Thursday, April 18, 2013

3.1. Perestroika

Part III: Wrath of the Lich King

"It would never work, just as communism would never work in the real world, but if you look at it on paper, isn't it an excellent idea?"

World of Warcraft login screen, during the
Wrath of the Lich King ('09-'11) era,
Copyright © 2009 Blizzard Entertainment

The Restructure

In the summer of 2008, I had a lot to think about.

I built Descendants of Draenor from a group of people I used to play Quake and CounterStrike with, to a guild of hundreds. Over the course of both Vanilla and The Burning Crusade, the original ideals I set out for DoD evolved into two core goals. In Vanilla, my priority was to construct and grow a guild with other players of a similar, mutually respectful mindset. I accomplished this by building a solid core of friendly, helpful, skilled players. In turn, this catalyzed the assimilation of other guilds who shared that mindset. With a core reflecting my own ideals in place, we began to dabble in raiding. Initially, we saw impressive success, but it was haphazard and lacked focus. By The Burning Crusade, a second goal for DoD emerged: To make a real competitive push in endgame raid progression without having to maintain a hardcore schedule. We were working men and women after all, we couldn't be expected to raid until midnight (or later) throughout the week. I implemented changes during TBC to drive new behaviors surrounding raiding. We clearly identified the expectation of the raider, and what our unified goal was: the constant, consistent defeat of raid bosses, keeping pace with other hardcore guilds. I also stressed personal responsibility, compelling the guild to re-examine each player's individual level of contribution. Via these changes, we were able to maintain a two day per week raid schedule. It was this very schedule which allowed us to clear all of the content up through Black Temple, ending with an Illidan kill before he was nerfed in 3.0.

But there were other struggles beyond the schedule I had to give serious thought to. Players came and went in our raid rotations, and it frustrated the core players, leaving them stressed out. We had to retain a large pool of people to choose from, in the case that we had emergencies or last-minute-cancellations, and those fillers often left a lot to be desired. The disparity between player skill levels was vast. People coming and going also led to a decrease in overall raid performance. The "revolving door" of our guild also led to another issue: brand new players joined, raided, won items that my core had been working toward for weeks, then switched guilds the next day, effectively pissing off the entire raid team. Morale among progression was a roller coaster of highs and lows.

On top of all of this, my raid leader, Blain, had quit the game -- burned out from the exhaustion of having to deal with so many failed players, a cornucopia of excuses, and the lack of that "spark"; a willingness to simply cut out the excuses, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, and dig in to endgame content until it was farmed. When he joined DoD at the start of Blackwing Lair, my then-warrior officer Ater had warned me, "he's going to whip this group into shape, but he's not going to make a lot of friends doing it." Ater and Blain played together previously in Lineage II, and Blain had made a name for himself as being detail-oriented and focused on doing whatever it took to be the best. When he joined the rogues, they were the most under-performing group of players in my guild. He walked into our raid wearing gear from Zul'Gurub and Dire Maul, yet within minutes, Blain was not only destroying the other rogues in DPS, he was quickly shooting to the top of the entire damage meters. He went on to become my raid leader for the duration of Vanilla, broke briefly at the start of TBC, but re-assumed his role when it was time to set the raid team straight. He then held the position all the way through the death of Illidan the Betrayer. By then, nearly four years later, he was completely spent. Nearly four years of listening to "This is too hard", "You're such an asshole!", "Why are you pushing us into more difficult content when we don't have the items we need from earlier bosses?"...he was done.

I didn't want him to go, but I didn't blame him.

These were only the in-game issues weighing heavily on me. I had a family that I was putting on the back-burner, and a career that was stagnating. I had to give some serious thought to how I was going to run Descendants of Draenor from here on out. The person whom I looked to for general leadership and guidance, Ater, was gone; I was officially on my own. I took my summer vacation out at my Dad's farm in a town called Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan -- a speck in the northern reaches of the Canadian prairies. Here, hours and hours away from any metropolitan city, I could step out on the deck at night, look up, and see nothing but stars. I'd stare upwards and lose all sense of time. No noise. No distractions. I let my mind go blank. All the stresses of the world washed away. I didn't care about the problems at work. I wasn't stressed about my family situation. And, it goes without saying, the pressures of running the guild were gone. Finally, I was able to think straight.
Kerulak, my main during Vanilla
Shattrath City

Learning from the Past

While I contemplated the state of my guild and where I wanted to go with it, I explored new avenues to gain insight and perspective. I read "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" by Patrick Lencioni, a fascinating tale of a failing company and its various employees, locked in a constant state of finger-pointing, stubbornness, and old habits. Although intended for the entrepreneurial crowd, I found an amazing amount of parallels between it and the difficulties I was experiencing managing a raiding guild. The book spoke to my plight so accurately that I paraphrased many of its concepts in a forum post that would help align the raid team during their preparation for Archimonde. Now on vacation, I returned to those notes, and re-purposed them into a new post entitled "Why Raid Teams Fail". In my post, I simply reiterated the same core fundamentals that Lencioni touched on. Instead of targeting a company and employees, my post was tailored for a WoW guild and its raiding members. I reviewed the forum post, and all at once, I had a path to follow.

This post would be the outline for my restructure.

Descendants of Draenor had been following the same set of unwritten rules I set forth since its inception in late 2004. Although we were still together and things seemed fine on the surface, there were cracks in the foundation. I had a raid team that, while successful, drained a massive amount of energy to manage and coordinate. I also had players of such vastly different skill levels contributing to raids that progression would stagnate for weeks at a time. This led to increased administration on my part, which forced me in-game for longer periods of time. I was pouring too much of myself in, and needed to balance my WoW time with my family and other external responsibilities. In order to accomplish that, I was going to need to refine and delegate. The guild would need a completely transparent set of expectations, unambiguous and unable to misinterpret. Every member would read them, confirm that they understood, and either meet those expectations...or be dismissed.

I reflected on the lessons I learned during Vanilla and The Burning Crusade, from the many individual experiences, players, and mentors that had come and gone. The highlights?:

Personally Oversee All Recruitment: The mass assimilation of guilds was a task I fielded solely during Vanilla. This granted me the luxury of first-hand knowledge of a person, and to go with my "gut" instinct when something felt right or wrong. This hands-on knowledge of people, in turn, was vital to the success of building a foundation comprised of guilds with similar mindsets as my own; it allowed us to make the leap to 40-Man Raiding. But in the course of TBC, I delegated much of the recruitment to my officer core. Each officer's opinion of a player varied too greatly. Thus, the pool of players that we expected to help us with raiding were suffered disparity. I solved this by personally taking on the recruitment process. All applications would go through me; there would be no more delegation of this task through officers. All invite privileges in-game were revoked. The public application forum (which often derailed into a flame fest) was locked. My guildies flaming n00bs during the app process went against everything I preached about being kind and respectful to fellow players and guilds. The open app process would come to an end. I would handle it from that point forward.

Everyone On the Same Page: "The Five Dysfunctions..." showed me that the team needed to speak a common language. The raid team's disharmony was sad and pathetic. It grew from (among other reasons) a generation gap; players in different age groups couldn't even agree upon the basic fundamentals. 38 year old players had a very different perspective on life than 17 year olds. If they couldn't see eye-to-eye on generalities outside the game, how could I expect them to form a cohesive team in-game? I imposed an age limit of 21 to diminish this generation gap. It wasn't about maturity -- it was about realignment.

Acknowledging Multiple Levels of Commitment: Ater taught me the value of acknowledging a player's contribution, and reminded me that players of different skill levels warranted hierarchical recognition. Players of poor quality fostered animosity among the team. Stellar players resenting foolish ones drained everyone's energy, and performance suffered as a result. Failing players could no longer be allowed to justify their behavior, and star players deserved priority over these mediocre folks. To solve this, I mapped out a hierarchy of ranks, each with its own requirements, rights, and responsibilities. Now, not only were there a clearly defined set of prerequisites that needed to be completed in order to set foot in a raid, players who exceeded them would be granted additional rewards and perks within the guild framework. Henceforth, two classes of player would be identified in the guild: "Raider" for general rotations, to come and go as they wished, and "Elite" for fixed rotations, whom I expected to be present every week, the rock stars of the team. The beauty of this solution was that the fixed rotation was perceived as a perk to the player, because they wanted to be there every week. And, by enforcing the attendance of the Elite, the overall performance of the team would remain high, instead of the sine wave of the past.

Elites Get 1st Round Bids: Players that treated our guild like a revolving door were murder for the progression team. Joining our team, gearing up...and then never setting foot in another raid again not only wound me into a ball of seething hatred, it flushed team morale down the toilet. I had a responsibility to provide some kind of incentive to keep stellar raiders returning to progression. In a somewhat controversial move, I introduced a change to our guild loot system, based off the aforementioned Elite rank. Players who gained the Elite rank by proving their consistent reliability and stellar performance would not only gain a guaranteed a spot in our raids, but would earn the option of a 1st-round bid, so that fleeting new members couldn't swoop in, bid and win the most powerful item in the dungeon, then hit the road the next day. This perk further incentivized players to outperform, and provided me with an additional layer of defense against cattledrivers; an in-joke we used when referring to top-geared raiders that suddenly left us high-and-dry.

Acknowledging Contribution Outside Elite: Not everyone that raided could hope to become Elite. Perhaps they weren't the greatest players in the world, or maybe not the most well-liked...but they still played a valuable role, and ought to be recognized for their efforts, even by contributing in some capacity without raiding. My vision of the new progression team would be comprised of a core of Elites, but it would be the Raiders (and others) that would allow us to continue to churn a rotation week-to-week, granting our members the schedule flexibility we committed to delivering. So, how would I recognize those non-Elites? I instituted the ability to earn a temporary "glory" rank for going above-and-beyond the call of duty, regardless of raid commitment. We would make a big deal about their contributions and assistance to the guild, both on the forums, and in-game with a special rank that granted access to the officer channel, even granting them temporary 1st-round bidding rights of the Elite rank, so that even non-hardcore players might be given a chance to shine. We'd name these players "Avatar".

Zanjina, my main during The Burning Crusade,
Black Temple

What Dreams May Come

The changes were significant. On paper, it read like an employee handbook. Was I going to scare people away? Would they look at this restructure, think it was some sort of joke, and walk away, pointing and laughing? I had to take a deep breath and make an important decision. Up until that very moment, my biggest fear was failure; that the guild would be seen as a laughing stock in retrospect, that we weren't able to accomplish anything of any value. I didn't want the entire four years to have been a waste of time and energy. My gut spoke to me again, much more loudly than ever before. So I stood out on my father's deck, staring up at the night sky in Hudson Bay, and listened.

It is time to come to terms with this.

There is a very real possibility that these changes will cause the end of your guild. You have to be willing to accept it. Prepare for it. And when that day arrives, be it tomorrow or years from now, you need to be ready to move on. No more excuses, no more crying about what was, or what could have been. When you are ready to accept the end of your guild, only then can you truly take a hold of that vehicle, and drive it as you always meant to. 

At the precise moment I realized this, I gained a new outlook on my ability to lead; I was overcome with a sense of confidence and direction. Once the fear of losing my guild was gone, all at once, the cloudy path ahead became crystal clear.


I returned home from my summer vacation, posted an announcement hinting to the changes that I had planned, and began to draft the first post that would pave our way: Who We Are, and Who We Are Not.


Heather Hamilton said...

I remember you showing me a lot of these outlines BEFORE I left DoD btw. I remember you saying you were afraid this would cause a lot of issues, and I just said "Jump in head first, figure out the rest later".

Anonymous said...

Just finished reading all your memoirs to date in one go. Highly fascinating read; I hope you make it all into an ebook when you're done!

Can't wait for the next installment.

- ellori

Shawn Holmes said...


Thanks for the feedback!

Re: eBook, I'm investigating book options, we'll see what comes of them.

Jean-Marie said...

A few links on your text haven't been updated and are now broken...

Anonymous said...

I came across something about this blog in my Flipboard feed shortly before the July 4th holiday and I've since been slowly working my way through it. It's utterly captivating because it puts on full display how similar experiences for guilds in this tier are for WoW, or maybe even MMO players in general. I don't know if that post wherever it was resulted in a surge of traffic for you, but I have noticed a number of July 2016 comments being posted.

This is THE experience for so many people, not whatever you see published by world first race guilds and it's fascinating to see the old guild members weigh in on the leader's perspectives on some of these pivotal moments.

I was going to wait until I made it to the end to leave a comment, but felt I had to do so here because...where is tier 6.5? I missed out on the majesty of raiding in Vanilla, so Sunwell was the first time I saw a new raid tier really tell an otherwise successful guild, "You are not as good as you think you are."

Did you guys simply not bother with it?

Anonymous said...

I am enjoying your writing but because I don't play MMOs (as a girl, as a socially different person, your writing highlights very much that I Would Not Be Accepted), I am relying on your links to understand what you're talking about... but some of them are broken, or link to no longer there content. The link I came from said you're done with telling this story, but it would really help for at least some of the readers if you could check the links and fix them.

TMB said...

Very cool read. I left another comment anonymously, and since I've been moved to comment twice, I'll give a name of sorts this time.

My earlier comment dealt with my perception that raiding and guilds on WoW require a level of emotional maturity and sophistication that's largely absent in MMORPG players and among gamers generally. It's wonderful to read about your personal evolution, though, and your efforts to gain the skills necessary to run a guild that would be meaningful to its players. I'm really impressed that you created such a large guild from nothing, and that you held it together for so long.

I do think you give Blaine too easy a ride. You say he was burnt out due to so many failing players who called him an asshole. Trust me - and I don't need to know him to say this, because I know his type from my own guilds - he was an asshole. I endured a similarly pissy martinet in my first real raiding guild, and while I definitely appreciate that some players really don't take raiding seriously, that kind of obnoxious raid-leader personality poisons the experience for so many potentially great players. The martinet always thinks its tough love, when he'd be tossed out of any real-life experience for that kind of behavior.

"But he gets results," people say. "He GETS SHIT DONE." Well ... sometimes he did, but often his abrasive style was actually counterproductive. How do I know this? Because I experienced a different kind of raid leadership twice - once in my original guild, with the off-tank who led alt runs; his patience when there were problems allowed them to be solved a LOT more quickly. The other time was with my second raiding guild, when I actually got to the end of ICC. That raid leader was also great - supremely competent, top of his game always - but also ENCOURAGING and PATIENT. And for the mix of casual/hardcore/somewhere-on-the-spectrum-in-between players that we had, that was by far a more successful approach than the tyrant type.

It is what it is, though - that kind of real leadership in a MMORPG is rare. I was very lucky. And honestly, your journey of discovery as you led the guild through both successful and rocky times is quite heartwarming.