Thursday, May 8, 2014

Lessons from Kingdom of Loathing

Kingdom of Loathing is a clever game disguised as a stupid game. It's even more than that! You may or may not have heard of it before, but I'm going to discuss how it's helped me with Fundamental Principles school failed to impress into me.

KoL's taught me a lot of things, from practical applications of economics to how people work together in projects to how to update a game or deal with feedback, to lessons of just plain generosity and decency. It's helped me build my own games, when it didn't suck too much time away. I was amused to see that someone else also quit because it took too much time.

Plus Mr. Skullhead, the head Funny Text Guy (IIRC) sent me a nice mail back after I told him basically this--that I needed to move on, and his going ahead with a comic book was way cool. But I was glad to support other projects, and I didn't regret my donations for those lovely Mr. A's that let you buy Items of the Month.

I came back. They added new gadgets. I remembered people, and people remembered me. I have to say that a full-blown MMORPG would be too much for me, but Loathing--well, it's quite a place. You can explore it without exploring it on the fan-maintained wiki. Or, if you like, it's on Here's the funny bits, or the best of them.

If you haven't played for a few years, it's a totally different looking game now, and not just because Jick's stick figures have gotten retouched extensively. The sea is (finally) complete.

Spoilers for KoL and Randy Pausch's Last Lecture are below the cut and potentially TLDR. It devolves into a story, but I hope the main point isn't lost, that--you have a funny cool idea and there's always room for development. Sharing that idea can inspire others to do so.

If you've read Randy Pausch's Last Lecture, you'll read that the best learning is done when you're learning something else. And in KoL, first it was just nailing down an allusion in the game text, or watching a movie KoL referred to several times. You know, the sort I should've seen back in my teens, and everyone said YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THAT, but I never did. (Note: store names in the mall gave me lots to catch up on, too.) Maybe it was looking up a pop culture quote and saying, oh, that's where it came from.

I also learned lessons about generosity, too, from the "antiraffles" held in the /games channel. That's where someone might sell, say, eleven Sleazy Hi Mein (retail: 4700 meat) for 100 meat, then a winner gets another prize. This works well for recruiting and keeping newbies. It got me in. I'm not a naturally generous person, but once I figured ways to profit in the mall, I wanted to pass the virtual $$$ on.

The most game design-relevant items, though, were the updates. KoL has offered a stream of goodies, making the game a bit better or fairer as they see what players do.

KoL was extremely random to start out. People would play it, laugh, and move on. However, it was just kind of fun, and that was that. Then they added ascension (restarting at level 1 with your own items but a new "permed" skill to beat the Naughty Sorceress again--so you could, say, perm a Turtle Tamer skill and take it with you as a Sauceror,) two more level quests (which drove some people away. Their loss,) and PvP.

I first stepped in when the Nemesis Quest had been completed, February 2010. This was in the works for a few years. I had no clue what was going on, or what people were talking about, but I found out. The basic structure is, you make an Epic Weapon for your class, then a Legendary Epic Weapon after beating some baddies including your nemesis's first form, then an Ultimate Legendary Epic Weapon for the big final nemesis fight!

Each class has a separate string of mini-puzzles to get to your nemesis, so there's motivation to ascend to try something new. The ULEW is a quest item (disappears on ascension) but you get a new familiar (a pet of sorts) who stays no matter what your class.

Stuff like this is what made me stay and want to try new things. I followed other progress like reorganizing the quests from level 2 to level 7 (they're at 11 now. The steady pace they modify things is impressive. You can't go too fast, of course. Things need to be tested for bugs and fairness.) The level 2 quest consisted of getting lucky with completely random noncombats before but became something where you could choose your way through a 3x3 path. The market for Spooky-Gro Fertilizer crashed that night, and my profiteering self took a bath in the marketplace, but I didn't care much. The game had become fairer, and to me, the update was nicer than a flashy sequel.

I really was about to leave until the Valhalla update. This flexibility allowed for so much planning. You see, there are two modes: hardcore and softcore. Skills can be permed softcore and hardcore. Before March 2011, you could only perm a skill hardcore if you made a hardcore run. Hardcore runs were, well, hard. If you permed a skill softcore, then permed it hardcore, you then wasted a softcore run, sort of.

But the Valhalla update wasn't just an update. It was an EVENT. Previously useless items became critical to defeat enemies up to the Bonestar and get rare one-time item drops that would help later in farming or competitive speed ascensions. And it gave the player flexibility--one hardcore perm/ascension = two softcore perm/ascensions. You didn't have to perm anything in your class. You could upgrade another skill, or save your "karma" for a class you particularly hated but needed to perm skills in You could also ease into HC.

I'd actually started my first HC run a month or two before (first HC 6-dayer, thanks to Feast of Boris and, well, Item of the Month (IotM) power creep. Though I took more turns than several 7-dayers) as a Disco Bandit, which was the only way to do so without pulling your hair out. I even went Bad Moon Black Cat. But I was still glad to hear the news secondhand that there would be an update.

Two months later, the devs introduced the Challenge Path. You take on certain restrictions to get a higher karma bonus (50% more) and also to see new content. Bees Hate You, Way of the Surprising Fist and, for Crimbo (when nobody wants to ascend too much, since we're fighting scaling monsters for experience and copping their limited-time treasure,) the Trendy challenge path, where limited-time items no longer can be used. So even the "bummer" worked to people's advantage.

And it was replaced by probably the biggest story upgrade to the game: the Avatar of Boris path.
 AoB, as it became known, featured the patron saint of muscle classes (Seal Clubber and Turtle Tamer.) It encouraged people who used the safer moxie classes to try something tougher. It had new text, a new story--and new skills to choose from that lasted until Boris rescued King Ralph. Boris could eat a lot, but drinking--not so much. The ascension quests ended, not fighting the Naughty Sorceress, but fighting the Avatar of Sneaky Pete--patron saint of moxie classes. Then, the next ascension, you started with more skills to choose right away. At 18 skills to start, you got the permanent Request Sandwich skill, a play on Boris's Demand Sandwich.

As you can see, this also opened up the prospect of Avatar of Jarlsberg (mysticality, Pastamancer and Sauceror) and Avatar of Sneaky Pete (Disco Bandit and Accordion Thief) paths. The devs were smart to space them both out until after Crimbo and the "bummer paths," (clever in their own right--you only have your current class's skills) and they also allowed a quasi-IotM that let you start with more skills ASAP. Good business--people competing on the speed boards didn't have to ascend 20 times to start with maximum skills. I bought one to get started on AoJ, since myst classes are toughest. But I learned to appreciate the power of myst classes as I played.

KoL just continually expands, both laterally and forwardly--the Bounty Hunter Hunter, which once made you take 200 days for the powerful Transcendent Olfaction skill (and which could mess you over in obscure ways before a string of updates) now can be done in 67 or less if you're willing to pay, due to another thoughtful redesign. Annoying UI gets fixed in trivial updates. Players are willing to put up with temporary nuisances for the funny writing and the intense planning. Players who suffered through the old BHH were glad to see the updates.

While I was away, KoL even gave double the skills, though most of the new ones are a bit weaker or just don't apply if you ascend as another class, and nerfed the overpowered ones. It was good to see when I came back. They even partially fixed the economy by blocking some of the more mercenary meatfarming methods.

It's great to be able to watch KoL expand and answer various questions even if I don't have the time to play it, and seeing how its authors polish the product inspires me to do so with mine, whether it's released or not. When I look at the changes KoL has made, it's not just academically saying to myself, this is how you Get Better. I remember how I felt before the changes and after, and if I have those feelings (from this is yucky" to "this'd be nice to fix but I don't see how") about my own work and others', I can apply the appropriate example. The changes are generally elegant enough that you can see the planning that went into it. I really appreciate how KoL's writers haven't sat on their butts--well, except to do their coding and writing. It inspires me like no motivational speech ever could. Their work made me happy, and maybe mine can make others happy.

Maybe you have your own game/work to analyze and draw inspiration from, but for me, KoL is so stripped down to the essentials--no fancy graphics or text--that I can concentrate on the abstract ideas. The humor makes sure the abstract ideas don't feel abstract.

Maybe I'll write my ideas about KoLMafia later--it's an automated interface to KoL. It helped me enjoy the game without the nagging repetitive stuff, and I had some moral dilemmas with that. I think it also helps the KoL devs make complex, interesting puzzles and lets the user adjust his experience based on how much he wants to automate. There's more, though. I'll see if it's worth sharing.


  1. I tried KoL for a bit, but didn't get too far into it. Since then I stumbled into Storynexus and Fallen London (is it okay to say I'm not hugest fan of Fallen London?) I think i'm just too impatient to wait for the turns to recharge.

    1. I wind up with too many turns these days on KoL. Mail me your ID# if you're still registered/remember it and I'll throw you some goodies. The quests make so much more sense now, too.

      If I got any more turns per day it'd be a complete time sink. As I understand, KoL and FL share similar turn-recharge mechanisms.