Tuesday, July 2, 2013

3.15. Killing the Flautists

Mature and crew knock out the
10-Man version of "The Twilight Zone",
Obsidian Sanctum

Theory vs. Reality

Eleven minutes after Ghostcrawler announced to the audience that his favorite pastimes included long walks on the beach, drinking Gin, and nerfing Paladins, a gamer addressed the panel of developers seated at the front of the auditorium. To her, the question was a legitimate concern; in her eyes, the design made made no sense and seemed illogical when scrutinized.

"It seems like some classes have to take PvP talents in order to reach the 31 point talent. Was this intentional? And if so...why?"

I picked up on her indignant tone and continued to listen, flanked by several members of Descendants of Draenor to my left and right. I knew where this was headed, but was intrigued by how Blizzard would respond.

Ion Hazzikostas leaned towards the mic and asked in return, "Can you give us an example of what you would consider a PvP talent?"

She stumbled a moment, flipping through the multitude of talent pages in her head, trying to zero in on an example worthy of this complaint.

"Shamans. The talent, I believe, that lets them take less...magic damage?"

Ion was quick to respond, "True, but isn't that useful in PvE? Essentially, if you aren't tanking, all the damage that you take...whether it be in a 5-man dungeon or in a raid...is going to be magic damage." He expounded on this by digging deep into Blizzard's changing philosophy of choice vs. "false" choice of talent specs in the next expansion, but the gamer was unsatisfied with this answer, and pushed Ion further.

"But as a caster, in some of those cases, you really shouldn't be getting hit anyway. There are the area-of-effects that are constantly going on, but in some cases, there's really no reason for you to be getting hit."

I leaned over to Goldenrod and whispered, "What, you've never made a mistake before?" He smiled back in agreement. Who was she trying to convince? Blizzard...or herself?

Ion's response summed up my thoughts exactly, "In an ideal world, none of these things would be needed. In an ideal world, an ability like combat rez wouldn't be needed, because people wouldn't be dying. In reality...people die."

We joined in the applause as Ion's message hit home. The raiding community in World of Warcraft was especially tuned to the nuances of reality when setting foot in Azeroth; we'd had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us, damage wise. We'd suffered fire damage from Ragnaros, Shadow Flames from Nefarian, damage from pools of lava, void zones, arcane explosions, bombs, even weapons without owners took a chunk of our health away. Taking damage was a fact of life in raiding, and to us, there was no need to stand in line at BlizzCon and burn a question about survivability prerequisites. The game was like that by design.

Yet questions of this nature are repeatedly posed by the community, each more suspiciously naive that the previous. They cement the notion that there are a massive amount of players in the community that are missing something.

Mature and crew knock out the 10-Man
version of "A Poke in the Eye",
The Eye of Eternity

The Big Picture

Blizzard has a window into the game that you and I will never see. Behind closed doors, they are able to extract data, analyze patterns, see trends rise and fall, and use this criteria to make thoughtful decisions about their changes moving forward. They have made mistakes in the past, but have been a reasonably noble company in admitting when they are wrong, and not repeating those mistakes...far more than many other equitable companies in the game industry. One of their first big mistakes they made -- the implementation of PvP and PvE rewards using the exact same visuals (during TBC) was never repeated again, nor was the brutally complex mechanics of a raid at entry-level, such as with the case with the original Magtheridon. We knew it was a logistical nightmare to co-ordinate, and this would've been fine for late-game. At entry level, however, it was an artificial road-block that was a bit heavy-handed. Blizzard acknowledged this, and the mistake was never repeated.

The WoW player base, however, seemed to be growing in the general direction of "complain first, solve later" as their approach in dealing with a part of the game they couldn't understand. This concept is foreign to a seasoned gamer. We thrill in the hunt, to figure the puzzle out on our own. Whether this trend in the community grew out of sheer volume (the player base had ballooned up to 11 million players worldwide, having been closer to 7 million during The Burning Crusade), or as a result of Ghostcrawler and his fellow blue posters becoming more responsive on the forums, I can't say for certain. But I knew I had a limited view into the Matrix, and the answer would reveal itself if I put forth the effort. Players often see WoW through their own jaded lenses, reflecting back the narrow picture of a world where things don't go their way.

They lack the big picture. And it fuels their rage.

So while the masses of players continued to stomp their feet when things didn't go their way, I opted to err on the side of giving Blizzard the benefit of the doubt when I came across a bewildering design decision. True, I've been a gamer my entire life, so I have a pretty good handle on what I think is fun. And thanks to my career, I like to think I understand the complexities of software development, granting me perspective into the long hours it takes to produce even the most basic game mechanics that players take for granted. But I'm still just a gamer. I'm not a professional game designer. I keep that in the back of my mind when a  particular piece of the game puzzles me, doesn't seem to make sense, doesn't seem to be balanced or fair. It's what gives me pause before I rush out and jump on the forums, claiming Blizzard is just a bunch of asshats. Instead, I take a step back and wonder,

What part of the picture don’t I have?

Mature continues to whore up achievements,
raising 15 reputations to Exalted,

Benched On Purpose

The first round of achievements Blizzard delivered to us at the start of Wrath were fantastic. They got our raiding juices flowing and challenged us to push it to the limit. The Twilight Zone was an especially great way to let us crank up the difficulty, based on our team makeup and level of commitment. If you wanted to jump straight into 3-drakes, Godspeed. For us, baby steps were our bread and butter, so it made more sense for us to twist the dials a little bit at a time. The beauty of the design was how each achievement tested us in each area. Buried beneath the clever puns and in-jokes in their titles lay quantifiers that validated your skill as a raid team. Can you figure out a way to inflate DPS beyond what your team's gear allows? How well can your team communicate and coordinate? Is your team disciplined enough to make excellent time? If your team ignored a mechanic that would otherwise make the boss unkillable, could you still do it? There were a wide variety of achievements Blizzard gave us to test the 25-Man Progression team's competency; we gladly stepped up and showed them we could do it.

When we whittled the majority of the meta-achievements away, I began to see a strange trend emerge. Among those achievements that remained, there lacked a certain focus around the accomplishments of the team. In fact, one might go so far as to say those raiding achievements appeared to test how well a team didn't work together. Subtraction, The Dedicated Few, and A Poke in the Eye all required us to bring no more than 20 players to the instance. At first, I explained away their odd requirements as an exercise in competency under duress. Less players meant less DPS, less heals. Enrage timers would be tighter. Mana pools would be thinned. Each contributor would have to min/max to a much greater degree. Per my modus operandi, I sided with Blizzard and justified the design of the achievements. Putting a tiny bit of thought into Blizzard’s intent granted me the satisfaction of believing I understood their design.

Persuading the team of that intent was a different story entirely.

The raiders were less than enthusiastic about sitting on the bench in order to accomplish these achievements. I made it clear: these metas were a minor inconvenience, yet very necessary for the ultimate goal of achieving Heroic: Glory of the Raider. Everyone would be given an opportunity to churn through so that we all could claim it in our toons. I did my best to convince them, but as I continued to deal with the drama of players being uncomfortable sitting out, I began to question who I was trying to convince...the raiders, or myself?

Even though we were a guild whose ideals dictated that a team was a sum greater than its parts, I was still only months into the reboot of the guild. The past still lingered, and individual insecurities managed to squeeze out of the raiders' pores once we revealed the raider rotations for first shot at these metas.

"Why do I have to wait until week three?", they'd ask me in private.

God. Does it matter? We’re all going to get it done. But to them...it mattered. Self-doubt lingered in my avoidance in addressing their concern. Maybe they weren't as valuable as they originally thought. Maybe the clarity of my new rank system, denoting Raiders as general purpose, and Elite as star-performers wasn't as transparent as intended. Maybe after building up their self-esteem and making them believe they were better than they gave themselves credit for...these rotations spoke the cruel truth to them.

...or maybe they were reading too much into it.

I was annoyed. For Blizzard to ask us to chop our team up in order to prove they were capable was blatantly contradictory. I'd assembled a complete orchestra of players to perform, and was then instructed to kill the entire flute section, while the audience still expected a symphony. Quantifying a raid team's skill under duress could have been accomplished a number of ways: increasing the boss's health, inflating the boss's damage, hitting our healers with a raid-wide debuff that inhibited their heals...the list goes on. And in typical Blizzard fashion, they would acknowledge that this design was faulty -- that they had rushed into giving us this first round of achievements without the proper foresight. Blizzard never again asked us to leave players behind in order to accomplish great raiding feats of strength.

For the time being, however, the damage was done. In order to churn a reduced number of raiders through the instances so that everyone could claim Heroic: Glory of the Raider, we lost valuable weeks working on what would come to epitomize a fundamental lack of insight into achievement design -- an achievement that had great aspirations, yet very dire ramifications in its reckless implementation:

The Immortal.


Anonymous said...

Loved your blog , waiting for me read all 41 posts .The way you have put ur experiences into words is a gem. I never got to experience retail , I used to play on private servers since tbc. Can't wait for the next addition . Cheers

Keirathi said...

I just read through this entire series of blogs, and I must say, it was a thoroughly engrossing read, and very well written. The nostalgia is overwhelming.

Your story mirrors so much of my own story throughout the course of WoW. I'm pretty sure I'll remember for the rest of my life the day our guild rang the gong to open Ahn'Qiraj on my server (Nowhere to Run guild, Daggerspine-US, Horde side), or the complete feeling of...euphoria the day we finally killed C'thun. The explosion on vent was truly EPIC. I still enjoyed raiding throughout TBC/Wrath/Cata, but nothing ever really had that same feeling of accomplishment that vanilla raiding had.

You almost make me want to write up my memories and experiences. I'm kind of bummed that I don't have the same resources (old forum posts, pictures, etc) as you to draw details from, though, as a lot are either lost to time or have become much more hazy than yours seem to be.

Moving on, I wanted to talk about 10 man vs 25 man raids. Throughout WotlK, my new guild (which was a combination of some of my closer friends from my NWTR days, and some other server natives that we had met) pushed through with 25s raiding because it offered the best loot. It was expected if you wanted to be considered "legitimate".

The problem with that was, much like the days of 40 man raids in Vanilla, we had a core group of 12-15 people who were solid, reliable players, and everyone else was what you so elegantly referred to as "carries". They weren't necessarily BAD players, but there was a revolving door of them. People who would show up whenever they felt like it/were able to, and do their job just well enough that we (eventually) succeeded. Nothing more, nothing less.

And sometimes, they didn't stick around, or couldn't make it enough to even be relied on to show up. We weren't a "hardcore" guild by any stretch of the imagination. We were casuals in almost every sense of the word, except we had such a solid group of leaders/core raiders that we were able to overcome the obstacles and still push through all WOTLK content (except Heroic LK *grumble*).

While there are some definite upsides to that kind of guild philosophy, the downside was that recruiting was pretty damn hard. The hardcore raiders looking for a guild naturally gravitated towards the more hardcore guilds on the server, leaving us with slim pickings. And we were on a small server, so even just getting enough new, moderately competent people to keep up with the attrition was extremely difficult. We never really got the numbers to even be picky about who came to raids, sometimes even struggling to field a full 25.

In comes Cata, and the homogenization of loot. Suddenly we weren't pigeon-holed into struggling to keep the player roster full. It was kind of a godsend for our guild. We were able to do what had been done at the start of TBC: trim the fat. It reduced the stress on the officers having to deal with recruitment, and just made the logistics of fielding a raid easier, without the feeling of diminishment in rewards.

I agree with you that it probably led, at least in part, to the way the game started dying in Cata. And I don't think it was a particularly great design decision from the devs. I was kind of annoyed by it myself when it was announced.

But, in hindsight, it was probably the singular decision that kept my guild around (and together) through Cata. Had it stayed (roughly) the same as WotLK, I feel like either we would have eventually lost the war of attrition with the revolving door of players coming and going, or our guild leaders would have quit the game from burnout of having to deal with it.

Anyways, that was a long story! TL;DR, enjoyed the blog very much. Bookmarked to keep checking back!

Shawn Holmes said...


Thanks for the read, and the great response here.

I hope by this stage of the story, I'm getting the point across that delivering a competitive raiding environment that *wasn't* hardcore absolutely *was* a difficult endeavor to take on...

...but not impossible.

Yeah, it took some more thought in order to recruit (and keep) talent, something I stumbled through during Vanilla and TBC like a drunk on a weekend bender. By Wrath, I felt I had a good system in place, which prevented us from having to succumb to the 10m style.

Cata is a different story. I'm getting there!

Keirathi said...


Yea, your system seemed to work well for you guys in Wrath.

I think one of the main differences in your guild and mine was that we were constantly tip-toeing the line between over-recruiting and keeping enough active people in guild to consistently field a 25 man raid team.

As much as it feels good for the core group to have 50 people to choose from to fill out the raids on any given night, we also realized how much it *sucks* to be one of those people who continually get sat, despite you already clearing your time schedule to be online and available for the raid.

So instead we played the tip-toe game. Trying to absolutely minimize the amount of people we were sitting each and every night.

It was a nightmare :(

Shawn Holmes said...


ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS be recruiting. Once Wrath hit, I never stopped. I was in a constant state of pouring new recruits into the guild.

That was the one of the *key* requirements to the "keeping players accountable" part of my rebooted rules in Wrath.

When we didn't have enough players at the "Raider" rank to churn through rotations, the control lay with *them*: they were free to eff around, be lazy, play at a sub-par level...but there was nothing I could do. I couldn't rotate them out--we needed them! Thus, they held the control, not me.

I ended that in Wrath by CONSTANTLY RECRUITING. Now, if you were a poor performer, there'd be no opportunity to repeat the double-standard mistakes of Vanilla. Mess up, you're out...and I have new people waiting in the wings to replace you.