Clan Lord is a veritable Methuselah among online role-playing games, the graphics—2D hand drawn sprites—are crude compared to todays 32-bit texture laden 3D graphics. The reason is that this game is on its second decade of existence having come out of beta after about a year of testing in 1998. Since then development efforts have gone into expanding the world and adding features on occasion.
The gameplay is simplistic for fighters and for the first few levels of “healer-dom.” One simply runs into what one wants to try to kill or start healing. Unlike 3D games, a 2D system allows this because there is no “ASDF+turn key” navigation needed in a 3D space, In a 2D space your mouse does quite nicely.
In addition to this lack of combat mechanic complexity, there is also a very simple items system, and thus not much of an economy. If a person is not too concerned about rapid advancement while off-line and doesn’t carry more than the maximum of allowed objects, there is almost no reason to even have coins or care about obtaining them after one gets their basic equipment needs met, aside from the 5 coin boat fare to leave the island and chain repairs.
So, what does this game so clearly lacking offer, and why are people still playing after over 10 years? Clan Lord has a radically different concept and approach to games than pretty much every other RPG online or offline out there. And the difference in the environment it came out of and exists in has both its strengths and weaknesses.
Different Player Base
Clan Lord’s player base was initially RPG fans, mac enthusiasts and casual gamers. The Mac was a very different platform in 1996–1998 (CL’s formative beta period), with a different type of average demographic. “Real gamers” bought PCs with Windows, and Mac Gamers were often treated with disdain by most PC gamers and mainstream game publications. The typical Mac user tended to be a creative person, and thought along different lines than the “herd mentality” of the typical PC user. (That’s not to say all PC users follow the flock, but many don’t care and just use what everyone else does for simplicity.) It wasn’t until a European company formed by players licensed Clan Lord and developed a Windows client for the game.
Mac’s “Toy” Legacy
Only with the advent of iOS did Apple even get a foothold in the gaming industry. One of the main reasons gaming never really took off on the platform is that Apple was trying to downplay the image of the Macintosh as a “toy” and thus discouraged game development. It only half-heartedly put the effort into making development tools for game creation after a decade of existence. Game Sprockets were a collection of APIs for developers that Apple tried but failed to maintain due to lack of internal enthusiasm and game developer conflicts.
Today any company would be crazy to discourage third parties from developing a market for their product, but in the mid-eighties, games were considered unimportant to all but console makers such as Atari, Sega and Nintendo. Also computers at the time were only of interest to academics, technology enthusiasts and businesses. To have a product associated with leisure activities—especially one as time-wasting as playing games—was verboten if one was trying to get businesses to adopt them.
Hobbyists Started Gaming, Not Companies
Luckily, a lot of enthusiastic programmers and researchers decided to spend free time making games for fun that were released for free. Some of the earliest games were very simple and among them was an RPG called Rogue whose gameplay concepts Clan lord borrows from. If one looks at the spirit of Delta Tao, one realizes that Joe, Tim and the volunteer staff hail from the days of programmers making games for fun, not for profit. (That is probably one of the other reasons that Delta Tao stopped charging a subscription fee to players. Now all that is needed is an initial purchase of an account and the option of adding character slots to it.)
It didn’t occur to programmers nor their companies that video games could be a good revenue stream until someone took a look at arcades. Those companies focused on making games that generated a profit and got old quickly so the gamer could move on to purchasing the next game. It wasn’t until persistent subscription models that game developers had to consider how to make a game with enduring appeal. This was never really a concern of Clan Lord either, but in order to succeed at building an online community, CL had to keep players interested. Unfortunately for a long while about 4–9 years ago, Clan Lord heavily relied on its community to keep the game afloat because of stagnant development.
Developers are in Control
Developers and artists are almost all volunteer, and they choose their own projects and have no deadlines and no duty to do anything other than follow the basic tenets and not crash the server. Thus the sporadic development. The inner workings are developed free of burdens that make development unpleasant. As a result of not being directed or compelled by management to make this or implement that, implemented features are not geared at pleasing players. A developer for the game said that if players don’t like the way the game is going that they are free to SACWAG: Start a company. Write a game. The phrase became used so often, that “SACWAG” and “soon!” are also bandied about by players in response to complaints from players, new and old. “Soon” is the response to when a player asks when a new feature or area will be released. Because there are no deadlines and the developer is free to work at his or her own pace, “soon” is the best answer. “On the list” is another phrase that means that the developer is interested in doing it, but there are other projects that are before it.
However the casual development has also lead to many developers leaving because their work is not handled as quickly as one would a paid developer’s code submissions. A lack of feedback and implementation are the main reasons cited by those that leave. After all, the volunteer GMs that oversee and manage the code have no requirements and aren’t being paid to perform. Since there is no pay, developers have to do other things to put food on the table, and many have other hobbies. All of these reasons lead to development cycles closer to “Duke Nukem Forever” than “World of Warcraft: (Cool Expansion Pack Name).”
Lack of Drive to Profit
With the stagnation of new abilities released, the game got a bit stale for a while, and still suffers from sporadic updates. The reason for this is a fundamental difference in the goals and concept of the game itself. The game had very modest goals that cost almost nothing to implement.
Clan Lord is not a huge commercial venture that has a giant development and support staff, and it was never intended to be. The CEO of Delta Tao has said publicly that the concept of what became Clan Lord was an experiment at creating an online community with a game being the medium to deliver it. It was a sort of collective programmer’s hobby. Therefore, instead of investing a ton of money of hiring developers and trying to turn a profit, it relied of developers that also liked the idea of playing with a world.
Small Player Base
CL never achieved critical mass, thanks in part to no advertising and no other promotion, the number of players remained small. As a result of the small pool of players (estimated at less than 2,000 total with a peak of probably under 8,000) players often ran into the same players each day they played. Even if the person only played a few times a month, they’d often encounter the same people playing if they played in certain time slots.
When the game was young, the larger player pool and single world meant that at all times of the day and night there would be people to play with. As the Americas went to bed Asia would come online, and as Europe went to bed the Americas would come on-line.
As a result of this small town aspect, players have to not only cooperate with each other, but also get along and from relationships almost as strong as real world friendships. While many online games have stories of players meeting and marrying, I would guess that per capita Clan Lord beats them all (but the small player base helps that).
Instead of spending money advertising to reach as many gamers out there, the game relied on word-of-mouth and the occasional article about the Clan Lord, MMOs, and software listings. Joe actually dislikes the idea of advertising because advertising is usually fraught with techniques that make associations to unrelated things. Ads for the most part are irrational appeals to deep-seated emotions of a need for outside approval, insecurity, fear on one hand and desire, pleasure, and selfishness on the other. Very few products are advertised with truth about what they actually do. The mom is made to fear not taking care of her kids, and is told that to get their approval she needs to get them salty snacks and sugary drinks. Children are programmed that a sign of care is a toy, and that their life will be so happy and complete once they get a doll or other toy, teenagers and young adults are told they won’t be thought of favorably (look cool) unless they drink this beverage, use this brand of electronic device or use whatever product the advertisers are pushing. Men and Women are easy to manipulate by suggesting use of the product advertised will make them more attractive and interesting to attractive and desirable people.
Advertising is considered a bad idea to people who believe that true contentment and fulfillment come from inner peace, acceptance and striving to be a better person. Joe is one of those such individuals. So it is obvious the game would reflect his values.
The Clan Lord Philosophy
Clan Lord’s philosophy follows a similar path to Joe’s changing way. There are not many items because people do not truly need them. Most of a character’s strengths come from learning. Ranks as a form of experience are not numerically listed because that is used as a status symbol and not truly indicative of the quality of a person. Instead there is something akin to reputation called “Karma” that fades and must be renewed that one earns from other players. There is a lack of any real economy because that would encourage people to compare bank accounts, and also distort a person’s real value.
The combat mechanics are extremely simple because they are easy to grasp but take time to master. So, a new player controlling an “Uber” (a long-established character with thousands of ranks) often gets killed faster than an experienced player controlling a character with half the ranks. A modicum of skill is actually needed to play the game effectively. This is probably because of a philosophy that wisdom is the true value of a person. Experience and the ability to apply that experience are what truly separate the better players from the rest.
There is no pressure to achieve higher levels either. In fact if one tries to catch up with the top tier, it takes literally at least a year of heavy play to do. In addition, taking an extended break is fine thanks to offline experience a character gets in the Libraries. When the person returns, the experience accumulated is doled out a rank at a time in 90 second increments.
Tinkering is Possible
Also, just like early programmers, there is a very simple macro language that players can tinker with for fun and to improve their character’s ease of control. As crude as it is, it allows characters to do some pretty impressive things. Some of which, automation of ones character, are actively frowned upon by the GMs and can lead to penalties that range from experience and items loss to being banned from playing.
With all I’ve said, it might seem that I’m trumpeting the game to some, and condemning it to others. It really depends on the type of person you are. And to be honest, not many people fit into the “I don’t care about stuff or status” category. Many people find the casual, lack of concrete goals in the game also disorienting. It is very hard to get used to and many people are not cut out to this way of thinking. That’s why I’ve given up recommending Clan Lord to friends. New people often ask, “what’s the point of the game?” The best response is similar to answering the question, “What is the meaning of Life?” The answer in Clan Lord is to “Set your own goals, find a place you are comfortable being in and have fun. Basically, ‘Enjoy yourself.’ Oh, and try not to be a jerk.”