The High-End Game

The high-end game is its own culture that most of us never have the chance to participate in. I think most casual players (and me included) conceive of high-end guilds as consisting of dedicated players who simply have more time to play. They are successful because they are willing to spend double or triple the amount of time that we spend. What follows is a perspective of the high-end culture from an insider who has led a high-end guild for about 3-4 years. The material presented is not meant as a description of all high-end guilds or the only way to succeed as a high-end guild, but rather as an example of how one high-end guild is structured and the experiences of their leader. What emerges from the interviews is a sense that the high-end game has its own culture that isn't merely quantitatively different from casual play. It's not simply that high-end guild members play more than casual guild members, but rather that they conceive of the game in an entirely different way.

All names given in this article have been altered to protect the identities of those involved. Talon has been the leader of a high-end guild for the past 3-4 years. The guild began in EverQuest and although it was not one of the earliest guilds to have formed on the server, it gained power quickly and was consistently the first guild on the server to kill many of the major named mobs after Shadows of Luclin was released (e.g., Tunare, Arch Lich, Avatar of War, High Priest of Ssra). Recently, they were the first to kill Ragnaros on their server in World of Warcraft. On that same day, Talon graduated with a master's degree in telecommunication management.

keywords: uberguild, top guilds, high-end game culture

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It's Not About Hours Played

My first conversation with Talon happened over AIM as he was sitting in front of 3 computers - one of them was logged on to WoW in Azshara waiting for Azuregos to spawn. I later found out that he was defending his master's thesis the next morning. That naturally led me to ask him how many hours he and his guild members put in each week. Talon's response was surprising.

People playing LOTS are no good. Super hardcore people are useless. What happens is they play loads and loads, then they gain lots of items. Then within 8-16 months, they take a look in the mirror and don't like what they see (someone who hasn't left the house for those months) and then they quit. They just plain vanish with all the gear they got.

In fact, Talon specifically tries to avoid recruiting hard-core players for that specific reason. These "burn-out" personalities in fact are looked upon as wasted investments and to be avoided at all costs.

So we're actually very suspicious of people that play too much. Stable people who play enough are the best. It's the best from a purely selfish point of view too - no wasted loot. We had such crash and burn people go through us, fleeing from state to state when debtors were catching up (we lost one hardcore because he had to flee the cops I mean come on).

For Talon, the key was finding people with stable lives and careers but who could "play enough".

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Discipline

Talon isolated discipline as the most important factor in the success of a high-end guild. As he put it,

If I said something, people needed to do it instantly and they did. You never argued, especially on raids. Like I said, the organization was military style. To be successful you have to be organized.

I pushed Talon on whether he perceived the guild structure as largely dictatorial. He reframed the issue in an interesting way.

Yes and no. We did vote on everything. Loot distribution was communistic really. Points were [given] for time spent but the guild leader got same amount of points per time as the newest recruit. So dictatorial like, say, a US military unit in a war, cut off from communications. If shit hits the fan, yes, they WILL follow the commands of the captain, but mostly because they know that if they don't act in a cohesive fashion, they will lose. In other words, the power is given democratically, but wielded in a dictatorial way.

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Common Goal

Talon noted that having a common goal was also crucial to the success of the guild. When I asked him what that common goal was, his answer was simple - "To be the best". And here, what Talon meant was distinctively different from the achievement-oriented motivations I was used to.

I mean to be realistic I'm a nobody in the greater scheme of things. No matter how good gear I have, people still won't know. If I paint out some magelo or whatever, it's meaningless really, but what people DO know are the guilds - "oh shit, the guild that first killed Ragnaros / Onyxia / Quarm / whatever".

And this was the common goal - not "to be the best" per se, but "to be part of the best". And in fact, individuality is subservient to this overriding goal. When Talon first mentioned that "sharing accounts is the norm", I was intrigued. He then explained that it "allows for flexibility in time". I was still confused and it was only when this practice of sharing accounts was framed under the notion of a common goal that it made sense to me.

They do not mind at all playing other characters. Their own character is nearly meaningless.

Talon and his guild members all shared in the common goal of advancing the interests of the guild. All individual interests were subservient to this goal. This was what made account sharing the norm. A character was merely the means to advance the interests of the guild. The primary attachment was not to the character you played, but to the guild you are a part of.

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The Tension of Gender

Early on in our email exchange, I sensed that Talon did not favor female members. At first, I felt that this was perhaps due to the clash between the militaristic demands of the guild and the more relationship-oriented play-style of female gamers. When I asked Talon about this, he had an interesting explanation.

Coming from a VERY equal society and a family with a really strong mother in it, I found the whole situation with women strange. Well, women seem to like attachment more in the online environment and for all intents and purposes, an uber guild resembles military more than anything else.

Now there's a reason why military doesn't like relationships in it. The same reason applies to militaristic uberguilds - the suspicions of favouritism etc., not to mention women practically always aim for the top. This is not a critique as such. I mean it's quite understandable. In a healthy guild, the most charismatic, outgoing and smart people are leaders. I sure as hell would prefer them.

So the reason why Talon is hesitant on recruiting female members is because it inevitably leads to romantic tension in the guild.

They start wanting "protection" from whoever they're with. So typical of me to get tells like "she thinks you're being mean, and I agree with her (yeah sure you do)". Just made me sigh every time. Frankly, I prefer people who don't do that. Male students are the best.

It's important to make clear that Talon isn't presenting a sexist position. It's not the case that women are inferior players or can't function in a militaristic guild, but that when you have men and women in the same guild certain interactions become highly likely. And that dynamic has as much to do with the men as it does with the women. [see comments below on sexism]

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A Function of Age?

Throughout our interviews, Talon consistently preferred younger players over older players, and he made several comments that younger players led the most effective guilds. When I queried him, he gave the following reason.

The interesting difference between me and the original 35 year old guild leader was that he always spent hours upon hours talking with people. He always made a point of "understanding" people's issues. I, on the other hand, was usually extremely direct with people. If you were talking nonsense I just told it to you, and ended up saying that if they didn't like it, there was nothing forcing them to be in the guild... but that I had to focus on the guild, and couldn't afford to play shrink to their teenage/middle-aged angst.

Frankly the whole thing drove me a great deal to the right. Coddling people gets you nowhere, except having to coddle them even more. If you just tell them to figure things out for themselves and be honest with them, you are likely to get quite a bit further than you'd get with coddling.

Pretty much every older leader started playing shrink when they should have confined themselves to the role of the leader. People started demanding more and more of their time, while I always made it clear that if you wanted answers from me, you should probably ask yes/no questions.

So for Talon, successfully managing a guild meant successfully avoiding becoming everyone's personal shrink and encouraging members to take care of their own personal problems.

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Criteria For Membership

And finally, I asked Talon about the criteria used for evaluating applicants. These criteria help frame and summarize the aspects of the high-end culture that Talon has described above.

1. Thick skin. There'll be a lot of harsh language thrown around, and critique will be honest and sometimes even excessive. If you can't take it, just go away already. Crying about criticism will be the fastest way to get voted out.

2. Attendance. If you aren't there, what use are you supposed to be?

3. Attitude. If you can't adapt to the "guild comes first" thinking, you have a potential of ebaying, simply being less useful or theoretically even causing drama. This is basically a sliding scale from "extremely good" to "drama". This is often tested by having them take a lot mild abuse/neglect originally. We're not courting them, they are courting us, and they should be aware of this. If they stick to it for a month of being nearly ignored, they are the type of material we will like. Never giving up is the quality we find most appealing.

4.Skill. Usually people who fit the above criteria do pretty well here. Yet sometimes there are phenomenally skilled people who don't do that well in #2 and #3. For example right now we have one player who does really well in #1, #2 and #4, but has an attitude problem. This is sufficient for us to try to work on the attitude some, but our patience is not unlimited.

Talon's description of the culture of his guild shows how the high-end game is not just about spending more hours in the game. It's about having a different conceptualization of what the game is altogether. The game is no longer about your character, or how good your character's gear is. It's not about how many hours you can jam in. In Talon's view, to succeed in the high-end game, the game has to cease to be about you.