Thursday, October 31, 2013

3.39. Flying the Red Flag

Mature fills in on a Team Starflex clear of Ulduar,
earning "The Secrets of Ulduar (10 Player)",

What It Feels Like For a Raid Leader

Failing is, apparently, a subjective term.

Cheeseus' observation was wildly askew from my own, his intentions and motivations deeply affected by his past perceptions of hardcore raiding. I assumed this would be a challenging point-of-view to alter when I brought him on as raid leader -- but to see his attitude remain unwavering in the face of all that we had done was a tough pill to swallow. In his funk of failure, we were surrounded by evidence to the contrary. Five meta achievements remained on Glory of the Ulduar Raider (25 Player). Work would begin on Trial of the Grand Crusader that week. Plans were already set into motion as to how we would leverage the guild's resources and assign the next legendary weapon. Two fully equipped 25-Man raids were running on entirely different schedules each week. No bickering or in-fighting. No pending exodus. Morale at an all-time high. My inbox flooded with guild applications. And losing absolutely no one to further progressed guilds. To be quite honest, it was one of the first times in the history of Descendants of Draenor that we had very little to regret.

"I think we are a huge success in the grand scheme of raiding guilds that walk the casual line very closely. What would you quantify as our 'hard failures'?"

Cheeseus was very quick to point to the fine print.

"No hard modes, save those that have been nerfed."

His former days of Sunwell clearing were catching up with him. In our eyes, it was as different as night was to day. Reflecting upon our earlier years of wiping to trash, the rubber band had been pulled back, sling-shotting us forward into a new world where raiding was our oyster. But this gratified picture of our history came through misty, jaded eyes. Eyes that had bled and suffered; that had dealt with the loss of good people to reasons that were still tough to deal with. We'd scraped the bottom of the barrel and felt our egos singed and depleted. Today, Descendants of Draenor had been given new life. We were humbled to call ourselves a successful casual/hardcore raiding guild without having our moral compass spinning like a centrifuge in the process.

These things mattered little to an ex-hardcore raid leader.

The eyes of a rogue that drove his blades deep into Kil'jaeden saw a very different picture of the World. To Cheeseus, guilds like Enigma and Inertia should have been stomped into the dirt months ago. Every man, woman, and Ben in the guild should already have their Iron Bound Proto-Drakes, and be listed in the top ten of the world first raid completion leaderboard. Any attempts to justify poor play should be met with swift and brutal justice. Through these stilted eyes, the many successes Descendants of Draenor enjoyed were clouded by a fog of self-doubt. He saw no great successes; the minutia of realm-first losses crackled through his neocortex like a storm.

I slammed a wall-of-text into the IM window in an attempt to win back my raid leader.

Descendants of Draenor holds the #1 spot on
Deathwing-US for 10-Man (July 2009) as a result
of The Eh Team (Full Link via Wayback Machine)

The Adult Diaper Award

"We're never going to be at a level where we can compete with a guild like Enigma. You have to set your expectations appropriately when comparing our progress to others. Their people, their hours? It's unrealistic to measure our failures against a hardcore guild's successes. Try to remember that there are still guilds out there who can't get past Kologarn. Besides, I gauge guild success on many other criteria, beyond hard modes. Do my guild members work well together and treat each other with respect? Are they constantly bitching about loot or are they hyper-focused on getting content completed? Is it a pleasure to log into the game and Vent and hang with them throughout the week, or would I rather go sort my sock drawer?"

Before he had a chance to respond, I cranked it up a notch in an attempt to identify his personal contributions to our success.

"And in the 10-Man dept, competition, you've pushed the guild's name up to the top of the charts. You should be very proud of your accomplishments."

Telling an ex-hardcore raid leader that he is successful in 10-Man raids is like congratulating someone on not shitting themselves in public. As much as you'd like it to be a compliment, it isn't.

"Eh, I dunno. I feel like a failure. Between you and I, I'm having serious doubts about if I want to continue to raid lead or not."

I braced for the impact.

"I was hoping that a little break over BlizzCon would help recharge the batteries, but I'm already finding myself logging in on Friday/Sunday in a shitty mood, with a terrible mindset, only to get assailed with Taba's witty 'Cheese has a stick up his ass' followed by 4 hours of retardation over vent, Crasian's hypocritical love of Enigma and what they do, Omaric's suggestions to fix things that aren't broken, Six's 'I don't know why Cheese is being stubborn, I'll talk to him during the week', followed by him crying, then crying over my crying for having to put up with their shit. Then we have retards in raid who not only cause headaches by being there, but also make more 'drama' in officer, which is more fun."

Comes the crushing blow.

"I dunno, I'm trying to work my ass off, but for all the hours I'm putting in, I'm getting nothing but shit-on and people doing whatever they want to anyways, so I don't know how much longer I can put up with it."

It was apparent now that the stability of The Eh Team wasn't as sound a structure as we all assumed of the rock star 10-Man. Political dysfunction was bleeding into the 25-Man and causing Cheeseus' contempt towards our "lackluster" performance to grow like a weed. In turn, he hyper-focused on the 25-Man progression raid and its inability to reach perfection. And then blamed himself.

I turned my head to the side, the shadow of one of my office mates catching my eye, and as they moved on toward their desk, my gaze darted to the window a moment. I stared out, ignoring the view and weather, turning my thoughts inward to try to approach this problem, these million red flags flying in every direction. Do I try to work on individual members of The Eh Team and turn them around, thereby granting Cheeseus some slack? No, this was a bad proposition -- a short-term Band-Aid that might cover the bleeding now...but was certain to fall off the wound down the road. Pouring all of my energy into 'saving' Cheeseus would be fruitless and naive. The game plan shifted to that of contingency. Priority one: vet a new raid leader and get them ready to take the reins asap. He hadn't pulled that ripcord yet, but when he did, I had to be sure the plane still had a pilot.

Guess Who? by Milton Bradley

Bored Games

As it always has been, options were limited in the raid leadership department. I needed someone with staying power; clearly, this was an attribute I misread in Cheeseus. My mind flipped through various pages of in-memory guild profiles, names and faces of characters whirred by like a Descendants of Draenor rolodex. It should have been methodical, a careful scientific process. The psychologist puts his feet up on the couch, pipe lit, reviewing all the human conditions of his patients. He draws smoke into his lungs, and attempts to decipher their goals, their dreams; their integrity, motivations, and biases. I had no such piece of paper resting in a frame on my office wall, nothing to demonstrate I possessed any expertise in reading people and understanding their bizarre behaviors -- their ability to take logical, rational arguments and break them into pieces like a spoiled child abusing toys. I only had my gut. My experiences. My learned lessons of the past. And a general sense that I was heading in the right direction...

...which made my decision-making a little less clinical, and a little more like a game of Guess Who?, Descendants of Draenor™ Edition.

I looked at the freshly set up board in my head, a mix of Elites and officers, and walked the criteria list in an attempt to nail down the next mystery guest. Have they been with DoD a long time? I started flipping faces down: Sixfold, Mangetsu. Have they demonstrated a tendency to lead on their own? Down went Gunsmokeco and Sir Klocker. Have they red flagged me, giving me any reason to doubt their integrity? I reached for the Bretthew card, hesitating only due the incredible turnaround and track-record he'd been maintaining since his return. Tongue in cheek, I flipped his card down. Can they commit to every instance on our raid schedule? Down went more faces. Have you demonstrated expertise in a myriad of classes, not just your main? Another face hit the dirt as I flipped Jungard down. I sat back and looked at the dwindling faces that were left: Neps, Omaric, Dalans.

And then, I remembered Shadowmourne.

Whomever I chose for the next raid leader would most likely be the one to wield the legendary axe first, following in the same footsteps as Neps did with Val'anyr. I looked back at the board.

Do they use a 2-Handed Axe?

Down went the priest and the druid, both of whom had enough on their leadership plate. The last picture stared back at me.



"Omaric, got a few minutes?"

"Yeah, gimme a sec. Just finishing this dungeon on Ikey bear. I'm really digging the druid now, think I've decided I'm gonna make it my main."

Well, isn't this nice?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

3.38. Damage for Dessert

Shadowmourne is displayed for the first time,
BlizzCon '09

Peeling Onions

"So, who do you think will get it first?"

I eyeballed the photo someone had taken from BlizzCon a week earlier. There, an orc stood hunched over, a large axe tightly gripped in both hands. Its curved blade gave off a deep bluish glow, affixed with various markings and runes. As a guild leader, I stood aside on several occasions while other more deserving players were bestowed with weapons of legendary strength. I was fine with this. My job was to run a successful guild, so if others sacrificed of themselves to help in that endeavor, I'd offer whatever small token of appreciation I could in return for that loyalty. And as I gazed upon Shadowmourne's eery glow, players began to race through my mind. Ater had crafted Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the Windseeker; more recently, Neps came to be the bearer of Val'anyr, Hammer of Ancient Kings. We even managed to forge a Sulfuras, Hand of Ragnaros, but its fate was far less ceremonious in Descendants of Draenor. A weapon once coveted by all of Azeroth's warriors (and paladins, and shamans, and druids), ours fell into the hands of a random, no-name player who left the guild several weeks later. The poor luck of our streaky drops had gotten the best of all the officers who had attempted to suffer through years of running Molten Core, and they had all thrown up their hands in defeat. When the Eye of Sulfuras finally dropped, nobody of significance was present to receive the item. It went to a warrior who simply happened to the possess the necessary material components. And once he bore the legendary two-handed mace, his materials...was gone.

I would not make the same mistake twice.

The issuing of legendary weapons to guild members was something I took great pains to work through. It couldn't just be the first person with the materials, or the player furthest along in the quest. It had to be carefully planned out, ensuring that it would land in the hands of a player that not only deserved it, but whom would continue to carry it throughout our raids, adding to our combined strength. A decision of this significance brought to light many concerns I would've previously swept under the rug. Red flags took on entirely new levels of importance and players' ulterior motives had to be scrutinized. I wanted to assume the best in people, but a realistic approach was just as important -- greed absolutely could be a contributing factor to lead people to behave in new, manipulative ways. Ways that would make me think that giving them Shadowmourne first was the right decision, for the good of the guild.

The trick was how well could I peel back the onion.

"I dunno, perhaps Klocker. I'll have to see the stats first."

Ah, Sir Klocker. A faithful and trusted officer. A loyal guild member and confidant as far back as the early days in Blackwing Lair. Quite possibly first in line to craft this legendary axe...had it not been for the turn of events that were about to be set into motion. A small stone would soon be cast into a lake by a guild member, and it would cause ripples to grow, to encompass the roster, leadership...even me. Ripples that would ultimately lead Sir Klocker to be the guild's third bearer of Shadowmourne, rather than the first.

Dreadscale and Acidmaw are killed within
seconds of each other, earning the guild
"Not One But Two Jormungars (25-Man)",
Trial of the Crusader

The Life of a Tank

I leaned over my desk awkwardly, shoving a mouthful of ice cream into my face, while the 25-Man team wailed on Gormak. I stood at the base of the enormous Magnataur, holding him in position while DPS tore him up. Numbers flowed down my screen like a fountain of death, of hit points that once were. I'd held the role of tank for these many months in Wrath and had enjoyed its benefits. Tanks were quick to gear up, as competition against loot was minimal. There was always a need a tank in a 5-Man, particularly a heroic one. And Death Knights truly enjoyed the benefit of the role in Wrath, implicitly overpowered in their design that any of the three specs -- be it Blood, Frost or Unholy -- could tank. It made life easy for me, whether I was playing the pivotal role of Sartharion tank during a three-drake kill, or simply standing in front of Gormak and weathering each strike as if a light breeze brushed past my cheek. I could even enjoy dessert and perform my raid-related duties at the same time. Indeed, life was easy.

Easy...and dull as rocks.

I remembered the days of Kerulak and of struggling with new mechanics. Of rewiring my buttons from the ground up as a result of Battleguard Sartura. Of the adrenaline flowing through me as Huhuran neared death and the fate of the raid rested with the Shamans and their Chain Heal spam. Chills...

Gormak fell over dead and Omaric raced into position to pick up Dreadscale, while I crossed the room and waited for Acidmaw. A giant worm burst out of the floor like some poorly written Dune fan-fiction, and I began to backpedal, staying out of his poison clouds.

"Keep the damage level on both. Going for the achievement."

I glanced up at the poison debuff ticking away on me. If left unchecked, I would eventually be slowed to the point of complete immobility. Perhaps this would get a little exciting after all!

"I have the debuff. Want me to run to fire?"

"No, stay there. It’s coming to you."

Meh, perhaps not.

I continued to keep the Jormungar's poison spit pointed away from the raid, and watched their health-bars drop in unison. Down and to my right, the damage meters were a multicolored ice cream dessert; once again, Crasian remained the cherry on top.

I missed being on the meters.

I thought back to playing Zanjina and how so much of it was a struggle to claw my way back up into the top 10. Shit gear, poor itemization, and a bad mix of racials all stacked the deck against me. Yet every day I would return to try to find some new trick or technique to scale that DPS mountain. I remembered the day Supremus crumbled into a heap of rubble in Black Temple and I stood in the #1 spot, if only for a single moment.

Pardon my French, but it was a pretty fucking cool feeling.

Tanking had its place, but I knew the full effect it had on the player, that lack of glory, the inability to come out of a raid with any quantifiable performance. The success of a tank wasn't gauged in multicolored flavors of damage; it was a cruel world of simply being alive or dead. It was the stale carrot cake you pulled from the back of the refrigerator, as a nice gesture to guests, long after all the ice cream was gone. It often left you hungry while others stuffed their faces. So I smiled politely and thanked the hosts for their generosity; I ate the cake and lied. Oh no, no this is fine. You go ahead with your sundae. This will be enough for me.

The pair of worms collapsed within seconds of one another, and the achievement "Not One But Two Jormungars (25 Player)" flashed up on our screen, as we transitioned to phase three. Icehowl burst through the doors. I shoved another spoonful in, and ran straight for the yeti.

Well...time to see who gets trampled tonight.

The 25-Man progression team defeats Anub'arak,
earning the guild "Call of the Crusade (25 Player)",
Tournament of Champions

We Meet Again

We carried on through Jaraxxas, the Champions, and the Twin Val'kyr, but there would be no diversion to Ulduar this eve. The floor was shattered by the Lich King, and we plummeted down into a hidden chamber, far below the tournament's arena. Hiding in wait, a familiar arachnid lurked. Anub'arak, unhappy with his defeat in Azjol-Nerub, had returned to take his vengeance out on us. Burrowing insects was in our immediate future.

Phase one demanded a tank keep control of Anub'arak himself, while a second tank picked up spiderling minions. As predicted, these minions had a tendency to dig into the floor of the cave, re-appearing in random spots which added to the chaos. In order to keep the burrowing under control, tanks had to position these spiderlings onto patches of ice called permafrost, and permafrost was created when ranged DPS destroyed the various floating spheres that encircled Anub'arak's pit. We kept on the boss until he himself burrowed, indicating the start of phase two.

In this second phase, Anub'arak locked onto a specific member of the raid, seeking this target out. Our raid had to keep tabs on positioning, as this target and his prey drew a line that players could not cross, for fear of being impaled -- an attack that had the potential to one-shot under the right conditions. Meanwhile, scarabs would randomly pop from the ground and swarm on to players, sending them into a panic and running wildly in random directions....often towards the aforementioned invisible line. Keeping calm was the only way to make it through this phase, without losing targets of Anub'arak's hunger. We bounced between these two phases several times, until Anub'arak was whittled down to the magic 30%.

Then, the fun began.

The final burn had a clever twist which would cause the unsuspecting raid to do themselves in, if not careful. Anub'arak surrounded the entire raid in a leeching swarm, draining 10% of the raid's current health each second. This meant a huge spike of damage to the entire raid at the onset, eventually plateauing at a level far less apt to inducing a heart attack among the healers. But! The healers had to resist their instincts to top off the raid; overhealing caused Anub'arak's leech to replenish his hit-points faster than we could remove them. If Anub'arak was left to put the heat on our DPS sundae, the burn would be dragged out; he'd win by attrition, as our DPS melted away. The healers remained disciplined, healing the very least they could, focusing more on the tanks and less on the raid itself. With only a few attempts to perfect these many mechanics, Anub'arak collapsed in a broken husk, and the golden banners flashed up on our screens: "Call of the Crusade (25 Player)".

It was the start of September 2009, and we were now ready to begin our heroic work in Trial of the Grand Crusader.


I sat down at my desk, sipped the morning coffee, and began to pull up my work for the day. Instantly, my IM client sprang to life, a pending message from Cheeseus:

"Ever look at other guilds and think, 'How can they succeed, while we fail so hard'?"

I watched as the stone skipped across the lake, ripples growing outward, preparing to devour all that they encompassed.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

3.37. The Illusion of Truth

Early art for one of several patent applications for
a moving staircase, a.k.a. the "Escalator"

Committing Genericide

Convenience is a dastardly foe. In 1950, it fooled a company (as it had the rest of humanity) into changing the perception of its own greatest invention, a blindside which ultimately cost them one of the most important trademarks of the 21st century.

An inventor named Charles Seeberger began working for the Otis Elevator Company at the turn of the century. Thanks to his careful purchase of several unrealized patents bearing a similarity to his newest invention, Charles was able to not only provide his employer with a world-changing machine, Otis itself would retain any and all legal control of the trademarked named. Charles consulted a Latin lexicon and devised a term which loosely described a thing as "a means of traversing from" -- it was to be pronounced "es-CAL-a-tor", much like He-Man's arch nemesis. Thus, the diagonally moving staircase was born, and the Otis-brand Escalator would stand to represent the very best quality in all diagonally moving staircases.

Capitalism being what it was, a number of competitors soon arose from the woodwork, providing their own diagonally moving staircases. But since Otis held a tight trademark on the brand name "Escalator", none of those competitors could legally call their inventions by the same name. They were forced to use impressive terms like "motorstairs", "electric stairways" and what is quite possibly the most exciting of the bunch, "moving stairs". But over the course of the next several decades, the psychology of man produced a very interesting behavior -- one that would eventually cause Otis to defend itself before a judge.

Motor-driven stairs grew to become a luxury that the entire world enjoyed, yet another mark of humankind advancing towards a technological future. They appeared everywhere, in shopping centers, office complexes, the lobbies of high-class apartments -- any place a person wanted a little extra convenience in their life when getting to point B, if it were several floors higher than point A. And Otis gladly met that demand, servicing any and all who required traversal-by-mechanical-means. It wasn't long before the Escalator-brand moving staircase appeared at every turn. Or did they?

There really was no way for the layman to point to a diagonally moving staircase and say, "Ah, an Otis-Brand Escalator! I'd recognize that name anywhere!" They all looked the same and performed the same function. There were no tell-tale clues that gave it away, no identifying logo or unique look that distinguished it from any other. Humankind was in bliss, enjoying their Coke or Pepsi while riding a -- oh, what's that thing called again? The diagonally moving motorized staircase? Ah, right, an escalator! By contrast, people knew which beverage they were drinking, which flavor they were emotionally attached to. They harbored no similar emotional attachment to a mechanized set of stairs. To them, all motorized stairs were escalators. The word itself was as convenient as the invention! The use of the Otis's brand-name became so ingrained into everyday life that by the same time the Pepsi-Cola company was trying to sell itself to the Coca-Cola company, the word "escalate" had become a part of everyday speech. Even the word itself had morphed, taking on a new pronunciation, "ES-ca-lay-tor", something much closer to the word we recognize and use today.

Midway through the 20th century, the Haughton Elevator Company had had enough. Having grown tired of their irreverent pseudonyms for what was clearly now a generic term, Haughton took Otis to court in an attempt to reverse the "Escalator" trademark. By freeing the term from Otis' legal stranglehold, any and all motorized staircase manufacturers could use the word "escalator" much as the public had being doing for years. The courtroom was heated as legal counsel produced pages of trademark copy written by Seeberger decades before his death. Yet upon scrutiny, inconsistencies emerged. Much of the text focused on "Otis-brand" this, and "Otis-brand" that, and Seeberger's own writing mixed the use of 'Escalator' and 'escalator' in various passages, skewing the brand name's validity as a proper noun. The defense pounced. In the March 1946 issue of Architectural Forum, inconsistencies in how the company referred to its brand continued bleed onto the page. Defense pointed to an advertisement, paid for by Otis and written by Otis, which contained the following fate-sealing verbiage:

"To thousands of building owners and managers, the Otis trademark means the utmost in safe, efficient economical elevator and escalator operation."

The last nail of the coffin was hammered in. The presiding judge had no choice but to rule in favor of Haughton, citing that Otis had not only been unable to defend the use of the word as a brand-specific name, they were guilty themselves of genercizing the word. Their brand had grown so convenient, so common to everyday life that its total lack of identifiable traits led humanity to unanimously agree upon their own false expertise. The hive mind collectively agreed on a term that was convenient, made sense, and was them. The convenience of the word was so overwhelming, it even fooled the company that trademarked it in the beginning, as they unconsciously referred to their own invention in err. And in the aftermath of the fateful court case, the term 'escalator' fell into the public domain, but humankind was none the wiser. They continued to use the word as they always had. Or at least, it seemed to us we always had.

The "Raid Difficulty" option, added in Patch 3.2, allows
raids of both 10- and 25-Man sizes to toggle between the
easy and difficult modes on a per-boss basis.

Calling a Raid a "Raid"

When a brand name falls into generic everyday use, it is referred to as genericide. You don't cover your cuts with a medicated adhesive strip, you use a Band-Aid®. You don't make an 8 1/2" x 11" photocopy of that TPS report, you Xerox® it. Do you clean your ear out with a high-quality cotton swab? Or do you use a Q-Tip®? You don't mean to degrade these brands on purpose, it's a part of who we are, looking for convenience and shortcuts in what we do and how we speak. If done with enough frequency, the product we use takes on the meaning of that which we choose to call it. We do this when external identifying factors are diminished, blending into a cloud of indistinguishables. A Pepsi® may taste similar to a Coke® but the logos painted across the aluminum cans are completely dissimilar. Ask any Apple fan boy why you should choose an iPod® over a Zune®, and you'll be blasted with a checklist of significant differences in functionality, display, and even the "feel" of the device in your hands. If these easily identifiable traits aren't available to us, our minds turn to what we deem relevant, focusing instead on the obvious or what moves us: a color, a logo, a taste that we enjoy, a raid boss that caused our adrenaline to pump. When we focus on that repeatedly, it becomes familiar, and deep within the mind familiarity breeds "truthiness". Psychologists refer to this effect as The Illusion of Truth, and it's what makes bullied employees feel useless and complacent, and what compels the entire world to carry on believing a set of motorized stairs is an escalator, never realizing nor caring that they are using the wrong terminology.

At the release of Patch 3.2 - Call of the Crusade, World of Warcraft underwent a number of improvements and refinements, as patches typically do. Among the many new features that landed on our plate was a function that raiders of all shapes and sizes would come to use on a regular basis. Nestled deep within the user interface hid a new option that allowed the raid leader to toggle the difficulty of the next boss. Right-clicking a user frame produced a pop-up dialog, with four menu options: Raid Difficulty: 10-Man, 25-Man, 10-Man (Heroic), and 25-Man (Heroic). Switching the difficulty was as simple as the touch of a button. No longer would raiders have to suffer the indignance of working their way towards a invisible benchmark, say...having the DPS necessary to destroy XT-002's heart or defeating Hodir before he destroyed his cache at the three minute mark. There were no more qualifiers, no more vetting a raid's capacity to do quality work. With a single click, a raid could begin the process of smashing their head against a wall in heroic mode. Many raiders that weren't capable of handling difficult content did as such. And the more players who failed miserably at this difficult content, the more players there were to complain on the Blizzard forums about how life wasn't fair.

It gets better.

In order to make room for this new UI option in our raid frames, terminology needed to be adjusted. Up until this point, the word "heroic" was already in-use: a prefix that differentiated raid achievements by the size of the group involved. A 10-Man effort into "Arachnophobia" was very different than that of a 25-Man effort. To the untrained eye, the obvious physical attributes were the most noticeable: trash was more severe in a 25-Man, more health on bosses, and mechanics were less forgiving. Nerds being what we are, math is often the first go-to, so it made logical sense that beating a twenty-minute timer in a 10-Man raid appeared less challenging than in a 25-Man. But not everyone loves math as much as a nerd, so more convenient physical attributes were honed in on. The "heroic" label prefixed on each golden banner satisfied this requirement. In 3.2, however, this would no longer fly. The "heroic" label was now being used to indicate the difficulty setting of a boss, regardless of raid size. The term could no longer exist in both contexts without creating confusion, since 10s had the option of a "heroic" mode, just like the 25s. What to do?

To clear up this confusion, Blizzard stripped the "heroic" label off of the 25-Man achievements, and suffixed each achievement with its appropriate raid size instead. What was once "Heroic: Arachnophobia" was now "Arachnophobia (25-Man)", sitting parallel to "Arachnophobia (10-Man)". A perfectly logical, simple change that very clearly conveyed to WoW players exactly which achievement was which.

And thus began the slow growth of convenience tentacles into our subconscious, injecting us with their seed of genericization.

Both images are of the 25-Man version of One Light in the Darkness, one executed prior to 3.2, the other was done post 3.2. They are exactly the same in terms of difficulty. Only the labels on the achievements changed.
Quick! Which one of these achievements was the more
difficult of the two? (hover over image for the answer)


Try to think of something "heroic". Perhaps you read the word and instantly think of firefighters rescuing children from a burning building, soldiers storming a beach, or Russel Crowe fighting off a handful of combatants in a sandy arena. The word invokes an emotional response in our brain because we associate it with great prestige, an accomplishment of noteworthy effort. We can point to Batman knocking out a villain and very easily identify which is the "heroic" of the two comic book characters. Well, the layperson might. But corner a comic book nerd and you'll produce an hour long discussion about the varying definitions of good and evil, darkness and light, and when Batman may even make unheroic decisions, making you wish you'd never brought the subject up. The nerdy comic book experts, it would seem, possess a sort of unhealthy obsession to the specifics...but they are no different than a machinist who happens to know the finely tuned differences between an Otis-brand escalator, and those of a competitor.

Hardcore World of Warcraft players share this tendency.

To many of us, labels on bright golden achievement bars that flash up on a screen are fluff; extraneous information that we don't pay a lot of attention to. What matters the most to us are the numbers, and our own experiences. And, as long as we had been raiding content in World of Warcraft, the size ultimately played a huge factor in gauging how difficult the content was. During Vanilla, 40s (near the end) were exceptionally challenging, and in The Burning Crusade, the few 10s weren't nearly as tough as the main stretch of 25-Man content. As we carried on into Wrath, we continued to see the very same things...from our perspective. The toughest content we reserved for the end of the week, but during the rest of the week, we cleared 10-Man content with ease. We did so simply because it was there, and we could supplement our gear with its lesser rewards. Each week, we would measure our performance against other 25-Man guilds to see how far along we were. And like clockwork, we would also see that each week, the 10-Man achievements were consistently completed long before the 25-Man ones -- just one more piece of evidence that painted the 10s as inconsequential.

But, that's not what the masses saw.

Thanks to the growing ubiquity of raiding in Wrath, a much larger group of players had entered the picture. Many of these players didn't share our unhealthy obsession with the fine details of raiding differences, nor did they care to. They were a different breed of player, focused primarily on what was convenient and familiar to them. Black Temple, Ahn'Qiraj, raids of great challenge still fresh in our minds bore no great burden to this next generation of raiders; they entered WoW raiding with no baggage. There was no "before" to the "after" to compare to; for them, the size of the raid was merely a reflection of their personal choice, something they clung to as fiercely as their most cherished class. They believed it. So by the time 3.2 had changed the way raids were labelled, the masses were already well on their way to considering both sizes of raids as equal, not as normal and heroic -- easy and difficult -- as they once were. What was truly bizarre to us was that amid these claims, Blizzard not only didn't clarify the differences in difficulty when called upon, they joined the masses in their shared assessment. Yes, raids are equal in difficulty! The size is merely a reflection of personal preference, not one of challenge! Even in the face of the data that said otherwise, the company that had (re)invented raiding spoke as though they were caught up in their own illusion.

It remained to be seen whether or not the illusion would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


"How was your trip to BlizzCon?" I shot an IM over to Cheeseus, "was it a blast or what?"

"Yeah, it was a good time," he replied, "I assume you saw the announcement about the next legendary?"

"No, what is it?"

"Shadowmourne. You're gonna wanna have a look."

Upon seeing the name in front of me, I did what any WoW player would do: I Googled® it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

3.36. Answering the Call

Descendants of Draenor defeats Northrend Beasts with
four Snobalds alive, earning "25-Man: Upper Back Pain",
Trial of the Crusader

Hail the Conquering Hero

I was greeted with blaring trumpets and a cheering crowd upon my arrival to the Tournament of Champions, marking my return to raids after a month-long ordeal. It was refreshing to be back in control, even if the artificial pomp and circumstance was scripted. Five days earlier, I received no such fanfare as I arrived at the car dealership that had inadvertently caused my vacation from Hell. Beaten down by the previous week's events, it would have been nice to return to a line of bowing peasants, showering me with a thousand apologies while I pointed to several of them at random, ordering their beheadings.

I don't think the guillotine would have been particularly helpful for their sales floor.

Squarely positioned in front of the flat panel, left hand sitting one key askew of the home row, right hand gripping the MX1000, it was time to suppress all lingering memories of Williston, North Dakota. My blood pressure dropped as images of being stranded were overwritten by boss strategies. Faces of auto mechanics and calls to dealerships faded to black, and were replaced with Lord Jaraxxas and The Twin Val'kyr. There was a time, not long ago, where it was World of Warcraft that acted as my primary source of stress. How ironic it was, then, to finally arrive at a place where being in-game recharged my batteries rather than drain them. Being online with the guild felt like my home-away-from-home. It gave me a small sense of comfort, even while cooped up in cheap hotel rooms, trapped in a town blanketed with the smell of unrefined oil. I adjusted my headset and listened to Tirion Fordring deliver his speech introducing our first challenge: Northrend Beasts.


Well into Wrath of the Lich King, the definite constant in Descendants of Draenor was a changing roster, and this was by my design. While Elites (for the most part) remained stalwart, the lower rank of Raider boasted a seemingly bottomless trove of up-and-coming faces. Demand to participate in 25-Man content was at an all-time high -- especially amid knowledge that we provided it outside of a militant hardcore guild setting. The newest of these ever-changing faces came from Federation Starflex, a guild belonging to Jungard's brother, a rogue named Randyflagg. Previously, they'd chosen to keep things close-knit and small, a decision I respected, but wasn't particularly fond of. As Jungard's volunteer hours in Fedstar increased due to their invariable dependence upon him grew, I continued to turn the vice and keep the pressure on him. Sell an assimilation to your sibling. Show them the ways of DoD. The wine would flow in both directions; Fedstar could fill spots in the 25 if they wished. In return, they'd have more people to help with their own 10-Man endeavors. Eventually, he made them see the light, and Descendants of Draenor soaked up Federation Starflex like a sponge.

Hodir is defeated within three minutes, earning the
raid "25-Man: I Could Say This Cache Was Rare",

The Road Less Traveled

DoD not only obtained Jungard's brother through the assimilation of Federation Starflex, but gained a healthy mix of the other roles one would expect to see in a balanced roster. There was Wfredlund, a paladin whom the guild came to know as "Fred". Fred had a healthy sense of humor and an equally healthy beard, which he both flaunted and mocked in our forums' real-life pic thread. Fred broke the ice easily with the rest of the crew, an essential attribute that all newly invited guildies should possess. As it was with many folks that came and went in DoD, first impressions were laser-etched into granite, and no amount of fantastical healing could make up for that. As it stood, Fred was occasionally nervous wielding the Light, and breaking the ice was a good way to allow us to see past those deficiencies, giving him a chance to grow into his position.

A player with no skills and no personality didn't last long in the roster.

On the other end of the spectrum sat a warlock with both skills and personality, more than enough to go around. He called himself Mangetsu. Mang was quite the character. I detected an accent I couldn't place in that initial interview; I'd come to find out later he was Portuguese...but his English did not suffer despite this. Aside from the accent, his conversations were as straightforward and natural as any introverted nerd would be. Mangetsu had a tendency to turn the conversation into something anime related, whether it be the latest series he was transfixed on, or the fact that he adored his "waifu", a pillow with an anime architecture imprinted on the case. But Mangetsu wasn't just a playful, cuddly anime nerd that DoD could pat on the head and tuck away in the corner once it was time to talk business. Inside a raid, his jovial, happy-go-lucky attitude continued to crack jokes, while his fel fire and shadow bolts lit the meters up like fireworks. Mang wielded the dark powers of the warlock with ease, almost as if it were an extension of the self. He willed the death of those raid bosses, and they succumbed. Even Eacavissi himself felt a challenge when Mangetsu stepped in.

Mangetsu made many friends in DoD very quickly, but I still sensed a nervousness in him. Was he intimidated by our accomplishments? We were no great superpower on Deathwing-US, so in dealing with him, I leveraged what I had learned about perception. How we see ourselves is often not how others see us. A quick interview in Ventrilo put his mind at ease. We put our pants on one leg at time, just like you, Mang. We merely strove to set a new standard for guilds -- one that meant we would raid competitively without taking the easy road like so many hardcore guilds had. The less people-oriented road. I made it a personal mission of mine to work with people and mediate their issues, be flexible with their schedules, encourage them to learn and grow as contributing members. After all, this was about more than just raiding, this was a social environment we were cultivating. Once Mang got comfortable, and the stress of being inducted washed away, his name floated to the surface of every damage meter we ran, constantly making us chuckle in the process. He never overstepped his bounds. He never once displayed an ounce of egotism or pride. He was humbled to be a part of our group, and I was lucky to call him one of my own.

I predicted great things from Mangetsu, and had a feeling he would play more than just the role of warlock/anime nerd.

The 25-Man progression team defeats Thorim while
Sif is present, earning "25-Man: Lose Your Illusion",

Stoning Birds to Death

The beasts had no chance to run amok. A magnataur, two jormungars, and a Northrend yeti were no match for the progression team. Snobolds picked away at us like gnats while we moved through each successive boss, but under strict direction from Cheeseus, the raid ignored them and focused their attention on the beast at hand. Their defeat was almost entirely without casualties: Sir Klocker and Dalans were victims of Icehowl's enrage as a result of other players being caught in the yeti's charge. Following the Wrath formula, normal mode was of no concern -- even when at its worst. As Icehowl crashed dead to the floor of the arena, "25-Man: Upper Back Pain" flashed up on our screens.

Wilfred Fizzlebang summoned in our next challenger, buying the farm in the process. Lord Jaraxxus, an Eredar lord bathed in a deep blood red, pummeled the 25-Man progression team while spawning Mistresses of Pain to his side. These succubi were to add a significant amount of incoming damage, but if it were so, I don't recall -- memories blur around events of little consequence. We all knew the drill. The challenge would come later. For now, we jumped through the hoops as commanded from on high, and killed as many achievement birds with one stone in the process. Leaving two succubi alive granted us "25-Man: Three Sixty Pain Spike", another bird expired.

From there, we moved to the Faction Champions, a unique encounter reminiscent of Arena PvP. Coordination was the key to deal with this handful of random Alliance. Crowd-control had to be maintained on certain members of the group...members which changed week-to-week, forcing us to adapt new strategies on-the-fly. The Champions then gave way to Fjola Lytebane and Eydis Darkbane, aka The Twin Val'kyr. Mechanics were textbook: light empowered damage dealers targeted Eydis, while the dark empowered got close and personal with Fjola. There was no surprise to anyone when we sent the twins crying home to their Lich King mommy. At the halfway mark for the night, we were through every boss, save Anub'arak.

Time management was now a priority, requiring us to split efforts between Trial of the Crusader and Ulduar. New content was a life-blood, something everyone loved, but the Iron Bound Proto-Drake still dangled on the stick in front of us. Back to the Storm Peaks we returned, digging down into the titan city. Before that evening ended, we set upon Hodir with increased gusto in an attempt to beat the three minute timer. Birds continued to fall out of the sky as we not only secured Hodir's defeat with seconds remaining, we did so without a single player being flash frozen..not even Ben. Our perfect execution racked up "25-Man: I Could Say This Cache Was Rare" and "25-Man: Cheese the Freeze" on that single kill.

We returned the following Sunday and knocked out "25-Man: Con-speed-atory", accomplished by defeating Freya within 20 minutes of the first mob death in The Observatory of Life. The remainder of that afternoon was spent on "25-Man: Lose Your Illusion". This would involve us defeating Thorim with Sif still present, barraging the raid with ice showers, randomly freezing us into position -- a mechanic particularly painful while a blast of lightning drew imminent. The night was organized in such a way as to give us plenty of time to work on this achievement, but we completed it only a few attempts. We ended the evening by clearing Ulduar and distributing its wealth among the 25-Man team.


The first weekend back behind the wheel was extraordinary; I was re-energized and had a clear path into both raids. Glory of the Ulduar Raider inched closer, and only one boss remained in the Tournament before we could begin the Trial of the Grand Crusader...where the real work lay. I reviewed my achievement panel and surveyed all the birds we killed with that weekend's single raiding stone. And as I looked closely at the golden bars, scrolling back and forth between those newly added, and those which had been in the game at Wrath's launch, something subtle appeared there. Something nearly unnoticeable and easily dismissed as a cosmetic change. Something that I wouldn't give any concern to -- nor would anyone else, yet would ultimately set the stage for something much bigger than any of us could predict. And its nearly microscopic tentacles had sprouted, lying in wait to embrace our subconscious.

The subconscious mind is a fickle thing.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

3.35. Stranded

When Murlocs Attack,
Elwynn Forest

Grinding My Gears

Vacation. Hundreds and hundreds of miles away from the city. Standing on the edge of a lake. Casting a rod into the water and hearing the ploop as the hook hits the surface. I wait a moment, and then slowly reel it in. There's no rush. No schedule to keep or appointments to make. In the distance, a loon warbles. I glance up, and give a nod to the old man for taking me out here. Dad's not in sight. I glance around. Maybe he's gone back to the truck for more bait? The sounds of the loon grow louder, they distort. Still no sign of the old man. Where is he? God, what is with those loons? It sounds like they are being murdered, choked to death, drowned. My kids call out for help, call out my name. I hear gurgling and choking sounds and drop my rod, trying to cover my ears. The noise deafens me. Panic sets in. I'm not hearing loons.

The murlocs are upon me.


"Dad...DAD! Your phone?"

I woke up in a waiting room. The lack of sleep finally did me in. Either that, or I succumbed due to boredom of relentless hours without updates from Honda. I felt the vibration of my phone in my right pants pocket, the familiar sound effect of a murloc causing a relentless, never-ending attack to seep into my subconscious. Invading my dreams. I answered.


"Mr. Holmes? Hi, Honda Service Care, here. How you holding up?"

"Not well. Here's to hoping you have news that may change my mood."

"Well, we have some good news and bad news for you."

I sat up and glanced through the window of the waiting room, leading across the lobby and out into the bay where my Civic's guts lay strewn about the greasy concrete.

"I doubt the news could get much worse, but try me."

"After going over your case file with headquarters, we've decided that an inspection isn't necessary. We're going to go ahead and approve the full transmission replacement, and this is covered under your current warranty. There'll be no cost to you."

Thank. God. The last thing I needed on my plate was to pay for a brand new transmission. I stuck my finger over my left ear as I tried to hear the faint voice on the other end.

"Ok, that's definitely good news. Thank you for that. So, what's the bad news?"

"We don’t have a transmission near Williston, so it's going to have to be flown in. That'll probably be at least another three days, but I can't guarantee its delivery."

I exhaled. Serenity Now.

Williston, North Dakota

Sorry Fixes Nothing

"So, I've basically just been hanging out here for a week for no reason? I sure wish someone would've helped me understand just how far gone this transmission was four days ago."

"We're really very sorry that this happened to you, sir. I understand how inconvenient this must have been for you and your kids."

"Well, they missed their first day of school, so it was nothing terribly important." I'd mastered my Mother's ability to sarcastically lay on the guilt trip, a weapon I wielded like a machete when I needed to make a point.

"Again, we at Honda are truly sorry for this inconvenience."

I leaned forward in the waiting room chair with the smartphone still pressed against my head, and eyed the coffee pot with contempt. You had one job, shitty dealership coffee. Keep me awake. You failed.

"So, let me ask you this. If Honda is as sorry as you say it is, then you'll be picking up some plane tickets for me and my kids, so we can get home while this thing is being repaired?"

"I'm sorry, sir, but under the current circumstances of this type of warranty repair, there isn't any allowance beyond the standard roadside assistance for that sort of thing."

"And no rental car, either? Can't just put me in something? I don't have a problem with long distance drives. I'm going to have to come back here to get my car at some point. I can return whatever you guys give me."

"Unfortunately we don't have any loaner cars in Williston, sir, so we can't really help you out. We have a dealership in Minot, North Dakota with vehicles…"

I stopped him.

"You realize that Minot is over a hundred miles east of here. Am I supposed to walk that? Can you put me in a taxi?"

"We can't. I'm sorry."

Lovely. The 'no cost to you' part of the deal had a surprising price tag attached to it.

"Of course, you can't."

I was rewarded with an awkward silence on the other end.

"So, perhaps before I let you go, you can at least tell me this. My entire transmission was torn apart and rebuilt from scratch by a dealership in Denver eight weeks ago. One of the gears had ground away, and the entire gearbox was replaced. They were in there, doing the work. Are all these additional costs I've accrued in the last week going to be covered by them? I mean, this whole entire ordeal was the result of their shoddy work, am I right?"

"I can't comment on that, sir. Since the inspector was vetoed, there's nobody qualified to identify and claim ownership of the faulty repair work."

"What about the mechanics here? The ones that are doing the work as we speak? You mean to tell me they can't put their finger on the root cause?"

"I'm sorry, sir."

Every time I heard 'sorry', my eye twitched. Growing up, I'd been taught to avoid using the word at all costs. Mom had a particular adversity to the word, saying it meant nothing; that it was a cheap way to absolve you of the mistake you were making. But the word didn't fix those mistakes, and that was something Mom was particular about. 'Sorry' fixes nothing. So stop apologizing, and start making things right. And even though the four-thousand dollar transmission was already en route to that hole of a town in North Dakota, I couldn't look past the inconvenience, the fact that my kids had missed school, that I was eating away at vacation hours that didn't exist. I wanted someone to pay for that.

It was all just words. Everyone was sorry.

How hard was it for someone to put their hand up and say, "You know what? This one's on me. I messed up and take full responsibility." A couple thousand dollars in hotel rooms, meals, and plane tickets out of this hellhole should have been a drop in the bucket to a multi-billion dollar corporation like Honda. But, getting the mechanics in Williston to point to a root cause wasn't going to happen. Fingering their sister shop back in Denver would only implicate themselves as well; all part of the large Honda family. Families protect one another, providing each other an alibi when cornered. Doing the right thing was overshadowed by standing together as a cohesive unit. All I wanted to know was why things had gone so horribly wrong after I had been assured that my car was in full working condition. I wanted to know who was responsible. A name, a face -- someone I could pin all of this on. It was you. You're the reason I'm stuck here, with a completely failed transmission. It was clear that this Honda family wasn't going to hand me that person on a platter. Instead, they unleashed the 'sorry' machine, which solved no mysteries and gave me no closure.

The process of extracting oil via hydraulic fracturing


I hung up, dazed with thousands of images racing through my head from the last four days, struggling to process them all. The panic and fear setting in upon hearing the screeching noise coming from my car's undercarriage. The gears slipping out of fourth, out of third. Hobbling across the border, hours behind schedule. Driving along the curb at 35 MPH in second gear to Sidney, Montana. Pulling into a McDonald's for the kids while I called the dealership back in Denver, pleading for a solution. Dragging the car and kids another 45 miles to Williston, North Dakota -- the nearest Honda dealership in my vicinity. Arriving in this one-horse town suddenly bursting with the inconvenient popularity of fracking oil; a term less about Battlestar Galactica and more about sideways drilling. This had been my hell for the past week.

The surge of interest in sideways drilling coupled with the oil deposits deep beneath the crust this town was built on produced a wonderful side-effect for a stranded traveler: all hotels were booked solid, months in advance. I was forced to call each and every one, day by day, waiting for a cancellation so my children didn't have to sleep in a dealership rental van. I spent my days waiting -- waiting for a phone call from Honda to deliver the good news and get me the hell out of here. I drove around the town aimlessly in that dealership's van -- a small gesture they were able to offer me, while the thing I really wanted remained well out of reach. I called Julie to keep her apprised. I called my boss to let him know what a clusterfuck this vacation had become. When I delivered the bizarre news surrounding the hotel situation, he was equally stunned. "Oil", I told him, "It's a fucking oil town."

I pressed on. I held it together. In the face of real life adversity, I coped. As with situations I had dealt with in the guild, shit happens. It isn't an excuse to collapse or throw in the towel. Here, stranded in Williston, North Dakota, my kids depended on me...just as the guild had depended on me for seeing us through the various storms we'd weathered. Two guild exoduses. The loss of a handful of core officers throughout the years. Brick-wall bosses. The ever-changing roster. And woven within this guild tapestry, a golden fleece of drama -- a magical thread with no discernible beginning or end. In this wonderful turn of events, there was no WoW community to complain to, no Ghostcrawler to pin my misfortune on. It was just me, alone in a Honda dealership waiting room, drinking another round of stale coffee from a styrofoam cup, and dealing with it. I deserved no special treatment from Honda, I was just another customer, one more car owner among millions. I wanted to be special, I wanted them to see my situation as special. But as my anger melted away into the quiet hum of the florescent lighting in that room, I remembered what it was that allowed me to cope and to deal:

Nothing was special about my situation. Cars are imperfect, they break down. And when that fateful day arrives that hurls a new obstacle in your direction, complaining does nothing but produce a barrage of 'sorry's. And sorry fixes nothing. So, you get off your ass, and you deal with it.


My phone buzzed in my hand. I diverted my hypnotized gaze from the coffee pot and glanced down at the text message. It was from Ben. Ben, the guild mascot, the PvPer. Ben, the Shadow Priest that rubbed Cheeseus the wrong way and didn't like to follow directions. Ben, the player more likely to jump into Vent in a drunken tirade then be online in time for the 25-Man progression raid. Ben...a player I thought was worth putting effort into. I read the text message:

Yo. Gonna be about 10 min late tomorrow, but will be there!

Ben, the player that was now keeping me apprised of his schedule, and taking his role seriously. I was impressed. His accountability was refreshing, which was more than I could say for a certain car company.