Thursday, December 10, 2015

4.54. The Grand Allusion

The 1980 arcade game Star Castle,
produced by Cinematronics

Screen Burn

November 12, 1982

Water rushed across metal brackets and pullies, ran along spouts and into buckets, through gears and over bells, eventually splashing against four large pendulums, one to each side of the towering clock. Woodgrove Center had opened only a few months earlier, and The Water Clock was both impressive and bizarre. I glanced over the glass enclosure, towards the pool at its base. Beneath the surface, along the tops of the submerged blue tiles, hundreds of pennies came in and out of focus, while the clock churned on -- water filling up buckets, overflowing then dumping into the moat, forever maintaining motion. Plenty of pennies...but no quarters.

The clock kept my attention for all of five seconds.

"Can I?"

Grandma gave me a nod and a smile. I was gone.

Speeding towards the food court, I craved no Orange Julius, hungered for no Taco Time. I ran past the the families in the midst of chowing down, until the hallway narrowed. Faint sound effects could be heard, filtering out from the end of the hall. I slowed, approaching the dark entrance.

They'd really gone overboard with the sci-fi theme at this new arcade. Tubes of running-board lights lined the edges of the floor, illuminating the path to righteousness. Screens flickered and burned a glow out into the darkness. A bright blue light radiating out of the TRON arcade controller caught my eye, but only for a moment. There was more to discover. I'd be back for the lightcycles.

Figures towered over me as the scan continued. Teenagers and adults all melted together into a haze, their backs to me, blocking my view of the screens. I was a short kid, but not too short to step up to an arcade game. I already knew the drill. Get your quarter on the glass to hold your spot. I'm next. What's it to you?

Donkey Kong Jr., Satan's Hollow. Some machines looked familiar, some not so much. In the back, a bizarre cabinet: two steering wheels -- one in the front with a seat, the other in the back, forcing the player to stand. What is that? A two-player fire truck driving game? I glanced at the screen. Black and white. Wow. What genius brought that relic in here?

I turned from the fossil and zeroed in on a cabinet whose screen seemed to pulse with blues, yellows, and oranges. I immediately thought of Asteroids, a game with a distinct look: simple shapes comprised only of lines whose endpoints seemed to glow like the running-board lights of the Arcade itself. But Asteroids was black and white, another relic like Fire Truck. When had they added color to these line-drawn video games?

Once I got a closer look, the trick became clear: there wasn’t really any color at all -- the illusion of color came thanks to blue, yellow and red cellophane-like overlays covering the screen. Nice try.

I leaned in closer to examine the multi-colored overlay, which is when the shields caught me in a hypnotic stare. A spaceship, nestled safely in the center of the screen, was protected by a series of rings, rotating opposite one another. The innermost ring rotated clockwise; its immediate parent ring rotated counter-clockwise, repeating a third and final time.

My eight year old eyes stared blankly at the three rings, spinning in opposite directions, permanently burning their mesmerizing pattern into my brain, and into the very phosphors of the screen itself.

The 1991 video game Pilotwings,
produced by Nintendo

Flight School

September 6, 1991

VHS tapes wallpapered the inside of the rental store. "Hot" titles were a nightmare to get your hands on. No matter how many copies the store’s owners planned to stock, it was never enough. I tapped my foot, wondering how much more time the clerk was going to spend, and eyed the wall’s latest title gap.

Edward Scissorhands had already been out on video a few months. Seen it. Home Alone was just the month prior. Meh. This month's hottest release: Dances With Wolves. An entire row of tapes, missing in action, snatched up by the Moms of the town, desperate for the chance at escaping to some fantasy with their boy-toy Kevin Costner.

I couldn't care less about movies at this particular moment.

The clerk emerged from the back room, carrying a silver briefcase-like container. "You got it?" I asked, tapping my fingers on the counter like an addict entering the first stages of withdrawal.

"Yep. Brand new, never been rented." The clerk was nonchalant and it drove me mad. Even a shill would be better than this apathy. C'mon, man. Do you realize what you hold in your hands?

The clerk swung the silver case up and onto the counter, flipped open the buckles, then gently raised the lid. Inside sat a small white box. Gray lines accented its cubist design. Near the front, two large purple buttons sat parallel to each other; one was marked "Power"”, the other, "Reset". Inset between the two purple buttons was a dark gray eject button, for popping the cartridge out of its slot. I inhaled deeply. It smelled of plastic, fresh from the mold.

"This is probably the only Super Nintendo in this entire town!"

"Probably," the clerk nodded, unimpressed, "you'll be the first to rent it."

You couldn't care less, could you? It's all just "kids stuff" to you.

"So whaddya got for me?" I rubbed my hands together.

"Well, we only just got the two games to start. Super Mario..."

"...World, yeah, yeah, I know," I grew impatient, "it comes with the system. What else?"

"Uhhh….hmmm, it looks like...."

Please be F-Zero. Please be F-Zero.

The clerk pulled up the cartridge from behind the counter, showing off the label. The title was written in shiny purple cursive, floating amid billowy clouds. In the foreground, a ring of green dots could be seen. I glared at the option with disappointment and disgust.


You have got to be kidding me.

"Yeah, you fly through courses."

"I've seen the reviews in EGM. They're marked with these dots, and you fly through rings. It's like an airborne slalom."

I hated skiing. I hated sports.

"Yep, that's right. Boy, the kids were up all night playing this one. Beat it and everything."

Your kids are like, what...8 and 9?

"I thought you said I was the first renter."

"Oh, you are. But, we took it home the night it arrived to let the kids have a go."

Son of a...

I shook my head, staring at the cartridge I wouldn't otherwise go near. But I wasn't about to let a couple of toddlers show me up.

"Fine. I'll rent both."

The clerk smiled as I shelled out twenty bucks for the system, six bucks for the two games...and another twenty for a damage deposit, in the off chance it might return to the rental store smashed into little fragments of cream and purple colored plastic shards.

Now, why on Earth do you suppose they would think that might happen?

Artwork by Cargorabbit

A Moltres of Our Own

July 8, 2011

[From: Vexx] I'm losing it!!

I smiled as I typed my reply.

[To: Vexx] lol. This is only the first night!

[From: Vexx] Don’t understand why people are having such a tough time with tornadoes. It’s so easy!!!

[To: Vexx] This is nothing. We used to spend weeks on a boss.

[From: Vexx] This feels like weeks.

We'd been at it for two-and-a-half hours. Hours earlier, Blain clarified expectations with his own state of the union post:
A quick poll of our raid will quickly show that a good number of our current raiders would rather try to gear up and slowly overpower content through the acquisition of new gear from "farm" bosses rather than a yearning to be on the forefront of the content in older gear. With that understanding of our raid members I began to resent some people for their raiding philosophy and that resentment has been hovering over me through the last raid content. Personally I was disappointed in our progression team in BWD and BoT. I know we struggled with a solid, consistent group of folks but I still felt we should have had at least 2 additional heroics down prior to 4.2. As a leader I chose to take the more popular route of attacking the bosses we had on "farm" and leave the other stuff for when we had additional time. This choice was based off of a prior post that I made concerning raid direction, feedback for players, etc and I personally believe I failed you all by going along with the masses and giving up on harder heroics just because of the complaining naysayers.
The part that caught me off guard was Blain accepting responsibility for the lack of progression in the previous tier. Blaming himself for not keeping to his original plan of pushing raiders as he had in the days of yore wasn't a way I would typically characterize Blain. Yet in this unorthodox move, Blain cleared the raiding palette. Mistakes were made. We account for them. We move forward. No more excuses.

It worked. When Blain extended the raid lock that evening so that we could push past the four bosses we flattened the week previous, not a hint of snark could be detected. Nobody on the progression team pushed back or complained of "missing out on loot upgrades". They took the extended raid lock, and rushed headlong into our next challenge, determined to spend the entire evening working on Alysrazor.

We needed it.

World of Warcraft's version of Moltres was broken up into three phases. Phase one divided the group into two ground teams, working on opposite sides of a ring. Each tank stood next to a fiery egg, which exploded into a Voracious Hatchling -- a skeletal bird engulfed in flame. These birds imprinted onto their nearest target, so anyone (particularly those not paying attention) could quickly find themselves tanking. Voracious Hatchlings would occasionally fly into a rage (as hungry newborns often do), and sating their hunger was fulfilled by dragging the baby birds to their nearest lava worm. The hatchlings' rage subsided, and the flow of lava spewing from the worm was stanched in the process.

Back-up continued to arrive throughout phase one, in the form of Druids of the Talon. I broke off with melee to deal with these, as they had a tendency to wind up a Pyroblast and (if not interrupted) begin chain casting them with ever increasing power. Hells and I worked as a team on one side, with Jungard and Bonechatters on the other, taking turns interrupting as we burst them down.

High above us, Alysrazor circled the arena, and a third air team followed closely behind, "swimming" through the air. Thanks to Alysrazor's molting, players could touch burning feathers and (with three stacks) take flight, DPSing the bird while airborne. In order to maintain flight, players had to fly through burning rings that appeared through the air, as if navigating a course.

One might go so far as to describe it as an airborne slalom.

The 25-Man spent the first couple of hours getting accustomed to phase one. Gotchas kept slipping through. A druid of the talon might get off the occasional Pyroblast, and for some targets, it meant instant death. The voracious hatchlings had to be killed...but not too quickly. Killing them early would force Alysrazor to lay more eggs, in turn, forcing us to drag hatchlings with us into phase two, which was suicide.

In phase two, the attention of every individual player had to be turned to one thing, and one thing only: avoiding tornadoes. Alysrazor summoned Blazing Winds, a series of fiery tornadoes that moved quickly across the landscape, picking up anyone caught in their path. They moved too quickly to run away from. We could not cheat by pressing ourselves up against the edges of the map and avoiding them altogether. There wasn't a clear way to help each other; sharper players couldn't really help out players that weren't "getting it". Every single player had to avoid the tornadoes...or die.

Alysrazor's Blazing Winds moved in a very predictable, easy-to-understand pattern. The outermost tornadoes moved clockwise. The next set of tornadoes, falling into a narrower circle, moved the opposite direction, counter-clockwise. The third set, narrower still, moved in the same direction as the outermost set...again, clockwise, and this repeated one more time, for a total of four rings. Four concentric circles of fiery tornadoes, rotating across the playing field. Find the gap between the tornadoes in each ring, and move between them. That's all there was to it.

It was not a new pattern, but the team was falling victim to its mesmerizing grasp.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

4.53. Flames Talking to the Wind

A fine alternative to repetitive injuries at work,
Diablo II

Carpal Tunnel Is Not a Disease, It's a Lifestyle

My wrists ached. The last time they felt this way was the week I spent climbing the Diablo II ladder...for the second time. A week of unemployment in early 2003 left me with the same repeated muscle injury. Between job interviews, I clicked and clicked, loot dropping all around me while my barbarian spun through the Plains of Despair. Eventually, I had to start taking breaks, icing the injury, calming the burning sensation between loot runs. A small price to pay for a chance at showing up on the ladder. A chance at recognition. A tiny moment of geek glory.

Today's injury wasn't game related. Arch's app needed help. To ensure thoroughness, I documented every last inch of the software. What powered it, how it behaved. The data model and the types of users that relied on it. Schematics and user flows. Even a bit of fantasy vs. reality found its way into my Word doc: what Arch's app was supposed to do, and what it was actually doing (a common miscommunication in software development). I wasn’t claiming stakeholders were in the dark. I simply wanted everyone on the same page. How could we expect to fix things if we disagreed on what was broken?

The previous developer's idea of documentation was a commentary of insults and complaints, buried within the app's source code. I'd been there, I understood the frustration. But to leave it here for the next developer to find? Professionalism had seen better days. Why not channel the anger into some answers? I did exactly that, and my insatiable need for completeness culminated in a 952 page manual, just tipping over the edge of 74,000 words. Insults were replaced with facts, and instead of complaints, the reader now had solutions.

News spread quickly throughout the office about the Odyssey presented to the stakeholders. Heads would pop out of cubes as I walked by, "Heard about your essay. 1000 pages?", to which I simply replied with a shrug. "Hey. It had to be done." Sometimes hard work is necessary to do things the right way. And as far as I could tell, nobody else was going to do it.

My manager, Allison, seemed to agree.

"I've got another app that needs some love. But I don’t want to jeopardize the detail you're putting in with Arch. It sounds like you two have hit it off."

"Oh, he's great. Arch is fantastic. And I appreciate you recognizing this, I mean...I don't really think his app got the attention it deserved."

"Let me throw this out," she said, "how do you feel about overseeing a couple of contractors? You could interview from a pool we have available, pick the candidates you want, and divide up the work amongst all of you. Break it up however you want. And", she patted the hard copy of my document, "they'd build to your specs, just like what you've done with this little short story here."

Leading a team? I could do that.

"Let's do it."

A little hard work had paid off.

Shannox is the first to fall to the 25-Man Progression Team,

Burning Alive

We were a long, long way from Molten Core.

Beyond the breach lay a charred wasteland, boiling in flame. The terrain broke apart in places, and between these exposed cracks could be seen glimpses of flowing magma. The contrast shifted such that you could feel the embers burning through the computer monitor. And we were not alone in this inferno.

Any visitors foolish enough to challenge Ragnaros' minions in home territory would find themselves swallowing mouthfuls of lava. Salamanders -- humanoid creatures propped up by the coil of a long, snakelike tail -- slithered across blackened rocky flats. Enormous stone creatures trudged slowly across the chasm, while giant two-headed demonic canines roamed in search of interlopers. Further on, the bright red and yellow glow of Fire Elementals could be seen as they made their rounds, scouting, guarding their master’s keep.

In the distance, a great jagged spire shot up into the molten sky. The spire appeared fuelled by fire which coursed throughout a central column that extended to the very top of the tower. Sulfuron Spire’s extremities were dangerously sharp; horns burst right from Hell itself. Our path would eventually take us to this fortress, putting us face to face with an old friend.

After battling Al'Akir in the realm of Skywall and venturing deep to the bowels of the earthen underbelly Deepholm, only this elemental plane remained.


When Blizzard announced that the four elemental planes would be traversable locations, the inner geek in me nearly died. I’d read Shadows & Light cover to cover, one of the pen & paper WoW manuals that was our only source of extensive lore in the early days. I'd known of Al'Akir and of Therazane for years (though astute old-schoolers would’ve known of Therazane from hints dropped throughout Maraudon). And as equally excited as I was to finally battle Ragnaros once more, this time in his own domain, I’d also looked forward to what Nepulon’s Abyssal Maw had in store for us.

It was not meant to be.

Alas, the Abyssal Maw was one of many big promises cut from Cataclysm, joining Path of the Titans on the cutting room floor.

Hopefully, Firelands would make up for the absence of its watery brother.


Our main tanks for opening night were Amatsu and Blain (via Xane). We picked up the aforementioned minions wandering the plane of fire and dispatched them. They began as trash, and ended as ash.

The first boss was Shannox, an enormous Salamander accompanied by two guard dogs, Riplimb and Rageface. The Salamanders of yore -- Lucifron, Gehennas, Shazzrah, Sulfuron Harbinger...even Majordomo Executus -- all seemed like lightweights in comparison. Thick plates of deep charcoal-colored armor draped across his right shoulder. His belt, sash, and thick shoulder armor glowed brightly with lava-empowered runes. Shannox dragged a large pennant behind him, and a patch covered his right eye.

After cleaning the molten fields, Amatsu engaged Shannox, while Blain took Riplimb to the far edge of the group, just within healing range. Untankable, Rageface lept from player to player; at times, the fiery mutt would latch permanently onto a player, forcing us to separate the two with a single blast of 30k damage. We dealt with Rageface, kept Shannox busy, and chipped away at Riplimb. When Riplimb let out a final howl in death, we killed Rageface in kind, enraging Shannox. Lacking his guard dogs as a defense, we murdered the Salamander after three hours of work.

"Let's move, people!" Blain said, rushing us out of the kill screenshot, "Still have one hour of work to get in."

From Shannox's grave, we turned toward the southeastern part of the map, navigating through a bevy of fiery rivers which snaked through the safety of dry (read: not engulfed in flames) land. Eventually, we arrived at the Rhyolith Plateau. The creature that towered above us looked as if Ragnaros’ has transformed a volcano into a living thing. The monster was made entirely of sharpened stone, and his exposed chest bore a glowing, molten center (as did his right arm and hand). Atop the living volcano floated a jawless skull; its eye sockets glowed red from the warmth that appeared visibly from inside.

The raid stood near the creature's feet at 10:45pm, quickly buffing and preparing for a showdown with the side of a mountain. With only 15 minutes left in the raid, we had but one real shot at Lord Rhyolith before the night was done.

And one shot was all it took.

DoD stands in front of Lord Rhyolith's defeated molten body,

Snuffed Out

On night two, we veered far to the west, navigating through an s-shaped path that wove its way through fiery webwork. Long strands of burning hot webbing draped across and above the path, and lined the edges of our walkway. At the end of the twisting path hovered Beth'tilac, a nightmarish creature that would put any arachnophobe into the fetal position.

Beth'tilac forced the raid to split into two groups. Far above the floor, the first group dealt with her by climbing her webbing and stepping carefully, so as not to fall through. Meanwhile, a second part of the raid remained below, dealing with never-ending waves of spider creatures, bent on burning us alive.

After an hour and a half of practice, DoD prevailed, and Beth'tilac became boss #3 to fall to progression.

The last encounter on the docket was Baleroc, a creature resembling a doomguard, engulfed head to toe in flame. Baleroc demanded the very best from our healers. Our tanks would grow in both health and damage taken, forcing the healers to risk their own lives by standing next to crystals that bombarded them with shadow damage, as well as boosting their healing ability. Baleroc required clear and succinct communication in order to ensure healers were healing through greater and greater amounts of damage without putting themselves in jeopardy.

The minutes ticked toward the top of the hour, leaving with us with a final attempt. And in that famous last pull, the pieces of the healing puzzle fell neatly into place, and Baleroc toppled. The first week in Firelands was a roaring success, ending with 4/7.


As I began posting the screenshots of the hard work and dedication from progression, an in-game alert noted someone was whispering me. It was Neps, asking me to hop into the officer channel in Vent. I obliged.

"What's up?"

"Hey, um...I have a bit of a problem I need to talk to you about."

All at once, the red flag alarms fired in unison. I could feel my heart pounding, the fight or flight response winding up for a mad dash to safety. Immediately, I could tell that there was something wrong with Neps' voice. On any other day, Neps' mellow, laid-back voice could be described no other way than "pure chill". Nothing flustered Neps. Even at his most irritated, he remained calm, collected -- he was the mellow to my frantic.

Something was very different this time. It started in Neps' familiar, laid back voice, but quickly tapered off, lowering in volume, wavering in pitch. If I didn't know any better, I'd guess he was choking back tears. Before answering, I shifted my tone to match the severity I wagered was at stake, "Sure, sure, what's on your mind? everything ok?"

" Grandmother passed away."

I took a deep breath, then exhaled.

"Oh my god. Neps, I' sorry. Were you very close?"

His voice continued to crack, "Yeah, yeah we were. She basically took care of me when I was younger. And..." he started taking deep breaths between sentences, struggling to get through it, "...I have to take care of the...arrangements, y'know? So, I'm...not gonna be able to…"

I stopped him from making this any more difficult than it had to be.

"Neps, say no more. Listen. You take all the time you need, alright? Blain and I and the rest of the guys...we'll hold down the fort while you're gone...keep that spot nice and warm for when you're ready to c'mon back. ok? Don't give this another thought."

"Thanks, Hanzo."

"Well, thank you for keeping me in the loop...and...for everything you've done for this guild." I took another deep breath, then exhaled, leaving the mic open so he could hear it, "We’ve got you covered in the meantime, chief. Let me know if you need anything at all, just ping me."

My heart sunk. I'd just lost one of the best. He healed. He led. He stayed loyal. Most of all, he helped. In that moment, I should've been concerned for the hole he'd leave in the guild, the healing we'd never make up, the apprentices that with go without a mentor in his absence. I should've been caught up with all the problems this would cause.

But I couldn't think of the guild at all. 

The only thing I could think about was how awful it was for Neps to have to deal with the passing of his Grandmother. No "problem" of mine in-game would even come close to that. I only wished that I could do more. What little I could do was remind Neps of how important he was to DoD and how much value he'd brought to the guild; to remind him of how important he was to us, and that we would be here for him when he returned.

That weekend was our first in Firelands, and was Neps' last.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

4.52. Breathe

Blain rushes ahead of Atramedes to
resume his tanking position,
Blackwing Descent

Final Exam

Heroic: Omnotron Defense System wasn't playing out quite as we'd hoped.

May had finally bled into June, but the kill eluded us. The 25-Man, now boasting a new main tank helmed by Blain, struggled to stay the course. Our mission was to punch through as much heroic content as humanly possible in our ever dwindling time. Patch 4.2 was now in sight, and the raiders were distracted by the promise of new gear, new challenges -- and an increase in apathy towards the current rewards. But it was close. So very close.

Like the other bosses in tier 11, the complexity of the ODS encounter was as much a part of the normal mode as any other: top-heavy and brutally unforgiving. ODS demanded we handle a total of four adds, two of which were concurrently active at any given time. Mastering this encounter meant mastering the ability to safely transition through windows of misfortune in which one of the two adds was still powering down...just as a third powered up. Gracefully handling this transition wasn't rocket surgery -- it was the million-and-one things each Tron had in store for us that made this encounter feel like we were performing synchronized calculus homework. The raid was forced to constantly shift, collapsing and expanding. Logistically, it was nightmarish to choreograph.

Each tron had two offensive (one AoE, one single-target) abilities and one defense mechanism (in the form of a shield). If the shield went up and absorbed too much damage, it would explode for a massive amount of AoE damage, so this was a fight that demanded control and discipline from raiders.

Magmatron's AoE came in the form of Incineration Security Measure: blankets of fire that had to be healed through. If he targeted you for Flamethrower, you had to make a mad dash from the group; everyone caught in the beam would take exorbitant amounts of damage.

Arcanotron's Power Generator, buffing the damage of anyone standing in it, was a boon for the raid -- but bad news if the add was left to stand in it. Arcane Annihilator would send a stream of arcane energy into a specific target, so healers had to be quick on the draw.

Toxicon's Poison Protocol spewed slimes; our priority was to slow them, then kill them from a safe distance. AoE nature damage was promised to to any targets the slimes reached. Meanwhile, Toxi's Chemical Cloud was easy to see and avoid -- we moved quickly as soon as the green clouds erupted.

Lastly, Electron's Electrical Discharge had a tendency to jump from target to target, chaining bolts of lightning throughout the raid. And Lightning Conductor (like Flamethrower) marked a player in our raid that had to excuse themselves from the group...quickly: every second the player remained in the group distributed damage to nearby friends.

In summary, ODS flexed nearly every raid muscle that could be called upon:

  • Tank Positioning: Ensuring both tanks kept their current trons far away from one another.
  • Tank Awareness: Having tanks smart enough to know how to safely adjust across the room when picking up a tron that was in the process of activating.
  • Personal Responsibility: Each member of the raid knowing how to handle Acquiring Target->Flamethrower and Lightning Conductor (GET OUT).
  • Group Coordination: Collapsing to be healed through Incineration Security Measure, and expanding to avoid Chemical Cloud.
  • Controlled Damage: Not blindly trying to top the meters on a tron with its shield raised.
  • Combined AoE Damage: Diverting damage to slimes in order to rid the encounter of them.
  • Min/Maxxing: Exploiting Power Generator and Power Conversion to maximize the damage of those individuals capable of producing serious burst damage.

ODS was essentially a final exam for raiding. Everything needed by competent raiders was put to the test in this encounter, which is why we breezed through normal mode on opening night. DoD had the raiding chops. Besides, the community had already decided that 10-Man was the harder of the we had it easy, right?

The 25-Man Progression team avoids being hit by
 Static Shock, Arcane Annihilator, Poison Bomb,
and a multi-hit Flamethrower, earning "Achieve-o-Tron",
Blackwing Descent


Nefarian intervened in the heroic version, and purposefully trolled the raid, taking everything we knew about each mechanic and forcing us to think in nearly the opposite terminology.

Magmatron's Acquiring Target now locked a player into a position, preventing them from moving out of the group. So, where once a person ran away for Flamethrower, the entire raid now had to move from him/her.

Avoiding Toxitron's Chemical Cloud was a bit more infuriating, thanks to Nefarian mass death-gripping everyone in the raid into the center the poison. The tendency for Poison Protocol's slimes to explode on impact (coupled with the slimes very often being near or inside the cloud) made for an awful combination.

Arcanotron's Power Generator expanded to fill a much wider radius, and added a wonderful explosion to the boon. Here, stand in this for extra damage. BTW, you'll almost die in the process.

But the biggest troll of all came to how Nefarian messed with Electron's Lightning Conductor. Raid mechanics are easy to deal with when they come in the form of extremes. Move here. Don't move. Do damage to this thing. Stop doing damage. Leave the group. Stay in the group. The evolution of a junior group of raiders to that of a senior group is in mastering these simple concepts. But, just as it is with people management (not very black-and-white), raid mechanics become extraordinarily complex when they devolve from extremes to blurry, gray areas.

Move away from the group...but not too far.

As soon as a player was deemed the Lightning Conductor, they had to rush out of the group to prevent massive AoE damage done in the form of friendly fire. But only seconds after gaining this buff, Lightning Conductor converted into Shadow Infusion, doing massive amounts of shadow damage in the form of AoE...mitigated only by how many other players were sharing in the damage. So, a Lightning Conductor that stayed in the group would kill all the players around them...but a Lightning Conductor that moved too far away from everyone...would kill themselves.

Remember: ODS was a controlled fight which increased the raid's need to manage their DPS, to move when called upon, to switch targets at a moment's notice. This fight was not about burning through the adds and calling it a day. The result: a heroic encounter that was excessively long to execute, chipping away at the raid's endurance. The coordination had to be pristine, mistakes were nearly unrecoverable. One bad cloud/slime combo, one slow adjustment from the Flamethrower target, one player falling asleep at the wheel that just happened to be a Lightning Conductor...was all it took to convert an 8 minute, nearly perfect execution...into a sub 10% wipe.

And that is exactly how it played out. Over and over and over again. Near flawless execution, marred by simple, heart-wrenching mistakes that were unrecoverable.


I had a heart-to-heart with the officers that night. Guesstimates put the Firelands launch at three weeks away and we had yet to put any time in on Al'Akir, normal or otherwise.

"I don't us walking out of Tier 11 with an incomplete normal record," I told them, "Omnotron is busting our asses, but if we can't even get through this tier in normal mode, pre-nerf, it will be a huge step backwards."

"Ok, we switch to Throne of the Four Winds on Friday, I'm good with that," said Blain.

Jungard chimed in, "Same. Conclave is nothing. We'll knock that out with no effort. The 10s have it really easy on positioning."

"Good, because it looks like Al'Akir is going to be a colossal pain-in-the-ass."

"God," Klocker added, remembering his own 10-Man experience, "how is Blain even going to coordinate all twenty-five people in the last phase?"

"Easy, he's going to work miracles. Just like he always does."

"No," said Blain, "I'm not going to do it. They are."

They have to. Nobody else can.

"Alright, it's settled, then. Get all of your peeps prepped for it next Friday. Let's get this done, so we can bid this tier fuckin' adieu."

The 25-Man progression team
prepares to do battle with Al'Akir,
Throne of the Four Winds

Windy City

The Throne of the Four Winds was an instance that floated high above Uldum, south of the Tanaris desert. There, two encounters awaited: The Conclave of Wind, and the windlord himself, Al'Akir.

Four pillars formed a square around a central pedestal. Hovering in three of those four corners lay Anshal, Rohash and Nezir, three lieutenants now vying for power after their fourth council member, Siamet, remained imprisoned in the 5-Man dungeon known as the Lost City of the Tol'vir. As Jungard promised, the Conclave presented us no great challenge to overcome. The mechanics were easy to learn and easy to master. The only caveat was that we had to kill all three at once.

The council members didn't move from their platforms, so each required a tank at all times. Damaging the council caused energy to be produced, kicking off an ultimate ability that forced the raid to switch platforms via wind tunnels carrying them quickly from one corner of the instance to the other. Healing pools were cast and bosses were dragged out of them. Eye beams slowly rotated around the circular platforms and were dodged. Tornadoes threatened to knock players off the platforms...and were sidestepped. Patches of ice and freezing wind caused debuffs to stack on players and prevent them from moving...this was countered by having the DPS groups switch bosses.. After having dealt with the painful requirements needed for heroic: ODS, coordinating Conclave was a walk in the park; we cleared it after only a few attempts on the first night of work.

Our remaining effort was funneled into Al'Akir, now accessible via the central platform. He was the most massive elemental we'd ever laid eyes on. Draped in the purple garb denoting the royal line his elementals came to represent in Azeroth, Al'Akir towered over us. Looking up at the Elemental Lord of Wind, I was immediately struck with a feeling of raw insignificance -- not unlike our first attempts at the hands of Ragnaros the Firelord, so many years previous.

Al'Akir was broken into three phases, kicking off at milestones of health. In phase one, we stood at equidistant positions around the perimeter of the inner ring, just in melee range of the Windlord. Healers, therefore, had to be staggered intermittently amongst that ring of players, so that the entire raid maintained heal coverage. Wind bursts pushed badly positioned players off the edge. These players would not fall to their death; spiraling tornadoes would stop their fall, placing them back on platform (albeit slowly). This recovery time ate into DPS.

It was during this same phase that walls of tornadoes would spawn. Players were expected to find the gaps, and move between them, rather than be trapped temporarily...eating into more DPS time. Seeing the gaps in the tornado walls called for a full Gauntlet (zoomed out, top-down) camera view. Additionally, webs of lightning would leap across the raid; players had to adjust to avoid this.

By phase two, the lightning webs were gone, but in their place came acid raid, forcing even more movement. This, all the while the two tanks were trading off the role of tanking the Windlord. Adds called Stormlings were spawned, which debuffed Al'Akir when they were killed, causing him to take additional damage. Care had to be taken to not burn through the adds too quickly, however, as phase two was were Bloodlust was commonly invoked -- and stacking bloodlust's effects with the debuff meant chipping away at significant amounts of Al'Akir's health.

Toward the end of the fight, phase three promised the trickiest of the phases. The platform broke apart and fell away, forcing us into a hovering, true three-dimensional axis. From here, Blain instructed us to immediately float up to Al'Akir's head, in as tight a group as possible, continuing to pour damage into the boss. At this point, storm clouds would begin to form above certain individuals, knocking us out of the air if we didn't move. The plan, therefore, was to adjust down each time a new cloud formed...but to stay together as much as possible, so that the clouds spanned less of an area (and therefore, gave us more room to breathe).

Those final moments were all about breathing. Calm, deep breaths. It was easy to panic in this mode. Moving too far (or not far enough) simply compounded our problems, stripping us of our safety net while simultaneously increasing the damage done across the raid. Slowly, players were struck by bolts of lightning, causing them to fall from the sky, zapping us like ants under a magnifying glass. Al'Akir would win by attrition if we continued to panic.

So...we didn't panic.


Deep breaths.

Move for the cloud. Just a bit. That's good.

Keep on the DPS.

Pop a shield to mitigate those lightning bolts.

Have a healthstone? Now's a good time to use it.

There's another cloud. Move again. Everything's good. Keep at it.

Keep at it.

Keep at it.

On June 24th, 2011, in the second evening of attempts, Descendants of Draenor defeated Al'Akir in 25-Man, wrapping up the remainder of tier 11's normal modes.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

4.51. Contingencies That Don't Suck

With Zedman aboard, Mature takes
flight as a sandstone drake,

The New Way to Improve

Mature arrived in Orgrimmar. He was here on business.

Guild leadership had its perks. Unquestionable authority. A permanent non-negotiable spot in every raid. But the one I enjoyed leveraging the most was the "leader discount." The most expensive, highly sought rewards of each expansion would be certain to find their way to my inventory on sale. The auction house was filled with mounts, pets, and toys that inflated the server's economy -- and were the target of my affection. And if players felt like they were earning brownie points with the boss, I was completely OK with that.

Zedman ran up to Mature and initiated the trade. A crystal orange vial landed in Mature's inventory. I right-clicked it, causing Mature to become enveloped in a bright flash of yellow light that spiraled around the death knight's pale frame. The secrets contained within the Vial of the Sands were now Mature's for the taking.

"Much obliged," I spoke into Vent, "One less thing I have to worry about."

"From one achievement whore to another," he replied, "How's the 25-Man?"

"We're keeping up." Barely. "Old-school raiders are a dying breed."

I tried to ignore the alert in the chat window, indicating a familiar name had logged off. Normally, I'd only see alerts like these from guildies. But players I explicitly wished to keep tabs on were also being tracked. Other guild leaders. Other death knights. Other achievement whores.

I hoped Zed hadn't followed suit in that regard; alas, it was a foolish hope. Zedman didn't get to be one of the top achievement holders on Deathwing-US by being ignorant of the competition. He kept his friends close, and players with more achievement points closer.

"Wait, Delonius isn't in the guild anymore?" he asked me.

"He is not."

"That sucks. What happened?"

"He found himself a permanent spot in Herp Derp. A far safer proposition than taking his chances with me benching him."

"Why'd he get benched?"

Mature transformed into a giant drake. It's color was that of a dark sandstone, adorned with jagged orange extrusions that looked liked crystals.

"Hop on. I want to get some screenies."

Propelled by some magical force, the orc shaman floated through the air, slowly rotating, coming to rest aboard the back of the sandstone drake. I pressed the space bar. The two of them shot straight up, hovering far above Orgrimmar, leveling out near the Zeppelin posts. I spun the camera around and spammed the PRNT SCRN button.

"That is one sweet mount. Thanks again, Zed."

"Yeah. I've made a pretty penny off them."

"I don't doubt it."

I admired the creature's sedimentary look, then stared downwards toward the earthbound scrubs below.

"Few weeks ago we had a rarity: more than 25 people signed up for a raid. And," I took a deep breath, "just as I had all through Wrath, I gave someone else an opportunity to prove their worth. His heals were good...but not great. So, that was the one time he got the bench."

Holding people to a higher standard doesn't work when you can get your rewards for less effort somewhere else.

"You only benched Delonius once?"

It's a different game, now. Once is all it takes.

Hanzo clarifies the guild's policy
 on sharing its Vent server to others

The Open Vent Policy

After experiencing our first glut of signups, we were back down into the dregs once more. I found myself emailing people to remind them of our raid signup policy. 
"Heya. Not sure if you saw, but you were rotated in for this weekend's 25m progression raid. I hadn't seen you online in several days and watched to make certain you saw and had any questions answered that you may have in prep. for the weekend. Let me know."
Accountability was drying up, and our reserves were in a drought.

There was a time when I kept players on the straight-and-narrow; my safeguards caught the outliers, the bowling balls headed for the gutter. Now, my system was increasingly devolving back to the days of faux-leadership, faking it while players came and went through DoD like it was a revolving door.

Once, not long ago, I had very little control over my guild. Foolishness and a lack of backbone when it came to hard decisions nearly did us in, during the days of TBC -- the days I claim that most of my "leadership" amounted to walking in the shadow of folks like Ater.

But I had learned my lesson, built a system of accountability that fostered excellence, promoted competition, and pushed DoD to the edges of what was possible for our conservative raid schedule, a system that worked for both casuals and hardcores -- a system that was still in place. So, what was missing?

The infrastructure -- the scaffolding necessary  to keep my system afloat -- was coming apart from beneath us.

The "unspoken agreement" I'd had with Blizzard had been torn up. In its place was now an environment ripe for exploitation. A guild whose structure and raiding rules were so tightly ingrained within concepts like "effort = reward" fell apart when two different sizes of raid produced the same iLVL of weaponry and armor and the same achievements.

Mix laziness in with a bit of server culture and the results are explosive. Perhaps the PvE servers fared better, but on Deathwing-US, where the PvP dominant culture was troll or be trolled, we were being eaten from the inside out. It had taken me seven years to square away the hammer and the nails. Now, I had nothing to pound them into.


Emblazoned across the top of their homepage, my own words stared back at me.
"There is no other guild on Deathwing like Herp Derp. We are unique."
The guild name had been swapped out, Mad Lib style, to accommodate their own personal agenda. I couldn't help but be amused at the irony of the statement, how plagiarizing our recruitment pitch not only proved Herp Derp's banal malevolence, but simultaneously stripped it of any integrity or worth.

There is nothing quite like having your own words used against you. In this instance, my writing was quite literally selling someone else's guild. It wasn't enough that Herp Derp slashed our roster and ransacked our guild vault. They couldn't even write their own mission statement without using CTRL+C / CTRL+V. But they were far from done. For if there is an opportunity to exploit a guild's generosity, Herp Derp made it their mission to do so.

Herp Derp was actively recruiting people away from DoD, using our own Vent server to do it.

I spent a great deal of time writing a touchy-feely, guild-centric diatribe on what types of folks we approved of sharing our Vent with. And while it could be argued that much of what was stated falls under the rule of common sense, I hope that I've convinced you by this point in the story that common sense is a convenient scapegoat for those who like to play dirty.

There I was, having to remind DoD of the types of people we didn't want to have on our server:
1. Well known, publicly acknowledged "Ninja" guilds, who want our assistance with Tol Barad, legacy 25-Man achievement runs, or other assistance.
2. Guilds / Players whose individual moral compasses point in the opposite direction of DoD; who have a proven track record of dishonesty, disrespect, thievery, etc.
3. Players coming on to our vent to try to poach players away for their own guild.
4. Players coming on to sabotage Vent with recorded sound effects, disrupting conversations/raids/BGs, etc.
If you didn't pick up on the subtlety, reader, you're forgiven...neither did my guild, not even the officers. Here is the translation: Members of Herp Derp were not allowed into our Vent server. 

Poaching. Thievery. Stealing Raiders. Call it whatever you want. They had no problem doing it. And the proof was right on their homepage.

Blizzard's "more loot to the 25s" strategy in action,
Blackwing Descent

How's That "More Loot" Working Out For Ya?

"We have a problem."

"Oh yeah?" The limits of Vent compelled Blain to respond. He wasn't ignoring me. But if there was a way to speak less, he'd find it.

"Jungard's school starts in the fall, and his schedule can't be changed. It falls right across the Friday night raid."

"Ok...?" his voice trailed up, transforming his response into an implied question. This is a problem because why?

"Well, we are going to need a new melee officer, and we've already spoken about that. He feels the best person for the job is Boney. The kid's dedicated, a sharp player, he can take the reins."

"Sounds fine to me."

"Good. Glad you agree. But that isn't the problem. Jungard's always been the last resort if tanks go south. He's the contingency when other contingencies fall through. Amatsu...I feel pretty good about. He's well played, very consistent, he and Black have fallen right into place. But outside of Amatsu, there aren't really any main tanks. Not anyone I have faith will be consistent, at least. And that's a problem for a raid that needs two reliable tanks each week."

"So, I'll gear up Xane."

Just like that.

"You...don't have a problem with that? You've been a rogue since day one."

"Yeah, but what was I before DoD?"

Blain had been a staple in DoD for seven years. An pre-Blain era of DoD seemed a hazy cloud, not even real.

"A Warrior," I replied.

He said nothing. As always, that damn Ventrilo prevented me from seeing his smile of acknowledgement.


"Who's this joker?"

"Someone killed Blain and brought in an imposter."

"Good riddance! The tyrant has fallen."

Farming bosses for upgrades was a ritual with its feet planted firmly in two schools of thought. The Loot Paradox saw to that. Every week we weren't pushing progression, the battle raged on, internally. Are we falling behind in the name of gearing others up? Or are we successfully sating their hunger for rewards, pouring morale back into the raider economy, fueling their motivation for the next time we have to knuckle down?

Whenever that doubt crept back, I'd turn to Blain to confirm or deny my suspicions. This particular scenario...didn't necessarily account for that set up.

"Hurry up and get this worm killed. Blain needs upgrades."

For once, Blizzard's design might actually work in our favor. Now desperate to gear up Blain's alt in preparation for the day (should it come) that we would have to rely on him for tanking, we could, at last, bend one of Blizzard's design decisions to our whim.

After consolidating both the loot tables and the difficulty (though the jury was increasingly hung over the latter), very little existed in the form of a tangible incentive to run 25s, beyond our mere preference for that raid. Blizzard's response was to give us more loot to make up for the logistics. It wasn't adequate. But that didn't mean we wouldn’t take advantage of it.

Every opportunity we had to swap Blain out for Xane, we did so, in the event that some great upgrades would be had. And, with an increase in the volume of said loot, Xane was bound to find pieces, right?

As if some cruel irony was at play, even gearing up Blain's warrior was painful. Streakiness reined supreme. Losses at the roll of the dice seemed inversely proportional to our effort at solving the problem of the under-geared or under-recruiteds. It was not uncommon to slay a boss and have it slap us directly in the face with three of the same item. I never imagined the streakiness of our bad luck in loot could ever top the months of farming Chromaggus only to get nothing but Netherwind Mantle could be topped.

Narrower loot tables with boosts to their yield only ended up giving you more of what you didn't need. I think Dennis Miller said it best. Two of shit.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

4.50. Relatively Difficult

Mature and co. pull out a clutch kill of Heroic Hakkar,

Cruel Irony

The lay of the land hadn't changed much. Trails snaked through the brush in familiar patterns. Large creeping voodoo masks and totems peered out from behind hunched over trees and epiphytic ferns.

"This is a lot easier than I remember it."

Both Zul'Gurub and Zul'Aman got a face-lift at the end of April (via Patch 4.1). Exploring the changes hadn't ranked highly on my list of priorities. A month later, we were teetering at the precipice of Patch 4.2, and I couldn't shake the feeling we'd been shortchanged. DoD had run out of time. The 25-Man progression team had missed its quota.

"Yeah, remember when 10s were hard?"

"10s were never hard."

I compared our current predicament to the freshest tier in my mind: the last one, the end of Wrath. Icecrown Citadel: all heroics completed, save The Lich King himself. 11/12. A respectable 92%. Tier 11, by contrast, had not gone nearly as well. Five full months of raiding yielded 4/6 in Blackwing Descent, 1/6 in Bastion of Twilight, and 0/2 in Throne of the Four Winds. Fourteen heroic bosses, and we hadn't even hit 50%.

That wasn't the most embarrassing part. The 25-Man still had two unfinished normal encounters.

Unable to complete normal modes? Way to scrub things up. 

I shuddered, thinking of the effect it would have on the guild, its members, and its morale. 

If you can't hack a normal mode, why are you even here?

"Not the ones you grew up on, skippy. I don't mean 'Ulduar' hard, I mean 'Karazhan' hard."

"Ulduar wasn't hard."

"My point exactly."

The tier 11 normal modes were a stark contrast to the the cakewalk handed us in Wrath. Cataclysm's top-heavy design forced raiders to digest the complexity of each encounter at the onset. A barrage of mechanics were force fed down our collective throats. And while the truly old school veterans of WoW reveled in the return to glory days, those lacking a pre-WotLK perspective were unprepared for their egos to withstand that much damage.

I dare say they were coddled.

The realities of raiding in Cataclysm slapped them silly. Like clockwork, indignance followed, precipitating the demise of an increasing number of 25-Man guilds throughout those first five months. Even DoD hadn't been saved from this outcome. But in a cruel twist, the 10s did not flourish as I suspected they might, and for a reason I did not see coming. Blizzard's struggle to maintain parity between the difficulty of both 10- and 25-Man raids produced something far more disruptive to their community.

Mature and co. maintain tight positioning as
they defeat Daakara, earning "Ring Out",

Perception vs. Reality

Gamers demanded that WoW return to its former, more challenging glory, as it was in the days of pre-Wrath. Blizzard responded in kind, and the resulting raids of tier 11 were decidedly tougher. And, since the men in the high castle mandated that Cataclysm's raid design be such that both 10s and 25s provide an equal experience, Blizzard took great pains to ensure that same "front-loaded difficulty" design was present in both the 10 and the 25.

Any raider you speak to that's worth their weight will tell you that an encounter's margin of error is inversely proportional to the difficulty. As the challenge increases, your chances of recovering from mistakes decreases. 25s have the numbers on their side (so the naysayers claim), and it is of this skewed reality that was borne the sentiment that "25s have it easy, the 10s are the real challenge." They claimed we straight up had more opportunities to recover from a failure than a 10-Man raid.

Honestly, I can't disagree with that sentiment. We absolutely did have more opportunities to recover from emergencies than 10-Man raids, and it absolutely was a major factor the community used to differentiate the 10 from the 25. But raiding is complex; it literally involves thousands of variables that combine to paint a complete picture of what is easy and what is hard. "That we had more people to recover from an emergency" alone is not enough to declare the 10s the winner in the which is more difficult? contest.

But it was enough for the majority. So they did.

The widest cross-section of raiders, those holier-than-thou ego maniacs that were fresh off the slaying of the Lich King, were now hitting brick walls after giving their former 25-Man guilds the middle finger. Rather than stick with the tried and true strategy of practice makes perfect, they opted to take the easy way out: re-assemble as a 10-Man guild, and target the smaller, "easier" versions for equitable loot. After all, that's exactly how it worked for them in the previous expansion.

But these new 10-Man raids were more difficult than they imagined. At least, at the onset, anyway. The normal 10s of Cataclysm were eating WotLK raiders for lunch. And, being the lackluster players that they were -- already good at finding excuses as to why they shouldn't have to participate in a 25-man -- were equally good at blaming everyone but their own laziness for their own 10-Man's downfall. The vast majority of them quit raiding, and in some cases, walked away from WoW altogether.

And reader, we're not even at the cruel twist part yet.

For those elite few raiders who remained in their 10-Man guilds, carrying the hardcore torch, channeling the tenets of effort and skill, when those guilds punched through the normal modes...well, that is when the tables truly turned on guilds like DoD. Because when those same players stepped into 10-Man heroic raids, they enjoyed a decidedly easier time than the 25-Man guilds -- ironically, for exactly the same reason whiners claimed the 25s had it easier.

Remember the Cataclysm raid design: front-load the difficulty in the normal mode. Force players to learn 85-90% of the mechanics, right out of the gate. We saw it. We lived it. Heroic: Magmaw, Heroic: Chimaeron, Heroic: Atramedes, and so on, and so on. The shift from normal to heroic only ever involved slight adjustments to the original design. It meant we only had to practice and refine small bits, added in to the mix. Things could certainly go wrong in Heroics (and when we failed, we failed spectacularly), but over time, those weakest links in the raid, those outliers -- they'd get it.

Which meant the faster you could identify the weakest links and fix them, the sooner you could close out a heroic kill.

And, by comparison, how many weak links do you think a 10-Man raid would have, in comparison to a 25-Man?

The defense rests, your honor.

Everything is Awesome Relative

To the layperson, raiding looked exactly the same as it had in Wrath. 10-Man raids were being completed much faster than 25-Man raids. The difference between the two, however, was subtle, and only the hardcore nerds could be counted on to take a magnifying glass to these nuances.

Raids were more difficult, period. When distilled down into two different sizes that were meant to equal one another, 25-Man (normal modes) ended up being easier than 10-Man. And since the 10s made up the majority, this was the most vocal group dominating forums with their complaints. The echo chamber only grew larger.

Meanwhile, attention to actual raid progress was measured only by those who had punched through normals, and were enjoying healthy success in heroics. These were the most dedicated, most skilled players...that simply chose the 10-Man as their preference of raid size. For these elite players, just as it was in Wrath, their execution of content came noticeably quicker than it did to their 25-Man brethren. Because these 10-Man heroics were also tuned to be as close in difficulty to their 25-Man heroic counterparts, there was far less complexity for them to have to refine, shifting from normal to heroic. The 10-Man argument went both ways. Yes, we 25s had more opportunities to recover from emergencies, but conversely, the 10s had less loose ends to tie up when mastering a heroic strategy.

The verdict, then, read as follows: From easiest to most difficult, it was 25-Man normals, followed by 10-Man normals, then 10-Man heroics, and finally, the 25-Man heroics. Yet the community remained eternally locked in conflict over which size was easier, passionately defending their "preferential size" while failing to acknowledge the nuances of how a normal vs. heroic ended up manifesting in Cataclysm's front-loaded design.

Sadly, neither the community nor Blizzard would paint clarity around these nuances. And why would either of them choose to vilify themselves?

The vast majority of the community (read: the most vocal, via the forums, blogs, etc.) overwhelmingly claimed 10s were harder (referring, of course, to the normals). To state the opposite would be admitting they were wrong, that it was they themselves who sucked at raiding -- not something gamers would readily admit. Blaming others for their own injustices is something gamers have become quite adept at.

And as for Blizzard, whose design vision for Cataclysm mandated they aim for equality in the difficulty of both 10s and admit the opposite would be to go against their "commitment to quality", an edict their designers live and die by. "We promised the WoW community an equal experience to 10s and 25s, and by the GODS we are going to stick to that path...even if we're still actually sort of turning dials, and iterating over certain choices...WE'RE ON THE PATH!"

That's what's most important, right? That the intent is to deliver?

Blizzard has a good track record of admitting defeat and back-pedaling, but only when there is nothing left to try, nothing left to tweak, no final recourse. There was still plenty of time left in Cataclysm to try new things.

Plenty of time left...for Blizzard.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

4.49. New Dimensions

The weapon of choice, MSI's
GeForce GTX 560, "Twin Frozr II" (Source:

Death of a Video Card

The only thing I love more than video kicking video kicking out in the middle of a raid. Take solace in the knowledge that my guild was spared from the profanity that followed my graphic card's demise. When that happens, your entire system tends to lock up as a result, and digital f-bombs have nowhere to land.

Once the rage subsided (and I'd texted the raid to let them know that, yes, I was sans computer), the shopping began. I wasn't so much angry that I had to buy a new card. It was the total lack of control around the situation that upset me the most. For years, I preached to my guild the gospel of being prepared for emergencies like these. But what did that mean, in this context? Have an extra $400 video card just lying around in a box? Unless you're a huge computer nerd that sits on boxes of unused hardware (or perhaps a pro gamer)...who does that? Some contingency plans just weren't practical, even for the seasoned gamer.

At least I had leftover hardware that I could fall back on, inherited at the demise of my former job. The tether to the guild lifeline remained intact. Often, when guildies suffered hardware fatalities, they were out for the long haul.

In some cases, I wouldn't hear from them again.

A forced break from the game caused more than one of my guildies to gain some perspective on their game / life balance. In the early days, the loss was temporary. But as of late, breaking from the game did not work out well in DoD's favor. "I'll be good to go next week" was now taking a backseat to the more popular "I've had some time to think...", a sign that I shouldn't expect to see them sign-up anytime soon.

I surfed through the available video cards, until finally landing on the MSI GeForce GTX 560, aka the "Twin Frozr II". It seemed a half-decent step up from where'd I’d been, framerate wise, and ordered the replacement. It was dead out of the box.

Profanity feels good, but isn't a particularly effective way to RMA broken hardware.

Two weeks later, a replaced and functional card was in my machine, and I was back to a full, glorious frame rate…

...along with a bonus feature I hadn't planned on.


Maloriak was being...uncooperative.

Expand. Collapse. Move back. Move forward. Do the hokey pokey. Turn yourself around. It felt like I was in a constant state of movement. The multicolored phases, named for the vials Maloriak tossed into his cauldron, were superb in keeping us preoccupied with everything but killing him. Was it too much to ask to just get some concerted, uninterrupted DPS on the boss?

Yes. Yes it was.

Blue treated us to Flash Freeze, repeating the nightmare of Hodir, encasing ranged players in blocks of ice. The raid was forced to free them, while Biting Chill debuffed melee at random, forcing them to flee the group, lest they spread the effects of AoE frost damage. Breaking frozen players out of their icy shell rewarded with a blast of AoE damage to anyone near. More stress on the healers. Maloriak just chuckled.

Red forced us to restrict our positioning to only melee range, in an effort to distribute the damage of his Scorching Blast. Meanwhile, Maloriak belched Consuming Flames onto specific players. Awash in an inferno, these players enjoyed the benefits of increased fire damage, making them a likely candidate for an early death.

Whether Red followed Blue, or vice versa, Green was always next. Debilitating Slime sprayed out from his cauldrons, dousing everyone in the room with a 100% vulnerability to all damage. It was our one catch up on aberrations, burning through whichever of the creatures remained alive.

Did I mention the aberrations?

There were 18 in total, trapped in cages that flanked Maloriak's position in the center. The aberrations begged for a Goldilocks strategy: release them -- not too fast, not too slow -- but at just the right pace. In a perfect world, you'd spread their release across two cycles, which meant 9 per cycle. The aberrations would be off-tanked until moments into the Green phase. Then, we'd group all nine of them up at the entrance to the room, blasting them down with every cleave and AoE available. The cycle would then begin anew.

Maloriak made certain that we'd be as far from a perfect world as possible.

Maloriak puts up a good fight,
Blackwing Descent


The boss's kit required a keen eye and steady, confident timing to endure. Mixed amongst his spell-cast to release aberrations, he would also Remedy himself -- a heal over time, solved with a purge or a dispel. Remedy grew in potency with each tick, so slower reflexes punished us more severely. Maloriak also called down bolts of lightning which leapt across the raid in an Arcane Storm, another ability requiring an interruption.

Maloriak cycled through these abilities so frequently that no one player could hit them all. It was very easy to mix them up. What am I interrupting next? Release Aberration? No, Arcane Storm. Dammit, I just interrupted Aberration. Aberrations hit with just enough destructive force to make one too many unwieldy to off-tank. Mistakes were costly.

I was reminded of the Reliquary of Souls, back in Black Temple. One wrong interrupt, and the attempt unravels. Blain kept protective watch over which spell was next, calling them out over vent, alerting each group of handlers -- mains and backups. We pushed for excellence, and had contingencies when mistakes happened. They happen. Plan accordingly.

The classic burn phase came at the 25% health mark. With every cooldown popped, we unleashed our combined force into Maloriak's warped, pathetic frame. But even now, there was encroaching danger in the periphery. Prime Subjects -- two new adds -- had to be picked up and off-tanked. Absolute Zero began spreading, orbs of periodic frost damage which would explode if coming into contact with another player. And Magma Jets continued to flood Maloriak's room, sparking memories of Mimiron's hard mode, as large paths of fire shot out from the boss's position. The scarred, burning trails left by Magma Jets slowly painted us to a fiery corner.

But of course, dear reader, you already know all of this -- because I've already told the tale of Normal Mode. That's right. This...all of this...was Normal mode, and we knocked it out on the first night in Blackwing Descent.

Tonight, however, Maloriak wasn't being as cooperative as he was that first night in Blackwing Descent -- a weekend now infamously associated with off-handed remarks from former guildies claiming we weren't as efficient as we could've been.

Our "efficiency" was about to take a huge hit.

Heroic brought a fourth color to the cycle. Dark was the new color on deck. Like Green (always ending a cycle), Dark began every cycle, and was incredibly effective at getting us off on the wrong foot. Entropy reigned supreme.

Each Dark phase produced five vile swills at our feet. These gray globules would immediately begin spewing Dark Sludge: puddles of black ooze hitting for shadow damage twice a second. Puddles spawned quickly, one every second. Off-tanks kited the sludge away, ensuring the puddles wouldn't spawn in stacks that destroyed the raid with a flurry of hits. Melee and ranged had to burn the sludge down while avoiding the cloudy trail of slime left behind. The old "expand for Blue, collapse for Red" strategy had an entirely new component to it. How fast can your roster re-position after having chased sludge and dodged slime?

Sounds easy. It wasn't.

Falling behind on slimes and dying to various puddles only made the transition to a Blue or a Red phase that much worse. The raid was well behind its quota by each subsequent pass. It all came down to the Green phase, the final chance to catch up by grouping the Aberrations at the rear entrance and AoEing them down. Thanks to various deaths from the thousand-and-one gifts Maloriak had in store for us, Green seemed a better term to describe our skill, rather than the color of the phase.

I watched as each successive attempt ended in misery. Neither fire, nor frost, nor even shadowflame could cut through the pack of aberrations. As the next Dark wave began with Aberrations still alive, there was little reason to continue.

We left the raid weekend of May 13th/15th without a Heroic: Maloriak kill.

The 25-Man progression team defeats Heroic: Maloriak,
Blackwing Descent

All About the AoE

Interest in raid progression surged to such a degree that, for the first time since Cataclysm's launch, I actually had to bench several players, heading into the May 20th/22nd raid weekend. This was a welcome boon, because it meant I was able to hold players accountable. During Wrath, a bench was present week-to-week, but these days, I barely had enough to fill the roster. Once the concept of overflow returned to rotations, I could pick the dedicated, while pushing players that needed practice back to the end of the line.

The raid's energy was focused on how best to maximize their AoE, and a forum discussion kept them busy in their class forums. I sensed the excitement and renewed purpose, and wished there was a way to sweeten the deal. Something fun and different that the roster might perceive as a reward for their dedication.

I hopped out of the "Raid Rotations" forum, then glanced at "Accomplishments" -- the place I posted all our kill shots, the celebration of past victories and a focused channel of guild spirit. Players seemed to get a thrill when they were a part of kill shot, that one moment etched into eternity that proves their commitment. See me on the left? I was there. I helped DoD make this happen.

Then, an idea popped.

I finished up the raid rotation post, and mentioned that whomever was present in the defeat of Heroic: Maloriak would receive a small but "fun" surprise.


Hells keeled over dead, going from full health to zero in a fraction of a second. Stacked puddles were unforgiving, even to the mightiest of our roster.

"I've discovered the secret of keeping up with Hells," I said, dodging slime, "he has to die early."

"I still show him fourth," said Amatsu.


Slimes were done, just as Red began. We collapsed at the boss's feet. Moments later, a protective golden shell, Power Word: Barrier, shielded us as Maloriak hit Littlebear like a flamethrower.

"Littlebear, get out", said Blain. Lit with Consuming Flames, the hunter side-stepped and continued to unleash a barrage of shots into Maloriak.

"Keep going," Blain commanded. Littlebear turned and sped away.

With Red complete, we spread apart for Blue, our raid meters alerting us if anyone was nearer than 10 yards from each other. "We're quite far, healers. Just FYI."

Blain issued his next order, "Alright, interrupt the next aberration."

The off-tanks reported in.

"Amatsu has four."

"Ak has five."

Aktauren, Jungard's cousin, was off-tanking the second set of aberrations. Normally relegated to DPS, and certainly not one of our primary tanks, Aktauren maintained his post, despite his health meter spiking. Unchained held Maloriak in place.

"Phase change in three."

"Group up."

Everyone in the raid, along with Maloriak himself, were knocked back across the room, near the entrance. Amatsu and Aktauren raced to join the group, their aberration in tow. The floor lit with the colors of each school of magic laying waste to Maloriak and his minions. Howling Blast. Mind Sear. Impact Combustion. Shadowflame. Multishot, Serpent Spread and Explosive Trap. Wild Mushroom and Starfall. Maloriak and his ilk were ablaze with red, blue and purple explosions.

DPS had done its homework. And it showed.

Green ended...and nothing remained. The aberrations were disintegrated. Maloriak returned to his cauldron, and we followed. Still in shock from the ludicrous display of damage, I shared my thoughts in the most succinct way I knew how.

"Fuckin' shit."

We repeated the cycle. Kept cool, kept focused. Sludge put the pressure on healers as we ate through it, desperate to avoid puddles. We wrapped them just in time for Red, followed methodically by Blue. Blain called for a DPS reduction, to whittle away excess aberrations. Then, Green. The knockback. The magical AoE lightshow. Back to the cauldron, and a push into phase two.

Bloodlust out. Pull Maloriak around the outside of the room. Watch for the spread of fire. Get away from those ice orbs. Close those open mics, keep it down in Vent! Eat a healthstone. Burn that Divine Hymn. Keep it going, keep it going. Three dead...Amatsu is down. Prime Subject is loose, stay alive, stay alive...

Maloriak's lifeless body fell to the floor. Temporary titles popped above everyone's name. I zoomed the camera in to get a better look:

Mature, Slayer of Stupid, Incompetent and Disappointing Minions


In vent, I heard Bonechatters immediately go off like a broken record:

"Wutsthesurprise, wutsthesurprise, wutsthesurprise..."

I motioned everyone over to Maloriak's corpse, prepping them for the official DoD killshot. But before snapping photos, I alt-tabbed to the desktop and switched on a new feature of the Twin Frozr II; more specifically, a feature present in all of this next generation of nVidia chips. Once I had the right amount of shots taken, I posted them to our "Accomplishments" forum...

...and reminded the guild to have their 3D glasses on before viewing.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

4.48. Insufferable Sanctimonious Fanatical Jerk

A player works through the gypsy's questions,
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

Thou Hast Lost an Eighth!

There were at least a dozen pages, all laid out in a multiple-choice style quiz. The last page of questions revealed the total count: 70.

Damn. That must be some quiz.

I paid no attention to the person discussing corporate policies, continuing to examine the quiz and its related paperwork. The back sheet listed a set of titles.

"The Architect"

"The Mediator"

"The Entertainer"

I counted sixteen titles in all. Continuing to ignore the presentation unfolding before the audience, I began penciling in answers.

The questions were bizarre. Answering them without context was difficult. They seemed to drift back and forth from acutely personal, to wildly broad and ambiguous. Unsurprisingly, I found myself seeking to fill in context with what I knew best.

"Common sense is: A) rarely questionable, or B) frequently questionable?

Depends on which of my guild members you're talking about.

"Are you more interested in: A) what is actual, or B) what is possible?"

Well, if it’s bench-filler night, we’re not going to be pushing heroics, are we?

"Writers should: A) 'say what they mean, and mean what they say', or B) express things more by use of analogy."

Parents scold young children for misdeeds, free from the confines of logical self-awareness that the children, by their very youth and innocence, lack the necessary perspective into the very issues on which they're being reprimanded! I penciled in my answer and moved on.

"Is it worse to be A) unjust, or B) merciless?"

Damn. This is some quiz.

I agonized over each answer. Years earlier, similar questions were asked of me. The difference was, back then, they were presented in all the glory of 4-color CGA.

"During a pitched battle, thou dost see a fellow desert his post, endangering many. As he flees, he is set upon by several enemies. Dost thou A) justly let him fight alone; or B) risk sacrificing thine own life to aid him?"

Let him fight alone! He got his own damn self into that mess! What a coward!

"Thee and thy friends have been routed and ordered to retreat. In defiance of thy orders, dost thou A) stop in compassion to aid a wounded companion; or B) sacrifice thyself to slow the pursuing enemy, so others can escape?"

Man, this is tough...I guess I would stop and help the wounded guy.

"After 20 years thou hast found the slayer of thy best friends. The villain proves to be a man who provides the sole support for a young girl. Dost thou A) spare him in compassion for the girl; or B) slay him in the name of justice?"

...uh, I don't...know. I mean...both of these things needs to happen.

...I don't know.

Why were the gypsy's questions so difficult to answer? And why did I care so much about getting the right answer?

A fifteen year old, growing up in a small town in British Columbia, Canada, had few opportunities to fight in actual holy wars. There were no clash of iron sword, no lords nor fiefdoms, and certainly, no reason to make judgement calls about who lives or who dies.

The only way I could answer Lord British's carefully crafted questions was by translating them into real life situations. In doing so, I became aware of a troubling reality: not all scenarios have a positive outcome. The gypsy in Ultima IV was my very own Kobayashi Maru.

Sometimes, you have no choice but to decide on what sucks the least. But you have to decide.

You have to.

...I...guess I spare the guy.

"Thy path is clear!"
The 16 personality types in the MBTI
(Source: 16

What'd You Call Me?

I glared at my results in denial.

"ISFJ: The Defender"

Come again?

"The Defender is filled with a deep-seated need to serve others; they 'need to be needed'."

Is this some kind of joke? How do you pull servant out of 'programmer'?

"ISFJs are perfectionists and often under-appreciated. Their reliability is unquestionable, and because of this, they are often taken advantage of. The fruits of their labor are frequently enjoyed by other personality types less inclined to harbor feelings of guilt around getting others to do the real work."

Oh. A programmer that builds software for billion dollar companies. I guess that would be the way.

"ISFJs are notoriously bad at delegating…"

Well, if you want something done right…

"...but rarely seek acknowledgement, as they have a deep-seated belief that it is somehow wrong to want to be rewarded for demonstrating effort."

...or maybe it's because pride isn't a virtue? That walking around, pounding your chest like you're some kind of bad-ass only makes you look foolish and embarrassing and…

...and why I am sitting here, trying to come with excuses why this isn't me?

The more I fought with the analysis, the more it made sense.

"ISFJs are methodical and accurate, and have a good memory, particularly as they relate to situations involving people."

So, it would be pretty easy for me to, say, recall the events of eight years of guild leadership?

"They are pleasant and loyal as a member of a team, but are prone to feeling stressed and overwhelmed in roles in leadership."

So it would seem.

"The loyalties they form are personal rather than institutional."

...which makes it difficult to kick people out of a guild without feeling guilty. Or giving people more chances than they deserve.

"ISFJs provide emotional and practical support to what few people they consider their close friends, and the longer the relationship, the more an ISFJ values it."

...which might explain the constant need to dwell on relationships now ended.

"ISFJs aren't terribly good at managing or discussing distress…"

Go fuck yourself.

"...which manifests as unexplained moodiness to those not acquainted with the ISFJ. It is important to remember, when dealing with an ISFJ, that hidden under apparent 'bursts of outrage' is a personality type destined to think of others before themselves, and is very likely bearing the burden of an issue, so that you do not have to."

I sat back in my chair and stared off into the abyss of the auditorium's extremities, oblivious to the shouting costumed musketeers around me, their plastic toy sabres dancing in the air.


To be honest, I expected the geeks populating my guild to be dismissive of a personality test. They'd want to see the numbers, the proof, the analytical data backing up the "assessment". It wouldn't have surprised me to see them theorycraft every vague rationale to the point of elimination. That was, after all, the type of culture I was trying to foster in DoD.

If you don't understand something, don't guess. Do the research.

To be certain I'd get involvement, I promised a little forum Karma to sweeten the deal. They dove right in, awaiting their evaluation (shared in confidence upon completion). I encouraged them to discuss their findings in the forum; many chose to do so. And over the course of the next several weeks, the thread grew hot with activity.

The data continued to pour in. Word trickled down from the heavy forum users to those who preferred the isolation of the game, and with it, came more piqued interest. By the time the quiz's fifteen minutes of fame were up, I had enough entries to field two full 25-man raid teams...and still have several on the bench. And the data itself was rich with trivia:
  • The most common personality in my guild: ESTJ (The Executive, 15.4%), the fifth most common personality type out in the wild.
  • Conversely, the rarest type in real life, INFJ (The Advocate) made up 6.1% of the guild. In fact, 6.1% of the guild (4 players) was split among four types:
  1. INFJ (The Advocate)
  2. INFP (The Mediator)
  3. ENFP (The Campaigner)
  4. ENFJ (The Protagonist)
  • Rarer still, within DoD (and conversely, more prevalent in real life) were ESFP (The Entertainer) and ENTP (The Debater), both at 4.5%
  • The four most common types in DoD were paired mirrors of each other:
  1. ISTJ (The Logistician) and ESTJ (The Executive)
  2. INTJ (The Architect) and ENTJ (The Commander)
  • ISTJ (The Logistician) made up the brunt of DoD’s leadership.
  • ISFP (The Adventurer), ESTP (The Entrepreneur), ISTP (The Virtuoso) and INTP (The Logician) all shared the exclusive 1.5% slice with me -- DoD had only one of each.
That last nugget was of particular interest. Of the sixty-six guildies having completed the quiz, only five entries represented their type in isolation. Yes, I was the only ISFJ in the group, but I wondered how many more were out there. How many just didn't get around to taking the test? And why?

Perhaps they knew the truth -- the truth I wouldn't find out until months passed.

The Myers Briggs was a complete and total sham.

The most accurate horoscope reading for 2015 available

A Constant Four-Point-Two

People much smarter than I figured out long ago that the validity of the MBTI as a means of gauging personality is...problematic, at best. A critical examination begins with its creators, Katharine Briggs, and her daughter, Isabel Myers.

Katharine and Isabel were social scientists much in the way that Brian Fellow, Tracy Morgan's SNL character, was an accredited zoologist that held an advanced degree in environmental studies. That is to say, they were not. The very test taken by hundreds of thousands of people across the globe was created not by the scientific rigor of the academic community, but by "enthusiastic young individuals with a love of sociology."

I adore enthusiasm. It's what got me interested in programming and learning about the mechanics of people management. But I am not an expert, and I'd want to be sure my readers knew that when examining my writing. Unfortunately, when considering the MBTI, the industry behaves in exactly the opposite manner, often citing the many studies that back the MBTI as a means to prove its academic rigor. But those "studies" are not as academic as one might expect.

At least half of all published material on the MBTI comes from the Center for the Application of Psychological Type which, coincidentally, also provides training for the MBTI. And training does not come cheaply. The advocacy and sales of the MBTI clock in at nearly $20 million annually. A core contingent that both totes a test's scientific accuracy while simultaneously benefiting from its lucrative profits shrouds the MBTI with an ethically gray cloud that grows uncomfortably dark with each new glance.

Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence to the MBTI's inefficacy came in 1948, just five years after the test was first published. A psychologist named Bertram Forer devised a personality test of his own, one that harbored a secret. The first set of students he administered it to were amazed at its ability to accurately identify each of their own traits and behavior. As part of the experiment, Forer asked them to rate that accuracy on a scale of 1-5. The average rating came back consistently at 4.2. That's when Forer revealed the secret...

...the evaluations were pulled at random from the local newspaper's astrology column.

Forer's experiment has been repeated hundreds of times since he "amazed" his initial subjects. The results are nearly always 4.2.

This was the Forer Effect in action: the tendency for us to accept generalized descriptions that could apply to a wide slice of the population, merely because we wish them to be true. To many, who we are and why we behave the way we do is a conundrum that troubles us, it is a puzzle we must solve.

We hear what we want to hear, agree with what looks like it is falling into place, unaware that confirmation bias is a Texas sharpshooter, drawing targets around the bullet holes so that we can agree, nay, insist that the test has hit its mark. It's enough to keep the Horoscope publishing industry alive and well, long after science has proven that (as the meme goes) the alignment of the stars and planets will not affect us in any way shape or form.

I heard what I wanted to hear. Perhaps not at first...but as I read through it, contemplating how much I agonized over those questions...they had to be right. It had to be right.

Maybe part of it was right?

Maybe just a bit of it was?

Or maybe it was just right in the sense that it was right for everybody...and nobody.


Questions remained.

Are there other, more accurate personality tests out there? Ones that have real scientific proof in identifying a person's type? Perhaps. The Big Five may be one such test, featuring traits that are easily both positive (agreeableness) and negative (neuroticism), which may help to keep the Forer Effect at bay during test administration. As the story goes, "more data is needed."

Why a company would ask its employees to take the test? For the exact same reason I wanted DoD to take it: I thought it would give me that insight, show me those patterns, help me connect the dots, so that I could understand my people better. Help me find the leaders and the followers. Just as I wanted to understand myself better, even after my gut instinct ate at me with the very first glance. This isn't you.

There are no shortcuts to understanding people, no slots you can easily place them in. But when companies grow large, they don't want to hear "no easy solutions". They want you to get it done. They want the "people" part of people management a little more efficient, a little more streamlined...

...a little more automated.

Any org (guild or company) that cares about its people should invest in tools with care, rather than grab at whatever is most "brilliantly marketed". The Myers Briggs test is popular and successful because of wishful thinking...and little else. But neither popularity nor success are a measure of accuracy, which is the one thing the MBTI needs, but lacks. Anyone who states otherwise hasn't done the research, and is merely guessing.