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.