MMOs seem to be a dime a dozen these days, with the mainstream market getting a new release every other week, be it AAA or Free to Play. But one indie developer has been chipping away at the same game for over seven years now. It’s Zack Johnson, the creator and continual head of Asymetric Publications and the long-standing indie MMO Kingdom of Loathing.
I got a chance to talk to Zack about his game recently, just to see where things are these days and what’s next.
DIYgamer: What’s the general outlook on Kingdom of Loathing these days?
Zack Johnson: We seem to find that any time we try to do any promotion or talk to anyone about it, people say “yeah, I played that five years ago,” and seem to be surprised that it’s still around, that we’re still doing what we’re doing.
Personally, I’ve been playing Kingdom of Loathing for five years. When I first got a desk job out of college, and the hours dragged and my soul shrank, a friend of mine sent me the link over email and suggested I sign up. Shortly thereafter I was born as a stick figure in the Kingdom of Loathing. For anyone new to the title, it’s relatively simple. You’re given a finite amount of turns each day, which can be augmented by eating foods or drinking booze, and once you’re stomach is full, or you drink beyond your alcohol threshold, you’re done for the day; though you can continue chatting it up with other cohorts in the game or gambling. The currency in the game world is literally meat, and a lot of enemies and items in the game are making fun of RPG and MMO tenets that haven’t changed in years. It’s all illustrated in simple sketches and in black and white.
DIYgamer: When did the game launch?
Zack Johnson: You know, I don’t remember. I feel I wasn’t keeping the announcements that early. Late January or early February of 2003. I thought of digging through all my old emails and reconstructing it. I have old backups from March and April of ’03, but it had been around a little while by then. Quarter one 2003…The fact we’ve been around longer than World of Warcraft surprises people sometimes.
DIY: On the same sort of spectrum of “yes you’re still around,” what would you peg as your biggest breakthroughs across the past seven years that have given some momentum to moving the game forward?
ZJ: It was bringing in just enough money to allow me to safely quit my day job after about eighteen months. One of the first things I did was implement Mr. Store. Because before that you just got the Mr. Accessory and that was it. And implementing Mr. Store spiked the revenue tenfold. That was basically the point that I hired everybody that I hired and it’s kind of remained stable since that point.
For anyone curious what Mr. Store is, it’s the arena where players can get a fancy new item of high value each month. To trade in Mr. Store, players need to acquire a Mr. Accessory. These accessories are gifts given when a player donates $10, but they can also be bought and traded in-game. So to get a new item each month, a player will either need to donate the money and trade in their Mr. Accessory, or be savvy enough with the economy or casino to purchase the item in-game and trade it for the monthly super item.
ZJ: At the time I did it micro-transaction didn’t really mean that. I don’t know if its to our benefit or detriment, but I’ve continued to keep it as donations. The less we claim we’re actually selling someone something, the less legal issues we have to deal with. There’s a lot of weird stuff like that in China where people get a lot crazier about it. As an MMO we’re barely big enough to be on any kind of radar. There’s a secondary currency market, people sell meat for real money. It’s not against the rule, we don’t condone it and we’re not going to do anything if you get ripped off. We’re not going to dedicate a lot of resources to trying to put a stop to it. If we had someone whose full time job it was to stop that, it just wouldn’t be worth it. There are a number of people who gives us money out of the goodness of their hearts and want us to succeed, but I’d say ninety to ninety five percent are the ones who want the stuff in-game. When we’ve gone to any industry stuff, there’s a lot of people talking about doing free-to-play MMOs right now. It’s understood there are these rules you can’t break if you’re doing them. One of them is that you can’t have your micro transaction stuff in the same economy as your in-game stuff. The reason we’ve been successful by doing the opposite of that. It lends us a certain measure of credibility what we try to do with everything is that you can definitely play the game for free, you can see and do everything in the game without giving us money. When we design the donation content we definitely keep that in mind. For a long time we thought would be nice to do a premium content, a bonus for those giving us money, it took us a while to figure out a method of doing that. What you get for the money is the ability to generate a sort of ticket for the additional content which you can then trade with people.
There’s free to play “rules” that say you have to separate your cash store from your in-game stuff, that you can’t let people trade that stuff. In a lot of cases you can’t sell anything to the player to get a competitive advantage. It’s a crazy shoot yourself in the foot kind of thing. Breaking both of those rules at the same time has made KoL possible. It does give you an in-game advantage, but because we don’t have the rule that you have to give us money, you can just play the market or farm meat until you get the thing. It doesn’t actually generate a will or create a situation where you have to give us money in order to play.
DIY: How many people do you have working on staff?
ZJ: [There's] me, Kevin, Josh and Riff, which is the core creative team. Then we’ve got Erin the business manager and a contractor programmer who replaced a full time employee who quit and we’ve got another guy who does abuse tracking and customer service stuff. So there’s seven full time people, eight including me. We’ve got a couple of like barely above volunteer moderator coordinators, people who we pay but not a whole lot. Then we’ve got a second team who is working on a second game, three additional people who have nothing to do with KoL.
DIY: Fueled entirely by donations?
DIY: How many active players do you have now?
ZJ: It’s hard to say, because you can make multiple amounts. While we do track that for abuse, we don’t count everyone. A business person would look at the way we do things and shake their head. We don’t do nearly enough tracking and metrics kind of stuff as we probably ought to, from a user retention and actually knowing the audience we’re serving standpoint. And this is just largely my laissez faire approach, I’m just making a thing that I like and enjoy working on. As opposed to actually implementing any marketing stuff…In a given day these days there are probably twenty to twenty five thousand accounts being logged into, half to a third of that is probably a good number for active users. We have a high churn, people don’t stick around for this kind of thing forever.
DIY: What about in the beginning? What were the milestones of growth?
ZJ: I didn’t expect it to get to the point it was at eighteen months. I’d worked on a couple of other projects that never got past a few friends. When I started doing it, my goal was to get out my bullshit idea. If enough people knew about it, I could go in for a real job at a game studio. Not an entry level job. [I thought] if I can get one thousand people playing it, it would be a success. [Then it was] holy crap, there are ten thousand people playing it. It’s been a never ending series of astonishments.
The way that we have to develop the game has evolved over time. In the beginning, I, while I was at work, over the course of a break I’d sketch out as zone and go home and draw it. A monster consisted of a name, a description and a single verb for how it attacks you. The game wasn’t difficult o or important to balance. There was a lot of seat of the pants stuff thrown in very quickly. Whereas now, we’ve got a lot more to lose if we introduce something that’s broken.
DIY: What’s the biggest new content?
ZJ: Part of the deal is we’re also trying to get this other game off of the ground. It’s proving to take a lot longer and be more expensive than we were expecting. The focus for the past few months has been to try and get enough stuff ready and in the pipe, so that we can do updates on a fairly regular basis without having to dedicate ourselves fully to KoL. It will take up all the time there is, if we let it. We have so many more workable ideas than we have the time or energy to implement them. The amount of work we can do is infinite.
In the beginning of this year, I said “this is the direction of the first quarter of the year,” I was hoping would be done in the first quarter. Everything takes three times as long as I expect it to, even when I take that into account.
We queued up a year’s worth of traveling trader items. They’re ready to drop in. We’re putting them in on a schedule. We’re doing one-off bursts of content via the maps in the antique store, my goal is to have a year’s worth of those queued up but they’re taking a lot longer than I expected them too. I’m almost done with the next one. I didn’t want to create another monthly deadline for us. I want to try and get a year’s worth of these in the pile, so we can work on the larger project.
We keep developing tools to make it easier to add content to the game, but at the same time we keep making the content more complicated. So that everything we have just takes a lot longer. The pace stays pretty regular, the next big project is finishing up the underwater stuff. Making that an actual coherent real thing with some kind of carrot at the end. A lot of people aren’t messing around with it because it’s not finished, there’s no payoff. We did a tremendous amount of work on it at the end of last year in the hope’s of getting it done before Crimbo. But it didn’t happen.
Crimbo is KoL’s version of the holiday season, in which players are given an advent calendar full of gifts and play out a unique Crimbo-themed storyline each year.
ZJ: The advantage Kingdom of Loathing has over other games is just the sheer breadth of content. You either take it as a joke and play it casually, or you realize that there is actually a deeper fundamental gameplay structure and get really into it. The fact that we’ve been really enthusiastically adding stuff to the game for seven years, other games might look prettier, but if you want to play something that gives you a novel experience for as many days as possible, I feel that’s a great strength of our game. Basically all of the work is in there, we’re not replacing the old stuff with shinier stuff or slightly changed stuff. If you’re gone for a year, you probably have a month’s worth of stuff you’ve never seen before.
We’re just starting to send a ping email to people who haven’t logged into their accounts for a long time. Saying “here’s what we’ve been up to.” I feel a little weird about that. A little squeamish about the ethics of sending an email to people, which is ridiculous because everyone does it. “You liked the game once, clearly, if you got bored, here’s what’s changed.”
DIY: What can you say about the new game so far?
ZJ: Basically it’s a single player flash RPG. We’re shooting for an hour, hour and a half to playthrough completely. We’re going for a large scope flash game, but small scope game. We’ve basically got this engine built, we can add content, we can release it as a standalone thing. Gauge interest to see if people like it. I’m pretty pleased with it. I’m excited about the possibility of putting it out there and showing it to people. Theoretically our long term plan for the next few years, is to use the mechanics of the single player version to do an MMO that actually has a revenue model. And doing something similar to KoL because it’s what we know.
DIY: And how would you say it holds your company’s “seal?”
ZJ: We’re trying to take a more serious tone to it. It’s important that the game be funny, but not silly. Mechanically as a single player game it’s a lot more straightforward. KoL grew very organically over a long period of time. I don’t know if it would be better if it came out all at once. Just seeing what kind of things people respond to. Skating the line between challenging and boring. The new game is a lot more skill based and a lot less number based.
The fun that people derive from KoL is in the “I just killed this monster and got all this stuff.” The actual fighting of the monster isn’t that fun. With the new one we’re trying to get a puzzle quest type ethic where the core mechanic is actually fun on its own. This is an idea that’s been brewing for a long long time. It’s interesting to see it play out in actual development. I have notebooks from three or four years ago outlining the rules of the game.
We’re going to DragonCon, so we’re thinking we might do a sneak preview there. If we do that, we’d be wrong not to show it to our people at KoL Con in late September.
In terms of content, there is still a lot to do. Not a lot of writing has been done, we have yet to bring Josh and Riff in. We need to write this new dialogue, doing a lot of this tone setting, a lot of polish stuff is still necessary. in terms of playing from start to finish, it’s probably 75-80% done. Writing has always been easy for us, it’s implementation that’s the actual challenge.
The new game is a little weird because this is the first flash project that our programmer has done. Our artist was not particularly adept, or never that interested in computer art, so this is their first project. The first six months was overcoming a lot of hurdles, the year since has been getting better and more polished with every weekly build.
DIY: What does the future hold?
ZJ: I’m still enjoying doing [Kingdom of Loathing], and I’ll continue to do it as long as there are people interested in it, and I feel everyone else feels that too. Everyone is sort of thrilled this is what we get to do for a living. Just kind of keep on trucking.
Anyone interested in trying the game can sign up (for free) at kingomdofloathing.com.