Thursday, March 31, 2016

4.66. Pander Express

The Priest talent tree in Cataclysm (left) vs. Mists of Pandaria

You Say Potato, I Say Casual

The remainder of BlizzCon 2011 played out like a turn-of-the-century medicine show. Every new "feature" and each new "bonus" filled me with suspicion rather than excitement. Each presenter traveled down that familiar road with, "Players are really gonna love this new ______" Which players were they referring to? I was an in-the-flesh representative of their core demographic, having loyally contributed my $14.99 for seven years, never wavering, never cancelling. They might as well have been speaking another language because few of their proposals made sense to me. And so my suspicion grew as I tried to figure out exactly who was getting the short end of the stick.

The Mists of Pandaria panel went off the rails faster than a Sony executive giving a security presentation. Talent Trees, long the staple of character progression in WoW, were gone for good. In their place were flattened, non-hierarchical utility rows sporting exactly three options. The developer panel declared that this new type of talent specialization allowed players to "geek out with more interesting character builds than ever." Interesting was a stretch, to say the least.

When questioned about the failure of the old trees, Blizzard stated they "provided false choice, constantly forcing players into the same cookie-cutter builds." Who decided that was necessarily a bad thing? The panel made zero acknowledgement of legacy talent trees serving a vital game design purpose: confirmation of proficiency.

There is something to be said for learning the ropes, playing around with options, discovering newer, stronger combinations, eventually working your way up to maximum effectiveness. That a select few theorycrafters streamlined this process didn't render the design of hierarchical talent trees ineffective, obsolete, or most importantly not fun. Recruitment just became an order of magnitude more administrative. If Blizzard thought I was going to believe that "all players spec'd into X" were worth vetting, I'd have asked them if their hiring practices allowed for a trial period of every single applicant that sends Blizzard a resume.

Suspicion eventually turned to outright disbelief as the panel revealed more planned features for the next WoW expansion. I shook my head through the entire portion of the panel dedicated to Pet Battles. Instead of watching their PowerPoint deck unfold, I just kept looking at the developers on the panel, trying to get a read on what they actually thought about their intention to blatantly ripoff Pokémon. Were they sitting upright, leaning forward, eyes wide, excited, thrilled even? Or were they lounging in resignation, tired, disengaged from the presentation. I had to know. Were they personally invested in these new changes? Or were these the actions of acceptance in surrender, like a Hemingway in search of shells?

I didn't get any vibes. Neither excitement nor complacency. Nothing. The developer panel carried themselves with the reserved professionalism of a corporate seminar delivering a road map.

The level of detail Blizzard put into the
Pandaren facial expressions was especially vivid and lifelike.

Reading From the Script

A few other DoDers managed to make their way to BlizzCon that year: Insayno, one of our newest members, met up with Goldy and I, as did Bonechatters, Zedman, and even-old schoolers Turtleman and Volitar made the trek to Anaheim. It wasn't nearly the showing that DoD made the previous year, but was respectable nonetheless.

I wandered the conference room floor aimlessly, sometimes with guildies, sometimes by myself, bumping shoulders with both civilians and Minecraft-themed Paladins. Goldy and I waited in line for a shot at the Diablo III PvP arena; it was surprisingly fun and was one more reason to look forward to the game's release.

Having come all this way meant a hands-on taste at the next expansion as well. I leveled a Panda through the starting area with conflicted emotion. The visuals, especially the animation, felt more alive than ever. The Pandaren were incomparable to any previous race added to the game. But the feel of the Monk and its resource system just Their energy bar regenerated exactly as a Rogue's would. This new class was an opportunity for Blizzard to do something radically new, something unheard of in an MMO. Something (dare I say it) cool.

In my mind, I pictured an alternate resource system: a pendulum swinging back and forth (think Boomkin Eclipse bar, but at the speed of a metronome) that would reward a player for timing their attacks. As a player successively nailed each attack with the tick-tock of the pendulum, this would, in turn, increase the speed of the bob, faster and faster, eventually capping out at a frequency just fast enough to warrant practice and mastery. If successful, this would transport the player into a Kung Fu movie -- the player would feel like Bruce Lee, chaining attacks together with lightning speed. How awesome would that be?

But of course, that resource system would never fly. Too complicated. Too inaccessible. Too many moving parts and things to learn and guides to read and timings to master. Strategy guides would be replaced with forum rants, like BS monk resource system forces me to practice, or Thanks Blizzard, Monks unplayable because I lack rhythm. Players don't want homework. They just want to press buttons and get loot. 

Which players wanted that?


The dungeons and raids panel was more of the same. "We really want you to feel special" came across as inauthentic against the backdrop of a game increasingly designed to ensure no player could make a bad decision. Cory Stockton explained their approach to Raid Finder, slated for 4.3, reiterating the message that raids were still inaccessible.

"I never disagreed with that," I leaned over to Bonechatters, "but this isn't the right approach."

Dungeons from the outside! flashed up on the screen, as if this was some new concept never before heard of in WoW.

Bonechatters leaned back to me with a hint of sarcasm in his voice, "So, you mean like Zul'Farrak?" I nodded.

When the Q+A began, I crossed my arms, "This ought be good." What colossal injustices had been levied on the community? Having to work with other players to earn achievements cramping your style? Pressing a button to join a raid still too complex a task for you to wrap your head around? Typing in your username and password too much of a chore?

One of the Blues Brothers asked how kicking and the queue system would work in Raid Finder. Cory responded with Blizzard's algorithm intending to monitor abusers historically. "We want to allow people to kick, but we also don't want people to be kicked for no reason."

"Good answer," I said to Boney, "but it doesn't work today in Dungeons. Rando players make boneheaded judgement calls all the time."

"I've been kicked from LFD plenty," Boney whispered back.

"Exactly. How's this gonna suddenly start working for Raid Finder?" Boney just shrugged back a response.

Another fan stepped up and asked why legendaries couldn't be designed so that guilds could assign it to the most deserving player rather than a class, letting the item take the form appropriate for that player's role. I loved that question. I struggled to find ways to acknowledge specific star performers and wished for flexibility like this.

Cory rebutted the idea by starting off with, "I think you'll lose the luster of the fact that anyone can get it at that point..."

"Wait a second," I whispered back to Boney, catching the contradiction, "It's OK to get everybody into raids, regardless of their competency, but it's not OK to give everyone everything they want?"

Boney broke out the self-deprecation, "Sounds a little duplicitous to me."

Handy translation for the BlizzCon 2011 Dungeons & Raids panel:
1. Make the game easier.
2. Make the game easier.
3. Make the game easier.
4. Do things we've done before but call them something different.
5. Throw 1% of our players a bone, since 99% of them will queue
for a dungeon with a button click.

Poker Face

One player asked if Blizzard might consider splitting the 10- and 25-Man achievements back up, in order to more accurately acknowledge the effort, and difference in difficulty, separately.

But I thought 10s and 25s were exactly the same in difficulty!

That's when I caught my first vibe of authenticity. Not in the answer, but in what came before it. Just before responding to the question, Scott Mercer let out a deep sigh. Frustration. Contention. An ongoing battle waged behind closed doors, of designers divided, and of second thoughts on good intentions. It didn't really matter what Scott said after that. The tell said all that needed to be said.

The panel announced the final question. A kid in a hoodie, braces across his teeth, and Scott Pilgrim hair, leaned into the mic.

"Hi, what's going on? I was just wondering how, in Ulduar and, y'know, heroic Lich, when you did Zero Light and you did heroic Lich King, you would get would get...uh... y'know, the no-head mount. It was 100% on hard mode. But in Firelands, you guys made normal mode people get the firehawk mount. And it made people, like, who got was just kinda like a bummer can see these, like, noobs or whatever...running around on mounts that you kinda have to work for to get, y'know? Do you, like, plan on continuing to do that? Just keep giving these awesome mounts to people who don't deserve it?"

The crowd cheered for the first time during the panel. Had the kid struck a nerve? I leaned over to Boney, "You need to recruit Michael Cera after this raid panel is over." Color me impressed.

Less impressive, by far, was Blizzard's answer.

Scott looked at Cory and began his response after a chuckle, "On heroic you did get them every single time you killed them, on normal I don't think that's the case..."

Cory shook his in his disagreement, confirming Cera's observation, "It was random drop."

As if he had said nothing at all, Scott ignored Cory's clarification and continued his response, ", you were rewarded more, like...y'know..."

Cory tossed in some help to save his drowning teammate, "...and it's a different color!"

Silence washed across the crowd, save for mild muttering amongst one another, musing on the non-answer. To break the awkward silence, Cory immediately rolled into why good rewards would be kept out of raid finder and reserved only for the normal/heroic raids in Mists of Pandaria.

I looked back at Bonechatters and said, "I think my favorite part of Cataclysm is how it was all just one big experiment."

I left the Dungeons and Raids panel rethinking my stance on Mike Morhaime's free Diablo III offer. The more Blizzard opened their mouths, the more I came to believe there was a new WoW demographic they were targeting. It disappointed me to think that the core subscribers -- those diligent, loyal subs that had paid the bills all these years -- were now the guinea pigs.

Blizzard's attention was solely focused on ruining their MMO by designing for players whose defining characteristic was that they didn't like MMOs.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

4.65. A Con at the 'Con

Not a great toy for kids


I woke up on Goldenrod's couch and was certain something was picking my eyeball out of its socket. Jarred from sleep in a frenzy of blinking, the haze lifted. A spider-bite reaction at 2:00 am gave the sensation of a thousand eyelashes stuck in my eye. Sleeping bags apparently offered little protection from insects, even from within the comforts of honest-to-god living quarters. Bugs get what they want.

I washed my eye out in his kitchen sink, struggling to keep the volume of my late-night disturbance to a minimum. Eventually, my eyelid twitched less, returning to its usual hyper kinetic state, and I caught a glimpse of the moon from the window above the sink. I decided to slip out back for a quick breath of fresh air.

Even in the dead of night, the warmth of California was a pleasant break from Colorado’s altitude. Jealousy set in. I had no qualms when traveling to the coast for business. The heat was wonderful. I also missed the ocean, something always accessible growing up. I never made time for it as a kid; my mind was on other things. How next to score some computer or video game access. Always scheming, plotting by circumstance.

The business portion of this trip hadn't started yet. In a few days, I'd march into our El Segundo office, training teams by day and enjoying the luxuries of an all-expense paid five-star hotel by night. But before that, there was more important "business" to attend to: A two-day visit to the Anaheim Convention Center, and an all-expense paid sleeping bag on my DPS Officer's sofa, keeping company with the various parasites hiding away in the cracks of his house, thirsty for eyeball juice.

It wasn't the first time I'd had a run in with insects harboring an ocular fetish.

One cold afternoon in the fall of 1980, a much smaller version of myself snuck into the thick brush that lined the backyard of our mobile home, far up in the snowy northern town of Flin Flon, Manitoba. I was armed with a tree branch and an intent to stir up some shit. With several neighborhood kids in tow, the lot of us edged up carefully to the grayish paper-mache looking bag hanging from a tree. I tuned out the ominous, faint buzz coming from the gray bag, and with a deep breath, I mustered all my childhood courage and plunged the tree branch deeply into the center of the nest.

Then, I ran like Hell.

A six-year old's legs are no match for the ferocity of a wasp swarm when it comes to collect. Pack instinct defending its nest far superseded the best laid plans of a young child now panicking, arms waving like an inflatable tube man on a used car lot. Inevitably, a trusted soldier landed his stinger directly above my left eye. The sensation of a hot poker sent me screaming for Mom. In tears, I found myself sitting atop the kitchen counter, while my Mother pressed a ziploc bag of ice against a now swollen-shut eyelid.

"Bet you won't try that again," Mom said. Her voice bore the tone of an impending lesson, "What were you thinking?"

"The kids...said I'd be cool...if I did it."

"You mean 'foolish'."

My six-year old brain didn't get the message, "No! 'Cool'!!"

Mom looked back, knowing more but always refusing to play her hand, and answered simply, "...what's the difference?"

Tyrael's Charger,
An exclusive WoW mount announced at BlizzCon 2011

The Right Frame for the Picture

"How's the eye?"

"I can see, Goldy! Here. These seats right here are perfect."

The main conference hall was packed. Goldenrod and I maneuvered through the crowd as quickly as possible, securing a pair of seats reasonably close to the main stage. Every year it got a bit tougher. Each new 'Con filled the hall faster and faster. It wouldn't be long before the best seats in the house were well behind the concrete pillars in the furthest extremities of the auditorium. Good for hiding restrooms; bad for catching a first glimpse at the next big thing.

Excitement kept my realism at bay. A year earlier I was at the head of a wildly successful raiding guild, casual in its treatment of members, hardcore in its approach to getting things done. We were poised to enter Cataclysmic territory. I harbored doubts, but chose to meet them head on by doubling down on discipline and accountability.

A year later, our success was debatable and measured. We held on to progression...barely. Slots were increasingly filled by new recruits (when available) and veterans were doing double- and sometimes triple-duty, leveling alts for the roles that were needed. DoD suffered its third exodus, something I'd formerly felt capable of steering DoD away from. More vets were retiring, pulling out of progression. As a realist, the future looked grim. The energy surging through the BlizzCon attendees helped suppress my concerns, a temporary but welcome distraction.

My unease would return before Mike Morhaime even left the stage.

I liked Mike. He was never smug and forever grateful for Blizzard's fans. As always, he was thrilled to have such a dedicated, supportive community, bringing his trademark youthful, humbled geekiness front and center. He sung the praises of Cataclysm, chatted up patch 4.3: Hour of Twilight, and the legendary rogue daggers. He made mention of WoW's 10th localization, planned for Brazil. And he broke out the nostalgia by reflecting on how Blizzard hadn't changed in its twenty years. I drifted a bit when the topic shifted to the upcoming Heart of the Swarm expansion, transitioning to his infatuation with eSports (I get it Mike, you really love eSports!), but when Mike made mention of an old familiar franchise, I immediately sat up in my chair.

Diablo III had been in development, quietly, for nearly ten years; now, the beta loomed and keys were coveted. Would he surprise the audience and grant us all some keys? As the crowd chanted for the beta, Mike waved down the rising commotion and announced he had something better:

World of Warcraft players would get Diablo III absolutely free.

Goldenrod and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised, silently exchanging a Scooby Doo WHA??

Settle down. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Someone always pays.

Mike then explained the details of the offer. Diablo III would come free to WoW players committing to one year of subscription fees. In doing so, WoW players would not only get Diablo III free of charge, they'd also secure a guaranteed spot in the next WoW expansion beta, and access to an exclusive in-game mount, Tyrael's Charger.

Mike's reveal sent the BlizzCon crowd into chaotic elation, eyes focused on the screen behind the Blizzard CEO, mouths agape at the awesome looking mount. Something didn't feel right. My mind began putting the numbers together in different combinations, trying to decode the pitch and identify this uncomfortable vibe now taking a hold of me.

Framing a deal
(Source: "Framing" @ Medium)

Spinning the Wheel

In seven years of playing World of Warcraft, of all the players that crossed my path -- the casuals and the hardcores, the PvPers the PvEers, the decent and the indecent -- I cannot recall a single instance of a WoW player ever uttering these words, "Yeah, gonna be cancelling my sub next month, got a new game to play!" The notion that WoW players would decide between WoW and another game struck me as surprisingly shortsighted, almost as if Mike, himself a gamer, didn't know his own audience. If we were a WoW player, chances are, we fully intended to return to Sanctuary for the loot grab.

I gave it another consideration. Was there truly a portion of the WoW community that played WoW and nothing else? Ok, perhaps there was. But what kind of a gamer was this particular player -- a gamer for which WoW defines their gaming experience. I imagined it very unlikely this demographic would be interested in anything other than WoW. Their choice would be WoW, period. So, throwing in a free copy of Diablo III made no sense. They wouldn't play it.

To summarize:

  • WoW + Diablo Fans: Already in their year long sub. Planned to spend another $49.99, extra, no longer necessary.
  • WoW-Only Fans: Already in their year long sub. Never planned to spend $49.99 on Diablo III, was never a "choice" to them, but were happy to enjoy the mount / guaranteed WoW beta pass for spending nothing extra.

So, if the entire WoW community was already in it for their year long subscription, and that community was made up of either players already committed to playing Diablo III or players with zero interest at all in playing Diablo III, where did this "either or" part of the deal come into play? Who was it that Mike was truly pitching this offer to?

The Diablo III-only fans?

A WoW-subscriber paying $14.99 / mo. x 12 months was already in with a commitment of $179.88 for the year. Purchasing Diablo III traditionally (at a retail cost of $49.99) would have upped that investment to $228.87 for the year. By contrast, a Diablo III-only fan's annual investment in Blizzard amounted to the mere retail cost of the game: $49.99. Blizzard stood to make far less money on Diablo III than it did off WoW subscribers.

...unless, perhaps, they could make one last move to increase a Diablo III-only fan's ability to pay a little more. Convincing Diablo III players to commit to a WoW sub they had no interest in, carried the potential to increase these players' investments into the company by about 3 1/2 times.

Even before the pitch left Mike's lips, Blizzard was guaranteed to sell many millions of copies (let's call this 'x amount of copies') of Diablo III at retail ($49.99). Now, with his "free" offer, a percentage of that same 'x' were now going to sell for $179.88. None of this considers the potential that a few of those Diablo III players might convert to full-time WoW players, the game that keeps on paying (Blizzard).

If Mike had gone up on stage and said, "Diablo fans, I've got a great surprise for you all this year. How would a handful of you like to pay us  3.5x the retail cost of Diablo III, and we'll give you a mount you'll never use in a game you'll never play?" I'm fairly certain the audience would've gone silent, though knowing gamers, the boos and profanity would've followed quickly. But this is exactly what the deal was, spun to the hypothetical WoW player, struggling to decide which game to play.

Framing our consumer perspective is nothing new, and certainly, nothing new to Blizzard. Those who might take an even strong conspiratorial stance, blaming greediness as a result of the Activision/Blizzard merger, I can assure you it wasn't. Take two minutes and read about how the rested XP system, developed for Vanilla WoW, was first designed as a penalty.

As early alpha testers earned less and less XP the longer they marathoned their playtime, they grew irritated at the perceived lack of freedom to play as they chose. Did Blizzard pull the system? Quite the contrary. They raised XP 200% across the board, then slowly reduced the player's gain back to 100%. Perceived as a bonus, alpha testers carried on, without a further complaint. Yet the end result, taping a person's effectiveness off after extended play, remained intact.

Traditionally, I'd never been suspicious of Blizzard's intentions; I understood they were a company and, at the end of the day, had their own upkeep. But everything about this deal gave me pause: who it was targeted to, the claim that WoW players would be deciding between one game or another, the actual profit gains they'd enjoy as a result of giving out something for "free." The BlizzCon crowd screamed "COOL", but I couldn't shake the feeling we were all being taken for a ride.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

4.64. Play Different

DoD defeats Heroic: Beth'tilac,

Round Pegs

Back into the fray, the progression team diverted immediately to the western side of Firelands, satisfied that they never again had to cast their gaze eastward. Those blackened hills along the west corridor snaked upward into a hike that ended at Beth'tilac's lair. I prayed for a quick death -- either her own or my guild's, rather than suffering the torment of another month long encounter. No player deserved to repeat such indignity.

Other than the requisite "has more health, hits harder" changes we'd come to expect in heroic encounters, Beth'tilac's Cinderweb Drones now randomly fixated on players, forcing healers to treat them as mini-tanks for short bursts. Cinderweb Spinners would flail while dangling from their strands of fiery silk, causing bursts of magma to spiral out and stun random members of the raid. Also worthy of note, Engorged Broodlings scurried towards random players at high speed, detonating with significant AoE damage once reached. 

Beth'tilac was already a DPS check and one of the tighter encounters of Firelands. It was anyone's guess as to say how many attempts these changes would impose on the progression team. It ended up being roughly a dozen pulls. Three hours in, DoD claimed its first defeat of Heroic: Beth'tilac.

"We should've just done Beth'tilac second," said Klocker.

"Somebody please shoot him," I replied.

"Happy to oblige," said Blain, "Klocker, send me your home address."

"It's easy to remember. I actually live at your Mom's house now."


Sunday, we were down a healer. Lexxii's permanent absence stretched the thin membrane of the roster even further. With no replacement, I leaned heavily on the goodwill from others in order to keep the machine humming. The commitment I made to DoD to provide them with a stable raiding guild felt more like a fraud with each passing week. Suppressing this growing guilt was a far more dominant thought in recent months. Whatever it takes to get the job done. Your rules are in place to keep repeat offenders on the straight-and-narrow. You're not undermining your own authority. You're negotiating.

The brothers shaman were out for a camping trip the entire weekend, putting me up against a management wall. Do I continue to grant them the freedom to take time off for a job well done and put progression at risk, or guilt-trip them into staying late like some pointy-haired boss who cared more about the menial work than an individual's mental health?

As it turned out, both Gunsmokeco and Deathonwings returned from camping with only minutes to spare before the start of the raid. After flipping a coin, Guns offered up his heals for the twenty-fifth spot. I showered him with thanks for his generosity, and made no mention of his on-going resistance to install add-ons -- mandates meant for the ignorance of amateurs, rather than to patronize the experts. I didn't even bust his balls about continuing to raid on a MacBook, as he was one of the few Apple nuts among a trove of PC master race folk. It was neither the time nor the place.

We headed straight for Alysrazor. The chaotic four-phase fight bearing traits of both Pilotwings and Star Castle remained almost entirely unchanged in heroic. Phases two, three, and four presented no new obstacles to learn; it merely asked us to take the stone we already had, then squeeze just a bit more blood from it.

DoD defeats Heroic: Alysrazor,

How It Works

Phase one, however, took on a new mechanic. Several gigantic meteors would plummet to the ground, then slowly roll across the cavern floor, not unlike the meteors from the Ragnaros encounter. They had low health and were easily dispatched, but rather than explode and disintegrate when killed, the meteors simply stopped moving, converting to a semi-permanent obstacle that hindered us. Or...from a different perspective...protected us.

The addition of the meteors were a component to Alysrazor's new Firestorm ability: a blast of fiery winds pummeling players with enough force to incinerate them on the spot. The trick, then, was to use the now-dormant meteor as a line-of-sight shield, hiding behind its girth while a sheet of flame painted the entire cavern floor. 

But...from which direction would the winds come? The only way to know how to position oneself was to look at Alysrazor herself, observe her position and angle at the moment preceding Firestorm, then adjust around the meteor appropriately. There was usually less than a second to adjust before a torrent of flame drained your life.

Positioning ourselves around the meteors was chaotic; someone always ended up making a bad call, diving when they should have dodged. But the progression team had dealt with much worse torture for far longer. They stuck it out, until Heroic: Alysrazor finally fell with 30 minutes to spare on the evening of Sunday, October 2nd. DoD had dangled at the bottom of server progression lists at an embarrassing 1/7 for an entire month. Over the course of two raid weekends, we shot up to 4/7. Kicking and screaming, my guild clung to life.

"MVP goes out to Guns for this one, folks," I added in Vent, "thank you for stepping up and filling in at the last moment."

"Just a good thing that I got back from camping in time," he replied.

The outdoors are highly overrated.


Wednesday, October 5th started as an otherwise ordinary day. I went to work and focused most of my time on preparing training materials that I was scheduled to deliver at my company's El Segundo branch. Seven months after being hired as a senior developer to support legacy code, I now found myself in the position of managing two teams of developers on two separate products, while putting an actual process into place for a third.

It never failed to amaze me how a multi-billion dollar organization still managed to retain so many dysfunctional teams. Red tape has a habit of obstructing one's ability to get shit done. Some might argue that excessive rules help keep the herd from wandering off the cliff, but structure is only one prong under the leadership umbrella.

I kept my plans simple to understand, straightforward to execute, and left little room for guesswork. Check these files in. Run this deploy script. Verify these tests. When they fail, it isn't anyone's responsibility but yours to fix. Own it. There was no rocket surgery in my training. It was a programmer's ode of Move Out of the Fucking Fire.

Personal responsibility was a common theme in my process plan, but so too was another equally important concept: the ability to adapt. If process is becoming an anathema to productivity, learn when it is appropriate to detour. If rules feel like they're suffocating you, certain situations call for personal discretion. You might actually have to slip past the guards once or twice, get into that burning building...and come out a hero. That can only happen when you know your stuff inside and out. Be an expert. When the day arrives that you no longer need a healing add-on to provide world-class healing, then...and only then...will you be in a position to make such rule-breaking judgement calls.

My phone buzzed and vibrated across the white desk. Messages arrived from several people at once. The ambient conversation at work also began to pick up around my cube. I glanced at the phone, reading the text message, demanding that I pull up the news immediately. I ventured online, pulled up the news, and stared dumbfounded at the headline.

The awful news that spread across the Internet,
October 5th, 2011

The Man in the Machine

The passing of Steve Jobs sent a cascade of unchecked emotion through me. Sadness. Regret. Frustration. Anger. Technology was my life, and Steve very much shaped a part of the industry that I held dear. And because of how much of a role tech played in my life, you can probably imagine the sorts of beliefs I harbored towards the famously opinionated CEO of Apple.

I was not, what you might call, an Apple "fanboi". I detested the overpriced hardware, seeing it for what it was: a sham, meant to trick the layperson out of additional hard-earned cash for equivalent processing power. I saw his stubborn finger-pointing antics as theatrical, meant to add a dash of controversy to an ostentatious bisque that was Apple PR. And it goes without saying that I saw an always inadequate lineup of games. I didn't dislike Apple because they were disingenuous, but that they were disingenuous and wildly successful.

Steve's attention-to-detail was unparalleled in the industry, he noticed the little things far more acutely than the average person. He understood the complexities in design at a level most others could not. This foresight manifested as technological prophecy: he knew what people wanted before they even knew themselves, a master trick in any magician's repertoire. Those who worked with him spoke of his ever present "reality distortion field" -- an otherworldly power that convinced ordinary people they were capable of extraordinary things. 

Steve's many critics point out that these are the traits of a narcissistic master manipulator; I consider myself amongst that camp. But while that may be true, I could not, however, deny the end result was a message steeped heavily in my own ideology. Do whatever it takes. Make it happen. Jobs may have been outlandish, and an awful people manager, but his approach was practical for a leader who consistently saw a picture far bigger, and with much greater clarity, than the many individuals he chose to realize that vision.

I clocked out of the office a bit later than usual that night. The streets of Denver were emptier, as I drove home in quiet contemplation. I thought of Steve and of Apple, of his vision and insight, of his miraculous turnaround of the company he built. And while I may have detested his hardware or his methods, I was thankful for Steve's inspirational impact on a great many people in this world...a few of which who might never have set foot in DoD otherwise.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

4.63. Underwhelmed

Seraphine spies the Pureblood Fire Hawk,
freshly looted by The ORLY Factor,

Et tu, Douche Canoe?

"I'm out this weekend," Blain's tone was jovial in Vent, bordering on relief, as if to say have fun with all of that. It only pissed me off more.

"Didn't you just take a weekend vacation?"

"Yeah...that was two months ago. And I need to do it again!"

"Is this absolutely the best fucking time to be vacationing? I mean, we're at what could be considered the worst possible brick wall in DoD's history."

His tone shifted. It was subtle, barely enough to register on the average person's radar. Blain kept to an affable demeanor, but paused ever-so-slightly on words where it was appropriate for the listener to take a hint. He'd taken this posture with me at various points throughout our raiding career together, most notably when I neared the line of inappropriateness. And if you were a sharp enough people reader that you could catch what he was throwing down, while blindfolded (as so many of us gamers are forced to be), you'd know what he was aiming for -- that you were one of the few who'd earned a spot in his good graces, and now teetered precariously on the brink of falling out of favor.

"Well...that may be true...but I'm still going to be out...Friday. I should be back for the Sunday raid, and if I'm going to be late, I'll text you."

It doesn't matter how greatly / poorly we're doing. I have plans. I'm letting you know what they are. Respect them. 

Message delivered.

"Thanks," my tone could've been less snotty, but with all energy fully allocated to rage management, little remained to fuel social grace.

September of 2011 wound me into a bitter, cynical state. After spending only two nights on Heroic: Shannox, there was no indication, no hint at all, of the torture we were about to endure as we headed toward Heroic: Lord Rhyolith. Night after night, weekend after weekend, we smashed our faces against molten rock, again and again, battered and beaten, until our virtual eyes welled up with bloodied mucus, and drool lingered from each digital lip. Each night, those digital avatars trudged slowly out of Firelands, shoulders hunched, spitting bone fragments on the way out, not for convenience. For contempt.

My state of mind grew weary, thanks in part to both direct and indirect psychological attacks, constantly challenging the decisions I'd made for seven years. Leveling alts to clear my mind may have freed me from Drecca's coordinated harassment campaign, but I didn't have to travel far to see Blizzard's changing stance on rewarding a guild's commitment to backbone. There was a time when a player might look to the sky in awe of raiding accomplishments. Bearing witness to such incredible rare mounts got the juices flowing, the gears turning. A player coveting such treasure might consider how s/he could acquire one, eventually working their way into a well-respected raiding guild. Dedication and hard work were no longer requirements for such rare treasures. To the shit-show went the spoils. To the rest of us, with fingers raw and wrists cramped sore with carpal tunnel, went nothing. A sigh forever exhaling.

If there was a payoff out there, stretched thin across the horizon, it grew dim with each failed week on Rhyolith.

An early version of "Lord Rhyolith Footers" addon in action
(Source: "Suspicion vs. Lord Rhyolith")


DoD's roster splintered. Sarge was still out (blown video card), and now the healers would suffer an additional tragedy: the loss of Beefysupryme. Still young in the eyes of the guild, he (along with wife Physica) contributed exceptional heals and damage, respectively. The couple had grown to become loyal, dedicated members of the DoD family in a short time. Alas, Beefy scored a new job, and the schedule disallowed him from concentrating on progression. He stepped down from the core and hung up his healing Resto Druid branches, leaving Physica to carry the torch in his name.

The worst hit of all was losing Jungard, whose college fall schedule had finally kicked off, shattering any chances of his availability on Friday night progression. I'd watched Jungard for years, slowly making his way into late TBC progression after getting his first shot via Annihilation. Over the many months and several expansions that made up Jungard's raiding career in DoD, he'd grown from a humble warrior looking for glory, to a trusted friend and confidant, and eventually, an officer of the DoD court. His compassion and kind nature toward even the scrubbiest of players often reminded me of the proverbial "catch more bees with honey" strategy that I desperately needed now, more than the frustrations of Cataclysm mounted. The holes in the officer core formerly filled by Neps and Jungard were sucking chest wounds that DoD had no choice but to suffer.

On the eve of the sixth week of attempts on Heroic: Lord Rhyolith, the night Blain informed me he'd be missing one of the two nights on a business trip, I opened up a chat with Bonechatters and began typing instructions.

"Ping Fred, and ask him if he is willing to take the reins Friday, and if he has too much on his plate, that you are happy to take it off his shoulders."

"Got it. Tanks?"

"Most likely Amatsu and Unchained. I can pull my bizarre avoidance out if necessary for Baleroc."

"Roger. I want people to be using Footers tonight, melee is accounted for. If its successful, perhaps we might consider having everyone use it."

Boney was experimenting with a new addon that raiding guilds were catching wind of, a panel that displayed the names of each player doing damage to each particular foot, as well as an estimate of DPS being applied to each foot. With it, he hoped to gain more control over the chaotic, unstructured "left foot/right foot" calls in Vent.

"Oh, and Boney...plan for heroics, across the board."

Moments later, Fred connected with me over instant messenger.

"I feel like I've lost some man points. My wife had me log on to Pinterest."

"I dunno what that is."

"It's a new favorite site amongst women that love to drive their husbands insane."

I focused Fred back to the topic at hand, "So, you're comfortable leading Friday?"

"Ya, shouldn't be a problem."

"This may be our shot," noting the upside of the nerfs, "most heroics will be well within reach now."

Honestly, having been unable to attempt anything past Heroic: Lord Rhyolith, I will never know what else we might have accomplished. But Blizzard's blanket nerfs to Firelands only nights before ensured that nearly every boss suffered at least a 15% hit in health and damage. Amid a never-ending list of setbacks, the nerfs stood to be our last remaining motivator.

"Did Alysrazor in the 10 last night. The tornadoes move so slow now. It's like a geriatric parade."

"Boney's having melee get the Footers addon, you may want to have it as well."

I fired up Pinterest, and scrolled through the sea of women's fashion.

"Pinterest, eh? Needs more Hanzo."

DoD ends their ordeal, defeating Heroic: Lord Rhyolith,


We cut Shannox immediately out of the way at the start of the Friday raid, focusing all of our attention on Rhyolith for the duration of the night. Shannox keeled over with less grief than previous heroic kills; the effects of Blizzard's nerfs were noticeable. We accepted the handicap as a commander might accept the loss of a good battalion in order to gain a necessary foothold in the ongoing war: outwardly optimistic and focused on the brass ring while remaining humbly aware of what that cost came with. Bragging about "awesome deeps" would be left to another day.

Heroic: Lord Rhyolith attempts resumed. Having clocked as many hours on Rhyolith as we had on Kael'thas Sunstrider in TBC, it is fair to state that our newest members to progression rightfully earned a place among honorary veteran raiders of the old world. Those Wrath- and Cata-era raiders who stuck this out were part of a rare crew -- they weathered the grueling, repetitive demands of month-long practice attempts that formed the cornerstone of Vanilla and TBC raiding, and they did so with grace.

Progress! By the end of the evening, DoD experienced more transitions into phase two than ever before. All that remained was an employing a workable strategy to deal with Rhyolith's eye-beams, which cut the roster down before being able to extinguish that remaining fire. Blain would see to that, come Sunday.


An hour before the raid, my phone buzzed.

Still at least an hour away. Start without me.

I thumbed back a response, asking him where he was.

Greenville SC

An hour? Google Maps estimated Blain had closer to two hours before getting near anything that resembled a gaming rig.

"We're clearing bosses first," I directed Fred. He and Boney led the charge, clearing to Beth'tilac, Baleroc, and Alysrazor. All three were done by the first hour, planting us firmly at Rhyolith's godforsaken feet at the top of the 1st hour.

I called Blain, and quietly left my press-to-talk key down, while I feigned a serious tone.

"Blain. You are an hour late. This is completely unacceptable behavior. Especially for a Tyrant."

I could make out the car engine in the background.

"Sorry," this time his tone was that of genuine defeat, perhaps one of the rarest glimpses into Blain's vulnerabilities, "I guessed pretty bad on this drive. Give the raid my apologies."

Holding the phone up to the speakers so that he could hear clearly, the raid gave Blain a round of boos and insults, not meant to disparage, but to humor and lighten the painfully dark mood Rhyolith had brought. It was another rare glimpse of DoD sticking together. On the other end of my phone, Blain laughed.

"Ok, I'm hanging up. We're going to go kill Heroic Rhyolith now."

"Alright, everyone," he replied, "good luck in there."

I turned back to the raid, "You heard the man, folks. End this suffering."

It took only two attempts.

Twenty-two minutes after I hung up with Blain, Rhyolith's shell broke off, exposing his body of liquid flame. All twenty-five players remained alive, carefully inching their way around eye beams while unleashing the pent up rage of ten nights of practice. His great liquid magma body crashed to the ground and the screams of victory filled Vent once again. Dead at last. The nightmare was over. Sanity became reality. For a brief moment, all was right with the world.

"Ok, let's see," started Fred, "ok we have an Incendic Chestguard. Maybe for a boomkin? Taking bids now. Ending bids in 3, 2, bids?"

Mortalsend spoke up, "Well...I’ll take it for off, but only if nobody else needs it."

"Looks like you're it. There you go. Next up we have, uh....Earthcrack Bracers. DPS melee bracers. bids to Fred."

I looked at my bracers. The difference (if there was any to speak of) were negligible. Inspecting Hells revealed the same bracers.

"Ok, counting down, 3...2...1. And, winner is Unchained. There you go, sir."

"Thanks, Fred."

"Cracked Obsidian Stompers are next, bids to Fred. Bring in the bids, folks. Let's go. Counting down...3...2...1. Winner is Amatsu for 5."

"Wow, an actual upgrade for someone with the appropriate spec!"

"Meh," Amatsu added, "They're marginally better, but 5 DKP won't break me."

"Ok last up, we have Entrail Disgorger. Bids to Fred. Anybody at all. Send 'em in. Counting down in 3...2...1. Entrail Disgorger goes to Boney for 35."

I stood in silence a moment.

", I guess...Staghelm, folks."

The raid headed off of Rhyolith's plateau, and back down the ravine, heading towards Staghelm's bridge. I stood another moment, staring off into the brimstone.

One of the most excruciating, torturous bosses ever confronted by DoD over its seven year history...depriving us of nearly thirty-two hours of forward movement in the instance...produced:

- one upgrade,
- two side-grades, and
- two off-pieces.

Evidence of anything else was forever banished to a shapeless pile of enchanting dust, cast away, like so many good intentions.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

4.62. The Worst Encounter in the World

Raid Finder is buried amongst the
new dress-up features of 4.3

Weeks 1 + 2

Night 1 - 8/21/2011
Spent two hours on Heroic: Rhyolith today. Not much changed in heroic. Fragments/Sparks have more health, hit harder. Liquid Obsidian emerges from active volcanoes, and reconstructs Rhyo's armor, but are easily snared/slowed/killed. Superheated comes a bit faster. There's also an eye beam we have to deal with in phase two, but haven't seen that yet. For the most part, inconsequential changes. We'll get this in no time.

Still sifting through the deluge of 4.3 patch notes. Tons of info up on MMO-Champ talking about the new Darkmoon Fair, Transmogrification, Void Storage, Dragon Soul, and the new CoT dungeons. Unsurprisingly, gaming media is glossing over this new "raid finder" addition. Why spend time on that when you can focus on barbie doll dress-up mode? If it gives the same loot (as I suspect it will), it will be the end of guilds and the end of WoW. Blizzard, always ready to put its faith into its community, vehemently disagrees. In other news, water is wet.

Night 2 - 8/26/2011

Two more hours on Heroic: Lord Rhyolith today. May have underestimated how difficult the new heroic mechanics are. Bad enough the gimmick of "attack the left foot, make him turn left; attack the right foot, make him turn right" is less fun and more annoying, but in theory, heroic should not be as hard as it is. Should actually be very straightforward.

Steering should not be as much of a problem as it is. Blizzard even built a custom gauge for the fight, so we can see which way he's turning. Practically a non-factor in normal mode. Yet steering Rhyolith over each subsequent volcano in order to wear down his armor isn't going as well in heroic over the long term. Trying to steer him over active ones while avoiding dormant ones is practically impossible. Eventually, we begin missing actives, and the attempt spirals from there.

Summer vacations are still taking their toll on the roster. Larada's out on account of exams, which sucks, because his mage Doja is one of the top number generators. Boggles my mind how subtle changes do or do not affect our ability to progress. Mangetsu was out the week we killed heroic: Shannox; his absence didn't affect that fight, although in retrospect, we did have one person alive at the end.

Jungard politely reminded me that he is now two months away from his schedule permanently changing. Bonechatters' training is going well. Am confident he'll fill the absence left by Jungard.

Night 3 - 8/28/2011

No training for Bonechatters today, he is out sick. I have to give the kid some formality bonus points. His message read like that of an employee tendering a resignation. "It is with great regret that I must step down from tonight's raid, as I have an ear infection." A far cry from players that simply say nothing and just don't bother to show. May seem silly, but it's the little things that count. Being perceived as too formal isn't the worst thing in the world.

Drecca started talking shit in /general channel today. Had to tell Deathonwings to get out of the channel again. Bad enough /general is a distraction with all the bullshit Enigma d-bag chatter. Now we have to listen to Herp Derp taunts while dying to Concussive Stomp.

The progression team takes a sanity break
from Heroic: Lord Rhyolith, and
executes two achievements,

Weeks 3 + 4

Night 4 - 9/2/2011

First raid of the September month. Have been in Firelands for 10 weeks now. Fourth week on Heroics. Got Beth'tilac, Baleroc and Alysrazor (normal) out of the way quickly, so we could knuckle down on Heroic: Rhyo. Got 3 ½ hours in on him.

No dice.

No ranged officer this weekend, Goldy is out on vacation. Need to get with Goldy at some point. New position at work is sending me out to Cali in order to train the next group. Trip may coincide with BlizzCon. If I can crash at his house that weekend, I may be able to kill two birds with one stone. Would be nice. Save me the travel expense, at least.

Larada still has exams, Dewgyd and Vexx, also out. The new shaman Gharghael would've been great to use. No sign of him, either.

Lexxii was late again. First time it happened, at least she had the decency to text me. Now, not even doing that. She's falling off the deep end. Don't know if this is a result of her breaking up with Bullshark, or her losing the healing officer position. Maybe both. 

Doesn't matter.

End result is she's impacting the raid, and is pissing off the crew more every day. Warning her has no effect. Will just try to get Charcassone, Mortalsend and Syphira a bit more gear, so I can pull the plug on Lexxii.

Thank God the Diablo III beta is about to start. Firelands is buring holes in my retinas. Am getting awfully sick of looking at Rhyolith.

Night 5 - 9/4/2011

Three more hours on Heroic: Rhyo. Still nothing. Dropped it to normal, just to loot him and continue to gear people for their hard work. Amuses me to call it "work." What was Ater's old joke? We're not here to have fun.

Oh, Ater. If only you could see us failing now.

Team isn't able to to get ahead of the Sparks. Health was manageable in normal. Now, it's clear we don't have the top-of-the-line DPS that we should. Swapping in what little new folks we have is taking its toll on the bottom line. Damage isn't where we need to be. Blain insists on being the sole tank for Sparks. Can't help but wonder if Amatsu's Pally would be better. Blain isn't dying, but neither of them have a DPS spec, so it's probably negligible.

We need to kill adds faster, but any good attempt we make quickly falls behind after we lose people to random volcano damage and an unavoidable Concussive Stomp. The encounter is wringing the healers out like a sponge.

Night 6 - 9/9/2011

Would really love to know where all my rogues went. Blain has an excuse. The rest of them know when signups happen. Boney, Darth, Randy...they're better than this. Boney claims I did the rotations a day early. I do them the same day every week. Nothing's changed in years. Larada's done with exams, thank God. Meanwhile, Sarge blew his video card. He's out permanently, as he has no means to replace it. One step forward, two steps back.

Got off to a reasonable start, was able to knock out a couple of achievements needed for Glory. Dusting more of the normal drops from Beth'tilac, Baleroc, Alysrazor, and Shannox. We're in that festive fucking spot where everybody that needs an upgrade isn't getting the one drop they could use. Extending the lock is a waste; resetting the lock is a waste. This was a good idea how? Thanks, Ghostcrawler. Thanks for taking a stand and advocating for a bunch of players that have already cancelled their accounts because "Grim Batol is too hard." We pay the price for your hopeful optimism.

More taunting from Drecca in instance chat today. Mr. "10-Man is the greater challenge" hypocrite fails to recognize the fact that HD swept through all the bosses by mid-August. Here it is September and we still can't get past our second heroic. Spare me your ignorance, Drecca. You know as well as I do that if 10 was the more difficult one, you'd be stuck slaving over this insanely tortuous boss. You're no God's fucking gift to WoW.

Hells ranted at me today about the taunting. He's probably got less control over his emotions than I do. I calmed him down and reminded him that we needed him, so he wasn’t allowed to go off on a drinking binge. Nothing is worth that, not even a fucker like Drecca.

Night 7 - 9/11/2011

Twenty hours clocked in on this godforsaken encounter. I want to wrap my fingers around my keyboard and choke the ever loving shit out of it. Maybe if I crushed it tightly enough I'd come out with a mother fucking diamond.

Have now spent more time on Heroic: Rhyo than on Lady Vashj. This is ludicrous. No boss has come close to Vashj-level difficulty in years. Except perhaps Heroic Lich King, Halion and Anub'arak, none of which we conquered. But those were all end bosses. They were supposed to be hard. This is a fucking nondescript walking volcano in the middle of an instance with no lore and no significance. What in the actual fuck is going on???

He actually made it to the lava today and wiped the raid. Steering is a colossal clusterfuck of epic proportions. There has to be a better way than this constant "left foot, right foot" shit in Vent. We sound like a bunch of casuals facerolling across our collective keyboards. Cue me getting on the forums and complaining about "this boss is way too hard." The faint siren of the Wahmbulance can be heard in the distance.

Is this going to turn into some kind of Illidan / Kael'thas level shit?

Fred seems convinced that Drecca is viewing our log history on World of Logs and working out the times of the evening we're attempting specific bosses, so he can taunt us at the most inopportune times. Seems very "conspiracy theory." More realistically, we've got someone feeding him this info, unintentionally or otherwise. I wouldn't put it past a number of our members that might just be messaging him privately. He's phishing them, and they're eating it up, giving him what he wants. Nobody would admit to that if I ever questioned them. Sucks that it is a possibility. There are definitely several people in the roster capable of that behavior. I wish I felt otherwise.

Apparently Blizzard nerfed the drop rate of Smoldering Essences, which is a shame. Goldy was making good progress collecting up mats for the legendary. Too bad. Dragonwrath might have helped put a bigger dent in Rhyo.

Lord Rhyolith makes it into the top five
worst bosses in Cataclysm
(Source: Engadget)

Week 5

Day 8 - 9/16/2011

Week five of work on Heroic: Rhyolith. Three hours today. Nothing. I want to eat a gun. I want to gouge my fucking eyeballs out of my head. No matter how hard we insist that we cannot miss a volcano, we continue to miss them. We drag the fight out. Missing the occasional volcano should not have as much of an impact as it does. Sadly, there's no choice in the matter. This is heroic, we should expect less room for error. It should come as no surprise when we're wiping after missing so many. And yet, it continues. But this isn't the worst of it.

Liquid Obsidian is always controlled well at the start, then spirals out of control every time we approach phase two. It's a vicious cycle. As Superheated nears, it takes longer for him to transition. Rhyolith is rebuilding armor faster than it can be depleted. This entire ordeal is a textbook exercise in attrition. Sparks die slower, apply more fire vulnerability to the raid. Concussive stomps hit harder, emptying the healers faster. People die, and Rhyolith gets his armor back before we can break his entire shell off and get him into phase two. The one time we actually do make it to phase two, it's our only opportunity to see his eye beams in action. They slice through the raid like a knife through butter. We wipe at 3%. Somewhere in the world, kittens are killed mercilessly.

Only thing keeping me sane is Blizzard's mention of an upcoming nerf. Nothing fills me with confidence more than knowing we are failing so miserably, we have fallen back into that bucket of "can't progress, content's too hard." Nerfs are a crutch. We've pushed through them before. Why we can't now is beyond me.

Day 9 - 9/18/2011

I want to know who is responsible for this boss. I want to know what employee at that billion dollar company thought this was a good idea. Seriously. What drug were they smoking? It kills me that they continue to make claims like "Ulduar was great but practically nobody got to see it." 

Ulduar was nothing. 

Ulduar was enjoyable. Ulduar was some fucking half decent design that any competent guild could execute. This is something else entirely. This is the stuff of motherfucking nightmares. You tested this? You gave this boss the greenlight? You mean to tell me a billion dollar company can axe Starcraft: Ghost after half a decade of work is put into it by simply saying "sorry, not fun," yet give this fucking boss the go-ahead? At what point did design decisions go so horribly fucking wrong behind closed doors?

Am beginning to think Cataclysm was entirely some kind of sick fucking, low budget joke. It's like someone at Blizzard said, "Sorry, we're going to have to reduce your staff for this next expansion," so they just turned over this shit, gave us five levels instead of 10, recycled ZG/ZA, cranked up the difficulty and "merged the locks to reduce burnout" -- just one entire fucking joke of a sponge they are desperate to wring out.

Just watch. They're going to come out and say "Lord Rhyolith was bad design, in retrospect." Mark my words.

Another 3 ½ hours down the toilet. Ater was right all along. We really aren't here to have fun.

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