Thursday, December 25, 2014

4.20. Samurai Shodown

Mature gets direction from Drecca on Foe Reaper 5000,
as the guild cooks its 10,000th recipe,


Achievements procc'd non-stop throughout December. Every glance at the familiar green chat window revealed yellow text punctuating the conversation. There was always someone vying to complete the Ring of Blood in Twilight Highlands, winning a rated battleground in Gilneas or Twin Peaks, forming up for Tol Barad and securing Baradin Hold, or simply sitting in a corner of Orgrimmar, cooking their 10,000th recipe. Nearly everything we did had an award attached to it, but the majority of those golden banners came from dungeons.

Heroics got most of our attention, thanks to another concept that Cataclysm introduced us to: Championing. In the past, players were relegated to the monotony of dailies and specific dungeon runs to max out their reputation with a given faction -- and there were quite a few of these factions in Wrath of the Lich King. Other than the shiny achievement placards that some arguably didn't care about, the reason why anyone would want to grind out those factions were for the rewards: a few pieces of gear that might offset a missing slot of raid-ready equipment, or perhaps a shiny new mount, pet or other toy. But dailies dragged, and forcing players into the same dungeon over and over was a recipe for burnout. In Cataclysm, wearing the tabard of a specific faction meant all rep-based quest turn-ins and dungeons completed would yield rep for that faction alone. It was a fantastic, flexible solution to the reputation grind of yore. The grind was still necessary, but at least now we chose how to approach it.

Dungeons were difficult once again, and the new difficulty fed our hunger; few in DoD drew satisfaction from heroics you could AoE your way through. Players adapted or were chewed up and spit out. Mobs hits like trucks; health bars spiked frantically. Enemies left unattended would run for help and casters had the tendency to summon in additional forces, both of which would overwhelm groups that weren't paying attention. Trash in Throne of Tides tossed healers up into the air, interrupting them long enough to prevent that one life saving heal from landing. And of course, there was fire everywhere...and players stood in it.

And I haven't even gotten to the bosses yet.

Ozruk, an elemental lord comprised entirely of stone, broke us on at least more than one occasion. Both Asaad of the Vortex Pinnacle and Erudax of Grim Batol had insta-death mechanics promised to those who didn't move into safety zones. Foe Reaper 5000, a harvester boss halfway through Heroic: Deadmines, caused grief even for tightly honed groups to come out of DoD. Throne of Tides (when not tossing healers up into the air) was, for the most part, one of the less intimidating instances, yet it required party coordination on nearly every boss in the instance.

I had to wonder how anonymous, random players in LFD were handling the new difficulty.

Merry Christmas, hon!

Booked Solid

What is December without a frantic mess of holiday related preparations? Buying gifts, sending out cards, coordinating family get-togethers -- it was a seemingly infinite to-do list. A well-adjusted gamer might consider Cataclysm plus Christmas more than enough to keep someone occupied every day of the month. For me, the demands stretched further.

A healthcare system dependent upon co-payments, minimum deductibles, and in-network referrals has the unfortunate side-effect of trending inconvenient surgery schedules that skew toward the end of the year. For my wife, this led to the decision to take care of not one, but two artificial replacements: a compressed disc in her spine near the base of her neck, and her right knee, a joint that had long since worn away its cartilage. Jul came out of both surgeries with flying colors, but the recovery was long, onerous, and would require a near full-time attendant.

Guess who?

While Jul recovered from her surgeries, I was shuttling the kids to and from school. That meant cutting into my work day to pick them both up, making up any missed hours in the evenings. The boss, Dave, was never high-pressure about this, yet I felt compelled to make up lost time -- I'd invested so much of myself in my work that guilt quickly set in if there was any hint of neglect. Some nights I spent rewriting code that didn't need to be re-written, to feel like something...anything...was getting done. Progress, even baby steps, meant forward movement.

I handled the dinners, the laundry, the gift purchases and wrapping. I sat down at the kitchen table with the kids in the evenings, helping them with their end-of-semester school projects. I made sure we had the necessities, and that Jul's knee-cuff compressor had a fresh batch of ice in it every twenty-four hours.

...and, I still made time for the guild.

Each time I logged in to WoW, exhausted from the day, I was greeted by the DoD machine running on autopilot while yellow achievement text spammed its way through chat. Yes, I had a full plate, but it was a plate fit for a king, and not one I ever took for granted. The guild was focused on leveling, repping up, acquiring raid-ready gear, awaiting the crucial announcement that we would begin 25-Man progression raiding. Blain shared the date with me, and planned to post it to the guild very soon: January 7th, 2011. So, I took advantage of DoD's self-sustenance and devoted time to administrative tasks. I reviewed emails of applicants, cleaned up the forums, and fielded recruitment requests from the Tacticians as they began to wrap their arms around their own 10-Man teams.

I won't lie to you: I couldn't do it all myself; frankly, no leader (in their right mind) should. Delegation is key, an absolute necessity. I learned this by Wrath, leveraging it by assigning certain tasks to officers and role leaders. But I felt I could push this a step further in Cataclysm, and did so by baking delegation into a new guild rank, one I felt we desperately needed.

Mature wraps his final heroic dungeon in Cataclysm,
earning "Cataclysm Dungeon Hero",
Throne of the Tides

Neither Casual Nor Hardcore

With Saint now a more exclusive rank replacing Elite, I took a hard look at those formerly falling between the cracks of lower- and upper-tiered raiders. Exiting The Burning Crusade, I saw players of two types populating DoD: those with casual level attention and priorities in the video game world, and hardcore, top-end players whose fresh cuts would bleed raiding. I singled the two categories out in Wrath, identified them, and empowered them to change their titles (if they were unhappy).

In practice, however,a  third type of player emerged: one with the tenacity and skill of a hardcore player, but lacking the motivation / schedule / priority to dedicate every waking moment to the game. In examining this third group, I realized my oversight in Wrath: my former ranks improperly married skill with gaming priority. It was, in fact, a matrix of player types:

Skill \ Priority
Plays Whenever
Plays All the Time

While the upper right quadrant seemed awkward (and we'll get to that later), it was the lower left quadrant that caught my eye. Beginning raiders intent on working towards a spot amongst the Elite were doing so by putting their best foot forward, devoting untold hours to the game to hone their skill, but the same couldn't be said of a raider in the reverse position. If you were already expertly played, you came and went as you chose -- you needed to prove nothing to nobody. Players choosing this path, therefore, were clearly in a league of their own, frozen forever in a position that was too good for Raider, yet not good enough for Elite. Treating them as either ran the same risks as treating a Raider as an Elite -- the worthy feel neglected and move on, and you're left with what collects at the bottom of the barrel.

No player represented this category better than Ben.

Ben's lone gunman style mirrored that of his brother, Ouleg, whom I bonked heads with in TBC: magic behind the wheel...when you manage to strap him in place, taping his hands to the controls if necessary. When harnessed, however, Ben could be pointed down the right path, turning the lone gunman into the gun for the hire, the samurai of the guild. He proved it to me, going from drunken tirades to texting me when he'd be late for a raid so that we could hold him a spot.

With the proper measures in place, you can empower this vast majority to do great things, meet (or exceed) expectations, and cause your team to be an overwhelming success. These are the 'Save-ables', and they are the topic of this book.

In Cataclysm, I created a third rank for the Bens of the guild: Samurai, and for the first time in DoD's history, I put the guild in power of helping decide who was worthy of the title.

In order to qualify for Samurai, the first requirement was to be sitting on at least 50 forum Karma, the current quantifier of guild contribution via peers. Potential Samurai would be posted in a nomination forum and vetted on their knowledge of both the game and their class. How they answered would help the peer review pool determine if a promotion was the correct course of action for the player.

And what of closed-door politics? If nominations were jaded, or accusations of playing favorites were made, those responsible for the conflicts-of-interest would themselves be dinged karma. Make enough bad judgement calls, and a Samurai could find themselves back amongst the Raiders.

This seemed to be a very straightforward loop of accountability. Perform, be rewarded. Make bad choices, suffer the consequences. No longer would it be just "the hand of God" making these was the core of the raid team, the very individuals themselves that healed you, tanked for you, and helped you bring the internet dragon down. With the guidelines in place, this new delegation would afford me the time I needed to split my attention between guild and life, as life was quickly taking precedence.


"Well, what do you think about being the inspiration for a new guild rank?"

"Cool!" Ben replied. Silence followed in Vent.

"So...are you looking forward to getting started on the 7th?"

"I dunno what my schedule is gonna be like here, I have a lot of stuff coming up that I gotta work out with the wife."

Schedule? You don’t have a job, Ben.

"I see," I said, disappointed, "Well, that'd be a real shame to not have you present for 25 this go-around. You were crucial in Wrath."

"Yeah, I'll check on some stuff, but I dunno, I may have to move stuff around a bit. Might even just see what the 10-Man options are like for this tier."

Ben never signed up for, nor attended a single 25-Man progression raid throughout Cataclysm...not on Aeden, not on Scruffiebear...nothing. The one player I designed Samurai to appeal to, a player unable to meet harsh requirements of a former Elite, to enjoy freedom of rotations but be acknowledged for superb play...never earned the rank. Before the 25-Man progression even got off the ground in Cataclysm, Ben's career in it had come to an end.

His story, however, did not.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

4.19. Little Details

"Welcome to Vashj'ir"
Artwork by Ikameka

The Dark Below

There are only two times in my life I can recall a piece of music that made me feel as if I were drowning.

In 1994, Zoid introduced me to a band named Delerium. I'd describe it as an ambient, almost hypnotic genre of music, famous for layering electronic soundscapes and euro-dance rhythms atop angelic vocalists -- some reaching seemingly inhuman octaves. This side project of Front Line Assembly heads Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber seemed a more likely extension of Enigma, rather than the industrial sound Skinny Puppy.

Semantic Spaces turned me into a Leeb/Fulber zealot overnight, and in my excessive style, I dove deeply into any other side projects they produced. My research revaled a prolific, multi-volume career: three albums under Intermix, four as Noise Unit, a single-album stint as Cyberaktif, and perhaps most surprising of all, eight Delerium albums preceding Semantic Spaces. These earlier Delerium albums were dark, moody, and in some places, not much more than disparate sound effects (particularly true of Morpheus). Their sound was nothing like what I expected.

Sematic Spaces' follow-up, Karma, paved the way for DJs like Tiesto to help shape a new genre of music: trance. Invoke the name to a fan of the genre, and it will most likely summon up visions of ecstasy-infused glow stick raves at Ibiza. I wager very few Delerium fans will instead conjure up an image of Willem Dafoe, bloodied and nailed to a cross in The Last Temptation of Christ, yet samples of Peter Gabriel's haunting Passion is sprinkled throughout Spiritual Archives, a Delerium album that predates Semantic Spaces by three years.

It is this same haunting music that is ever present in another Leeb/Fulber side-project: Synaesthesia.

A person experiencing this "juxtaposition of sensory information" might taste the heat or smell the silence; even those ravers might feel the rhythm (if they're prone to cliche). Synaesthesia is a grammatical term, a neurological phenomenon, and thanks to Leeb/Fulber, a side-project rich with sonically submerged imagery. Their first two albums, Embody and Desideratum, weren't anything spectacular; most tracks were slow and odd, aka "experimental". But it was their third release, Ephemeral, that the underwater chord was struck.

Naked Sun weaves its hypnotic tentacles into your brain, implanting uncanny impressions that these sounds come from a mysterious and frightening source, many fathoms deep; all the tracks on Ephemeral are like this. Intelligence Dream had such a profound effect on me that I laid it into our High King Maulgar kill video. You listen and cannot help but feel you are sinking down toward the darkened ocean floor. Pardoxically, it is peaceful yet nerve-wracking, and is one of the few times such a distinct image of being underwater came from music.

The only other music to do this was Vashj'ir.

Mature notes consumer interest in his gem auctions,

What Goes Unnoticed

What is it, exactly, that Russell Brower, Derek Duke and David Arkenstone honed in on when building this musical landscape? The commonality between Vashj'ir and Ephemeral is subtle yet important. We hear those gongs, low pitched piano strings, granularized and slowly rippling outward in waves, like a ping from some ghostly sonar. Above the surface, air would deaden their duration, but sound waves suffer no such encumbrance under frictionless water.

The strings and flutes repeat their somber melody, two measures of four notes each; they're sad and empty. Yet, listening closer reveals a striking similarity to an alarm in slow motion, repeating its warning, eating into your consciousness, conveying both weightlessness and loss. The music of Vashj'ir is a cascading terror of the deep manifest, and is one of the most unappreciated aspects of Cataclysm.

In what should come as no surprise to anyone, Vashj'ir annoyed nearly every player who quested there. Any recognition of the zone's good qualities, particularly that of the music, was drowned out by focusing on their personal inconvenience. This was truly a tragedy. Lore nerds knew Vashj'ir was coming, knew it had to be completely underwater to be canon, and Blizzard pulled it off. Gorgeous visuals, immersive music, they even adapted our characters to bound quickly across the ocean floor.

Nobody cared.

Complaints flooded the forums about how annoying it was, and how Blizzard was "forcing players to think in 3D" -- as if by some strange miracle we had been playing two-dimensionally since 2004. Whatever little support the Vashj'ir zone received was deafened by the cries of the confounded and the perplexed.

I still love it, as does my daughter, but we are a sad and small minority. As with so much of the World of Warcraft's incredible attention to detail, Vashj'ir went misunderstood and underappreciated.

While Moorawr congratulates Moolickalot and Mature preps
his gear, DoD completes Heroic: Blackrock Caverns,
The Stonecore

This Isn't Canon

Leveling in Cataclysm wasn't a chore. For the first time in Blizzard's history, the expansion only extended our cap by five levels rather than ten. For those unable to withstand Vashj'ir, leveling kicked off in Mount Hyjal. This zone was locked away for years, visible only through a sealed gate that was buried deep in the back of a Winterspring cave.

There were, of course, other...more unconventional catch a glimpse of Hyjal.

Our experience rested firmly within the Terms & Services: via the Caverns of Time, as a 25-Man raid in The Burning Crusade. Aside from raiding and exploits, Hyjal remained all but closed off to the WoW gaming community at large...until Cataclysm.

In the present day, Mount Hyjal was now accessible to all, blown wide open...
...and on fire.

I wasn't surprised to see an old friend emerge from the fire and greet Mature, as I made my way from Nordrassil to Sulfuron Spire. Ragnaros rose out of the flames to greet us with a warning - we were on his turf now. Molten Core, it would appear, was merely a setback.

One of Cataclysm’s central themes was that of the elements, taking us from the depths of the Abyssal Maw to the searing brimstone of the Firelands; from the majestic architecture of Skywall, miles above the surface of Azeroth, to Deepholm, the earth beneath the earth. I remember exploring the ebon rocks and cave formations in this latter zone, weaving Mature in between tiny bits of rock and stone that floated inches off the ground through unseen magic. When you turn your head to the sky and strain your eyes to see, far off in the distance above you, the bottom of the ocean -- the feeling is unmistakable: you are deep within the mantle's crust -- and a long way from home.

From the unimaginable depths of Deepholm, players next traveled to Uldum, another location just out of reach for years. Prior to Cataclysm, the only hint of Uldum's existence was a quest in Uldaman. A titan recording played back references to Norgannon and his discs, leading us to a fractured entryway in southern Tanaris. The great doors wouldn't open and its only exposure was a dark, black hole partially collapsed like a puzzle missing its final piece. The quest ended, and we returned to our Vanilla duties, while the doors remained silent and untouched, throughout Vanilla, TBC, and Wrath.

No longer.

We rushed through the now open gates, inviting us into a land inspired by Egyptian themes, hieroglyphics, and bizarre humanoids one might mistake for centaurs...if it weren't for their predominantly cat-like features. Uldum also buried secrets of a dwarven nature, and if Uldaman and Ulduar were any indication, those secrets in Uldum would hopefully wrap up unanswered questions. What of Norgannon's discs, and of the titans? What other Earthen spawned here and evolved into the dwarves that populate Azeroth today. And perhaps the biggest question of all: Why Azeroth? I geeked out in preparation for the final chapter of the three ancient titan cities, and couldn't wait to get started, arriving in Uldum three days after launch.

Two days later, I hit level 85 while handing in a quest in Uldum. I finished what remained, and never returned to the zone. No questions were answered, no great titan cities were exposed, no secrets revealed. I spent the majority of my time chasing Brann Bronzebeard who seemed more like a loose end left from Ulduar that a core piece of narrative driving the Warcraft story. The only connection to the titans, it appeared, was that these cat-taurs, the "Ramkahen" were left behind by the titans to guard their secrets.

What secrets?

No earthen or dwarven history was made mention of. In their place stood these cat people, tending to fields among the sands. There was no Norgannon. No Khaz'Goroth. No references to Algalon or anything of his kind -- nothing. If Uldaman was the appetizer and Ulduar was the main course, Uldum ended up a very disappointing desert.

Friday, December 12, 2014

4.18. Minmaxxing

Artwork by 陈晨巍 (可奥拉夫)


Cataclysm launched at midnight on December 7th, 2010, and within 24 hours, Blizzard began backpedaling. With any software launch, bugs are bound to pop-up. Ask any player that's been present for Blizzard's major game launches and they'll tell you it's often a storm of chaos and confusion. Servers buckle, LUA errors appear on the screen like advertisements, and players wait at the character selection screen, the "Logging in…" message never quite delivering on its promise. Eventually, bugs are fixed, servers are rebooted, and the World of Warcraft resumes its quiet hum.

Fixing code that malfunctions is what's needed when results do not line up with vision. Designers govern the rules; to them, all the World of Warcraft's a stage -- the programmers, artists, and musicians are merely players. If designers decree that "the world should turn from day to night in real-time", is a rapidly-cycling sky truly a bug? Well, if the previous rule was to spin the sun and moon like a top, then technically, no, it is not -- but it is also not behaving as intended. These are the three words programmers focus on when determining what is broken and what needs to be fixed. Bug fixing is never an existential question to a programmer; code fails to meet requirements, and therefore must be adjusted. But the requirements define the boundaries of what's expected and what's not, and those rules come directly from the designers.

In a sense, designers have the power to will bugs into existence.

Let's be realistic, here: we're not talking about magically causing the game to crash...we're talking about defining what's allowable yesterday vs. what's allowable today. When the game doesn't behave as intended, it's the designers' intentions we are talking about.


The collector's edition arrived at my door around noon on the 8th. Within a few minutes of tearing into the packaging, I had the serial number attached, and was logged in, ready to get started on my path to 85. By this point, Cataclysm had only been live in North America for around twelve hours, yet the re-designing was already in motion. Guilds of every shape and size, of every dedication level from the ultra-casual to the most extreme of hardcore, were noticing their Guild XP levels backed up like a stopped toilet. A blue post from Nethaera explained the stoppage:
We have decided to remove the added bonus of gaining Guild Experience from Guild Achievements earned. This change will realign Guild Achievements with our philosophy held for normal Achievements, which are intended to be predominantly their own reward (barring the rare exception of special achievements that grant an additional reward.)

During the beta, we greatly increased leveling speed across the board and since most characters were copied from templates, guild experience from Achievements didn't seem imbalanced. It has become clear that an imbalance does exist and should be addressed to ensure that guilds progress at the rates expected within the daily Guild Experience limits.

For guilds that are currently above the normally possible experience limit, we will be readjusting it back to the expected limit once more. This will not affect Guild Reputation gains at this point in time.
Translation: we were consuming content too quickly.

Mature takes a group of DoD through one of
the new 5-man dungeons in Cataclysm,
Blackrock Caverns

Good to the Last Drop

One could argue that their original weekly caps were intended to curtail this behavior, long before the game launched. But it was never really clear what those caps were; even the Elitist Jerks weren't certain. WoW historians/nerds will point out the very real post made on the EU forums, indicating in bright blue text that some guilds were indeed leveling past the cap for unknown reasons, fulfilling the aforementioned requirements of a bug:
Unfortunately, due to an error, some guilds have been able to gain more experience in the first few hours of Cataclysm than was initially intended. Your guild is one of those affected and as a result, has had the guild rank moved back to level 1. This has been done to all guilds that had this issue.

The reason for this is that guild experience has been intentionally capped at a certain amount a day. Tomorrow you will once again be able to gain experience as normal.

We apologise for any inconvenience this has caused you and your guild. The issue should now be fixed so this will not be a recurring issue.
The game, as perceived by the European crowd, was not behaving as intended.

But, without knowledge of the official weekly reputation cap values, combined with how much personal achievements actually contributed to guild experience, no one could definitively say whether or not the changes were truly the result of design decisions gone wild. What we do know are the results: that very early into the morning of December 7th, across the ocean, the hardest of hardcore guilds were well into 3rd guild level before they saw it magically back itself down to 1, freezing in position only hours later.

When I logged in at noon on the 7th and pulled Lil' Deathwing from my mailbox, Descendants of Draenor was already capped for the week; I'm sure many other guilds were as well.

Well, the large ones were, at least.

Perhaps the smaller, more casual ones took the rest of the week to hit their caps -- but many managed to squeeze it in. By Tuesday, we were all back on the same page, all equal in the eyes of the designers once more.

Most don't remember nor care about a change as trivial as this, a hotfix rolled out in the early hours of the morning of Cataclysm's launch. It was just another bug fix, all part of the launch process -- many bugs are fixed during launch. Caps were in place to keep the content gated, and for progress to move at a distributed pace. Move on with your life.

All of these explanations make sense, but aren't answers to the question at hand.

The question is: what was it about this bug that caused it to be perceived as imbalanced in their vision?

17 hours and 11 minutes after Cataclysm's launch,
Gunsmokeco becomes Deathwing-US's first level 85 Shaman,
Blackrock Caverns

Cataclysmic Converter

Seventeen hours after the launch, the guild glanced down at their respective chat windows to see an incoming realm announcement:

Gunsmokeco has earned the achievement [Realm First! Level 85 Shaman]!

The long term vet of DoD had slaved out a 17-hour all night session, attempting to beat out every other shaman on Deathwing-US at their game. Guildies snapped screenshots and congratulations were spammed toward the exhausted but victorious shaman. When asked why he did it, Guns simply replied, "Dunno if I was gonna get the chance again, so why not?"

We don't put enough value in how important it is to be able to play as much (or as little) as we want; ask any casual WoW player what they think of being forced to play beyond their means. I doubt many would argue that Vanilla imposed an artificial minimum amount of hours necessary per week in order to see any real in-game progress. It isn't until we opine on what an appropriate maximum should be that the opinions of us old-schoolers begin to diverge, even Gurgthock felt most guilds raided too much, back in the day. This vision was borne of a very old-school (and hardcore) way of thinking about content: accessing it is a privilege, not a right. You earned your rewards through concerted, concentrated effort. Just like anything in life: practice makes perfect.

From a hardcore perspective, it makes complete sense -- from a business perspective, it makes none.

Throughout the years, design decisions conveyed a more accessible vision, one that diminished the importance of that artificial minimum. I hold that nearly all of them were the right decisions: alternate currencies to purchase welfare epics in TBC, alternate smaller raid sizes facilitating easier coordination/execution in Wrath. These were the kinds of quality-of-life tools necessary for players with reduced schedules or alternative preferences in play...but took nothing away from the hardcore gamers, who could earn the most glorious rewards in the blink of an eye.

The investment needed to progress withered away, conveying the message loud and clear: eventually, you will earn your way toward victory. Players were then free to choose how little or how much they devoted to the game. I followed suit with DoD and rewarded my own members in kind: you won't be punished for not meeting a minimum -- there is no minimum.

As for maximums, we'd seen them before: the weekly cap of honor points, the monthly-gates that slowly revealed deeper, more challenging encounters in raids, and these systems served their purpose. Regardless of whatever spin is put on the "official" statement, we can nearly all agree that the intent of gates were to extend the life of the content. If you could burn through it all in one session, what would be the point of coming back? Or going again? Or renewing your subscription?

What caused Vanilla players to come back, in a World of Warcraft devoid of gates?

For me, it was the challenge and the community. I came back to Vanilla, night after night, because we had more content to work on and it was thrilling to work on that content with the people of DoD. And back then, WoW barely had 5 million subs; we were more than double that by the end of Wrath. Surely, community should have existed in spades and the coming raids were not going to be as easy as those of Wrath. It seemed counterintuitive, then, for Blizzard to begin imposing caps on how fast we chose to consume content on day one -- the speed at which we chose to dive into WoW never affected our subscription before, so why would it now?

If they were so concerned about us feeling obligated to play a minimum each week (then fix it), what compelled them to dictate how much we played?

Allow me a slight rephrasing to quash those who might think I’m about to accuse Blizzard of acting solely out of greed:

What non-monetary reason exists to force a customer to consume goods at a restricted rate, if the quality of the products has remained the same?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

4.17. Sculpting Clay

Mature watches the city of Orgrimmar burn
as Deathwing lays siege to Azeroth,

The World Breaks

Tremors shook the ground, elementals burst forth from crevices, ravaging cities and villages as players led the charge to drive them back. Mindless chants of the Shadow Council filled the streets, their bodies adorned with sandwich boards advertising the end of the world. Some of us had already caught a glimpse of the beast. It began as a dark shadow whose awesome presence blocked out the sun. You'd turn your attention to the sky, searching. There, you'd catch your glimpse of a colossal wingspan, blades fanned out revealing the magnitude of the situation. And by this point, it was too late. The blackness of leathery, melted wings slowly turned blood red, which was about the moment a realization set in -- you were burning alive.

Players yelled out idiotic cheers in /General as Deathwing burned them to a crisp, excited that their demise had been rewarded with a sparkling new achievement. Mature stood outside the Horde city of Orgrimmar, and we watched the great city burn while the masses celebrated their first achievement for failing.

On the other side of the screen, we had some real milestones to celebrate. Descendants of Draenor completed its sixth year of activity, and I rewarded the guild with a brand new website. After months of uploading photos, configuring new DKP pools, testing XML imports from raid dumps, and obsessing over geeky content management system configuration options, I introduced my players to the new face of DoD, powered by eqDKP-Plus.

The guild dove in, updating their profiles, importing their character sheets from the WoW Armory, personalized their email alerts and raid schedule notifications, and got a chance to check out the slick integration with achievement histories and World of Logs reports, right from the homepage. I listened in Vent, watched guild chat unfold, and waited to see what the first comments would be when they discovered the image gallery.

"Wow, you wrote a description for every single screenshot in here? God, how long did this take?"

It took as long as it needed to.


Our six year anniversary also marked the eve of the third expansion, Cataclysm. With it, came the promise of new game mechanics, a new level cap of 85, and a broken world to explore. As it was with Wrath of the Lich King and The Burning Crusade before, the changing winds of the game meant DoD would need to adjust its direction as well. The months between the defeat of Arthas and the arrival of Deathwing were spent collecting data, reviewing loopholes, talking to guildies, and consolidating all that I had learned in my six years as guild leader. Once the guild had a chance to enjoy the new website, I pulled back the curtain on what was in store.

The new face of DoD -,
which runs atop the eqDKP-Plus content management system


To begin, I raised the minimum age requirement from 21 to 23. Instituting an age requirement at the start of Wrath provided a much needed balance to the atmosphere of the day-to-day. I never intended it to curtail immaturity, rather, it put so many more of us on the same level. That did wonders for alignment; we spoke the same language, had the same goals, shared the same beliefs. Bonds were much stronger than before.

I toyed with requiring Authenticators early on, to decrease the impact on the guild bank when a hacking occurred. Once Blizzard tied the actual acknowledgement of Authenticators into guild management, I was able to flex this requirement slightly. In Cataclysm, guildies didn't need to have an Authenticator...until they reached a rank where they were dipping into the guild vault extensively to procure mats for flasks, gems, food, etc. There was no sense imposing the "perceived additional annoyance" on players. As before, I empowered them to choose how far up the ladder they wished to climb; it was up to each player to decide if the perks were worth the additional account security asked of them.

Another change I made for Cataclysm came in the form of how I acknowledged referrals. In Wrath (and to a degree in TBC), I hammered home the message that each player was "selling the guild". Every time they stepped into a random dungeon, or ventured into /General, what they said and did reflected upon us. Many of our recruits had come our way via this mechanism; players simply being impressed at how respectful DoD was toward complete strangers. In Cataclysm, I intended on rewarding players with a finder's fee. If their referrals eventually hit a particular rank, they would see a monetary payout as a way to thank them for investing in their guild. It wasn't much, but I wagered several hundred or even several thousand gold might remind guildies how important those referrals were to us.

All of these changes seemed to go by without much notice, but once DoD put their eyes on the changes to ranks and raiding rules, opinions came out in full force.

Elites were gone, and with them, the guaranteed spots in the raid that came with the title. This was perhaps the most noticeable, most invasive change I employed for Cataclysm. "So, nobody gets a guaranteed spot anymore?" No. "So, what's my incentive to raid in the 25?" Consistent rotations. "But isn't that just another way of saying it's a 'guaranteed spot'?" Actually, it isn't. "What's the difference?"

The difference is that one is burdened with the demand of continuous effort, and the not.

The high-end raider of DoD is a player constantly striving for greatness, yet intimately aware of how fleeting their position is. All it takes is for their effort to wane, their attention to drift, and their attitude to sour for a change in rotations to blossom. The Raider/Elite rank system worked well in Wrath, showering the most dedicated players with the greatest perks. It solved the problem of the double-standard, keeping scrubs from reaping the same rewards as the star performers, pulling progression down into the gutter. But, it failed to hold those star performers accountable for their actions once they climbed up on to their respective pedestals; they became untouchable. And while some epitomized the type of role model I wished the entire guild would model themselves after, for others, the title became a self-fulfilling prophecy; their aloofness and grandeur led them to speak in ways that disgusted me, and justify decisions that violated any sense of morality I aimed for.

Take note: language matters. Assign something a label, and you may soon find that everyone believes it to be true...especially if the thing is a person.

In Cataclysm, I removed guaranteed spots in raids. Players who set the greatest examples, provided the deepest insights, and contributed the most value to progression would earn spots that were the least temporary.  Furthermore, there would be no more large groups of players dominating the upper echelon of indignance. Instead, only one of each class would earn that coveted place whose spot was nearly guaranteed. These were the self-motivated players, the ones requiring little (if any) guidance, and consistently made the right decisions. They were the humble amid success, ever aware that a wrong move could cause a fall from grace.

These individuals would come to be known as the Saints of DoD.

Mature joins the server in defense against
the encroaching Elemental attack,

A Trilogy of Trickery

"There are three types of people in the world," the words on the screen explained, "Saints are those that strive for greatness without intervention, and require little management from you. They're always accountable; they always deliver. Perhaps they're fundamentally good people, or they're the right fit for the team -- but whatever the case, they make you look good as a leader...whether you deserve it or not. Reward them and protect them; you don't want to lose them."

I read on.

"Sinners are on the other end of the spectrum. Excuses flow from them like water from a fountain, and can never be counted on to deliver or improve. Maybe they're bad people, or bad hires..."

Or bad players.

"...but they will make you look bad as a leader. Whatever few sinners you come into contact with, make sure you get rid of them if they're on your team, and don't hire them if they're potential candidates."

I sipped my coffee and continued.

"Saints and sinners are a fraction of who you'll encounter. Your attention, therefore, should be focused on most everyone else. They must be molded and shaped, as if sculpting a statue from clay. They are not throw-aways, but they do require investment. With the proper measures in place, you can empower this vast majority to do great things, meet (or exceed) expectations, and cause your team to be an overwhelming success. These are the 'Save-ables', and they are the topic of this book."

"Sometimes save-ables make the right decisions, sometimes not. They'll become an active, quality contributor to your team if the right conditions are met. To know how to put those guardrails in place, you must first understand that save-ables are human beings, vulnerable to the evolutionary wiring established long ago. Specifically, they possess three traits you'll want to pay attention to: They can't read your mind, they're frequently delusional, and they're selfish."

I liked where this was heading.

"Not making your expectations clear and credible equips your followers with all the excuses they need to not perform. It may sound silly to admit, but your team won't know your intent unless you tell them, and you must do so in a way that is unambiguous. Clarifying the modus operandi isn't something you get around to after the work is is the work."

Nice to see you figured this part out, at least. An old lesson, one that helped change the course of our failures in TBC. Everybody showing up to the party, each with their own definition of "fun". Making sure they all knew fun meant "constant, consistent progress" was the first step in turning that boat around. I read on.

"Humans lack the ability for honest self-assessment, a result of our evolutionary wiring. Quick thinking defensiveness saved us from saber tooth tiger attacks, but predisposes us to a self-important agenda. And when we're self-important, it's easy to credit ourselves with successes, while pointing fingers to others for faults. Delusions of a magical land where no one is at fault are suppressed when you ground yourself in empirical reality -- the things you verify with your senses. When you lead by speaking the honest truth, your followers will do the same."

In a single paragraph, the author nailed exactly why folks like Blain were able to enjoy such success in leading -- by speaking the truth. Some people don't want to hear it, but its sets the precedent for thoughtful discussion and debate, rather than finger-pointing and excuse making. The raid team learned quickly that bullshit wouldn't go far with him.

I agreed with the author of the first two counts, but had already learned both these lessons. Perhaps the third would provide insight.

"In our context, selfish doesn't necessarily mean bad. It simply means that humans naturally act with their own self-interest at heart. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner."

I didn't doubt it. "We're here 'till the end, Hanzo!"...remember that? Translation: we're here until it's no longer convenient. Until the loot stops rolling in. Never forget how many of your "chums" are the friendliest of the bunch as a means to ensure their own foot stays solidly wedged in the door. So, what was the book's insight into keeping these self-interested folks on the road I so diligently paved?

"Compelling consequences are necessary to keep your team producing the positive outcomes you intend. Whatever you're rewarding or tolerating, you can bet that your save-ables will give you more of it. Whether positively or negatively, you have a lot more power to influence them than you might think."

Always the softie. You should've tightened the noose long ago. I flipped back to my rules, scanned until I hit the 1st round bidding explanation. There was really no reason for me to be mad. All the explanation that was needed was right there in front of my face, seared into the rule itself. My loot rules were exploited because there was no reason not to; the insignificant cost paid by the winner allowed for it. I allowed for it.

An email alert popped up, turning my attention to the guild management forum. A few hours earlier, I'd laid out the details of the Eh Team "loot collusion", revealed to me by Bheer, along with the notes of my various interviews with the members. The officers were disgusted, and wanted to know what would be done to punish the offenders.

Stripping players of their ranks and spreading the story of their bad judgements to the rest of the guild all seemed more justified, by comparison -- but wouldn't give me any new results. Even if the individual members of Eh Team were to all exit stage right, what was to stop a new generation of Eh Team from filling their shoes? Individual punishments wouldn't give me the behavior I wanted...only one thing would.

"We'll be making 1st round winning bids empty their DKP pool."

I submitted the post, then returned to my reading in the window labeled Leadership Without Excuses.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

4.16. Remember, Remember

DoD defeats Yogg-Saron in the absence of all four
keepers, earning "Alone in the Darkness (25 Player)",

October 31

One month remained before the launch of Cataclysm, and the guild was hungry for that which lay just out of reach. Achievements remained incomplete, and a calculated movement quickly grew among the ranks to solve for x. I had the good fortune of being looped in on many of these invites, and ramped up my availability to meet the needs of the guild. We kicked things off in haste on Hallowe'en night, returning to Ulduar after nearly a year of uninterrupted raiding in Icecrown. The mission: face the Old God once again, sans assistance from the four Keepers. 

It was grueling, even with our ICC-quality gear to offset the difficulty. We had a 20% handicap across the board: we took more damage, pushed out less damage, maintained less health, moved slower...and the 40% less healing taken was the cherry on top. Whatever safety net previously existed was now absent. There was no protective gaze to give us a free life. There was no restorative sanity wells available to keep us from madness. And the brutality of the third phase showed us the true face of the Immortal Guardians: they would not die. It was a race against time to wring every last drop of DPS into Yogg's many mouths, while an encroaching army of Immortal Guardians threatened to dog-pile us into oblivion.

Tentacles surrounded us, grabbing players and slamming them into the floor, and Mangetsu joked, "This reminds me of an anime I watched last night."

We spent an hour and twenty minutes in the darkness, attempting to defeat Yogg-Saron without Fraya, Thorim, Hodir or Mimiron. His thousand gaping maws screamed out in agony as we delivered a final blow, and the golden achievement flashed up "Alone in the Darkness (25 Player)". Our reward was a guaranteed drop of the coveted Mimiron's Head mount. Per DoD's rule, everyone present was allowed to roll on the mount, and Sixfold walked away the winner. We would repeat this kill one more time before Cataclysm, and the second Mimiron's Head went to Mangetsu.

Mature, Falnerashe (and others) execute a clear of 10-Man
Naxx without a single death, earning "The Undying",

November 9

A month had passed since first reaching out to Falnerashe. I kept interactions to a minimum, trying not to come on too strong, trying not to overwhelm. I pinged at random, just to check up, to see how things were, what was going on, if she had any plans for the day. She, too, was attempting to wrap up outstanding achievements, and I took the opportunity to offer help where I could. I never counted on having Falnerashe rejoin DoD, but she was a star healer, so I would have been a fool not to try. When I finally made the pitch, it was as transparent a pane of glass:

Whatever problems you have in DoD, whether they be raid or people related, I will take care of them. At any time, you can shoot me a concern privately -- it doesn't matter how trivial it may seem. Even if all you need to do is rant about stupid people...rant to me. I give you my word: you won't be ignored again. The days of rewarding bad players in this guild are long behind us.

She said she would consider the offer. In the meantime, I walked a fine line between proactivity and harassment. On the 9th of November, we assembled a group to attempt to wrap up an arch-nemesis: The Undying, requiring us to clear an entire 10-Man Naxxramas without any player in the raid eating shit. The Immortal, long since blown, was a write-off by this point, but both Fal and I wanted The Undying...even if the Plagued Proto-Drake was no longer on the table.

Fal brought a few of her friends; I corralled a few from DoD. We 7-manned our way through with a perfectly logical explanation. With less people come less opportunities to die. Slow and steady wins the race, and with care, the seven of us cleared the instance and drew a line through the achievement.

Two days later, Falnerashe accepted a re-invite to Descendants of Draenor.

Mature, Falnerashe, Zedman (and others) defeat Mimiron
without anyone dying, completing "Champion of Ulduar",

November 13

Zedman, now an official member of Descendants of Draenor (and still a full-blooded achievement whore), led his own charge to color in those unfulfilled golden bars. He cracked the whip on a Saturday afternoon, looping us in on a clear through Ulduar, attempting to wrap "Champion of Ulduar" -- the Ulduar equivalent of The Undying. Again, the focus was on not dying, but this time, the design was a little more digestible: each boss was handled individually and could be knocked out in chunks, rather than executing the entire achievement over a single lock. As it stood, nearly all of us needed only Mimiron, the boss most famous for blowing players away at random.

We knocked out achievements along the way: "With Open Arms (10 Player)", "Getting Cold in Here (10 Player)", and "Con-speed-atory (10 Player)"; at every boss, we attempted some kind of achievement for anyone present that required it. By the time we got to Mimiron, things were looking good. We managed to have the giant mech turn a rocket strike back upon his own minions for "Not -So-Friendly Fire (10 Player)"...

...and then he turned a rocket to me. Horse-blinded while in my role as a tank, I missed the targeting reticle and died instantly upon impact.

I could hear the disappointment in Zedman's voice; Fal was silent in vent.

"We are going to get it before Cata," I typed over to Fal in a whisper, "I promise you this."

One week and two days later, I kept my word to Falnerashe. We re-assembled, defeated Mimiron without a death, and earned the achievement and title.

Mature, Neps, Fred, and Hellspectral join a group of
Deathwingers to kill Archavon, Emalon and Koralon
at once, earning "Earth, Wind & Fire (25 Player)",
Lake Wintergrasp

Zedman was unrelenting. He pounced on any opportunity, day or night, to knock out an achievement, and was keenly aware of events transpiring on Deathwing-US...even if my attention was focused on the guild. Late into the evening on the 13th, the Horde reclaimed Wintergrasp, and Zedman took the reins in fielding a crew willing and able to attempt the ridiculous. When the invite arrived, I eyed the roster; there were a few familiar DoDers present -- Fred, Hellspectral and Neps. The rest were strangers.

[From: Zedmann]: Can I give them our Vent info?

[To: Zedmann]: Of course. DoD's policy on vent is open door. Share as needed...with discretion.

The group of random players slowly joined our vent, and Zedman meticulously described how we would pull all three watchers at once: Archavon, Emalon and Koralon, killing them within 60 seconds of each other. We made pull after pull after pull, each one closing the gap on the achievement. But as the Wintergrasp timer ticked away, Zedmann was unable to stay, his RL schedule intervening. We bid him a good night, stayed to defend Wintergrasp when the battle resumed, then reassembled to continue our attempts...

...and completed Zedman's achievement without Zedman. He would go on to earn "Earth Wind & Fire (25 Player)" six months later.

An all-star 10-Man crew of DoD defeats Heroic
Lich King, earning "Bane of the Fallen King",
Icecrown Citadel

November 16

On the 16th, I was honored to be looped in on an all-star 10-Man group intent on defeating Heroic Lich King.  I would tank alongside Drecca, while Neps, Fred, and Gunsmokeco manned the heals. Chosen to push out the maximum possible DPS were Hellspectral, Jungard, Ben (on Boomkin), Larada, and Mangetsu. Three paladins, two death knights, a priest, a shaman, a warrior, a druid, a hunter and a warlock: this was our line-up for Arthas, and our chance to claim any sort of Heroic Lich King kill, 10-Man or otherwise.

Our 25-Man's practice was still burned into our brains, so adapting to the 10-Man version required little adjustment. Phase one's major obstacle was the quick avoidance of shadow traps, which when stood on, would blast players off the platform, plummeting to a grisly death at the base of the citadel. Sending players out quickly to have dispelled Necrotic Plague jump to Shambling Horrors was automatic by this point. Months of practice and built-up muscle memory made this an easy order to digest.

The urgency to clean the platform of Val'kyr was no less real in heroic: they dropped players at 50% health (rather than at death) but had more health, and siphoned life until they were defeated. DPS had to burn every trick they could to maximize their killing strategy. Jungard exploited all opportunities to cleave, while Hellspectral levied massive Howling Blasts on the Val'kyr.

In phase three, the entire raid was pulled into Frostmourne. We zig-zagged our way through a path of Wicked Spirits, DPS desperately trying to apply their trade and prevent the spirits from exploding with crippling AoE damage. It was frantic, challenging, and chaotic; adrenalin pumped throughout each attempt.

There was no shortage of effort that day. After about a half-dozen attempts. Arthas finally met his match in heroic mode, and our small group earned "Bane of the Fallen King (10 Player)". It wasn't 25-Man, but it was still something to proud of....

...and yet, one achievement remained just out of reach.

The all-star team returns to Ulduar and defeats
Algalon utilizing only 226/232 gear, earning
"Herald of the Titans"

November 17

The all-star team returned to the field the next day. Zedman took the place of Ben, while Fred's healing spot was switched out for DPS via Omaric; the rest of the lineup remained unchanged. And on this day, the task at hand was perhaps the most challenging of all: defeat Algalon the Observer (automatically a heroic encounter), while only using gear acquired from Ulduar...or worse. There was no way to fudge this, no opportunity to take advantage of gear from higher tiers as we had with all bosses previous. Even the Lich King encounter could be made a hair easier by pulling gear from 25-Man Halion (ilvl 271), when ICC normally dropping ilvl 264 gear (for 10-Man groups). This achievement allowed no such padding.

Armor could not go above ilvl 226, and the highest allowed weapons were ilvl 232. We took off all our exceptional rewards, collected from ICC over the past year, replacing them with junk. This achievement was going to be about raw skill and discipline, nothing else. If there was ever a fight that proved Blain's long standing claim that "gear doesn't make a bad player good", this was that fight.

Algalon was just as brutal as the day we began practicing the encounter. Simple accidents meant instant wipes. Transitions for Big Bang had to be fluid, and healers had to be on their game to grant death-preventing saves on the tanks before they stepped through their portals. And the lingering one-hour timer produced little beads of sweat on my mouse hand.

Some raiders might argue that the freshly launched 4.0.1 patch, delivering new abilities and talents, might have made this a bit easier on us. For Death Knights, blood was now the only way to tank; fine for me, I had been tanking as blood for months. But the healing from Death Strike had been reduced significantly, justified by a new Blood Shield mechanic, allowing us to absorb damage along with our self-heals. But the potency of the Blood Shield came from Cataclysm's new stat, Mastery, which didn't start showing up on gear until 85. Whatever baseline Blood Shields I produced were quickly eaten by Algalon's brutally fast attacks.

There were other changes. Vengeance now scaled our tank damage as we bore the brunt of the boss. I gained access to Bone Shield, formerly exclusive to Unholy (as was Anti-Magic Shield, now a baseline ability). But, my dealing damage would not make or break this fight, Bone Shield charges were eaten just as fast as Blood Shields, and Anti-Magic Shell wasn't going to save me from a Big Bang...or Algalon's physical strikes. Whether the 4.0.1 changes were a boon or a curse to Death Knights still at 80, I perceived no added bonus. We were going to have to defeat Algalon the old fashioned way: with effort.

...and we made it so.

There were no benefits, no brute forces, no tricks or tactics to exploit, and no exceptional gear from the next tier to ease the pain. We defeated Algalon on the same terms that world first guilds used when racing one another to finish line, and I consider that a real achievement, even if it was only in 10-Man. I set Mature's title to "Herald of the Titans" that day, and haven't changed it since.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

4.15. Same Team

"Gryph vs. Gryph"
Arwork by Ol'ga Bol'shakova

The Sickest Sense

One spring day in 1985 I learned two things about my friend Stephen: that my Coleco Vision's game controllers were compatible with his Commodore 64, and that he was a thief. Before I tell this tale, let me start with an apology. Perhaps I'm being hasty with my labels. "Friend" might be pushing it. Let's agree on something a bit more conservative, say "acquaintance".

This was my first lesson in reading people, and learning that ulterior motives were very real.

Geeks were a rare commodity in the small town of Parksville, so I took what I could get. I invited Stephen over after school, even though I knew I'd be a crummy host. Gaming options were limited. We were one year in on a digital deficit, thanks to the video game crash of '84. It would be a few years before the big N invaded North America, kicking off the 8-bit revolution. These were all minor obstacles in the quest to get a gaming fix. The biggest hurdle was keeping Mom at bay.

She hated video games. Hated the sight of them. Hated the noise. More accurately, she hated what they did to me. Sitting, staring for hours, wide-eyed, rolling games like Zaxxon and Donkey Kong, to the exclusion of everything else: all responsibilities, all homework, all chores. All common sense. Video games had a detrimental effect on me, and Mom read me like a book. She despised them, and so, my game library suffered as a result. I owned the two aforementioned cartridges, and a third: BC's Quest for Tires, based off a Sunday comic strip where the only thing more prehistoric than its setting was its jokes.

Donkey Kong, Zaxxon and BCs Quest for Tires...that was the extent of my video game library for nearly a decade; I wouldn't be allowed to make another video game purchase for six more years.

I wanted to race straight to my room to fire up the Coleco Vision, but manners compelled me to introduce Stephen. Mom smiled, shook his hand, and asked him how he liked our school, the teachers, his classes -- typical small talk one might expect of a mom. He rattled off a mix of "yah", "nah", "I dunno", then excused himself to hit the bathroom. I spun to resume my race to the bedroom, images of spaceships and explosions dancing in my head. A firm grip on my arm stopped me. Before I had a chance to give her a what?, she leaned in and delivered a commanding order under a hushed tone,

"Do not bring him around this house again...ever. He is trouble waiting to happen."

Her words only registered for a split second, quickly erased by images of Mario leaping over barrels. But in that split second in the mind of an 11 year old, I had to wonder one thing: What was it exactly that she sniffed out? He couldn't have been in her presence for more than a couple of minutes. How he spoke? What he wore? Uncombed hair? Or was it something else entirely, something you can't put your finger on, but you know it when you see it. An uneasy feeling in your gut when you look it straight in the eye and you know something isn't right. Mom called it a vibe. And whatever vibes Stephen was giving off, I wasn't getting them. Was it youth? Inexperience?

...or a mad addiction to video games suppressing them?


Three weeks later, Stephen returned the favor, and invited me over to his place for a gaming session. Unlike my sparse options, however, Stephen's bedroom yielded a mother lode of Commodore 64 games. The computer's little details didn't escape my notice: the tan coloring of its plastic casing, the single row of brown "F" keys along the right edge (holding one of them down was a common requirement in loading C-64 games)...and, of course, the two 9-pin connectors engineered into the right wall of the computer case.

Game controllers in the early 80s were pretty much the same. They were either analog or analog/digital hybrids (8-way controllers usually fell into this latter group) but most all shared a common connector: the DE 9 Subminiature or "D-Sub" for short. Forming the shape of a trapezoid, the joystick cable led to a female connector in two rows (5 bottom, 4 top), and the game console provided the male counterpart. D-Sub controllers were prolific, compatible with Atari 2600s, 7800s, the Intellivision II, the ZX Spectrum, the Amstrad and Amiga. Eventually, D-Subs would provide support for the Sega's Mark III and Mega Drive...or what we'd call the Sega Master System and Sega Genesis, respectively. The pinouts -- how the 9 pins actually mapped to their respective game controllers -- didn't always match up exactly, but in most cases, compatibility was surprisingly good.

One such compatibility was the Coleco Vision and the Commodore 64.

The Commodore 64 computer had two game controller
ports that were compatible with Coleco Vision paddles (right)

Blinded by Obsession

After the thirty minute bike ride to Stephen's house, I dropped the navy green backpack on the floor of his bedroom, unlaced it, and produced two black Coleco Vision paddles.

"You think they'll work?" Stephen asked, grabbing the connectors and jamming them into the ports.

"One way to find out..."

The game of choice to test the two controllers was Spy vs. Spy, a simultaneous 2-player game pitting the infamous cone-nosed MAD Magazine characters against one another in a battle of tricks, traps, and treasure. Two player games were rare in 1985; if they existed, players typically took turns trying to beat each other's high score. A game supporting two players at the same time was a rare luxury.

The controllers worked beautifully.

Stephen shared a bedroom with his older brother Cameron. Once Cam saw the dual joystick action, he wanted to get in on it, so we rotated him via "winner stays" rules. Round after round, traps were set and triggered, heads were cracked with batons, bombs exploded in unsuspecting faces, and angelic spies floated up to heaven. It was a blast. But like all blasts, time flew by, and eventually, the time came to depart. I bagged the game controllers back up, hit the bathroom before the long ride home, then said good-bye to Stephen and his brother, and headed out.

There were no surprises on the way home. I took the same route I always took, taking a short cut through a wooded area along a bike path worn down by kids in the neighborhood, cutting across a shopping mall's parking lot, and down through a neighbor's unkempt yard. I never fell off my bike. I wasn't robbed at gunpoint. There wasn't any period of time I was without my backpack; it was cinched closed and laced tightly, and hung off my shoulders for the duration of the ride.

You can imagine my shock, then, when I got home, opened it up and controllers inside.

I frantically rewound the memories of my ride home, but there was no event to single out. I grabbed the phone and called Stephen. Had I left them there? He checked...nope, not there. Must have fallen out on the way home. I hung up, and tears began to well. Could they have possibly fallen out? It made no sense; the backpack was closed the entire ride home. The more I wracked my brain for an explanation, the more upset I became. Most frightening of all was facing Mom's wrath -- the only thing she hated more than video games was dealing with the fallout. Those game controllers were not cheap, not replaceable, and would bring a swift end to my video game addiction. I half expected her to rejoice in hearing they were gone.

Mom had a very different response than what I expected.

As I stood in the kitchen, blubbering, and still clinging to the empty backpack, Mom picked up the phone and began dialing. She butted a du Maurier cigarette into an ashtray as she waited. Someone picked up. Her tone was cordial, with perhaps just a tinge of condescension.

"Yes, Hello? To whom am I speaking? Cameron? Yes, hello there Cameron, this is Shawn's mother. Are you Stephen's brother? Oh, you are! Good, well, I'm calling to let you know that Shawn seems to have forgotten his game controllers at your house. Is someone going to be there at the house in the next hour? Because he's going to be coming by to pick them up, so when would be a good time for that?"

A pause.

"Yes, I heard the conversation earlier, I'm not interested in listening to any of that right now. Yes. Uh-huh. Yes, well I really don't care about that story, Cameron, as I said earlier, perhaps you weren't listening. His controllers are at your house, and he's going to be coming by to pick them up..."

A longer pause. I watched Mom's face. Her eyes narrowed.

"...Well, if that's your story, Cameron, then I have a story for you: I've called the cops on you and your thieving little brother, and they are going to be at your door in the next fifteen minutes unless you cough those game controllers up. I'm gonna wager a guess that your parents won't be too thrilled about that. We'll see you in fifteen minutes!"

...and she hung up.

I stood for a moment, wiping the tears away, staring wide-eyed at Mom. She hadn't called the police. Can...can you do that? She drew another cigarette from the pack, looking back at me in...disgust? Or was it pride? How much longer am I going to have to fight your battles for you, son? Or maybe, it was sometimes, when people play dirty, you have to play dirty.

The minute of silence ended abruptly as the telephone rang out. Mom answered, speaking in the same faked politeness.

"Hello? Yes, he's right here, just a moment!", and she held the phone out toward me.


"......yeah, this is Cam. Come get your controllers."

In-game screenshot of Spy vs. Spy,
based on the MAD Magazine comic strip
created by Antonio Prohias

Two to Tango

Parksville grew rapidly in the 80s, and "Town of" had to be replaced by "City of" before I left grade school. Rapid growth forced limited classrooms to deal with their size by instituting a 3/4 and 4/5 split. This was how I first met Stephen's older brother Cameron, who (in Grade 4) ended up seated across from me, a lowly Grade 3er. Cam was a smug piece of work with a penchant for flicking stones as adeptly as he flicked insults. But his true versatility came in how he affected the room.

He hung with the best and brightest bullies in school...or at least they seemed to be bullies. By themselves, a good number of those kids were no worse nor better behaved than the other. For whatever reason, Cam brought out the very worst in them. He was a button pusher, and knew what buttons of mine to push. Say the right thing, and watch Zurba fly into a rage -- it must have been hilarious for him, a free show every day with minimal investment on his part. I was small, weak, and Mommy fought my battles for me, so "crybaby" worked particularly well; I was a bully's dream come true. What upset me more than the name calling was his effect on people. With Cam in the room, everybody was a bully.

I had few friends, and even fewer that shared a passion for video gaming. In that small town of Parksville, a gaming nerd was a rare treasure to stumble upon. So rare, in fact, that it was easy to turn a blind eye to any riff-raff it happened to attract. It was our mutual love of video games that brought us together and allowed us to leave our differences at the door. This was my reasoning, at least... my naive and inexperienced reasoning.

I was quick to forget any atrocities Cam committed against me on the school playground, if it meant looping him in for the next round of Spy vs. Spy. I never stopped to ponder whether or not it was all just an act, that he was excited because of his own self-interests, especially at the convenience of having game controllers where, formerly, there were none.

There was nothing complex about this first lesson. No diplomacy required to understand motivation, no finessing people to extract any subtext. It was very simple: some people want what you have, and they'll do whatever it takes to get it. And when it happens, it won't be a series of strategic moves to topple you from a kingdom, no mosaic of plotting, no navigation of political minefields. They'll take what they want, and the story will end. You'll want an explanation for why you were betrayed, but you won't get one...because there won't be one.

There is no betrayal where loyalty never existed.

When I showed up to collect my controllers, Stephen didn't answer the door. There was no apology. No hung head in defeat at being caught red-handed, and no show of remorse. Instead, the ringleader was the one with the balls to face me, standing on the front steps with the controllers jammed into a plastic grocery bag. Hours earlier, we were all on the same team, playing video games and having a blast, and all was right with the world.

"Here" was the only thing he said to me as he shoved the bag in my face. I looked back into his eyes, to see if I could get a read on whatever Mom got from Stephen. He stared back with a cold smirk, no hint of defeat, no acknowledgement of loss; an unremarkable vibe of apathy. I got the message, loud and clear:

I was never on your team, loser. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

4.14. Leaders By Proxy

Blizzard's newly revealed Demon Hunter
wanders the convention center,
BlizzCon 2010

Guildies For Days

Two men stood on the steps of the Anaheim Convention Center. The first, easily six feet tall, wore a pair of rectangular glasses similar to my own, had thinning hair, and bore a tanned complexion that only nerds local to California could enjoy the luxury of. The other was shorter than I, a bit paler, with more meat on him. His black hair was thick and curly, and greeted me with a smile more appropriately described as a smirk. Both were guildies, both also former Avatars, acknowledged for their exceptional contribution and dedication to the guild. Both members of the 10-Man squad recently tasked with rolling Alliance alts and defeating the Lich King "because they could." One was Moolickalot, and the other was...

"Drecca?" I presumed, pointing.

The shorter of the two gave a single wave.

"You, my friend, are the savior of the guild."

He nodded and said "cool" as if I had complimented him on his shoes. I don't think Drecca understood how vitally important his role in the guild was. He joined DoD at a crucial point in ICC progress, both as Bretthew was strategizing an exit from raiding (and raid leadership) while his partner, Omaric, grew increasingly dissatisfied with tanking. To Drecca, it seemed a simple thing: come in, tank, kill some bosses, walk out with loot -- all in a day's work. It was much more than that. Tanks are the pillars of a raid team's foundation. It isn't enough just to have them present. They have to own it.

The tank sets the pace of the pulls and bears the brunt of the boss's force; they drive the charge and you follow. Even if you don't place them in a role of responsibility, your guild will grow to see them as leaders over time -- it happens organically. Drecca may have been "cool" with my praise, but I made it a point to remind him of the precedent he was setting. He was quickly becoming the type of guildy I hoped my team would mimic: having a practical, laser-like focus on getting the job done, no matter the cost. I never heard Drecca drop phrases like "yeah, but..." or "maybe if we..." Here's the obstacle, this is what we need to do. Get it done. Pulling in 3...2...1...

I led them back into the convention center, and shot Drecca a quick footnote, "I need to show you the next rev. of our website. I think I've found a way for you to keep your own DKP pool for the Alt. 25...and it even works with players that aren't in the guild."


"I swear to God Almighty, if he texts me 'LOL' one more time, I'm going to stab myself in the face."
Joredin laughed while I thumbed another SMS message back to the perpetrator. DoD was deep in recruitment mode as the weeks ticked away toward Cataclysm's release. Just prior to the 'con, we gobbled up another tank, and a torturous stream of messages beginning and ending with LOL was proof that the kid was near. As Joredin and I sat in the foot court, my phone vibrated with updates from a player perpetually lost.

LOL where are you?

having a hard time finding u lol

lol which sied is the food on

"I don't know how many more ways I can describe 'the place where you go outside to eat' here. Atrium? Vestibule?"

Joredin wiped a tear of laughter away, "that would probably make it worse!"

"Seriously. Can this guy not get a map? There is a map of the convention center, isn't there?"

"What's his deal?" Joredin asked.

It was a very common story. Reasonable tank, adequate skills -- a role that was always in high demand. An opportunity arose to get his foot in the door with a hardcore guild, but the guild leader had other intentions. Once baited in, the guild leader used him to make a sales pitch to more dedicated, hardcore raiding tanks. "Oh sure, we're raiding today, here's our MT. But...with you on board, we could be so much greater." The directionally-challenged kid had been made a stepping-stone, catapulting the raid to greatness, leaving him benched in the process. I carved a spot out for the kid, and looked forward to seeing what he could.

That is, if I didn't go insane first.

which side again lol?

I stared at Joredin a moment, stunned with disgust, then thumbed a text back:

I will murder you in your sleep.

A few moments later, the phone buzzed with with a response:

Sorry, not good with directions :(

Let's hope you tank better than you navigate.

Bretthew (Taba) and Kadrok ride the Gyroscope,
BlizzCon 2010

He Has It

Most attendees would agree that the most memorable moment from the BlizzCon 2010 panels was the Red Shirt Guy, famously taking Alex Afrasiabi and Chris Metzen to task by calling out a plot hole with the Wildhammers. For me, an unrelated question had a far greater impact...

...or rather, its answer, and the person who gave it.

QA sessions were pure entertainment. Attendees generally pitched softballs at the designers. things like why doesn't (insert class) have its own special mount? and weren't we promised a Moose? and where's the dance studio? I'd hear questions like these and immediately have one of my own: Why are you wasting our time? I had to hand it to Blizzard, they were always incredibly patient and gracious with their fans, regardless of how inane the questions might be.

Class QA was a bit different, caused the real hardcore math nerds to emerge. Why don't you add a glyph to make this ability's cooldown line up with other attacks? How do you plan to keep Mastery from making us too bursty in PvP and too dulled in PvE? Why hasn't rage normalization solved the warrior's resource management issues, and how do you plan to address? They were the types of questions that got you leaning forward with your bag of popcorn.

Blizzard's class team, led by Ghostcrawler, always responded with thoughtful professionalism, yet astute listeners could often pick up on those tell-tale traits of uncertainty. "...we're still looking at this," "...we'll continue to tweak and tune as necessary," and ", that's a very good point, and we'll be keeping an eye on it." These types of answers left me cringing; they translate into "I don't know," "I'm not at liberty to say," or "My answer is probably going to infuriate you."

But it was during a question about a perceived unfairness favoring a paladin's holy damage (along with a subsequent lack of holy resistance) that an unfamiliar face came out of the woodwork. I'd never seen this Blizzard employee before, did not recognize the name or face, and wasn't sure where they fit in amongst the typical Ghostcrawler-dominated media blitzes. He had a quiet yet extraordinary delivery: he spoke in rapid-fire bursts, pausing to accentuate the most important points in his response.  

"As an additional quick followup, I think it's worth nothing: I think the advantage of holy over other spell schools isn't quite as large as it used to be in the past. We don't generally make resistance-oriented gear anymore, and so if you're facing a paladin...really, the difference between facing someone that deals holy damage versus facing someone that does fire damage is maybe your blessing of kings or mark of the wild...maybe mitigating 10% of the fire damage and not the holy...

...but that's not really...that's not the reason you're losing to the paladin...if you are."

He ended the barrage with a smile and a nod as the crowd slowly caught up to him. Once they 'got' the answer and the joke, laughter and applause followed.

I glanced at Drecca, impressed, "Oh, I like this guy. That was a hell of an answer right there."

Ion Hazzikostas would come to provide many more insightful answers in the months and years to come.

DoD leaves its mark on the "Guild Wall",
BlizzCon 2010

The Con Concludes

Goldy managed to find his way in on the second day, taking advantage of a huge line of ticket holders requesting refunds for last minute cancels. I joined him, acquiring a second goody bag to be shipped back to New York for Hellspectral, once such cancellation that was a result of work. Shortly after, we waited in line alongside Bonechatters, Borken, Larada, and others from DoD, to try our hand at Diablo III PvP Arena. Goldy and I formed a team: I drove a Barbarian while my guild mage manned the Wizard (unsurprisingly). The PvP in Diablo III was coming along nicely; it was definitely faster and more raw than the arenas I was accustomed to in WoW. Diablo III had secretly been in development for so long, and was such a cherished franchise to so many players, that its eagerly anticipated release was certain to be memorable. When that day arrived, I wondered how I would ever fit the time in.

While waiting in line for Diablo III, Goldy tugged my shirt, then pointed across the room, "Pretty sure that's Taba and Kadrok over there."

I squinted, trying to zero in on the faces across the room. Sure enough, the two of them were strapped into a device known to spin humans until sick. I snapped a photo, and looked forward to hearing about their lunch.

There were many more sights to take in: server blades that made up the original launch of WoW back in '04, many pieces of officially sanctioned artwork that could be bid on, even life-sized statues of their many heroes. Eventually, I came across a "guild wall" where attendees could permanently etch their presence into the Blizzard's history, scribbling messages and sketching pictures to prove they had been there. I grabbed a marker and penciled in our guild tag where I found room. Below it, I left Ater's famous quote: a guild motto that made no secret about our strategy.


The BlizzCon festivities ended tenaciously. We spilled out of the convention center in a daze, the DoD cavalcade marching south in search of food and drink. We made our way to a Pizzeria / Sports Bar called Oggi's. The wait staff jammed five tables together in order to seat the party. Pitchers of beer cycled through the procession. We drank. We told stories. We laughed. For a short time, surrounded by guildies in real life, the concerns of DoD's longevity and of Cataclysm were forgotten. In that evening of cheering nerds celebrating their victories over Internet dragons, the six years were worth it, and had renewed confidence that this group could stick together. It was a trip both exciting and informative, granting me a rare look into the people on the other side of the screen.

"I feel good about this," I said, nodding, "We've got the right changes in places. This is doable. The guild's still got some life left in it, and if we band together...yep. I think we can pull this off." I looked back at the guildy sitting across the table from me, and got my final read of the night.

I've made many mistakes as a guild leader, but none were as egregious as the one I was about to make. My first lesson in reading people had come many years before. It should have prepared me for this moment...and I looked away.

You should have known better.

I should have known better.