Thursday, December 26, 2013

3.47. Too Long Pursuing Dragons

Music from "The Storm Peaks",
Copyright © Blizzard Entertainment

My Gaming At Work

The quiet clacking of keys on keyboards peeked out of the several cubes near me; I was oblivious to their gaze. Noise-cancelling ear buds were plugged into my head; only a tap on the shoulder could get my attention. This was how I preferred to program, especially when focused on volumetric tasks: chunks of coding that required little brain activity, outweighed by the time invested to complete. For these tasks any sort of music did the job, putting me into a trance-like state where code flowed from my fingers as fast as I could type it. This was in contrast to tasks that required I stop and think things through; often the case with bug fixes or modifying the entire codebase for consistency, a term folks in my industry dubbed refactoring. Under these more grueling tasks, instrumental music was all my brain could withstand. Songs with lyrics, spoken word, comedy...they would only serve as a distraction. What I wanted for this task -- what I needed -- was efficiency. As a programmer, I'm always looking for it: a way to kill two birds with one stone. And in many cases, it comes down to multitasking. How many individual tasks can I knock out at once?

My iPod rested atop the black Dell case, its white cord dangling unconnected off to the side. Yet, music flowed up through the ear buds into the canals toward the ear drum. Piccolos and flutes sprinkled notes across a lowly humming choir, while cellos and violins gradually built in crescendo, backed by the deeply muted blasts of horns. Female altos sang the melody first, their male tenor counterparts joining in the second round. The theme song of the Storm Peaks was what fueled my programming that afternoon, and there was a specific reason for this:

World of Warcraft was running in the background, hidden behind my programming tools and various browser windows.

Listening to the WoW soundtrack was something I made a regular habit of. Trying to explain the concept of listening to video game music on purpose to muggles often resulted in looks of confusion and bewilderment. This was the result of a generation that grew up among the bleeps and blips of Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros., so I didn't hold it against them. It wasn't worth the energy to sit them down and try to explain that Nine Inch Nails scored the soundtrack for Quake, or that the guys from Yes did the same for Homeworld. Commoners knew the bands, they just couldn't wrap their heads around the games...and it was their loss. I built up my game soundtrack library on their behalf. When issued out professionally, I'd purchase and rip the CD...but if no legitimate soundtrack ever surfaced, I'd take the next step and rip the music directly out of the game's data files. Every piece of music buried in the MPQs of World of Warcraft, The Burning Crusade, and Wrath of the Lich King were meticulously copied over to my iPod, filling in meta-tags where I could. In some cases, references to the musical staff of Blizzard appeared in these files, a "Jason Hayes" here or a "Russel Brower" there. Most files remained sadly devoid of their actual titles or composers, and it infuriated me. I took great pains to keep my music collection accurate, and the video game genre wasn't exempt from this obsessive compulsion. All my efforts in labeling each extracted musical track were for naught, as today's musical selection wasn't being pumped out by my iPod, but by the game itself. Why, then, did I waste my workstation's resources while perfectly labeled WoW music sat dormant on my iPod?

I was camping.

At the office, I enjoyed increased flexibility to adjust and configure my workstation as needed -- even if it meant installing WoW on it. As long as work was getting done, my boss reasoned, there was no reason to deny me a game installation. I was thankful for this arrangement. And lucky. Twelve years earlier, I learned my lesson the hard way. Working for a major internet service provider in the greater Denver area, I sat on one of the "fattest pipes" in the state: an OC12, transmitting data an astronomical 11,108 times faster than our pathetic 56k US Robotics modems did. By today's standards of broadband cable modems, not so impressive (barely 2.5 times faster, excluding upstream) -- but in 1997, 622 Mbit/sec was a gamer's dream. I spent my lunch hours deathmatching against the University of Colorado in Boulder, pinging its computer lab faster than the lab pinged itself. Over time, a depressing realization set in: there wasn't a single additional gamer in my entire company. Quake? What's that? Doom? Never heard of it. Blasphemy! Amid the irony of the technological situation, it was I that was labeled the heretic. Scrutiny on my work tightened. Office managers gossiped behind my back. I was tossed a fraction of a full raise at my annual review, crusts of bread left to the peasant gamer.

Needless to say, I played the gamer hand much closer to my chest in jobs to come. Only when trust and relationships were in place and I had proven my worth could I risk taking the gaming plunge at the office. Here, years after I'd learned my lesson, the situation had improved and the perception of the gamer had relaxed. The explosions of rocket jumps in dark man-caves lined with empty Mountain Dew bottles had given way to Scrabble in Facebook, a vice far more believable in a white-collar world. The gaming subculture was more commonplace, injected into primetime commercials rather than remaining reserved for Saturday morning cartoons. World of Warcraft had even come up in the job interview. So, I reasoned, I had arrived at a place where I could bend the rules a bit, as I looked for a way to improve the efficiency of an otherwise monumentally boring task. Here at the office, ear-buds fastened squarely into earholes, I wagered it was safe to keep WoW running in the background for a particularly demanding task. Not demanding in skill, but in time invested.

I was camping the Time Lost Proto-Drake.

"Time-Lost Protodrake"
Artwork by Sleepingfox

How To Maim Your Dragon

Aptly named, the coveted golden drake was known to show up at seemingly random times of the day (or night) among the mountains in the Storm Peaks. When revealed to the unsuspecting, lucky player, the Time Lost Proto-Drake could be shot out of the sky, and after a brief struggle with its intended captor, could be slain to reveal a highly coveted, exceedingly rare reward: an exact replica of the Time Lost Proto-Drake as the player's own personal golden flying mount. Capturing and slaying the proto-drake took no effort whatsoever. Finding it, however, was a feat of monumental dedication and tenacity. One had to know the path it took and position themselves accordingly to intercept the proto-drake; one also had to be aware of its many multiple paths. With other players checking these paths, proto-drake hunters had to be quick on the draw. Hesitating even for a moment could be the difference between acquiring the rare treasure and being forced to begin the hunt anew.

The only way to improve one's chances was to increase the amount of time spent lying in wait. For most WoW players, this was a task they couldn't be bothered with. It was far too long for them to spend wasting away, hoping for that rare glimpse that may not even show up until hours after they've gone to bed. I took on a more analytical perspective of the challenge. If I could spend hours on a computer, five days a week, working on programming tasks, why couldn't I camp the Time Lost Proto-Drake at the same time? I could take the insanely monotonous task of sitting around in-game doing nothing and turn it into a background task. All I needed to pull this off was some sort of monitor that could track the presence of the proto-drake, and fire off some sort of alarm that would catch my attention. Then, it would be as simple as alt-tabbing into the game, targeting the drake, and shooting it out of the sky. Sure enough, such a monitor existed which performed exactly that function: a WoW add-on named NPCScan.

So, with my workstation configured, my coding tools to the front and a hidden World of Warcraft window to the back, I pursued the Time Lost Proto-Drake. Weeks passed and I maintained this daily regimen, logging in to WoW and flying Mature to a specific position in the Storm Peaks where three known paths of the proto-drake intersected. I hovered my Death Knight a healthy distance above the frozen surface of the mountain range where the proto-drake had been observed, adjusting his position based on what NPCScan's paths told me. Then, I alt-tabbed, plugged in my ear buds, and proceeded to take care of my programming for the day. Listening to the angelic chorus of the Storm Peaks's music, I worked while Mature sat idle, hidden behind reams of code.

I clung mercilessly to this schedule for three straight months.

Known flight paths of the Time-Lost Proto Drake,
as displayed on a map of The Storm Peaks

The Meeting

There was a tap on my shoulder, jarring me back to reality. I yanked the ear buds out and turned to face the unknown assailant. My boss, Dave, stared back with a smile, nodding towards the conference room at the other end of the office.

"Meeting's in five minutes. Got the spec printed out? We're gonna go over it."

Sadly, the spec he referred to had nothing to do with Blood, Frost or Unholy; his spec was a functional specification document the development team would review for the next several months of work. It is a common process for developers: you examine what the business wants, then make an estimate on how long it will take you to build the requested functionality. Dave caught me off guard. Disoriented, I glanced at my desk. No func spec lay there.

"Uhh, yeah! Um...doesn't look like I have it printed out yet. Let me send it to the printer and I'll meet you in there in a jiff."

I glanced down at the clock in the system tray: 1:54pm. As is typical of a programmer's day, time slipped away from me. Lost in the pages of code I churned through, I failed to keep an eye on the approaching meeting. I found the work email hiding Dave's document and sent it to the printer. A tiny dialog bubble popped up from the system tray indicating the successful print request. I drummed my desk with a couple of quick taps, then rolled my chair back, exiting my cube and heading towards the printer across the room. The fifteen some-odd pages spewed out in seconds, giving me time to spare, so I ducked into the kitchen to freshen my cup of coffee. Caffeine helps take the edge off an otherwise dull meeting. Once whitened and sugared, I grasped my cup of coffee, stepped around the corner to retrieve the fifteen pages, and swung back to my desk to grab a pen. Glancing at the clock one final time, I read 1:57pm. Still a few minutes to spare.

And then, for a very brief moment, I thought I heard something.

I put the papers down, then my cup...and listened. There it was again. A faint, bizarre noise, almost like a ringing of some sort. I looked at my office chair. The white ear buds rested there, still plugged into the front of the Dell. I reached down, picked up one of the buds, and pressed it against my right ear.

A deafening alarm rang out. Over and over and over. My eyes widened.

It was NPCScan.

I leaned across my chair to reach the keyboard, and fired off an Alt+Tab. World of Warcraft immediately came to the front of my screen, pushing my pages of code and work emails to the back of the bus. Centered at the bottom of the game window, a small golden alert flashed.

Time Lost Proto-Drake.

My eyes moved up to the minimap, also displaying the time. 1:59pm.

Fuck. Me.

Dave called out from the other side of the office, "Yo, Shawn! You comin'?"

In the most artificially calm voice I could muster, I yelled back.

"Yeah! Uh...just a minute! Wrapping up a quick, er....thing, here."

The spaz in me was about to take over.

I continued to bend across the back of my chair rather than sit down, tapping keys and spinning the mouse wildly, my gaze darting back and forth between the minimap and the cold mountains enveloping my Death Knight. The proto-drake was nowhere to be seen. I took a split-second to guess which of the three intersecting paths the drake might have taken, and took a gamble on the path that led due east of my position. I flew Mature toward a giant opening in the snow, an artificially constructed tunnel of Titan origin which led deep under the surface.

"Hey! What's the hold-up?" another voice called from across the room.

"Uh, nothing! Just...getting my stuff here, one sec!"

Fuck.

As my mouse spun frantically, Mature's view of the world became a blur. I desperately looked in every direction. Icy blue proto-drakes shimmered all around the mountain tops, as if mocking my pathetic attempts to find the rarest of them, the one bathed in gold. In a moment of truly horrible luck, the bad became worse. I inadvertently activated an obscure World of Warcraft bug in which the game gets confused about its inputs, sending the player uncontrollably up into the sky. My mouse had become useless. The keyboard did nothing. There was no way for me to regain control of Mature. Panic set in. I slammed on a number of keys, and tried to re-establish control of my death knight through the mouse. Nothing responded. Pointed at the stars, he continued to fly further and further away from the snowy mountain peaks, their ice caps beginning to blur into the distance.

Fuck fuck.

I alt-tabbed multiple times. I opened the game settings and attempted to change the controls. Nothing helped. The panic began to subside, replaced with a calm wave of disappointment, and I spun my work chair around, finally sitting down in disgust. I stared at the screen. Stared at Mature, my character, locked in this "reverse nosedive". And the golden bar NPCScan placed at the bottom of my screen remained. Time Lost Proto-Drake. It was slipping away.

"Hey, are you coming or what?"

Fuck fuck fuck.

My voice was less panicky this time. Calm acceptance had resumed control. With a deep sigh of defeat, I called back.

"...yeah, I'm on my way now."

Good Afternoon, Good Evening and Good Night

World of Warcraft simulates a real-world. It comes complete with weather, animals that populate forests, and even changes the day to night, mirroring the rise and fall of our own sun. But the illusion is not limitless. Travel far enough, and you begin to discover the many magic tricks that Blizzard had pulled over your eyes. As I sat, watching Mature fly uncontrollably into the sky, he came to an abrupt stop, bumping into an invisible wall. He had hit the "ceiling" of World of Warcraft, something we call the skybox. Though it still appeared as an endless sky, the virtual world did indeed have its outer limit. Once reached, the bug released its grip on Mature, and I regained control of my character. The mouse responded to my requests once again.

I flew Mature back down to the surface, the mountain tops slowly returning to focus alongside the Titan tunnel. I glanced at the clock. 2:08pm. Nearly ten minutes late to my meeting. I've blown it, I thought. Way, way too much time fucking around with controls and being a spaz. Some other player has definitely swept in behind me and secured the kill. And as I lifted my hand off my keyboard to grab my coffee and printout for the meeting I'd screwed my fellow employees over, I took one final look at my monitor.

It was flying directly toward me.


Mature battles with the Time Lost Proto-Drake,
The Storm Peaks
I grabbed hold of the controls, nearly spilling my coffee in the process, and flew straight for the golden bird. In a single swift action, I right-clicked my flying buff, canceling my mount and sending me hurtling down to the snow in an arc. As I dropped to the surface, I clicked on the Time Lost Proto-Drake, making it my target, and death-gripped it as I plummeted. The great mutated dragon turned its attention to me and began to attack. I retaliated, driving Mature's sword into its outstretched wings. The proto-drake howled in defiance while my co-workers sat patiently, staring at their watches, wondering what in the hell was taking me so long. Mature's diseases sapped the proto-drake's health while Scourge Strike dug a shadowy blade deep into its scaled body. In a final, horrible scream, the Time Lost Proto-Drake fell lifeless on the snow.

Mine.

I looted the mount, scooped up my documents and coffee, and proceeded to the back corner of the office where my team waited for their game-addicted programmer.

"Ah, so nice of you to join us!"

"What the hell was going on out there, anyway?"

I sat, squared the papers in front of me, then looked back at the gang with a dramatic look of mystery.

"Apologies for the wait, guys. But I was busy getting a gift together for all of you."

"Oh yeah? What's that?" Dave asked.

"A story that you can bug me about for the rest of your lives."

Mature loots the coveted Time Lost Proto-Drake flying mount,
The Storm Peaks

6 comments:

Jackwraith said...

Ha. Excellent. I, too, was one of those fools that spent way too much time circling around Storm Peaks, looking for the TLPD. I was at least trying to bag Frost Lotus while I was doing it, so there was something productive involved. Never managed to find it, so grats on that. Been enjoying the look back via your blog. Thanks.

Fred said...

I had 2 encounters with TLPD. The first time I was flying in to Storm Peaks for my usual run around the paths. When I hit the frozen waterfall, TLPD was up and flying. I flew up, and got close enough to tag it. I thought I was over the cliff so I Flame Shocked and promptly fell to my death. When I flew back, there was a 78 Paladin spamming Exorcism killing it. Once the drake fell over, the Paladin sent me a whisper saying "Now I need to go make some gold to learn epic flying." He then asked to borrow some gold. He is still on my ignore list.

Second time, I didn't make the same mistake and dragged it to the ground before killing it.

Anonymous said...

Tried for TLPD a few times, but I'm usually up there for the Wolf. Frikking TLPD people keep killing it. -_-

A few years ago, I was playing my (Second) hunter (Since deleted for space). I spent a few weeks camping one spawn (Nothing compared to TLPD, sure, but...), Humar the Pridelord. Everytime I found his dead body, I would set alarms for myself based off of his respawn timer, even when I was sleeping at night. A friend joined in and helped me.

Finally got him at 3 in the morning on a sunday.

After that I swore to never do anything like it again, one year ago I modified that further.

Never let the game over-ride my life, never play if I'm not having fun. It's a game, for fun, not a job.

That may be why I never fit in with my guild's raiders. XD

----Catelina, KT Alliance Priest

Ross said...

Great story & well-told. Had me on the edge of my seat...I am also among the fortunate who successfully camped this fella.

Grats.

Anonymous said...

Dave seriously let you get away with that? :) I never would have!

I'll let you guess who this is...

Shawn Holmes said...

@Anonymous,

Who said anything about getting away with it? :)