Thursday, December 26, 2013

3.47. Too Long Pursuing Dragons

Music from "The Storm Peaks",
Copyright © Blizzard Entertainment

My Gaming At Work

The quiet clacking of keys on keyboards peeked out of the several cubes near me; I was oblivious to their gaze. Noise-cancelling ear buds were plugged into my head; only a tap on the shoulder could get my attention. This was how I preferred to program, especially when focused on volumetric tasks: chunks of coding that required little brain activity, outweighed by the time invested to complete. For these tasks any sort of music did the job, putting me into a trance-like state where code flowed from my fingers as fast as I could type it. This was in contrast to tasks that required I stop and think things through; often the case with bug fixes or modifying the entire codebase for consistency, a term folks in my industry dubbed refactoring. Under these more grueling tasks, instrumental music was all my brain could withstand. Songs with lyrics, spoken word, comedy...they would only serve as a distraction. What I wanted for this task -- what I needed -- was efficiency. As a programmer, I'm always looking for it: a way to kill two birds with one stone. And in many cases, it comes down to multitasking. How many individual tasks can I knock out at once?

My iPod rested atop the black Dell case, its white cord dangling unconnected off to the side. Yet, music flowed up through the ear buds into the canals toward the ear drum. Piccolos and flutes sprinkled notes across a lowly humming choir, while cellos and violins gradually built in crescendo, backed by the deeply muted blasts of horns. Female altos sang the melody first, their male tenor counterparts joining in the second round. The theme song of the Storm Peaks was what fueled my programming that afternoon, and there was a specific reason for this:

World of Warcraft was running in the background, hidden behind my programming tools and various browser windows.

Listening to the WoW soundtrack was something I made a regular habit of. Trying to explain the concept of listening to video game music on purpose to muggles often resulted in looks of confusion and bewilderment. This was the result of a generation that grew up among the bleeps and blips of Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros., so I didn't hold it against them. It wasn't worth the energy to sit them down and try to explain that Nine Inch Nails scored the soundtrack for Quake, or that the guys from Yes did the same for Homeworld. Commoners knew the bands, they just couldn't wrap their heads around the games...and it was their loss. I built up my game soundtrack library on their behalf. When issued out professionally, I'd purchase and rip the CD...but if no legitimate soundtrack ever surfaced, I'd take the next step and rip the music directly out of the game's data files. Every piece of music buried in the MPQs of World of Warcraft, The Burning Crusade, and Wrath of the Lich King were meticulously copied over to my iPod, filling in meta-tags where I could. In some cases, references to the musical staff of Blizzard appeared in these files, a "Jason Hayes" here or a "Russel Brower" there. Most files remained sadly devoid of their actual titles or composers, and it infuriated me. I took great pains to keep my music collection accurate, and the video game genre wasn't exempt from this obsessive compulsion. All my efforts in labeling each extracted musical track were for naught, as today's musical selection wasn't being pumped out by my iPod, but by the game itself. Why, then, did I waste my workstation's resources while perfectly labeled WoW music sat dormant on my iPod?

I was camping.

At the office, I enjoyed increased flexibility to adjust and configure my workstation as needed -- even if it meant installing WoW on it. As long as work was getting done, my boss reasoned, there was no reason to deny me a game installation. I was thankful for this arrangement. And lucky. Twelve years earlier, I learned my lesson the hard way. Working for a major internet service provider in the greater Denver area, I sat on one of the "fattest pipes" in the state: an OC12, transmitting data an astronomical 11,108 times faster than our pathetic 56k US Robotics modems did. By today's standards of broadband cable modems, not so impressive (barely 2.5 times faster, excluding upstream) -- but in 1997, 622 Mbit/sec was a gamer's dream. I spent my lunch hours deathmatching against the University of Colorado in Boulder, pinging its computer lab faster than the lab pinged itself. Over time, a depressing realization set in: there wasn't a single additional gamer in my entire company. Quake? What's that? Doom? Never heard of it. Blasphemy! Amid the irony of the technological situation, it was I that was labeled the heretic. Scrutiny on my work tightened. Office managers gossiped behind my back. I was tossed a fraction of a full raise at my annual review, crusts of bread left to the peasant gamer.

Needless to say, I played the gamer hand much closer to my chest in jobs to come. Only when trust and relationships were in place and I had proven my worth could I risk taking the gaming plunge at the office. Here, years after I'd learned my lesson, the situation had improved and the perception of the gamer had relaxed. The explosions of rocket jumps in dark man-caves lined with empty Mountain Dew bottles had given way to Scrabble in Facebook, a vice far more believable in a white-collar world. The gaming subculture was more commonplace, injected into primetime commercials rather than remaining reserved for Saturday morning cartoons. World of Warcraft had even come up in the job interview. So, I reasoned, I had arrived at a place where I could bend the rules a bit, as I looked for a way to improve the efficiency of an otherwise monumentally boring task. Here at the office, ear-buds fastened squarely into earholes, I wagered it was safe to keep WoW running in the background for a particularly demanding task. Not demanding in skill, but in time invested.

I was camping the Time Lost Proto-Drake.

"Time-Lost Protodrake"
Artwork by Sleepingfox

How To Maim Your Dragon

Aptly named, the coveted golden drake was known to show up at seemingly random times of the day (or night) among the mountains in the Storm Peaks. When revealed to the unsuspecting, lucky player, the Time Lost Proto-Drake could be shot out of the sky, and after a brief struggle with its intended captor, could be slain to reveal a highly coveted, exceedingly rare reward: an exact replica of the Time Lost Proto-Drake as the player's own personal golden flying mount. Capturing and slaying the proto-drake took no effort whatsoever. Finding it, however, was a feat of monumental dedication and tenacity. One had to know the path it took and position themselves accordingly to intercept the proto-drake; one also had to be aware of its many multiple paths. With other players checking these paths, proto-drake hunters had to be quick on the draw. Hesitating even for a moment could be the difference between acquiring the rare treasure and being forced to begin the hunt anew.

The only way to improve one's chances was to increase the amount of time spent lying in wait. For most WoW players, this was a task they couldn't be bothered with. It was far too long for them to spend wasting away, hoping for that rare glimpse that may not even show up until hours after they've gone to bed. I took on a more analytical perspective of the challenge. If I could spend hours on a computer, five days a week, working on programming tasks, why couldn't I camp the Time Lost Proto-Drake at the same time? I could take the insanely monotonous task of sitting around in-game doing nothing and turn it into a background task. All I needed to pull this off was some sort of monitor that could track the presence of the proto-drake, and fire off some sort of alarm that would catch my attention. Then, it would be as simple as alt-tabbing into the game, targeting the drake, and shooting it out of the sky. Sure enough, such a monitor existed which performed exactly that function: a WoW add-on named NPCScan.

So, with my workstation configured, my coding tools to the front and a hidden World of Warcraft window to the back, I pursued the Time Lost Proto-Drake. Weeks passed and I maintained this daily regimen, logging in to WoW and flying Mature to a specific position in the Storm Peaks where three known paths of the proto-drake intersected. I hovered my Death Knight a healthy distance above the frozen surface of the mountain range where the proto-drake had been observed, adjusting his position based on what NPCScan's paths told me. Then, I alt-tabbed, plugged in my ear buds, and proceeded to take care of my programming for the day. Listening to the angelic chorus of the Storm Peaks's music, I worked while Mature sat idle, hidden behind reams of code.

I clung mercilessly to this schedule for three straight months.

Known flight paths of the Time-Lost Proto Drake,
as displayed on a map of The Storm Peaks

The Meeting

There was a tap on my shoulder, jarring me back to reality. I yanked the ear buds out and turned to face the unknown assailant. My boss, Dave, stared back with a smile, nodding towards the conference room at the other end of the office.

"Meeting's in five minutes. Got the spec printed out? We're gonna go over it."

Sadly, the spec he referred to had nothing to do with Blood, Frost or Unholy; his spec was a functional specification document the development team would review for the next several months of work. It is a common process for developers: you examine what the business wants, then make an estimate on how long it will take you to build the requested functionality. Dave caught me off guard. Disoriented, I glanced at my desk. No func spec lay there.

"Uhh, yeah! Um...doesn't look like I have it printed out yet. Let me send it to the printer and I'll meet you in there in a jiff."

I glanced down at the clock in the system tray: 1:54pm. As is typical of a programmer's day, time slipped away from me. Lost in the pages of code I churned through, I failed to keep an eye on the approaching meeting. I found the work email hiding Dave's document and sent it to the printer. A tiny dialog bubble popped up from the system tray indicating the successful print request. I drummed my desk with a couple of quick taps, then rolled my chair back, exiting my cube and heading towards the printer across the room. The fifteen some-odd pages spewed out in seconds, giving me time to spare, so I ducked into the kitchen to freshen my cup of coffee. Caffeine helps take the edge off an otherwise dull meeting. Once whitened and sugared, I grasped my cup of coffee, stepped around the corner to retrieve the fifteen pages, and swung back to my desk to grab a pen. Glancing at the clock one final time, I read 1:57pm. Still a few minutes to spare.

And then, for a very brief moment, I thought I heard something.

I put the papers down, then my cup...and listened. There it was again. A faint, bizarre noise, almost like a ringing of some sort. I looked at my office chair. The white ear buds rested there, still plugged into the front of the Dell. I reached down, picked up one of the buds, and pressed it against my right ear.

A deafening alarm rang out. Over and over and over. My eyes widened.

It was NPCScan.

I leaned across my chair to reach the keyboard, and fired off an Alt+Tab. World of Warcraft immediately came to the front of my screen, pushing my pages of code and work emails to the back of the bus. Centered at the bottom of the game window, a small golden alert flashed.

Time Lost Proto-Drake.

My eyes moved up to the minimap, also displaying the time. 1:59pm.

Fuck. Me.

Dave called out from the other side of the office, "Yo, Shawn! You comin'?"

In the most artificially calm voice I could muster, I yelled back.

"Yeah! Uh...just a minute! Wrapping up a quick, er....thing, here."

The spaz in me was about to take over.

I continued to bend across the back of my chair rather than sit down, tapping keys and spinning the mouse wildly, my gaze darting back and forth between the minimap and the cold mountains enveloping my Death Knight. The proto-drake was nowhere to be seen. I took a split-second to guess which of the three intersecting paths the drake might have taken, and took a gamble on the path that led due east of my position. I flew Mature toward a giant opening in the snow, an artificially constructed tunnel of Titan origin which led deep under the surface.

"Hey! What's the hold-up?" another voice called from across the room.

"Uh, nothing! Just...getting my stuff here, one sec!"

Fuck.

As my mouse spun frantically, Mature's view of the world became a blur. I desperately looked in every direction. Icy blue proto-drakes shimmered all around the mountain tops, as if mocking my pathetic attempts to find the rarest of them, the one bathed in gold. In a moment of truly horrible luck, the bad became worse. I inadvertently activated an obscure World of Warcraft bug in which the game gets confused about its inputs, sending the player uncontrollably up into the sky. My mouse had become useless. The keyboard did nothing. There was no way for me to regain control of Mature. Panic set in. I slammed on a number of keys, and tried to re-establish control of my death knight through the mouse. Nothing responded. Pointed at the stars, he continued to fly further and further away from the snowy mountain peaks, their ice caps beginning to blur into the distance.

Fuck fuck.

I alt-tabbed multiple times. I opened the game settings and attempted to change the controls. Nothing helped. The panic began to subside, replaced with a calm wave of disappointment, and I spun my work chair around, finally sitting down in disgust. I stared at the screen. Stared at Mature, my character, locked in this "reverse nosedive". And the golden bar NPCScan placed at the bottom of my screen remained. Time Lost Proto-Drake. It was slipping away.

"Hey, are you coming or what?"

Fuck fuck fuck.

My voice was less panicky this time. Calm acceptance had resumed control. With a deep sigh of defeat, I called back.

"...yeah, I'm on my way now."

Good Afternoon, Good Evening and Good Night

World of Warcraft simulates a real-world. It comes complete with weather, animals that populate forests, and even changes the day to night, mirroring the rise and fall of our own sun. But the illusion is not limitless. Travel far enough, and you begin to discover the many magic tricks that Blizzard had pulled over your eyes. As I sat, watching Mature fly uncontrollably into the sky, he came to an abrupt stop, bumping into an invisible wall. He had hit the "ceiling" of World of Warcraft, something we call the skybox. Though it still appeared as an endless sky, the virtual world did indeed have its outer limit. Once reached, the bug released its grip on Mature, and I regained control of my character. The mouse responded to my requests once again.

I flew Mature back down to the surface, the mountain tops slowly returning to focus alongside the Titan tunnel. I glanced at the clock. 2:08pm. Nearly ten minutes late to my meeting. I've blown it, I thought. Way, way too much time fucking around with controls and being a spaz. Some other player has definitely swept in behind me and secured the kill. And as I lifted my hand off my keyboard to grab my coffee and printout for the meeting I'd screwed my fellow employees over, I took one final look at my monitor.

It was flying directly toward me.


Mature battles with the Time Lost Proto-Drake,
The Storm Peaks
I grabbed hold of the controls, nearly spilling my coffee in the process, and flew straight for the golden bird. In a single swift action, I right-clicked my flying buff, canceling my mount and sending me hurtling down to the snow in an arc. As I dropped to the surface, I clicked on the Time Lost Proto-Drake, making it my target, and death-gripped it as I plummeted. The great mutated dragon turned its attention to me and began to attack. I retaliated, driving Mature's sword into its outstretched wings. The proto-drake howled in defiance while my co-workers sat patiently, staring at their watches, wondering what in the hell was taking me so long. Mature's diseases sapped the proto-drake's health while Scourge Strike dug a shadowy blade deep into its scaled body. In a final, horrible scream, the Time Lost Proto-Drake fell lifeless on the snow.

Mine.

I looted the mount, scooped up my documents and coffee, and proceeded to the back corner of the office where my team waited for their game-addicted programmer.

"Ah, so nice of you to join us!"

"What the hell was going on out there, anyway?"

I sat, squared the papers in front of me, then looked back at the gang with a dramatic look of mystery.

"Apologies for the wait, guys. But I was busy getting a gift together for all of you."

"Oh yeah? What's that?" Dave asked.

"A story that you can bug me about for the rest of your lives."

Mature loots the coveted Time Lost Proto-Drake flying mount,
The Storm Peaks

Thursday, December 19, 2013

3.46. Glory

The big red button that activates Mimiron's hard mode,
Ulduar

Firefighter

"Stand right here in this corner."

Twenty some-odd players crunched together, backs pressed up against one of the metallic walls as instructed. Omaric and Bretthew shuffled around to prepare for instruction. An enormous red button hovered above us like a canopy, larger than the entire group of raiders. I hovered my mouse over it, the tooltip revealing a message: "DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON!" Two weekends had passed since our completion of One Light in the Darkness. Last weekend, we'd cleared up through Auriaya and made initial attempts on Mimi. Tonight, four hours were on the clock; only a few minutes had passed since the official start time for a DoD raid.

Another new feature added with the release of Ulduar was the ability to extend a raid lock. Further adding to a raiding guild's convenience, raid lock extension provided guilds with the option of saving their weekly progress. Rather than starting from scratch each Tuesday (or Wednesday, for you Europeans), guilds could now return from whence they left off; a sort-of raid progression "save game", if you will. Casual raiding guilds wept with joy at the inclusion of this feature, freeing them from the brutality of clearing an entire instance in under a week. It was a feature to, again, grant guilds the necessary flexibility to experience endgame content, one piled on to an ever increasing list of compromises that the more hardcore of guilds questioned.

Extending a lock was not without its consequences: all the loot that would've gone to gear up lackluster players would be flushed down the drain. Truly hardcore raiding guilds cared little for loot, extending only if and when it made sense to secure a server or world first boss kill. As DoD continued to walk the fine line between casual and hardcore, we had our own stance on when it was appropriate to sacrifice gear in lieu of progression: when we needed to maximize the use of our eight hours per week on only the most difficult of encounters.

Like tonight.

"The flames aren't as random as you think. They spawn near you, and they'll seek you out...so the key is controlling them."

Bretthew continued Omaric's thought, "So that means everyone moves carefully. Together. Spreading out is actually a bad idea. What we ultimately want is fire to spawn near other fires, and you do that by staying near existing fires. This is mostly on melee's shoulders..."

"...so we're perpetually fucked -- is what you are saying."

Bretthew laughed, "...more or less."

The two raid leaders began to square away positioning, suggesting various movement strategies for the groups. Having seen the 10-Man version first-hand, Jungard was well-equipped to direct melee traffic. Among those drivers stood the guild leader, having cut over to my new role -- in training for legendaries to come. To my left, a familiar old face listened quietly to Jungard's direction, taking his place among melee, his weapons dripping with vile poisons.

"Fancy meeting you here," I whispered the rogue. He returned a smiley and said nothing.

Descendants of Draenor completes "Firefighter (25 Player)",
wrapping up the final meta for Glory of the Ulduar Raider,
Ulduar

Multitasking

How much do you think you can keep track of at once?

This is what we had to look forward to, on the off-chance we executed a clean transition into phase four:
  • Three synchronized health bars: The health of all three mini-bosses making up the V-07-TR-0N. As we depleted the boss's health, each of the three pools had to remain in synchronicity; killing any one of the three parts of V-07-TR-0N's body too soon would cause the remaining functional parts to resurrect it.
  • Shock Blast: No player could risk being near the clockwork construct when shock blast was about to go off, not even the tanks. 
  • Mines: Ejected by Leviathan MKII (V-07-TR-0N's feet), stepping on any of the freshly laid mines that formed a ring around the boss was nearly always fatal. The risk of setting them off was increased now that Omaric and Bretthew were dragging the boss around the circumference of the room.
  • Laser Barrage: VX-001 (V-07-TR-0N's body) continued to produce a focused stream of instant death. All players had to move around the boss, avoiding impenetrable purple beams of focused fire on a full 360 degree rotation. It could not be healed through. If players didn't move, they died.
  • Rocket Strikes: Also from VX-001, the floor continued to feature randomly painted targets, offering players mere seconds to sidestep impending rocket strikes. These crosshairs were now infinitely more difficult to see on a screen ablaze with fire.
  • Frost Bombs: Slowly moving blue orbs forced anyone near them to get away as fast as possible. Ten seconds was the grace period. After that, any player within fifteen yards was a tax write-off.
  • Emergency Fire Bots: These annoying contraptions distracted and confused the raid; their silencing aura shutting down casters and healers in the process. Raiders were instructed to keep their distance, specific players were assigned to blow them to bits.
  • Fire, fire, fire: Always and forever. Fire covered every inch of the screen, closing in on players, suffocating them, turning feet into inches, reducing what little safe spots remained in the room.
On top of all these things, we had our roles. Healers had to keep people alive. The tanks had to drag V-07-TR-0N around his room with care and precision. DPS had to unleash every ounce of Hell onto the boss they could wring out. Roles we had all come to perfect over the course of many months of play in multiple tiers of content.

Except myself, of course. I always had to be the exception to the rule.

I had to keep one eye on the wealth of items bombarding the raid, and the other eye on what little DPS I was able to contribute, always struggling to find a better groove, push my damage up the meters with what little off-spec gear I'd managed to piece together. Hour after hour we sunk into Firefighter, walking the tightrope, imminent death a constant threat. When the raid perfected its handling of one roadblock, we'd fall behind in other areas. Nervousness and exhaustion led some pulls to go down the drain right from the start, annihilating the tired and the weak before even getting a chance to see phase two.

And the fire...

Flames scorched virtual flesh, closing in with a claustrophobic intensity that hypnotized players. When focused on moving just enough to keep the fire at bay, they lost sight of the multitude of other risks on their plate. Early deaths in phase one were our first obstacle. Healers caught in Flame Suppressant would have their healing slowed, though most of the deaths couldn't be helped by heals. Careless players met a quick and painful death by stepping on ejected mines. A rocket strike here. A frost bomb there. A few seconds late in rotating around the boss, getting caught in a laser barrage as a result. Then, it was the long run back. Half the time was spent perfecting the art of returning to Mimiron's room quickly, buffing, preparing for another pull. How many more attempts could we fit in? An hour ticked away. Then another. And another.

Phase four continued to devolve into a pyromaniac's wet dream.

---

Only thirty minutes remained for the evening, the second full night of work practicing the million and one things Mimiron had planned out for us. Countless pulls over the weekend had been attempted, and slowly, the 25-Man progression team had begun to refine their system. Frost bombs were now less of an impediment, players had learned their Pavlovian lesson to move their ass...or have it handed to them. Fire bots were a non-factor; casters dodged and weaved out of their silencing auras, unleashing bursts of magical light that blew the contraptions apart before the bots had a chance to wreak havoc on the raid.

Baby steps.

We were fast approaching the definitive "famous last pull" of the night, but the sheer randomness of luck offered us no insight into how close we were to wrapping things up; each pull felt like the first. Omaric and Bretthew dragged the enormous robot across the outer edges of the room, a ring of discs flipping out onto the ground. I glanced up at my raid frames. Neps was out of commission, as was Jungard and Abrinis. I continued to eat into the boss's health with every Obliterate I could, dumping Frost Strikes as soon as my Runic Power capped out. My gaze darted back down towards the damage meters for a split second.
9th.

A wave of deja vu washed over, remembering Zanjina's first night of crossing into the top 10. I popped my remaining trinkets and potions, dug in deep, Mature's refreshing runes scrolling down the screen like Guitar Hero.

The picture stuttered a moment, as it typically did when uncached assets were being loaded by the game client for the first time. In reality it was no more than a second, but to me, it seemed that the game had stopped completely. When your screen locks up, your heart sinks and you know you're about to be kicked off the server. This would have been a shit-poor time for that to happen. But I wasn't kicked off the server, and nobody was disconnecting. Instead, a flash of yellow text scrolled up through guild chat while the familiar gong sound-effect of an achievement bellowed out of the speakers sitting atop my desk. Wide-eyed, I glared at the screen, just below Mature's health. Two golden bars delivered the news.

The 25-Man Progression team displays their freshly
acquired Ironbound Proto-Drakes,
Dalaran

Ironbound

I slumped into my chair and looked up at the ceiling, while cheering and screams overflowed from those speakers and filled my computer room with the noises of triumph and celebration.

On November 1st, 2009, six-and-a-half months after Ulduar was released to World of Warcraft, Descendants of Draenor completed Glory of the Ulduar Raider in 25-Man progression.

Completing Glory of the Ulduar Raider was both euphoric and empowering; the events of the previous tier had now been redeemed. As the 25-Man progression team coalesced over Dalaran in a cloud of purple Ironbound Proto-Drakes, our heart-aching loss of The Immortal was fast becoming a distant memory. As our Twilight Vanquisher titles had done so before them, these proto-drakes would act as badges of pride to those dedicated and loyal to the raid team, and to the guild. As well, they would provide the necessary sales pitches for those on Deathwing-US who continued to a seek a place amongst a 25-Man progression raiding guild, when the hardcore ones had turned them away.

---

One day after we completed this massive raiding accomplishment, a post was made to "The Leaver's Lounge". The Leaver's Lounge was a section of our forums set aside to wish players well on their quest to pursue new interests, outside of the confines of Azeroth. Stickied up at the top of the forum was a popular internet meme; an appropriate final message I directed to players, mocking their exit from World of Warcraft. In the photo, a stereotypical nerdy gamer wearing a headset sat in front of a keyboard and mouse. But in the place where a monitor would normally sit, the gamer instead faced an open window, peering out into his neighborhood with focused concentration. The meme's message read:

Reality: Worst. Game. Ever.

The newest post to The Leaver's Lounge was from Crasian.

Snow was coming, and he yearned to ski atop the Colorado Mountains. He thanked us for the community we provided, congratulated the 25-Man team for their tremendous work on Glory, and wished us well as we headed off toward the next big challenge deep within Icecrown. He thanked Cheeseus for putting up with him, the progression team for the fond memories he'd take away. And he thanked me, for allowing him the chance to hold the rank of Elite and help be a part of the team that drove progression, week after week. It was a heartfelt goodbye message, followed by virtual waves from the members of DoD that had had a chance to play with him.

I read his goodbye forum post, slowly scrolling down the series of replies made by his former teammates, and could only think one thing:

So. Mr. "expected to be at every raid." You wanted to claim Shadowmourne all to yourself, and yet this entire time your plan was to take a leave of absence. Why had you failed to bring this up in any of our conversations regarding a promotion?

What else had you kept from me?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

3.45. Decisions, Decisions

"Scourgelord"
Artwork by Zeon-in-a-tree

The Warm-up

The screen was ablaze. Flames licked at my heels. I shifted bit by bit, pouring in as much damage to Mimiron as I could while Omaric and Bretthew dragged the enormous robot through fire. Flaming trails weaved toward the group, creeping up slowly, keeping us from holding any one position for very long.

"Careful, he's winding up..."

I glanced up at the robot's body. The dual Gatling guns in place of arms were coughing and sputtering to life as they prepared for a laser barrage. I rotated Mature around the edges of the tank's treads as he was being pulled along the circumference of the room. It was a nightmarish carnival ride. The spray of purple lasers backed by a deep chugging sound soon died down -- another barrage successfully dodged. No deaths. The tanks continued their slow death march, feeding crumbs of threat to Mimiron, and the giant robot continued to focus its attention on them, repeating its relentless attacks around the perimeter of the Spark of Imagination. A frost bomb -- new to the heroic version -- landed near us. Crasian announced its arrival.

"Bomb...BOMB!"

I turned to look for an exit strategy, but was surrounded by a wall of flame. I popped Anti-Magic Shell, held my breath, and ran through the fire to get away from the explosion. The radius of the frosty explosion barely missed me. Safe. I raced back to the clockwork contraption and laced into it with whatever DPS I could muster. Bulwinkul added encouragement while the moonkin brought down a shower of stars onto Mimiron.

"Keep 'er goin'. Almost there."

Flames continued to dart around the bot, and for a brief moment, I had a flashback to Archimonde's Doomfire. Mimiron's flames weren't nearly as fatal, yet still exhibited the same tenacity. They closed in on us, and I braced for suffocation. Suddenly, the great clockwork machination sagged in defeat, and the flames that were inches from our heals had vanished, replaced with flashes of golden bars signifying achievement acquisition.

"Nice! Good job, all."

"Phew! That was pretty slick. I like that fight!"

I addressed Jungard in raid chat, "Well! That wasn't so bad now, was it?"

"No, not bad at all," he replied, "first time seeing these guys in action. I have to give 'em credit."

I agreed. "Yeah, you boys definitely made this look easy."

Bretthew acknowledged the praise. "Thanks, Hanzo."

"Now if we can just get this done in the 25-Man version, we'll be home free."

Jungard and I thanked The Eh Team for giving us a taste of Mimiron's hard mode mechanics first hand. One month would pass before we'd return to this room and commence with the real work.

Jungard and Mature assist The Eh Team in
completing "Firefighter (10 Player)",
Ulduar

Cross-Examination

"You do know that he has a pretty good track record in the guild with helping out people in 5-Man heroics, right?"

"Absolutely. I'm pretty sure he was first in the guild to get the red proto?"

"That's my understanding," I replied, "but doesn't seem to have slowed down helping anyone else do the same."

Jungard continued with praise, "He's also put out some incredible damage since joining the 25. Consistently top deeps."

I gave him my devilish detective voice, "Aha! So you've noticed?"

"Well, I notice when he beats me."

I laughed. "Oh, I see how it is. This is personal!"

This time, Jungard got the laugh, "Yeah, heh. Guess you could say that. But all around, melee is in a really good spot right now. It's easily the strongest part of the 25 at this point. Boney is going to do pretty well, and Riskers is already top notch."

Jungard began dropping names on players he'd been keeping an eye on. "Boney" was our nickname for Bonechatters, one of the newer faces clamoring for a spot in the 25-Man. With Cheeseus gone, Bonechatters enjoyed a heightened priority of rotations, seeing more consistent raids as a result. Jungard also made note of SeƱor Riskers, a rogue who had become a staple in progression; it was his stun-locks that helped give me breathing room on Storm Lasher during Knock Knock Knock on Wood. Since it was clear that Jungard had the capacity to observe and understand what was going on with melee, I pushed further to see what else I could glean.

"How do you stand up next to Abrinis?"

"Y'know, funny that you mention Abrinis. I notice he's been struggling lately. Which is weird. Because you know he pretty much took me under his wing when I first joined progression, back in Hyjal. He always kind of kept challenging me to do better. But lately, I'm not sure what's up...he's definitely fallen behind a bit."

I pitched him a curveball, "Maybe his gear?"

"Y'know, I don't think so! Gear's never really an indicator...to that degree, know what I mean? A little bit, OK sure, but for bigger discrepancies...I dunno, maybe he's just distracted or getting burnt out. I'll have a talk with him at some point."

Skill vs gear. Check. Empathy and insight into others. Check.

"Ranged still fluctuates a bit."

I could sense the dismay in his voice as the pitch turned downward. Jungard and I obviously saw eye-to-eye on this. I took a deep breath as I acknowledged his observation, "Yeah, it's been an ongoing struggle since as far back as when you joined. Well, probably earlier. Blain pointed it out to me on more than one occasion."

"If Ben would show up more frequently, that would definitely be an improvement."

I agreed, but was careful to point out Ben's improvements in the responsibility department, "Ben's been getting much better about it. Did you know he's actually texting if he's going to be late, now?"

"Wow, really? Ben is?"

"I know, I know. You may have to sit down in order to let that sink in."

Jungard continued to share his opinions, seeing if there was a way to shine some hope on the ranged situation.

"But I like Mangetsu a lot. He's really making a name for himself."

I chuckled. "Mang is definitely quite the character, and his DPS is nothing to laugh at. How about Omaric and Taba taking over as dual raid leaders? What's your opinion there?"

"I think it's fine. Both really talented guys, and they've been around a long while. I never expected to see two raid leaders at once, though."

I gave him my reasoning on the subject, "Well, it's really no different than how Ater and Blain did it, back in the day. Only difference now is that I have things a bit more formalized. Though I have yet to actually write that down. It's on my never ending to-do list. But, I think they're off to a good start."

"Ah, Blain. I bet he would love to hear that Bretthew is running the show now."

"Not exactly from the same schools of thought, now, are they?" I laughed. Jungard agreed, acknowledging the vast differences in Blain's by-the-book policies -- a stark contrast to Bretthew's laid-back, chatty raids.

The conversation between Jungard and I went well that day. I went in to the interview asking about Crasian, but the discussion soon turned to the raid as a whole. He reflected on many facets of progression, both good and bad, not just the stuff that was easy to talk about. Jungard saw the big picture. That was an important consideration when contemplating the possibility of his promotion. It's easy to focus on the small things like a fury rotation. But, to be able to step back and see the big picture -- that takes something else entirely. In many cases, the difference between a player and a leader is really just giving a shit. A leader can speak honestly about players, and know if they are doing well or languishing. They show compassion and empathy towards their fellow teammates. Jungard was hitting all the nails on their heads.

---

Jungard gave me his opinion on a good many things during that interview, but it was what he chose to keep to himself that would confirm I was leaning in the right direction. He had the perfect opportunity to rake Crasian across the coals that day, and instead said nothing about it. The fact in question: the day he and I had been invited to take part in a 10-Man Firefighter was the only time he'd ever been a part of an Eh Team run. It was a minor observation, but one that resonated as I weighed my options for promoting my next melee officer.

I walked down my fact sheet after concluding both interviews. Crasian had expressed little interest in Jungard, offering up only the most commonly-held knowledge about his warrior counterpart. By comparison, Jungard revealed insight into many of his fellow team members, focusing the conversation on them rather than himself. Additionally, a subtle inconsistency flowed over Ventrilo the night I interviewed Crasian. If our assist with 10-Man Firefighter was the first time Jungard had been present in an Eh Team run, why had Crasian stated otherwise? Was it simply an oversight on his part? Or was an attempt to massage the truth?

To be honest, it didn't matter. What mattered was my perception of his attention to details.

If it was an accidental oversight, that told me Crasian really couldn't care less about Jungard -- or anyone else in melee, for that matter. It meant his focus really truly was on himself by default. And that wasn't necessarily a bad thing...just not something I wanted in leadership. Of course, there was the other side of the coin to consider as well. If he was being purposefully deceptive...he had no business in officership, period. Confronted with these realizations, the decision to promote Jungard was the most sound, logical one.

...but I stopped short when it came time to decide on the legendary.

Mimiron blankets the raid with a
Laser Barrage during phase four,
Ulduar

The Golden Ticket

In wrestling with the decision of who to promote next for melee officer, the decision surrounding Shadowmourne continued to follow me like Mimiron's flames, never letting up or allowing me to catch my breath. Whomever I promoted would most certainly be first on the weapon's list. Crasian was the best death knight in the guild -- possibly the entire Deathwing-US server -- so denying him the axe would surely be a waste. But there was Jungard as well, a trusted player, skilled warrior, and Crasian's only real competition in the guild from a melee perspective. I got so caught up in struggling with this decision that I lost sight of a possible third option: myself. I'd been too busy trying to figure out how to equitably distribute the golden ticket to some other bright-eyed kid. They dreamed of a chocolate factory tour, and here I was, able to partake of the candy at will.

Instantly, doubt lingered there.

The moment I gave the option even the slightest consideration, a wave of guilt washed over me. If I take this axe first, what will the guild think? Will I come across as some kind of ruthless dictator who just takes what he wants because he can? True, I had turned the guild around from its failures early in TBC. Yet when pondering the decision of taking Shadowmourne myself, I collapsed back into my old fears as the impostor syndrome wrapped its grip tightly around my neck. This is a joke, right? You don't know what you're doing. You're the laughing stock of the guild. The only reason people follow you is because Fraya isn't recruiting stupids for Enigma. Your competency with the death knight falls somewhere between pathetic and outright embarrassment. Why don't you go ahead and taunt some more? That'll make it look like you're contributing. It's amazing you can even log in without drooling all over yourself. Go ahead! Take the legendary first...and watch your guild walk away in disgust.

For shame. Is this how Ater would've behaved?

I snapped out of it.

At some point, you have to give yourself credit. I'd dedicated five years of myself to Descendants of Draenor, rejoicing our triumphs and suffering bitterly our losses. I had made mistakes and swallowed my pride repeatedly as a result. I built up the 40-Man raiding machine from a mere Popsicle stand, then watched it splinter, crumble, and collapse under its own mismanaged weight -- an embarrassment of uninvested players repeatedly wiping to trash. Then I rebuilt it, getting us back on the map; back on track. I mediated drama and painstakingly detailed out every new rule, wrote out every single bit of common-sense I felt players could use against me if they didn't see it for themselves...or couldn't see it. Wouldn't see it. And I pushed them. We could be a family-friendly guild but still hold ourselves to a higher standard, without a lot of excuses and whining. We stood on the precipice of glory, nearly able to reach out and feel the cold metal plating stamped along its cobalt purple wingspan.

Maybe after all I had driven us to accomplish, I could justify some small reward for myself. Now would be the most opportune time. I had two solid tanks as raid leaders, and my own interests drifted elsewhere: a return to the damage meters. Perhaps, at last, this would be my opportunity.

If you do this, you had better be prepared to stop at nothing to top the meters. A guild leader with a legendary that can't perform will be stripped of any and all credibility. A cliche. A joke. Other guild leaders will use you as an example to outline what happens when absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I understood the stakes. This wasn't going to be an excuse for me perform like a chump. I would have to hold myself to the same high standard I expected of every individual in progression. Failing that would not only reflect poorly on Descendants of Draenor, it would prove that I had no business wielding a legendary, or remaining in charge of the best damn guild on Deathwing-US.

So, rather than hiding the golden ticket inside a random candy bar, I tucked it in my pocket instead.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

3.44. Bullet Points and Lies

What Their Body Language is Telling You
Source: 9gag.com

The Read

When you sit across the table from someone, leafing through their resume, you're trained to pay attention to the cues that are present. The stranger staring back at you is now more than just a name and some impressive typography printed on fancy paper. When their credentials first hit your desk, the best you can hope for is to look beyond the literal content and examine the little things like their choice of fonts, how they've decided to prioritize their education or their experience. If their name is enormous in the header, are they demonstrating a mastery of Microsoft Word or are they overcompensating for a deficiency in their confidence? Do they describe their work history as a series of things they've done or ways they've made their former companies successful? When you look them straight in the eyes, it's much easier to read the nervousness, the constant uncomfortable shuffling; the body language of folded arms shielding them from the onslaught of incoming questions. When they're in the room with you, it's a little bit easier to tell if they mean what they say, or if the resume you hold in your hands is just a series of bullet points and lies.

But if you never get them in a room, it becomes more of a Herculean task to get a good read.

There aren't so many cues when you run a guild. You don't get the luxury of a professionally written resume, and there is no table to sit them at; all the body language is absent from the equation. Without these cues to help bolster your ability to read their true intent, you're left with what floats to the surface: their actions, their measurable contributions, and if they treat both stranger and friend alike -- the kinds of things you might consider when judging a person's integrity. If the person is genuine, it is a simple task to walk your list and scratch check marks next to the ones demonstrated by candidate X. But when a person has another agenda in mind, the items you check off your list become their strategy. The key is determining what parts of their behavior are just for show, and digging through the dirt to reveal their actual motivations.

I know this strategy because I've employed it myself. I've changed my own line of questioning to suit an agenda I felt my interviewees wanted to fulfill, and it may very well have been the deciding factor in gaining The Final Cut back in Vanilla; my last real opportunity to leapfrog into 40-Man raiding. When I began to ask about how they would handle fixed schedules, strict start times, the administration of DKP...it all added up to the same underlying theme: we're a casual guild that has the professional approach of the hardcore. In actuality, we hadn't pulled off a single, successful raid by that point. But it was enough for them to take a gamble on us, thankfully, and it paid off in dividends.

I was closing in on my decision regarding who to go with for melee officer. I had conferred with Neps and Dalans, rounded the candidate pool down to two options, and attempted to wrap my arms around who was more aligned with the best intentions of the guild. For Descendants of Draenor to continue down its current path of success, leadership had to be just right, and I was becoming hyper-vigilant at scrutinizing my decision-making process. Mistakes of the past coupled with recent events made this a choice that I couldn't gloss over.

It was time to sit both Jungard and Crasian down and determine who was going to be the best fit for my next melee officer position. I wanted their perception of things. In my mind, listening to them explain how they saw events unfolding would paint a clearer picture of who I was considering. This, in my mind, would be the best opportunity to get a read of the candidates. And when I stepped into the interviews, I prepared myself for the same treatment I dished out to The Final Cut years before. If players were prepared to tell me what I wanted to hear, how would I be able to cut through their bullshit?

I did this by asking them their opinion of each other.

---

"So, which do you like more right now?"

"I dunno, I really like the idea about armor pen at the moment, and Blood is pulling some sick numbers but you really need the gear for it. Having to re-gem everything across the board like that? Doesn't seem very practical. I mean, I like to change it up a bit, and I can pretty much do that now if I want to flip between Frost or Unholy. Strength is strength, y'know?"

"Yup."

"I'll probably give it a go at some point but right now I'm getting the numbers I need from Unholy. The rotation gets a bit dull but it's doing more than Frost at the moment, so I probably won't change it up anytime soon."

"You don't mind losing Frost's burst?"

"Well, there are ways around that. It's just a lot of Death Knights aren't paying attention. Y'know? I mean everyone seems to have a DK but that doesn't mean they know what's going on. Simple things like spreading diseases before dropping a DnD on the twin valks. Most DKs could give a shit. It's pretty common knowledge. But instead they have to resort to exploits and pulling the valks into the doorway, or whatever. Sad."

"Crasian, let's change the subject quickly. What's your opinion on Jungard?"

"Ho, boy. Jungard? Um, he's a good guy, I guess...I can't say I really know too much about him, y'know? I mean, like...we've run some stuff together. He's offered to help out on a few fillers in the Eh Team runs, so we've brought him along for those. But I know he's helping his brother run Starflex throughout the week, so other the 25...I don't get much of an opportunity to hang out."

"Do you think Jungard's competent enough to lead the melee team in 25?"

"Oh, no doubt. No doubt at all. Yah, he's sharp, he knows his stuff."

I waited to see if Crasian would offer anything else up in Jungard's favor.

"So...how's the decision on Shadowmourne coming along?"

And just like that, the discussion shifted to more important things.

"Still deciding. I'm getting close. Just a few more loose ends to tie up."

"Sweet! Yeah, let me know how it goes!"

I went into Crasian's interview with a hunch. His responses confirmed where my head was at.

"Yogg-Saron"
Artwork by Dan Scott

Insane in the Brain

Omaric and Bretthew made it clear to the 25-Man progression team that in order to execute One Light, the keeper we would have to leave alive was Thorim. By phase three, we'd already be stretched thin by moving slower, taking more damage, and receiving less heals. We'd probably be down a few folks as they lost their minds to the gaze of Yogg-Saron. All of these hindrances would add up to a drawn-out phase three; we'd need every last ounce of help during the final burn. That meant Thorim had to help us kill those Guardians. So it was decreed. During our clear toward Yogg, Omaric and Bretthew directed players to talk to Mimiron, Hodir, and Freya, removing their protective gaze from the Antechamber.

Omaric's primary tactic was, first and foremost, for players to get a handle on managing their sanity. Many of the progression raiders voiced their opinions in this department on the forums. Jungard, Crasian, Mangetsu -- folks passionate about their play and determined on being focused towards the win, shared their thoughts on the DoD boards. Omaric remained resolute in his stance: by reducing the various mistakes players could make throughout the course of phase one and two, the raid would ultimately transition into phase three with a healthy abundance of sanity. Without Freya's sanity wells as a crutch, players would have no choice but to perform with a high degree of precision. This essential tactic had far reaching effects in our One Light attempts for the duration of the raid that Friday evening.

When we returned to the instance Sunday, rested and ready to dig back in, it was as if we had never left. Each pull got a little cleaner. Transitions from phase one to phase two got a little quicker -- Bretthew expedited each attempt by purposefully walking into clouds in phase one, artificially spawning more Guardians than the default -- their subsequent deaths eating away at Sara's illusion in greater haste. Meanwhile, phase two continued to receive the spit polish. Jungard helped direct our melee in the nightmare, reminding folks to face away from the skulls as they dug their way through each dream sequence, eventually exposing Yogg's brainstem. As the attempts continued on into the evening, we closed the gap from three nightmare cycles to two. If we could burn the brainstem hard enough during those two cycles, we'd have enough sane people alive to deliver the true death to Yogg and transition the Old God to phase three.

At 9:18pm, the dual raid leaders made the call to melee: Get out now. This is it. We're pushing into phase three.


DoD defeats Yogg-Saron under the sole watch of Thorim,
earning "One Light in the Darkness (25 Player)",
Ulduar

One Light

With my back to the Old God, I resumed my role, calling out in Vent which tank was getting the next Guardian. Omaric and Bretthew did the same. Players continued to catch a peek of Yogg's horrific face and their sanity bled away. Another guardian spawned in the chaos, too close to pick it up. With maximum health, the Guardian was at its greatest strength. It turned to Sixfold, killing him instantly. The tanks fell back into our rotation. Crasian and Jungard hammered away at Yogg along with the rest of melee, risking their own sanity in the process. Turtleman came up snake eyes in the luck department and his sanity melted away. Bretthew called out to kill him, and the raid converged, blowing the undead Mage apart. More succumbed to Yogg: Abrinis, then Sir Klocker. Crasian focused on the kill as the last bits of his own mind were stripped away; the raid soon turned to kill him as well. Yogg's health continued to drop. Jungard held his faculties for a few additional moments, slashing his dual two-handed weapons into the hundred gaping mouths. Finally, he joined the list of the damned, killed by the raid amid his own insane ravings. In the last remaining percentage of health, Bretthew, Omaric and I could barely keep ourselves alive with the weight of the Guardians continuing to press down on us.

And then...brilliance.

Our screens lit up with a double dose of achievement spam. Both "Two Lights in the Darkness" and "One Light in the Darkness" had proc'd side-by-side, the result of our urgency to complete Glory. Cheers and screams filled Vent as we picked ourselves up and distributed loot. The reality of how close we were set in. Only one meta remained. Adrenaline pumped through our veins and we felt unstoppable. With forty minutes remaining in the evening, we celebrated our accomplishment by taking the raid back to Obsidian Sanctum and executing a three-drake kill for old times sake. This produced a Twilight Drake flying mount for Omaric in the process. It was well-earned and well-deserved. I took a moment to address the raid before they disbanded and headed out for the night.

"I just wanted to thank you all for the hard work everyone's been putting in on Glory. We're just about there, gang. Make sure you hit the forums and do that research on Firefighter. While I have everyone's attention, I have an announcement: I've come to a decision on the guild's next next melee officer. Most of you probably saw this coming, as the guy contributes so much to the guild and progression, that he's practically an honorary officer by this point. So it's time to make it official. Everyone, please join me in congratulating Jungard."

Again, the Ventrilo server erupted -- this time with congratulations and cheers for DoD's newest officer. A random voice piped up as the cheering subsided, "So does this mean Jungard's getting the ol' legendary axe first?"

"No," I replied, "I am."