as raid content. But it wasn't just like any dungeon we had explored before, it would require surgical coordination to execute correctly. And it would require a few more players than 10 to run... would take 40 players.

I’ll never forget the last piece of advice Maxxum threw my way: “Watch out for that first pull. It's a doozy.” I started to do research. I snuck into a few Molten Core attempts that had been pieced together by random players in Orgrimmar, thinking they would have enough leadership and coordination to make a few pulls. Those attempts all failed the first pull. I would watch as the two towering Molten Giants guarding the entrance would stomp forward, shaking the ground, and bashing the pathetic members of the raid into oblivion. Tanks would fall over dead in one hit, healers would be out of mana in seconds, and players ran around in a panic, trying desperately to get away from the Giants. And one by one, the raid was destroyed. It was embarrassing to see players this incoherent. There was no way I was going to let this content go unfinished. My guild had cleared everything in the game thus far, and it was time to make the leap...the leap to hardcore.

Kerulak surveying the guild roster as he
continues to assimilate guilds during Vanilla

Resistance is Futile

The plan to shift Descendants of Draenor into a new mentality of hardcore raiding seemed very daunting. I wasn't really very sure how we would pull it off, so I began simply in bite-sized chunks. The first order of business: mass guild assimilation. I hiked up my recruitment and began negotiating talks with other guilds on our server who were also interested in starting raids. Guild assimilation was very cut-throat. I was constantly competing with other guilds who were trying to do the very same thing: promise great rewards with absolutely no proof of experience. These competing “raiding” guilds hadn't set foot in Molten Core either.

Said they had. They. Had. Not. 

I had to find a way to make my guild stand out from all the others, even without a track record in the instance. So, I used what I knew we had under our belt as leverage. We were a solid team of passionate individuals, and we had explicitly laid out the most fair and just treatment to all our raiders. We even had a DKP system in place (rules describing how loot is issued out) before even setting foot in Molten Core, having researched this by reading blue posts on the forums, taking their advice, ultimately leading us to other successful raiding guilds on other servers (notably, Elitist Jerks of Mal’Ganis-US). I had to make a lot of gut instinct decisions when deciding who to go forward with, and who to hold on, but I stuck to my guns on the most important fundamentals: I wanted players with honesty and integrity, who were respectful to each other, and who would demonstrate loyalty. And the one thing I would not back down on is: I would not give up our guild name. Our guild name would remain unchanged, and our core leadership would always be retained. Many other guilds decided to merge, form new names, and bring officers from both sides. They very rarely worked out; drama and power-struggles often caused these guild merges to end in collapse. We wouldn't follow suit. We would retain our identity. This was simply a non-negotiable for me.

Guild mergers, as I would discover, were not so easy to facilitate. Desperation would lead me to make a decision that would cause the first mass exodus of Descendants of Draenor, and almost cost me the guild in its entirety.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

1.1. First Steps

Part I: Vanilla

"Gear doesn't make a bad player good."

World of Warcraft login screen,
during the Vanilla ('04-'07) era
Copyright 2004 © Blizzard Entertainment

The Gamble

Between the months of August and November 1999, I played a game called EverQuest, and it was the worst four months of my life. I found myself wandering aimlessly throughout the landscape, leveling a Gnomish Necromancer, and while I was first enthralled by exploring the expansive world of Norrath, it very quickly degraded to series of mundane tasks, all with no real reward to speak of. It was extremely dangerous to play by yourself, as the punishment for death was punitive; a random zombie-related death could strip away days of play on your character, in the form of lost experience. I also knew nobody online, and was surrounded by a sea of strangers, none of which provided any assistance to me. To make matters worse, the publisher of EverQuest (Sony Online Entertainment) was proving how selfish and shallow a corporate enterprise could be. Frequently, the servers would go down for extended periods of time, or we would suffer a “server crash” and items/experience would be lost--and Sony vehemently refused to take responsibility for these problems. No refunds would be issued, and no apologies would be given. I remember being up late one night, standing on a frozen plateau overlooking Everfrost Peaks, and thinking to myself, what the hell am I doing here? I've played this game for four months. I have nothing to show for it. I don’t know anyone online, and haven’t met anyone. I don’t know what my goal is. I've barely leveled at all (I was 21)...and I have absolutely no interest in pursuing this further.

I closed my account that month and never returned to EverQuest. I also made a decision: I’d never play another MMO again. Besides, my interests were elsewhere: I was an FPS gamer, and had clocked in many hours playing Quake and CounterStrike. However, it was due to my gaming clan which first got together for late night LAN parties, that I was initially exposed to another genre that caught my interest: RTS (Real-Time Strategy). At the time, it was too late for me to even bother being able to compete, but I enjoyed watching my friends play Warcraft II, and became more curious about the lore, history and characters in that universe. When Warcraft III was announced in September of 1999, I kept tabs on it, and the more I learned during development, the more it intrigued me. By its release in 2002, I had become a full-blown Warcraft nerd, and knew far too much about the races, classes, and history. I never became an expert at Warcraft III (Level 11 on the US-West Ladder, 2v2), but I thoroughly enjoyed the game and the experience. So, when rumors began trickling out that Blizzard “may or may not have been working on an MMO”, I had mixed reactions. By this point, I had become a complete and total Blizzard fanboi. I was in love with Warcraft III and Diablo II, and couldn't eat that content up fast enough. Yet, the prospect of an MMO gave me pause. I remembered how horrible EverQuest had been, how “not fun” and “bland” the game experience was, what the company’s treatment was toward their customer base, and how very little I was interested in experiencing that all over again. So, I had to take a very big gamble.

Kerulak prepares to accept signatures for the
creation of the guild Descendants of Draenor,
Thunder Bluff

Descending Origins

World of Warcraft was released at the end of November of 2004, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. My only previous experience in an MMO ended in disappointment, but Blizzard had not done me wrong with Diablo II or Warcraft III. The months leading up to the game’s release had me discussing the possibility of starting a World of Warcraft guild with various members of my gaming clan, and some of those guys showed interest. They brought their knowledge and experience from Dark Ages of Camelot, City of Heroes, Horizons, and other random MMOs to the table as well (yes, some of them had also dabbled in EverQuest). Once the chaotic servers stabilized after an insanely underestimated launch of the game, it became obvious that we would have to band together, in-game -- done by forming what is referred to as a "guild". But, what would we name ourselves? Names meant a lot to me; I felt strongly that the first impressions you get after reading a guild name would speak volumes about the folks comprising the guild. And although it might be a kick-in-the-pants to name a guild "FAILURES AT LIFE", I couldn't help but feel like it was a direct reflection of the guild mentality. I wanted my guild to attract a different type of player, one who shared my nerdy love of the Warcraft universe; who would read our guild name, and say to themselves "Ah, clever! Someone knows their Warcraft shit!" 

I dug deep into the lore, looking for a clue. The gang and I all agreed that we would take up the cause of the Horde, and fight for the Orcs and their allies, following in the footsteps of the historic Orcs vs. Humans conflict of the original Warcraft RTS game. I remembered from my time playing Warcraft III that the Orcs came from another world, one now ravaged and torn by conflict. This broken, barren wasteland was referred to as Outland, but before its destruction, it bore another name: Draenor. It was this name of the Orc home world that struck a chord with me. What better way to identify with the cause of the Horde, originally driven by the Orcs, than to take the name which defined their origins? And with the Tauren, the Forsaken, and the Trolls aligned with the Orcs to form the evil faction in the game, the Horde carried on the tradition of those first Orcs that burst through The Dark Portal from Outland into Azeroth. We were the Horde, and we were their descendants.

And so it was, that on that day of November in 2004, we became known as Descendants of Draenor.


The first months of our guild were eye-opening. Azeroth was an immense world, rich with ancient artifacts and ruins, magnificent towering structures, cities that were so large you felt like an insect walking through them, and boasting an exotic host of creatures and monsters that populated the landscape. My guild and I spent those early months simply drinking it all in, exploring every little nook and cranny, venturing out into dangerous territory, away from the safe haven of our starting villages and cities. While my guild seemed to enjoy themselves at a standard pace, I was absolutely drunk with the overload of information. I would sneak into enemy cities, just to read books on shelves (yes, WoW has readable books in the game) to try to glean new perspectives on the history of the lands and characters, possibly gaining a biased opinion from those Alliance-written texts. I would catch glimpses of references to Outland, grinning as I eyed our guild name; I knew the majority of players who waltzed past the “then-sealed” Dark Portal would have absolutely no idea what was on the other side, or its importance, let alone how any of that related to our name. 

Except perhaps the true Warcraft nerds.

When I discovered Uldaman, a dungeon in Badlands, I remembered a book I had read in Thelsamara town in Alliance territory, referring to the "Three Ancient Dwarven Cities", and hat Uldum and Ulduar were still undiscovered. I remember getting excited, then frustrated! I wanted to know more about those cities! I was hopeful that one day, I'd get the opportunity to see them. I was in a constant state of wanting to know more.

Kerulak investigates Uldum while working
on "The Platinum Discs",

A Higher Standard

In my quest to explore every last inch of Azeroth, I met a lot of players along the way. Initially, I had never really put a lot of thought into the interaction between our guild and other living human beings. Up until this point, my online experience had been limited to whomever happened to be playing on that evening’s popular Quake or CounterStrike server. Mostly, it was a faceless, anonymous interaction, and players were very commonly disrespectful toward one another, talking a lot of shit, making a lot of empty threats, and generally leaving you with a bad taste in your mouth. I wasn't particularly looking forward to dealing with that same type of community in WoW. However, I noticed that with Blizzard, very real attempts were being made, right from the start, to curtail shitty behavior. They took player and guild names very seriously, and would not allow characters to be named with injected titles like "Captainspooge" or a phrase like "Killthemall". Alternate spellings of curse words were very cleverly caught as well. And if anything slipped through the cracks, an interface built into the game client allowed you to quickly submit reports. 

I was curious, though. Blizzard thought like me, but would they go the distance? I got into a routine where where I would catch shitty names, quickly /friend them (adding them to a personalized list of contacts in game), then report them their inappropriate names to Blizzard. Then, I would sit back and watch. Sure enough, in less than 24 hours, I would log back in and see the person’s name fixed -- renamed to something more appropriate. Impressive! It seemed that Blizzard was dedicated to making the online experience an enjoyable one, and took that ownership very seriously. But, it wasn't just about player naming. I remember well the many server issues that Blizzard had that first year, and how, in every case, no matter how ignorant or inappropriate the customer base became when complaining, Blizzard always stepped up to the plate, took responsibility for their situation, issued out refunds, apologized profusely, and assured us that they would continue to do everything in their power to make it right.

At last. A game company that gets it.

Sure, some issues slipped by here and there, but I had to hand it to Blizzard for making a concerted effort; it was pretty damn close. A hell of a lot closer than Sony got. I was very thankful for the level of communication and support Blizzard delivered, and it was because of those early years in WoW, and how they handled their customer base, that I became a staunch supporter of their decision-making process. Having also been in software development, I could empathize with the challenges and frustrations they must have gone through. I saw the level of commitment they had towards us. So, when they made blatant decisions about certain fundamentals in the game, and the masses swarmed in crying “nerf!” and “unfair!”, I was always one of the first to step back and try to see it from their side. In fact, I was so impressed by Blizzard’s integrity and track record on following through with things that they promised, I made it a rule in my own guild to try to do things a little differently. We, too, would make a concerted effort to hold ourselves to a slightly higher standard, to be a little bit more respectful towards each other and towards other players in other guilds. Like Blizzard and World of Warcraft, we would also be different. 

As it turns out, it would be this standard that led Descendants of Draenor to become quite successful as we ventured into new, unexpected territory: 40-Man raiding.