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 href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/90313">Guinness),
on the href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/15110">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 style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">Guild Wars 2),
in our latest The Syndicate interview:
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?
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
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.
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
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?
Stalzer: I think what style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">WoW
to the next big thing, or maybe the next big thing.
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?
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.
Ton Hammer: Another
difference I noticed between your first book and this one is the number
of cool stories rooted in your style="font-style: italic;">Ultima Online
days in the first book. In The Syndicate’s “WoW
Period”, were those stories harder to come by?
Stalzer: In style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">EVE,
but that’s another sandbox game where you can directly impact
other corporations. But if EA were to create a style="font-style: italic;">UO2
with a similar model to style="font-style: italic;">UO,
I think there would be quite a few players that would be interested in
it, though it wouldn’t be a style="font-style: italic;">WoW
killer by any means.
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
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.
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?
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 style="font-style: italic;">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.
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?
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.
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?
Stalzer: I think it falls on
deaf ears even with style="font-style: italic;">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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Ton Hammer: What about
buy-to-play games? I guess, specifically, I’m wondering why style="font-style: italic;">Guild Wars 2
didn’t make your list of highly anticipated games in the book?
Stalzer: I know
there’s certainly people that would disagree with this, but
Wars franchise, to me, is
more akin to a style="font-style: italic;">Call of Duty
type of model. Very action-oriented, less MMORPG. The original style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">Guild Wars
has never really pitched itself that way. It’s very
accessible, very fast-paced, almost style="font-style: italic;">Diablo
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.
Ton Hammer: In closing, was
there anything you wanted to draw out from the book that we
haven’t talked about yet?
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
You can grab an advance copy of The Syndicate: Beyond the Legend from href="http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-syndicate---beyond-the-legend/15707326">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.