The job was supposed to be easy. All I had to do was find some missing art supplies. That was, until I found myself being attacked by a goblin barbecue team. Next thing I know, I'm getting a severe tong-lashing (not a typo) from the chef.
Realizing how dangerous goblins with access to hot coals are, I did the only thing I could. I bashed them in the face with my trusty disco ball. But that's all in a day's work for an enterprising Disco Bandit, on a quest to save the strange and puzzling world that is Kingdom of Loathing, a browser-based, multiplayer RPG.
The only possible explanation for Kingdom of Loathing is that after multiple beers, someone drew stick figures in a Dungeons & Dragons rulebook with a black crayon, completely twisted the rules around and then wrote a videogame around it. The rudimentary, black-and-white graphics consist mostly of stick men and strange critters that may well have been drawn in MS Paint. The game's currency is slabs of meat; and it forgoes an alchemy system, common in fantasy games, replacing it instead with cocktail mixing.
It's also heavily text-based with writing that parodies, well, everything. It's packed with references from RPGs ranging from Paper Mario to Final Fantasy, going as far back as NetHack and Zork. There are plenty of nods to pop culture, too, including internet memes, songs and Tarantino quotes. The geek humor hits as soon as the player loads the homepage, greeted by the tag-line "An adventurer is you," a homage to the infamous mistranslation from NES Pro Wrestling.
"It was more of a joke wrapped in a game," said Co-Writer Josh Nite, describing the game's beginnings in an email interview. But despite the lack of 3-D graphics or an epic soundtrack, between 1000 and 1500 new players sign up per day. The story behind Kingdom of Loathing's success is almost as unique as the game itself.
There are no subscription fees to play, and unlike many other browser-based games, the interface isn't cluttered with Google ads. The seven full-time employees who keep the game running make their living entirely from donations, with a little extra coming from selling merchandise.
That's how the 32-year-old creator Zack Johnson prefers to run the show. "To me it seems like a natural way to do business," he said. "You create a product and if people like it, they give you money."
The story began in 2003 with Johnson, an Arizona programmer, attempting to create computer games in his free time while working an IT job. Although his first attempts were more purposeful and deliberate than Kingdom of Loathing, he never seemed to finish them. "I found the more seriously I took a project, the less likely it was to get done," said Johnson.
So he set a goal for himself: Create a game in one week and put it online.
Much of the early content in the game was stream of consciousness, including the game's classes: the Seal Clubber, Turtle Tamer, Pastamancer, Sauceror, Disco Bandit and Accordion Thief. "It's amazing how much of the content we've built around things I came up with in five minutes," said Johnson.
Once the one-week deadline was up, Johnson uploaded it to the shared-hosting server he was using for his personal website without even coming up with a title. Needing to name a sub-domain for it, he typed a single word, "loathing." It stuck.