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Book Extract: Legend Of The Syndicate

The Syndicate is one of the longest-running MMO guilds of all time, and it's just about to publish a book discussing its 11-year social history, from Ultima Online to World Of Warcraft and beyond - Gamasutra has an exclusive in-depth excerpt from 'The Legend Of The Syndicate'.

[This article reprints selected extracts from the upcoming Avari Press-published book, 'Legend Of The Syndicate' by Sean Stalzer, which looks at the history of one of the biggest MMO guilds of all time from the perspective of its members.]

Dawn Of A New Age

Dragons, the guildmaster and founder of The Syndicate first became involved in online gaming back in the days of the Commodore 64 with a 300-baud modem. In those days, gaming was limited to playing your daily allocated series of turns in text based games and then logging off of the BBS (Bulletin Board System) so someone else could dial in and play their turns.

Most of the gaming ‘worlds’ had some level of persistence in that your character may be there so that others could see it and sometimes kill it. It was from those early Commodore 64 days, playing games like Questor and Ultima 1 that Dragons became hooked on fantasy gaming and on the idea of online gaming with friends.

Years passed and the technology advanced to the dawn of the PC era. Modems slowly became faster and soon they were up to a blazing fast 14.4kbps speed followed not too much longer by the previously unimaginable 28.8kbps. America Online and a few other Internet Service Providers sprung up and this thing known as ‘The Internet’ began to grow in popularity.

The internet brought a whole new revolution to online gaming with MUDs (Multi User Dungeons) and MOOs (MUD Object Oriented) and even some basic graphical games like the early AOL hosted version of Neverwinter Nights. Dragons played many of those and in doing so began to get involved with different guilds.

syndicatebook.jpg Guilds in those days were fairly small in size and not all that numerous. Often they existed for purposes that weren’t clearly evident to the new member and nearly all of them lacked any direction or focus beyond whatever the people online that day wanted to accomplish. They were a communications tool, in many respects, for people to do game related tasks together.

Time and again Dragons, who was going by the online alias “Warlord” at that time, joined guilds only to be disappointed by the lack of organization, direction, leadership and friendship. What was the purpose of playing an online game, with other people, if friendships weren’t being developed?

You could log off and play any of a large number of single player games that were elaborately written and had better graphics and were more fun. The real draw for online gaming was competing with and against other people and forming the friendships that went along with those friendly competitions.

Things really came to a head when Dragons joined one guild that claimed they represented all of those things he was searching for. They appeared to be well led and they appeared to be on the same path he was on. In the process of playing, Dragons had become friends with a young player named Eli and he convinced him to apply and join the same guild.

It was during Eli’s first week in the guild that a rival guild decided to declare war and battles began erupting all over town. Nearly the entire guild was gathered in the tavern one night discussing what they were going to go hunt when the rival guild attacked. Outnumbering them, an aggressive counter attack with a little bit of coordination probably could have won the day.

Instead, when the call to attack was given, Dragons found himself and his friend, a rookie player with skills nowhere near high enough to defeat a veteran player, were the only two standing their ground and facing the onslaught.

It was in that pivotal moment, in Feb 1996, that Dragons realized a change was needed. The persona of Warlord was left to the history books and a fresh start was created using the name Dragons.

He realized that if a guild was going to be created that espoused the values he wanted to see fostered then he was going to have to try and form it and lead it himself. Maybe he would succeed. Maybe he would fail. But, if he didn’t try, he was doomed to a cycle of moving from guild to guild due to none of them measuring up and most of them imploding and failing before he even had a chance to measure their worth.

A Look Back In Time

Perhaps more telling than what occurred in 1996 are the things that many of us take for granted today that did not exist in 1996. Those, perhaps more than anything else, indicate how much the world of technology changed in the first ten years of The Syndicate’s existence.

  • USB (Universal Serial Bus) Devices were not invented yet. So there were no memory sticks or USB connected printers (LPT1 was the way to connect one) or any other USB devices.
  • Digital Cameras were in their infancy. They were large and bulky with low resolution compared to today’s cameras.
  • There were no DVD drives. In fact the technology wasn’t invented until the late 1990s. But if you didn’t want a VHS player you could always buy a Laser Disk machine.
  • It wasn’t until right around that time that hard drives of 1GB in size started coming out. Massive 200GB+ drives were years from existence.
  • If you were one of the 20% of households that had a PC then, you used a 13 to 15" monitor.
  • If you had a 3D card at all then you were extremely lucky and it had 1 to 8MB of RAM total.
  • The 150MHZ Intel Pentium CPU was released in Jan of 1996. It wasn’t until October of 1999 that a 1GHZ CPU would be released from Intel.
nwnscreen.gif AOL, Stormfront Studios, SSI, and TSR co-development Neverwinter Nights

So in all likelihood if you had a top end gaming PC back in 1996 then you had 150Mhz, 32MB of RAM, a 1GB hard disk, an 8MB 3DFX card, a 4 to 8 speed CDROM, a 3.5" floppy (and maybe even a dual 3.5 + 5.25), a 15" monitor and an uber fast 33.2kbps modem, if your ISP supported v.90 otherwise you were limited to 28.8kbps.

That is the era The Syndicate was founded in. By today’s standards it is amazing we were able to game effectively at all much less communicate and form a huge, thriving virtual community.


The Dawn Of The MMO Era

Ultima Online actually had its first live test in early 1996. That test was termed the “alpha test”. The test appeared to take the Ultima 8 engine, including a system of gaining levels and gave a very limited number of players the ability to play in the immediate area around the city of Britain.

That early alpha test, for many gamers of the time, was their first experience in a Multiplayer Online World. Fantasy genre single player games, like the Ultima series, had been popular for years but online play was limited to MUDs (Multi User Dungeons), an ASCII based game and very limited graphical games like Neverwinter Nights that was hosted by America Online.

So the advent of the alpha test of UO was the ushering in of a hopeful new era. In playing the alpha, you could actually see the other players in the world with you and they moved in real time (or as close as one could get at 28.8kbps) and you could work together to kill monsters.

uobox.jpg There were two basic types of monsters in that early test: orcs and skeletons. Players could kill each other but since the community was so small and there was really nowhere to hide, large groups of 20 or 30 players would form up and hunt down the offenders.

It is interesting to note that in hindsight that was actually a bad thing because it incorrectly formed the impression in early MMO developer’s minds that “player justice” would be sufficient to curtail anti-social play. However, in a world as massive as UO is, there were so many places to hide and so many players to try and track down that player justice was, and still is, an abysmal failure. There has to be an automated set of game mechanics to assist players. That lesson is still being learned in some gaming worlds, today. But I digress.

The early alpha test was very much like the first kick of the MMO baby in the womb. Gamers, developers and publishers looked on with excitement. The potential fun and the potential of revenue were clearly visible. And then there was nothing. Months passed during which there were infrequent communications from the developers.

The community thrashed around trying to define itself. As was mentioned before, this turned out to be in The Syndicate’s best interest since we were able to go through a growth spurt and a defining of ourselves that helped set us up for the successes that we enjoy today. For the community as a whole, it was a chaotic time.

Some examples of things that that occurred during those intervening months between the alpha and the beta of Ulitima Online, that help characterize the gaming world and The Syndicate of that era, include:

  1. There were only a few forums in existence. Since fan sites were also extremely rare, most of those forums belonged to one guild or another. Password protecting them was also very rare so even if a group wanted to be private, that wasn’t very likely to occur. As such, large (large, by the standards of the day, meant dozens rather than hundreds or thousands) numbers of players would gather on those forums. Since the UO alpha test set some incorrect expectations in player’s minds lots of posturing took place on the forums.

    Some of the expectations that were subconsciously set were that the world would be small enough that you could easily keep track of everything going on and that players could, if they organized, crush everyone else and dominate the towns and countryside. Those expectations, coupled with the average age of a gamer being much lower than it is in the modern MMO era, led to an extra large does of testosterone on the boards and the advent of “d00d speak”.

    The bastardization of the English language that is known as d00d speak is an interesting study all by itself and it certainly was prevalent in those early years and became the mainstream for many who trolled the forums. Forums were known as boards or posting boards. And that gave rise to yet another piece of slang: the Troll. A troll is a person who “trolls” the boards looking for anything new to reply to. They often add no value and appear to talk for the sake of talking.

    The combination of d00d speak and board trolls, coupled with the subconscious expectations of what UO was going to be like, that we picked up from the alpha test, led to some chaotic, juvenile and often very explosive forums. Ironically, at the time, the concept of having multiple independent servers wasn’t even established so the player base didn’t realize that threats made and challenges issued were mostly moot since they would never actually come across the people they threatened in game.

  2. Internet Security was very weak at that time. It was fairly common for forums and websites to get “hacked” and defaced as a result. This was further exacerbated by the average age of the player base at the time and thus the lack of appropriate foresight and a fully developed set of morals.

    Origin allowed guilds to register a presence on their site in those days. You could list your name, website, guildname and a few brief details. That led to one of the more notorious cases of hacking where someone broke into the Origin site and stole the database of guilds including the unencrypted passwords for every entry.

    In today’s terms most players probably wouldn’t care. Just reset the passwords and email everyone a new one and put in place better security. However, in those days it was a big deal both because it was a new phenomenon and because communications were much more rudimentary so even contacting everyone with an entry was a challenge.

    That hacking basically resulted in a freeze of the database followed not too long after by closing that service entirely. Again, in today’s terms that isn’t a big deal since there are many ways to advertise one’s guild. In those days there were very few ways to advertise it and that was the primary way for many groups.


Raiding Was Introduced

One of the greatest innovations in Online Gaming was the creation of the concept of “raiding”.

One of the worst aspects of Everquest was the creation of the concept of “raiding”.

Those two statements may seem mutually exclusive but they aren’t as I will explain in my analysis below.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Ultima Online and early Everquest were lacking one thing. That thing was the answer to this question: “So, I’m max level/skill. I have conquered all of the content needed to make my character as powerful as possible. Now what do I do?” Or said another way, “The players have beaten everything we added. What carrot do we give them to keep them paying for our service?”

Ultima Online answered that question by adding expansions with new lands to explore and new monsters to fight. Everquest went one step beyond that and created something brand new in Online Gaming; something that turned out to be a really great invention with really poor implementation. Fortunately, as time would show, future game developers learned the lessons of the poor implementation and took the concept and made it better. That something is what later would be called: Raiding.

Raiding is basically the addition of content to achieve once you are max level that typically is only achievable by working with a group of other players. Raiding a target is often a multi-hour investment of time and often those players who are hard core into raiding also spend hours between raids preparing for the next one. Raiding is the carrot on the stick for those who, previously, would have reached the end of the game and moved on to a new game.

everquest_01.jpg

The concept of raiding was revolutionary when it came to Everquest. EQ itself didn’t have raiding when it went live. It wasn’t something people talked about on boards. It wasn’t even something that was asked for by players. For most players, it snuck up on them without them realizing what it was. Everquest had the distinction and the disadvantage of being the first game to have raiding. They created it but they also had to take all the lumps to work out the best way to handle things.

Initially there were no raid zones. You might team up with a group of friends and go after a target that required more than one person to take down but that wasn’t really raiding. That was group hunting/questing. Then along came two new Everquest zones: The Plane of Hate and the Plane of Fear. Each one was filled with the nastiest monsters in the game that existed at that time and multiple bosses. Those bosses were so tough that no single group was going to take them down. Rather, you needed multiple groups working together to drop them.

Players developed an appreciation for raiding over a few months. It was very common for a player or small group of players to go into Hate or Fear and join up with other players already there to kill things.

Because those groups didn’t often know each other well, they didn’t often meet with great success. That, in turn, taught players the value of having a raid team that regularly went hunting together. You could learn your buddies strengths and weaknesses and more importantly, the gear you earned from the last kill remained in the group (until the person quit) to help out in your next kill.

The idea of raiding was quick to catch on and soon guilds were sprouting up whose sole purpose in the game was to raid. They required you to already be max level and they often also had certain gear requirements. Those guilds would raid very often and would often pound on targets until they mastered how to kill them. Then they would farm the targets to obtain the items to move forward.

Raiding was new. Raiding was risky, since you could die deep in a dungeon and spend substantial time getting your corpses back. Raiding was exciting. Raiding was a great invention that the MMO world is stronger for having been created. But raiding in Everquest was also flawed. The core flaws of raiding in EQ were several.


The World of Warcraft Beta

Not too long after our retirement from Everquest, the World of Warcraft beta began. The Syndicate had been watching WoW for quite some time. We had been in regular contact with the development team and the community team expressing our interest in the game and our desire to help with the beta.

We felt that at this point in our guild career, with eight years of gaming experience behind us, that we could offer a lot of value to the test. We were very pleased when the Blizzard team felt similarly and offered us a large block of beta accounts, followed later by a second large block. So as May of 2004 got underway, The Syndicate hammered into the WoW beta full steam ahead.

We were immediately impressed with WoW for a whole host of reasons. Those reasons included:

Instancing: One of the major issues with Everquest was the fact that the raid content was a competition between guilds. While we realize that the second M in MMO stands for Multiplayer that doesn’t mean that most players want to be in a constant fight with other groups for rare spawns. That view is reinforced even more if the gear a player uses has any bearing on the ability to move into new content. Everquest failed many gamers on that topic. WoW did not.

While there was substantial content where players would run into people they didn’t know and weren’t guilded with, all raid & dungeon level combat and questing was instanced. This model worked extremely well. It all but eliminated griefing or blocking groups you didn’t like from advancing. It allowed every group with the skill and power to defeat content to do so every time it reset if they chose to.

Instancing makes all content available to all players to progress through at their own pace without being harassed, pressured or having it stolen out from under them. Raiding and end game content became fun for a much larger percentage of the gaming population than enjoyed it in Everquest.

wow.jpg

Alt-Tab: On the surface, this may seem like an odd feature to consider important to a game’s success but it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. By this point in the history of MMOs almost every guild has a website and a forum. Many guilds used voice communications like Teamspeak or Ventrilo. Just about everyone has email and instant messenger tools. There are many fan sites that contain archives of information about the game and updates on patches and outages.

The early years of Everquest the game did not allow a player to alt-tab out. One could only assume the decision was taken to block third party programs from macroing and turning characters into mindless robots that farmed while the human slept. However, what it also did was cut players off from the other critical aspects of their virtual communities.

WoW allowed players to alt-tab out. This allowed guilds to use voice tools where members could jump between rooms. This allowed guilds to post strategies on their forums and members could jump out and read them before a battle. This allowed people to IM friends and call them for an impromptu raid without logging out to do so.


The Syndicate®

The Syndicate began the process of Trademarking our guild name in the summer of 2004. The process was estimated to take about six months per the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website. A full eighteen months later, the process was completed and The Syndicate became the first MMO guild to trademark its name. We actually obtained two trademarks to protect our guild name, our logo and our slogan.

In actuality we obtained two servicemarks. A servicemark is basically a trademark that revolves around the performing of services.

According to the USPTO: “A trademark is a word, name, symbol or device which is used in trade with goods to indicate the source of the goods and to distinguish them from the goods of others. A service mark is the same as a trademark except that it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product. The terms "trademark" and "mark" are commonly used to refer to both trademarks and service marks.

Trademark rights may be used to prevent others from using a confusingly similar mark, but not to prevent others from making the same goods or from selling the same goods or services under a clearly different mark.”

The Syndicate applied for two marks rather than one for a couple of reasons. First, having one mark that was simply for the words “The Syndicate” as a guild name would help with enforcement. On the internet there seems to be a very large number of ‘armchair lawyers’ who, while not really being qualified to give a legal opinion, like to offer one up like it was pulled from the pages of the Bible.

syndicatesite.gif

One thing we anticipated was the argument that if we only had the combined logo + name mark that since they didn’t use our logo with the name that they weren’t in violation. That is an inaccurate argument but it makes things easier to have two because it eliminates those types of debates before they begin.

Second, we did want our logo and slogan protected as well. We didn’t simply want to protect our name because our logo and slogan are a significant part of our branding as well. There are huge numbers of Syndicate items (both for sale and ‘schwag’ that we pass out as well as in use in things like guides, newsletters and books) using both our logo and our slogan that we sought to protect.

The mark process was a very lengthy one due in part to being held up for several months with a possibly conflicting mark. It was also slowed down due to the fact that this was a new area. No one had ever trademarked an online gaming entities name before.

There were numerous emails and phone calls exchanged between our lawyers and the government lawyers to educate them on what exactly we were and what online gaming was and what commerce we had in place etc.. But when all was said and done, in December of 2005, our Trademarks were approved and the official paperwork arrived.

When word spread that we had Trademarked our guild name, many gamers and developers were extremely supportive. A few developers were shocked and angered feeling that we were, in essence, playing in their backyard without their permission. One site so far as to accuse us of discouraging creative enterprise and possibly causing the downfall of online gaming.

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