The Game Archaeologist's fear and loathing in the Kingdom: Interrogating Mr. Skullhead

I'm sure that after last week's introduction to our Kingdom of Loathing retrospective, many of you out there were going, "What? What is this tomfoolery? Where are my three-dee em em ohs?" Yet I guard a tiny flicker of hope in my heart that a reader or two out there felt their curiosity tingle, then burn, then spontaneously combust as he or she gave KoL a shot.

In contrast to many of the other MMOs we play today, Kingdom of Loathing is downright old-school in terms of development and staff. There's no huge company here, no six floors of cubicles or corporate softball leagues. There's just a handful of gamers and writers who turned a pet project into a long-running success.

Today I got the privilege of putting Josh "Mr. Skullhead" Nite to the question, and it was a treat to end all treats. An armageddon treat, if you will. So what's it like being one of the masterminds behind the most insane MMO in the world? And are the stories of its boozy origins true? Hit the jump and find out!
Massively: Please introduce yourself, your position at KoL, and why you are, in so many words, all that.


Josh Nite:
Well, I'm a man of wealth and taste, and I... OK, my name is Joshua Nite, I'm 33 years old, and I'm a writer and developer for KoL (we don't have a very formal structure).

I've been Zack ["Jick" Johnson]'s friend since high school, where we bonded at the nerd table before we were expelled from the nerd table and forced to strike out on our own. When Jick went off to college (he's a year older than I am), we stayed in touch by writing these incredibly complex, joke-filled, pun-tastic emails, always trying to out-clever each other. It was a long flirtation that helped us develop the shared comedic voice that KoL's written in.

So when Jick started working on KoL, he asked me to help create content. He said he thought it might be something we could get a little beer money out of, if things went right.

I'm chiefly a writer. Occasionally, I'll suggest gameplay mechanics, but for the most part my job is to write flavor text over the mechanic structures Zack, Kevin, and Chris create. So when you're fighting a skeleton with a mop and he "hits you with an armbone. The effect is far from humerus," the pain you feel in your frontal lobe is my fault.

What kind of working relationship do you and Zack share?

One marred by continual sexual harassment. Er, by "marred" I mean "enhanced." Seriously, though, mostly we get along like old friends. He comes up with stuff for me to write, I write it, and we're still trying to crack each other up.

What were some of the challenges to getting this project off the ground?

My chief challenge was making sure my day job didn't notice I was spending 80% of my time at work writing for the game.

Is the game still in beta, and if so, is that an in-joke?

I don't think it'll ever be out of beta, because it's too much fun to keep developing it. I don't think the game will ever be "finished" so long as there are people enjoying playing it. Also, declaring it's in beta makes it OK when we roll something out that's bugged or broken and have to fix it. :-)

You advertise the game as free with voluntary donations (Mr. A and Mr. Eh accessories). Without pressing for financial info, does this translate into a full-time paying job, cover the expenses of running the project, or simply add a bit of pocket change here and there? Why did you choose this business model?

We have a full-time staff of five, plus a couple of independent contractors. As soon as Zack put the donate link up, the game started paying for itself and gradually became all of our day jobs.

When we suggested other revenue models to our playerbase back in 2005, they told us "keep the game free, and we'll keep donating, but if you start charging for stuff, we're out of here." So we trusted them. I mean, we were uncomfortable with the idea of accepting ads and equally uncomfortable with making content inaccessible to people who didn't pay, so it was nice that the way we wanted the business to work actually worked.

Some people donate to collect every item, some people donate only when they like the item a particular month, some donate multiple times a month just because they like us, and a lot of players don't donate at all, but it works. Every passionate player is valuable, donator or not, since the game maintains its popularity through word of mouth alone.

KoL is greatly known for its puns and pop culture references -- which ones are you the most proud of? Which reference is the most obscure, in your opinion?

There are a few utterly gratuitous references that are in-jokes between me and Zack; I'd have to say those are the most obscure. Of my own stuff, I like it when I can roll together a bunch of references into a single description, like all the James Bond movie titles in the hippy/frat war adventures.

The most fun writing, though, is when the narrator (whoever the guy is who's describing all these items to you) gets into arguments with himself, or the reader, or provides a little too much information, like in this description of a huge pumpkin:

How many words do you think comprise the totality of KoL at this point?

Given mine and Riff's penchant for long-windedness, I'm betting several novels' worth.

What's the secret to KoL's longevity? What's it like running an MMO for so many years?


Two things, I think: The first is that we're constantly developing the game, so it stays fresh. The second is that we somehow lucked into an amazing community whose enthusiasm sustains our enthusiasm and vice versa. It's a little weird to think how long we've been at this, no joke; I just met a kid who was 16 years old and had been playing KoL for the last six years. He grew up playing this game!

What's your favorite enemy in the game? Your favorite class? Your favorite item?

Oddly enough, my favorite enemy and item descriptions were both written by Zack. My favorite enemy description is the skullbat. It's a masterpiece of economy of comedy:

"This is pretty creepy -- it's a bat with a skull instead of a body. Most bats have skulls in addition to their body, but, y'know."

And my favorite item description is Zack's, too, from the coffin lid:

"This is the lid of a coffin. One side is covered with dirt, and one side is covered with scratches. From this, you conclude that somebody must've really wanted to get their hands on the dirt that was inside that coffin."

My favorite class is still the Sauceror. Good joke, massive spell-slinging ability, and sauciness. What's not to like?

"Ascension freed us to develop the beginning and middle of the game, knowing that every player who chose to could see that new content."

Could you comment on the Ascension feature and why you decided to incorporate it into the game?

So Zack and I were sitting in the bar one night, talking about how to end the game after you defeated the Naughty Sorceress, and I said, "You should be able to start over again, only with everything harder, like in Super Mario Bros. And you could maybe choose to not eat, or not drink, or do both. That way, it's worth playing at least twice."

Zack saw even more potential than I did; he knew that constant restarting would save us from having to develop higher and higher-level content to keep players interested. Ascension freed us to develop the beginning and middle of the game, knowing that every player who chose to could see that new content.

I think we were surprised at how Ascension complicated and enriched gameplay, what with speed runs and stunt runs and whatnot. It really took KoL from something you'd play through once to enjoy the content to something you'd play through hundreds of times and have it be a different experience each time.

KoL has built up quite a unique community -- what do you think makes your players special? What community-led events have rocked you back on your heels in awe?

Anybody who is passionate about our game is going to share our love of wordplay and pop culture. I mean, you have to -- it's not like you play because you love eye-popping visuals or knuckle-biting action. So I think our community's a little smarter and a little funnier than your average internet citizen. We've met some amazing, fantastic people over the years. Some have moved on, some are still around, but I'm in touch with a lot of them.

We've been consistently blown away by the KoLumbus event. Those guys put a metric ton of work into making a great event. A few years ago, they hosted a Bugbear Bazaar, where crafters could sell KoL-themed wares. I spent a good chunk of my discretionary income there, buying glass, clay, and even yarn replicas of the crazy stuff Zack and I dreamed up.

How often do you update the game? Do you have any plans you'd like to share about KoL's future?

The update pace tends to change, but we try and have something new for people to look at at least once a month, be it a new little zone or a mechanical tweak or two. Right now, we're feverishly redesigning the beginning of the game, making it match the newer content more. Turns out, anything we haven't updated is over six years old now! Who knew?

If you could go back in time to visit yourself at the beginning of KoL's run, what advice would you share to make things easier?

"Don't read the forums." Nah, just kidding. Maybe, "Don't take criticism on the forums as some kind of indictment of your artistic work."

Years from now, when you look back at the craziness of running this game, what do you think you'll be the most proud of accomplishing?

I think I'm proudest of the ways the game has influenced the people who play it. We've been responsible for at least a dozen weddings and for hundreds of nerds coming out of their shells and socializing with each other. We've inspired some fantastic art, several songs, a short film, a documentary, and even some truly unfortunate fanfic.

And, y'know, it's been my livelihood for five years to write jokes and pop cultural references and to travel around the country (and the U.K. at times) meeting awesome people and drinking beer with them. That's pretty excellent.

Thank you!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.