Stumbling Into the Kingdom of Loathing

By Robert Janelle

Originally Published in The Escapist 05/08/08

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.

Even from its modest beginning, Kingdom of Loathing was driven by the players. The bare-bones version of what would later become an expansive virtual world gained a few loyal players who inspired Johnson to keep working on the game. With no advertising or other active recruitment, the project slowly gained players by word of mouth, but took off once it was featured on the front page of comedy website Something Awful.

The bandwidth used by Kingdom of Loathing’s player base soon led to phone calls from Johnson’s web host about CPU usage, and he had to look at getting a dedicated server. This led to a request for donations, just to cover hosting costs. “It was costing more than I felt comfortable paying out of my own pocket,” said Johnson.

A funny thing happened, though. A year and a half after launching the game, Johnson realized he was making enough through the donations to escape from his cubicle and work on Kingdom of Loathing full time. “I didn’t really believe it at first,” he said.

“(Zack) went from buying our beers to paying me part time to paying me full time as the game could support it,” said Nite.

Johnson and Nite bring in some additional revenue from the official store, which stocks a variety of wares from t-shirts to shot glasses to a plastic replica of the Saber-Toothed Lime, one of the game’s more popular creatures. However Johnson, who openly admits his disdain for commercialism, emphasizes that the profits are minimal, since they sell everything only slightly above cost.

Kingdom of Loathing’s success has earned Johnson invitations to speak as part of panels on internet revenue, all of which he has declined. “I’m probably the worst person to talk about business,” he said. “A lot of the reasons we make money are that we haven’t really tried to make money.”

He attributed the games success to fact that 90 percent of development time is spent working on free content. “It creates an environment where players trust us,” he said.

That trusting environment extends beyond just making a game free to play, though. Aside from programming and writing, the developers behind Kingdom of Loathing also directly interact with players through the game’s forums. “I think people appreciate that we’re not a faceless corporation. We’re a bunch of regular people, fallible, not inclined to corporate-speak,” said Nite. “It allows people to be more invested in the game.”

It’s a sentiment shared by the game’s players. “The creators are just a couple of average joes who were talented and creative enough to make [Kingdom of Loathing] a reality,” said 32-year-old Gregg Czarnecki, who’s been playing for a little more than a year. “The fan base can really relate to (Zack) and company for this reason.”

Players are also attracted to the game by the community itself, which promotes a higher level of discourse than many online communities. Players must pass a spelling and grammar test in order to access the in-game chat system, where “leet speak” is frowned upon. Then there’s the variety of ways the game can be played. Kingdom of Loathing presently consists of 13 main quests, but there are also sub-quests, challenges that require players to build up certain skills to complete, trophies to collect, meat to be earned and many other tasks to master.

Being browser-based, it’s also able to appeal to casual players as well as the more hardcore crowd. Players are allotted 40 turns per day, though players can beef that number up to a maximum of 200 by using different items, enchantments or drinking an in-game beer.

Devin Lamb, a 22-year-old web developer, first signed up for the game looking for a way to kill time at a summer job.

“I figured the turn-based system would keep me from actually getting addicted to it. I’ve never been a big fan of multiplayer games, so I liked the fact that I could play it on my own, and it had an awesome sense of humor,” he said in an email. Unfortunately, Lamb wasn’t able to avoid addiction, as he’s been playing for more than three years and administers the fan group on Facebook, “A Facebooker is you,” with more than 4000 members.

If finishing all the challenges in the game aren’t enough, players can go for an “ascension” after completing the main quests, which is the closest thing there is to an ending. Following the ascension, the game starts over and the player respawns with new areas and challenges unlocked.

According to Nite, he and Johnson dreamed up the idea over beers in a local bar. Nite was inspired by Super Mario Bros., where restarting after rescuing the princess led to a more challenging game in which all the regular Koopas become Buzzy Beetles. It took a year to implement, but it fundamentally changed how the game worked. It also kept players coming back, with some having ascended more than 400 times.

Continually adding new content has been critical to keeping the community engaged. “It seems that just as Kingdom of Loathing gets monotonous, something new is added, keeping the game from getting old,” said Czarnecki. Most recently, Nite and Johnson introduced the game’s first true multiplayer dungeon. In the past, player interaction had been possible through the in-game chat and mail system, a unique take on PvP combat or by joining clans with goal of finding items to furnish the clan hideout. “Hobopolis,” however, is a massive dungeon that would take a single player thousands of turns to complete. The idea is to have clan members divide up duties and use their respective turns to finish it off.

More than five years later, Johnson and his team have managed to keep coming up with fresh content. “I suppose at some point we’ll work something for a month and have people tell us it’s a repeat of jokes we’ve already done,” said Johnson. “That’s the point where we’ll consider hanging up our hats.”

The biggest secret to Kingdom of Loathing’s success, however, has probably been keeping things running on a smaller scale than more mainstream operations. The 100,000 to 150,000 regular players are a far cry from World of Warcraft’s 10 million subscribers, but it’s been enough for a small company to exist outside the gaming industry.

That’s not to say there haven’t been attempts to take Kingdom of Loathing to a broader audience. At one point Johnson was approached with an offer to buy out the company by someone he said “didn’t understand the scope of what we were doing.” The would-be financier offered to purchase the operation and allow Johnson and Nite to continue their work on the game. But for them, the costs of “selling out” outweighed the benefits.

“I wasn’t interested,” said Johnson. “I was in no hurry to sit in a cubicle again.”