Organizational Failure (and Passing the Torch)

Probably a few WoW posts this week, as old MMO memories continue.

Late Night Raiders (LNR for short) hummed along for about two years, from not long after launch to slightly after the release of the first expansion. It taught me a lot about large-scale organization and how to manage teams, and its eventual implosion only added to that. It was also one of the hardest decisions I had to make.

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Organizationally, LNR broke down fairly neatly. A raid group at the time was comprised of 40 members, spread across 8 classes. In the ideal case, this meant five players of each class filled a raid. Perfect attendance across 40 people was laughably impossible, so we drew from a fairly significant pool of people for our raid. At any given time, LNR had about 20-25 members with very high (80%+) attendance, and so on any given night we were “filling” the last 15-20 members from the pool. This pool, at the peak of LNR, was somewhere in the range of 100 people, give or take a few.

LNR was further subdivided by class. Each class had a separate channel that was used for that class’ organization, and which usually wound up fostering unique subcultures for each class. This also helped us disseminate information by class, rather than having long discussions across raid chat about specific class tasks, most of which weren’t relevant to anyone listening. As a result, a standard LNR boss fight explanation would start with a very basic and quick overview of the fight, and discussion of the details would happen through class channels. This had the secondary benefit of allowing class groups to set up larger-scale decisions (like attendance and loot distribution) amongst themselves– some classes had extremely well planned structures for deciding who would attend a given raid and who would get specific pieces of loot, sometimes worked out months in advance.

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The game also allowed filtering through party chat, as the game’s raid structure broke people out into 8 groups of 5. These channels were used for any cross-disciplinary discussion, and we would frequently rearrange groups to fulfill particular strategic needs.

Owing to people having fairly regular habits, we had a very broad categorization of people, though it was never fully codified. We had people who were reliable with high performance, who could be relied on to show up for the vast majority of raid nights, perform well at all of them, and on whom we could rely for the overall success of the raid. There were people who had high performance and who could often make raid nights, but weren’t around quite often enough to be relied upon. Then there were people who were either very reliable but had mediocre or unreliable performance or who had excellent performance but were around rarely. Finally, there was a pool of people whose performance was unreliable and who were relatively rarely around, or who had not run with the group often.

At first, we prioritized based on performance and reliability, always inviting those players first and working our way down the list. It was a functional but ultimately problematic setup; people who were performant but didn’t often get invites would look for other groups, leaving us with a strong core that could do very well when all of our best players were around at once, but that would deteriorate quickly if a few key people were missing or if we needed a lot of stand-ins. This led to one of the major recurring issues that LNR had to deal with: morale.

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Raid structure in WoW, as in most MMOs since, has focused around a group working their way through a dungeon, learning and ultimately defeating various boss encounters. Each boss encounter would then be practiced until it could reliably be defeated and loot claimed from it, called “farm” status. A dungeon might continue to be worth running for months after the last boss of it was defeated, thanks to the slow trickle of loot, so by the time a group was fully finished with a dungeon, everything within it would solidly be on “farm” status, in theory. In LNR, due to the high variability in our team, we often found ourselves backsliding, particularly on difficult encounters. Too many stand-ins or too few key players and a boss that had been farmed the previous week was suddenly unbeatable, either due to a deficit in power, performance, or simply a lack of teamwork.

About a year into LNR’s life, I suggested we restructure a few key raid constructs, having watched the above play out on multiple occasions, and the strife and finger-pointing it would inevitably cause. I suggested that we mandate class channels for all classes and assign class or role leads to run those groups. Instead of 5 key players and 7-8 potential stand-ins, as we’d been doing before, each class would have 7-8 key players and a smaller number (2-3) of stand-ins. At the time, I’d already been testing the concept with my own class, and we’d not only set up an amiable loot system, cutting arguments over rewards out almost entirely, but we had a more-than-regular core of strong rogues, and we determined on our own who would get to attend any given raid night, in advance. Sitting out every third or fourth night but knowing you were guaranteed a slot otherwise was significantly better than waiting weeks or months in the hopes that you might get a slot, then knowing you were too far behind and too disconnected from the group’s teamwork to contribute as effectively as you otherwise might– which would lead to you getting invited less frequently.

It wasn’t a popular decision, because at the time LNR had a very bloated group of potential players. Many knew they wouldn’t be able to get into the ‘core’ rotation and rejected the suggestion as unfairly exclusive and too cliquish. It was both cliquish and exclusive, but I’d seen the same arguments put forth when the rogue team had made the same transition  few months prior, and while we did lose a number of potential players, we also significantly improved our team’s reliability and performance, as everyone was getting time in with the group to both gear up, get more skilled, and get used to working with the raid.

The jump in LNR’s performance was visible within a few weeks. We went from being stuck on a particular halfway-mark boss to blasting through the entire rest of that dungeon in less than two months, propelling ourselves from a largely unknown raid group to competing for top three on the server. We were one of the very few groups capable of taking on the highest-tier content in the game at the time, and morale, at least as it regarded performance, was way up.

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The big problem we ran into after that was one I place squarely on the game design side. In WoW, many pieces of gear were divided up into “sets”, and wearing more pieces of a set gave you often significant bonuses. Unfortunately, these sets were divided up in an extremely unhelpful way. The final boss of the first raid dungeon had one piece of the set, an unrelated solo boss elsewhere had another piece, and the rest of the pieces were available in the second raid dungeon. While inconvenient, once we had things properly farmed, we could blast through the first raid dungeon and the solo boss in about 3 hours, but this required the entire raid to be on their toes the whole time and offered only two bosses’ worth of relevant rewards. That same 3 hours could be spent on nearly ten times as much in the way of relevant rewards elsewhere, making the time spent hoping for two rare drops feel much less worthwhile. This got worse when the third raid dungeon was released, which offered a lot of difficulty in exchange for relatively little in the way of appealing rewards… except for a certain subset of players who couldn’t get relevant gear from anywhere else, thanks to poor itemization. Finally, where things began to break down, a fourth raid dungeon was released that offered vastly superior rewards for everyone except those people who were still trying to complete their sets (from the FIRST dungeon) and those who couldn’t get relevant gear from anywhere except the third dungeon.

All of this led to a logistical nightmare as far as deciding where we were going to go on a given night. There simply weren’t enough raiding hours in a week to hit all of the possible goals. Initially, we tried to message out beforehand where we would be going, but we discovered sharp dropoffs in attendance from people who had little or nothing to gain from going to those places. We wound up having to avoid communicating where we were planning on going until moments before the raid started, which slowed down our startup time but kept raids full, though it didn’t cut down on grumbling when we went somewhere people didn’t want to go– and there was no way to keep everyone happy.

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The fourth raid dungeon was problematic in its own way as well. While appealing to everyone and rewarding enough to the players who preferred raid dungeon 3 to be worthwhile for them, it was punishing difficult and extremely frustrating. Very difficult mechanics had to be practiced, and to save time and everyone’s repair bills, we started having smaller teams practice to get used to the mechanics without sacrificing the whole raid to failures. Among the rogues group, who were largely unnecessary for a lot of this practice, we’d all download a poker addon and play poker while sitting around. Progress in that dungeon was slow, and while each victory was extremely satisfying and caused a surge of excitement, they were few and far between for a while.

The beginning of the end was the ramp-up for the game’s first expansion. We expected that the gear we were working very hard for would be outdated almost immediately in the expansion (while not true in our case, it was for a majority of players), and it became a bit of a question as to why we were bothering beating our heads against this content. People wanted to finish their goals before the expansion dropped, and everyone had different goals. Furthermore, the expansion announced that raid groups would be changing sizes, from 40 members to 25 members. This became a brutal problem for LNR– our reorganization had left us with enough players to reliably run a 40-person raid, but not enough to reliably run two 25-person raids, and there was immediate bickering over who would be part of the “A” team and who would be relegated to the “B” team.

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By the time the expansion had hit, keeping the raid together had become extremely stressful, to the point where the raid’s primary leadership was fragmenting. The raid’s founder and primary leader needed a break, and passed raid leadership to me. I kept the raid going for as long as I could, but at the time I was dealing with my final year of college and couldn’t devote enough time to the group. Furthermore, some of the group had already pushed extremely hard to clear through the expansion and start raiding, leaving most of the rest of the group behind and quickly becoming exclusive, forming their own group and breaking off from the main raid. Unable to reconcile the work required with the other demands on my time and feeling extremely stressed and burned out from the previous few months, I also withdrew from LNR and left the game. My understanding is that the group fell apart to infighting shortly thereafter.

I took a short hiatus from WoW and focused more on my local, physical friends, many of whom I’d gotten into the game and would be leaving when I graduated college. I wanted to keep in touch with them, and while I’d sworn I wasn’t going to lead another raid group, I ultimately came back to it later, rebuilding a team on my own terms.



Source: Digital Initiative
Organizational Failure (and Passing the Torch)

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