Interviews - Guild Perspective: The Syndicate -
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Guild Perspective: The Syndicate

Guilds and guild leaders have a unique perspective on the world of MMORPGs. Today, Sean Stalzer answers a number of questions for the guild that he leads known as The Syndicate.

Interviews By Garrett Fuller on February 08, 2010

For those who don't know tell us about The Syndicate and your achievements.

Sean Stalzer:

The Syndicate was founded in Feb 1996. We currently have about 625 active, adult members (average age is 33years old). We had a 99.98% retention rate last calendar year. We began as a community focused on Friendship, Loyalty, Team Focus and what we call Guild First as our core values. Those same core values still define us today but we are a far cry different from what we were back then. Some of our more milestone achievements include:

  • Years of charitable work for Youth Opportunity Unlimited, The American Cancer Society as well as major support for deployed service men and women. The Syndicate maintains a strong commitment to giving back to the community both within the games we play and in the real world.
  • The first online community to Trademark its name.
  • The first online community to obtain corporate sponsorship.
  • The first to have a book published about our guild. Legend of The Syndicate details the first 10 years of our history.
  • We established an annual conference and will be hosting our 9th one this year that will be attended by 200+ Syndicate members and a number of VIP guests.
  • Featured in the MMO film Second Skin which was created by Pure West. It is actually available on Netflix on demand now which is a cool, recent development.
  • We have been working with Prima Games for years to develop more comprehensive strategy guides to give the customer more value for their dollar. In 2009 we established a branch of our guild that is its own Studio of Prima Games.
  • We have done numerous consulting engagements with MMO developers. We have a number of strong relationships that exist today and are helping to shape the future of MMO games.

So while we started as a team of friends focused on playing online games, we have developed into something we didn't imagine possible back in 1996. We have achieved a number of unique success stories that no other group can claim. We continue to seek out new ways to make the overall MMO experience, for all players, better and more fun.

The guild has been together for 14 Years, that is a massive achievement, what is your secret?

Sean Stalzer:

I think there are two secrets to why we have lasted this long. The first is that when we were founded, player expectations were much different from what they are today. We didn't know what the possibilities were and the whole community were novices at the idea of what a guild could or should be. As such, we were able to make mistakes, learn from them, adapt ourselves to ensure they didn't happen again and then grow stronger from it. Those same mistakes made in today's environment, where the community is much more mature and expectations are much higher, usually result in the implosion of a guild. The second factor would be our very stringent recruiting process. One of our early mistakes was having a poor recruiting policy. We learned from that mistake and for many years now we have only recruited people who have similar personalities, goals and play styles to our own. In order to properly assess that we have to know a recruit very well and that investment of time to get to know potential recruits has worked very well in our favor. It has resulted in virtually no turnover and a nearly drama free environment. That stability breeds loyalty and team focus which in turn allows us to redirect some of our energy towards new and exciting opportunities.

Of all the games you have worked on what was your favorite?

Sean Stalzer:

That is a dangerous question :) as we have so many people we have worked with that all had really stellar products or stellar aspects to their products. If we had to pick just one, I think Ultima Online was really a great deal of fun to support. It benefited from being very early in the MMO maturity life-cycle which meant the players had more tolerance for mistakes. However, its addition of player housing and the fact that it had an open world environment where players of any skill level could play with anyone else is part of why the game is still around today. That said there are many other games with great aspects to them. Horizons had a stellar crafting system. Too bad the game died. EQ is the mother of modern raiding so it definitely deserves props for that invention. WoW took instancing to a new level and eliminated much of the drama that plagued EQ so it really advanced raiding to the next level. Asherons Call had a system whereby guildmasters were rewarded for the success of their guilds. Great idea. Poor execution with giant pyramid schemes developing. So there are lots of really stellar aspects to MMOs out there that we have enjoyed being a part of over the years.

Which MMO do you feel encompassed the best game play experience and why?

Sean Stalzer:

The temptation is to say WoW as I feel its instancing approach to major content eliminated the massive drama that plagued EQ. I also feel Blizzard delivers wonderful content. That said, players consume the content faster than they can get it out so there is a growing feeling of boredom in WoW that may eventually rear its ugly head. Like it or hate it, WoW offers a level of depth that sets the standard for what players expect from other games. Players of all gaming styles can find something to do in WoW and all if it is well designed. I think EQ2 also redeemed a great many of the issues that came out of EQ and offers its players a great experience. I think SOEs plans for the future of that franchise will make those titles something to watch out for. Ultima Online is another game that offers great game play experience to its community. The fact that its running on code written 15+ years ago in some cases yet still offers a free for all world with features some modern games still have yet to implement is pretty amazing. All that said, from an overall "bang for your buck" WoW still remains king of the hill but I wouldn't count out some of the potential future titles from SOE or 38 Studios and Bioware from being games we talk about heavily just a few years down the road.

Of all the games you worked on which one did the best job of bringing The Syndicate together?

Sean Stalzer:

I think Shadowbane had to be the title that involved the most unity among the team. For readers unfamiliar with it, in Shadowbane guilds could plant a tree of life, build a city around it and then march off and destroy other people's cities. The Syndicate showed up to that beta with around 200 people and really set about to test all aspects of that game. With multiple cities, massive armies of trebuchets and catapults rolling across the land and some epic battles with other cities, that game helped define what team work really meant. We had a blast on that project and I think it was well timed in our history to help solidify our guild even more.

What game are you currently playing? How does it measure up to other MMOs?

Sean Stalzer:

The Syndicate has members playing pretty much every MMO out there. We focus our recruiting efforts in only a couple of games, we have members playing just about everything to one degree or another. I think the folks at Hi-Rez have done a good job with Global Agenda and making that fresh and fun. I was bummed to see PotBS is merging servers as that is too often a sign of an untimely end somewhere not too far down the road. I hope that isn't the case as I like the sound of splintering wood from a broadside. The jury is still out on Star Trek. Wonderful IP but if the game stands the test of time remains to be seen. Cryptic certainly has the passion to pull it off so it will be neat to see how it turns out. Our largest single presence is in WoW where we have about 350 members actively playing the game.

What are your thoughts on the free to play market and how it has impacted MMOs?

Sean Stalzer:

Culturally I think the vast majority of Western gamers view Free to Play as inferior. I think there is a subconscious feeling that anything of quality costs money and that micro-transactions are a way to take money from players in ways they feel are supposed to already be part of the game they pay for. That said, I think the culture is shifting and there are some really fun F2P MMOs out there. The folks at KingsIsle, for example, did a wonderful job with Wizard 101. Its free. Its for kids. Yet its fun even for some adult gamers. The game appears to be doing quite well so the culture does appear to be slowly shifting. The challenge for developers will be to convince the overall gamer population that just because the game is 'free' doesn't mean its lower quality. And perhaps the word 'free' is the whole problem. The game really isn't free. There is a cost associated with it but the form it takes is micro-transactions. Perhaps a different marketing strategy that emphasizes the pricing model for advanced features or advanced items or new content is the way to go. There is alot of traction in that area of the market but perhaps a different approach would help it become more mainstream.

What game are you most looking forward to in the near future?

Sean Stalzer:

So anyone who has read our book knows there is a whole chapter in there where I point out all the things EQ did well and the many more things I felt it completely screwed up and why we left that game after investing 4 years. As such one might conclude I wouldn't touch EQ with a ten foot pole. Not so. I am actually really excited to learn more about where SOE is taking that franchise. From what we have seen and heard so far, it really sounds like the next step in the EQ evolution could be a great deal of fun. I also think 38 Studios is likely to be a juggernaut franchise in the next couple of years. I think they are a group that everyone should be watching closely. Bioware with Star Wars The Old Republic is another awesome IP that looks to be alot of fun. Of course, you also can't forget about Blizzard's upcoming new MMO. Its hard to imagine it won't build upon the WoW success in terms of features offered and thus is likely to be a crowd favorite. There are a number of smaller MMOs out there that look really fun. I don't think they will become juggernauts but they will be fun to play.

Do you ever see an end to The Syndicate?

Sean Stalzer:

In 14 years that is the first time anyone has ever asked that question. I would like to think there is no end to The Syndicate. We have been taking steps in recent years to increase the permanence of the entity. We have been putting the logistics in place to allow it to carry on virtually indefinitely. I personally have no intention of closing it down and I think the 600+ members would echo those thoughts. Its a pretty passionate group and as long as we keep our focus on our core principles and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, there is no reason to think we wont be looking back on this question 20 years from now.

What is your favorite part of running the guild?

Sean Stalzer:

The absolute best thing is the people. Our annual conference each year brings 150ish members together (with this year looking like it could cross 200) and puts faces to virtual personas. It turns online 'friends' into actual people with lives, families, personalities, hopes, dreams etc... That in turn makes the guild not about a game we play or a project we are on. Rather, its all about the people. The other things we do are merely tools to help us grow our relationships by doing something we have a common passion for. I know there are lots of great people in then online world and I feel those in The Syndicate stack up nicely with the best of them. Great people. Great passion. Great energy. So that is what is the best part of running the guild and being a member of the community.