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 An Interview with Sean Stalzer of The Syndicate - Sunday
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An Interview with Sean Stalzer of The Syndicate
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Posted on Sunday, July 1, 2007, 9:19 PM EDT by El of LA (CommunityNews)

An Interview with Sean Stalzer of The Syndicate

Recently I conducted an interview with Sean Stalzer, author of the forthcoming book, Legend of The Syndicate. Sean is the Guild Leader of one of the most interesting Guilds in gaming and they reside on the Ultima Online (UO) Atlantic shard, as well as having a branch that plays World of Warcraft (WoW). Sean as written this very interesting book that covers not only his nearly 12 years of experience with his guild, but a lot of gaming cultural history as well. I was very curious to see what his perspective was after having written this book, and wanted to introduce him and his guild the Syndicate to the Stratics readership.

What brought you to write this book on The Syndicate?

The Syndicate, being a very old guild (established in 1996) has had a very rich history. We developed a number of strong relationships with some development teams. We have a good number of members serving on those teams. We achieved a number of 'firsts' like Trademarking our name, getting a corporate sponsor etc.. But most of all, we developed a model for a successful guild. In today's gaming world, hundreds of guilds rise and fall every day. While there are some notable exceptions, the vast majority of guilds will not be around in six months to two years from now.

It is my belief that a strong gaming community benefits all players. When guilds implode, that often causes drama and it often causes loss of players from the community. So having a larger number of stable guilds would be a benefit to all players, in my opinion. The Syndicate has made its fair share of mistakes, especially in its early days and the book discusses the good, the bad and the ugly of those years and it evolves into describing a successful guild model. There are definitely other ways to create a successful, long term guild but we take the reader through one such model while at the same time exploring the rich history of online gaming.

Love us or hate us, The Syndicate has achieved what very few other guilds ever will. We have a successful guild model where more than 85% of the guild has been a member for 1 to 11 years. We have very low turnover only losing, on average, one person every three months who wants to join another guild. About the only noteworthy 'turn over' that we have is from members who leave online gaming entirely due to real life reasons (work, parents, school, health etc..). We have business relationships with a number of world class companies. We have yearly conferences attended by 125+ members. We own our guildname, logo and slogan via two Trademarks. In short, we have achieved a very large level of success and we learned a number of lessons along the way. This book shares many of them in the hopes that by doing so, we may have some small measure of positive affect on the entire gaming community.

What do you think is the most outstanding contribution of The Syndicate over the years?

I would like to think that some years from now that the contribution that we will be most remembered for is breaking new ground for online gaming communities. I realize that is a vague answer but breaking new ground is one of the things we continually strive for. We broke the barrier of trademarking one's identity so that you can actually provide a service and invest in that Intellectual Property and own the name under which you provide it. We broke the Corporate Sponsor barrier. We host very large yearly conferences focused on growing and strengthening our community as well as how we can make the overall gaming community better. We forged a partnership with Prima Games to usher in a new era of MMO strategy guides so they no longer just provide maps and lists of quests but now offer expert strategy content that really helps players get the most out of their new gaming experience. There are other creative, out of the box thinking ideas that we have planned for the future. So, I think so far we have broken new ground in a number of areas that is only just now beginning to get utilized by other communities that, in the years ahead, will continue to be major value added to future strong communities of players.

What has The Syndicate meant to you personally?

The Syndicate, to me is all about Friendships. While we are a very large guild, we only recruit people with similar personalities, goals, play styles etc.. That leads to members remaining with us for the long term. And that leads to developing very deep friendships. Those friendships are really what it's all about. We are not a guild that exists for any particular game. We are an online community that uses gaming as a way to forge and grow our friendships. That is a distinct difference between what most people think of as a guild. Most guilds exist for the purpose of achieving game goals and 'worth' and 'achievement' are measured by overcoming pixels. The Syndicate exists for the purpose of growing and fostering our community and we do that through playing games. Our 'worth' and 'achievement' have no correlation to overcoming certain pixels in game. That model has proven extremely successful and it fosters a very stable, very unified guild. That, in turn, fosters deep, lasting friendships that don't revolve around pixels and don't end up in heated arguments followed by implosions over who won a piece of loot, for example. So, for me personally, The Syndicate is all about Friendships.

What age spread do you find in your guild?

The average age in The Syndicate, as of June 2007 is a little more than 32 years old. We do have some members under the age of 20 but those are very few in number. We have twice as many members over the age of 55 than we do under the age of 20. The vast majority of our members fall into the 20 to 40 range.

What kind of gender distribution is there in The Syndicate? Do you have a large number of women in the guild?

We do have a large number of Women in the guild. We have 25-30% women in the guild. So that translates to around 150-180 ladies.

Who does a person interested in joining The Syndicate contact?

We only recruit people that we know very well... have developed a good friendship with... and that we have evaluated to possess all the core qualities that we are looking for. So there is no one person to talk to. Rather, an interested person needs to get to know us. Due to the very high bar that we set and due to very low turnover and my desire to keep the guild at a relatively fixed size (with only slow growth over time), the vast majority of the nearly 4,000 applications each year do not get in. So the best way to start out to maximize one's chances is to get to know members and not to rush the process. Too many people are used to the fairly common practice of applying and getting in extremely rapidly to many guilds. Our process is weeks or months long since we have to develop that strong friendship.

Does The Syndicate have plans to move to more shards than they already are on, or have plans of leaving UO altogether for new worlds?

We have no plans to have a presence on any shard other than Atlantic. One of our key strengths is our unity and that is achieved by all of us, who are playing UO, being together on the same server sharing common experiences, events etc.

As for leaving UO... there are no plans for that in the immediate future. Ultima Online is one of the very few truly non-linear games in existence. It has also been our home for a decade. So we are attached to it and it is very easy to keep a guild presence going in the game. Our rules and practices and events have all have a decade to flesh themselves out. We are experts in the game. We have all the infrastructure we could possibly ever need. And due to its nonlinear nature, where anyone can adventure with anyone else and do anything, its very easy to keep a strong guild presence there. It is much harder to maintain one in a linear, progression based game. So I don't see us closing our UO presence any time in the near future.

What other MMOGs would you consider in any potential move from either WoW or UO?

There are several interesting MMOs on the horizon. Warhammer Online by EA/Mythic certainly looks interesting. Gods and Heroes by Perpetual is one we are part of the Core Tester Team and have been for a long time and it is very enjoyable. Pirates of the Burning Seas isn't in our "Fantasy" genre that we tend to stick to but for those who liked Sid Meyers Pirates it is a fun one. Conan is coming out but I personally wasn't 'wowed' by what I've seen so far. I know there are some that will vehemently disagree. Fallen Earth, although again not in the genre we typically play in, looks interesting. We'll see what the future holds. There are some interesting choices coming up. Will we pick up one of the for a major, several hundred strong, Syndicate presence? Time will tell.

Does The Syndicate have plans for future expansion of their industry activities and business ventures?

Absolutely we do. We have positioned ourselves in several strategic locations on the virtual chessboard. We have several of our next moves planned out. But we aren't going to reveal what they are lest someone else block the move by taking advantage of our idea before we do. The Syndicate has been around for 11.5 years. We have roughly 600 members. We have leverage in a variety of industries. We continue to have success in our ventures and we most definitely plan to continue that success and unveil new activities and ventures in the future.

Did writing the book change your perspective on the history of gaming at all?

Writing the book definitely helped me put the history into proper perspective. When you are living through history, you sometimes can miss the subtle changes that occur over time. For example, Raiding just kind of came about. As you were playing Everquest the concept just sort of came to be. If you look back at it objectively you can see how it came to be and how it grew and changed over the following years and then how it took another leap forward in the follow-on generation of MMOs. So I wouldn't so much say that my perspective on anything changed as much it gave some things clarity as I looked at them from the perspective of an author writing the history of what went on and how we adjusted to it.

Is there something from the history you wrote that particularly stands out to you as the most interesting aspect of the book?

I think one of the most striking things, for me, is just how different Ultima Online is today than it was when it first came out. It is the same game only at its most basic structure but the gameplay itself is radically different today than when it first launched. In my opinion, if the game came out brand new today, a huge number of the people that played in 1997 would barely recognize it and probably wouldn't play it. Conversely, if many of the people playing it today were presented with the game systems as they existed in 1997, they would barely recognize them and many probably wouldn't play. Ultima Online has reinvented itself several times over throughout its long history. Part of that, I think, has come from the reality that development teams get pilfered by other companies to help with their games. New developers mean new ideas and can mean a new direction. Part of it was in response to player demands. Trammel came to pass due to the fact that the vast majority of the early players rarely pvped. I recall an interview by Designer Dragon many years back where he commented that something like 90% of the game never PvPed yet back then there was only Felucca and you had no choice but to pvp or live with the reality that you were a walking target everywhere you went. That was both a good thing (since it added an element of danger and uncertainty) and a bad thing (since most players, it turns out, didn't like PvP very much). So over the course of years, UO has dramatically changed from what it was when it launched to what it is today. Are those changes good or bad? I think an entire article could be dedicated to discussing just that.

What do you see as the future of The Syndicate?

The Syndicate's future rests with its continued focus on growing its Friendships. That is where our success starts and ends and every decision taken and every plan made is done to reinforce and strengthen that. We plan to continue to grow and expand our conferences. We plan to continue our relationship with Prima and help create even better strategy guides for players. We plan to continue to grow and expand our relationships with our developer friends and do what we can to help make the next generation of games even stronger. The Syndicate, due to its very large and extremely stable membership base provides an ideal partner to gaming companies. We only recruit mature, professional, team focused people that we can count on. We lose very few members, ever. So we can enter into agreements where we can guarantee delivery of results, in a timely fashion to developers. That isn't just a hollow promise since we now have years of success to point to which gives a developer a great deal of confidence when entering into a relationship with us. The Syndicate wants to help make online gaming as strong as we can for all gamers well into the future. We want to do our part to leverage the lessons learned over the years and not repeat the mistakes of the past. And we have the size, stability, expertise and professionalism to give a developer the confidence that we can provide that value to them. So I see a very bright future for The Syndicate as we do our small part to try to make the future of online gaming bright for the entire community.

What do you see in the future of gaming and social groups surrounding it?

I have long been a believer that stable guilds and communities are the way to make long term revenue from gaming. Gaming is, at its core, a business. It is all about making money. We, the players, are consumers of a service and we pay to use it. For the gaming companies, they are trying to make a profit in an increasingly competitive marketplace. I have found, over the years, that Syndicate members tend to keep playing games for months or even years longer than they would have had they not been part of the guild. From a gaming company perspective, that is more revenue per person that fits into that category. By that logic, membership in a stable guild does help people play longer and thus does generate more revenue and thus is worth the gaming companies' time to develop systems within the game to promote guild stability. When guilds implode, that usually results in a loss of players from the game. It is probably, other than burnout, the chief reason people leave gaming.

So in my opinion, more focus should be on designing content and systems that support long term guild stability and less on pleasing minority groups within a game. While I mean no disrespect to the groups I'm about to mention, too often I see developers focusing on content for Powergamers or for PvPers both of which are a small minority of the paying customer base. If every hardcore powergamer and if every hardcore pvper quit gaming tomorrow, every game out there would still have a substantial revenue base. While those are important demographics to consider, if a decision has to be made where the choice is between doing something that strengthens your standard player created guild/community or choosing to please a minority group, a better business decision both short and long term is to grow the community.

Decisions such as how to handle loot (UO has a good system by which loot is common and for the more rare items the game decides who wins it based on participation in the fight) and how to handle raid content (size of raids, reset time of instances etc..) are the two biggest guild killers in gaming. There are decisions that could be taken to design systems that, in the long run, reinforce guild stability and there are decisions that can result in more infighting over pixels and progression that result in guilds imploding and thus loss of revenue.

So I think the future is to design systems that support the stability and growth of gaming communities and focus less on the bleeding edge (either edge... those going too fast through content.. and those going too slow through content).

Thanks, Sean, for your fascinating perspective on guild and UO history! Sean's book is due for release on August 6. You can look for it in bookstores, or buy it on the internet at this link! You can also read more about Sean's publisher, Avari Press, a specialized publisher of quality Fantasy literature, at http://www.avaripress.com/.

- El of LA

Forging New Territories - "Legend: The Syndicate"
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Posted on Sunday, June 17, 2007, 11:06 PM EDT by El of LA (CommunityNews)

Forging New Territories
A Review of the Upcoming Book "Legend: The Syndicate" by Sean "Dragons" Stalzer
Published by Avari Press, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA.
Expected Release: August, 2007.

I have had the very great pleasure of reading an advance copy of the upcoming book "Legends: The Syndicate" which is a fascinating account of the history of the largest guild in gaming, "The Syndicate." More than a guild history, however, the book is interwoven with a historical perspective of the gaming industry and gamer's culture over the 12 and more years this guild has been active. The book is to be published by Avari Press this coming August.

Starting in the days of the Commodore 64 and BBS turn-based games, Mr. Stalzer follows recent history through the first guild development in games like Neverwinter Nights and Meridian64, and then begins the story of his own experiences. In February of 1996, Dragons formed "The Syndicate," a guild based on a set of principles he wanted to see used by players in online gaming. The Syndicate started small but was built with big ideas and a strong foundation. This book outlines the processes and thought that went into building a guild that would last and details what they needed to succeed at it. It also gives an entertaining account of the history and highlights of the guild's activities.

An interesting aspect that is highlighted in the book is that this guild has a life outside of any particular game. It is a very interesting leap from the idea of a union of players within any certain game or game server to a union of "gamers" who join together to play games!

Besides the chronicle of a guild's life, "Legend: The Syndicate" broaches the topic of "who are computer gamers" and the social structure of those people who play online games. This book will be of interest to many different types of readers. It is not just for The Syndicate members or UO, WoW, or Everquest players. It is a book that would interest historians, anthropologists and several other academic disciplines as well! It is one of the first literary releases of the history of a revolution that I truly believe will rival that of the invention of the printing press in human history.

While Syndicate members will enjoy the personal touches and memories of their annual gatherings, I believe that this book should be considered "required reading" for any guildmaster or person considering starting one. The lessons in the book are many and the pathway to success well discussed in the pages of each chapter.

I think Dragons has written a lively and engaging account of his guild's life and created a wonderful book. I highly recommend it to all our community.

I will be interviewing Mr. Stalzer in the coming days so keep watch for my next installment on this book with words from the author.

To learn more about the book, or to purchase a copy, here is what you need to know:
"Legend: The Syndicate A History of Online Gaming's Premier Guild," by Sean Stalzer.
Published by Avari Press, Lancaster Pennsylvania,

El of LA
Interim Assistant Editor
UO Stratics

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