Indie game news, reviews, previews and everything else concerning indie game development.


On One’s Own: Kingdom of Loathing

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?


On One’s Own: For the Love of Community

UrbanDeadPlayOn 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.

The community that surrounds the indie game scene is one that leaves most mainstream titles with saliva dripping from their slack jaws. The same can be said of their publishers. But what makes the indie community so, dare I say, special when compared to the more mainstream audience? It is certainly a hard quality to pin down, but the kind of dedication that an indie game enthusiast has is most obvious when taking a look at independent massively multiplayer online games.

Which is a bit of a mouthful. But indie MMOs have been around for a long time, longer even than the term “indie” has been attached to any form of gaming. It all began with programs referred to as multi-user dungeons, or MUDs. They were the precursors to any form of MMO and almost universally designed, implemented and distributed by a single person. There were many variants and some were meant more for other utilities rather than gaming, but derivatives popped up over the years until someone finally made it into a commercially viable product.

But that has not stopped would-be developers from answering the call to make their own versions of whatever fantasy realm they have rocketing around inside their cranium. MUDs were just the beginning, but they showcased the ability of one developer to riff on the mechanics of another. This tradition continues to this day and has bred an entirely new kind of indie game: the browser-based MMO.

udnpWith our subject matter clearly outlined, it becomes only a problem of dissecting the reasons behind the unique community of gamers created around them. It sounds a lot simpler than it actually is. One thing that a number of indie browser-based MMOs do have in common in terms of community is the metagame that surrounds them. Which is exactly as confusing as it sounds.

The metagame is the sphere of knowledge from outside of the strict boundaries of any given game. As an example, if you play chess against your best friend ten times a day and he constantly uses a strategy that ends with a checkmate in four moves and you then deliberately attempt to thwart the same maneuver before there are any obvious signs of it, you are metagaming. Anything used in a game that isn’t expressly from the game, including knowledge, tools and other such things, are considered to fall under the metagame.

Urban Dead is one of the most obvious candidates for both being an offspring from the traditional MUD and for having a compelling metagame. The game is played out in a grid of maps which consist of more grids. Each building has unique names and there only so many malls located in certain suburbs which serve as hubs of activity. Did I mention zombies? The whole idea is that the city of Malton saw an outbreak of zombies which then lead to a quarantine. Not overly creative in terms of premise, but the game continues to be played five years later. Survivors kill zombies while trying to, well, survive and zombies attempt to bring the “barhah” and eat “harmanz.”

In true indie fashion, it was designed, programmed and implemented by a single person: Kevan Davis. If that wasn’t impressive enough, the stats certainly are. The frontpage tells us that there are “1,162,854 dead and rising” and Davis has briefly stated in his online resume that there are 40,000 or more human-controlled characters out there. The first is probably just a counter of sorts with the second being more of an active number, but either way the enormity of it is a bit staggering.

KoLMainScreen.previewPeople have played Urban Dead for years even though content updates have been few and far between. The last actual update to gameplay was months ago and it was almost certainly a tweak to preexisting code. It isn’t all that unusual in the game to wander around and spot characters sitting on thousands of XP because they are already maxed out. To a person new to the game, it might seem incredibly repetitive and not worth the time invested. While it might be incredibly repetitive, the time invested is really only worth what you make of it. The game isn’t that interesting but if you become involved in the metagame, your options expand drastically.

See, Urban Dead has been a simplistic experience since beginning in 2005. It didn’t take long for people to get tired of the old paradigm of shoot, kill, revive and shoot again. As is natural in these kinds of games, people began killing each other even when they weren’t supposed to do so. Player-killers, or PKers, began to manifest in greater and greater numbers. That is, until someone decided to beat them at their own game.

Players took it upon themselves to create a tool to track, kill and then ‘rehabilitate’ PKers in Malton. In a lot of ways, it is just a justification for other players to take part in the PKing but that doesn’t seem to faze those involved. The Rogues Gallery, as it’s called, is a tool designed to allow for players to report the slaying of innocents, their own bounty claims and track the last known locations for any of those on the list. Even though the tool itself is down at current, the forum is still going strong with reports for all such things.

And it’s not like Urban Dead is alone in its metagame. Other browser-based MMOs, like Dark Grimoire or Kingdom of Loathing, share its MUD ancestry and multiple projects being created by fans. The Kingdom of Loathing actually has a multitude of players who have since become developers after creating scripts, sites and various tools for the community. They vary in usefulness but, as an example, if you ever want to know what pop culture references are being made, there’s a site for that.

cow00Kingdom of Loathing is one of those rare sites that allow scripting, bots and other such shenanigans as long as it doesn’t produce any noticeable lag. As long as the bot clicks at about the rate a human would, all is kosher. So a number of amateur and professional developers have taken to building Greasemonkey, Java and Perl scripts to play the game for them. Machines that play games for us sure sounds like progress to me.

This, in a roundabout manner, is how we come to the conclusion that the indie community will often see a game and actually think, “Huh, I could totally do that.” This isn’t at all scientific and mostly conjecture, but I would wager that the majority of players actually have the game designer mentality and a smaller number actually have the ability to implement their own functions. This leads to a certain appreciation on a level that most mainstream audiences don’t have with larger titles: a peer to peer one.

So it’s not really a quality of the players but more of a mindset. They don’t view it entirely as a producer-consumer relationship but instead view it as one colleague would the work of another. This is also why there are so many derivatives of these games out there. Urban Dead certainly has its share of knockoffs, even though it is fairly derivative of an older vampire game itself, and Kingdom of Loathing actually has a number of fan-made games that experiment in the same style. Even if one out of ten is a success, the unique relationship will continue. And that’s what makes the indie scene what it is.