On Platforms And Sustainability

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Clan Lord isn’t a game. It isn’t even a service. It’s a platform. The Clan Lord server and client software do absolutely nothing of value on their own — the fun of the game stems entirely from the content, which nowadays is produced primarily (if not entirely) by unpaid volunteers. This puts DT in an unusual but certainly not unique position. And there are certain things that a company in this position needs to do if they wish to continue operating.

The first and most important step is to recognize that you are dependent on others, and that you need to present yourself as a beggar rather than a chooser. If you’re not going to provide direct incentives for the content-creators, then you need to do everything in your power to remove any disincentives: make the tools free and friendly, suck up to all your content-creators as though they’re the most important, and generally do everything in your power to make the act of creating content for your platform as painless as possible.

Microsoft understands this; you can download a copy of Visual Studio Express for free, and if just about every school with a programming course can join the MSDN student network and hand out free copies of all Microsoft products to their student base. And let’s not forget the image of Ballmer jumping around like a monkey chanting “developers, developers, developers”.

Apple understands this; Mac OS X is nothing but a shiny file browser without applications, so they distribute a copy of the development tools with every copy of the OS, and make them available for free download to boot.

Sun understands this; you can download and install Java for free and get everything you need to start developing right there in the zip file.

Blogger understands this; you can set up a blog for free and start writing about your cat in just about ten minutes.

LiveJournal understands this; it probably takes even less than ten minutes to set up a journal and start writing about your wholly-imaginary sexual escapades.

The list could go on. All of these companies recognize that their products (Windows, Mac OS X, Java, Blogger.com, LiveJournal.com) are merely platforms, and that they depend on third parties to provide the content. And, recognizing this situation, they go out of their way to make it easy to provide content.

Now, this isn’t to say that they like all the content that’s produced. Not every Java applet gets linked to from the Sun homepage. Not every shareware tools gets licensed and bundled with new Macs. Not every promising software vendor gets purchased by Microsoft and gutted. But all the same, the more people you have trying to produce great content, the more likely you are to actually have some produced. If Apple had decided a few years back that QuarkXPress was the only page layout program their platform would ever need and had prevented anyone else from working on one, we’d never have gotten InDesign. If Microsoft had stopped distributing developer tools, we’d be stuck with Internet Explorer instead of FireFox.

Compare these platforms with OS/2 or BeOS: the tools to develop for OS/2 were difficult (read: costly) to obtain, as was the documentation, and look where that got them; the BeOS development toolchain was (initially) tied to Metrowerks CodeWarrior, a rather pricey piece of commercial software. Seen anyone running a BeBox lately?

Delta Tao doesn’t appear to have learned this lesson yet. I was at once point told by ‘Small GM’ that “[b]ecoming a GM is harder and suckier than becoming a mystic”… exactly one sentence after she admitted that, “… we NEED people to go through the frustration of becoming scripters and GMs. Because we really don’t have enough active ones.” Eldon also continually oscillates between complaining about the lack of content creators and patiently explaining that we players are all too dumb to accomplish anything.

The net result is that content creation is too slow, players are insufficiently entertained, and the player base shrinks. It’s been happening since the moment I started playing, and it though the loss decelerates over time in absolute terms (though I suspect it’s fairly constant in percentage terms) it never really stops over extended periods. Sooner or later, the subscription fees will be insufficient to pay for the bandwidth consumed and the game will vanish.

Yes, people have been predicting this since day one. Yes, Clan Lord is still here. But the fact that this death is a slow and drawn-out one doesn’t make it any less final — and, unless something changes — inevitable.

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