Beyond the Legend: A Q&A with The Syndicate Author Sean Stalzer
It’s been roughly a year and a half since we talked to Sean
“Dragons” Stalzer, CEO and Guildmaster of the
longest continuously operating guild in existence (according to Guinness),
on the eve
of his first book’s release. While Sean’s first
of the Syndicate, traced the
history of the now-14 year old guild into the WoW
era, The Syndicate: Beyond the Legend is equal parts documentary and
field manual for the creation of stable, durable guilds.
We spoke with Sean about the more controversial aspects of his book, including what the premier online gaming guilds next game might be and The Syndicate’s seeming aversion to free-to-play MMOGs and box-to-play titles (like Guild Wars 2), in our latest The Syndicate interview:
Ten Ton Hammer: First off, writing a several hundred page book while running a 1500+ member guild is no small feat, but you’ve done it twice. Was it easier or harder to write second book?
Sean Stalzer: I think the ideas came more easily, but the process was more difficult. I learned a lot of lessons from the first book. Our first book was more of a documentary – this is where we’ve been, this is why we think we’re great. This one has the historical documenting side, but I look at where massively multiplayer online gaming has been from 2006 to 2011, this is where we’ve been.
But I was definitely more deliberate in the second book, in trying to ensure that the people who buy it and read it get value from it. Half the book is all about the feedback we got from our first book, which was, ‘If you guys are so great, why aren’t you telling anyone how you got to be so great.’ So it’s all about giving people the tools to build a successful online community.
Ten Ton Hammer: It’s interesting that you got that kind of feedback, because from previous conversations you’ve noted that the success of The Syndicate is, to a large extent, not repeatable, especially in this gaming climate. And in the book, based on the number of failed guilds in the fourteen years of The Syndicate’s existence, you peg the odds at 1 in 55 million.
Sean Stalzer: To achieve the same level of success, yea, it’s probably not likely. But my basic premise is that if developers can do things to extend the life of guilds even by a month or two, there’s a lot less drama for the players and a lot more revenue for the developers. Our hope isn’t to create other 15 year guilds competing with us for the opportunities that go along with that; our hope is to achieve greater levels of guild success so that players, in general, have more fun.
Ten Ton Hammer: From the book, it seems like Star Wars: The Old Republic is a leading candidate as the next game for The Syndicate. Being an entity that exists for the guild, not the individual player, are you concerned that the game seems the game is too solo-centric?
Sean Stalzer: I think what Star Wars does to buy itself time is that, because it’s a story-based game, and each of the classes has its own story. With subclasses, that’s 16 movies you can participate in. Even for people that don’t like to play alts, they may spend some time watching and participating in 16 movies, which gives BioWare plenty of time to crank out endgame content.
From a player perspective, at worst, you have a year of awesome storytelling, and then at the end of that year, you’ve got two more triple-A MMOs coming out that you can jump into. What the community needs now is a bridge from WoW to the next big thing, or maybe the next big thing.
Ten Ton Hammer: You offered some creepily prescient words in the book on account security. Since the writing of the book, we’ve seen a pretty massive breach of trust between SOE and its stakeholders. Has this affected your by all accounts strong relations with SOE?
Sean Stalzer: We don’t blame SOE for the security breach any more than any other company. What I mean by that is that SOE is probably just as vulnerable as any other company, but for whatever reason, the hackers decided to pick on SOE. Unfortunately, the security posture isn’t where it needs to be, across the board.
The silver lining is that hopefully this becomes the wakeup call that corporate-level security needs to be beefed up, but so does player-level security. Everyone’s got a role in that. Players shouldn’t be sharing passwords, and I think devs have a responsibility to protect players from themselves. I’d liked to see more baked-in security when you buy the game.
Ten Ton Hammer: Another difference I noticed between your first book and this one is the number of cool stories rooted in your Ultima Online days in the first book. In The Syndicate’s “WoW Period”, were those stories harder to come by?
Sean Stalzer: In WoW today, you don’t see those same type stories emerge because when you go into a battleground, for instance, you get paired with people from different servers and you might never see them again. You don’t build rivalries, and you don’t have this ability to directly influence others. So you don’t see a lot of stories emerging. You do in EVE, but that’s another sandbox game where you can directly impact other corporations. But if EA were to create a UO2 with a similar model to UO, I think there would be quite a few players that would be interested in it, though it wouldn’t be a WoW killer by any means.
Ten Ton Hammer: The S.U.C.C.E.S.S anagram , defined during the last part of the book, summarizes your keys to creating a long-lasting, stable, fun guild. I won’t tell folks the keys – our readers will have to buy the book for that – but is it something you devised or something you adapted?
Sean Stalzer: As I was working through the outline of the book, I wanted to devote a number of chapters to developing a successful community. It was the result of a brainstorming session to make a bunch of seemingly disparate ideas fit together in a cohesive manner. The word “success” kept coming up, and the word fit the model I was trying to represent. So it was more the result of brainstorming; it wasn’t that I’d read it somewhere else.
Ten Ton Hammer: Apart from creating a 14-year guild with incredible stability, is there any one thing that you can point to as your proudest accomplishment?
Sean Stalzer: There’s a lot of examples I can give you. The most recent one that reinforced our values was becoming the world first guild to reach guild level 25 in WoW. There were six other guilds that did it sooner than us, but they were victims of a bug that escalated their levels faster than everyone else. But of the guilds who legitimately pushed to 25, we were the first to reach that milestone on April 11th. For me, that was a big achievement; we literally had 400+ people preparing for a week beforehand, then all logging in at 3am in the morning when they should have been asleep for work the next day. It was a great gut-check to see if our core values were in place, and they were.
Ten Ton Hammer: That’s interesting to me, because it’s clear throughout the book that you’re not a guild about loot or achievements for the sake of achievements. But this one was particularly worthwhile?
Sean Stalzer: We don’t put a lot of stock in ‘a new boss came out and we rushed to kill it.’ That’s a great achievement for 25 people, but this one was one that could not be achieved unless massive numbers of people pitched in together and did so in an unselfish manner, with a lot of pre-planning and thought.
Ten Ton Hammer: Is it disappointing to you that aren’t more guild-based achievements? I know you’re a leading proponent of adding more guild-centric hooks to online games. Why does this seemingly obvious thing continue to fall on deaf ears?
Sean Stalzer: I think it falls on deaf ears even with WoW; many of the so-called guild achievements are just personal achievements with the guild moniker slapped on. There’s just not a lot of creativity or effort put into giving players something worth achieving that they couldn’t do individually or in small groups. The industry just hasn’t embraced the idea that the more tools you give guilds to stay stable, the more revenue you make, and the happier the players are.
Ten Ton Hammer: Fourteen or fifteen years into this, it continues to amaze me that we haven’t figured out good ways of funneling players into larger social groups and guilds, especially when that’s the only clear advantage MMOGs have over other types of games.
Sean Stalzer: Absolutely. These games exist for social groups. The term “massively” doesn’t mean a bunch of people standing around, it means a bunch of people working towards goals in a cohesive or (even) combative manner. If you look at a lot of development companies, they don’t put the focus on their community, or community tools, or community achievements – it’s almost an afterthought.
But, in the future, I think the companies that focus on the community will be the differentiators. There’s a limit to how much money corporations and investors will put into games to create new content- as costs creep over $100 million, I think we’re probably pretty close to that limit now. I think these games are going to have to shift to how are we going to engage the community more. Eventually we’re going to get there, but you’re right, it’s frustrating that we haven’t gotten there yet.
Ten Ton Hammer: The Syndicate seems to avoid free-to-play games, which is curious since it seems like a new game is adopting the free-to-play model every other week.
Sean Stalzer: I think it has more to do with the perception that free-to-play still means lower quality. I know that’s certainly not always true, but there are certainly a large number of cases out there where that is true. I think people still like the idea that you can pay a subscription and still get a known set of value rather than having to pay for most things that they want. I still don’t think that model’s caught on in the MMOG market, which is a bit ironic, because that’s the iPhone model.
So, from our perspective, we haven’t found the right free-to-play MMO that grabs our attention enough that we’re willing to take a risk on the cultural aspect of things.
Ten Ton Hammer: What about buy-to-play games? I guess, specifically, I’m wondering why Guild Wars 2 didn’t make your list of highly anticipated games in the book?
Sean Stalzer: I know there’s certainly people that would disagree with this, but the Guild Wars franchise, to me, is more akin to a Call of Duty type of model. Very action-oriented, less MMORPG. The original Guild Wars was very exciting and very fun and it certainly attracted an audience, but I think it’s almost a subgenre.
I think our community really enjoys the epic, high-fantasy, community-focused game, whereas Guild Wars has never really pitched itself that way. It’s very accessible, very fast-paced, almost Diablo or Starcraft 2 like, and a lot of their community buys into that. We have people in our community that like that as well, but I think, for us, it would be a short-term fad – I don’t see it piquing our interest long-term.
Ten Ton Hammer: In closing, was there anything you wanted to draw out from the book that we haven’t talked about yet?
Sean Stalzer: I think the biggest selling point of the book is that we do attempt to help out anyone interested in starting or running a guild, from the fledgling guild master to someone who’s been running guilds for years. I think anyone can get something from it, from deciding what sort of guild you want to look for, how to create stability, and even deciding that they don’t want to go down the path of creating an online community. There’s value in that as well; one of the biggest challenges to guild stability is that anyone can split off and create one.
You can grab an advance copy of The Syndicate: Beyond the Legend from LULU.com, and the book should be available on Amazon.com any day now. Our thanks to Sean “Dragons” Stalzer for another peek behind The Syndicate’s curtain.