Posted March 8th, 2010 by Ethec
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Most if not all of us have had a negative experience with a guild, and it's often said that the people you play along side are the best and worst thing about MMORPGs. Today, however, we have an interview with Sean Stalzer, guild leader of The Syndicate, which just celebrated its fourteenth year as a multi-MMOG guild. Sean shares a few secrets of The Syndicate's longevity and tells us why the social game is still important in Loading... Guilds - The Mess Worth Making.
Over the weekend I saw an advertisement for a seminar titled "Relationships - The Mess Worth Making." Since the best guilds I've been in were always about relationships and transcended the boundaries of a given game, I thought the nifty slogan might apply to a special GDC week Loading... on guilds and their impact on today's games too.
I contacted Sean "Dragons" Stalzer, guild leader of The Syndicate, partly to congratulate him and the guild on their record-setting fourteenth year of continuous existence, and partly to get his take on the state of the MMORPG as a social institution today. I always enjoy talking to Sean, not only because he's an all-around good guy and a straight-shooter in conversation, but because The Syndicate is no ordinary guild. The guild has authored or co-authored nine Prima guides to date, is routinely used as consultant for a number of games in development, and has an entire division devoted to its business pursuits outside its pure gaming interests in Ultima Online and WoW. Though they'll never talk specifics, they're seeing lots of stuff before you and me will ever see it in beta.
I asked Sean whether it bothers him that the measuring stick for guilds is their ranking on the server or sheer number of members rather than the guild's longevity and culture. "I think it is a case of misplaced priorities for two reasons. One, you need to kill the content, but killing it first really contributes nothing to the game. Two, the number of guilds that are in contention on server or world firsts is less than 5% of the total population. From a business standpoint, building content for those groups is a really dumb idea. You're never going to be able to build it as fast as they're able to play it, unless you make it really hard, in which case no one's going to beat it. You want to make it winnable by the masses. But you should never design for the power gamers - they could all quit tomorrow and the bottom line of these companies would be negligibly affected."
One thing Sean and I both lament is the lack of tools and attention given to guilds and guild officers in most of today's top MMORPGs. Since better a better guild interface, including chat, recruiting, and promotional tools accessible outside the game via a website don't look as flashy on a press blast, these features tend to get backburnered in favor of content and features that look good to new players. If history serves, what we can expect in social tools (aside from guild housing in DAoC and LotRO, and better recruitment tools in EVE Online) what we get at launch is pretty much what we can expect.
But while Sean couldn't talk specifics, he did note that he thinks that, "In the next generation of MMORPGs coming out, I think we're going to see a number of really cool enhancements." But Sean did note that these enhancements are long overdue. "Frankly, these tools don't cost very much. They're not rocket science; you're not building a complicated raid environment, you're building web interfaces, you're giving them tools in game to manage things and more fine-grained controls, you're not re-inventing the wheel here."
Another trend coming among MMOs is to decrease the group size target of content. You needn't look farther than WoW for an example of a game whose raid size has decreased from 40 to 25 to 10 and 5. Is this the natural result of game designers neglecting large guilds? "One reason I think is the natural consequence of paying attention to the 80-90% of the game that's not a hardcore gamer - trying to make content as accessible as you can to as many people as you can. The second thing it's a result of, and this is sort of a self-correcting thing, is I think companies are still in the process of developing the methodology of making content dynamically scalable, where showing up with 40 people is just as challenging as showing up with 10 people... There are a number of teams working on that kind of technology for future games, but I think the natural first step of making content more accessible is to scale back the difficulty and number of people you need."
My last question was whether another guild repeat this fourteen year feat today? Without ruling it out, Sean noted that The Syndicate had a lot of advantages that today's guilds just don't have. "When we first were formed, there was very little concept of what a player should expect out of an MMO or a guild, so we had a lot of room to fail. We could make mistakes that today might be killer mistakes - that would cause a guild to implode. Back then, we could learn from them, adjust, and move on. There weren't these expectations that, if the guild doesn't meet them, you just move on.
Open communication, leadership structure, at what point do you cut off debate and make a decision, who to recruit and how to recruit - all these things Sean cited as areas that The Syndicate improved upon in its formative years. They've been rewarded with amazingly low turnover and sustainable growth, as their current number of 631 can attest to. And, according to Sean, an astoundingly low number of people, only 7, left the guild in 2009.
The Syndicate is a true institution in today's MMORPG scene, but why haven't we seen more Syndicate-like endurance among other guilds? Why is it so hard for players to resolve themselves into longstanding social groups when that's such a core part of what these games offer?