Why people play “Kingdom of Loathing”

This post is about a game, Kingdom of Loathing (KoL), and what I’ve learned about how the game works and how it motivates people to keep playing.  Despite this dry analysis, the game itself is very funny.

I have a “systems approach” to games, which I think means that I play them to understand the game dynamics.  However, although I’ve played for a while I am not an expert–as you’ll see below, this game is designed so that you could spend months of solid effort trying to understand how the game works.  This game is a trap for systems thinkers.

KoL is a “free, comical RPG.”  You can be one of six character classes: two are muscle-types, two are mysticality-types, and two are moxie-types.  For example, one myst class is a “Sauceror” that can cast spells like “Stream of Sauce.”  You have three corresponding primary stats, Muscle, Myst, and Moxie.

There are two big signals that this game is complex:

  1. It has a wiki, TheKolWiki, that currently has 8,599 wiki page entries including a chart of the best food to eat by main stat gain.  (Side note, “old school” wikis such as the original WikiWiki used StudlyCaps to indicate wiki pages.  I am guessing it is not a coincidence that TheKolWiki is written in StudlyCaps.) 
  2. There exists a front-end client, KoLMafia.  KoLMafia is designed for advanced players.  It automates many parts of the game such as adventuring, crafting materials, and shopping.
The high-level game looks something like this:
  1. Create a character and choose your class
  2. Level the character and complete all quests until you complete the final quest and defeat The Naughty Sorceress
  3. Gather other resources if desired, e.g. farm for meat (the currency) or items
  4. “Ascend” (i.e. start over), gaining some sort of benefit for ascending.  Optionally, choose to make your next game more difficult to receive additional benefits.  You can choose a different class.  Go to step 2.

Rewards

Here are the high-level rewards (as I understand) for playing–the things that motivate people to continue playing:

  • “In-club” rewards such as the “haiku” chat channel for people who complete a haiku challenge in the game.  By “in-club,” I mean you are recognized as being cool or part of an elite sub-group.  There are hundreds of these types of rewards–everything from access to special chat channels to membership in prestigious clans like “Noblesse Oblige” to special items like “phish sticks” awarded to players who had accounts during a phishing scam and then changed their passwords.
  • “In-club” knowledge, such as knowing it’s called “KoL” or that Hagnk’s Ancestral Mini-Storage was once hit by a chunk of comet.  This knowledge you can use on the KoL Forum, in KoL in-game chat rooms, or other places where KoL folk hang out.  This also relates to a fundamental element of KoL: puns and inside jokes such as the “Piano Cat” familiar or an in-game Soul Coughing reference.
  • Trophies and collections, to show people or yourself how much you’ve done in the game, or how much cool stuff you have.
  • Smarter ways to play for people who put the time and/or cash money into it.  As you ascend, you can “perm” skills that you’ve gotten with each ascension: skills like Mad Looting Skillz (+20% item drops).  You can also buy items with cash money, or with “meat,” that help you play.  Please see “equipment,” below.
  • Knowledge is greatly rewarded.  There are food and drink recipes you can learn, which give you more turns per day to play.  You can learn good secret places to “farm” for items or you can find some trick to level your character more quickly.  The game rewards knowledge, but also other players reward knowledge.  The game has self-selected players that like knowledge.  This is part of the “systems thinking” trap–this game is designed with facets within facets so that you would have great difficulty learning, for example, what’s the best item to make with a Tome of Clip Art.  In this example, you’d need to understand all the possible items you could create, their effects, why you’re using the effect and whether it would be cheaper to buy something instead from the mall (or if you just want something should you instead sell a created item to the mall), etc., etc.
  • Longevity.  As you’ve been around longer, you have the option of getting equipment that’s phased out.  There are also many things that you can only do a limited number of times per day, e.g. get filthy lucre from the Bounty Hunter Hunter, so only people who have played regularly for a LONG time have access to certain items.
KoL is designed so that additional elements are added all the time to bolster these rewards.  The Tome of Clip Art, which introduced dozens of new items and play possibilities, was added in fall 2011.   New trophies are created.  Smarter ways of playing (perhaps relying on new items or item combinations or new play areas) are introduced over time.

Equipment

KoL has MANY, MANY options for items, grouped into categories including (but not limited to):

  • clothing (hats, pants, accessories, and shirts–if you have the Torso Awaregness skill)
  • weapons
  • familiars (creatures that help you fight, or farm for meat, or do a host of other things)
  • food and booze
How do you get this equipment?
  • monster drops: when you beat a monster, or when you use a skill on a monster such as Pickpocket.
  • “semi-rare” adventures: every ~100 adventures.  There are formulae depending on what kind of run you are on.  One of KoLMafia’s many features is that it tracks your next semi-rare adventure.
  • ultra-rare adventures
  • quest/adventure outputs: you get items when you complete certain quests
  • existing: you get gifts on your KoL birthdays or on certain other occasions
  • holidays: there are in-game holidays where you can get special items
  • gifts: you can give and receive gifts from people
  • Bounty Hunter Hunter items: you can earn “filthy lucre” (one per day) for completing Bounty Hunter Hunter quests, and when you have enough lucre (200 for the Manual of Transcendent Olfaction) you can get special Bounty Hunter Hunter items
  • buying it with cash money: there is a store called Mr. Store where you can buy Mr. A’s for $10 USD and then trade Mr. A’s for other items.  In probably the smartest monetization of gaming, most of the items you can trade for (sometimes called Mr. Store items) are replaced monthly.  For example, according to the wiki, in January 2005 (only) you could trade for an “orphan baby yeti.”  The only people who have these yetis in the game now are people who traded for them in January 2005, or whoever won first prize in a raffle in 2008, or whoever bought these items (with meat) from the people who had them.
  • buying it with meat: there is a mall, where players can set up stores and sell most of their items.  (Some items are marked non-tradeable.)  To get meat, you can buy it–$10 USD Mr. A’s currently sell for around 10 million meat–or you can earn it–150k meat/day is a good haul (for me).  (This means your meat farming earns you around 15 cents/day.)  Some people “play the market” with the KoL mall, by buying cheap items and then selling them for more money later.
Each type of equipment can give you bonuses, and there are outfits if you wear certain combinations of hat/pants/etc.  Mr. Store items help you much more than “free” items, with the exception of some ultra-rare items or special reward items.
Notably, when you ascend, you can choose to play in a “hardcore” mode, or not.  If you play in hardcore mode you don’t have access to any of your old equipment EXCEPT YOUR FAMILIARS.  I think this makes familiars extra popular, because “really awesome” players play in hardcore mode or some even more hardcore version of hardcore mode such as a Bad Moon run.

Conclusion

Even here, I can’t capture the high-level gameplay in under 1000 words.  The KoL designers are brilliant, and I am sure they make good money with how they’ve designed Mr. Store and the mall.  This game attracts really smart people, and keeps them hooked. I broke my addiction most recently by reading a great walkthrough that called for ~$500 USD worth of items for “optimal” play.  I have now broken my addiction twice (so far) but keep getting tempted to play again and learn more and write my own KoLMafia scripts and play the KoL mall and buy Mr. Store items that I can sell in a couple of years to others.

I guess my simplest conclusion would be, if you have some time to kill and like puns, try playing Kingdom of Loathing, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you can find an “optimal” strategy for playing the game.  It’s misleadingly complex.

  • Interesting review angle. I’ve played for 3 years and never thought about the mechanics. I don’t do the forums or the social side of the game at all. I just love the “Zork”-like feel to it and all the naughty humor. It also does a great job of fannishly poking fun at geek- and pop culture. Thanks for sharing a look at the other side. Nicely written.

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