The Game Archaeologist's fear and loathing in the Kingdom: Joshing with Jick

Here at the Game Archaeologist Labs, we've been dissecting just what it takes to make a hit MMO that defies normal conventions -- a homemade startup that loves its wordplay long time even in an age when only about 12% of internet forum posters are fully literate. Kingdom of Loathing is an anomaly for all these reasons and more, and yet it's succeeded when MMOs boasting $100+ million budgets have bit the dust.

Like Batman and Robin, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Taco Bell and grease, and "That's what" and "she said," the two creators of Kingdom of Loathing are absolutely inseparable. Where there is Jick, there is Mr. Skullhead, and vice-versa. The pair comprise the public face of the game and are so adored by Kingdom of Loathing's fans that I received a ransom note the other day telling me that I'd never see my cat again if I didn't lavish enough praise on the duo. This was weird to me, as I don't own a cat, but that's neither here nor there.

In our final week of plumbing the depths of Kingdom of Loathing, I had the pleasure of probing Zack "Jick" Johnson's mind, and I haven't quite recovered yet. I have looked into the abyss, and it looked into me -- and winked. Oh, you flirty abyss!

So let's do this thing -- hit the jump and find out just what makes KoL tick from the inside out!

The Game Archaeologist: So who, like, are you?

Zack Johnson: I'm Zack Johnson, the founder and CEO of Asymmetric Publications and the creator of KoL.

So how did Kingdom of Loathing get started? What prompted you to create the best stick-figure MMO of all time?

In 2003, I had quit a soulless, cubicle-bound IT job to go back to college and get a liberal arts degree, so I had a lot of spare time in which to indulge my nerd urges in a less sterile environment. I spent some of that time looking for a low-fi multiplayer web game that actually had some content to it and wasn't just a PvP-focused make-numbers-get-bigger game. I didn't find one, so I decided to just make one myself.

I knew just enough about web programming and just enough about system administration that it was technically plausible. I figured that I was a passable enough writer that I wouldn't have to worry too much about content, and the art -- well, people had told me it was cute.

I knew that if I took the project seriously, I'd never finish it. So I gave myself the goal of making a silly game in a week and releasing it to the world to see what would happen. The result of that week was KoL in its larval form.

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

As the thing grew and got more popular, there were two main vectors along which it was challenging.

The first was dealing with the traffic. Every few weeks, we'd get picked up by some news site, and there'd be another flood of players coming in, grinding the servers to a halt. Moving from shared hosting to a dedicated box, then to multiple dedicated boxes, then having to buy a rack of servers and get them set up in a local colo -- it required me to learn a lot on the fly. Eventually I was able to hire people to worry about that stuff for me, and boy do I not miss it.

The second was taking something that was primarily a joke and turning it into something that was an actual balanced and playable game. This one continues to be a thing we have to spend a lot of energy on. Striking a balance between KoL as an artistic endeavor that we're proud of and KoL as a game that's fun for people who like to focus on the numbers and the mechanics -- it keeps us on our toes, and it's kind of exhausting at times.

What are your main responsibilities on KoL? Who does the writing, drawing and coding?

At this point, I provide the overall direction. I do about a quarter of the writing, a quarter of the coding, and almost all of the artwork. Our processes are pretty fluid and subject to the vagaries of whatever we feel like working on at the time.

What kind of working relationship do the two of you share?

We've been friends since high school and have now worked together for most of our adult lives, and we've gone through a lot of different phases. Now that Josh has a family and lives across the country from me, there's a little more "trying to make time to hang out" and a little less of the free-wheeling brainstorming at the bar, but the weekly podcast we do helps us to keep in touch on a social level.

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

It's kind of the curse of the MMO -- it's never done. I'm not sure if the "beta" aspect is a joke or not. In a way, I kinda feel like removing the label would change things in my head and make me feel like I couldn't keep approaching it the way I do. It makes it seem like less of a sacred cow, I guess, and makes me less afraid to shake things up.

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

That was Josh's idea, and it was a fantastic one -- I don't think I had ever encountered the NEW GAME+ thing in an MMO before, and it suited us perfectly. The fact that people are making their way through the game over and over again allows us to focus our development efforts in an across-the-board way that benefits everybody. We don't have the typical MMO problem of having to spend a bunch of time working on endgame content that only a small portion of extremely dedicated players will ever see.

You advertise the game as free with voluntary donations (Mr. A and Mr. Eh accessories). Without pressing for financial info, can we ask: 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?

KoL's donation revenue is currently sufficient to support a full-time staff and a second team working on a new game. I feel like we were extremely fortunate to have launched when we did and to have gotten the critical mass in the beginning that makes it possible for this to be a career instead of just a hobby.

As far as choosing the business model, I'm not sure there was ever a moment when I made a choice about it. A couple of months in, the hosting bills were starting to cost more than I was comfortable paying out of pocket, so I put up a link to ask for donations to offset the cost. A player suggested, "Hey, why don't you give donators an in-game reward?" and I figured "Hey, why not, it couldn't hurt." To my surprise and delight, it was pretty much instantly profitable. I was still processing the donations by hand for quite a while -- the revenue model was really kind of an afterthought.

After it got to the point where I was able to comfortably and safely quit my day job (and finally start paying Josh, who had been diligently working for free for several months), I started offering the monthly specials, which caused another surge in income and allowed me to hire an office manager, another writer/designer, and another programmer. Since then we've added a full-time customer service/abuse-tracking position and part-time forum and chat-moderation supervisors.

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

I read a quote from the Mystery Science Theater guys at one point where they talked about how even if there was only one guy out there who got a joke they made, it was worth it, because it was gonna be great for that guy. That's kind of the approach we take -- we're writing this stuff to amuse each other, and the fact that it amuses the audience too is a happy accident.

The neat thing about having such a smart playerbase is that nothing is so obscure that it won't find an audience at all. It affords us the opportunity to get a casual, Wikipedia-level knowledge of a lot of different fields, so that we can write a bunch of dumb one-liners about whatever random subject we've picked.

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

I wish our tools made it easier for me to answer this, because I'm kind of curious about it myself. Several novels' worth, at a guess.

The ease with which we can produce content is definitely one of our biggest strengths as a company. Especially Josh -- that dude can produce high-quality writing at a pace so fast it's kinda spooky. We're never short on ideas; we're just constantly short on time to implement them.

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

I attribute the longevity to our relationship with the playerbase. It's stressful at times (Internet forums can be extremely cruel), but we try to make ourselves very accessible to our customers -- listening to what they want and trying to give them what they need.

As far as what it has been like? Amazing. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I can't imagine a job that would be more fulfilling.

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

We recently added the 1,000th monster to the game, and we're edging up to the 5,000th item. I'm gonna take the easy way out of this one and say that I love them all equally, mostly because I don't have time to look through the entire lists right now... :)

I think the Pastamancer is my favorite class. You wouldn't believe how many different varieties of pasta there are in the world.

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

For whatever reason, KoL draws a smart, kind, and thoughtful crowd. If you compare our chat and our forums to some of the wastelands attached to other games out there, it really makes you realize how cool our people are. Our official conventions and the numerous fan-run meet-ups are always fantastic, and we almost never have to call the cops.

As far as fan projects, I think Radio KoL is the thing that's the most impressive to me. A Shoutcast station (remember those?) manned by volunteers from the playerbase, 24-hours-a-day for over six years now.

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

KoL gets updated on at least a weekly basis. Because we do it all sort of seat-of-the-pants, the pace of updates varies a little depending on the size of the projects we're excited about at the moment, but I feel like if we're not constantly updating it, we're not doing our jobs.

As far as the future, we've been working on a significant PvP revamp off and on for the last couple of years. I'd really like it if we could eventually get that thing off the ground, because that's an area in which the game is really lacking at this point.

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 take criticism personally. It took me a while to come to terms with the way people treat you on the Internet if you're in charge of something they feel strongly about. If you're going to make yourself available to your fans, you have to have a pretty thick skin and learn not to focus too much on what people say when they're in moments of indignation about a decision you've made.

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 just being able to say of this period of time, however long it lasts, "I made video games for a living." Every day it strikes me how lucky I am that this is what I get to do with my life.

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 or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.