Legend of the Syndicate Interview with Author Sean "Dragons" Stalzer
Posted November 28th, 2007 by Ethec
by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle

Following last week's review of Legend of the Syndicate - a written history of a guild called The Syndicate over its 10 years of existence - we contacted the guild leader and author Sean "Dragons" Stalzer and were thrilled when he agreed to a brief follow-up interview. We discussed Sean's inspirations and motivations for writing the book, the guild's reaction to the book's success, the ongoing partnership between The Syndicate and the charity Youth Opportunities Unlimited, and the future of the guild. And as an extra bonus, you'll see below that Sean revealed a recent piece of art commissioned by The Syndicate for the first time right here at Ten Ton Hammer.

Ten Ton Hammer: Legend of the Syndicate struck us as the first book of its kind – a candid memoir of the joys and frustrations of creating a long-lasting online gaming community. Were you influenced or encouraged by any other writers or books?

Sean: Legend is pretty unique so it is hard to pin down a source of influence for the book overall.  It actually began as an internal project where I wanted to create something for newer members of the guild to fully understand the history that came before them and why/how things evolved into what they are today.  There were some tough lessons paid for in the past and we want to avoid repeating those mistakes. 

After being approached by Avari to write a book about gaming, our history and what it takes to make a successful, long lasting guild, things took on a different focus.  One of the features of the book is mixing up different factual chapters with fantasy stories that illustrate key points in our history or in the history of gaming.  You could say those stories were loosely influenced by The Game of Thrones type of writing.  I say loosely because the whole book isn’t set in that model but the general idea of having chapters almost being stories in and of themselves yet also part of a greater whole is influenced by George R. R. Martin’s style.

Syndicate 2007 Art

The first public reveal of art recently commissioned for The Syndicate

Ten Ton Hammer: Writing a book is no small task, especially for one with such a full vocational and recreational life. What was the process of writing the book like? Was the actual writing easier or harder than you expected at the beginning, and were there any unexpected challenges apart from writing the book- publisher relations, legal considerations, promotion, etc.?

Sean: Writing the book was both very easy and very challenging at different times in the process.  The overall topics of the book (Online Gaming, The Syndicate and Guild Management) are ones I had lived for the previous decade so my opinions on them were well formed.  I knew what I wanted to get across on any given topic. 

Since the book is chronological the order of things also was fairly intuitive.  But making the topics fit together such that each made their own coherent thought yet advanced the overall thread of the book was something entirely new to me.  There were chapters that ended up being scrapped because they didn’t mesh with the overall flow yet individually they were all things that were important to me.  There were ideas that had to be reworked and thought processes that had to be looked at from different angles.  So, in a few cases, I found myself looking at something I thought was one way only to realize from a different angle it might actually be perceived as something else.  All in all it was a very enjoyable process.

Ten Ton Hammer: Can you point to a particular event or incident that prompted you to write Legend of the Syndicate, or was the desire to write the book more the kind of impetus that starts small and gains momentum over a period of time?

Sean: Probably the first inkling of doing a book like this came at our third guild conference in 2004.  We had been around for eight years at that point and we had already done two very successful conferences.  As we were all in Vegas sharing stories of years gone by and I was fielding questions on the guild I realized that there were years of backstory that went into us being where we were then.  Those that attended the conferences and had five days of concentrated discussions about the guild learned a huge amount of that and left those conferences with a very deep understanding of the guild. 

That led to the guild taking on a whole new meaning for them which in turn made it better for their friends.  So there was great value in sharing this information but unless I could get every member to a conference there had to be some other way.  So that’s what got me thinking about writing an internal book just for us.  Avari approaching us about a book with a wider topic allowed me to leverage that idea and expand upon it into something that not only benefited our members but was of value to the community as a whole.

Ten Ton Hammer: What was the reaction to you writing Legend of the Syndicate among longtime members of the guild?  Were there any objections at first to the seeing some of the cherished memories of such a close-knit, nominally clandestine organization in print?

Sean: The reaction overall was extremely positive.  We are a very private guild and have no public forums at all.  Yet, we have more than a decade of history and achievements that we are very proud of.  The book did afford us the opportunity to both add another achievement to our record and to share some of the things we are very proud of while still maintaining our privacy in areas we deem appropriate. 

There is certainly one school of thought that could go something like this:  Why would you share information about mistakes that you made? And key decisions you made that helped you become the success that you are?  Why not keep that private and not help any other guild compete with you?  

Generally speaking, we don’t subscribe to that viewpoint at this stage in our existence.  We believe that a strong online gaming community benefits all players and that, in turn, also benefits us.  We also believe a strong community is based around more stability in guilds.  And finally, more stability in guilds means players keep playing longer which means more revenue for gaming companies which means more money to invest in new titles.   And, besides, the information I shared will help create a good guild that is stable and long lasting. 

However, there is plenty of “secret” stuff that makes us into what we consider to be a “great” guild that didn’t make it into this book.  We do a lot of very unique things that no one else is doing that separate us from the pack.  The book is intended to strengthen the community and help out guilds that are interested in learning some time tested techniques to creating a strong community.  It doesn’t, however, give away our competitive advantage.  There has to be something unique for the next book right?

Ten Ton Hammer: What has been the reaction among existing guild members to the book after its release?

Sean: Overwhelming positive.  It is a huge source of pride to be able to walk into a bookstore with your significant other or friends and point to the book and say “See that.  That’s MY guild.”  When you couple that with the Strategy Guide work we do for Prima Games (such that you can then turn to a number of strategy guides and point to our logo on the cover and say “those are mine too”) Syndicate members have something to be very proud of that is unique in the online community right now. 

The book has helped people with job opportunities (‘oh, you are in The Syndicate?  I know about them.’).  The book has helped smooth over fights with girlfriends who didn’t understand why a person liked to raid (‘oh.. so that’s what this guild thing is that you are in.’)  The book has opened a number of new doors for future opportunities for the guild.  So the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive because we do have a huge amount of pride in having a book published about us with a ton of copies sold.

Ten Ton Hammer: From the outside, have you seen a wave of prospective recruits since Legend of the Syndicate was published?

Sean: Recruiting has been ‘insane’ for years.  With more than 4,000 applications coming in each year it already is quite a time consuming process to process them all even though nearly all of them do not get in.  Since the book has come out, traffic to our site has quadrupled and applications are coming in far faster than before.  We will definitely set a new record this year on applications received.  We will also set a record for the least number of new people added to the guild since we were founded.  Due to having virtually no drama and a very low turnover rate coupled with my desire to hold the guild size to roughly where it is right now, we only recruit to fill holes in the guild.  Holes generally only develop when people quit online gaming entirely since we rarely lose someone to other guilds.  So this will be a year of extremes. 

With that said, we never actually close recruiting per-se.  We recruit people we are good friends with that share our values, goals, play styles etc…  It takes months to develop those friendships so we never actually close recruiting.  We may not have a spot for someone today but if they become a good friend, we will likely find them a spot at some point.

Ten Ton Hammer: A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Legend of the Syndicate goes to Youth Opportunities Unlimited, a charity which The Syndicate has supported for a number of years. How did the guild originally become involved with this charity, and can you tell us a little bit about how Y.O.U.'s mission is in line with The Syndicate's goals?

Sean: For many years The Syndicate has had a focus on giving back to the community.  It began with a number of popular and free events that we did in Ultima Online (and still continue to do in UO today).  When we began our conferences the idea of doing a raffle to support charity came into being as a way we could give back to the ‘real world’ community as well.  One of our members was involved with Y.O.U. already.  They had an annual fantasy themed festival and we could sponsor a “Knight” in the joust.  We raised so much in donations that we sponsored two Knights.  From there things took off.  Every year at our conference we do a big raffle for Y.O.U.  This past year Codemasters, Electronic Arts, Perpetual and Sony all donated to support the raffle and we raised a record amount.  We have members that volunteer at their events.  

Here is a funny story about a recent way we supported them:  Hamburger Helper allows charitable groups to request grants from them.  Y.O.U asked for $10,000 for a new park for the kids.  Hamburger Helper puts up a site where the community can give show their support for the project.  The problem was they didn’t think any project would ever get more than 100 pieces of feedback in support.  I guess they didn’t count on a 600+ person organization adopting a charity.  So we broke the website.  It stopped working and couldn’t accept any more feedback.  They fixed it, they said, and relisted the project and we broke it again.  I guess they didn’t fix it good enough. 

In terms of how Y.O.U.s mission is in line with ours… it is more that there are many great charities out there.  They are all doing wonderful things to help those who need it.  We often hear about certain ones.  You don’t often hear about ones to help inner city kids get a chance to improve themselves.  So we decided to throw our support behind a very good cause that doesn’t quite get the headlines some other more popular causes do.

Ten Ton Hammer: As a guild that spans multiple games, one of The Syndicate's organizational precepts is to have a guild presence in only two games at a time. As of now, those games are Ultima Online and World of Warcraft. Is a change in sight with games like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online set to be released in 2008, or isn't The Syndicate close to contemplating a move at this time?

Sean: Yes, we do limit our presence to two major games at a time.  Will be shifting our presence to new games in the future?  Definitely.  Will it be AoC and Warhammer?  Probably not both.  Perhaps not either.  I realize that is a vague answer to a direct question but the reality is, we have 225+ people active in UO and really having a great time.  We have 300ish people in WoW and really have a great time.  We have 75ish people divided among our beta testing team, consulting team, strategy guide writing team and some that are not active in any game right now. 

We don’t migrate to new games just to move games.  We do so when we are basically ‘done’ with a game.   We don’t appear to be done with UO or WOW at the present time.  At some point we will be.  With that said, we play everything.  We have a block of members in every MMO out there.  We even have a “secret” name for guild entity that we create in those games just for members only to be a part of.   We only recruit new members for our core two games (since its real hard to get to know someone really well and build a friendship if you aren’t actively gaming with them) but we have members playing everything.

Ten Ton Hammer: In the ten-plus year timeline of Legend of the Syndicate, we've seen the total number of MMO gamers double many times.  Despite this growth, do you feel that the focus of the average online gamer has become more self-centered in this time, and has this impacted the time it takes to sift through and find recruits that fit The Syndicate's mold?

Sean: I don’t know that I would say the average game is more self-centered.  There are some really outstanding people playing MMOs.  I would say that there are a lot more self centered people today than a few years ago but that is because, like anything in life, the larger you get the more bad apples you turn up.  I think the average gamer is still basically a good person looking to have fun.  However, we all take notice of the jerks, kiddies and morons that mess things up for everyone.  You could have 500 players in a zone all having a great time and one moron starts spamming something ridiculous and human nature is to make the leap to “boy there are sure a lot of morons around these days.”  Perhaps so.. but I don’t think they make up a larger percentage of the population than before. Rather, the population itself is larger and thus their numbers are correspondingly larger.

Ten Ton Hammer: Now that the book has been out since August, is there anything that you now wish you'd written about that you didn't cover in the original manuscript? Would you rule out a sequel or accompaniment to Legend of the Syndicate or related work at some point in the future?

Sean: Yes.  There is a huge amount I wish I could have covered.  We covered a great deal of the first 10 years of MMO history in the book but there is more that could be said and every day there is new stuff that I see that would make a great chapter.  I keep a log of chapter ideas that I add to all the time.   The reality is that the first 10 years of major MMO gaming were, in many ways, an awakening for players.  After years of gaming we are currently at a phase where our expectations are growing faster than the innovation in gaming is happening.  Or perhaps better said, players expectations are growing faster than the rate at which the people with the money are willing to trust their developers to take some risks. 

I think the next couple of years will generate a huge amount of content for a future book.  Does the WoW model get copied a bazillion times until it implodes under the weight of too many clones doing the same thing?  Does a company take a risk and innovate in a creative direction that players flock to?  Do we see a number of half hearted attempts at innovation that implode due to lack of foresight, funding or both such that it makes investors leery of making more games?  Time will tell but gamers now have years of experience under their belts and years of expectations. As such the next couple of years are likely to see a number of historical failures and successes that will make a great next book.

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