The Guild Counsel: An interview with The Syndicate's Sean Stalzer on his new book

As you pack your bags for that trip to the beach (or that annual fan gathering) and you toss in that bottle of sunblock (or aspirin), you might want to make some space in your bags for some summer reading as well. Fortunately, there is a growing number of titles, such as Adam Trzonkowski's Guild Leader's Companion, that examine the methods and lessons of running guilds and online communities. To that list we can add Sean "Dragons" Stalzer's sequel, The Syndicate: Beyond the Legend, which is now available at Lulu and soon to be sold at Amazon.

In the book, guild leader Sean Stalzer picks up from where his first book left off and gives us even more insight into the MMO industry and his guild leadership philosophy. The book is divided into three parts. The first covers The Syndicate's recent history and continued relationship with several MMO studios as well its job writing guides for Prima Games. In the second part, Sean explains his time-tested philosophy for running a guild, dubbed S.U.C.C.E.S.S. And the last section of the book looks at where MMOs are headed and what's needed down the road.

Sean took the time to talk to Massively about his new book, and there was so much to discuss that this interview is split into two parts. In this week's Guild Counsel, Sean talks about the lessons he's learned from his work with MMO studios. He looks back at how it's influenced his leadership approach, and he gives a glimpse of why he's excited about his current work with 38 Studios. Read on for the interview!

Massively: What's the biggest lesson you learned between writing the first book and the second book?

Sean: When I wrote the first book, I infused it with a large does of pride for all that we had accomplished. While there is nothing at all wrong with being proud of success (and I remain exceptionally proud of the great folks in our team and all that they have achieved), pride doesn't sell books. The larger gaming community gave us very clear feedback, which boiled down to: You have told us all this awesome stuff that you did, but you didn't tell us how to achieve similar success. Spend less time talking about success and more time telling us how to be successful through your hard-won lessons and failures. So the second book still tells the story of The Syndicate and also shares the past five years of history of MMORPGs... but I applied that lesson from the first book and spent over 100 pages covering how to be a successful community and how to address the communities' evolving expectations in future games.

In the first section of the book, you discussed how The Syndicate has fostered some close bonds with game developers from various MMOs. Has that ability to "pull back the curtain" and see the inner workings of MMO development helped you as a guild leader?

I believe that those relationships have helped me as a leader in two ways. By working with developers, I get to see issues from both sides of the fence. In addition, those formalized relationships come complete with clearly defined deliverables, due dates, and expectations to meet. That has forced me to grow my own leadership skill-set by taking a big picture view, being able to communicate the big picture to a disparate set of people, and establish plans to meet those deadlines while learning to delegate to other very skilled leaders within our organization key aspects of the plans.

The second way is perhaps less obvious unless you are a member. That area of development was in the ability to maintain a focus on our core values. The Syndicate is all about its members. We exist for the purpose of growing our friendships and being that "team of friends" we speak so frequently about. We do a huge amount of work for developers, but that work is not about being a business. It is about creating new and interesting opportunities to grow our friendships while at the same time making the gaming world a little better. It would be easy to slide down the slippery slope and focus solely on the business side of the transaction and lose sight of the fact that the developer relationship, while very beneficial to them in the results we produce, is beneficial to us because of the process to get those results and the shared experiences we gain in doing so.

If someone had asked you at the very beginning of your MMO career what things would look like 15 years from now, do you think MMOs have evolved the way you might have expected?

I don't think I was smart enough, at the beginning of my MMO career, to grasp the true potential of the genre. If I had written down predictions, I would have been way off. Even though my original goal for The Syndicate was to bring together a team of friends who had each others' backs, that was based more in the concept of playing a game and less about the idea of building a community that transcends gaming. I think I would have likely predicted a future that was more gaming-centric.. more "winning"-focused than the future we are in today, when we still play games but with a heavier dose of community and social aspects, a heavier focus on team play, and a far lighter focus on winning the game. After all, when you win something, it is over, and MMOs are as much about the journey as they are the destination. You are living through a never-ending story rather than racing through the pages to see whether the hero lives and whether the world is saved from certain destruction. The early days of MMOs were a time when the concept of an MMO was brand-new to players and the frame of reference we had involved single-player RPGs in which you did "win" and the game did "end." It took some time for that mindset to change into one more akin to living through a never-ending story of adventure, danger and success.

What's the one area where you feel MMOs still haven't come far enough?

I want to see more advances in dynamically scaling content. MMOs are all about the multiplayer aspect of the game, yet content gets artificially limited in size primarily to provide an ability to balance/tune the content. EverQuest allowed unlimited raiding in the beginning. Since then, raid sizes have steadily grown smaller. The problem with smaller raid sizes, from a community aspect, is that the glue that binds communities together is the shared experiences. The smaller the groups, the fewer people share the experience, so fewer bonds form. I would love to see more effort put into a model that scaled endgame content based on the number of people in the raid. The ability to forge more shared experiences with larger groups of people ultimately strengthens the community, which benefits both players and developers (in the form of players staying around longer and thus paying for their subscriptions for longer).

You've worked with several studios, not only testing but also writing game guides for Prima Games. Which studios have impressed you the most, and what are they doing differently that sets them apart?

One of the more frustrating aspects of working with some developers is when you are brought in to evaluate something -- you give feedback, the feedback is sometimes ignored, and the game then tanks for those exact reasons. The studios that I am the most impressed with are the ones that ask for feedback early and often and are not simply paying it lip service. They actually want to know what their customers like and dislike and make changes based on that. 38 Studios and SOE are two examples of that. I know SOE has taken a bit of a beating lately from the security standpoint (although with Codemasters, Lockheed Martin, RSA and even the International Monetary Fund all hacked in recent weeks, it hardly seems correct to single any company out -- all are at risk to one degree or another), but it has a very high commitment to listening to its customers and reacting. It has two very cool titles in the works that are likely to resonate with players, and I am very excited to see those moving forward. 38 Studios likewise has two very cool titles in the works. Reckoning has received some outstanding press lately, and the team at Big Huge Games studio was very in tune with collecting, analyzing and reacting to feedback and the product improved by incorporating that into the development process.

How are your experiences working with 38 Studios? What are your thoughts so far on its upcoming single-player RPG Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning? And are you pleased with what you're seeing regarding Copernicus?

Our experiences with 38 Studios have been stellar. Curt Schilling is a winner, and he surrounds himself with winners. He has stated before that his philosophy includes hiring the best people, and he has certainly filled his team with some amazing people. I don't simply mean they are good at their jobs; rather I mean they are also great to work with. They have made us feel like we are a valued part of their process. Their games are incredibly fun to play. We see tangible impact from our involvement, and we are very glad to be able to do our small part to help out. Specific to Reckoning, I will give you a personal anecdote. I like to play through RPGs completely through to the end only one time. I don't tend to do them over again as they don't excite me the second play through. But with Reckoning, I have repeated some content a dozen times and it's fun every single time. That is a new experience for me as I am usually bored on the second run-through. As for Copernicus... I hate to give the "you will have to wait and see" answer, but I will say I am pleased. It is fun, I am excited about it, and I will be playing it when it goes live.

Thanks to Sean for his insight. Check back next week for part two of the interview and a closer look at Sean's valuable advice for leading a successful guild.

Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.