Thursday, August 30, 2012

2.5. My Second Mistake

Kerulak and a crew of nine core
raiders take on The Curator,
Karazhan

The Re-invite Gone Wrong

As you can imagine, the surge of interest in Karazhan shot through the roof. While before, Ater had to piece together players that were online and available, he now had his pick of the litter. By the second attempt at running the instance, many more players possessed the key to Karazhan. So, when it came time to put together the next run, Ater simply walked down the list of available keyed players, picking familiar names first -- many of whom who had come from 40-Man core. News of Attumen's mount dropping certainly played a role in this increased interest, this burst of vigor to wrap up Karazhan attunement, and be a part of his next run. With all these factors changing Ater's option the second time around, you can probably also imagine the likelihood that someone would be left behind that second run.

On this day, that someone ended up being Baite.

The reason could have justifiably been anything. It could have been that Baite was simply a few minutes late in getting online that night. Or, perhaps Ater felt that with such a grand reward as the mount, it would be fair to let someone else get a chance to see the instance. Maybe Ater simply wanted to try someone else out, in an attempt to spread loot further across our potential 25-Man raiding roster. Whatever the exact reason was, it came from the mind of Ater at that precise moment in time -- and not off of any rule we had ever etched into stone. It was the same thought process that went into a 5-Man. Who is available? Great! Let's go! The perception of a 10-Man continued to permeate our subconscious in the exact same manner as the 10-Mans of yore. It was just a glorified, more involved 5-Man. It didn't require the same formality and logistics to coordinate as our progression raid.

I, like Ater, was hung-up on the most obvious attribute of Karazhan: It was smaller. We missed the larger part it played in the big picture of TBC's progression. The roster would suffer because of this oversight.


Kerulak and co. work on Nightbane,
Karazhan

Subtle Ambiguities

To this day, the implementation of Tier 4 boggles my mind. Tier 4 pieces were acquired in both 10-Man raids and 25-Man raids; it was through the completion of Karazhan, Gruul's Lair, and Magtheridon's Lair together that would comprise the first tier of raids in The Burning Crusade. Technically, we knew that Karazhan was an official raid. But the guild had already made its mind up about the significance that a 10-Man played in the big picture of raid progression: next-to-nil. We certainly weren't forcing people to run 10-Man Scholomance during the days of Molten Core, so it wasn't even a consideration to formalize it. Even the ZG and AQ20 runs were thrown together ad-hoc, filling spots with whomever was available, coordinating it by word-of-mouth.

This perception, unfortunately, masked us from Karazhan's most relevant differences between the 10-Mans we were familiar with from Vanilla, and the 20-Mans that were added later. Not only did a treasure trove of off-set gear diminish the importance that two of the Tier 4 tokens were directly acquired within Karazhan, we failed to notice take into account its raid lock. Karazhan reset every 7 days, just like the 25-Man raids, and exactly as the 40-Mans before it. But if the Tier 4 tokens and its reset timer weren't enough to convince us, one final undeniable fact remained:

The completion of Karazhan was a prerequisite of attunement for 25-Man raids to follow.

The Cudgel of Kar'desh, picked up deep within Heroic: The Slave Pens set TBC raiders upon a two-part quest to unlock Serpentshrine Cavern. One part would require the death of Gruul the Dragonkiller. The other part involved the summoning and eventual slaying of an enormous bone dragon of fire and brimstone, Nightbane. Nightbane was summoned within Karazhan. These were the hooks that made Karazhan a very real, albeit inconvenient, part of 25-Man progression in TBC. Inconvenient logistically, as the 25-Man team now had to have very real rules applied to it when breaking apart to run Karazhan. Loot had to be tracked. Teams had to shaped and set-in-stone, to prevent confusion, misunderstandings and hard-feelings. And a very specific path of players needed to be organized so that we keyed everyone for the core as fast as possible.

We did none of these things.

Nothing existed in writing that alluded to 10-Man teams in our guild's rules and regulations. No formalization had ever been attempted to nail down 10-Man raiding. And why? Because they had always been handled off-the-cuff, a product of our family mentality running off of unwritten rules; common-sense that was shared among the core raid team through a mutual understanding of one-another...

...context.

Without context, I can only assume that the lack of formality led Baite to question our loyalty towards any promises made to him about an eventual place in DoD's progression.

Descendants of Draenor continues to farm
in preparation for 25-Man raiding,
Karazhan

Unwritten Rules

Baite was certifiably pissed-off. He couldn't believe he was being left behind. The whole reason he had come to Descendants of Draenor in the first place was to become a part of the regular progression raid team. He didn't think it was fair, and didn't know why he was being treated that way. He hadn't broken any rules or carried himself improperly in any way. Baite's response to being benched was unexpected. Neither I, nor anyone in Ater's group that evening, were adequately prepared to respond. I'm certain they glanced down at guild chat, saw the drama, and thought the very same thing I did: What is this new guy flipping out for? The fact that he's missing a Kara run? It's just a glorified 5-Man. It's not progression.

But it was progression. And Baite saw it as such.

What muddied the issue further was the fact that Baite felt even more like a guild-member through the manifestation of our guild's ideals. The very notion that we would turn over a rare, epic mount to a practical stranger in every sense of the word must have spoken significantly to him. One might argue that it would've made him feel even more like one of the large, extended family that I continued to sell DoD as. This meant that being left behind for that night's Karazhan invite offended him that much more; in his eyes, being left behind after being welcomed in and having his skills validated only served to reinforce his initial bias coming in to DoD; I'm not really one of them, nor will I ever be.

Baite did what any player seeking reliable raid progression would do. Unsure of his place in the guild, he cut his losses and pursued recruitment in a competing, more hardcore guild than us, eventually landing in Pretty Pink Pwnies. And with that, he -- and our proud achievement of boasting one of the very few rare Attumen mounts on the server -- was gone. I completely underestimated the value of Karazhan to the 25-Man progression raid team in my handling of the raiding rules for our guild. I should have spent more time working with my officer core to set up a plan to properly manage 10-Man teams. But, I didn't give it the time it deserved, and assumed that the 40-Man core, which had worked quite well together in Vanilla, would transfer the common-sense of their unwritten rules into the new expansion. And they did...with each other. But our new recruits lacked that context of Vanilla, and so unwritten rules didn't have the same effect.

Failing to acknowledge Karazhan's role in our overarching raid progression was a huge oversight, relying too greatly on unwritten rules and the common-sense of others. Assuming common-sense in an environment that lacked context was my second mistake as guild leader. Our unwritten rules would cause me to learn some harsh lessons before I eventually grabbed the reins tight, veering us from plummeting over the cliff.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

2.4. Karazhan

Kerulak joins a few of the original core 40-Man
raid team from Vanilla to battle Attumen,
Karazhan

The Lonely Tower

The Burning Crusade gave us a whole mess of hoops to jump through in order to re-establish our raiding machine, and attunement played heavily into this. Officially, attunement existed as a gate; certain players shouldn't be simply waltzing in to a raid instance. Players who didn't know what they were doing would (presumably) stumble into said instance, proceed to get their faces smashed in, and then complain about how difficult the game was. To proactively stymie this chain of complaints before they even started, Blizzard gated the instances by forcing players who intended to raid to complete a series of trials and quests to gain access. Hitting level 70 was not enough. And, as Descendants of Draenor's roster of 70s grew at different intervals, so too, were those 70s currently progressed through their attunement quests at varying stages. Some finished early, and had time to kill -- they needed something to occupy their time as the roster filled out.

That something was Karazhan.

Karazhan was a new 10-Man instance nestled in an area of the Eastern Kingdoms known as Deadwind Pass. It was heavily steeped in Warcraft lore, so the biggest nerds of us were squealing like schoolgirls when Karazhan was announced and loaded into our new expansion. I'd long since devoured The Last Guardian, Blizzard's only source of Karazhan-related lore at the time, telling the story of Medivh's downward spiral into madness. Grubb's novel referred to it as "The Lonely Tower", cursed after the death of its former master. Inside, tortured souls and ghostly phantoms haunted every corner, crumbling staircases revealed demonic contraptions and newly uninvited guests. Secret passages twisted every which way, hiding horrific visions of Fleshbeasts. Karazhan even boasted a gigantic Chess Board, a unique encounter in which we battled the ghost of Medivh himself by moving living "pieces" in an attempt to defeat each other's King...a game Medivh enjoyed cheating at.

A 10-Man group hams it up next to
the defeated Maiden of Virtue,
Karazhan

A Glorified 5-Man

Karazhan had its own keying requirements, but they were trivial in comparison to the 25-Man attunement the guild was presently engaged in. And, due to its reduced size, Karazhan was much easier to coordinate. So much so, that raiders could put together a team ad-hoc, and work their way through as though it were a 5-Man. It is safe to say that the core raid team in Descendants of Draenor looked upon Karazhan as simply that...a glorified, more involved 5-Man -- at least, on the surface. There were subtle differences that our players paid little attention to, and I fell into that dismissive group as well.

10-Man instances appeared in the early months of Vanilla, these being Stratholme and Scholomance. Lower and Upper Blackrock Spire (LBRS and UBRS, respectively) were initially 15-Man to start, but they were also reduced to 10-Man, as Blizzard played with various sizes and difficulties. I imagine a great deal of those first two years were as much a learning exercise for Blizzard as it was for us playing their game. Gear-wise, the rewards were blue-quality ("Rares", in WoW-speak), often allowing us to work toward a Tier 0 Dungeon Set of items. Those rare items paled in comparison to the purple-quality items of Molten Core, Blackwing Lair and beyond -- items we refer to as "Epics". And, just like the 5-Man dungeons themselves, those 10-Man dungeons reset every day, whereas raids sat on a 7-day reset timer: You could only run raids once per week. So while those 10-Mans were challenging, we never considered them actual raid content, as the only thing that technically made them a raid was the simple fact that there were more than 5 players present. For all intents and purposes, 10-Man content was regarded with little seriousness by raiders in Vanilla, if any at all.

When Zul'Gurub and The Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj -- two 20-Man instances -- were introduced to the raiding scene, their smaller size and far less impressive loot tables (in comparison to the 40s) also buried another subtle difference: both raids were on three-day timers. So while the larger, more involved raids reset each week, these smaller, inconsequential ones refreshed more frequently, more akin to the first generation of 10-Mans that hardcore raiders paid little attention to. There was no need for an overt explanation on what was easier and what was more involved -- we had enough information to make up our own minds. Inconsequential loot. Easier bosses. A smaller raid, on a more frequent reset timer.

When it was time to put together a 10-Man group for Karazhan, we never even gave it a second thought.

Baite atop the Fiery Warhorse, after
defeating Attumen the Huntsman,
Karazhan

The Fiery Warhorse

By the time Ater was 70, he was already fashioning himself a group of people to take into Karazhan, based upon whomever was 70, keyed, and ready to go. As was his way in approaching people, Ater was always willing to try out new players, even if he wasn't terribly familiar with the newest of them. A few of those individuals happened to be players from our Vanilla 40-Man progression team. Those people were a no-brainer, Ater's first-hand experience raiding with them was a sure bet, so he readily added them to the invite list. As for the new people, in typical Ater fashion, he bore no biases against them. If they were motivated and ready-to-go, he gladly gave them an opportunity to impress. As luck would have it, one such new recruit was a Restoration Shaman named Baite.

While many of us continued to level, pressing on with our keying quests and assisting one another, we listened with curiosity to the initial reports coming back from Karazhan. Verdict: Full-on awesome. Ater and the crew were having tons of fun, getting used to the new trash and drinking in the layout of the immense castle. They would link new armor and weapons in guild chat and we'd immediately dig into mathing out the improvements in DPS, healing and survivability gains. Before long, they arrived at the first boss, Attumen the Huntsman, and began working through a strategy on-the-fly. They made several attempts, adjusted their positioning, and got a handle on the transition. When they spammed guild chat announcing Attumen's defeat, I watched the chat window for loot to be linked. In a bizarre stroke of luck, the unthinkable happened: In that very first kill that was made by a 10-Man team in Descendants of Draenor, quite possibly one of the first on Deathwing-US, Attumen dropped the exceedingly rare Epic mount, a horse whose eyes and hooves were bathed in fire.

The guild was stunned. Shouts of congratulations were sent back to the team in Karazhan over Vent and in guild-chat. Ater made certain to allow everyone a chance to roll on the mount, as this was something our guild took very seriously; we would never ninja items from bosses. With Ater telling everyone to /roll (the game client randomly rolls a number between 1 and 100), the winner was none other than our new recruit, Baite. He was shocked and surprised by this graciousness. Without any push-back from the team, arguments or drama, the remaining nine players handed the mount over to Baite, along with their support. I instructed him to hold tight, and immediately flew over to Karazhan to grab a screenshot to proudly display it on our website. Baite was overwhelmed at the camaraderie, he couldn't believe that we were treating a new recruit so well. But in my eyes, this was par-for-the-course in Descendants of Draenor. We treated everyone equally and fairly -- a virtual family extended online into a world of internet dragons.

It would take many more months of harsh lessons for me to learn that treating people equally...and treating people fairly...were two entirely different concepts, a product of my continued lack of formality in running the guild, and an unhealthy reliance on the existence of common sense.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

2.3. Gearing Toward Gruul

Ater's weapon of choice,
the Nostromo

In the Shadow of a Giant

I pulled over to the pickup lane at Denver International Airport, and popped the trunk, my palms stuck to the wheel with sweat. Quickly, I wiped my right-hand off on my shirt as I felt the thump of luggage hit the car. The passenger door opened, and he swung in with an outstretched hand. "Welcome to Colorado!", I said with a handshake, his grip like a vice. This was real. He was here. The guy responsible for leading my raids, for introducing me to Blain and becoming a part of the crew that dug into all of Vanilla's content with the dedication and passion I could only dream of possessing. And now, I was driving him back to my place to stay for the next several days, while he interviewed for a web development position at my company. It was happening.

The drive back downtown was as you might expect, a non-stop Q&A session. World of Warcraft. Descendants of Draenor. Vanilla. The Burning Crusade. ColdFusion. Programming. We talked non-stop...well, Ater talked; I shut the hell up and listened, for fear of saying something moronic or childish. Ater was excited about the prospect of joining my company. We were on the verge of taking on some great new projects, but I felt I didn't have the right peers to guide me in new directions, challenge my way of thinking. Teach me. Ater could be that peer. With his insight, I was certain of the value he'd bring to our company, new ways of thinking about development, new techniques to bring in clients. I already knew he'd be good with people.

When we finally arrived at the house, and I went through the introductions to my wife and kids, we proceeded to the computer room. After all, there was still business to attend to. I sat down at my computer and logged into the game. Ater stood to my left, towering over me at a height of nearly six-foot-four. The difference may have been slight, but to me, it felt like a giant had entered the room. A giant in game and in life.  He began to set up his laptop, unraveling his headphone wires. WoW would be a special treat for the next few days -- there was a celebrity in the house. As he started to plug cords and cables in, I glanced over at his rig and noticed a bizarre device: a controller that was half-keypad, half-gamepad, resting where his mouse ought to be.

"What the hell is this?" I asked, picking it up.

"A Nostromo!", Ater replied, "The only way to play this game."

He proceeded to detail out all the crazy assignments he had programmed into the controller. The curtain was pulled away. His extreme level of control as our main tank now made a lot more sense. I had never even heard of a Nostromo before Ater produced one at my house that evening. There was always something he had to teach me. As he jacked in to the network and donned his headset, I kept glancing over, stunned that he was not only in my presence, but was soon to be a part of my regular work day. I felt intimidated, insignificant. For many months, I'd looked to him for guidance of my guild, he was always ready with an answer that seemed so simple, so straightforward...and why hadn't I thought of it? When faced with him, I wasn't even sure what to say or how to act. I was nervous, I was....

....fffrrraap.

My eyes widened. The sound of a terrific fart came from Ater's side of the room.

"Uh oh!" he exclaimed in innocence, "What was that?!?", his gaze never once darting from the laptop's screen.

I laughed. There was no need to be nervous. He was just a guy, like me. I was lucky to have him aboard my guild's crew. I was proud to call him a colleague and a friend.

Unsurprisingly, he knocked the interview out cold.

Kerulak battles Dreadwing in The Singing Ridge,
Blade's Edge Mountains

Potential Raiders

By day, Ater and I sat across from each other, planning out the development of new projects, discussing the latest tech news, and taking lunches to chat about Warcraft, the guild, and leadership. By night, the conversation would continue as we raced to 70, slowly working out of the deep blue swamp called Zangarmarsh, and further into Nagrand and Terrokar Forest. While the guild continued their quest to discover the ancient ruins of Auchindoun, and track the infamous Rexxar to his location deep within Blade's Edge Mountains, I was busy resuming my recruitment duties, finding new players to replace those that had left us, looking at each new day as an opportunity to find a new potential raider for progression. 

New faces began to emerge during this time. One of our first female players, Breginna, joined our roster. She had a knack for a playing a healing Druid, and healers were always in great demand, so I brought her in and pressed her to think about the 25-Man raid. A head-banging Rogue by the named of Chopliver joined our humble crew, and always got a laugh when he spoke in Vent. His style of speech could only be described as a healthy mix of metal-head and California surfer. "Dude" and "Bro" aside, Chopliver was a machine of death at the hands of his Undead Rogue, and I looked forward to putting him in the 25-Man roster. In the caster department, we gained a young Warlock named Eacavissi that did extraordinary damage -- he jokingly denied the existence of aggro. The only way to manage threat on targets, he reasoned, was to simply do more damage. And, I swooped up a new Mage named Goldenrod whom I had seen many times in general chat during Vanilla. A long time player on Deathwing-US, he was looking to step up his game and join a progressive raiding crew.

And, old faces from the 40-Man continued to ding 70, renewing their interest in joining the progression team. Zyr the Priest, infamous for his "cricket" sounds in Vent whenever someone told a bad joke, was soon ready to return to the roster. So, too, did the Shamans Gunsmokeco and Deathonwing, brothers in real-life that had contributed to A-team and B-team as we could fit them in. Another Shaman from Vanilla was Ekasra; he joined DoD too late in the game to become a regular in our 40-Man team. But his youthful energy (and identifiable lisp over Vent) could be counted on for heals at nearly every request in-game, and he made it clear that it was his goal to join us on the 25-Man progression team.

As the roster continued to grow, our attention turned to raid attunement. As it had been with Naxxramas months earlier, our raid team would have to complete a series of quests in order to unlock access to the more difficult raids in TBC. Our sight was set on Gruul's Lair, the first 25-Man raid of the expansion. It didn't require an attunement, but instead, was itself a part of a larger attunement chain.

How much larger, you ask?

Stupidly large.

The Raid Attunement path for
The Burning Crusade (2nd rev.)

Attunement Absurdity

When I first pulled up the attunement diagram that someone had contributed to the Elitist Jerks forum, I thought it was some sort of joke. The flow chart read like a Zork dungeon map. A maze of arrows connected from one requirement to the next, flowing back and forth across both normal and heroic dungeon clears, never shy to toss in a reputation grind for flavoring. The first tier of content in TBC, Tier 4, was spread among two 25-Man raids (Gruul's Lair & Magtheridon's Lair) and -- in a bizarre move I do not understand to this day -- one 10-Man raid (Karazhan). However, once through Tier 4, in order to begin work on Tier 5 in Serpentshrine Cavern and Tempest Keep: The Eye, we had our work set out for us:

  1. Start the Karazhan Quest Line
  2. Start the Arcatraz Quest Line
  3. Clear the Mechanar (Normal)
  4. Clear the Botanica (Normal)
  5. Obtain a key to the Arcatraz (Normal)
  6. Clear the Arcatraz (Normal)
  7. Clear the Steamvault (Normal)
  8. Clear the Shadow Labyrinth (Normal)
  9. Start the Caverns of Time Quest Line
  10. Clear the Caverns of Time: Escape from Durnholde (Normal)
  11. Clear the Caverns of Time: Black Morass (Normal)
  12. Obtain the Karazhan Key
  13. Grind to Revered with the Sha'tar,
  14. Obtain a key to the Arcatraz (Heroic)
  15. Clear the Arcatraz (Heroic)
  16. Grind to Revered with the Cenarion Expedition
  17. Obtain a key to the Steamvault and Slave Pens (Heroic)
  18. Enter the Slave Pens (Heroic) and obtain the quest for the key to Gruul's Lair
  19. Clear Karazhan (10-Man Clear)
  20. Clear Gruul's Lair (25-Man Clear)
  21. Complete the key quest, thus obtaining the key to Serpentshrine Cavern (Attunement 1 Complete)
  22. Start the Shattered Halls (Heroic) key quest.
  23. Grind to Revered with Honor Hold
  24. Obtain a key to Shattered Halls (Heroic)
  25. Start the Tempest Keep: The Eye Quest Line
  26. Clear the Shattered Halls (Heroic)
  27. Grind to Revered with Lower City
  28. Obtain a key to Shadow Labyrinth (Heroic)
  29. Clear the Shadow Labyrinth (Heroic)
  30. Clear the Slave Pens (Heroic)
  31. Clear the Steamvault (Heroic)
  32. Complete the key quest, thus obtaining the key to Tempest Keep: The Eye (Attunement 2 Complete)
What was the purpose behind this complexity? I understood the basic need for gating content, a conversation I had with Kadrok not too long ago. Gates acted as a preventative measure to squelch an unhealthy volume of complaints from the masses -- the casuals that would cry "too hard" and "nerf raids!!", forever diminishing any real challenge to the seasoned raider. But to this excess? What were they attempting to vet? Our raid competency...or our ability to deal with incessant bullshit?

When I looked back at this diagram and saw four grinds in place of one, the Naxxramas attunement seemed tame in comparison. The sheer volume of attunement requirements in The Burning Crusade seemed excessive to such a degree, I couldn't help but wonder how much it would impact our casual/hardcore raiding roster the further we dug into the content. If I lost a Main Tank in the middle of Tempest Keep, it would mean starting the process over again from scratch. Certainly not something that could be completed in time for the weekend raid.

We chipped away at this Shawshank attunement with our rock hammer toons. Weeks passed before Ater was able to start fielding a Karazhan group. Once word began to spread among the guild, that spark of of raiding excitement returned. Players started to reach out, get their foot in the door, do whatever they could to start polishing up their gear. And while I was caught up in the excitement along with the rest of the guild, I failed to take notice of a simple oversight regarding communication and setting expectations.

That first week of Karazhan proved to me that after two years...I was still hyper-focused on myself, and not on the needs of my guild. My continued immaturity in leadership would cost me my first loss to a competing hardcore guild, and leave the faucet open to leak further.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

2.2. Business and Pleasure

"Great Green Elekk"
Artwork by MarĂ­a Teresa

The Elekk in the Room

If you play video games in your spare time, and you've ever had to carry yourself in any sort of social situation, there is an awkward aura that permeates the room like a noxious gas. Business associates tip a glass of wine to their lips, raise their eyebrows in a contrived sense of interest, and suddenly the once comfortable and relaxing happy hour grows...uncomfortable. You lean in with excitement and describe to your colleagues the process of positioning Onyxia, taking care to glorify certain phrases like "40 players online at once" and "five weekends of work", seeing if you can catch a glimpse of surprise in their deeply plastic expressions. For a moment, you forget about any biases in the world that people harbor towards video gaming, and that your fellow employees are genuinely fascinated by the struggles of managing a guild.

"Wow, that's pretty cool! Yeah, my son plays a lot of xbox in his spare time..."

...and you're snapped back to reality. 

You smile, sit back and take a drink, and taper off the conversation about World of Warcraft. They don't get it. To them, managing a raiding guild, coordinating the schedules of 40 other players to coalesce at once, week-after-week, the effort of practicing a boss over-and-over in the hopes of standing above its lifeless body with a feeling of accomplishment and teamwork...to them, it means as much as a game of Bejeweled. A five-minute distraction on Facebook when the work day is running a little long in the tooth. Every technology-based job I had moved through was like this. I was surrounded by programmers, system administrators, all deeply tech-saavy folks...and none of them gamed. Not a one.

It was depressing and sad. It was the life of a lowly gamer, caught up in Corporate America.

A snippet of the ColdFusion Markup Language (CFML)

Putting Ater on the Payroll

You can begin to imagine the flood gates bursting open with my discovery of Ater and his professional career. We were both ColdFusion web app developers. For the first time in over a year, we were talking about things other than WoW: Tech, programming, sharing our respective career paths, and where they led us. We talked about all the projects we'd been involved in, laughed about the same dumb problems that continually came up. Dealing with shitty clients, managing project schedules and the stress of looming deadlines...

...and how difficult it was to carry on any kind of a mature discussion about gaming with our colleagues.

I couldn't believe the odds...what luck was this? Finally, another person to be able to share discussions with about career paths as well as World of Warcraft, and I pressed him further. So when he revealed to me that he was dissatisfied with his current job, my heart began to pound. Holy Fuck, I thought, is it possible that he would consider coming to work at my company? The very idea made me shake. With Ater's leadership qualities and passion for getting things done, the possibilities he could bring to the table were endless. Was this even a viable option? Would there be any small chance in Hell I could find a way to swing this?

Could I actually convince my boss to hire my raid leader?

The prospect blew my mind. For years I had slaved at tech companies, surrounded by programmers and administrators who couldn't give a rat's ass about playing video games. Now, for the first time in my career, I not only could have a competent peer at my side to discuss both web development and video gaming, it would be none other than my very own raid leader and mentor. Never again would I have to try to describe World of Warcraft to a group of people pretending to be nice. Ater could potentially be by my side at the office, helping me to build better software, strategizing the management of DoD while we coded. But he was in Texas, I was up in Colorado. Was moving even an option? How realistic was this?

---

I walked into my boss's office the next morning, and pushed Ater's resume toward him with an outstretch index finger.

"You need to hire this guy. Immediately. I'll put him up if I have to. Whatever it takes."

He flipped the pages up with his thumb, "Texas! An 'out-of-state'-er...what makes this guy so good?"

"He gets things done. Amazing leadership qualities, and a real attention to detail."

"So have you worked with him?"

I looked back at my boss.

"Yeah. For over a year."

Players on the Deathwing-US realm swarm The Dark Portal,
minutes before the midnight release of The Burning Crusade,
Blasted Lands

The Dark Portal Opens

On the evening of January 16th, we coalesced at the Dark Portal, ready to step through the gate when the clock struck midnight. Moments earlier, Blain joined us, and...true to his word...re-rolled to a Blood Elf Rogue to begin anew. More familiar faces joined us as the Deathwing-US flocked to the Blasted Lands. At the stroke of midnight, The Dark Portal opened, and we passed through the twisting nether, bracing for the world that awaited us on the other side. Outland was a barren, red-tinted wasteland, a harsh world ravaged by war. All of our power and prestige began to fade. Within a few hours of digging into the new content, much of our raid-acquired weaponry and armor was replaced with silly, green-quality gear. The guild would take turns announcing in guild-chat what laughable quest reward had replaced the gear they had worked for months to acquire, rewards that involved menial tasks like killing Hellboars or discovering a mine shaft -- a far cry from Maexxna, to be sure.

The dominance we held over other players by sheer item level alone melted away, hour after hour, as the playing-field flattened out. As soon as we had enough people for a 5-man dungeon, we banded together and started running Hellfire Ramparts...and were shocked to discover how short it was. I had been tempered on the brutality of instances like 10-Man Scholomance, taking several hours (as casuals) to complete, slowly practicing and refining our clear efficiency, eventually getting it down to 45 minutes or less (as hardcore).

We were clearing Hellfire Ramparts in under 15 minutes. To say things had changed would have been an understatement.

Before long, we were clearing through The Blood Furnace. And while I refreshed my new Earth Shield on Ater, Dandrak and Crazzyshade combined their Mage and Warlock powers to blow Keli'dan the Breaker apart. I glanced down through the gate we stood on, peering far into the hidden chamber below us, and caught my first glimpse of an imprisoned Pit Lord, demanding that he be released -- his blood being siphoned away to power an army of Fel Orcs. You'll get what's coming to you, Magtheridon. Descendants of Draenor is on its way to return to its former raiding glory.

Keli'dan cried out, claiming we were ruining his plans, and slumped to the floor.

"Again?" I asked. The group concurred. I shot a whisper to Ater:

"All set for the interview?"

"Yup! All set."

"Nice. We'll see you at the airport!"

Thursday, August 2, 2012

2.1. Preparing for the Dark Portal

Part II: The Burning Crusade

"Remind them that they have accomplished something significant...otherwise, there's nothing that differentiates them from the carries..."


World of Warcraft login screen, during
The Burning Crusade ('07-'09) era
Copyright © 2007 Blizzard Entertainment

The End of the 40-Man

On the evening I turned 32 years old, I lined up next to thirty-nine of my fellow raiders in front of the fallen Maexxna, deep within the Arachnid Quarter of Naxxramas. It was November 5th, 2006; we had been clearing endgame content for a little over a year. We weren't the furthest progressed raiding guild in that era, but given our shortcomings and late start, we'd left a significant dent in our wake. Descendants of Draenor had grown from a tiny group of CounterStrike-playing friends, to a powerhouse of a raiding machine that fielded two full 40-Man raids per week. And, I think we did a pretty good job of keeping our energy focused inward, so trolling in /general chat and on the Battle.net forums was never an issue. I was very lucky; I had some of the greatest class officers at the time, all passionate about working together as a team. They made Descendants of Draenor a fun guild to be a part of, taking pride in who we were and our array of raiding accomplishments. And so, it was our screenshot in front of Maexxna that remains bittersweet in my memory, as it was the last official 40-Man boss kill we would execute in progression.

On the horizon loomed The Burning Crusade, a mere two months away. I had a lot to think about as those weeks trickled down. The Dark Portal would re-open, guiding us back to Outland -- previously known as Draenor, the home world of the Orcs and the very world from which we took our guild name. Faction lines would blur with the addition of Paladins to the Horde, and Shamans to the Alliance. The new races of Draenei and Blood Elf were added to the game, and for the first time, we would be able to experience the freedom of flight in Outland, thanks to the introduction of flying mounts. We would also gain access to a new profession, Jewelcrafting, enhancing our gear by cutting gems and affixing them within sockets -- not unlike the system employed in Diablo II. All of these well-known, heavily-hyped changes paled in comparison to the one real change that would affect us the most:

40-Man raids would be killed in favor of the new, more manageable size of a 25-Man.

From a practical standpoint, the downsizing made sense. Smaller meant less-of-a-nightmare to manage and coordinate. But for a guild that was more like an extension of a player's family, how exactly does a Guild Leader go about saying, "Sorry, you 15 people...but you're just not good enough..."? I dreaded the job that needed to be done, kept my mind focused on other things, ignoring the inevitable. I hoped that players would take their leave without my intervention. And some did....the good players. It was the folks that lacked basic common sense, unable to hold a conversation without offending every person in the virtual room, making bewildering claims like "I dunno how to check my E-mail"...they were the ones that remained, lingering like a wart you hope will go away on its own.

Warts don't go away, they have to be excised. It's painful to do...and painful to watch.

Descendants of Draenor attack Highlord Kruul as
the days count down to The Burning Crusade,
Searing Gorge

Filling Officer Spots

As players took their leave of WoW, so too, did a handful of the officer core. The reasons were many. Some were done with raiding and wished to explore PvP further, with the introduction of arenas in TBC. Haribo the Priest and Annihilation the Warrior gracefully stepped out of the raiding limelight for this reason. Others were ready to move on to new challenges in new video games. My Hunter officer, Kaleu, took this route, along with my Mage officer, Selga. Still others felt the burden of real life weighing down on them, and had to make a difficult decision to walk away from WoW and the guild. My Warlock officer Gutrippa was tasked with raising a daughter by himself. I knew well the burden a single parent must bear, having been raised by one. He was right to prioritize his time as a parent over that of a video game, so I wished him the very best, and supported his decision.

With five officers down, I turned to who remained. My Shaman officer, Kadrok, had re-rolled to a Paladin, as did the next-best Shaman on our team, Klocker, leaving me sole heir to the Shaman-healing throne. For now, I managed the Shamans in an unofficial capacity, while Kadrok took on the Paladins. Dalans had no intention on leaving, so the Druids were still cared for in his naturally abrasive style. Blain continued on as the Rogue class officer, and Ater manned the Warriors in Annihilation's absence. Blain, however, wished to reduce his level of involvement in raid leadership, choosing instead to follow Haribo and Annihilation into arenas. He assured me he'd still contribute to progression, but would no longer have the time to coordinate and lead. I asked Ater if he'd be fine, saddled with this sole responsibility of raid leadership; he assured me he would. His marching orders were to find Blain's replacement, a player suitable to assist in the coordination of our progression team.

As for the remaining roles, they were filled by the number twos left in charge by their respective class officers. The side-effect of our cancer-like growth in Vanilla was a ridiculous amount of player management. Once the 40-Man was split into an A-team and B-team, I directed the officers to each appoint their respective Number Two, a player with leadership qualities that would assume their responsibilities in B-team while we carried on into progression. For the Warlocks, this was Dreadlocker, a fiesty player that famously screamed out "ORANGE HAMMER!" during our first kill of Ragnaros. In the Hunter department, Kaleu had chosen Skarg, an excellent player with a radio announcer-quality voice; soon to handle all of the countdowns in Vent. And as for the Priests, Haribo chose his PvP partner Neps, a player originally in the roster as a Rogue, but whom had recently cut over in the hopes of following in Haribo's priestly footsteps.

No Mage number two had ever been selected by Selga; our pool of Mages had been so small that he was able to manage them by himself. With Selga's exit, the pool dried up to such a degree that no viable option remained. I left the post unfilled. The Mages would suffer as a result of this neglect.

phpRaider, a web-based raid scheduling tool

The Discovery

Over the next few weeks, I had a number of discussions with Ater about what changes we needed to think about in terms of raiding. There were a variety of contentious issues: the amount of time necessary for adequate raid progression, our DKP system and its convoluted rules, and the absence of an adequate tool to manage our roster and scheduling. The Burning Crusade introduced the concept of a raid flask: a buff that would enhance a player's performance, which was purchased via "marks" that dropped from trash in instances. These flasks ran on a two-hour timer. We agreed, therefore, to bump our raid evening's length to a multiple of two, in order to gain the maximum amount of value out of these flasks. Two hours was not enough, we reasoned, so the next best option became four hours.

Next, we modified our DKP system so that items were no longer a fixed price; a carry-over from Gurgthock's original DKP system used within Elitist Jerks. As well as it worked, it was an administrative nightmare to constantly come up with prices on items that everyone agreed on. But as items became more complex, along with the introduction of tokens that were shared among classes, the fixed-price system became unwieldy and bloated. To embrace simplicity, we converted to a private bidding DKP system, in which players would bid what the item was worth to them. Ater and I agreed this would balance itself out accordingly, subject to the economics of supply and demand. Players would continue to earn DKP per the rules of a zero-sum system, but items would ultimately be priced by the players themselves.

To combat the problems surrounding roster management and raid scheduling, Ater and I looked into a multitude of web-based systems, finally deciding on phpRaider, which allowed players to sign-up for raids through our forums, providing them with up-to-date statuses on raid rotations. It also allowed us to keep a close eye on our pool, where our deficiencies were, and what classes we had an abundance of. It was during this web app research with Ater that I made a startling discovery about his career...

...he was a professional ColdFusion web application developer by trade -- the exact same career path as my own.