What Destiny Raids Teach About Product Teams

Note: This post contains spoilers about the Vault of Glass Raid in Destiny. If you have no idea WTF I’m talking about, you should be fine to read on.


You might be thinking, “How could someone possibly write about some video game, comparing it to something as complex and high-end as shipping software?” Well, the truth is that software isn’t as hard as people may think and Destiny is harder than people may think.

If you are not familiar with Destiny, it is a first-person-shooter game created by Bungie (most notable for making Halo). It is a massive multiplayer-shared world environment with certain role-playing elements to it.

Destiny takes place in a mythic science fiction universe. Players are allowed to choose from three classes: Titan, Warlock, and Hunter. Each class has unique abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Sound familiar?

In Destiny, there are several modes of play: single-player missions that you can play cooperatively with up to three people (called a fireteam), player versus player (PvP) in the Crucible, and player versus environment (PvE) patrol missions where you can complete bounties to gain experience points.

One of the most notable modes is the raid. The raid is a very difficult, highly complex six-player cooperative mission that requires excellent communication, abilities, and gear. Sound familiar?

The raid is a six-player cooperative mission that is very difficult, highly complex, requiring excellent communication, and high-level abilities and gear. Sound familiar?

Shipping products.

Unlike other modes of play, the raids have very minimal instruction and require players to figure out the mechanics themselves. Though raids have checkpoints, they must be completed in a week before the weekly server reset on Tuesdays.

Going over the storyline of Destiny would be a multipost series in and of itself, so this post assumes you have played Destiny. There could be some potential spoilers. However, if you are familiar with gaming and know the concept of a raid, you’ll be just fine. If you need a quick overview, Sir Wallen has some excellent videos about the lore of Destiny.

Our Clan

I am going to speak specifically on experiences of our clan (Army of Dinklage) regarding the raid. Coincidentally, our clan is made up of a lot of friends from Seattle Xcoders, so the correlation between playing Destiny and shipping software is familiar to us.

At the moment, there are two raids: The Vault of Glass and Crota’s End. We will focus on the Vault of Glass as it is our clan favorite.

Leveling Up

In product teams, we have: Designer, Engineer, Tester, Product Manager, and many more; quite similar to the Hunter, Titan, and Warlock in Destiny.

The three classes each have a subclass. Each subclass has elemental powers: Void, Arc, and Solar. These three elements are encountered during the game, such as enemies with shields. If an enemy has a solar shield, a solar-based weapon or subclass will do far more damage than a normal weapon.

Bil Moorhead, our CTO at Black Pixel, often likes to describe certain roles with subclasses. I will speak about my domain, design, specifically for this. A designer can have many subclasses that are specializations: information architecture, visual design, prototyping, etc.

This means you simply cannot say, “Oh, let’s put an engineer on the project,” and assume that because they are an engineer, there will be no issues or challenges. Perhaps the engineer is more of an architect who specializes in CoreData, but you put her on a UI-heavy project. Specializations are important to consider when deciding how to solve a problem.

I play as a Hunter, which has the subclass of Bladedancer (better for close-up attacks with arc damage), but I often have to switch over to Gunslinger (focused on solar attacks with longer range) for certain areas in the raid.

Characters are able to level up to 34. Players are able to level up based on experience points and the amount of light special armor produces. As with other RPGs, you are allowed to play modes at higher levels while your character is lower, but it will be much more difficult and you will hold your team back. You’ll encounter enemies that can resist or be immune to your attacks.

Like on product teams, sometimes you are not qualified or ready, and you need to level up. In recent conversations with friends who are looking for work on product teams, this is a recurring theme. They are not ready and need to polish their skills a bit more.

When I first started playing with my clan, my character was only at Level 24 and I was literally useless. Some enemies displayed as a double question mark (??) which meant they were immune to my fire. Though my clan was still nice and invited me to play with them, I felt like I wasn’t contributing at all. What I had to do was spend time on my own running through some of the other game modes (like Crucible, patrols, and strikes) to level up my character to become more effective.

Just like in the game, you need people on your product team to be leveled up appropriately to be successful. This depends on the type of challenge or product you are working on. Is your product easy, medium, or hard? You can get away with a Level 27 designer on easy, but not on hard.

I never put people on product teams if they are not ready, because I do not want to put them in a position to fail. If you bring a Level 24 to do the job of a Level 34, they will be set up for failure and become discouraged. This does not mean I expect everyone to never fail, but they need to be in a position to succeed as well. If I have a hard product, I’m bringing Level 34s to the team.

Before attempting the raid again, I played for another two weeks to catch up on my experience. Now at Level 33, we tried the Vault of Glass (VoG) again.

The Vault of Glass

Destiny’s first raid was released about a week after the game came out. The Vault of Glass (VoG) is located in the Ishtar Sink on Venus. The beginning of this raid really emphasizes the teamwork you’re going to need to display. To even enter the raid, your team must protect three sink plates that will create a spire and open the entrance. Enemies attack you and sacrifice themselves to take down the sink plates. If they succeed, your whole team has to start this process all over again.

Establishing the Plan

This screenshot above is our team planning the next section we need to accomplish. The ultimate goal is to defeat Atheon (the final boss), but before we are even in a position to fight Atheon, there are challenges we need to take care of first.

Planning is very important when you play with new people. In my first run, Chris Parrish (@twenty3) would shoot at certain areas and the tracer would show me what to look at. While doing that, he would explain the goal we need to achieve, what sort of enemies we would encounter, and what to expect.

There are a few sections where we are able to sit (quite literally) and talk about the plan.

In the stage of the raid where you fight the Templar, there is a series of enemies that appears with primary targets called Oracles that you have to take out. These are priority zero targets, because if you do not destroy them everyone dies.

We made our game plan to account for that. In the diagram below, you’ll see we have a sixth guardian (usually Gus Mueller) on the platform to cover every area. Gus (@ccgus) plays as a Hunter skilled in sniping and long range attacks, which gives him more range than the other guardians. It is important to find the right personnel to fit the responsibility.

The Plan Goes Wrong, Very Wrong

So, that did not go as planned. Any time we create a strategy, something unexpected happens: someone dies, the weapon loadout was suboptimal, etc. If you have ever worked on a product, you know that plans change as soon as you establish them. People leave your company, new requirements come up. There are so many factors that are out of your control, and adjustments have to be made in order to succeed.

We often create fallback plans and re-assign guardians to cover in a different way until we have all six members again. In the diagram above, if I am at Position 2 and Position 1 goes down, I need to shift over and cover both areas.

People Screw Up, a Lot

I cannot tell you how many times you fail part of a raid because someone screws up. Quite often on my team, it is because of me. Certainly there are people on the fireteam who get frustrated, because after getting so close, you mess up on something, the mission fails, and everyone dies.

However, our clan is very supportive. They say things like, “Don’t worry, we will get it next time,” and value running through things in order to get the hang of it.

When we fail, we often spend a bit of time discussing what happened and make adjustments. Maybe I felt too overwhelmed covering two zones after someone died and should have cued Gus in on covering that area with his sniper rifle more to help me out. Maybe something did not get communicated well enough and an Oracle did not get destroyed in time.

Constant Communication

In some ways, I think I communicate better in Destiny than at most places I have worked. In a raid, communication isn’t optional but essential. At first it actually feels a bit cheesy, like conversing on CB radio, but communication is required in order to be successful.

A good example of this is at the end when you face Atheon, Time’s Conflux. In this final stage of the raid, there are two portals (one to Venus and the other to Mars) that hold a relic your fireteam must get. This relic will allow you to have a shield that you can fire through to attack Atheon.

The trick about this is that only half of your team is transported and the other half is at the gatekeeper. It gets better. People are randomly teleported, so you cannot choose who gets sent through. What we realized we had to do was designate someone to be the relic runner. We created a system in which three of our team members are highly skilled at running the relic.

The relic team has to call out what planet they are on in order for the Gatekeeper team to know which portal to protect, while the Gatekeeper team has to fight off enemies to ensure the portal is clear for the Relic team to come through.

Once the Relic team is through, the relic runner can create a shield so everyone can fire on Atheon.

After a few good iterations of this together, Atheon goes down and the raid is complete.

Empathy

Yes, you can learn to be more empathetic while playing Destiny. As we were playing the other night, one of our clan members (@darrylhan) and I were talking about designers learning to code simply to have more understanding of what their team members go through to implement or solve a problem. It creates mutual understanding and respect.

Darryl mentioned it is similar to a part in the Vault of Glass when our friend Jake (@jakecarter), who is the relic runner, will always call the two of us to the middle of the map so he can cleanse us. The cleanse has a limited range and requires both guardians to be close together to effectively do it. I never understood this until one time I actually had to run the relic myself, which basically went like this:

From that point on I understood where I needed to be for Jake to effectively do his job. I still never run the relic (nor do I ever really want to), but I make everyone else better (including myself) through understanding.

Progressive Enhancement through Practice

Jake was not always a good relic runner. It was something that he had to learn by running through the raid several times to understand its mechanics and strategy.

Basically, this is the reason we love playing this game. Weapons have specific mechanics and properties that make them useful or bad. You can upgrade weapons and change specifications to your liking. You have to spend a lot of time mastering tools and techniques that work for you.

Ultimately, you will assemble a collective of people with great skills who can help you ship something great.

Play Often and Play Together

Your product team (and fireteam) are people you see just as much (if not more) than some of your loved ones. It is important to support each other and expect the best out of them.

The thing I enjoy most about Destiny is playing with friends. I believe I am better friends with the people I play with because of the time we spend together.

To have the best product team, the principles are simple: work hard, be dedicated, and have fun. Ship software — so you can play Destiny.

Our clan motto: We try hard.

Team photo after we defeated Atheon in the Vault of Glass on hard.