An Adventurer Is You: The Zack Johnson/Kingdom of Loathing Interview
By Park Cooper
Last year, Barb and I stopped at this one booth at San Diego that had this little stick figure of a guy with a sword and a martini glass. There were other little stick-figure drawings of a vaguely fantasy nature, and it was all very cute. We found out it was all to promote this online adventure game, it all seemed quite clever in a vaguely updated Infocom/Zork-like way that reminded me of my youth but with stick figures, so we worked on getting an interview with someone.
Nine months later, that dream bears fruition. Er, bears fruit. Comes to fruition. By bearing fruit.
Imagine a game this self-conciously smartassed. That game, I submit to you, is The Kingdom of Loathing.
You're fighting a shifty pirate: This pirate is pretty shifty. He shifts to and fro, attempting to lay the smack down on you all the while. You get the jump on him.
You whip a cut-glass doorknob (like from grandma's house) out of your sack of doorknobs and throw it at him, doing 57 damage. WHAMMO! KAPOW! KAPOW! POW! KERBLAM! ZAP! BARF! KERBLAM!
He calls you a scurvy swab, but you point out that you've been eating plenty of limes.
Park Cooper: Okay… Here we go… Kingdom of Loathing is a game. An online game. Turn-based, with fantasy elements, and a small amount of basic graphics. Hm, this isn't right. Tell me about your background first. How did you come to create KoL?
Zack Johnson: Well, I was always into computer games, but never really had any aspirations to make them professionally. My skills aren't really right for the real world of game development. But I always liked writing little games in BASIC as a kid, and ended up working in a variety of IT jobs as I got older, so I picked up web development and database skills as I went. And once I realized I knew enough to do the basic skeleton of a game like the old BBS door games I used to play, I started working on KoL.
PC: Did they teach you to play with BASIC in school, like me? Or were you so geeky you were playing with it yourself before that sort of thing came along?
ZJ: There was a little bit of that in the gifted classes -- my grade school only had like 6 computers. My dad bought me a TRS-80 Color Computer 2 when I was 7 or 8. It came with a couple of BASIC books, and I pretty much just learned by going through those. I didn't get any formal programming training until college, though.
PC: Right... the gifted classes... so were you in those?
ZJ: Off and on, yeah. The program kept changing, and every once in a while I'd decide I didn't want to do them for a year.
PC: All righty... Why “of loathing?” A Hunter S. Thompson thing?
ZJ: Totally arbitrary. When I was writing the first script, I needed a directory to store it in. I thought about what to call it for a second, and "loathing" is what I typed. I mean, I like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the couple of other things I've read of Thompson's, but I was never really into his political stuff.
PC: How old were you then?
ZJ: When I started working on KoL?
PC: Well yeah. When you named the file.
PC: Okay. So how long since the public has been able to play it?
ZJ: Just over 4 years.
PC: Okay... now, you started it... I know there are other people, since I met one at San Diego Con... when did you get other people such as writers involved?
ZJ: Well, Mr. Skullhead got involved in it pretty early -- long before it became a regular job for us. He started doing significant parts of the writing maybe 4 or 5 months after I started. A little less than 2 years in is when I hired Xenophobe and Riff.
PC: Now, the basic financial influx, aside from the t-shirts and things, is the Mr. A’s... is KoL your full-time job?
ZJ: Yes. Me and six full-time employees, at this point.
PC: How fast is the membership (correct word?) growing, can you tell?
ZJ: It's hard to say with much accuracy -- we can see how many accounts get created each day, and it's usually between 1,000 and 1,500. But the churn rate keeps our total numbers pretty stable. We've had a pretty consistent rate for the last two years.
PC: So... the numbers... don't seem to be increasing? That surprises me. Maybe it's the turnover rate that I'm not factoring in.
ZJ: Probably. It's also hard to interpret the numbers sometimes. People create a lot of extra accounts and let them lapse.
PC: One day a student (I currently teach English at a community college) came in wearing a KoL shirt, which of course I recognized…
ZJ: I think we're probably growing without seeing it -- I feel like there are a lot more people coming in and creating one account, and a lot fewer people creating 10 -- I think most of the people who would make 10 accounts already know about it. It also depends on what kind of publicity we get, to a certain extent. We never actively recruit, really.
PC: I, personally, have not seen anything else out there quite like KoL. And I don't just mean the sense of humor, but I just even mean turn-based RPGs of this sort that use little pics to keep them from being claustrophobically text-only… God knows there are all sorts... but I'm not counting those that charge a mandatory fee... or those where the graphics ARE the key element of the game... KoL feels like a different animal to me because of the writing, and the puzzles (which one could see as a subset of the writing)
ZJ: I'm starting to see more and more games like KoL -- often games made by people who played KoL and thought "Hey, I could do that." It's neat -- I enjoy having something out there that I can actually play. But yeah, we're lucky -- we get to devote a tremendous amount of time and energy to improving KoL, and I think it shows -- we try to be sticklers for quality.
PC: Really? How would you feel about naming some?
ZJ: Well, there are a couple that started up and then shut down for a long time (Teh Yard and Lake of Boating) -- the kids that made those are currently re-doing them as bigger and better projects, so they're not actually playable. There's another one in active development right now, the most promising I've seen, but it's on limited hardware, so he doesn't want any publicity just yet.
PC: Hmm… all righty… "…Don't recruit..." So then how did y'all come to be at the San Diego Comic Convention last year, bucko?
ZJ: Well, heh. That's the only thing we've ever done to actively promote the game. We attended the year before, and wore our shirts the whole time, and they didn't really get recognized at all. And we figured "There are a ton of people here who would like KoL if they saw it. We should come back and tell them about it."
PC: Was it worth it?
ZJ: It's hard to say, financially. It definitely got the word out some -- our signup rate increased by 30 or 40 percent for the three or four months after Con. We're going back this year, and this year it'll cost us a lot less, since we already have all of our booth materials, basically. It was a lot of fun, though. We'd have gone as attendees anyway.
PC: I enjoy and appreciate how there isn't irritating advertising... www.pandora.com is a site I like, but like a lot of sites I start out liking, the advertising gets heavier and thicker all the time...
ZJ: Yeah, I really sort of can't stand online advertising. Advertising in general, really.
PC: Yeah, that's evident in the Cola Wars section of the game, kinda... What's in the works for KoL? Can you give us any hints about stuff y'all're working on?
ZJ: Well, there's a huge content push coming within the next couple of months. Moving the Sorceress up a couple of levels and adding these big sprawling quests to levels 11 and 12. Skully said the other day "Man. The level 12 quest is as big as the entire rest of the game." Which is an exaggeration, but not as much of one as you'd think. Dozens of new monsters, hundreds of new items, that kind of thing.
PC: Oooooh... I've been wanting more stuff...
ZJ: It's exciting, but it's also frustrating -- I don't like sitting on content once it's finished. That's why we do such frequent updates -- I want people to see our work once we're done with it. But some stuff, it just makes more sense to roll it out as one big batch, and that's what this is.
PC: I've been playing... now I'm looking around... "I don't want to start over again yet... wish I could do that Crimbo stuff I read about in the wiki..."
ZJ: The Crimbo stuff is always kind of a big deal. We keep ramping it up each year in terms of how much it consists of. This year we'll probably scale it back a little, just to maintain our own sanity. It'll still be good, though.
PC: You say you were gonna do the con anyway... big on the comics scene, yourself?
ZJ: I read some comics, but mostly the short-series independent-type ones -- I'm not really into the whole superhero thing. The San Diego Con interests me far more as a sort of general pop-culture phenomenon, rather than something that's specifically about comics.
PC: You a gamer much? I know there's the Penultimate Fantasy section, but one could have almost written that just by watching someone else play for a few hours...
ZJ: Yeah, I play a lot of PC and console games. I always sort of disliked the FF games, so you're right -- it's not based on a whole lot of personal experience. Skully's wife plays them, and he picked up most of the airship from watching her. I like the Paper Mario games a lot -- they're RPGs, but a lot more casual and less grindy. And I play quite a bit of World of Warcraft, unsurprisingly.
PC: Are all the writers also coders? Or not necessarily…?
ZJ: No, I'm really the only one that's both. Xeno is the other coder, and Riff and Skully are pretty much entirely just design/writing. Xeno's written us a really good set of tools that make it easier for to do development work, but when there actually needs to be code written, it's him or I.
PC: Sorry to harp on the comics, but that's something my readers will be used to... can you recall a comic you've read and liked lately?
ZJ: Well, they're doing a series based on TRON that I'm liking a lot. My roommate (who's a bigger comics guy than I am) turned me on to "Y The Last Man," and, let's see. Anything Ben Templesmith draws. I like "Fell" a lot. I also read Usagi Yojimbo -- that's about the only thing I'd consider even remotely traditional that I like.
PC: Where do you see you and/or KoL in... 5 years?
ZJ: Well, we've always said that we'd keep working on it as long as people stay interested in it. And I guess people will stay interested in it as long as we're working on it. I'd like to work on some other projects soon, but they'd definitely be in addition to KoL and not instead of it.
PC: Other games? Or...
ZJ: Yeah, I think we all have other game ideas bouncing around in our heads. I'd really like to hire a Flash programmer this year -- I think having somebody whose job was just to spend all of their working time just implementing our ideas would make us a lot more prolific. Skully and Riff are also working on a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book -- if that's something that turns out to be feasible, it'd be neat to get into more stuff like that as a company, too. But yeah. The limiting factor is mainly not having enough time to do all of the things we have ideas for.
Half Dead update: I often hear about Half Dead being sold out at comic book stores these days -- just ask the store to order a copy for you. Since the distribution is through Marvel, they should be able to get it for you quite quickly (especially if we're talking about North America).