Thursday, June 27, 2013

3.14. The First Elites

Newcomer Abrinis joins a handful of his guildmates
in Zul'Gurub (20-Man) during Vanilla

Homogenization

There's not much you can get wrong in a glass of milk. As a kid, you poured it on your cereal; perhaps later on in life, you drank it for the reported calcium benefits. Wherever you went in life, if they didn't have your drink of choice, at least you knew what you were getting if you asked for milk. The various brands of milk differ more in label than they do in flavor. Grab a gallon off the shelf at the grocery store -- any brand and all -- and you’re pretty much guaranteed the same taste and texture. Milk is milk, what else can you say about it? So when it comes time to reach for the jug, the only thing that really separates one from another is brand loyalty. You stick with the brand you know because you've always bought it; second-guessing your decisions only adds anxiety to a normal, consistent life. But milk is only consistent because of homogenization, a process that prevents the cream separating from the skim. The cream is special. People see it as a luxury; milk in your coffee is plain, but cream...that's a taste reserved for those who appreciate the finer things in life.

Throughout Vanilla and The Burning Crusade, our raid team was not unlike a glass of milk.

The players that were poured into our raid team were a mixture of all different talents and styles, of varying degrees in skill and play. But without a system to incentivize players, to excel and be acknowledged for that excellence, we sat on the shelf of our server's grocery store and stagnated. We appeared no different than the brand any other guild sold. Creating a hierarchical structure of ranks in DoD served two purposes. One: it gave the individual players in my raiding roster an opportunity to rise to the top, rewarding them with pellets as they continued to pound the lever. Equally important, it allowed me to skim that cream off the top and place it on Deathwing-US's shelf for sale. If my hunch played out, that cream of my raiding roster would turn the heads of those wandering the grocery store aisle of guilds, looking for that richness in flavor that was presently absent in their lives...and raiding careers.

My job was to make sure the centrifuge spun as fast as possible, and skim the cream as soon as it surfaced.

An early shot of Jungard, along with the 25-Man
 Progression Team, after the defeat of Anetheron,
Hyjal Summit, Caverns of Time

Predictions and Surprises

We often attracted two types of raiding recruits to Descendants of Draenor. The first bucket of players were battle-worn and exhausted; ex-hardcore raiders who prided themselves on server-firsts in Sunwell and Naxxramas (40-Man), but for one reason or another, couldn't maintain that lifestyle anymore. Perhaps their hardcore raiding days were during College, but with degree in hand, it was time to knuckle down and punch the 9-to-5. Perhaps it was more appropriate to game into all hours of the night when your significant other was simply the “boyfriend” -- but now that he was the "husband", it was time to get some priorities straight. Maybe the only thing that changed was the addition of a kid to the picture...perhaps it was none of these things. It may very well have simply been a conscious decision to strike a better balance in life. Whatever the case may be, I was not there to judge, but to simply welcome in. I'd offer an alternative to the abusive demands of hardcore raiding, and guarantee seeing some progression. Cheeseus was a good example of this type of a recruit. He had a taste for cream and was uninterested in the peasantry of milk.

The other type of recruit we attracted was that of a player who felt constrained by their current conditions. The kind of player that felt they could be so much more, but were surrounded by excuse-makers: Facerollers clinging to pathetic justifications for their incompetence like a broken-record.

It's a challenge to strive for greatness when you are surrounded by mediocrity.

Guilds comprised of trolls seemed bent on perpetrating the notion that because World of Warcraft was "just a game", it was OK be a moron. While those guilds were busy starting and ending every sentence with "lol", our prospective recruits were alt-tabbed and hitting the virtual pavement, researching their class and boss mechanics -- trying to squeeze that last bit of DPS out. But with no one to act as a mentor, to guide them through the twisted raiding path of right and wrong, their own motivation to excel only got them so far. They needed a new lesson in raiding. We'd be the ones to step to the front of the class for them.

The first Elite promotions went to individuals that fell into this latter category. Abrinis and Jungard were a pair of Warriors that had become a staple in our raiding roster for many months. Abrinis, first recruited by Annihilation when he oversaw the Warriors, had an affinity for sports and would often be spotted discussing Basketball scores with Ben and Neps in guild chat. He was otherwise quiet, but also prolific with his alts, ever eager to help out a 5-man or a quest, and he'd have an alt specific to the role you needed to have filled. When it came time to raid, however, it was down to brass tacks on his Undead Warrior. Abrinis consistently topped the meters with Fury DPS, and I could always expect to see him signed up for next week's raid. It came as no surprise that when a fresh face known as Jungard entered the scene near the start of our Hyjal work in TBC, Abrinis took him under wing and trained him up to be equally effective wielding two weapons. The pair soon grew to challenge each other come raid night; a battle to see which Warrior could claim dominance on the meters. Pushing each other to rise to the top produced the pleasant side-effect of consistently high melee DPS. Their efforts were well-deserving of the Elite title.

The next Elite promotion was a surprise: Ekasra, the bullied Shaman from TBC who took my place when I retired Kerulak to raid as a Shadow Priest. Ekasra had struggled to find a place in DoD throughout TBC, and the weight on his shoulders was heavy. Not only did he have to fill the shoes of the guild leader who had come out of the 40-Man healing core from Vanilla, he struggled to gain any respect from his peers. Ekasra's raiding mistakes were exacerbated by his tendency to ebb the bullies on in return, rather than ignore them. Ekasra approached me at the start of Wrath, still wanting to demonstrate his value and be accepted by the team, asking for my advice. I was blunt: shelf the Shaman; you're intrinsically wired for a different role. Look at what appeals to you in a different raiding department, and then embrace it. He took my advice, and in the wake of Ekasra came Nestonia the Warlock. Nestonia not only wrecked the damage meters, he dominated them, even giving the Warlock officer Eacavissi a run for his money. Coincidentally, he whined a little less, joked a little more, and before I knew it, he had officers recommending him for promotion -- officers that, during TBC, wouldn't even speak his name. For him to be among the first Elite promotions was a proud moment.

A random Shaman in WoW,
boasting the default keybindings (1-9,0, -, =)

Wax On, Wax Off

The fourth and final promotion to Elite that I issued out in my first round was another surprise. He was a player I've not mentioned too much thus far, but had also been with DoD since TBC -- a Restoration Shaman by the name of Mcflurrie. Originally named Deathflurry, he joined progression at the same time we suffered overabundance of players whose name began with the word "Death". To reduce the confusion of raid calls in Ventrilo, he opted to change his name, a pretty good indicator of someone willing to do whatever it took to improve. What makes Mcflurrie’s story inspiring was his hunger to grow, and how the most seemingly obvious roadblocks are often right in front of our faces.

Mcflurrie's issue was healing effectiveness and survivability. He felt like he couldn't push his play any further, but still suffered from "playing with blinders" -- a common affliction among healers too focused on their whack-a-mole addon, and not focused enough on the environmental damage blanketing them in flames. One evening following a Serpentshrine Cavern raid, he pulled me into a private vent channel.

"I just feel like I'm not as mobile as I could be. And when I get moving, I can't heal really well, or end up dying."

"Playing with blinders?", I asked rhetorically.

"...Yeah."

"Take a screenshot of your UI and send it to me."

Moments passed, then came the ding of my email alerting me of a new message. I pulled up his screen and began examining where he placed his healing mods, his unit frames, what his field-of-view was like.

And then, I noticed them.

The action bars held all of a player's abilities, lined up in a horizontal row along the bottom of the screen. In each bar, twelve divots. Resting in each divot, a square icon that represented the spell that would cast when clicked or having its key binding pressed. But most importantly, in the upper-right corner of each icon, a tiny white symbol...either or a number, letter, or punctuation mark...that represented the key binding assigned to the spell. All at once, his problem was as crystal clear as the waters of a Moonwell.

"How are your keys set up?"

I knew the answer, but wanted him to say it.

"Oh, well...I’m just using the default layout."

"So, you're hitting the numbers keys along the top for healing? 1, 2, 3...etc...all along the top of the keyboard?"

"Yep, that works pretty well for me."

"Can you reach all your spells while you move? Or do you have to lift your hand up off the keyboard to reach the spell you want."

Silence followed.

"Try running forward right now, and while you continue to run forward, I want you to cast a Greater Healing Wave without lifting your left-hand up off the keyboard."

A little more silence followed that. Then,

"I...I can't. I have to lift my hand up."

"We're going to change that. Right now."

I spelled it all out for Mcflurrie, that painful truth that he was crippling his abilities by forcing himself to awkwardly look away from the screen, lift his hand off the keyboard to reach for a spell...ugh. I had flashbacks of Battleguard Sartura and the day I changed my karate stance. I told Mcflurrie it was going to be painful to re-learn from scratch. It was. Like me, it took a few weeks to re-program, to be able to react to the demands thrust upon a healer. But he got it. He sweated through the re-programming, and was soon  reaching for spells and moving at the same time, instinctively. His play improved, and this introduction to key binding customization pushed him even further to explore mouse-over macros -- something that wasn't available to me in Vanilla. Eventually he was shooting me tells mid-raid, "“I can't believe how much easier this is!" The rest, they say, is history. His reward for that tremendous growth: Mcflurrie became our fourth Elite, closing out the first batch of promotions.

--

The cream was now on the shelf. Potentials buyers were out there...but would they bite? The careful, meticulous restructuring of my guild's ranks produced a team unlike any I had before -- one comprised of both casual raiders that were motivated to play like professionals, and hardcore elites, the backbone that would drive progression week-to-week. Finally, I felt like I had nailed the perfect balance of player willing to work together to accomplish great things.

It’s unfortunate, then, that in order to demonstrate our ability to work together as a team, Blizzard forced us to stick a fork directly into it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

3.13. Cream

"WoW - Malygos"
Artwork by Wynahiros

Wringing Out the Sponge

We had no idea when 3.1 would hit. Blizzard was very good at keeping release dates hush-hush, for fear of the community flying into a rage when a date was missed. All we knew was that time was running out, and when it had, Heroic: Glory of the Raider would no longer be attainable; the coveted Black Proto-Drake would be removed as a reward, forever left as a symbol of its rarity and the skill of the player whom rode on its back. By this point, no Horde guild on Deathwing-US had completed Heroic: Glory of the Raider. Depraved and Enigma were tied with three remaining: You Don’t Have an Eternity, Gonna Go When the Volcano Blows, and The Immortal. When all was said and done, seventeen meta-achievements needed completion.

Wrapping up The Twilight Zone brought our running total to ten. The work we had done prior to 3-Drake was inconsequential compared to what lay ahead, however. First on that list was killing Patchwerk in under 3 minutes, which we managed to complete the very same day we executed Shocking!, ensuring that no two players crossed a positive and negative charge on Thaddius. The next raid weekend was You Don't Have an Eternity, which forced us to kill Malygos in under 6 minutes -- we barely pulled this off by the skin of our teeth. We employed every trick we could think of to wring the DPS sponge dry. The secret? Forcibly stacking Malygos’ powers sparks for a multiplicative damage buff. My role in this was wielding the Death Knight's ability to pull an enemy (be it monster or power spark) to my location. Once "death gripped" to our feet, melee would blow the spark up, stand in the magical residue left behind, and gain arcane infused attacks. We stacked the buff onto all of our DPS, depleting the azure dragon's health at an increased rate, and were able to make the six-minute mark.

During the day, I'd discuss the state of the raiding situation with Cheeseus, having been newly promoted to the rank of Avatar. Since joining DoD, his affinity toward raiding with precision was common knowledge. What wasn't as well known was that he'd approached me with an offer: assume Raid Leadership and be the single voice that guides the 25-Man progression team to greater prestige. He was only a few months into his guild membership; officership seemed premature. Via Avatar, however, he could give us commentary on raid management, proving his worth to the others. Our weekdays were a combination of chats surrounding achievement order and priority, upcoming Elite promotions, and the state of raid progression on Deathwing-US, as other guilds closed in on Heroic: Glory of the Raider. The task before me was this: Wring every ounce of efficiency out of the team like a sponge being crushed in a vice. I'd do this by making our goals crystal clear, foster raiding discourse on our forums (as we'd done with The Twilight Zone), and pour the concrete into our raiding foundation by acknowledging the shining stars of DoD: Awarding the first Elite ranks.

It was report card time.

The Straight A Student

The Elite rank was a brand new concept I implemented at the start of Wrath of the Lich King. I took the name from a guild I'd long admired for their professional-quality approach to raiding and a commitment to sharing thoughtful, intelligent discussion surrounding raid mechanics. A hardcore raiding guild had the luxury of demanding everyone be committed to a fixed (and often overzealous) schedule, expecting everyone be present for multiple nights throughout the week. Descendants of Draenor did not have that luxury. We needed to make allowances for all types of schedules and levels of commitment. I accomplished this by creating the Raider rank, which clearly defined a baseline set of expectations that a guildy needed to meet in order to be considered for a rotation. This would ensure players wouldn't walk into The Eye of Eternity wearing unenchanted green gear with empty sockets. The downside to the Raider rank was that by not asking a player to commit to a schedule, I couldn't grant them a guaranteed spot in each raid. Minimal commitment equals minimal reward, after all. For many players, the Raider ranked worked well for them. They could come and go as they pleased, and understood that not all raids they signed up for would be given to them -- they were fine with the trade-offs.

But for those who wanted more, Elite beckoned them.

In contrast to Raider, Elite had high expectations. I wanted you to make me believe that raid progression was your priority. With the Raider rank already acquired, you needed to prove you could meet Elite-quality scheduling commitments, signing-up (and showing up) for each of the two raid nights a week -- for a solid month -- without fail. Raiders were free to cancel their raid sign-ups, as RL (“real-life”) dictated their schedules, but if you wanted Elite, I didn't want to see any cancellations. I also didn't want any Elite players that held real-life commitments that involved a unpredictable, fluctuating schedule. If you were deployed to Iraq to serve our country, I’d be proud to call you a fellow guild member...but your deployment would cripple our progression team. Everyone's priorities had to be weighed fairly, and for Elite, I needed the highest level of commitment to the raid that a player could provide. The mistakes of cattledriving throughout TBC would not be repeated.

Once the prerequisites to Elite had been hit, the next step was to assess your proficiency in a number of categories:
  • Activity on Forums
  • Contributions to the Guild Vault
  • Guild Spirit
  • Attitude
  • Gear Pride
  • PvE Performance
From A to F, I'd go down the list and make an assessment of your contributions to Descendants of Draenor. Were you providing thoughtful, meaningful discussion to our boards? Did you give us much as you took from our guild vault? Were you proud of the guild you called home, and acted with our ideals on a regular basis? Were you a positive, driving force behind the raid team, preaching our goals which prioritized progression over loot? And when loot did come your way, did you take pride in keeping it enchanted and gemmed, tweaked to its maximum potential? And, above all, did you walk-the-walk, and demonstrate excellence in our raids? A raider might strive to top damage or healing meters, but an Elite would know there's much more to consider for: awareness, survivability, team preservation (decursing, contributing to adds, etc.). Did you make these your focus, rather than brag about being #1 in Recount?

Score poorly, and you'd be sent back to refine your efforts. Bring home straight As, however, and you'd guarantee yourself a set of proud parents who would shower you with gifts.

Wemetanye shows off his Azure Drake,
outside of The Eye of Eternity,
Coldarra

Elitist Perks 

In my opinion, the kickbacks to earning Elite were well worth the effort. The re-structured guild vault, now categorized by herbs for raiding flasks, material components for enchants, glyphs, stat-specific food buffs, and uncut gems, would now boast increased withdrawal access for your convenience. Furthermore, we'd extend a bit of trust your way, allowing you into the vault tabs where you yourself could take raw components and craft them into the aforementioned raiding materials.

Act like an adult, and I would treat you like one. 

The Guild Vault would also now pay for your repairs; a slick way of taking the edge off your raiding budget. We'd take this a step further, and subsidize your talent respecs as well, easing these monetary demands on your dedication to wiping repeatedly as we learned new bosses. On our forums, you'd become a moderator, gaining the fringe benefits associated with curating our guild commentary. But above all this fluff, these nice-to-haves that certainly would raise the eyebrow of an enticed player, the most important perk came in the form of a raid rotation priority. The players who were focused on raid progression above all else did so because of a core need they wished to satisfy: to be present at all raids.

Earn Elite, and I'd chisel your weekly raid rotation into stone.

All of these perks gave our players the ability to contribute how they wanted, Raiders contributing a little, Elites contributing a lot. By doing so, I defined a clear hierarchy in the guild ranks which differentiated between varying degrees of contribution. I think this is often misunderstood by critics who feel everyone should be treated equally. Let me be perfectly clear: I treated everyone in Descendants of Draenor equally -- I equally rewarded each player's contribution to the guild which matched their level of involvement. If I had rewarded both Raiders and Elites -- essentially, different levels of effort -- with the same perks, the opposite would be true -- I would not be treating everyone equally. Rewarding different levels of effort the same leads to animosity and dissent, jackhammers drilling away at my raiding foundation.

In running the numbers on our first qualifying Elites, a few were not surprising, one definitely raised an eyebrow.

And one completely caught me off-guard.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

3.12. The Next Raid Leader

The 25-Man Progression team hovers
near Alexstrasza after defeating Malygos in
The Eye of Eternity

Cheesy Conversations

I thrived on predictability, and the morning ritual fell into just such a rhythm. I’d leave the house around 6:45am with my son and daughter packed into the car, heading four-and-a-half miles south toward 6th and Clermont. I opted to go by way of Monaco Parkway, as Colorado Boulevard was often thick with congestion. After the kids were hugged and left at their school, I looped back to Monaco, and drove another eleven miles, doing an easy 55mph through residential areas. The stresses of I-25 were bypassed in this process, and it gave me time to think. I’d arrive at the office, get settled in with a cup of coffee, begin reviewing work E-mails for the day. Keen on multitasking, I’d fire up Chrome (having only been released as a new browser a few months prior), and load up MMO-Champion.com, the Descendants of Draenor forums, our raid sign-up site (powered by phpRaider). And to wrap up the morning ritual, I’d fire up my IM client, Pidgin, which allowed me to keep connected to a number of networks at once, in this case, a combination of ICQ, MSN, Yahoo! and Google chat. As soon Pidgin loaded, the morning ritual was officially complete, as the ‘pang’ of the first instant message arrived:

9:07 AM Cheeseus: Morning.
me: Morning
Cheeseus: What a fucking weekend, eh
me: Yeah, that was bizarre. We just barely squeeked out Maly6

Cheeseus and I had fallen into a regular pattern of communication. Separated by a distance of about 1,700 miles, I in the Rocky Mountains where John Denver made his home, and he in the cold north of Canada where I spent the first 20 years of my life, we worked. While I built web applications designed for oncologists to stay atop their accreditation, Cheeseus would prepare intricate, isometric schematics of gigantic oil rigs which construction teams would read and fabricate. Our lines of work fell into two vastly different areas, but both required us to apply our expertise so that people could consume without confusion. Physicians are widely known as a type of user that struggles with technology (ironically), any unfriendly forms or error messages will frustrate them and turn them away. I worked with my team to tread carefully through this minefield and make our website as easy to traverse as possible. Likewise, technical clients wanting to construct a massive derricks pepper their blueprints with extraneous and often confusing detail, lacking knowledge of standards. Cheeseus similarly worked with his team to unclutter these details, stripping away ambiguous terminology, refining the blueprint until it was up to his company’s high standards: easy to read, easy to follow, easy to build.

Two vastly different career paths, yet we were both tasked with making other people’s jobs easier, preventing confusion and reducing mistakes.

Day-to-day, Cheeseus and I conversed. Since he and Sixfold had joined the guild a few months earlier, we had developed a very good working/gaming relationship. By day, we chatted about what was going on in our lives, how work was treating us, and what news had leaked out about our shared gaming interest. By night, I death-gripped Malygos’ power sparks to the raid’s feet while Cheeseus eviscerated them, turning the Aspect’s own power against him, slicing and dicing with arcane-laced weapons. The unique rhythm he and I maintained from day-to-evening led to a proliferation of chats. In the past, I was only able to count two that regularly spoke to me outside of the game: Ekasra the Shaman and Wyse the Mage. The volume of conversations Cheeseus and I engaged in very quickly surpassed those two combined.

The 25-Man Progression team is
captured in Kel'Thuzad's chambers,
Naxxramas

A Council of One

Our early discussions centered mostly around him getting acquainted with the feel of the guild, and sharing his observations with me about the previous night’s raid. But as the weeks turned to months, we dove much deeper into each other’s psyche. He had an affinity for logic puzzles and games, and applied this love of math into his theorycrafting. We spent several months just debating the marginal increases or decreases in DPS by tweaking Hit and Expertise values. We even went so far as to put together a makeshift calculator that would examine a player on the Armory, extract their stats, and begin going through pseudo-combat loops, letting us play with hit and expertise values to see how marginally the damage fluctuated. But, a topic that we continued to touch on, time and again, was the topic of loot distribution systems:

11:41 AM Cheeseus: More to the point, how do you feel about needing to "bid against others" for similar loot? I'm still uncertain as to my opinion on the matter, and it just seems like it may do more harm than not, so the opinion of someone who's experienced it for longer, such as yourself, would be great.yourself, on
11:42 AM me: Can you give me a more concrete example?
11:46 AM Cheeseus: Just in general your system isn't quite like the others I've experienced. In my first guild Omen it was /ra open bidding, which was a nightmare, followed by a set price, each boss is worth X dkp whisper in bid system, which obviously favored vets. My last guild was a set price, diminished dkp after... 5-10 kills system, which overall seems like the best system I've yet to encounter. I've also helped my friends make a "suicide" system for their guild, and that seems to go well , though I do see the downfalls of it. I'm just wondering your opinion on your system.
11:47 AM me: /ra is garbage. Rewards nobody but people that are lucky. Should be self-explanatory how I feel about that.
Our 1st system was fixed-priced zero-sum.
It was an administrative nightmare.

We discussed the merits of "randoming" loot, of fixed price systems, and of get-to-the-back-of-the-line “Suicide Kings” style systems, and I was dissatisfied with most of them. When I pried deeper, Cheeseus revealed his favorite system: Loot Council:
2:13 PM Cheeseus: I've always been a fan of the idea of a loot council, because I'm rather pro communism ideology, but it's too easily corrupt/not impartial.
me: I'll never go loot council so you can scrap that idea now.
2:14 PM it will only take one day of me to be pissed off at some fuckface to deny them an upgrade and the system will have fallen apart
Cheeseus: Oh, I know. 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?
me: yes it is excellent
if it were 24 of my close friends i would do it in a heartbeat
but that's simply not an option
Cheeseus: It's things like that that make me sad with humanity
2:15 PM me: Aye.
 
Cheeseus was a staunch supporter of Loot Council, because his experiences with it worked well for his raiding teams in the past. These players were tight-knit, hardcore, wrecking The Sunwell Plateau multiple nights per week. Hardcore guilds benefit from loot council because they churn very few people through their roster, leadership typically has a very good handle on who the contributors are and where they fall in line. Loot Council works for two types of guilds. The first type is Dictatorship which is easy to administrate (“If you don’t like it, get out”) and players obey because they value their place in a hardcore roster and the prestige they gain from it. The second type of guild it works for is a guild of close-knit friends, people who know each other by name, and are possibly friends in real-life...

People who have to face each other and the consequences of their actions the day after loot distribution becomes corrupt.

I staunchly opposed this distribution method and although he favored it himself, Cheeseus agreed with me on the reasoning: Loot Council is too easily corrupted. It only takes one bad day for the loot distributor to be pissed off at a player, to bias his judgement just enough to issue loot out to someone else unfairly. DKP is a pure numbers-based system, directly representing a player’s contribution to raid progress as a whole.

You don’t issue rewards by how you feel, you issue them by the measurement of accomplished goals.

These conversations involving the mathing out of character stats, of the ethics surrounding loot, and our analytical approach to closing gaps in our raiding efficiency invoked a feeling of deja vu whenever we’d engage in such chatter. As the weeks carried on, Cheeseus grew to remind me more and more of someone I’d had these conversations with before.

He reminded me of Blain.

Cheeseus shows off his Twilight Drake,
alongside the 25-Man Progression team,
Wyrmrest Temple

The Plan 

I came to see this correlation between him and my now defunct Raid Leader of three years with increasing clarity. Like Blain, he expressed little interest or empathy toward the “plight” of the casual player, but where Blain’s perceived “assholiness” came from a core ideology of speaking the unvarnished truth, Cheeseus’s inability to mediate drama was more rooted in apathy. The reasoning was moot. I never expected Blain to handle such issues, and wouldn’t expect that of Cheeseus either. Blain had a passion for pushing the boundaries of what a player could do, smashing their preconceived notions which only served to limit them. Like him, Cheeseus felt our raid team could be so much more. We were disconnected, and lacked a central leader to follow:

12:05 PM Cheeseus: My strength has been, and always will be raiding. When I raid I want to spend minimal time on trivial things, and to (quickly) overcome new encounters. Though theorycrafting, out of game resources, and my knowledge of WoW I formulate effective manners of overcoming new content. Regardless of my position in the guild, I’m liable to do such.
What DoD needs to succeed (more) is one voice to follow. Discussion of strats with a collaboration of different people works well, as demonstrated by our 3D discussions, but when in raid we need one person to call the shots and to adapt the plan(s) as needed to obtain success.

His intentions were clear: Cheeseus felt he could fill that role of raid leader. He had already proven he could walk-the-walk, performing weekly in our raids, and demonstrating the expertise we needed in a leader. He’d solve those problems that plagued us; we’d have better focus, clearer calls, less ambiguity surrounding battle rezzes, less confusion around Bloodlust. But, a promotion to Raid Leader this early in his DoD career was a conundrum I had to put serious thought into. Promoting too early might generate animosity among those continuing to climb the ladder to Elite. I learned my lesson long ago about double standards and wanted to avoid them at all costs.

But I could start with Avatar. 

Avatar had fringe benefits. It would give him an opportunity to flex his raid leadership muscle in officer chat, adding his observations to the collective pool. And to the guild, he would be recognized simply as another new contributor to the guild who was going above and beyond the call of duty. Meanwhile, I was free to continue to twist the administrative dials as we headed for 3.1, rearranging our leadership structure to support Role Officers. Once 3.1 arrived, along with a fresh tier of raid content, I’d be in the best position possible to etch these structural changes into stone. At that point, the path for Cheeseus to be promoted to our next official raid leader would be unobstructed. It made sense and it was still by-the-book. So, Cheeseus became the next earner of the Avatar rank. And it came not a moment too soon.

Five days before Cheeseus earned Avatar, Blizzard made an announcement about the forthcoming 3.1 patch: Heroic: Glory of the Raider would lose its Black Proto-Drake award. The clock was now ticking, and the 25-Man Progression team needed every bit of leadership it could muster.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

3.11. Meritocracy

Mature, assisted by the guild, finishes off "For The Horde"

The Missing Piece

The team wasn't quite whole.

Naxxramas, The Eye of Eternity and Obsidian Sanctum were being gutted on a weekly basis. The adrenaline shot of a new expansion was still flowing viscerally through our veins. The re-envisioned raiding approach Blizzard was trying with Wrath allowed the team to tear the instances apart faster than a noob dying in the fire. DKP was being collected, and the loot distribution grew larger each week. And, we had a healthy mix of old and new faces stepping into Necropolis each week with us. Conversations in vent were positive; one might go so far as to say they were enjoying themselves. Death Knights added a unique and interesting set of mechanics to our progression; I was having the time of my life playing the role of a Tank. Wrath was fun, and we were having fun raiding together.

But we weren't quite whole.

The officer pool was cooperatively leading raids week-to-week; a combination of myself, Dalans, and various officers that remained. It was working, but I attribute our early wins to the severe lack of difficulty in the entry-level raids. It was easy to lead-by-committee when the margin of error was high. There were notable deficiencies in this model of leading raids. Messages get mixed. Communication isn’t as precise as it could be. We would be ratcheting into Patchwerk, quickly approaching his final 30%, waiting for that call for Bloodlust...and the call wouldn't come out.

“Should we BL?”

Awkward silence, followed by an irritated Dalans responding, “Yeah, just do it.”, wondering why raiders just couldn't think for themselves for a change. It had nothing to do with being a proactive thinker. It had everything to do with the norms we had become accustomed to for four years, conditioned by a Rogue named Blain to stay silent, focused on task, and not do anything impulsive, but instead, to follow directives. Players with a propensity to make their own judgement calls on-the-fly often proved to us in the past that they had no idea what they were doing. Furthermore, it undermined authority. This served up a double helping of fail salad; players would feed off this behavior and begin to contribute their own bad judgments  systematically pissing off the raid leader and contributing to his own burnout. The good news is that Blain whipped these boys and girls into shape, training them to only respond to the pavlovian bell of his voice.

That bad news is that in the absence of that voice, players executed raids on auto-pilot, almost as oblivious to the fine details of the raid as the mindless scourge whom they were slaughtering.

The lack of a central voice bothered me. It wasn't terrible now, but I feared it would soon grow like a cancer if left alone. Leaving things alone was how I had handled many issues in Vanilla and TBC because they were uncomfortable or I was unsure of my own leadership capabilities. This time around, however, I wasn't leaving anything alone. This time I had a plan, and I had baked that plan directly into the guild’s ranks.

Mature earns "Dressed for the Occasion" while
chatting with Mcflurrie

Quest of the Avatar

Part of the revised game plan for DoD was to begin acknowledging guildies for their exceptional contributions to the guild. Rewarding players built upon the foundation I attempted to reboot at the start of the second expansion. I realized that DoD was always going to be comprised of a mixed bag of faces, from those that logged in once a week, just to say “Hi” and check their auctions, all the way to the other extreme, tenaciously tweaking their characters for ultimate efficiency. I introduced the “Avatar” rank as a way to allow a guildy's peers put in a good word for one another, to be recognized for the efforts and to remind them that they played a vital role in the guild, no matter how small their contribution may be. This list of opportunities to demonstrate goodness was infinite, and so I was eager to see how players would take this challenge on. The initial results were impressive, but at the same time, made it very clear I needed to put much greater thought into Avatar’s ramifications. 

My guildies had a tendency to surprise me.

First on that list was Mcflurrie, an older player in the guild, who had been raiding with us since The Burning Crusade. Mcflurrie had performed a random act of kindness; after hearing that another player was struggling to find good upgrades as the result of some combinations of bad luck in drops, and low DKP, Mcflurrie offered his own DKP pool up to the player to bid on the item, which was as good as a purchase. It was extraordinarily generous (as raiders typically hoarded their DKP worse than gold), and although I felt it was a shining example of the kind of behavior I wanted to see in players, it also set a nasty precedent for players to collude with one another down-the-road. I awarded Mcflurrie Avatar for his generosity, and then amended the loot rules so that players could not spend DKP on each other. Letting players gift loot to each other bode ominously. I wanted it avoided at all costs.

Next on the list was Shimerice the Paladin, who opted to donate to the guild’s Ventrilo hosting fund, something that had rested solely on my shoulders since Ater handed the server over upon his exit from WoW. This generosity helped a lot, as many players had come and gone without making any effort to contribute to my costs, which included the Vent server, domain name registration, and web hosting -- all straight out of my pocket. There was a bit of a concern about awarding Avatar to players who provided monetary support to the guild; the act tended to weave back and forth across the ethical bridge without firmly landing on one side. I didn't want players to feel like they could buy their way into the rank, but at the same time, wanted to acknowledge them for helping out the guild. Again, as with the Mcflurrie situation, I let rank award go out, and then reminded players that they would be unable to “buy” their way into the role. This would become especially important when the first Elites were promoted, and my 1st round bidding rule became active.

The ethics involving a player “buying” their way into a role that would guarantee them a shot at loot before anyone else had no ethical ambiguity to it -- it was wrong. And when players offered to donate in the future, they got the hint. Bheer proved this when he offered to pay for a registered account at WoW Web Stats, which is what we used to analyze our performance at the time. He paid the for the account, and respectfully declined any Avatar award or promotion, and I humbly thanked him for his support. Other players would continue to contribute in this fashion without gaining notoriety, and I was thankful that the “hint” had taken, and that contributions were greatly appreciated.

Mature completes his one-billionth Alterac Valley,
earning him "Hero of the Frostwolf Clan"

Taking the Spotlight

On the surface, Avatar was meant to provide acknowledgement to players of all shapes and sizes, of all degrees and measures of contribution. I wanted it to be clear to DoD that you didn't have to be a raider to earn the title of Avatar; there were many ways that casual players could be identified by their peers for random acts of kindness. To this end, Avatar met that need, and many different styles of player earned a shot at sitting high up in the DoD leadership court, hanging out in officer chat. This was the publicly announced reasoning behind the Avatar rank, to foster camaraderie among the players and return us to our "family friendly" roots. But, I had a nefarious hidden agenda behind the Avatar rank, one I kept close to the chest: players that both raided in Progression and earned Avatar were going to be closely scrutinized for a promotion to Elite. It would grow to become one of those “unspoken rules” like those in Hollywood, where the Oscar for best Director was almost a guarantee that their movie would go on to win Best Picture. It wasn't a 100% given...but you were going to see a pattern.

Following Shim’s award, Arterea the Priest and Omaric the Warrior were next on the list to earn Avatar. Both were continuing to be positive, friendly, well-respected members of the DoD community. And both were proving themselves to be extremely talented behind the raiding wheel, consistently excelling in each respective department, and not hesitating to share their knowledge so that others would learn and grow as well. And, it was not long after those two that Kelden the Shaman earned Avatar, proving that he was consistently pushing his ability to heal to absolute maximum. It dawned on me during Kelden's Avatar award-ship that he had applied to DoD not once, but twice; the first time he had been turned away as his application was for that of a Rogue. We were heavy on melee and had no room for him, yet he persisted, and applied a second time as a healer, which got his foot in the door. Now he was proving he could play the role we needed, and continued to deliver exceptional healing as we scratched achievements off the to-do list.

In the back of my mind, I already had plans for all three. Art and Omaric would going to be seeing Elite very quickly, and I had been starting to weigh heavily the concept of switching leadership from Class Officers to Role Officers. We were already short in multiple departments, from a class officer perspective, and it made more sense in the days for 40-Man raiding. In fact, you were crazy if you weren't delegating management of each class to an individual person when 40+ players needed to be coordinated. Those days were long behind us, and many classes lacked an officer now. Pondering Role Officers made sense, gave us more focus, and kept the raid team more closely knit. If I were to make the change, Kelden was first on my list to promote to Healing Officer. For the most part, I kept the majority of these thoughts to myself, sharing them only occasionally with Dalans. He was on board and enthusiastic. Dalans had long held we suffered from too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen syndrome, so the prospect of downsizing most certainly gave him the kind of twisted satisfaction felt when the executioner approaches the chopping block.

With regular Avatar rewards being doled out, and the picture of Elites and Role Officer promotions growing clearer each day, I was confident that a Raid Leader voice would soon make itself known to me. The moment it did, I’d pounce. I had my own gut instincts on where this voice would come from, but running a guild can’t come from intuition alone. My leadership days of leaving things alone to self-mend were well behind me. Thanks to Avatar, players were pushed out of the line of conformity into a spotlight where they could be recognized. Spotlights have a way of showing you who has potential to fill that role.

Unsurprisingly, the voice ended up being exactly who I predicted.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

3.10. Divine Forgiveness

Graulm updates Kerulak on Dreadlocker's need to
hearth and retrieve a forgotten Onyxia Scale Cloak,
Blackwing Lair

Bygones

Along with garnering interest from brand new players, tales of our exploits trickled back across the internet's sea of digital waves. Our cohorts were pulled back, alcoholics getting a whiff of that intoxicating aroma, falling completely off the wagon into Azeroth's mud. The question was: do we embrace them with open arms and welcome them into our perpetual AA meeting? After four years of running Descendants of Draenor, we had developed a colorful history of departures. Some were clean. Others were so filthy I still feel the dirt under my fingernails. Discreetly, they would approach me, striking up a conversion over in-game whispers. "Kerulak! How's it going? Long time, no chat!", as if I had forgotten the painful details surrounding their exit, and the many sleepless night they had caused me. Memories are short. Recruiting for your absence wasn't something I enjoyed. But, I responded politely, carrying the conversation as long as they wished. Secretly, I timed how long it would take for them to drop the big question.

Addressing the prospect of a player's return boiled down to a number of items. First, I had to consider their past and the context of their exit before I let the water rush under the bridge. In some cases, it wasn't appropriate to have them return, because I had completely lost trust in them when they were in a role of responsibility. This was the case with Dreadlocker, my second warlock officer who left us mid-TBC after being given too many direct orders from Annihilation on how to play his class. I remember how I felt when it happened: frantic. I had no answers and nothing made sense. It was a situation that, as a leader, made me feel like I had no control over anything. When he finally spoke, it was to draw attention to my mistreatment of the B-team players, increasingly left behind when we shifted gears to solve our stagnation problem. I saw things differently. By accepting the promotion to officership, Dreadlocker's responsibility was to the guild, not to the B-team. As a result, his alignment with players inhibiting progress, rather than contributing, ultimately led to the second exodus from DoD. Some time later, word got around about our accomplishments -- the Twilight Vanquisher titles spoke for themselves. And although Dreadlocker and I continued an amicable relationship, speaking infrequently via /tell about how things had transpired since the exodus, he dropped hints that it might be beneficial for us to return to our combined former glory.

Personally, I did not see the need.

Another type of exit I was loathe to forgive were ones that sent my moral compass spinning. We are human, we make mistakes; part of being a good leader means forgiving and moving forward. But ethical mistakes cannot and should not be forgiven; they paint a picture of a person with either ulterior motives or they are too easily manipulated to put faith into. The DoD raiding environment I set out to rebuild in Wrath was steeped in trust and communication. Violations of that meant chipping away at our raiding foundation until the tower collapsed, no matter how trivial the infraction seemed. In a virtual social environment where honesty and strength-of-character are often cast to the wayside, I did everything in my power to compel the guild to be honest and follow through with their commitments. This mutual trust formed the basis of my raid rotation policy and promotion structure in WotLK. There is no need to mention names here, but players in Vanilla and TBC I came to trust...who made me believe they were aligned with the goals of the guild, only to betray that trust later...weren't given a second chance. Furthermore, I instituted a rule that prevented alts from joining other guilds. Hanging out with us on your alt, only to flip to your main raiding toon in another guild and sap our resources for our competition's benefit was a prime use case I wanted to avoid. Alignment aside, it caused too many hard feelings. I was a big boy and could put it behind me, but I couldn't say the same for the rest of the raiders. Animosity between them only chipped away at that raiding foundation further.

Forgiveness is tricky, but it helps if the person genuinely knows where they went wrong, as was the case with Bretthew.

Kerulak keeps an eye on heals
while Taba tanks Buru the Gorger,
The Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj

Bretthew

Buried within the folklore of Descendants of Draenor exists the amusing tale of a certain paladin, an old-school DoDer, who sought passage back into the guild. In the days of Vanilla, he played a warrior named Taba. Taba's fellow 40-Man clansman will forever remember the events surrounding a Blackwing Lair clear one night, a night of infamy in which the coveted sword Ashkandi was pulled from Nefarian's carcass. In our zero-sum, fixed price loot system of Vanilla, Taba was the highest DKP holder next in line, and won the coveted blade of crimson and black. Upon receiving the loot, screams of joy burst through Vent as he stepped away from his keyboard, proceeding to dance in uninhibited delight, running frantically from room to room. He screamed the sword's name with all the excitement of a child tearing into that one present they had dreamed for all year.

I remember when loot had that effect on players.

With the release of TBC, Taba was retired and a new blood elf paladin named Bretthew took his place. As he had tanked in Vanilla, Bretthew continued this tradition and assisted in the defeat of Gruul and Magtheridon, preparing for the challenges of Serpentshrine Cavern. Since the Horde had only just gained paladins, we lacked expertise in this department. Some of our healing shamans had cut over to the plate-wearing, flash-of-light spamming fair skinned elves. Of what little facts we knew, paladins weren't viable tanks for the Alliance in Vanilla; pallies could spec that way, but simply weren't cut out to do it competitively. All of this changed in TBC, so Bretthew dove deep into those mechanics, learning the nuances of the class in a quest to become an expert Tankadin. He tanked for the 25-Man progression team alongside folks like Ater, Kurst and Dalans, and played a particularly key role in tanking the massive waves of murlocs that rushed in during Morogrim Tidewalker's attempts to drown us.

Then, drama.

Not long after Tidewalker's defeat, Bretthew's WoW account was hacked. He lost all his characters; we lost a fully geared and experienced paladin tank. The hacker had even gone so far as to rename Bretthew to "Pumpintitan". The guild flipped out, spammed this illegitimate account holder, threatening him, demanding he return the account to its rightful owner. It was no use. The hacker only responded with disemvoweled speech, insisting that the account was his, spreading lies about how he had legitimately purchased it. Apparently, we were all wrong and just needed to leave him alone.

The hacker stuck to his guns so fiercely, that eventually I began to question whether or not Bretthew had, in fact, been hacked at all. Surely, he had no reason to make up a story like that? I mean, he was an adequate tank, well liked among the guild; a funny, decent player with competency behind the wheel. And we were making progress! Blain was back in charge of the raid team, and we were on our way to completing SSC. All lights were green, and doubt surrounding our ability had all but completely dried up. What possible reason would he have to step out of progression, cold-turkey, right at the start of our second wind?

The only thing I could think of was: embarrassment.

Bretthew stands among the 25-Man progression team
after defeating Morogrim Tidewalker,
Serpentshrine Cavern

Repent of Your Sins

Bretthew laid the entire story out for me in Vent one night. "Shock" would not be a word I'd use to describe how I felt as it unfolded. Allegedly filled with rage during a late night PvP session, Bretthew became the victim of a temper tantrum. That tantrum caused him to make some bad judgments (pardon the pun). And in the heat of anger, he grabbed his keyboard and flung it against the wall. As tiny plastic letters of the alphabet rained down on his head, realization quickly set in. The keyboard left a gaping hole in the wall...the wall of a rental apartment. In an instant, he committed himself to a brand new loan, money he would need to repair the damage, money he didn't have. Money, he reasoned, that would have to come from selling the WoW account.

But not before covering his blood-laden tracks.

Once Bretthew secured a new owner, and the money exchanged hands, all that remained was delivering the awful news to the guild leader. He knew I would be furious, as we'd come to rely on him in progression. He wasn't ready to deal with the ramifications of coming clean. So, he concocted a story to get a free pass -- that he'd been hacked. What could I do? It wasn't his fault his account was gone! It sucked, but that's what happened and he was very sorry; conveniently, responsibility was out of his hands. My only option was to handle the situation on those terms: a hacking, something Bretthew wasn't responsible for, and certainly couldn't be blamed for. Just another hacked account in the long line of wedges driven into our progress throughout The Burning Crusade.

No, "shock" was definitely not what I felt after getting all the facts. Instead, it was mostly "disappointment".

With his full disclosure now presented, I had to reason, is it worth taking a risk on someone like Bretthew again? On the one hand, I clung to my age-old biases which had been tempered with one experience after another: people don't change. If he had the capacity to pull something like that on me once, I reasoned, there was nothing to stop him from doing it again. When presented with such a rationale, he agreed,

"You have absolutely every right to feel that way about me, Hanzo," he said over Vent. 

I flew across Northrend, searching for more achievements to complete, "I assume you've read all the rules that I've published for Wrath," I said, "things are different now. I intend on running a much tighter ship this time."

"I've read it all, I think it's great...what you've done."

"And you’re 100% clear on the tank situation? That it's going to be difficult for you to find a spot on a regular basis? Y'know? Because I just had this conversation with Beercow. He opted to switch roles entirely because of that."

"I'm completely clear and fine with it; I can help fill other runs if needed."

I paused a moment, then delivered the next sentence slowly, giving impact to every individual word, "You realize that there is a very slim chance you'll see the Elite rank under my new system...ever. Based on your previous exploits."

"No, I hear you. I get where I messed up and that's not something I'm interested in reliving. I just want to be able to contribute in some way."

I pondered the other side of the case a moment. He came clean, after all. He made the effort to give me the real story regarding his account. While his motives painted him with the maturity of a child, and his timing was more representative of a treasure-hungry goblin, I decided that it was important to give a player a second chance whom genuinely knew where they had fucked up, expressed remorse, and were dedicated to fixing it. If they could be man enough to acknowledge the error of their ways, I wagered, it was the first step toward growing into a better person. I appreciated players who were willing to take accountability for their actions, and wanted to reward that behavior with positive reinforcement. So, Bretthew returned to the lineup in late March. The 25-Man progression team grew stronger.

But there was still the case of a missing raid leader...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

3.9. Outselling The Competition

Mature sets his title to "Twilight Vanquisher"
after completing The Twilight Zone,
Dalaran

Comparative Pricing

How do you become the "Top Guild on the Server"?

Is success measured by the design of the guild's spectacular website? What if players can't be bothered with a site (or don't know how to set one up), then maybe the lack of a website is more enticing. The ability to communicate and treat others with respect and maturity could be a good measure, but mutual respect could also be the exact opposite of what a player wants. Maybe they are introverted and don't want excessive communication, and prefer to be left alone, speaking only when a very specific question arises. Perhaps a reflection of the guild's goals and ideals, then, and how they approach the discipline of raiding (or PvP) is what floats a guild to the top. Maybe the top guild on the server demonstrates fantastic discipline! But, what if you don't want that? What if you thrive on trolling and griefing, and after a hard day at school or the office, the only comfort you get out of life is ganking noobs as they quest in ignorant bliss? Maybe the top guild on the server is the definitive griefing guild, and you salivate at the mere mention of being a part of that. Maybe I'm overthinking this...perhaps it is simply a measure of size. Yeah, that must be it. The top guild on the server must be the largest, no question about it, the top guild on the server is the largest...

...or...is it the smallest?

This philosophical question spent time in general chat nearly every day that I played WoW. Someone always wanted to know who the "top guild" on the server was. And you'd often see the same patterns of names fly by. After a smattering of comedians spammed their own unknown guilds as an answer, trends typically started to show up. During Vanilla it was Depraved; around The Burning Crusade, it became Pretty Pink Pwnies. Occasionally, a troll would spam support for the Alliance, and we'd see guilds like Inertia or Costa show up. In an anonymous medium lacking moderation, the various responses I read often boiled down to the same opinion:

"Our perception of the top guild on this server is the one that's furthest progressed in raids."

Conveniently, that answer didn't speak to how those guilds carried themselves. Some were comprised of genuinely cool people. Others set the standard for a new level of douchebag. In many cases it was a melting pot; a guild with good intentions containing bad seeds, and the only differentiating factor between guilds was how askew their decent-to-douchebag ratio was unbalanced. Whether arrogant leadership led timid yes-men (and yes-women), or officers with a moral compass led a gang of hoodlums, the variety of guild options on Deathwing-US was anything but. Yet the one consistency that remained was the continued perception of the most coveted guild on the server being a measure of their dominace in PvE.

I knew what I was up against on a daily basis; my reminder scrolled up automatically through general chat. Chuck Norris jokes, insults, political arguments, profanity...all arbitrarily intermixed with raw demand. Smithies looking for work. Need help running this Heroic. Need help with this one quest, hey can anyone tell me where Mankirk's wife is? Where do I turn in these tokens for gear? How the hell do I get back to Orgrimmar from Dalaran? Hey, how do you get that bizarre mount? Hey, how do you get that title?

Hey. What's the top guild on this server? I am LFGuild, thx.

"Enigma"

"LOL its Enigma"

"Top guild si Enigma, tlak to Fraya"

I knew what I was up against.

Fraya stands among Kerulak and other various players
on Daetwhing-US, after defeating Emeriss,
Ashenvale

Market Leaders

Fraya had been on Deathwing-US since the early days of WoW. We had bumped into him several times since Vanilla, where his time was mostly spent in Admonished Prophets. My ex-warrior officer Annihilation clocked the most time in Fraya's presence. According to him, Fraya was a good kid, loved to PvP on his druid, and had helped us out killing world bosses like Emeriss and Azuregos, back in the day. By all accounts, Fraya was good people. We even tried to nab him a couple of times, but no...he respectfully declined. Said he had big plans to start a raiding guild. Wanted to make a name for himself. See how far he could push a team into progression. And soon after the release of Wrath, we saw what he was up to: the guild name Enigma started to spread quickly throughout the Horde community on Deathwing-US. As promised, Fraya would be making a name for his new guild, and I had every reason to be concerned. Depraved had poached players from me during Vanilla without giving it a second thought; the same was true for Pretty Pink Pwnies during TBC. But back then, my attitude was one of disbelief, shock, disgust, surprise. How could another guild treat us like this? Weren't we all in this together?

It doesn't work like that. Not on Deathwing-US.

In the business of building a raiding guild on this backwater server, you take what you want. I'm often curious what the general feeling is on this topic for European guilds; my locale limits me to being exposed only to the North American servers. Perhaps a mutual respect exists on a handful of other servers here in the US of A. At least as far as Deathwing-US is concerned, guilds treat each other like Corporate America treats greed. There's no honor among guild leaders; hell, I'd be surprised if any of the guild leaders on Deathwing-US even knew who I was...or cared!

But I wanted to know them.

In the corporate world, public relations and ethics are barely enough to keep people virtuous. Pretend for a moment that you are completely protected by a thick shell of anonymity, free from the repercussions of doing whatever the hell you want, saying what you want, and acting how you want. Nobody's hand can be held to the fire, because nobody knows whose hand to force into the flame. Now, surrounded by that lack of a moral code, more and more join in with that behavior, one gigantic hive mind of douche.

Well, now you have a general idea of what it's like to be a raiding Guild Leader.

We touted ideals and morals in DoD, and four years in I had a pretty good handle on setting the standard behind our walled garden. My guild had made a name for itself, helping each other without being asked. They'd go out of their way to be respectful to players in other guilds, no matter how ignorant a response they got in return. A strategy I particularly enjoyed was killing trolls with kindness; responding to players that had gone way overboard in the what-is-appropriate department with hugs, apologies, and bubblegum candycane hearts. It only drove them into a greater fury.

I loved that.

Behind the scenes, I kept a close eye on the competition, because I knew how the "game" was being played on our server; rules of engagement were non-existent at best. The grand majority of players I brushed shoulders with would never see my website, never read my rules, never once get to know me or my guild, and learn about our ideals or values. They would never come to see how we tried, every day, to separate ourselves from the herd.

...and they couldn't care less.

The only exposure to Descendants of Draenor they'd ever see were those things right in front of their virtual faces: gear, titles and general chat. I already committed to keeping my opinion out of general chat (and compelled DoD to do the same), so that left me with only two concrete selling points. For the masses, I hoped to impress upon them our degree of progress, reflected by what we wore and the titles that displayed next to our name. If they happened to see us flying a coveted mount, it would be icing on the cake. Then...and only then...could I hope to make a pitch on exactly why it would be lucrative for them to choose Descendants of Draenor over another hardcore, further progressed guild:

Perks.


Mature chats with Beercow while
Scruffiebear converses in guild chat,
Argent Pavillion

Added Value

Hardcore raiding guilds were known for keeping a short leash on their raiders, and this included the raiders' individual schedules. Guilds competing for world-first and server-first titles were expected to clock long hours, raiding many nights per week. We couldn't compete with that. We had jobs, wives, kids, responsibilities -- all the wonderful things that like to jam the gears of a hardcore raiding machine. We had to sell that deficiency as a perk. Rather than force you to raid inappropriate hours during the week, we'd give you the option to maintain a more flexible raiding schedule. In order to make this happen, I made it a rule to handle the rotations myself and work very closely with the players to accommodate their schedules. Various guildies were notably concerned about my heightened expectations in our updated Wrath rules, but I assured them I would do my very best to make the schedule work.

One raider in particular, a feral druid named Beercow, expressed his concerns to me over IM. He desperately wanted to be a regular part of the 25-Man progression team and earn his way up to the "Elite" rank, but felt stifled by the fact that there was no room to consistently bring him in the tank role. Beercow was an old-school veteran of DoD; he had raided with the 40-Man team on his warlock Kragnl. After taking time off for TBC, he returned to consume content with us in Wrath. Players that helped us get where we were today held a special place of importance in the guild. Hence, it was important for me to find a way to carve a spot out for him in the raid roster. Abstaining from trying to convince him to play something we needed, I fished out another interest: Enhancement Shaman. I saw a need for that role and told him he'd easily be able to prove his Elite potential by choosing that unique position and sticking to it. He obliged, and Beercow -- now Bheer -- became the only regular enhancement shaman we saw week-to-week in progression.

Another player I made allowances for was a long standing player in DoD, one who had become a regular face in progression and was a player we all knew by many names. He had a multitude of characters on his account, and fashioned himself a PvPer at heart; he had spent many late nights cruising through Alterac Valley, Arathi Basin and Warsong Gulch with some of our other veteran PvPers like Neps and Annihilation. He jammed his foot in DoD's door via his brother, the warlock Ouleg (also a PvPer) who had been known to contribute to raids from time to time throughout TBC. Ouleg never demonstrated to me any real significant amount of loyalty to the raid team. I recall nights that we would wipe incessantly in Serpentshrine Cavern, only to hear that "something's come up, I gotta go", and conveniently, Ouleg was gone from the raid. It was the general sort of douchebaggery I came to accept as par-for-the-course when leaning on our PvP crowd to wrap up a raid.

So, when Ouleg's brother stepped foot in progression, I set my expectations appropriately. On occasion he would miss sign-ups completely, or he would show up late and miss the raid invite, so I didn't go out of my way to weave intricate tapestries around his spot. But when he did bring a toon to the raid, whether it be his boomkin druid Scruffiebear or his shadow priest Aeden, that boy would unleash hell on our enemies. He was an unexpected sharpshooter, a hardcore player in every sense of the word, and yet, was simply a laid-back, fun-loving kid that liked to drink and party. He became the guild mascot, known by everyone and liked by all. Rather than call him by the many names of his toons, DoD simply referred to him by his name in real life: Ben. I did what I could to make room for Ben in the roster, as his jokes always kept the raid's spirits up, and his damage was nothing to laugh at. But, I didn't have high hopes that he would ever see a rank beyond "Raider".

While it pleased me to see returning faces and find ways to work them into the roster, some names required a bit more thought during consideration. I'm referring, of course, to those faces who left DoD under bad terms, the bridge burners. But were they bad people? Or was their exit strategy simply marred by bad circumstances?

How does a Guild Leader decide when it's OK to bring someone back across that burned bridge?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

3.8. Changing of the Guard

"Portrait of a Tigole Bitties Wiping to
F@#$cking @#$ASDF@#$?&^%&!!1!1!"

The Troll

It was all over the MMO news sites: Tigole was stepping down from World of Warcraft. One of the visionary designers responsible for our daily addiction was moving to a secret project. Jeff Kaplan's parting post assured us his "partners in crime" were very capable game directors themselves; that WoW was safe and in good hands.

Calming anxieties and assuaging fears wasn't something Tigole was known for.

Tigole's farewell post smacked of Blizzard's modus operandi for public communications: always attribute the company's success to the team. There were no rockstars at Blizzard, because everyone was a rockstar.

I outline this, because it is a company ideal that runs contrary to Tigole's own personal beliefs.

Recruited into the Blizzard ranks by Rob Pardo, his guild leader in the EverQuest guild Legacy of Steel, Rob saw something in Jeff that translated to a winning strategy. Jeff had that magic combination of first-hand experience, design intuition, and gamer sensibilities. Back then, games like EverQuest boasted no more than a quarter million players at any one time. Whatever it was that held MMOs back from breaking a million subs, Pardo must have known Kaplan held the keys to unlocking. By adding Tigole's vision to the core team of WoW game directors, the competition would drop off the market faster than casuals drop off the Battle.net ladder.

From 2000 to mere months before the launch of World of Warcraft, "Tigole Bitties" posted updates to his guild's website on their raid progress, voicing his now legendary opinions along the way. Tigole 's posts were legendary in that they were peppered with profanity and spared no fellow guild member from shame. Each entry proudly boasted LoS's accomplishments in the EQ raid game (with an occasional nod to his then competition/now co-developer Furor, aka Alex Afrasiabi). Subtlety wasn't Jeff's strong point. What his posts lacked in subtext, however, were accounted for through his personal style that delivered its message with all the grace of a sledgehammer.

Patches weren't delayed, they were conveniently delayed. Bosses didn't lack loot, they dropped NOTHING. Fellow LoS members weren't guildmates, they were slacker guildmates too damn lazy to press the screenshot key. Venril didn't drop a staff_098, he dropped a shitty_staff_098. Gorenaire didn't kill you, he raped you.

Tigole wove a tapestry of sarcasm and entitlement with every post to LoS's homepage, but things got especially colorful when he turned his attention to EQ's developer, Verant:
"Now Verant...and I know someone from Verant will come across this...I don't know what you guys were smoking when you decided to stick a big ass dragon in one of the laggiest zones in the game, but whatever it was, please send me some of it to Tigole Bitties -- you have my home address on my registration. I'm guessing you guys were smoking some real good shit at the time."
"*Druids now have the ability to revive, feign death, backstab, and mesmerize mobs.  This was done in an effort to further Verant's Vision that we could create a class that can do everything yet still complain."
"Please Verant -- log in and send me a tell. It's obvious your Quality Assurance guys are far too busy making sure the fire beetle pathing in West Commons is working right to spend any time on one of the main mobs of your new expansion. LoS will gladly give you some QA time if you'd like to witness your programming at it's worst."
"Reasons of the Day to Say, 'F Verant'"
For a gamer, pretty standard stuff, really. Except with one difference: It was ostensibly the kind of stuff that was about to form the competition.

Mmm, Yes...Let the Hate Flow Through You

Tigole got into his element he channeled his rage directly at Verant's incompetence in designing an adequate video game. This fury was released in gradual outbursts over many months during his time in LoS, eventually culminating in a rant that exploded on their website in January of 2002:
"I know let's talk about Verant and maximizing the time of their expansion. Let's face it, VI needs this expansion to last a good long while. So what do they do? They add keys to get to uber mobs, thus slowing down the discovery of Luclin. That I can understand. In fact I like that notion. It seperated [sic] the men from the boys in Kunark with VP keys, and likewise proved who had their shit together in SoV with Sleepers. But in Luclin it seems, rather than having keys drop off of HARD mobs (a.k.a. EARNING your key to the next step), keys seem to be RARE drops off of RARE spawns -- thereby rewarding the Lucky and Unemployed. Now to add to this retarded idea of RARE drops (rather than drops off of HARD mobs) you have all you gimps out there who decided to passover the necessary key step to get to uber mobs and you fuckers exploited the doors. Well congrats on your awesome EQ FIRST, dumbasses, and as a result of your ub3r l33tn3ss Mages get a big phat dick in the ass nerf of CoH. And when CoH gets nerfed is it just the mages that get punished? Oh no, it's everyone. Stuck in traffic on the way home to a raid? Tough shit -- not there on time, you're fucked. Good fucking going exploiting dumbasses and good fucking going Verant for not having half a clue that if you put locked doors in people are gonna get past them. Here's an idea VI -- rather than nerf mages, how bout you go check on who's killing mobs behind locked doors -- look at their loot -- then see who has key. No key? Conquest their ass. Don't fuck the rest of us over because some lazy gimps can sploit a door. And for crying out loud, put keys on HARD mobs -- not rare drops on rare spawns. Are you looking to reward the skilled players or the lucky and unemployed?"
It should be pretty apparent by now where Jeff's gaming beliefs fell. Tigole was hardcore. Tigole loathed casuals.

If you're a gamer, you know this communication style is commonplace, and certainly not unique to a player clever enough to switch the letters of big ol' titties around. If you're not a gamer, your initial revulsion or hesitancy to accept anything this person has to say with any degree of credibility isn't incorrect. To gamers, especially the most hardcore kind, gaming is priority #1, everything else is noise. There are dragons to slay, after all.

That's the unfortunate thing about Kaplan's unique talents: gamers are proud to have someone like Tigole in their corner. They're authentic. They know what the hell they are talking about. Kaplan's vision for a better MMO world is a panacea in the eyes of gamers, but carries the unfortunate side-effect of painting us unflatteringly to everyone else. That vision is difficult for laypeople to spot, because it's hard to see past the nerd rage.

Public decorum notwithstanding, Tigole understood what MMO players needed. There was a pecking order in EQ where the strong survived and the weak were pounded into dust. If given the opportunity, you can bet Kaplan would reinstate that pecking order. His own words sum it up best:
"Basically, killing stuff was a PRIVLEGE [sic] not a RIGHT."
Tigole raided, slew internet dragons, and pounded his virtual chest on his guild's website, like any proud gamer would today. Buried deeply in that rage was talent -- the eye for winning game design, which Blizzard would readily accept.

But how readily would they accept his finesse with words?

The Cruise Director

The lack of a professional affiliation affords you some literary freedoms. Publishing a rant peppered with profanity and insults is no longer an option once you represent your employer. When you pull on the company shirt, pin the badge to your lapel, and go on-the-record, the days of speaking freely without fear of repercussions come to a screeching halt. You have to represent yourself with a degree of diplomacy and tact. Your emotions need to be checked at the door.

Once behind the wheel, the tables of irony were turned. WoW players flocked to the Battle.net forums with their own rants, giving Tigole a taste of his own medicine. His strategy was simple: keep all communication to a minimum. Stay focused on the design of WoW and let the ranters rant...which was probably a wise strategy. Who better to understand the ramifications of feeding the trolls than a troll himself? Getting into it with entitled players feeling like they weren't getting their money's worth might well be an exercise in futility.

Besides, Jeff understood the vision for WoW: some content simply wasn't going to be doable by everyone. Players were going to have to accept that and either put forth some real effort...or leave. The tears of players unwilling to make this effort rained down on his emotionless roof, washing down the gutter where they belonged.

By and large, this is how Blizzard curated the community in the days of Vanilla and TBC: strictly, and with little speculation on design. Tigole and his cast of Community Managers had no problem stating explicit facts or acknowledging identified bugs that would be fixed. This was WoW's cruise director in action, fixing what was broken with MMOs, and deflecting dissent with absence. In fact, Tigole's first public appearance on the forums didn't occur until late into Vanilla, as he went on public record to state that, yes, Blizzard was investigating a problem with C'thun. But demands for changes, particularly requiring an easing of the difficulty, fell on deaf ears.

Whether intended or coincidental, this reining in of whiners had a profound effect on the community. They remained at bay -- miniature troll fires sputtered and burnt out with no oxygen to fuel them. Research predating the advent of virtual communities has long since proven that it is very often the situation, not the individual people involved, that produce abhorrent behavior. A community without a tight grip on rules and moderation inevitably devolves into a cesspool of trolls and whiners. It isn't because those people are inherently troll-like or whiny by nature; they are simply placed in an environment that allows the behavior to spread like a virus. Blizzard controlled the behavior by ignoring it.

This strategy proved to be a double-win for Kaplan. By sticking to reporting facts, acknowledging issues, shying away from speculation and complaints, he kept focus on the design of WoW while simultaneously keeping Tigole Bitties in check. Meanwhile, the WoW community gained no opportunity to misbehave, learning quickly that their public freakouts produced no results. In the Vanilla era, raiders raided and casuals kept to themselves, and if either group were unhappy that the content was too difficult...this was the world's smallest violin, playing for you. Like a tantruming child left alone, the tears eventually dried up.

Still, he struggled with those early posts, the ones he felt compelled to respond to. You can see it in the forced restraint. It must have taken every ounce of energy just to write a measured response to a raid leader who felt the TBC keying was too difficult. World of Warcraft Game Director Jeff Kaplan "partially agreed, and partially disagreed." You can bet Tigole Bitties had a more colorful take prepped and ready to fire.

Tigole never believed that everyone was a rockstar. The gamer mentality he brought to the Blizzard design table assured gamers that the more they played...the harder they played...the more rewards they would reap. That "killing stuff" was not a god given right bestowed to every player that happened to plunk down a monthly sub. That if you wanted glory, you quit whining, got off your ass, and earned it.

Did his mentality change, somewhere along the way? Or did he suppress his long held gaming beliefs behind a public relations mask? It didn't matter. He was gone, and we wouldn't get the chance to find out.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

3.7. Terminating Employment

Securing your Blizzard account with two-factor auth...$6.
Knowing your WoW account is hackproof...whatever the
 going rate is on eBay.

Credibility Crumbles

Kurst's skill as a tank was repeatedly called into question, yet I insisted on working through these superficial struggles. If it were only a question of his ability as a warrior and an officer, I reasoned, this knowledge could be taught and improved over time. If I stuck it out, he could turn this around. As we progressed into Wrath, Kurst gave me another handful of problems to mitigate, and my clarity faded. As with all people-related issues, his blurred from black-and-white into a complex cloud of grays. Navigating this storm was a challenge; just when I thought I had his problems addressed, another struck, as though he were forever cursed to suffer bad luck. His character's name was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At the beginning of January 2009, Kurst's account was hacked. The details in my mind are sketchy; I recall that there was a focused attack that compromise his wife's email, and the collateral damage spilled over into Kurst's in-game obligations. One can argue (and I definitely argued) that anyone can be hacked. It's true; in Kurst's defense, thousands of Warcraft accounts are hacked on a daily basis. But there were key pieces that made Kurst's situation turn from disheartening to infuriating.

Why hack a World of Warcraft account? Nerd pride, perhaps. But there is also an element of financial gain to be had: WoW players use Azeroth's gold as their currency to buy and sell goods. Gold is also used to repair worn out gear; yes, the slaying of internet dragons actually imposes wear-and-tear on our virtual armaments. At that time, in the real world, a WoW black market thrived. It allowed players to unofficially purchase in-game gold with real cash -- something Blizzard strictly forbids in the WoW's terms of use. This underground activity spreads regardless of Blizzard's stance, a virus infecting our in-game experience, nourished by both the childish and the fraudulent alike. 

The Kurst hack was particularly inconvenient. He was unable to raid and finding a geared / experienced tank in a short amount of time posed a challenge. Tanks were rare in numbers as a natural result of their distribution in raids, and those that were well geared remained extremely loyal to their raiding guilds. So, my options were limited to the many ungeared / inexperienced tanks, desperate to show me how little they knew. But the inconvenience didn't end with a recruitment burden. 

Kurst's officer rank extended him access to the guild vault, which I logged-in to find had been gutted as a result. Since Cataclysm, guild leaders have been able to restrict access to the guild vault by detecting the presence of a player's Authenticator, but back in WotLK, no such functionality existed.

Blizzard, you get a pass on this one. It wouldn't have helped.

Kurst, whose profession was IT security in the real world, had opted against attaching an Authenticator to his account. 

I jumped through the guild leader hoops and defended him publicly on the forums, reminding my guild on the dangers of hacking and that nobody was above being targeted. Inside, I was disgusted at his shortsightedness. Kurst's hack absolutely could have been prevented, but his insistence that his account was safe despite a lack of two-factor auth made it that much more difficult to take anything he said seriously.

A screenshot from the "Re: Why I Sort By Damage Done"
DoD forum thread

Checked Out

Presence on the guild forums is as vital to Descendants of Draenor as it is to any guild. We are a social unit and need to carry on conversations that begin in-game or vice-versa. We need to be able to communicate strategy to raiders, changes in management to officers, and clarification of rules to guildies. Yet, forum activity was nearly always a fraction of what transpired in-game. It is a constant struggle to keep people attuned to our forums outside of the game.

I've experimented with a variety of techniques to keep people participating. One such tactic: Have officers drive content. They are the leaders, the ones who are turned to for advice and guidance. They need to set the example by providing updated topics on their class, and what players need to be aware of in order to continually improve their game. And (perhaps most importantly) if you're not being rotated in for raids, the first person you'll go to is your officer. At the start of WotLK, I mandated that officers keep their topics fresh with links to spreadsheets, info on the latest patches, and what their class needs to be thinking about on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to breed excellence.

Not surprisingly, being uninvolved had the reverse effect on players. They would wander around Northrend in a daze, asking the same questions over and over...questions that had been answered long ago on our forums. I instructed all officers to stay caught up on current events by clicking "View New Topics" each time they returned to the forums, and while guildies were generally encouraged to check the boards at least once a week, officers were mandated to check at least once per day. 

Players detached from the extended conversation risked missing vital information. Sometimes, that vital information had nothing to do with raiding. Once such discussion arose when Ekasra announced to us, with great sadness, that his friend and fellow guild member Lhaktar, a player who suffered from clinical depression, had taken his own life. In a gesture of kindness, the guild spent some time offering their condolences and remembering Lhaktar on the forums. But the stigma of suicide is such that word doesn't necessarily spread quickly, so pockets of the guild remained in the dark about Lhaktar's passing.

When someone created a thread titled "Re: Why I Sort By Damage Done," which featured their scores at the end of a battleground, guildies began contributing their own screenshots of various performances in PvP. One such screenshot featured the final score of an Arathi Basin.

It was a screenshot taken by Lhaktar.

Upon seeing this, players left comments in the topic like, "I miss him. :(", remembering their friend. Thinking players were being melodramatic about a ex-guildy that had been ejected for behavioral problems, Kurst hopped into the thread and added:

"This is not 'The View'. Move along"

I stand by the claim that Kurst was a very kind and generous person in real life, and believe to this day that he meant no harm by his curtness. He lacked context. Despite my encouragement, Kurst was not active on our forums, and therefore, wasn't privy to Lhaktar's story. As a result, his comments came across as disrespectful and cruel, offending a great number of players. Once Kurst realized his mistake, he apologized profusely. Gamers, however, are very good at holding grudges, and not at all good at forgiveness. The damage was done, and was yet another reason to make me believe he was checked out.
The 25-Man Progression team poses outside Wryrmrest
Temple upon completing The Twilight Zone,
Dragonblight

Firing Good People

I pressed Kurst to stay involved in the forums -- it was his responsibility as an officer to drive leadership and represent the expertise we demanded of our recruits. As we shifted our focus toward The Twilight Zone, it was clear he was still out-of-the-loop.

Cheeseus and I would have daily conversations about how to best position the three drakes, how we would improve our positioning to dodge the flame wall, and how we would most effectively coordinate killing elemental adds. When other guilds revealed tricks and techniques we jumped on them and poured them into our raid strategy forum. Kurst was never involved in it.

Proactively, I would open an IM window with him, and ask if he was up-to-speed with our changes to flame wall movement -- he didn't know what I was talking about. I had to specifically ping him each and every time a new piece of information was discussed. In my quest to delegate responsibility in WotLK, Kurst was turning the tables on me, giving me more to worry about rather than less.

Initial work on The Twilight Zone suffered. One drake was a non-issue, killed on the Jan. 11th, and Two drakes took only an additional week to work through (the 18th), so by Jan. 25th we were officially working on all three. The progression raiders were comfortable with the various mechanics introduced by cranking up the difficulty, but Kurst to fall short. Cheeseus expressed frustration over IM about the number of times Kurst continued to eat shadow fissures, noting that on the evening that Cheeseus himself had eaten one, Kurst had eaten thirteen. I implored Kurst to improve and refine, but you can't get blood from a coarse stone. Kurst was already giving me everything he could.

It wasn't enough.

By the third week of attempts, I was out of both encouragement and options. If I wanted to keep the DoD raid team moving forward, I had to enforce my guild's new edicts. Both players and officers had to be accountable. The right people had to be in the right job; anything less put the raid team at risk. It was awful, but had to be done if my guild was to succeed: I made the horrible decision to demote Kurst from officership.

Writing Kurst's termination letter sucked. I drafted the entire thing up on a flight back from Dallas, TX, to my home in Denver, CO. Turbulence chipped away at my ability to concentrate the entire time, spurring self doubt and guilt. You don't have to do this. He will improve. But I pressed on, rationalizing the decision by returning to those awful facts that described an officer failing to meet expectations.

It's easy to fire a douchebag as you kick them to the curb. But how do you tell a friend, someone who's been loyal to your guild for years, that they're no longer good enough? That their presence jeopardizes everything you've worked toward?

There is no easy way. The hardest job in the world is firing good people for not being good enough.

You tell a child that their beloved pet is dead and it hollows you out when they fall apart. You just deliver the news and try to keep a shred of dignity about it. It's a band-aid that you rip from the flesh; it stings, you move on, and you hope it stings a little less each day.

Kurst didn't take the news well. He wasn't defiant, he didn't proclaim there was some grand conspiracy at work. He didn't blame anyone or point fingers at any player in particular. But, he wasn't overjoyed. He didn't express a grand sigh of relief, no longer burdened by demands he couldn't maintain. Kurst didn't challenge my decision, he simply shut down.

Officially, it was just a demotion. There was no clause stating he had to forfeit guild membership. He alone chose to withdraw. Remaining to himself for the days following the demotion, he logged on a few times to collect his things, go about his daily routine, but spoke to no-one, and made no announcement of his intentions on the forums.

Less than a week after the demotion, Kurst left Descendants of Draenor. We never spoke again.

After three dedicated years of membership, Kurst's last raid with us was on February 6th of 2009; a 2-drake kill in OS25. One week following his exit, the 25-Man progression team earned its first 3-drake kill, wrapping up The Twilight Zone. Once again, the team was realigned and on track.

For the guild, it was the right decision; the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. Yet, not a day goes by that I don’t think about my decision regarding him. It was the single, most difficult thing I've ever had to do as a guild leader.

I've not yet come to forgive myself for it.