One of the hottest reads in the World of Warcraft communityright now is Shawn Holmes's Eight Years in Azeroth. Old-school players chuckle along with details that today's players wouldn't recognize as coming from WoW. Guild leaders nod in agreement at scenarios that replay over and over in guilds throughout WoW. New players gawk at raiding conventions and gameplay that feels entirely different from the game we know today.
"It was 'slaying internet dragons' mixed liberally with a crash course in leadership and team management," Holmes told WoW Insider. "I went from a player who barely understood the necessity of officer-only forums and a guild bank to dealing with the complexities of interpersonal conflict, player politics, the psychological effects of the social ladder, and keeping players both motivated and loyal in the constantly changing landscape of WoW."
As Holmes blogs his way through his eight years of blood, sweat, and tears in Azeroth, has he come to any realizations along the way?
"Staying true to a moral compass is one thing; keeping an entire guild aligned with those ideals is hard work," he observes. "It's a battle I both won and lost, repeatedly."
Main character Kerulak, tauren restoration shaman (classic WoW); Zanjina, troll shadowpriest (TBC); Mature, blood elf death knight (current)
Guild Descendants of Draenor
Realm Deathwing (US-H)
WoW Insider: What inspired the creation of 8 Years in Azeroth? It sounds as if you had some demons to exorcise...
Shawn Holmes: The night of January 11th, 2012, was the night we officially stuck a fork in the 25-man progression team. I felt nauseated, like I took a swift kick to the nuts. All the frustrations, all the emotion and investment I had poured into my guild all just busted out at once, and I had to do something to vent. I could only pour so much of that onto my wife, Julie. She loves listening and offering advice, but this was eight years of stuff I had to get off my chest, too much even for her to handle in a single sitting.
So, I just sat down and started writing.
Initially, It was intended for myself as a means to deal with everything that simply no longer was. For eight years, I had fallen into a schedule, socializing with the same virtual faces and voices, sharing stories, working together to build a better guild and make a name for ourselves in raid progression. With that gone, a vacuum remained that needed to be filled in.
What I didn't figure on was that it would start to gain readership from people who knew nothing about us.
Right, because players are devouring this blog of yours! What do you believe is the attraction?
8YIA seems to be attracting two groups of readers. Newer players (WotLK, Cata, MoP) never experienced vanilla or TBC in all of its glory -- the game's changed so much since then. They must see 8YIA as an opportunity to experience how things used to be, which in turn gives them a little more perspective on the "problems" in WoW that exist today.
There's also a group of readers that are definitely old-school: folks from vanilla and TBC, and I believe they're reading because they are sentimental. It reminds them of the game they once loved, and 8YIA provides them with some validation around their own concerns about WoW's evolution (or de-evolution, depending on your perspective).
Beneath the veneer of nostalgia, the fascination seems to be more about the commonality of the social experience. Has writing the memoir brought you to any realizations about how other players experience the shared raiding experience of WoW?
There is this common rebuttal that Ghostcrawler likes to use to stave off the large majority of trolls that whine about "Blizzard destroying WoW." His statement is very professional and logical; to paraphrase, "Your personal experience is not the same as everyone's." This is his way of calmly reminding players flipping out that they can't make broad accusations like "everybody raids" or "nobody PvPs." These statements are based purely on our own tiny bottom-up view of the world.
Meanwhile, Blizzard has access to massive amounts of data and can instantly see the effects subtle design changes have on the entire WoW playerbase. They know in a heartbeat what percentage of their playerbase raids, what percentage is stuck on Horridon, what the ratio of 10- to 25- raid guilds are. Blizzard is never 100% transparent with this information, but Ghostcrawler and Co. drop us enough clues in their blue posts to remind us that they hold this knowledge.
Unfortunately, raw data on things like percentages of guilds through Throne of Thunder, number of times Lei Shen's been looted, classes that are dominating damage or healing meters, and so on do nothing to speak about their design's sociological impact.
Sure, they may know what percentage of 25-man guilds collapsed as a result of the changes in Cataclysm, but do they know what percentage of those 25-man guilds tried to keep things together? How many guilds genuinely wracked their brain to try to come up with any possible strategy to keep players motivated to return? How do these numbers compare to guilds that couldn't care less about 25s and couldn't wait to stick a fork in their team to slough off dead weight? What percentage of 25-man guilds collapsed because of the corrupt officership? Or how about betrayal by the roster? What percentage of players would have remained running 25s if the only thing that stopped them from jumping ship was exclusivity?
Blizzard can't accurately report on this. They can only report to us the results: "Yeah, there's been a decline in 25-man raiding."
It sounds melodramatic when I describe it, but World of Warcraft is a game that involves people interacting with one another -- we just happen to be slaying internet dragons in the process. And as more readers visit 8YIA, I'm finding that my story isn't as unique as I originally thought. Many players have gone through the same trials, struggled with the same interpersonal conflict. I've had people ping me in game about 8YIA and say, "I had my own Ater and Blain, too!"
Blizzard won't ever know about these deeply personal stories when they pull up their report data for analysis; they'll only catch wind of them anecdotally via some forum post if and when players choose to share. So, when Ghostcrawler reminds people that their experience is skewed and not necessarily representative of the norm, I think they should put a little thoughtfulness and care into that stance. Our experiences are not as dissimilar as one might assume -- it's basic human psychology and has been studied and written about long before we were drawing a box around peons and sending them to collect gold.
A large part of Eight Years in Azeroth's appeal is the storytelling element, watching the origami of individual player dramas ceaselessly fold and unfold. Have you used real names for all these players? How have those you've written about reacted to your writing?
This was an issue I wrestled with, initially. At the outset, I avoided using any names. I felt like if I called specific players out, it would essentially be the same as trash-talking them, using my blog as a means to drag someone through the mud. That wasn't my goal; I needed to vent, not turn my blog into another /trade chat, rife with insults, free of repercussions.
As I got deeper into the blog, however, two things became clear:
- It became more difficult to convey the complexities of player interactions. It's much easier to call Annihilation by his name, rather than call him "the warlock who used to be a warrior and whom was also my warrior officer but has now since stepped down."
- I wasn't making anything up. I'm not here to spin wild yarns about players and things they may or may not have done. The focus is reporting back to readers what happened and how those situations made me feel. So while I'll get emotional about the impact these people's decisions had on me, I'll continue to do my very best to be objective in reporting what happened.
Once I decided to start working names into 8YIA, I made it a rule to try to reach out to players first and have them preview their posts before I go live with them. If anything feels untrue, misreported, or otherwise inaccurate, I give them an opportunity to work with me to tidy up the posts.
The first person that helped me with this process was Heather, aka Wyse. They were a tough two posts that needed to be written and didn't exactly paint her in the most positive of lights, but she reviewed them and was perfectly fine with how they were written -- the events were accurate, and (as crappy as they were) it was an important story that needed to be told. As it turned out, those posts garnered a lot of attention, and Heather was able to swoop in and provide comments / feedback to the readers. I think that's invaluable, and especially helps deliver the message that I am truly striving for accuracy and not so much about muddying players' names. I'll continue along this path, at least with players that I am still on speaking terms with.
Looking back, what was the single most difficult lesson to grasp and incorporate into regular practice as a GM?
Great question. The toughest part about being an effective GM -- and I believe this translates into general leadership as well -- is being able to handle each person effectively. Part of it is reading them, being able to "tune in to their frequency," speak so they'll hear and follow, rather than ignore and rebel. Part of it is inspiring them to hold themselves to a higher standard.
Why this is so difficult is that people have different motivations -- this isn't a black-and-white formulaic system of checkboxes you apply to every person you have to lead. In that respect, I envy the hardcore guilds that didn't bother with people management, nor care to waste time with it: "You show up, you raid, you perform. If you don't do these things, you're out." There's no dealing with hurt feelings, no politics around corrupt promotions, no favoritism or collusion. They were there to raid, and when the raid ended, they went their separate ways.
It was what went on after the raid that took up most of my energy and was the hardest to get right.
Any disastrous guild choices or moves you would take back now if you could?
Ho, boy. Tons. ... Don't sacrifice your guild's integrity, even if it means a chance at progression. Don't promote friends because you feel you have to have someone (anyone) in officership. Don't overlook the management of 10-man teams, even if you're a 25-man raiding guild. Above all: Treat everyone fairly -- don't treat everyone equally.
What things do you think you did especially well or effectively over the years as a GM?
Although it took me until WotLK to really find my groove as a GM, I thought that I handled people-management-related tasks well. I also felt that I built a really solid, hierarchical structure for the guild. It provided incentive to the more hardcore, encouraging them to excel, while granting the more casual raiders the flexibility they desired -- but not at the cost of sacrificing progression.
What are your immediate plans for 8 Years in Azeroth? How long will the memoir continue?
At present, my plan is to continue to let our story unfold over weekly posts. Once the story is told, I'm not sure what I'll do, but there's already been some interest in wrapping the memoirs up in an e-book, so I've begun the process of exploring that and various self-publishing options.
You've said that writing 8 Years in Azeroth has brought closure to your experience as a 25-man guild leader. What does that mean for your future in Azeroth?
I still play. My son, Hunter, and daughter, Ariel, jump on from time to time, so I give them a hand leveling, running a dungeon, this and that. I socialize with the few remaining stragglers in DoD that refuse to leave or quit. I run LFR in this sort of half-denial, half-cynical state of mind. Raiding is, after all, what drove me in WoW for eight years.
I always sort of had this secret dream of going back through all the expansions and hand-picking an All-Star Team of DoD raiders to take on Sargeras when Blizzard finally delivers us a raid worthy of the final big baddy. That would be incredibly cool and fun.
Sadly, I worry that Blizzard will continue down the path they are now, which is continuing to reduce exclusivity for the sake of getting more subscribers in front of content, unable to backtrack on these decisions for fear of alienating a crowd of players who would otherwise not be in that content anyway. And of course, with exclusivity gone and the epic feel of massive raids and the sense of real accomplishment a distant memory, it's going to be a real challenge for me to pull some of my ex-players out of retirement -- players who've gone on to build careers, get married, have kids ... and have long since moved on from WoW.
Having processed all this detail about your life in Azeroth, what aspects of the experience do you hope to re-encounter in the future?
Games that are built by companies as passionate as Blizzard is, that take time and care to polish our in-game experience but that also maintain an understanding of basic human psychology and how the implicit social ladder affects us, whether we claim "it isn't a competition" or not. Games that facilitate and enhance our ability to work together as teams, but that retain that key degree of difficulty so that goals aren't diminished and exclusivity remains as an incentive. Games that take care to ensure that rewards match effort, and design teams that come to terms with the fact that not everyone will be able to see all the content, as it should be in the pecking order of games with depth and layers of difficulty to master.
When I first started raiding Molten Core, I was getting horrible luck on shaman Tier 1 (Earthfury) drops. I remember complaining to my friend Zoid, who happened to be a member in Elitist Jerks, and he summed it up in one simple statement: "Nobody is guaranteed anything." And he's right. I hope we see a return to that. Paying a monthly subscription shouldn't be a free pass to reap the rewards, only to make an attempt at reaping them.
"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with Game of Thrones' Hodor (Kristian Nairn) ... a blind ex-serviceman and the guildmates who keep him raiding as a regular ... and a 70-year-old grandma who tops her raid's DPS charts as its legendary-wielding GM. Send your nominations to email@example.com.