Alter Ego Interview
Tracy Spaight interviewed the Syndicate for his book "Alter Ego". That books is based of a photo exhibition that went all over the world which featured a massive group shot of The Syndicate (in game and in real life) from our Myrtle Beach conference. Here are the questions and the answers that we provided to him:

1. Tell me about the demographics of The Syndicate?

The Syndicate is a very large (550+ members) and very diverse group. Our members come in all shapes and sizes so this question is challenging to answer in one specific way.  Here are a few facts about the guild.

    *The youngest member is 12 years old and is the son of two members
    *The oldest member was born in 1946 making him 60.  We had, at one time, a member who was more than 80 but he had to retire from gaming for health reasons.
    *The average guild age is between 31 and 32 years old (31.757 currently)
    *Ages of members break down approximately as follows:  5% of the guild is under the age of 20.  42% is in their 20's. 37% is in their 30s. 13% is in their 40s. 3% is 50 or above.
    *Most members are married and most members over 30 have kids.  That isn’t universally true but by and large it’s fairly accurate
    *Most of our members are working adults (and I include homemakers in that category as well) while those in their late teens and early 20s are in college.  Occupations range from:  Active Duty or Retired Military, Doctors & Dentists, Lawyers, IT professionals, Teachers, Policemen, Homemakers, Truck Drivers, Game Developers, Marketing and Sales with lots of odd jobs tossed in to boot.  We have members who raise horses… and one who did the voiceovers for many of the "Rome" series of shows on the History Channel.  We have a member who owns two semi-pro racing teams.  We have a member who runs their own pharmacy and those that own their own computer businesses.  Syndicate occupations run the range of what is out there.

But that in and of itself is one of the beauties of the guild:  No one cares what you do… no one cares what you look like… no one cares how little or how much money you have… no one cares about your politics, ethnicity or religion… all of those "hot" topics that get portrayed as divisive issues in the media are irrelevant in The Syndicate.  You know who the person REALLY is, inside, long before you learn any of those other things and that is what really matters.

2. How did you get into video games? MMORPGs specifically?

Members of The Syndicate got into gaming in a large number of different ways.  Some have been in gaming longer than a few have even been alive.  I have been gaming online since the 300 baud modem days which are back in the early 80s before some of our youngest members were born.

Back in those days it was BBS that you dialed into (and if you had the really cool 300 baud modem you could make it go 450 baud and boy were you smoking then).  There were several online, turn based, games you could play on different boards.  In a very loose sense, they were MMOs since your char would often remain in the world when you were offline and someone else may come by and see you there and kill you (if the game allowed it) or attack your worlds etc..

That progressed to MUDs and MOOs of which many of our members also played.  Those were a lot of fun as they were infinitely more complex and detailed than those early BBS games.  Some sites really put a lot of effort into emulators and into the game itself and hours of fun were had there.  Usually there was always someone more powerful willing to show you the ropes as well.

From there AOL came along and did Gemstones as a more formal MUD but then added in NWN which was built off the old Pools of Radiance game layout and engine.  It was an early MMO as there were other people in a kind of graphical realm that could attack you or help you out.

The Realm and Meridian 59 came along and I moved over to testing those while Ultima Online had its Alpha test and moved towards beta.  At that point I decided to form The Syndicate as I had years of experience with guilds and none were what I was looking for.  I really wanted a virtual community that didn't exist for a specific game… rather it existed for the friendships and community and used the games to further that goal. So The Syndicate was born.

Over the following 10 years we played UO, EQ and WoW as formal major games.  We beta tested, often at the behest of the developer, every major MMO and almost all the minor ones that came out.  And now, 10 years later more than 80% of the guild has been with us 1 to 10 years and that percent goes up each month (Although we have expanded the size we allow in the guild from 500 to 570ish right now but we are keeping pace with the added size in terms of members crossing the 1 to 10 year line).  We have created that virtual community and we are very proud of it.

3. What do you find so compelling about life in virtual worlds? What's the draw?

Speaking for myself, and I think this is pretty typical for a Syndicate member since we recruit people who share similar values, goals and play styles, the games themselves were fun for the first year or two. They are still fun, although not AS fun since there hasn't been a huge amount of innovation in years.  However, the real draw is our Syndicate community.  The vast majority of our guild plays UO and WoW because of the guild… because of the friendships in the guild… because they enjoy spending time with those friends.

And those friends just aren't some pixels on the screen they have never met.  In most cases they HAVE met many other members from our yearly conferences, our dinners (all across the country), our LAN parties and other fun events that we do as a guild.  So the friendships aren't just virtual, they are real and hold a lot of value for our members.

So the compelling part of the virtual worlds is that they afford us the chance to have fun with people that we can’t see every day due to living dozens, hundreds or thousands of miles away doing something we enjoy. We all enjoy computer games and we enjoy overcoming challenges with our friends.  And in most cases, if the guild weren't around we would have left online gaming years ago.

4. Many outsiders see video games as a waste of time or an anti-social activity. How would you respond to that view? How would you compare gaming to watching television?

Video games CAN be a waste of time and CAN be equated to television under some circumstances.  MMO games, I don't feel, fit into that category though when you are talking about a guild like ours.

Television or mindless playing a single player game for hours or days is generally viewed by society as negative because there is no social interaction and it offers you no real long term benefit.

The Syndicate, in the context of MMOs, is the opposite of that.  It is entirely based around social interaction and real friendships.  Members have met and gotten married through the guild.  Members have received jobs, help recovering from Hurricane's Katrina and Rita (and others that hit Florida in years past).  Members have received legal, medical and computer advice from other members.  Dozens of real life events have spawned from the relationships that started in the virtual world. Thousands of hours of talking via "voice" tools discussing everything under the sun take place that never would have (and society, generally speaking, views phone conversations as value added).

And due to the diverse nature of our guild (people from many countries and all walks of life) our members get exposed to things they would never have been exposed to otherwise.  There are 0 chances I’d ever have discussed politics with a German Pharmacist if I hadn't met him via the guild and then stayed up late at one of our conferences playing poker and talking about views on the Iraq war.  There are 0 chances I would have made a great friendship with several Australian members.  There is no chance I would know as much as I do about all sorts of fields of work that I've had no exposure to.  We would have never had the opportunity to help some of our friends through major tragedies in their lives.  The opportunities are just astounding when you put 550+ diverse people from across the entire globe into a guild that has no infighting... no backstabbing... and are built around trust and friendships.

So I would strongly disagree that a guild such as ours, in the MMO world, is a waste of time or anti-social.  It is just the opposite.

The Syndicate even goes so far as to sponsor a youth charity each year (Youth Opportunities Unlimited out of Wyoming) that would never have happened if we weren't a guild playing MMO games together.

5. What is The Syndicate and how did it begin? How many members does the guild have? What can you tell us about the membership? Who are they and what are they like? What keeps the guild going after all these years?

Most of this question I answered in the above ones.  Here is a quick overview of the guild:

We were founded in Feb 1996 thus making us more than 10 years old.

We are the first MMO guild to have a corporate sponsor (Thunderbox PC).

We are the first guild to Trademark its name. We actually own 2 trademarks on our name, the logo and motto.

We have around 570 members with the average age being 31.757 right now.

More than 80% of the guild has been with us 1 to 10 years.

We have never imploded… we have never 'taken a break' and reformed.  We have never had a mass exodus of dozens or hundreds of members.  We have always had the same guildmaster so never a change in leadership.  We are an extremely stable guild with extremely low turnover.  We average about 1 member every 2 months that leaves for some other guilds which is nearly unheard of in the gaming world.

As for what keeps us going, Question #3 is a good answer to that… the friendships.  We very much enjoy online gaming but it is merely a tool we use to further the friendships.  MMOs are a way to have fun as a guild.  They are not a goal or an end, in and of themselves.

6. What's it like to be guildmaster of such a large guild? Is it like running a company or being the head of a family or something else?
From the outside, it looks like a lot of work! What's rewarding about the job?

Running a guild of this size is a HUGE amount of work.  I spend approximately 6 hours a day, 7 days a week, just on "paperwork" for the guild.  That includes everything from application processing (we receive more than 4,000 of those a year), to interviews like this one, to reading and responding to 250ish emails a day, to writing a daily update to the guild, to resolving a myriad of minor issues that pop up, to reading and posting to our forums and much more.

The role fits somewhere in between being a parent to 550 kids in conjunction with running a company of 550 people.  It has its moments when is closer to one side than the other and it has its moments when I wonder "Why the heck am I still doing this after so many years?" and there are days when the amount of work stacking up seems overwhelming but there are rewards in doing the job.  And those rewards are in the form of hundreds of good friends.  People I know very well, and have known for many years, that I really enjoy spending time with and talking to and gaming with.  There is also a reward in doing my part to help facilitate an environment that leads to some amazing friendships between others.  While it is great to personally benefit, it is also wonderful to see other things that grow inside the guild.

Many other "guilds" don't really understand what we are or what we do. For most gamers, a guild is merely a tool to enjoy X game for the period of time they play it.  Guildmates are "friends" for the time being (although in some cases friendships do develop and last for years) for many players.  For many guilds, its members are tools used to further the guilds goals.  It is a symbiotic relationship where each uses the other and when the usefulness is gone for either party, they part companies.  That isn’t the case in The Syndicate.  We only recruit people who we like very much, who are similar to us in most ways, and who we feel will be here long term.  And because of that the relationship isn’t guild to member… it’s friend to friend as part of a virtual community.

So I really don't see myself as a "Guildmaster" as it is traditionally defined in the gaming world.  I’m somewhere between the CEO of a company and the head of a very large household with a very large dose of "friend" tossed in there.

7. What does the guild do together in game? In the real world? In what way is The Syndicate different from or similar to other types of organizations people could belong to -- church, PTA, softball team, political party, etc?

We do everything together within the games we play.  Due to our huge size, we very rarely need to go outside the guild for anything.  So we hunt together… we do in game events together… we raid (large groups of members working in coordination to overcome content that can only conquered by large groups of players) together… we level up together… we craft together... we hunt resources together and we spend a LOT of time socializing and building friendships together.  Rarely will you see Syndicate members off hunting entirely with another group or with nonmembers.  There is almost always a group of members with a spot for one more member to join in. Sometimes game mechanics and the time of day make it so that members do adventure outside the guild but by and large its Syndicate groups at work and even when we are outside the guild, chatting in our voice tools and in our chat tools remain active and guild only.

Outside the game we do a great many fun things.

* Conferences: Each year, since 2002, we have held a large annual guild conference.  It is attended by 100-125 members and 20-30 spouses and some of their children.  They take place at different locations like Orlando, Las Vegas and Niagara Falls to name a few.  We typically invite several game developers who talk to us and present ideas, upcoming games etc and solicit large amounts of feedback from us.  Those events last 4 days and are, bar none, our single best guild event that we highly recommend every member attend.  300ish of our guild members have attended at least one conference and that is a HUGE help to building friendships and really taking the gaming and guild experience to the next level.

* Dinners:  We have a regular, once a month, dinner in the Washington DC area.  But we also do other dinners around the country wherever there are several members close to each other.  Looking at the image below, you can see the approximate density of membership around the Northern Hemisphere.  We tend to have lots of east cost dinners and a fair number of California ones and occasionally ones scattered in other places.

* LAN Parties: We have a couple of LAN parties each year.  Typically they are in Columbus and Chicago and a bunch of members show up to those.  Those also last 3-4 days and members may stop by to meet those there or bring a PC and game.

* Misc. Events:  We have a scattering of other events that pop up throughout the year.  For example, a member may have a Renaissance Faire come locally to them and a bunch of members will show up and attend with them.  A member may come into town for business and a bunch of members will get together to meet them.  A member may get married and a bunch of members will attend the wedding.  So there are also lots of random little events that come up.

8. Tell me about your character in WOW. What race is your character? Why did you make him look the way he does?

From a guild level, in WoW we play on the Horde side although we do have a couple of hundred alliance alts.  So we have members of all shapes and sizes in game.

I personally play as my primary raid char a Tauren Shaman.  There are two reasons for that.  I learned many years ago that I personally find myself most effective when coordinating the raid from other than in the middle of the combat.  If I'm the main tank I would have a lot on my plate besides coordinating the raid.  So typically I play a healing class which I find I can do very well but that sits back from the front lines giving me a good perspective on the whole raid and what is going on all around it. That lets me do my role in the raid and still coordinate things.  In EQ I played a cleric for the same reason.  In UO I play a mage and I focus on healing the party for the same reason.

I picked Tauren because it’s large and tall. I can see further than if I was something shorter and there are some places where you do zoom in nearly on top of your char and being a bit taller than the other classes can help keep a perspective on the raid.

9. What are your hopes and aspirations for The Syndicate (and online games / communities) in the future?

One of our primary goals, besides to continue to foster and grow our friendships and strengthening our team, is to continue to work to benefit the entire gaming community and make the MMO world stronger.

The Syndicate does many things that we feel have a direct and positive influence on the gaming world.  We sit on the advisory panels for a number of games offering our combined 5500+ man-years of gaming experience to developers.

We participate heavily in beta testing of future games, even ones we wont have a formal presence in, to try to do our part to make those games a success since that, in turn, strengthens the entire genre and benefits us all, long term.  Games flopping due to poor design makes companies wary of investing money and time so while it has no affect today, it could be disastrous 10 years from now if everyone doesn't do their part to help make games a success.

We run events in game to help make them fun for players.  For example in UO we run Lotteries and Scavenger Hunts and things like that which are open to the public and seek to add value to the game above and beyond the developer supplied content.

We have a number of members who are game developers who take the lessons learned and feedbacks obtained from their time in The Syndicate and apply it to tweaking existing games and in creating the next generation of games.

We have written articles for magazines and chapters in books on what developers can do to attract and retain guilds and players.  Those have served as reference material for a number of games in development right now.

We have participated in round table discussions and brain storming sessions with developers to flesh out ideas and concepts for their games.

We also, of course, want to continue to lead the gaming world as the Premier Guild.  We do catch some flak for referring to ourselves as that but if you define that the way we do, there is no other guild anywhere close to our level of success.  To explain more... there is no guild that has 5500 man-years of gaming experience... that sits on as many advisory panels... that has as many developers as members... that has a corporate sponsor... that was the first to Trademark their guild name... that has the largest single guild event (our yearly conferences) in the history of gaming... that has more than 80% of its members being a member for 1 to 10 years... that only loses on average 1 member every two months to another guild... that has never imploded, never changed leadership, never closed down and reformed... that has written numerous articles and book chapters to try to making gaming a better place for all gamers... that receives many personal invites to beta test games for developers because we have a reputation of doing a great, professional job.  There simply is no other guild in existence that can boast even a fraction of those things so yes, we do consider ourselves the premier guild and yes, we do want to continue to be that so we are focused on improving ourselves in those areas.  One such example is that we have a deal in the works with a major Strategy Guide company to help produce MMO strategy guides for future games.

The most common comment made about our claim of being the premier guild is "Ha! Your guild suxorZ! You didn't kill XXXX boss first!”  Err, we aren't a powergamer guild but lets assume for the moment that killing XXXX boss first has some actual value and importance to the world at large today.  99.99% of guilds in existence today won’t be around in 2 years.  Most of the rest won’t be around in 5 years.  And do you really think anyone is going to remember the name of the first guild to kill Nefarian 5 years from now?  And if they do, is anyone going to really care?  Definitely not!  Basing your self-worth or your guild worth from what pixels you defeated is laughable at best and suicidal (from the health of the guild perspective) at worst.  A few might care, today, who kills what pixels first but a few years down the road the guild wont exist and few, if anyone, will remember or care that they ever did.

There is no true measure of success that is based around pixels.  As such, we have defined success in other ways that do matter more both to us and to the gaming community at large.  And as we have been around for more than 10 years and have seen hundreds of thousands of guilds rise and fall, we KNOW that we are the premier online gaming community, bar none.  And I don't use the word guild.  Guild implied an entity that exists for a specific game to achieve a gaming purpose.  Guilds don't last.  Guilds don't really matter in the long term.  We are an Online Gaming Community and we can claim that only after having invested 10 years to achieve all that we have achieved and having stood that test of time and achieved all that we have achieved, we feel we can truly claim to be the premier Online Gaming Community.

10. What is the most colorful, off-the-wall, or cool thing that has happened to you or your guild members as a result of playing virtual worlds and belonging to The Syndicate?

Here are several stories that you and the readers may find interesting..

Being a 10 year old guild means there is a lot of guild history and also a lot of funny rumors that pop up over the years.  In my time as guildmaster I have been told:

* I died of a drug overdose so I can’t really be me, since I'm dead.

* I am really Lord British and that is how we got so big and obtained such prime real estate in UO.  While I'm not him, I would love to have his house  :)

* I charge the guild dues and secretly sell them on EBAY and keep the money. I enjoyed that one enormously since at the time it came out (and still today) there were no guild dues. We had them wayyyyyy back at the beginning of UO to finance our first in game castle though.

* I am really a 12 year old girl.  That was used to try to convince the guild they should all quit, by a disgruntled X-member.  So ever since then I've been '12' and female as a running joke.

* We once had a group of European members.  English wasn't their first language which is what lead to the issue when they departed.  Long story short, they didn't like some policies we had and wanted more control to do certain things in game that we didn't support, so they quit.  That is all well and good.  The funny part came in email a few days later when one of the former members wrote me in an effort to insult me.  His email started off by calling me a liar.  He went on to explain that I am a liar because my alias is "Dragons" but I'm not REALLY a dragon and I don't REALLY live in castle in real life and I don't REALLY sleep on a pile of treasure, therefore I'm a liar!  A few sentences of explicative later he concludes with “YOU ARE SUCK!”  That phrase sort of stuck and since then it’s been a catch phrase in the guild that we toss around.  Since we are friends we aren't likely to really tell each other we suck... but we will liberally toss around “You ARE Suck” as it has a much funnier meaning.

* Every year, for the past five, we do a Syndicate World Conference with 100+ members in attendance.  Often we go to Medieval Times for dinner one night, if there is one in the city we are at for that year's

Well it all began the first year when were the Red and Yellow Knight’s section.  He faced the Green Knight who unhorsed him.  We started taunting “GREEN KNIGHT SUCKS! GREEN KNIGHT SUCKS!” in this arena of around 2000 people.  Several curses... a few fingers... and a couple horse arses patted in our direction merely inflamed our entire section more.  So our whole section chanted it.  Then the next door section caught on and before long nearly the entire stadium was chanting it.

So the following year we went to Vegas and we went to Excalibur and saw the show there.  We wasted no time at all launching into “GREEN KNIGHT SUCKS” and booing him as he rode by.  The show hadn't really even started yet and he was totally mystified as to why one entire section was unloading on him so badly.  It went on all show long but he was a good sport and played along with us.  The show was over, he made a final run by to get booed again and off the stage he went.  We were taking a group picture and he came back out again to get one more encore of “GREEN KNIGHT SUCKS”.

So that has become a bit of a catch phrase as well and is sure to feature into future conferences.

* Denying applications is fairly common place.  I receive and process more than 4,000 applications a year but only accept a small number. Most of the time the process is usually well mannered as we have a reasonably well written letter explaining why a person was not chosen to join.  Once in awhile it gets nasty when a person really gets offended.

Not too long ago we had one fellow apply.  He wanted to be accepted immediately.  He wanted to be made an officer.  He didn't have the time or desire to fill out our questionnaire.  And all this "crap" about getting to know members was a waste of his time.  Needless to say he was rejected.

He launched back at me with a tirade about how we sucked and we didn’t know what we were missing and that our recruiting process is elitist and we suck because of that.  As I explained to him:  I'm sure we will survive just fine despite making the tragic mistake of not hiring him to be a leader and save us from 10 years of despair... and second, yes, our recruiting is elitist and we don't see that as a bad thing.  We only accept people we are friends with and know very well.  We only accept those that share our values, goals, play styles and personalities.  So yes, it is elitist and clearly he didn't fit in.

11. Bonus round! Anything that you think would help me write about the guild and its members. :)

Well hmm... you can get a lot of info about our guild history here:
Syndicate History
you may find some good stories there that you like

Here is a link to a great many articles about us which also may prove to be valuable input:
Syndicate Articles

Here is a link to our overall guild charter:
Syndicate Charter

And here is a link to an FAQ about the guild which also may be of value:
Syndicate FAQ

And finally, here are a bunch of member quotes in response to one of our internal "Meet The Members" survey questions.  That question is: If someone was looking at joining The Syndicate today, what would you tell them to help sway their decision in favor of joining us?

* That this guild is the only thing that kept me here all this time....It is like a family....everyone gets along with each other....everyone is mature...and most of all the members will go to any extent to help each other out

* Anyone looking to join TS, I'd have to tell them, remember your friends, because in the end, the pixels don't mean jack.

* I would simply tell them that they need to be serious about committing to a long-term relationship with a couple hundred of your soon-to-be best friends.

* The thing I always tell people is that this guild is not for everyone, but if you're looking for an opportunity to make great, long-lasting friends, you've come to the right place.

* This is the greatest group of people ever assembled into one guild. Also, you won't find a more organized or well run guild in any game.

* The high quality of LLTS members.

When you play MMORPGs the most memorable aspect of the time you spend is not your Character, pixel loot, etc but the friends you make and your experiences with them. The Syndicate has the best group of people I have ever met and I am proud to call so many of them great friends.

--> I would tell them to ask themselves some searching questions - WHY do you want to join TS? Are you looking for a long term guild home that goes beyond the game you are currently playing? Are you willing to put the team first over any personal in game goals you have? Then if they can honestly say that they want to be in a guild full of likeminded adults who enjoy having fun together and testing their abilities to work as a team, they are willing to set aside any personal goals in view of the betterment of the entire guild and they want to be here for a long time to come - I tell them that TS is a wonderful place to be because it not only offers it's members the ability to do many fun and hard raids on the weekends, we also allow individuals a lot of freedom in schedules and working on exp. We recruit people who have toons in games we play, not toons that happen to be run by people. They themselves are the most important factor to us. If they can jive with that, TS can be a wonderful home for them.

* When asked about the guild I always say we recruit the person not the toon

* If your a team player that knows how to follow rules then come be a part of our success. If you’re a whiner loot hog go find someone else because you’re wasting our time.

* The Syndicate is more than just a gaming guild. We are a group of people who become RL friends. No matter what game you play or if you stop playing altogether, we still remain friends!

* Couldn't find a better group of people anywhere. Might watch out for the GM though, I hear he bites

* No Bull, just mature people having fun and working together in a friendly environment. The prospect of this alone has watered the mouths of many friends and non-Syndies I've spoken to. Not a kiddy in sight...

* I would tell them that The Syndicate is more like a family that a guild. Even though we might have disagreements, we work to get past them. I would tell them that the guild members are very professional but, they also like to have fun, sometimes at other Guildmates expense, LOL. I would also tell them that they would never regret their decision to join.

* We are a classic guild with years of experience under our belts and we are a family. Nobody can make you feel more welcome and proud to be an online gamer than the folks in The Syndicate. It's worth every bit of laughter, tears and pranks some pull. We always unite under one banner and that banner is friendship. We fall back on comrades, support those who need our aide, and continue to support our guild in every which way we possibly can.

* If you want friends that will last a lifetime, that will always be there when you need them, this is the guild for you! Pixels come and go, friends last forever!
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