On One’s Own: Kingdom of Loathing

April 6, 2010 | James Bishop

cow00On One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

This week is a bit of a departure for On One’s Own. Instead of discussing broad, complex topics in and around the indie gaming scene, this particular piece will be focusing on a single indie game: Kingdom of Loathing. Hopefully, this will become a pattern and future editions will look at other games.

So, with that in mind, let us say that you and I, Constant Reader, were to meet while waiting for a bus. We’d get to talking about this and that, begin to explain some of our interests to the other, and generally enjoy the good company. What if, in the course of explaining my interests, I told you that I regularly play an online game that revolves around stick figures?

You might think less of me but then you would definitely be missing out. I would say that I should know, considering that come December I will have been playing for a grand total of six years. As of writing this, I’ve played for approximately 1,920 days and have managed to spend 192,496 turns traversing the Kingdom. Divided out, I have spent an average of about 100 turns per day, which is impressive considering that a character only gets 40 a day naturally.

What is it about the game that drives me back? That’s the most important question. But almost as important, if not as important as, is what makes Kingdom of Loathing such a good, successful independent game? Well, I will get to that, but first, some background information.

KoLMainScreen.previewThe game was officially launched in early 2003 by Zack “Jick” Johnson. Early in the game’s lifespan, he was joined by Josh “Mr. Skullhead” Nite. Though the original game was nowhere near as massive as it has grown to be, it was still enough to have them reach over 300,000 accounts a year later. As time has gone by, they have recruited heavily from the playerbase. Nearly the entirety of the development team, which helps test new content as well as suggests tweaks, were first players and then developers of the game.

With their indie credentials securely in place, it is time to move on and give the big reveal as to what keeps bringing this sad sap back day after day after day: clear vision. Though the updates to the game are spotty at best—try asking someone who has been playing for years about pre-Ascension, for example—they never cease to update. It could be months before they get around to fixing something, but by golly they are going to fix it at some point.

But even that is not the heart of the matter. It is as if they bought a large whiteboard the day they started up the servers and wrote “Mission Statement: Humorous content for all player types” on it. The game’s funny. Hilarious, even. But to different players, different things are amusing. You know what they say: “You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.”

And yet they still definitely manage to get close. They owe a major portion of their success to Richard Bartle who, among other things, managed to fairly accurately describe the majority of player types in an article of his titled “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS.” Bartle is no stranger to MUDs, or MMOs, as he helped design the original multi-user dungeon, accurately called MUD.

loathing-bigIn the article, Bartle discusses the essential player paradigms. In the course of a long discussion, some trends arose that, when summarized, those involved agreed were the key ideas. There are four typical characteristics of any given player that they may find fun about a game: achievement within the game context, exploring the game, socializing with others or imposition upon others. Players either want to break a record, find somewhere new, talk to some close friends or kill a bunch of rivals. Most fall into multiple categories.

The article speaks best for itself, and is certainly worth a read or two, as is another analysis of Kingdom of Loathing by Brett Bixler. Sufficed to say, Socializers (Hearts), Achievers, (Diamonds), Explorers (Spades) and Killers (Clubs) are all different styles of play that a person can adopt and experience. They are so important, in fact, that I would argue that they have almost certainly played a direly important role in the prevalence of Kingdom of Loathing.

This is not to say that Jick or Mr. Skullhead somehow have rights to the idea Bartle presented, but they have certainly chosen to focus nearly all updates to the game around his vision of the four major types of players. In any given discussion about game development, you are likely to hear at least two of the four being mentioned casually as reasoning behind this or that change.

As an example, when they were designing the Ascension portion of the game, they realized it catered almost exclusively to Diamonds and Spades. Hearts, however, really had no specific reason to progress any further into the game. To solve this dilemma, they added a Gift Shop that the player could progressively earn more and more items in so that they could purchase and “gift” them to other players.

2008_07_02_kingdomThis is the kind of thought process that seems to go through their minds from time to time. They look at the current game, as best they can from their positions on high, and try to decide what seems to be missing. Did that last update favor the Hearts and somehow disillusion those oft-forgotten Diamonds? Never fear, they know it and are working on pushing something out to correct the balance.

This does not mean that they haven’t been known to avoid certain types of players or completely unbalance things. Jick has readily admitted again and again that he just isn’t a Club and doesn’t understand how a Club operates. The current PvP system leaves something to be desired, and he and the development team know it, but as he’s the one who mostly has to code things the long-sought update is still drifting somewhere in the aether.

The thing is that he knows players want it. They listen to the players and change things, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad, in hopes of providing an even better experience. When presented with solid evidence, in say the forums, that showcases an aspect of the design that is either out of wack or somehow outside the parameters of the game, they’re quit to repair the damage. Ask someone about purple snowcones or roofies, if you have the time, as they’re both prime examples of this exact sort of thing.

That’s what I love about the game. Sure, the community’s great, the game’s fun and funny if a bit repetitive and it can be played in a half hour a day if I need to do limit myself. More than that, though, the developers listen. They bend. They’re human and they show it. They run contests, host radio shows and attend conventions. Isn’t that what being indie is about? Being in tune with your audience?

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