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The Syndicate first came to our attention a couple of weeks ago, when we noted the meta-guild's 14th anniversary in The Classifieds. Its 600+ members (across both World of Warcraft and Ultima Online) enjoy ties to all sorts of intriguing gaming and charitable projects: writing strategy guides, beta testing, games consulting, raising support for military troops through gaming. A visit to their web site yields pages and pages on the group's history and projects.
Considering such massive numbers inside such a sprawling organization, you might be tempted to conclude that these gamers must be very, very "hardcore." Not so fast. In fact, The Syndicate's in-game philosophy uplifts long-standing, person-to-person relationships and group fun above all else. Outside projects such as games consulting and strategy guides focus on material for the typical gamer – that's right, not the bleeding edge. We dug up what's going on inside this gargantuan guild in an interview with Dragons, its founding GM, president and CEO.
Main character Dragons
Guild The Syndicate
Server US Zul'jin-H
15 Minutes of Fame: We can't really begin a discussion about The Syndicate without outlining the multi-game scope of the group. Where can we find Syndicate members?
Dragons: We have a presence pretty much everywhere in the MMO universe, but we only recruit new members via two games right now (Ultima Online and WoW). That is due primarily to having massive presences in both games (350 in WoW and 200 in UO), and the requirement that we have to know a person very well for them to join.
That's an immense number of players! What's the focus in WoW?
The Syndicate does not have one definable or overriding style. We are an online community whose focus, as our trademark indicates, is proliferating gaming expertise and building camaraderie among our members. So first and foremost, we are a very large yet very close-knit (because we recruit only like-minded adult members) community of people who share a common passion for gaming. WoW is one of the games we play together, and within that world we have progression raiders ... we have casual raiders ... we have altaholics ... we have full-time PvPers ... I cant' think of any full-time RPers, so that is one area we probably don't have much participation in.
But regardless of what a person most enjoys doing in game, our core rule is: Guild First. Said another way, the game (the loot, the quests, the raids ...) never comes before our friendships. We simply do not have in-fighting or drama or loot whores or people quitting because they can't get spots on raids, etc ... Our culture is not anywhere close to what is typically defined by the term "guild."
The Syndicate formed even before UO had hit the internet. What was the impetus for creating the group?
I was involved in what passed for online games back in those days. It was the 28.8 modem days, on 8MB 3DFX video cards (if you were top-tier in your computing hardware). I was involved in a guild in a game where one band of bullies pretty much had the whole server afraid. When the bullies showed up in the town one day and nearly the entire guild I was a part of were there, I decided to lead them out into battle. Only ... hardly anyone followed.
The aftermath discussions really led to the conclusion that most people are in guilds for the convenience features (i.e. a common bank, someone to chat with, a person to hunt with, a person to give you stuff, etc.) and not for reasons of friendship -- and definitely not when the chips are down. So Dragons was born and so was The Syndicate, where the focus was entirely on friendship and community first and leveraging that common passion of gaming to build those stronger.
Total, The Syndicate has about 620 members. We receive about 4,000 applications to join each year, with roughly 55,000 people applying to join since we were founded. Within WoW, we have about 350 active members. We have raids pretty much all week long of some form or another. They range from progression raids in IC-25 to casual 25s to 10s. We have members who enjoy PvP and do that every day, hosting their own Arena teams. With as many people as we have, there are people doing pretty much everything in game.
The Syndicate works with Prima Games writing strategy games for upcoming games of several types and platforms. What's unique about the viewpoint and experience your players bring to these guides?
The most typical "board troll" comment that gets made in response to a Syndicate article or interview is something to the affect of: "mah guild ownzerZ joo cuz we do all the world firsts and you don't so you suxorZ and cant do no consulting or strategeries cuz we r da bomb!" Those people, while entertaining, seem to miss a few key points.
First, MMO companies do not build games to make the less than 5% of gamers that fit into that "so far on the bleeding edge they cut off a finger just to get the boss dead" category. Every person in that category could quit gaming tomorrow, and MMOs would be as vibrant and successful today -- and the boards would be less controversial. The core business of MMOs is designing for the 80% of people that fit between the "uber-casual" and the "super bleeding-edge." Content, unless it's made stupidly hard (and thus excluding the vast majority of the target audience), cannot be made fast enough to keep the super bleeding-edge people happy. Therefore, like it or not, they are largely irrelevant to the long-term viability and success of the MMO world. You wouldn't know it to read the boards, but that is the simple reality of doing the math.
What is my point? Simply put: Being a "world first" is a cool achievement. Kudos to everyone who has done that! Much respect for you in solving the content before anyone else figured out the mechanics! I definitely respect the ability to noodle that through and then execute the plan successfully. But to then turn around and say "d00d ur guild cant possibly consult on games or do strategy guides cuz we beat u at world firsts!" is a really stupid argument. The argument implies that only that tiny population of people knows how games work, which is false. It's also a dumb statement because games are not built for that population of people. They are built for the millions of other gamers that take longer to complete the content and therefore pay their subscriptions for months longer and therefore generate the billions of dollars of revenue long after the bleeding edge slammed into the wall at the end of the content and is screaming for more to be added or moving on to the next game.
The Syndicate is composed of members who range from the super bleeding edge all the way to the uber-casual gamer and everywhere in between, thus making it a microcosm of the overall gaming world.
The Syndicate is incredibly stable. Well more than 90% of the guild has been here from one to 14 years. In 2009, we had a 99.98% retention rate. So there is a huge amount of institutional knowledge built up -- but moreso than that, there is a huge track record of success and trust.
The Syndicate is never seen engaging in flame wars on the boards, and there has never been an information leak from us about any game we have ever worked on. So there is a track record of integrity, understanding and meeting deadlines and taking proprietary secrets very seriously.
How many members have actively contributed to the Prima Guides?
We have about 130 people on the Prima Guides team. A book can range from a team of eight or so people to a team of 30 people.
Tell us more about the guild's individual squads.
Because The Syndicate is so massive, we have created an internal structure that ensures every member has direct line of sight to a leader within the guild that they can develop a close enough relationship with to share issues, concerns, ideas, etc. The squad leaders all have direct line of sight to Dragons. It's all about clear and open channels of communications. Of course, in a group where we have virtually no drama, issues are few and far between and usually incredibly minor.
What proportion of the guild is composed of players that have been with TS since before WoW?
We were about 500 people large when WoW came out. We are at about 620 members now. We have seen a good amount of growth while in WoW due to the fact that it was a chance for close friends and family of members who were playing other games or on other servers to come into a fresh world and start on our server and thus have the chance to try to earn a spot.
Are you open to new members?
We are definitely open to new members. We have no hard cap on membership size, but we do have strict requirements. There are things like needing to at least be level 80 in game (and on the Horde side and on Zul'jin server). There are things like needing to be 18 years of age or older. The most important requirements though are that a person has to be very good friends with existing members and those members have to have evaluated them to ensure the person is likely to be a long-term member, has a personality that will mesh with our existing members and who has gaming goals and a playstyle that are compatible with how our internal systems work.
We receive around 4,000 apps per month. If the number of acceptances gets into the double digits in a month, then it's been a busy month. We have hundreds more on an inactive roster who are currently not involved. When I talk about our size, I only represent who is currently actively gaming.
What special projects (realizing you're probably working with some NDAs) are currently on The Syndicate's plate?
We are doing work currently on projects ranging from an MMO on a popular hand-held device, a really cool "Facebook-style" game, a project for a "space" agency, a (project with a) government defense contractor, a major MMO, and quite a few testing engagements. Right now is a really full time for consulting and testing.
Your personal schedule must be simply saturated with gaming.
My free time is pretty hammered with Syndicate-related things. However, we have a stellar leadership team that makes a lot of things happen. To that end, we have squad leaders who are our day-to-day tactical leaders of the guild. We have raid leaders who do just as their name implies. We have a conference planning team who works on our annual event. We have an external relations team that helps manage our hardware and software vendor relationships. We have a charity team, as well. So yes, I do put in a great deal of time but there are far more good people doing hard work than just me: In Friendship, We Conquer.