Thursday, May 26, 2016

4.73. Temporary Hiatus

Members of DoD prepare for another
pull on Warmaster Blackhorn,
Dragon Soul

Treat the Disease, Not the Symptom

The forum thread was up to 188 pages. I read through each post, telling the tale of how wonderful the changes were, and how grateful the players were. Long-held frustrations with the pre-existing system were no longer an issue. The barrier to entry was gone. Blizzard happily acknowledged this shower of compliments on a job well done. Blizzard's goal of making a great game that was fun for everyone looked to, at last, be complete. Mission accomplished. After seven long years of iterating, they had finally achieved a fun, great game that everyone could enjoy.

Everyone in this thread, at least.

LFR was that last piece, the dangling outlier that answered the question: "What if I don't want to be in a guild? Can I still raid?" Wonder no longer. With just the press of a button, any player, regardless of their in-game affiliation, could queue for a raid, slaughter a boss, and walk out with loot. The tech behind LFR was a huge step forward in WoW's evolution.

One huge step forward, two huge steps backward.

I read on, though I really didn't need to -- the title of the forum thread said all that needed to be said: "I will never go back to normal raiding again."

A far less trafficked thread (28 pages) had a very different stance. Blizzard's response to "Raid Finder destroys communities" was that it was never Blizzard's intent to have LFR replace traditional raiding, yet there were no clear lines indicating where precisely they'd taken steps to ensure players didn't flock to LFR en masse to solve their guild membership woes.

I shook my head at those famous last words, "never our intent..." After this many years in the video game industry, knowing the volatility of their customer base, hadn't they learned their lesson by now? Just because you intend for something not to be misused...doesn't mean it won't be. Weren't all those years of rolling back exploitative raiding guilds for "clever use of game mechanics" enough of a lesson? What about all the DDoS's that had suffered? The reason Blizzard had to build a Warden just to keep cheaters at bay, a fight that (even now) rages on?

Why not just design for evil by default?

That was the real answer, in the end. Allowing more people through the raiding floodgates wasn't evil, not by Blizzard's was the very opposite. At the end of the day, more players experiencing raid content was a win, not a loss. The difference was: it was a short-term win. Over the long-term, however, knowing gamers like I did, there was bound to be repercussions. If we can take the easy way out, we will.

It was never a raiding problem. It was always a guild problem. Players said they wanted an easier mechanism to raid; in reality, the request masked their real issue: they didn't want to be forced into guild membership. Players wanted the freedom to come and go as they pleased, no longer bound to the rigid schedule dictated by a faceless college kid with a misogynist streak and a propensity for dick jokes.

That really was the perception around guilds: huge collections of nerds with no social skills, a knack for cursing, and a chip on their collective shoulders for all players not geared to the tooth. This little experiment we were trying called "Descendants of Draenor" only represented a grain of sand in that vast desert of awful guilds; our ideals were not at all the common tongue. 

I can't blame players for not wanting to deal with all of that. But I absolutely can blame Blizzard for the band-aid that patched up the symptom, while the disease continued to fester. I can blame them, and I do.

LFR was easier for both parties. Easier for players to raid, and easier for Blizzard to implement, rather than attempting to shoulder the social issues of toxicity and personal accountability prevalent in WoW guilds.

Easier, but not necessarily right.

Kerulak attempts a 10-Man kill of Spine of
 Deathwing, after the 25-Man is put on hiatus,
Dragon Soul


The 2nd weekend of Dragon Soul did not look promising. After completing the rotations early Friday morning, we were in a bad state. While Friday's sole absentee could be compensated for, Sunday's four-player deficiency was a showstopper.

Mortalsend was out, as were the shaman brothers Gunsmokeco and Deathonwings, and Sarge rounded off the missing persons list. Reasons were varied: Guns' new work schedule conflicted with our raid times, while Wings claimed he'd finally hit his threshold -- after six long years of raiding, he'd had his fill. Sarge's interest waned as well, and Mortal had holiday-themed family matters to attend to. Merry Christmas to us.

Neps was my first plan to tourniquet this gushing wound. I'd been in contact with him over the remaining weeks in 4.2. He was in the process of piecing together a new computer, one adequate for progression raiding. Neps' return to 25-Man progression would be a godsend, if he could pull it off.

There was a time where I was so dependent on Neps that I couldn't conceive of the 25-Man moving forward without him present. Of course, this wasn't true at all: DoD held the fort down throughout Firelands while still granting Neps much needed recovery time. In hindsight, this was another one of my inadequacies as a leader rising to the surface. I grappled with kicking Ben out of the guild and the risk of losing Neps in the process. In the end, we were able to press on without him. It sucks to lose people...good people...but losing them doesn't mean the end.

I held out hope that Neps' new PC would be assembled in time to make up for the massive healing deficiency that now jeopardized progression.


On December 9th, 2011, the 25-Man progression team returned to Dragon Soul for its 2nd week of work. Extending the raid lock, we bypassed all bosses killed the week previous, went toe-to-toe with the Warmaster Blackhorn encounter, beating the boss by the end of the night.

By Sunday we'd found our replacements and returned to pick up where we left off. Deathwing was such a massive threat that Blizzard had to split him into two separate encounters. Before facing the dragon's maw itself, we'd have to weaken the great aspect of death. That episode played out in the Dragon Soul's second-to-last encounter, Spine of Deathwing.

We lept off Blackhorn's airship, plummeted through the sky, and landed conveniently atop Deathwing himself, mid-flight. As the dragon scorched the ground below, the 25-Man steeled itself for attempts on a brutal fight.

The basic jist of the fight consisted of positioning ourselves in a spread across the breadth of Deathwing's back, while working through certain fire elementals that spawned as we ripped up the dark iron plates covering his burning flesh underneath. Killing all the elementals was too difficult an endeavor, so the tactic called for shifting the entire raid to one side of Deathwing's back. Noticing we were all near an edge, Deathwing would then barrel-roll, tossing the elementals to their death while we held on for dear life.

Deathwing rolled and bucked; we clung to his burnt metal blades. The 25-Man progression raid unleashed hell on the Spine with every bit of focus and energy I've ever witnessed from the team. On that night of work, the discipline present had a military feel, though I can't honestly claim to know what that is like from experience. How it played out in this raid was as follows: No complaining. No petty bullshit or ribbing. Blain made adjustments and the team responded. It was brilliant. It felt brilliant.

It seemed as though something otherworldly was driving the 25-Man that night. They were gunmetal polished and determined to see this thing through. If I didn't know any better, it felt as if extrinsic motivation has finally broken through, that the team had transcended the need to acquire simple golden banners and digital baubles of a game.

Maybe the team genuinely feared losing something important to them.

Try as we might to rip the great dragon apart and pull him from the sky, it wasn't enough. At the top of the fourth hour, we weren't even close to breaking into our final phase. No famous last pull would get us any closer. We called it for the night.

"Thanks, everyone," I spoke into Vent, "Keep your eyes glued to the rotation post on the forums and we'll let you know what the holiday schedule is looking like."

I logged off, removed my glasses, and put my head in my hands.

A wonderful game that tugs at emotional strings,

The Force Awakens

"Bovie here. This'll be my last report."

"The 10's finished?"

Elaboration was unnecessary, but Bovie did so anyway. His team's reasons were the same as Zedman's, the same as Joredin's. Loss of interest. Burnout. Holidays. Whatever. Three teams with a combined size of thirty (plus) players were retiring from WoW for an unspecified amount of time. With them went any hope of their alts being available to fill the gaping wounds of the 25-Man.

I scoured forums throughout the week and pinged guilds in-game, trying to get a feel for recruitment without coming across as desperate. Just more of the same. Where once guilds might collapse and produce a swarm of stragglers we could scoop up and house, Deathwing-US was now just a blank faceless sheet of non-committals, forever hopping through Orgrimmar in their search for nothing.

Without a leg to stand on, I kicked off an early holiday for the raid. For the first time in nearly seven years, we broke for Christmas two weeks before normal. Both raid weekends that followed (Dec 16th/18th and Dec 23rd/25th) were pulled from the sign-up sheet. My last remaining ounce of positivity hoped that this extended vacation would center the team. Reinvigorated, they'd return in the new year, ready to clear Dragon Soul and put an end to Deathwing.

That 2011 holiday was surreal. I spiraled into a brooding state of unease. Most of the guild kept themselves busy with the hotly anticipated, freshly released MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic. A respectable contingent of the 25-man roster spent time in there, even Blain. I recused myself. A new MMO was the last thing I could stomach. My bitter cynicism would ruin the fun, and for all they gave to DoD, they didn't deserve that from me.

Instead, I spent a lot of those evenings in solitude, off of Vent and out of WoW. While the majority of them light-sabred it up, I treated myself to a game I'd been meaning to play for a few months, and picked up Bastion off of XBox Live.

Bastion's setting was surreal, both gorgeous and depressing. I took control of a white-haired boy that swung weapons to bash monsters' skulls in, wandering a desolate landscape. Each isometric area was beautifully drawn in a cartoonish-style, and appeared as if torn from the planet's surface, now suspended mid-air. The game's environments bore all the markings of a civilization abruptly vaporized. Each new area hinted at the lives that once played out here. Markets and streets abandoned. Empty houses with doors flung open. Lives interrupted.

Friends and support were scarce. Bastion's unique narrator calmly read back to me the details of the gameplay as they unfolded in real time, his southern twang also seemingly out of place in this cartoonish wasteland. When I finally managed to hook up with other characters to carry the story along, my trust in them ended up misplaced.

I beat Bastion over the 2011 holiday, but given all the circumstances, I don't know that it made me feel better...or worse.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

4.72. The Out Run Test

Sega's 1986 classic game,
Out Run


When Out Run was released in 1986, it was not the first racing game. It wasn't the first to set the precedent of a third-person driving perspective -- that honor went to Turbo, some five years earlier. It was not the first to offer force feedback through its steering wheel, nor was it the first to allow players the freedom to choose their route. It wasn't even the first to pseudo-scale sprites at high speeds, making the player feel like they were racing down a real speedway. In fact, the only new feature that Out Run brought to the table was to allow players to pick their own background music. Wikipedia lists at least a dozen racing games that were released before Out Run. In the halls of video game history, Out Run wasn't the first to do many things.

But it was the first to do them well.

To Yu Suzuki, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, so long as each part received special treatment. He carefully chose the right elements from previous racing games, polishing each as it was added to the mixture. When Suzuki's refinements came together in just the right mixture -- not too much of one or too little of another -- the result was a video game racing experience vastly different from anything seen before.

What's so special about Out Run, when compared to its competition at that time?
  • Humor was injected throughout. Racing games ended with a "Congratulations!" and not much else. Meanwhile, Out Run's five endings all featured a comedic skit played out by the driver and his girlfriend. When the player hit an obstacle at high speed, the Testarossa flipped out of control, launching its cartoonish passengers into the air.
  • Video Game music had yet to leave a memorable footprint among gamers - Out Run's three main selections (chosen on a virtual radio station) were written by Hiroshi Kawaguchi, one of the most prolific composers in Sega's history. Kawaguchi was a member of the "S.S.T. Band", Sega's in-house rock group, known to play at festivals and conferences during the late 80's and early 90's.
  • Although Out Run was unmistakably a 2D experience, Yu Suzuki conceptualized his entire game design process in a three-dimensional perspective, stating "I calculated the position, scale, and zoom rate in 3D and converted it backwards to 2D."
Out Run was memorable, not because of its innovation in any one area, but rather, through the combination of all the fine details that breathed life and character into a genre, which -- up until that point -- had been primarily about boxes of pixels driving a track, over and over and over. It was the best selling arcade game the year of its release, went on to win countless awards, and is permanently chiseled into a myriad of lists that recount the greatest video games of all time. Out Run raised the bar to which all future racing games would be measured against...

...including itself.

At the end of his career, nearly two decades after the launch of Out Run, Yu Suzuki returned to oversee the production of Out Run 2.

There is only one game this could be:
Out Run 2

Changing the Formula

The video game industry bears the weight of Moore's Law more than perhaps any other; technological advances that span eighteen years are better compared to the journeys of ancient civilizations. The mind-numbing power of twin Motroloa 68000 CPUs (in Out Run's 1986 arcade cabinet) is mere flint-and-sticks when compared to the CPU in an iPhone 6. You can't really compare the speeds of architectures so vastly different, but a flat clock comparison yields a difference of about 11,000%. It's like they came from an entirely different world of hieroglyphics and clay pots.

"Super-scaling" sprites gave way to polygons, shaders, and riggings. Arcades rose and fell as home consoles and PCs obsoleted the need for bulky, rigid cabinets and expensive real estate. Even the medium itself moved from the dead language of archaic taped chips to instant downloads on internet-ready consoles. Our network connections today boast such available bandwidth that entire games can be streamed, complete with real-time voice over IP -- the long road of arcade cabinet manufacturing must have been like building the pyramids, in comparison.

But it wasn't just the technology that changed. After two decades, the competition not only drove circles around Out Run, few even remembered its existence. Entrenched franchises battled each other for market dominance: Need for Speed, Gran Turismo, Burnout, and more. Out Run wasn't even on the map.

Yu Suzuki could've made significant changes to an already winning formula in order to compete. And there were changes: A new drift mechanic, multiplayer challenges, a time attack mode, to name a few. They were the sorts of changes that, if done incorrectly, risked taking away the identity that made Out Run what it was.

Mr. Suzuki did not disappoint.

He took the features Out Run was known for, all those years ago -- the music, the humor, the candy apple red Ferrari Testarossa, the feel of all those outdoor zones, and simply made them better. The new maps felt like Out Run maps, kicking off with a contemporary version of the original Coconut Beach starting area. New cars were added, but true to Out Run form, it was a selection of only Ferraris. Even the casuals got a break: Out Run 2 allowed players to select automatic transmissions, if manual was too much to handle. He even tossed in a few new radio stations to choose from, but Out Run wouldn't be Out Run without remixes of its three original tunes: all three -- Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze, and Splash Wave -- were present.

When it came time to fold in some innovation, he did so with great care. Drifting wasn't nearly as complex as it was in those juggernaut franchises, and felt felt like Out Run. Multiplayer challenges didn't force the game into a traditional racing pigeonhole -- other racers were represented via ghost cars, keeping the original challenge of "best time" being the true opponent, not the drivers themselves.

Out Run 2 may not have sold millions and millions of units like its contemporary competition, but it is undeniably Out Run. Everything that made the original great is also true of its sequel. For everything that was added, and what tiny adjustments were made to the original formula, the result is conclusively a return to greatness for fans of '86 title. It. is. fun.

Out Run 2 feels like Out Run. Other sequels aren't as lucky.

"So for your next game, we're going to put you in a
three-dimensional city and see if players can have you
not collide with furniture for more than three seconds."

Sonic the Disappointment

A polygon article on the history of Sonic quotes developer Bob Rafei as considering Sega "brave" for all of its attempts to breathe life into the franchise, himself believing, "If you stay the same, you stagnate, and that's a slow death." The irony of such a statement is not lost on fans of the series. Rafei co-developed one of the worst iterations of Sonic the Hedgehog in the franchise's history: Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. The game's a mess: at the 2014 E3, GameCentral described it as "so unspeakably awful we couldn't force ourselves to play through the entire demo."

The blue hedgehog's glory days concluded at the end of the 16-bit era. No platformer could compete with Sonic's dizzying speed at the height of his popularity. But the advent of 3D rendering in consoles like Nintendo 64, Sony PlayStation, and Sega Dreamcast put the brakes on Sonic, hard. Fans of the series struggling with awkward controls and an overabundance of cute partners "helping" Sonic thwart Dr. Robotnik were themselves thwarted at every step Sonic took. A series that once defined itself as a hedgehog with attitude that blazed across Moebius had somehow gained too much attitude, sacrificing control in the process.

It was not fun. More accurately, it was not Sonic.

In an ironic turn, some of the greatest Sonic the Hedgehog games released since the end of his golden age weren't even made by Sega. The fan-based Sonic projects Before The Sequel and After The Sequel are extraordinary pieces of work (considering they were built by kids in basements rather than professional development teams). If you have an ounce of interest in Sonic, I urge you to try them: the levels, artwork, music, and game design are all new, built from the ground up. Yet, these home-brewed titles immediately invoke the feel of the original, early 90's games. They get it.

There are even indie games that have no relation to Sonic whatsoever that get it. Within seconds of playing them, you know exactly where they draw inspiration from and what they pay homage to. You see it. You hear it. You feel it.

It is telling that basement-bred Sonic games and no-name indies blow the pants off of officially sanctioned sequels -- they possess something that those Sega sequels lack.



If you're a game designer being pushed to innovate an existing title, the Out Run test is excruciatingly important to complete. Take your latest iteration and strip it of all identifiable assets that tie it to the franchise's brand: no more blue hedgehog, no more red Ferrari. With no celebrity to coast on, the game must now stand on its own. Put it in the hands of your current customer and let them play, then ask them, what does it remind you of? What game does it feel like? What game do you think inspires this unrecognizable mess?

Then, listen. What's the first title they name? Is it your game's origination? Does it take them back to where it all started? Do they nail it in mere seconds, and does identifying it come naturally?

Or are they puzzled? Do they rattle off titles you'd never expect to hear (or, worse, do they name the competition?) Are they hard-pressed to even identify it at all? Do they struggle?

And if it is this latter scenario that plays out, go back to your bloated feature list and your options now lying on the cutting room floor. Review. Figure out which one it was...what was the thing you added or removed...that allowed the magic to slip away. Restore it. Repeat. Continue until it feels as it should.

You can't have Out Run without the Magical Sound Shower.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

4.71. That Dragon, Deathwing

10,000 years into the past, Neltharion goes rogue,
Well of Eternity

Grains Through The Hourglass

Patch 4.3: Hour of Twilight was released to the World of Warcraft community on Nov 29th, 2011. It was an enormous patch. Three new heroic-only dungeons and a new raid. Transmogrification. Void Storage. An overhauled Darkmoon Faire. Legendary daggers for Rogues.

...and a little thing Blizzard called "LFR."

The fork stabbed in. We would not go down without a fight.

Blizzard carefully stitched End Time (the future), Well of Eternity (the past), and Hour of Twilight (the present) together so that players running the three dungeons would end where the raid began: Wyrmrest Temple. Our first night in Dragon Soul was Dec 2nd, 2011, entering the instance to witness a siege already in progress. The sky was filled with all manner of drakes blanketing the surface of Dragonblight with flame, while empowered earthen elementals emerged from twilight portals freshly ripped open. We cut these elementals down, working our way toward the first boss.

Morchok bore the familiar humanoid-mountain shape of a creature that could have been a distant relative of Lord Rhyolith. If fire burned within him at one time, however, those fires had long since died out. The burning glow of red hot lava was replaced with a deep violet color that complemented this walking mass, and he ran large, clumsy boulders through the strands of his phototrophic beard.

The encounter was a standard tank-and-spank, so Blain and Amatsu took turns eating stacks of Crush Armor. Red globes called Resonating Crystals spawned toward the outer edges of the attack zone, latching on to players and forcing them to converge in anticipation of soaking AoE damage. Occasionally, Morchok produced massive rock fragments along the perimeter of the fight. Then, Black Blood of the Earth oozed out from under our feet. We sped towards those fallen fragments and used them as a line-of-sight defense, repeating this process until he collapsed in a pile of lifeless boulders and rubble.

Next on the hit list was Warlord Zon'ozz. The raid descended into a fleshy, tentacled pit that jutted out from the surface of Dragonblight near the base of Wrymrest Temple. Zon'ozz was a nightmarish lobster-humanoid mix, invoking visions of General Vezax from the depths of Ulduar. An unmistakable servant of the old gods, Zon'ozz quickly became known as the "ping-pong" boss.

The encounter's core mechanic involved an orb called Void of the Unmasking. This orb needed to be bounced back and forth between several groups in the raid (melee and ranged were the obvious choices), delivering increasing damage with each impact. The key to both survival and victory was keeping the orb on our teams as long as possible. When the healers could no longer withstand the damage output, we lobbed the orb back to Zon'ozz himself. It struck the boss, weakening and enraging him, allowing us to blow our cooldowns and concentrate both damage and healing throughout the tantrum.

Blain coordinated the movement of the teams responsible for bouncing the orb. After several attempts, Zon'ozz was dead...along with a huge portion of the raid, unable to withstand his final tantrum. On the one hand, new content should have been challenging. On the other, I stood amongst a roster of players geared nearly head-to-toe in heroic Firelands gear. A 25-Man normal should not have been cutting it this closely, no matter how bizarre the mechanic. If you know the drill, you go through the motions, the boss dies. We knew the drill, we were going through the motions...and nearly all of us were dying.

Not at all comforting.

Mature and fellow DoDers defeat Archbishop Benedictus
at the conclusion of the new heroic dungeons,
Hour of Twilight 

Taste the Rainbow

The old gods were not done assailing us yet. Another creature of insanity blocked our way: Yor'sahj the Unsleeping. Yor'shaj was a void beast with long, octopus-like appendages and razor-sharp teeth exposed below its mask. Its armor style seemed Uldum-inspired; coppers, deep maroons, purples -- all fashioned into beveled shapes along its golden edges. Beautifully symmetrical and ornate, Yor'shaj's armor was a contradiction to the tentacled horror it protected.

The encounter began as any other tank-and-spank, but Yor'shaj soon brought multicolored globules of slime to the table, spawning towards the outer circumference of his underground domain. Each spawn constituted a set of three different colored oozes; Yor'shaj had a total of six to choose from. The rainbow of oozes worked to thwart us in clever, contradictory ways.

Purple caused heals to detonate after reaching five stacks, while green caused proximity damage to players standing near one another. Yellow empowered both Yor'shaj and the raid with faster, more significant attacks, and red caused us to take increased damage the further away from the boss we stood. Some oozes even produced new enemies: blue summoned mana voids, leeching mana from the casters and healers; black summoned Forgotten Ones that fixated on the raid and had to be AoE'd down.

While working through most combinations of oozes was trivial, others sets brought great pain and suffering upon the land...and the raid. Most notably, a spawn of green (don't group up!), red (group up near the boss!) and yellow (everything does more damage!) was particularly torturous. Each attempt spawned them in new, random orders. Early green/red/yellow spawns would wipe us quickly, freeing us to restart our attempt with haste. Late green/red/yellow spawns would turn an otherwise clean attempt into a wash, wasting precious time. We filled the better part of an hour on Yor'shaj before he met his deserved end, but were still on track to complete half of Dragon Soul by the night's end.

From here, we left the battle at Wrymrest Temple, and flew (via red aspect escort) to Malygos' domain, The Eye of Eternity. This time, no great blue aspect gone mad awaited us. In his place stood a single female orc, waiting to deliver our doom. The moment I saw lightning crackle off those instantly recognizable lionhead shoulder pieces, I knew we were up against a Shaman. Hagara was draped in a replica of Ten Storms off-pieces, mixed with a "wolf-head" helm synonymous with a shaman as far back as Warcraft II. Each hand clutched its own axe, and each axe bore the bright white glow of a Frostbrand effect, glimmering from snowflakes that fell slowly from each blade.

"I guess we get an ice phase first, eh?"

Hagara was divided into three phases: a main phase, and two enchantment phases (lighting and ice). Preparing for the appropriate phase involved a single step: noting the visual effect applied to her weapons. If snowflakes fell, an ice phase was due, but jagged streaks of electricity warranted preparation for a lightning phase.

While in her main phase, various players would be marked and frozen solid, requiring the team to break their incapacitated partners free. Focused attacks came in fifteen second intervals, locking Haraga in place while she swung her axes in a violent blur. Both Shattered Ice and Ice Lance worked to slow the raid's pace down, each constituting various degrees of damage.

In ice phase, Hagara protected herself with an impenetrable Water Shield while waves of ice chased the raid in a clockwise direction. To shut her down, the raid rushed to the outer edge of the platform, positioned themselves between the rotating waves, and destroyed their source: frozen crystals along four equidistant points. All this, while dodging bouts of falling ice, kept the raid occupied as Hagara mocked us safely from afar.

Ice phase caused much death amid its clockwork chaos. Many attempts ended poorly due to deaths in a phase dragged out far too long.

DoD barely pulls off a kill of Hagara
on the first night of raiding in 4.3,
Dragon Soul


Lightning phase wasn't much better. The same water shield protected Hagara, but this time the raid aimed to blow it apart. To do so, the roster formed a chain that conducted lightning from the outer edges into her protected area in the center, blasting the shield away and stunning the orc, leaving her vulnerable to a burst of damage. In order to form this living lightning rod, we first had to defeat a spawned Lightning Elemental, ensuring the creature was killed near a conductor. Wasting one by killing it in the wrong spot was a huge loss, as this was our only opportunity for a damage boost against the orc shaman.

Though the mechanics of the fight were relatively straightforward, the tuning was such that any excess time spent in ice or lightning phases seriously impacted our ability to beat Hagara. After polishing both phases, the remainder of attempts ended with Hagara enraging, slaughtering the roster in a span of several seconds. Every possible trick had to be pulled in order to squeeze out the last remaining points of health.

When we finally bested Hagara, it was during one such enrage. Players with the highest aggro frantically kited her in an attempt to tack on desperately needed seconds -- just enough to see her through. The "Siege of Wyrmrest Temple" achievement flashed up on our screens to indicate our arrival at the 50% mark. There were only seven of us alive.

"I may suck at math, but our heroic gear isn't going to sustain this."


We returned to Dragon Soul for our second night of work on Sunday, Dec. 4th. For our fifth encounter, we ascended Wyrmrest Temple and cleared numerous whelps and drakes that guarded the perimeter of the tower's apex. Then, we positioned ourselves in a small group only inches from the lip of the temple's edge, faced north, and awaited the arrival of a dragon.

The fight operated much like Algalon's Big Bang of Ulduar fame...though it borrowed a bit of flavor from the Majordomo Staghelm fight, too. Ultraxion was a twilight, like Valiona and Theralion, two tiers earlier. And, like Valiona and Theralion, his realm played an important role: we would have to fight him in the twilight realm for the entirety of the encounter. Most of us would. A select few, however, would have to step out. Who and when would be determined by Ultraxion's abilities.

Hour of Twilight was the first, which hit us every 45 seconds. All but three of us needed to click our new "Heroic Will" buttons in order to shift out and survive the blast. Those three players that remained blew whatever cooldowns were necessary to survive the onslaught of shadow radiation Ultraxion bombarded them with. Juxtaposed with those 45 second intervals were debuffs of Fading Light, applied to the current tank and several other random players. Those debuffs varied between 5 and 10 seconds in duration, demanding the afflicted's attention in order to gauge the appropriate time to click Heroic Will. Eating a Fading Light in the twilight realm meant instant death -- there was no negotiating. If you were fading from the light, you had to "click out."

This was the Ultraxion test: deal with the staggered swapping in and out of the twilight realm, ensure soakers that remained had the tools to withstand Hour of Twilight, and burn that enormous purple dragon as fast as possible.

Again, and again, and again, we smashed our faces against the Ultraxion wall. Our players bore the most powerful heroic weapons and armor in the game (at the release of the patch) -- the result of our successes in Firelands. It didn't matter. The 25-Man raid team pushed out every last ounce of DPS it could muster. But Ultraxion just sat there, laughing, spraying us with twilight bursts, the ever increasing unstable monstrosities coming faster and faster. It felt like we were all wearing greens.

In a moment of wakeful sleep, eyes glazing over after hours of attempts on Ultraxion, I thought back to DoD's initial steps in 25-Man (Normal) Ulduar, and how we dug in with our nails and peeled back those bosses like so much rubbery skin off an orange. The daydream channels flipped, and there was that godforsaken Blizzard development panel, claiming over and over, "Ulduar was still too hard, not enough people got to see it." The constant contradiction infuriated me.

Tuning in Dragon Soul was absolutely out-of-control. A heroically geared raid should have plowed through normal, ready to hit heroics by week two. I didn't see how that was going to happen here. But the raid never gave up. Blain spent the next four hours adjusting, tweaking, moving some people forward, others back (to gain buffs from the aspects), first preferring less healers, then more. I trusted him, but each adjustment just felt like we were rolling dice. The message was clear. Congratulations on all the work you did in heroic Firelands. It doesn't mean a damn thing.

At the top of the fourth hour, we gave Ultraxion one famous last pull. Blain tweaked our positions a bit further, re-synchronized the groups to change at different times, and hoped for the best.

The dragon fell.

"Great. Atramedes all over again."

Exhausted and relieved, we exited Dragon Soul with 5 of 8 defeated, and a grim outlook on what was to come.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

4.70. These Eyes

You should have to beat Sid Meier's Colonization
before you are allowed to colonize the new world and
declare independence from the King.

Hopeful Parents

Something about the Mind's Eye test continued to bug me, days after I'd taken the online quiz. I really wanted to believe it! As much if not more so than the previously debunked Myers-Briggs "personality sorter". After all these years of pulling strings behind virtual avatars, the thought that I might possibly leave with some marketable skill was endearing. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to thumb my nose at convention and prove to naysayers that, yes, a video game did have the capacity to teach a real world skill. It was a lesson many needed to hear.

There was no shortage of dismissive commentary from the public whenever the topic came up. "Video games teaching real world skills" has long been the subject of debate, though "debate" is often code for "mockery". Gary Larson's infamous "Hopeful Parents" Far Side comic remains forever burned into my brain as an accurate representation of how the world sees such a claim. Unless your job description lists leaping barrels or ripping people's heads off while keeping their spine intact as a requirement, video games offer few opportunities for a person to learn something they could turn around and leverage in the blinding brightness outside.

The worst offenders were the edutainment titles (you're not fooling anyone, Math Blaster). Attempting to teach a kid core curriculum while wrapped in a pretty pink bow of a video game struck me as pathetic and sad. An industry of "experts" that knew nothing about the medium, struggling to be "hip" and "cool" and "down" with the kids, while the larger educational problem went ignored. Trying to make learning fun was an act of desperation a gamer could spot a mile away. And nothing irritated a gamer more than someone faking it. Come back to me when you have the Konami code memorized, pleb.

Educators had it all wrong -- they were researching and reporting against the wrong games. Climbing the magic beanstalk to educational epiphany required burying the magic beans far more deeply than topsoil. The true teaching gems were the video games that were nothing more than simply video games....yet indirectly bestowed skill upon the gamer without anyone being wiser.

Build and manage a city, just like what is expected of an actual mayor. Drum to the rhythm of colored bars that just happen to coincide with the sheet music of the actual song. Blow zombies apart by typing words (ok, this last one walks that fine edutainment line, but I'll allow it: the intent is to kill zombies, not learn to type). New examples pop up all the time. Gamers have known for years what academics and legislators are only beginning to acknowledge: games teach through transference. You're welcome.

Which brought me back to the "eyes" quandary: were these video games really teaching skills? Or were they simply awakening talent already dormant in the player, flexing and strengthening a muscle that some of us possessed and still others lacked. Yes, I dealt with a lot of people problems over the past seven years. Some I controlled, some I let control me. But I resolved exactly none of these issues by looking the person in the eyes and getting a read, interpreting their awkward body language. Alas, this was the cost of doing business online. The missing piece eluded my left brain... exactly had World of Warcraft made me any better at reading people...if I was unable to see them?

DoD completes the final meta, "Not an Ambi-Turner",
earning "Glory of the Firelands Raider",

Famous First Pull

Apologies, reader. There is no great story about DoD's final accomplishment as a 25-Man raiding guild. I didn't have to make frantic phone calls at the 11th hour, looking for emergency fillers. We didn't secure our final kill amidst player disconnections dealing with hurricanes pummeling their homes or cars smashing through their living room walls. DoD didn't struggle with the achievement, going at it again and again and again, bleeding out past the four hour mark, exhausted and at the end of our collective rope. In fact, there wasn't even a motivational "famous last pull!" chant, inspiring the crew just enough to close the deal. In reality, it was over before it began.

Our final accomplishment took but a single attempt. "Not an Ambi-Turner" demanded we kill Lord Rhyolith by only allowing him to make right turns. We entered the instance on time at 7:00pm. By 7:14pm, Rhyolith had been spun in a clockwise circle, and lay dead at our feet. Glory of the Firelands Raider flashed across the screen of every player in the roster. The deed was done.

Only 30 minutes after the start of our evening raid, we gathered outside Sulfuron Spire, hopped aboard our phoenix mounts, and swarmed the top of the tower. As the raid positioned themselves for the shot, my screen was filled with bursts of a blazing deep violet that shimmered against the burning red sky. The mood in Vent was upbeat. DoD chatted away cheerfully, reminiscing about what they liked and what "sucked ass" in Firelands. They were definitely very happy. They were both relieved and fulfilled. It was another accomplishment that DoD could claim in a long, storied history of raid progression, something that my guild still cared deeply about.

Glory of the Firelands Raider meant as much to the 25-Man progression team as Icecrown's Glory, Ulduar's Glory, or any of the raiding milestones that came prior to the advent of achievements. I might go so far as to claim it meant more to us than usual, having missed Tier 11's Glory amid many stumbling blocks, both in the raid and out. DoD was excited to wrap Firelands and show off their Corrupted Egg of Millagazor to the rest of the World...even if that World no longer noticed nor cared about a fancy mount.

The memory of DoD's last accomplishment is sobering upon reflection -- we endured some shit. The evaporation of recruitment forced us to wring the last remaining drops out of player availability. The team took on increasing responsibility of our success, which equated to players rolling alts and gearing again and again. That encroaching feeling of the walls closing in meant constant people management, forsaking any semblance of game/life balance once formerly in check. Facing the weekly threat of losing good people to 10-Man guilds or teams.

Yet, we persevered.

I can appreciate athletes that train at high altitudes or piano teachers that insist on blindfolds. Firelands (and, to a larger extent, WoW at that time) felt as if we weren't just felt as if we were raiding with our hands tied behind our backs.

So, reader, forgive the excess melancholy. If I come across too seriously about a video game, it's because I know the eventual outcome. As will you.

DoD poses outside Sulfuron Spire aboard their
newly acquired Corrupted Fire Hawks,

Hard to Starboard

As I spun the mousewheel, a picture of smiling faces scrolled into view. The faces collected around several tables shoved together at a restaurant, all smiling, all turned to face the camera. Descendants of Draenor.

Several of them raised a glass in toast, others grinned boastfully, proud to be a part of something bigger. Those who don't know or understand the gamer lifestyle will forever pigeonhole gamers into the antisocial stereotype, but you'd never know it by looking at this pic. This was just a group of friends, celebrating together, partying, reminiscing. And all the pairs of eyes looked back at the camera, as if saying, "Here's to DoD, Hanzo. Here's to you."

All but one.

Near the lens, sitting directly across from me, one pair of eyes was turned to look at something off-camera, as if unaware a guild photo was being taken mere inches from his face. A smirk lay half-settled on his lips, partially here, partially distracted. With every single guildy focused on the shot, he was the odd-man out.

What the hell is so fucking interesting that you can't even look at the camera, Drecca?

I laughed at what had to be a simple case of bad timing. Everyone takes an awful photo now and again: eyes closed as the shutter catches you mid-blink, mouth agape as the photographer presses the button. It catches up to you eventually, that one photo that makes us look like we've been kicked directly in the junk during "Cheese!" I scrolled further, to see if there was another, more flattering photo of my least favorite ex-guildy.

Sure enough, a second photo scrolled up into view, taken moments later. It was the "just in case" photo you take when you want to be sure you capture everyone in their most devilishly handsome state. Again, all faces were turned to the camera, grinning. In this particular pic, Goldenrod raised a glass in toast, mouth most certainly forming the words "For the Horde!"

There he was again, the odd-man out. Instead of being distracted, this second pic was even worse. Drecca's face was painted with a dead, blank stare, contemplating absolutely nothing in particular.

I zoomed in. In this second photo, he was the closest to the camera. There was no possible way he couldn't have known a picture was about to be snapped. You could reach right into the photo and flick him in the head. Hey. Wake up. Over here. Picture being taken. The guild gets together for events like this never. Pay attention for five seconds.

Nothing. He was completely checked out.

I looked at the two photos, then thought back to that glare he gave me, arms crossed, leaning back in his chair, that smirk across his face in response to my proposal -- that I had a good feeling about DoD in Cataclysm, that "it was doable," so long as everyone was in it for the long haul. I remember reading that smirk of his, and ignoring it. I remember the drama, reflecting on the damage he caused DoD by ripping a portion of my roster away in the Herp Derp exodus. I remember thinking only one thing: he had it planned all along. I beat myself up for not catching it sooner. He had that same look in his eyes as thieves from childhood, ones that screamed you're a fool to have thought I was ever on your team.

I looked at the two photos, and knew better now. There were no plans.

There was never a scheme, no great conspiracy to break my guild up and take my members away. That look Drecca gave me from across the table in the restaurant at the conclusion of BlizzCon 2010 wasn't one that spelled manipulation, or cunning, or dishonesty. It wasn't any look at all. Play. Don't play. Raid. Don't raid. Guild. No guild. Whatever.

He simply didn't care, not about the success -- or even the failure -- of DoD. He didn't even care where the lens was. He was aboard a ship of one, sailing, with neither destination nor purpose.

Contemplative. Panicked. Desire. Jealous. Indecisive. Playful. Guilty. Bored. Upset. Confident.