Thursday, May 28, 2015

4.38. Server First

As the level cap is removed, Syrophenikan surveys the
guild XP and those available to begin the grind to 25,
Tol Barad


10:51pm. Early. Upstairs, the kids slept. I heard Jul's footsteps as she passed by the computer room, leading the dogs out into the backyard. A few minutes later, she rapped on the heavy oak door. "Heading to bed. Good luck!"

"Night, hon. See you the morning."

Behind me, lights flicked off. The steps creaked as my wife headed upstairs. Shuffling. Water rushing through the plumbing in the hundred year old walls. And then, the house was still.

April 4th was an hour away, but in the World of Warcraft, the new day wouldn't truly begin until the clock read 3:00am.

Within hours of Cataclysm's launch, a limiter had been installed. It was an 11th hour band-aid to prevent expansive rosters from stomping over smaller guilds as we ground towards level 25. Nearly any guild related activity earned XP, so guilds of DoD's size and motivation could make short work of any fly-by-night 10-Man operation.

But that just wasn’t "fair".

Blizzard insisted on leveling the playing field; a guild's preference shouldn’t be held against it when racing to level 25. Each week, DoD capped guild XP a few days after reset, then waited patiently for the others to catch up by the following Monday. When 3:00am rolled around, we'd see just how level the playing field was.

Midnight. I carefully opened the computer room door, taking care to lift as I pushed, trying not to let it scrape across the floor. I snuck into the kitchen where an orange prescription bottle waited. Popping the lid off, I pulled the daily dose out, shooting the tiny pink tablet with a glass of water.


"I want to be clear that this is not a reflection on his intelligence; he's exceptional, particularly with reading. I love having him come up to the front of the class and read. He tells me his Grandmother taught him."

"Shawn spent a lot of time with her because I had to work, not having a husband to support us."

"He's been reading fifth grade content to a class of first graders, easily in top percentile for his age group. But, Shawn's also having a tough time staying focused, his mind wanders during focused assignment work, and is very easily distracted by the other kids..."

"That sounds like a problem with the other children."

" well as being a distraction himself, Mrs. Holmes. He also has a tough time completing tasks, he tends to rush through them..."

"Well, that's probably because he's got video games on the brain. Taking them away should give him more than enough time to do his homework."

"...I can appreciate you wanting to solve this entirely in the home, Mrs. Holmes, but I would still like to have him assessed. There is a possibility that he may need help that is beyond your…"

"Mr. Bergink, my son doesn’t need any tests or any drugs to get what he wants out of life. My father was a foreman on the Canadian National Railway for forty years and was still able to raise three boys and a daughter. And he sure as hell didn’t do it with any medications. Do you think I don’t know what’s right for my son?"

"Mrs. Holmes, I apologize. I never meant to imply that…"

"What he needs is discipline, and that's something I can handle. So you can take your assessment, and give it to some of the other 'distractions' in your classroom."

"He's got a healthy lead on his peers. If we don't take steps now, that gap is going to close, and Shawn’s very likely going to be left behind."

"I'll handle the steps from here on out. And for the record, it’s 'Ms.'"

I wouldn't find out about the conversation between my first grade teacher and my mother for another twenty-eight years.

Channels Forever Flipping

Jul had me pegged within the first year of marriage. She, like Bergink, noted the inattentiveness, the inability to follow-through on long projects. Discussions around menial tasks exploded in violent outbursts: dishes, laundry, cooking, doing the bills: bamboo shoots under my fingernails would've been less painful. If it didn't interest me, it was torturous, so I gravitated towards work I loved. Employers always had the same stance. Too fast. Not enough attention to detail. I was always rushing, always with one daydream on the brain.

Video games.

It took twelve years of persistent, gentle reminders from my wife to get me in to the doc's office. Diagnosis: "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder". Symptoms included a shortened attention span, challenges with focus, forgetfulness, and a noticeable acute case of my Mother rolling her eyes. The doc started me on 20mg that day, which I popped on my way back to work. I couldn't recall if she'd mentioned any side-effects. My mind had already drifted back to the guild, to progression, to Kael'thas, to Ater leaving for Illinois. Channels forever flipping in the TV of the mind.


If you've never written a line of code, I envy you. This must be what it's like to learn to read and go crazy at the same time. Staring at unintelligible squiggles that mean nothing as your brain tries to make sense of the curves and shapes and patterns that you were certain made sense an hour ago. I never had the luxury of illiteracy. As long as I can remember, I've been able to read and write. Coding must feel like those first years of learning to read. Even on your best days, you catch yourself baffled by your own writing, wondering just what in the hell you were trying to say.

I rattled off another few lines of code, saved, alt-tabbed, refreshed my web browser, and confirmed the last change. Finished. An unexciting drop-down menu with a list of restaurant franchisee owners stared back. Perfect. Just as the spec dictated. Done and in the bag.

I lingered.

I stared at the list of fictional names, then flipped back to the spec...then back to the list again. I popped the menu open, then closed it. Again. And again. This isn't right. The menu sucked. I hated it. I looked at the spec again. The spec sucked. The whole damn system sucked.

It sucked because it wasn't usable.

The channels in my mind stopped flipping. I tore down the entire interface and rebuilt it. Someone, somewhere, was eventually going to have to sit down and use this thing. Something compelled me to make it right. I sat there, without distraction, until it was right. Until it made sense.

Years of darkness now bathed in the full glow of a halogen lamp. But for the love of God, man. How the hell do you turn it off?


The clock glowed 2:30am. I was wide awake. I tossed. I turned. I fumbled with the pillow. I kicked the covers off, then pulled them back up. "Delayed Release" was what I missed the doc saying, distracted by the flipping channels, the video games, the WoW. A 20mg capsule of Adderall specially engineered to deposit medicine into the bloodstream, well into the evening, was strangling me awake.

Beware the dangers of taking your ADHD medication late in the day. It is insomnia in pill form.

Unless, of course, that’s what you want.

Voluntary Insomniac

3:00am. Twenty DoDers were burning the midnight oil. Invites went out. Dungeon groups formed. Pipes unkinked, the golden guild XP flowed once more. Any guild participating should’ve hovered at the tail end of Guild Level 22. At 3:30am, we broke 23.

As the early morning crept in, twenty players dwindled to five. I carried on, bursting with energy, never blinking, chipping away at the guild xp bar, through 4 and 5 am. Those late night players, having dropped from exhaustion, were replaced by morning people, guildies who got an hour of dailies in before my alarm clock buzzed. I tagged in the early morning stares and kept the guild XP flowing.

I hopped up for bio breaks between these dozen-dungeon-streaks, slurping coffee and wolfing down snacks, but was never away from the keyboard for more than a few minutes. 7am became 9:30am, and 9:30am became 11, hour after hour, lost to a blur of guild activity. As the sun rose, guildies continued to log on. There were always faces, waiting and willing to contribute. By noon, I felt like a million bucks. I needed no break. But I was curious how long it would last.

It was around 2:00pm that I began to feel the effects of being awake for thirty-one hours solid. Exhaustion is one thing entirely, something you come to recognize when your hobby is long-distance driving. The reduced reflexes, a bobbing head, slurred speech. Eyelids of unbearable weight.

This time, exhaustion came in an unfamiliar form. Instead of heavy eyelids, my eyes themselves felt like glowing rings, two halos propped open by a ghostly apparatus. My faculties seemed intact, my reflexes were ostensibly still sharp, my fortieth clear of Blackrock Caverns no slower than the first. But a disturbing feeling set in, one of mindless automation. If a soul exists, it had retired twelve hours earlier, and some unearthly fuel now powered an empty husk, clicking buttons, tapping keys, zombified. Nothing more than a calculator executing instructions.

Even now, it’s difficult to describe how I felt. But it wasn’t good. The longer it went on, the more I wished never to swear that curse upon my worst enemy.

At 3:42pm, in the middle of the Stonecore, a message flashed up on the screen.

Descendants of Draenor has reached Guild Level 24!

[Mature][Guild Chat]: I think I need to lie down.

I trudged upstairs to the bedroom, sparking neurons still firing as I tried to math out what time I needed to be up by. 3:30am to 3:42pm got us one guild level. 12 hours. One level. I need to be up by 4:00am, then. No. 3:00. Better make that 2:00. Yeah. Then I can help wrap this up. Mm, but wait, more peeps logging in. Which means they'll be grouping more. So...more dungeons, no no...less. Less dungeons. Faster. Because...they'll be earning faster. Yeah. That's right.

I think...

...the sky outside was dark. Did I miss work? No, that wasn't right. But the read 8:36pm...


I rolled out of bed, shot down the staircase, and swung into the computer room. Moments later, I was back online, surveying our status. Guild Level 24 was rapidly reaching its end. Three times as many players were now online, navigating down the white water rapids of guild XP. I hopped back into the fray, by 9:00pm, we were 60% into the level. An hour and a half later, the bar bled past the 90% mark.

Did we have an hour to go? A half hour? It didn’t matter. We didn’t stop. The evening was a blur of Deadmines, Stonecore, Grim Batol and Lost City of the Tol’vir. By 10:30pm, we had 74 guild members online, all running dungeons, bouncing between gearing alts, knocking out achievements, working their way through Vortex Pinnacle, Halls of Origination, Throne of the Tides…

[22:51:26] [Descendants of Draenor] "Descendants of Draenor" has earned the achievement [Realm First! Guild Level 25]!

It was our one and only server first. The hardcore raiding guilds, destined to forever beat us at raid progression, somehow slipped behind. And despite a guild leader's terrible pharmaceutical decision, DoD won the day.

I never did find out if it was a photo finish. I like to imagine other guilds weren't close at all. For a single moment in DoD's history, cliques melted away, petty arguments were pushed to the wayside, raid teams carried no weight, and the chain-of-command meant nothing. That day, every single member of DoD contributed, regardless of rank or status, a juggernaut that smashed its way to a landslide victory, and no one individual was the deciding factor.

I like to think that, because the alternative is bound to keep me awake at night.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

4.37. The Sad and Sorrowful Tale of Aetherknight

You don't even know me!


This is a tale of woe, of inside jokes, mockery and profanity. You'll learn the value of a quality Richard Nixon impression, uttering the words "I SHOULD DRIVE THE SIEGE ENGINE." You'll feel the exhilaration telling a guild leader to fuck himself and his guild vault. You will come to appreciate the notion that some people are not meant to play World of Warcraft. And you will, from this day forth, see footwear as nothing more than a meme. But this is a tale of revelation and of self-awareness, so I warn you, dear reader, that these tales do not often have a happy ending. Our story begins as all poignant tales should: it begins with a dude falling off a horse.

Late into the evening of October 12th, 1947, a 24 year old pilot crashed to the ground without an aircraft in sight. A closed gate and a horse with bad eyes resulted in a mid-fence collision, catapulting the rider off. When the World War II vet hit the dirt, the force cracked two of his ribs. But rather than go directly to the local hospital, he dragged his busted insides to an out-of-town veterinarian, taping up Chuck's torso as best he could. Only two people were privy to the accident: Chuck's wife, Glennis, and a close friend, Jack. The secrecy was essential. History was at stake.

Two days later and in excruciating pain, Chuck suited up at the Muroc Desert Test Center, and climbed into an experimental XS-1 aircraft. Debilitating pain couldn't risk the mission, which is why he smuggled a broomstick handle onto the runway. Pulling it from his flight suit, Chuck fashioned the handle into a makeshift lever and used it to seal the hatch of the XS-1. And on October 14th, 1947, Captain Chuck E. Yeager took the XS-1 to an altitude of 45,000 ft, pushed the experimental aircraft to Mach 1.07, and became the first human to break the sound barrier. With two broken ribs.

Six years later, he more than doubled his previous record, reaching a speed of 1,600 miles/hour.

Chuck's a master with an aircraft because he's attuned to limits: how much pain he can endure, how much stress an aircraft can withstand, how insane an experiment might be. Being able to pinpoint a limit is necessary in order to push beyond it. It's how you turn good into great, forgettable into memorable, and a good ol' fashioned flight mission into aeronautical history. The first step to becoming "great" is be able to first recognize what's "good", so you have a line in the sand to push past. An expert knows when s/he's about to make a bad decision. But it's not enough to simply be an expert with your craft -- that's only half the game. You need to be attuned to your own limits.


One of the ways we can understand our limits is by turning to what we like. Gamers have preferences: in their mind, they know what's fun and what isn't. If they love cartoons, kitty cats, and inhuman levels of pink, you can expect them to enjoy Hello Kitty Island Adventure. But if they get an adrenalin rush from punching the skin clean off a demon, they may be more inclined to choose Diablo.

Preferences are knit very closely to limits: force a Diablo player to sit through Hello Kitty, and there's a very real possibility that they walk away in minutes -- they've had all they can handle. It's knowing and interpreting one's own limits that shape future decisions; it is the seed from which preferences grow. Hey, Diablo player, interested in Hello Kitty II? "No, thanks." There's no need to even attempt the experimental flight. They know their Hello Kitty limit, and it's already well into the red.

Preferences are established across a wide variety of attributes: we favor one visual style over another, enjoy some genres more than others, crank the game music or silence it, and care deeply/not at all about the story and characters. We have preferences on the platform (PC MASTER RACE UNITE!), and even prefer varying degrees of difficulty. If we crave a challenge, we'll dive directly into the molten hellfire of the hardest mode. If we prefer taking things slowly, we'll opt to take an easier route, ramping up the difficulty over time. At some point in our lives, we've set an internal marker for each feature, a slider on a ruler indicating 'safe' and 'not at all safe'. And as we walk the multitude of features in our mind, the slider extends far into the distance for the types of things we love, and shores up tightly for things we loathe.

Our preferences are nothing more than inverted views of our limits -- we tolerate the things we like much longer than we tolerate things we hate; it's how a handful of my guild enjoys playing Diablo, but have since moved to something else while I continue to grind up the ladder. We all think Diablo is fun, but grinding is something they're unwilling to tolerate as much as a crazed lunatic like me..

So, if we are in agreement that our preferences are really just another way of looking at -- of understanding -- our own limits, then it is time to turn this story toward a paladin named Aetherknight, to see how well he understood his.

Aetherknight (as Grzzloc) lies dead as the 25-Man
finishes off Anu'barak,
Tournament of Champions

The Burning Man

As the summer of '09 bled into our darkened, flickering caves, a new recruit found his way into our roster. He called himself Aetherknight, and was fresh off of a guild named Immortals, looking to make a name for himself in DoD. Aetherknight's timing was good; he joined DoD right about the time that Cheeseus was mitigating drama with Divineseal. This plan succinctly demonstrated the DoD 2.0 strategy: if you can't solve your issues in progression, eventually, we'll replace you. We gave Divineseal the tools to fix his issues, and if he couldn't (or wouldn't), Aetherknight would be next in line.

Aether's first opportunity to strut his stuff came thanks to a simple misunderstanding. Word trickled down from Annihilation's Alt-25 that a "pally was sucking". I assumed the pally in question was Divinepants, leading me to direct Cheeseus in pulling Aetherknight off the bench. It wasn't until Aether had been signed and rotated in that the name of the paladin was finally confirmed. Lo and behold, Divineseal was innocent: the toon in question was named "Wes", played by none other than SeƱor Riskers.

"He should stick to DPS," Cheeseus typed into IM, "Riskers is a solid rogue."

"I'm a firm believer that some people do not do well in certain roles," I added. "Look at Ekasra. He busted his ass all through The Burning Crusade to try to be a half-decent healer, but just was always very sub-par. Wrath comes around, he switches to Warlock...boom. Top of the charts. Sometimes you have keep trying until you figure it out."

Aether's first runs with progression weren't awful, but they weren't exactly stellar, either. It takes time to acclimate to an new environment, new guild rules, new players. Cheeseus and I kept our eye on Aether and watched for that moment the paladin would hit his stride. He had June and July to adjust.

Instead of adjusting, he went missing.

Aetherknight made an annual pilgrimage to Burning Man every year, and '09 was no different. He gave me the heads-up preceding his week of uninhibited revelry. But when the week turned to two, which then turned to three and then four, I wondered if he would ever come back at all. By the time he showed his face again, Aether was no longer the new kid on the block, and other candidates stood squarely in his spot. Losing his place, Aether returned to the back of the line. His next opportunity would be much longer in wait.

To make a name for himself, Aetherknight turned to the various 10-Man groups to provide healing services. Joredin led a team that needed healing assistance, but once inside, Aetherknight's MO was mediocrity. They struggled. Aether's skills as a Holy Paladin only went so far when paired with a Disc Priest's shield-heavy heals. Joredin was kind, confiding with me behind closed doors; he chalked it up to the unfortunate pairing of heal types. It would've been nice to see Aether hit the drawing board, figure out what he needed to modify, in spec or in style, to synergize with Disc.

He did not.


On an otherwise unmemorable night, Aetherknight assisted Team Starflex in a 10-Man run of Ulduar. Jungard, now my melee officer, had more than enough hands-on experience to be leading his own team. Yet something inside the paladin compelled him to speak up during Flame Leviathan vehicle assignment.

"Fred, you can go in a cycle this round, I’ll drive Siege, let's get Randy in a Demolisher…"

"Actually, you should put me the siege engine."

Jungard, one of my more politically minded officers, remained respectful while questioning Aether. "OK? Any particular reason why?"

"I have the highest ilvl boots out of all of us."

One of the downsides of using something like Vent to communicate is that you aren't often aware of the snickers that go on behind your back. Nobody really presses their "key to talk" to let you know they're laughing at you. Aetherknight was oblivious to the meme taking root, a hyper-extended long /u/, muttered as if it came from a zombie bearing down on its cerebral dinner:


By the time Jungard floated it back up to me, the meme was firmly was the guild's opinion of Aetherknight.
Hanzo receives more fan mail from Aetherknight

No Hammer, No Nails

Aether's complaints exhausted me, because each time felt like the first time. Always projecting his failures onto other people, he failed to see his own issues, red flags that stared back at me from those emails.

His newest concern was how Blain was mistreating him, insulting him, making him feel unworthy and stupid. Blain didn't insult people, it wasn't his style. Others had claimed similar mistreatment. In all of those cases, reviewing the fine details always revealed a nugget of info, conveniently absent from the allegation.

Failing to heal with any notable significance, Aether turned to DPS, bringing a warlock named Grzzloc to our runs. And, as Blain is apt to do, called Aether out an his awful presentation of skill. Astronomical damage means little if you can't control it, and if bosses are consistently turning their attention to you, how can you expect to do exceptional damage if you're dead?

"I think the problem at hand," I typed back to Aetherknight, "is that you are suffering from the same problem that plagued Divineseal. He considered himself an expert player, and gave advice every chance a question popped up in guild chat. The problem was: he wasn't qualified to give advice because he was a bad player. And while he may have put effort into improving his play, he put no such effort into his attitude."

Explaining common sense to a person carries with it an implicit contract: once delivered, you must also provide instruction. By explaining right from wrong, you're proving a point. They don't get it. But if a leader can't provide a concrete solution, that leader has nobody to blame but themselves. "I told him to fix his shit, but he never wanted to!..." is not enough. It isn't a question of not wanting to fix what's broken. For most of DoD, it was often about stopping players from hammering nails with their bare hands.

Aetherknight had neither hammer nor nails.


I made my list as palpable as I could, and focused on limits...both in-game and in-mind.  Here’s how you’re going to solve this problem.
  1. Improve your DPS and survivability, plain and simple. Tweak your gear and spec. If you're dying too much, play more conservatively. Pick more defensive talents. 12th place with 100% uptime is better than you hitting 38k DPS, pulling aggro, and dying.
  2. Take responsibility for your deaths. I don't ever want to hear in Vent "I dunno what happened there" or "This doesn't make any sense." From now on, I want you to look at the combat log, identify what you died from, and own it. When you speak in Vent, say, "This here is what killed me. Will be sure to not let this happen again." Don't let Blain call you out. Call yourself out.
  3. When a conversation about DPS or survivability is carrying on in Vent, don't talk. Listen.
  4. Try some humility. If you see yourself as a beginner, the guild will be primed to give you more leeway when you make mistakes. But if you carry yourself as an expert (and continue to make mistakes), they'll consider you a pompous a-hole, and be less likely to forgive accidents.
I gave Aetherknight the same tools I gave Divineseal, but its effects only lasted a few short months. Aetherknight spent most of his time on the bench, throughout the remainder of 2010. Over time, he became that voice in the crowd, offering random opinions on things he wasn't qualified to give advice on. When he died due to his own negligence, he owned nothing, opting instead to stay silent. It was as if my email had been written in another language. But he was always quick to send an opinion my way:

"I thought you ran a civilized guild."

No hammer. No nails.


December 9th, 2010; two days after Cataclysm's launch. DoD bustled with activity. In Vent, players were chatting about everything new, mixing in-game discoveries with queries about the latest round of changes to DoD's governing ordinance. Aetherknight inserted himself into a conversation in progress; I stayed quiet to hear what revelation he had for us this evening.

"I don't know why you think this is going to change anything, progression will always play favorites to the officers' best buddies."

"I’m...pretty sure Hanzo just finished saying that the rotations are based on proven performance. You gain a spot by proving you are reliable and deliver consistent numbers that steadily improve."

"I've been steadily improving for the last year, but I'm not getting any spots. What I am getting is a lot of grief from Blain, which just proves my point. I shouldn't have to prove myself to anyone, and that's the problem with DoD."

Some of the vets began to question why Aetherknight was choosing to remain in DoD, or even continue playing WoW, if he was so unhappy -- questions he conveniently dodged. I popped open the guild panel, grabbed his name, and demoted his rank to "Janitor" -- a rank that swapped his speaking rights with a different perk: go to the donations tab in the guild vault and clean out all of the junk that players dump there. All actions have a consequence...especially the bad ones.

"I spent the last year trying to give you advice, Aether, but you're not getting it, so maybe it's time you took a breather and cleaned the junk out of the guild vault."

Aetherknight pushed the mic close. "Hey! I have a better idea, Hanzo, how about this? FUCK you...and FUCK your guild vault!"

The guild panel was already open, so it was easy to click the button.

Aetherknight has been removed from the guild.

Cheers filled both Vent and chat as the paladin took his leave. When Blain caught word of Aether's undoing, he rewarded me with 300 forum Karma, relieved to at last be rid of the paladin unable to learn, improve, or simply cope.

Some people are not meant to play World of Warcraft, but it isn't why you think. It's not because they're bad at healing, or bad at tanking, or bad at DPS. All of those things can be fixed with dedication and practice. WoW is about more than just healing, tanking and DPS, it's about interacting with other players, communicating with living, breathing people, and even that is something that can be taught. 

The saddest part of this story is not that Aetherknight was bad at WoW and bad at people. He was bad at limits. Somewhere, deep in that subconscious, his ruler had no slider to mark a threshold. He had no hope of ever pushing from "good" to "great", because Aetherknight had no means to identify what he could withstand...or what we could.

And that, dear reader, isn't anything you or I can hope to teach someone else.