Thursday, December 6, 2012

2.19. Blizzard's First Mistake

Esteemed

"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 here...is 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",
Orgrimmar

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.

5 comments:

Kevin Dyer said...

I know you posted this ages ago, but this post really resonates with some frustrations I had in raiding during BC. I would always beat other players on damage output, and basically never stood in fire, but would sometimes find myself sitting out of fights that still had gear I wanted... twiddling my thumbs and waiting to see if I would get in the raid. That always made me feel very unappreciated, as I worked hard to maximize my impact on the raid's success.

It's eye-opening to see that maybe the leadership in my guild were trying to just treat everyone equally, rather than ignoring or downplaying my merit.

Shawn Holmes said...

@Kevin,

Hard to say without hearing more about the specifics of your guild and leadership, but a few things to keep in mind:

- I wouldn't put it past the broad majority of guild leaders to just rotate through the people they had the closest personal ties with. That's a common "path-of-least-resistance" strategies. If I had two guys that were rockstars on the meters, but one was personable and chatted with me until all hours of the night, and another kept to themselves outside of raids, I was more inclined to take the person I could relate to. Sucks, because that tactic shits heavily on introverts...a huge percentage of the gaming public.

- It doesn't surprise me that the default strategy for a lot of guild leaders would be to try to treat everyone equally. Logically, it makes sense, and logic drives a lot of the gamer mentality. Unfortunately, people are nuanced, where as completing a quest or defeating a boss is the exact opposite.

Ardonis said...

I played throughout BC as my guild's sole raiding DPS warrior (Under New Management - Blackhand), and ironically I had to pvp to fill gaps in my gear. In Tier 5 specifically there was no good offhand option for fury, so I had to do several weeks of arena to get the pvp offhand. One of our holy paladins went Ret in T6 after picking up a full set of pvp gear, and he regularly out DPS'd me until we were well into Black Temple. All the time I heard people in my guild complaining about, roughly paraphrased, lousy pvp'ers getting raid gear, complaints that were equally about appearance as stats, and that I never heard about the PVP armor sets in Vanilla. BC had a lot of problems (ridiculously overcomplicated attunements, overly-difficult encounters, a dozen super grindy reputations), but the equivalence of pvp and pve gear, both cosmetically and functionally, was definitely one of the bigger ones. I'm not sure I'd say it was their first mistake, but it was definitely a big one for BC.

Russell said...

I agree that it was too easy to get PvP gear that was on-par or better than equivalent PvE gear starting in BC. I never found it difficult to recall which palette swap was which, though; the sight of a paladin in full Crystalforge was always more impressive than a paladin in full season 2.

Anonymous said...

This blog is a lot of fun to read - it takes me back to my raiding days in Wrath. I was in a series of smaller guilds, but with all the same issues as yours: the A team vs. the B team, carries, hurt feelings, stagnation in progression . . .

I'll never forget the day I was absent from a raid and the others FINALLY downed the Lich King. Or the day two months later when I finally downed him myself as part of another guild.

What strikes me the most reading this blog is the set of unrealistic demands that progression raiding puts on the player base: not the boss-fight demands, but rather the demands of leadership and emotional maturity on a player base that is largely devoid of either. Personnel management is challenging even for real-world people who are trained and experienced in it - and that's when their subordinates are being paid. WoW guilds are essentially groups of unpaid employees, and trying to manage that dynamic takes an incredible amount of sophistication - which most WoW players (and gamers generally) frankly just don't have. Reading the comments from ex-guild members, years after events, only cements that view. And your guild is not unique - we had all the same problems in the guilds I joined. As you have pointed out, the way the game is designed makes it even harder to keep people engaged and having "fun", because rewards (gear) don't drop equitably.

Being in a similar casual/hardcore raiding guild was certainly an interesting experience, and like I said, this is a fun read.