Extensions of Interactive Fiction to the Social Sphere: Zork to the Kingdom of Loathing
by Brett E. Shelton

Act 1: The Underground Empire

I used to walk the road through the forest, more of a path, actually, two lines created by old tires with grass and saplings growing between the parallel trails. At one point the road takes a bend to the left, going further into the canopy of western white pines that are scabbed with yellowing clumps of old sap. Traveling under the tall thin trees, munching layers of dry pine needles underfoot, you can hear the scolding of rival chipmunks to the shaded area in the east, the sun not visible through the trees in the southwestern sky. And moving further down the old road it stops abruptly. A mysterious end to a former road that I wasn’t sure why existed in the first place.1

But here, if one heads west winding through the trees and is careful not to step through anything that might look like poison oak, you will come upon an old abandoned car. It’s really a body of a car, sitting in the middle of the forest, still bluish from what was probably its original color, but now speckled white, grey and rusty with who knows how many seasons of exposure. There’s no glass nor tires, just the empty cocoon for any number of forest animals that have called it home over the years. Looking around its setting reveals a large number of trees in front, behind, and on either side of the vehicle. It’s as if somewhere, sometime the car was magically deposited to the spot. Was it dropped from a plane in some sort of fantastic D.B. Cooper kind of caper? Were these mature trees transplanted to this spot, which somehow was a common road traveled by ancient Oldsmobiles or Buicks?

Once you manage to move from the old state highway through ancient rangeland and into the forest, moving further west will take you from the forest into a small clearing. A small house sits at the far end of a path, with what looks like a two story cottage with few visitors, prepared for the feet of snow that will come in the winter. On the other side of the house is an old flagpole, flying no colors but having a weathered thin rope that may still be usable to raise and lower a bounty. Standing here, on the west side of the house, there is a reservoir further west. To the south is the shoreline, and to the north what looks to be impassable forest.

One year during a water shortage, the decision was made that all southern valley farmers were to receive an additional measure for their irrigation fields. As a result, water regulators opened the sluice gates to let nearly all the water drain from the reservoir. Opening the gates created a lowland sea, which in turn created a strange landscape to the east of the house. Once a horizon of miles of lake that met with the large hazy mountains was now a scene of stumps, moss, freshwater carrion and treasure. Well, treasure is subjective, much like what exists within the eye of the beholder, but for a young person carefully walking across such a new, fantastic landscape, it was all too wonderfully unfamiliar. Could this be the same area that existed all this time just outside the house? Walking the scene produced such wonders as lost fishing tackle, steel line adorned with shiny fenders, red glittering plastics and three-pronged hooks. A good hundred feet away from the shore was an old towel I recognized as one of my own, disappearing the previous summer which I only assumed had been swallowed by a forest creature from the outdoor drying line. There were large balls of marine jelly adorned with what looked like little eyes all over the outside of it, drying in the fall sun. I was just certain there would be a half-buried trunk way out in the middle, the result of some elaborate robbery-gone-wrong by a group of train outlaws for which the region was known.

When the lake was full, heading south you could walk along the shale and pebbled shoreline. After a short walk from the house, you find wooden fencing that led into the water from days before the man-made lake bordered a gulch and stream on the other side. Climbing along the top of the fence, the imperfect line gives way to a grove of northern birch trees. The birch grove was always alive with sounds of blue jays, grebes and finches either gathering twigs for nesting or protecting their turf from squirrels. Most birch trees aren’t large or strong enough for climbing, but there was one southeast from where the fence ended that was perfect.

I remember climbing a series of smaller branches to make my way up high to the largest one, the one that when you scooted out a few arm lengths away from the trunk, was a favorite spot for nest building. Every other year a new nest would take the place of the older one with various varieties of aviary vying for the prime location. One year I peered in to spot three light blue robin eggs, and I didn’t climb the branch again that entire summer. Earlier, grandmother, an avid bird watcher, told me that if the mother senses that the eggs are disturbed then the birds would not return.

Standing west of the house, you can enter through a sliding glass door which reveals a small area that has a few fabric covered chairs, an old couch, and a dining area consisting of a hardwood table and chairs over a rug. Stairs line the back wall of the room that lead up to two bedrooms and a slanted ceiling, the kind with bare rafters and aluminum roof, that on rainy summer nights would pound with each drop as if kids were banging trashcan lids together. On many occasions, the fog would hang heavy over the reservoir so that no stars helped light the area. Then when you entered the house, and especially the upstairs area, feelings of creepiness pervaded the rooms. What malicious creatures were waiting in the corner, had been waiting all winter, to spring upon unsuspecting fisherman returning from a long day on the water? The cabin itself was rumored to have built by a one-handed carpenter. Certainly there were some secrets the small dwelling held that had yet to be found. Perhaps a secret entrance from the pantry that led to a passageway behind the fireplace? Or more likely, sliding the rug from its safe position under the table would reveal a hidden trap door, that once opened would lead to a vast series of caverns and rooms in which untold amounts of trophies could be garnered for display on the mantle above the fireplace.

Act 2: The Appeal of Adventure Interactive Fiction

Zork was not the first interactive fiction computer game, nor was it likely the best seller for its original company, Infocom. Many game designers would cite other adventure games of the era as being more compelling, more clever, better written or more lucrative. However, few would argue that Zork and its subsequent series of sequels had more influence on the collective imaginations of gamers in the early 1980s. The phrase, “You are likely to be eaten by a grue,” certainly has a special place in all of computer gaming lore. I first played the game on a used Macintosh (original), when I borrowed a paint program from a friend and the 3.5 inch floppy was in the same travel box. Like many others who were new (or mostly unfamiliar) with the genre of interactive fiction, the opening screen leaves quite a bit to be discovered. You are standing next to a mailbox, a house lies west of you…. A cursor is blinking on the screen. What am I supposed to do now?

As a child who was frustrated with school activities that didn’t offer full sets of instruction, I was incensed. I was used to playing full console arcade games or an Atari 2600, with “shoot or be killed,” and “run or they’ll catch you” kinds of games. This game expects me to do all of the work! Yet there was something different about it too. I had the full collection of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. I ordered all the spin-off series of books that allowed the reader to make decisions, go to the specific pages to see what would become of that decision, and feel as if I had some control of the outcome of the story. First, the action didn’t happen unless I initiated it. I could sit there as long as I wanted and nothing happened unless I made a move. This kind of action-reaction was something unique to my gaming experience, and much like a branching-story kind of activity, empowered me. In many ways, it encouraged me to think between moves, like in chess, and presented me with what seemed like an open selection of choices, like in backgammon. It encouraged me to reflect on what it was I was doing, and what I had done before. Typing commands into Zork and scoring points encouraged me to continue to pursue activity that was rewarding. Besides collecting treasures, I felt at home with the genre, and very likely spent upward of triple-digit hours playing it. Zork, in my estimation, was a perfect combination of game play and adventure reading that allowed me the opportunity to fail and still finish the story in the way I wanted it to end. In essence, I was in control of
the story.2

Interactive fiction, unlike many gaming genres, can allow for successful failure. Sure, you could die in Zork and have to begin again. More than once the Troll had my number, I carried the torch into the “gas room,” or the minotaur took me out. But these opportunities for an unwelcome and unexpected demise were few and far between. Instead, Zork like most classic adventure games, chose to offer the player clever puzzles or intricate maneuvering in order to progress. Some of the best written challenges were ones that offered contextual clues as to how to solve them. When the player discovers the tube full of viscous material with the other tools near the dam lobby, one first wonders if this is the substance that can help turn the bolt to open the sluice gates. Attempting to apply the viscous substance reveals clues to its actual nature: it’s sticky and glue-like. Hmmm,…perhaps something will be in need of repair. Perhaps a pile of plastic near the water’s edge? More complicated kinds of gameplay require even more intricate solutions. Finding inventory items that have to be used together to solve a puzzle is especially satisfying. Who can forget the process of getting the Babel fish into your ear in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Most importantly, having the opportunity to try different solutions without necessarily dire consequences offers the gamer multiple opportunities to be vindicated and satisfied with their experience. In essence, this is how Zork, and other adventure interactive fiction games, let the reader finish the story. Yes, Zork has a definite beginning and ending, but a player can finish the game often without completing everything possible within the game sphere. Because the action is dictated by the player, and not pre-scripted, players often finish without gaining all of the points possible. Players can make progress, solving different puzzles at different times, all leading toward a predictable finish, but each and every completed game is almost assuredly played-out in a different way. In this sense, adventure interactive fiction set the table for the larger open space realms, from Zelda to World of Warcraft.3

Of course, perhaps my biggest connection to Zork was the elaborate environments it built in my head. From my experiences in my childhood cabin, reading Zork was a perfect extension of my own explorations of a wooded cabin in rural Idaho (see ACT 1). I related every scene, every “room” in Zork as the natural extension of my own world, with my own sense of what things looked like. People have asked me if I think the digital world will replace books. Well, the traditional sense of what books “are” may eventually be changed to a more lasting, more eternal form of media, but the experience of reading will not. As the world of digital games and computer activity continues to pervade the culture of young adults, literature remains as popular as ever. This popularity is in part due to the pleasure one receives from imagining what things look like without having them presented to you. For those who have ever uttered the statement: “The movie was good but the book was better,” think about the characters and settings of that book. Do you remember what you thought the main character looked like? Or has that character’s face, body, and clothing been replaced with the movie’s version of that character? I resisted the movies based on the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling simply because I want my mental versions of Harry, Hermione, Hogwarts and Diagon Alley to persevere.

So, some of what makes literature great is also what makes text-based interactive fiction remain popular. Quite a large contingent of people keep the genre alive. Communities encourage and reward the best creations in interactive fiction each year (e.g., XYZZY awards, IFComp awards, Adult Interactive Fiction awards). An IF archive remains active, as does the Society for the Preservation of Adventure Gaming (SPAG) which provides updates and reviews of new IF games. Interest in IF has been drawn from independent documentary filmmaker Jason Scott whose movie, Get Lamp, is due out in early 2009 (Scott, 2008). The title of the film is yet another homage to games like Zork, the key element to lighting areas of the underground empire and useful for avoiding the evil grues. Interactive fiction has seen increased use in schools and for independent learning activity as well. Dozens of examples of interactive fiction for learning exist within curriculums from grade school through college (Short, 2008). Its educational use is especially exciting—the programs to build it are cheap or free. The programs are small, can easily be downloaded or sent via email, and virus-free. The interaction can be group or single-student driven, involves reading and problem-solving, and can be easily tracked for assessment purposes.

Interactive fiction, and Zork in particular, is great for these reasons and many others. However, what most IF does not easily allow nor encourage within normal gameplay is the social networking between the players of the game. Researched in many gaming situations, social networking is a major contributor to the motivation behind many popular commercial games, including MMORPGs (e.g., Bixler, 2005; Paras, & Bizzocchi, 2005, Steinkuehler, 2007). The social factor helps players behave as teams, helps players exchange information with each other about gameplay. and helps (or hinders) the progression within gaming realms. In-gaming communication helps support the community that plays it, whether it be scoring, collaboration, the collection of achievements or virtual object elements, or just to “chat” about off-gaming topics. Therefore, a natural progression of a Zork game into the social networking sphere would be compelling and theoretically draw thousands if not millions of players. To me, this natural extension manifests itself in a game called “Kingdom of Loathing” (KoL).

Act 3: Adventure Gaming into the Social Sphere

KoL launched in early 2003, in part as a tongue-in-cheek response to traditional online and offline adventure games of the era, which were mostly comprised of fantasy-role playing kinds of gameplay. Zack “Jick” Johnson, creator of KoL, believed most role-playing fantasy games took themselves too seriously (Coldfront, L.L.C., 2008b):

Kingdom of Loathing is an amalgamation of all that is clever and funny in a variety of current and past online and real-life RPGs, text adventures, puzzle games, and first-person shooters, sprinkled with a healthy dose of pop culture. Jick has said ‘Legend of the Red Dragon, which is an old BBS door game, basically is Kingdom of Loathing (obviously KoL is a bigger and a lot more complicated).’ 4

KoL is essentially a RPG played through an Internet browser. A player spends turns in the game in a currency called “adventures” earned each day, and uses those adventures wandering throughout a black-and-white kingdom of stick-figure drawings and droll descriptions of map locations, other non-playing characters, and of course, monsters. The adventures can be used a variety of ways, but most often are spent to battle a vast variety of cleverly written opponents to gain player statistics (much like points), and collect item drops (in categories of weapons, food and drink, clothing, and other miscellaneous merchandise). The adventures align themselves with completing “quests” put forth by a number of different sources within the game, but most often by the “Council of Loathing” in the heart of Seaside Town. Solving the Council quests will advance the players throughout the game, eventually resulting in the player defeating the ultimate boss creature. Players might spend hours every day adventuring in KoL, however, I (being a casual player) normally log in 2 or 3 times a week and have done so for the past year.

In many ways, KoL is a logical extension of traditional interactive fiction. The adventurer spends its “adventures” in much the same way one takes turns within interactive fiction. The player is awarded with more adventures during gameplay in a number of ways, most commonly through the acquisition of food and drink components and then “crafting” more elaborate forms of treats. KoL is primarily supported through excellent writing and wit, in much the same way interactive fiction is solely supported through the written word. Adventurers in KoL encounter battles with sabre-toothed limes. Defeating a furry monster with large teeth called a gnauga can result in the acquisition of gnauga hide. (Certain classes of players can then craft armor and weapons made from this fantastic substance.) Most of the adventures and items in the game reference popular culture, whether it be films, music or other computer games, catering to an audience in their mid-30s or even early 40s, that is perhaps older than the majority of today’s gamers. The absence of elaborate 3D graphics is notable, yet actually provides a welcoming absence to the trend of most RPG experiences. Here, KoL relies on engaging the player through its writing and storytelling. After playing for a while, the simple drawings become endearing. It’s not clear what the simple, stick-figure graphics add to the experience, but it’s something delightfully “enough” for the player, much the way smaller portions of good food are more satisfying than the all-you-can-eat buffet. For the kind of game KoL is, and aspires to be, any other presentation of its environment would be distracting.

In a recent email conversation, Jick and original co-developer, content creator, humorist and writer Joshua “Mr. Skullhead” Nite elaborated on a number of connections between Zork, interactive fiction, and Kingdom of Loathing.

What were your influences from Zork, or interactive fiction in general, in first creating KoL?

Jick: I got into computer games early enough that my first handful of experiences with computer games were IF. Two in particular, Raaka-Tu and Madness and the Minotaur, came with the first computer I had, a TRS-80 Color Computer II that my dad bought second-hand from a friend of his on (I think) my seventh Christmas.

I didn’t play any of the Infocom games until quite a bit later, Zork especially--it was always a little too hard for me. I liked Wishbringer a lot (Brian Moriarty is, to this day, probably my favorite game designer). Because it was structured such that you could see a lot of it without being really good at puzzles.

If you consider graphical adventures to be the logical extension of IF, then it was even more formative for me as a genre -- the Sierra and Lucasarts games were a constant for me. LOOM, especially. It’s funny--while KoL has a lot of writing, it doesn’t really have a lot of story, which I think is the primary thing I liked about Wishbringer and LOOM.

Mr. Skullhead: I think Zack (Jick) initially thought of KoL as not-particularly-interactive fiction. In the beginning, the content was the key--he thought of it as a story that you played through. There weren’t many elements of choice in it (the initial game was awfully light on mechanics, as they were there to serve a secondary function to the funny text). As the game grew, it became more interactive. Both of us are big fans of text adventure games, but we saw Kingdom of Loathing as more of a Legend of the Red Dragon kind of role-playing game rather than interactive fiction.

One of the direct homages to Zork that exists within the Kingdom of Loathing is a quest called the Strange Leaflet Quest. Upon acquiring a piece of paper deemed the aforementioned leaflet and “using” it, the player is presented with the familiar interactive fiction interface, with environment description followed by a space for the player to type commands directly into the game. The strange leaflet is one of the first objects encountered in Zork, describing the title and brief credits, found in the mailbox west of the house. In this way, KoL departs from its normal turn-taking adventure format and transports the player into an IF game within the normal KoL gameplay.

What were your thoughts behind building the Strange Leaflet Quest?

Jick: I thought it’d be funny, a nice homage to the games of yore, and an interesting programming challenge. The version of it I wrote and designed was fairly simplistic compared to what it is now--when I hired Riff and Xeno, one of the first things they did as a writer and programmer, respectively, was to flesh out the Leaflet a lot.

Mr. Skullhead: “Riff and Zack were the main people who designed the Strange Leaflet Quest. That was one project I wasn’t involved in, so I got to play through it like a regular player. I thought it was a clever way to put one of the games we loved inside of our game as a playable game. Now there just has to be some way to play pong inside the leaflet, and we’ll be done.”

Besides the Strange Leaflet Quest, how does interactive fiction continue to influence the way you have evolved KoL?

Jick: Many of the members of Asymmetric’s staff follow the annual IF competitions -- so we’re definitely still thinking about IF when we’re thinking about design. As far as any actual principles that make the leap from that style of game to ours, I dunno.

Mr. Skullhead: With the big narrative events in KoL -- that’s stuff that I have a lot to do with, events like the Crimbo holiday content -- it’s very much written like a choose-your-own adventure book. I write the story first and the story drives the gameplay elements. I look to interactive fiction like Zork and choose-your-own adventure books to see how you can allow the player to make meaningful choices while still keeping control of the narrative.

Some of the noted references to Zork have been the house, the mailbox, the leaflet, the sword, the references to Frobozz, the grue, the pile of 69,105 leaves, and the jeweled egg that you can’t open (Coldfront, L.L.C., 2008a), are there other ways that Zork has impressed the KoL universe?

Jick: The sense of whimsy that Infocom’s games had is obviously crucial to the kind of stuff we’re doing now. To some extent, I get the sense that they were designing those games for themselves, rather than for the public, and I think the games were far more compelling for it. As far as specific references, I’m sure there are some I’ve forgotten about... :)

An additional commonality between Zork and KoL is player identity and the single-player perspective. In Zork you encounter very few other people or creatures, the idea is very prevalent that you are alone and it is up to you to solve anything and everything that’s happening in the environment. Consequently, it can make for an extremely lonely kind of experience. In Zork, there is no help from companions in the environments, and achieving one’s goals also means to operate in a lonely manner. I find that keeping as many items in my inventory helped suppress those feelings of loneliness, in at least I had “my stuff” to travel around with. At one point in Zork the player has to drop nearly everything to fit through a passage with a tight space. It’s a difficult decision to make, what small things to keep and what to leave behind. Even in a description within Zork of someone else “being there.” It’s a lonesome experience that the only person that might be there is working against you.

— Cellar —

You are in a dark and damp cellar with a narrow passageway leading east, and a crawlway to the south. On the west is the bottom of a steep metal ramp which is unclimbable.

The trap door crashes shut, and you hear someone barring it. Your sword is glowing with a faint blue glow.

It’s a similar experience aligned with the game Portal, in that the only other companions in the environment are those working against you, further compounded with the infamous and lovable “companion cube.” The companion cube is enticingly offered to the player and helpful (although, inanimate), only to be ripped from your possession at the conclusion of the level. The yearning for companionship in game spaces is quite effectively used against the players in this way. KoL and successful games like Portal also share interesting extensions of elements of Zork. Players are and must be aware of time and direction in order to be successful, yet the player is in control of their actions at all times, rather than having the game dictate time and movement required by the player. This element is in contrast to games that have timed levels, or creatures and functions that impose actions (often evasive) in order for the player to survive. Part of Portal’s genius, documented in many reports (e.g., Davidson, 2008), is the way the progression of the game actually helps teach the player how to play the game better, and use more complex strategies and player attributes. Similarly, KoL offers progression of quests only after the player has earned enough experience to be successful from previous “adventuring” in the game. Moving past personal experience levels, dropping information and hints at how to solve certain puzzles within quests, will unlock new quests but only when the player has proved herself worthy of advancement. In this way, the offering of more difficult quests and more intricate puzzles is “saved” until the player has learned enough to be ready for that portion of the game, yet they are presented within new and challenging material

Act 4: Customizing and Sustainability

Many models of video game motivation currently exist, and even more are emerging in the literature from across fields and modes of inquiry (Keller, 1988, 1993; Malone, 1980; Malone & Lepper, 1987; Shelton 2007). The majority of these models share common elements traced to most successful gaming activities through categories aligned with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. For example, the CUPS model describes factors relating to Challenge—satisfactions gained through the completion of tasks, Uncertainty—practices that take advantage of players’ curiosity and willingness to risk, Proclivity—the notion that the subject matter of the activity is enjoyable for the participant, and Social Interaction—the relationships between and fostered through gameplay activity. Looking at Zork, players experience challenge by figuring out how the dam works or opening the jewel-encrusted egg. Players experience uncertainty by attacking the Troll and being rewarded through points, and players experience proclivity by hunting for and acquiring expensive and beautiful treasure.

My experiences in KoL also include each of these motivational factors. One of the most meaningful events happened in my first week of gameplay, when I came upon a description after consuming an adventure-gaining drink called a “Tequila with Training Wheels.” The description quoted a lyric from the song Nada by The Refreshments, one of my favorite musical groups. While for most players, this kind of reference might have drifted by without notice, to me this was a meaningful sign of something personal. KoL is riddled with references like the Nada example, which endears the game to players like me, who feel motivated and satisfied with personal in-game experiences. As it turns out, to understand and be on the “in” of an “inside” reference is an extremely satisfying gameplay result.

As previously mentioned, Zork has many of the common elements found to be important for sustainable playership. However, what is less supported is the social interaction that many of today’s technology offers. When Zork was released in the late 1970s, there were few if any networked systems that would support the rich, massively multiplayer interactions the Internet can foster. Contrast that with the highly social interplay involved in the KoL universe that relies on the community of its players in so many ways. For example, within the game itself, there is a flea market where players can sell items directly to other players for the in-game currency of “meat.” There is a mall that players can purchase to sell many items they have extra in their inventories. The currency system of meat-to-items being sold is most often self-regulated and behaves much like any capitalist economic structure that bends to properties of supply and demand. Some content is written especially for collaborative play, such as the most recent rollout of Crimbo 2008 (KoL version of Christmas) where the narrative outcome of holiday events was decided by the collective battles from the community of players. KoL supports an option for pvp, or player-versus-player kinds of activity, where KoL members that choose to enter into battle with other players (rather than just the in-game quest NPC battles), the winner of which has an opportunity to loot an item of interest from the losing player. There is even an option to customize your own stick figure avatar into something unique. Of course, that kind of purchase takes a lot of meat.

Besides the in-game social nature of KoL, there also exists a rich amount of community activity outside of the game. Many in-game sales are brokered through online auction sites such as eBay. The chatting feature, while actually part of the KoL browser system, offers players of specific clans or game special interest groups to communicate and share gameplay questions and answers. Many players enter these chat places and discuss non-game related topics as well. An extremely deep resource for KoL players exists in the KoL wiki supported by Coldfront (Coldfront, L.L.C., 2008a). This system not only offers information about the game origins and overarching storyline and game strategies, it also lists each location and item within the game on its own page that describes options, outcomes, and notes on such things as the possible origins of the pop culture references. There are pages that exist where more information is needed and encourages “spading” of information to provide the wiki with additional content. Players have used the wiki to collectively solve many of the puzzles within KoL. Of course, Jick and company have some secrets that have not yet been discovered, such as the process by which precious few ultra-rare adventures are encountered. The wiki also supports speculation on how these secrets might be accomplished.

I can say that much like good interactive fiction, it’s the writing and humor that keeps me coming back, including the personal in-jokes, like I mentioned with the Nada song reference. The KoL wiki seems like a community built around pulling these references (with a lot of guessing). What is your experience with the wiki? How do you feel about that community?

Mr. Skullhead: I find the KoL Wiki amazing, myself, and it provides a valuable resource to us as we develop the game. It’s useful to see how people are using the content we’ve created, so we can see if what we think people will do with a given update is what they actually do. I also use it for research -- when I wrote the Crimbo history for the last Crimbo holiday, we didn’t have any of that text lying around any more, so I had to check the Wiki. They’re kind of the social memory of KoL, and that’s awesome.

I also am an egomaniac, so I love checking the wiki after new content comes up to see if people find all of the pop culture references. I do agree that KoL is kind of a treasure hunt for those references, and I love seeing people catch even the most obscure things I throw in. It really builds my sense of camaraderie with the community.

So, we know that catering to certain styles of gameplay, or building a game that supports players that have different motivations for returning and sustaining their gameplay, is crucial in creating a strong community of players. These motivations are evident in the different features and types of activity available in the KoL universe. In considering what kinds of players there are and what activities are needed to support them, we can reference the fascinating article offered by Bartle (1996) which categorizes the folks in MUDs (multi-user dungeons/domains) as exhibiting traits of achievers, explorers, socializers and killers. Further, he offers the card suits as an easy way of remembering the overt characteristics of these categories: “achievers are Diamonds (they’re always seeking treasure); explorers are Spades (they dig around for information); socializers are Hearts (they empathize with other players); killers are Clubs (they hit people with them)” (Bartle, 1996). He goes on to further describe “the inter-relationship of two dimensions of playing style: action versus interaction, and world-oriented versus player-oriented.” MUDs being the precursor to today’s multiplayer RPGs, we can further abstract these traits specifically to KoL. As offered on the Coldfront KoL wiki: they are terms that describe your general style of play and the manner in which you feel rewarded by the game:

Diamonds = Players who want to be the biggest, strongest, fastest (the folks that want to be on the top of the leaderboards)
Spades = Players who want to see the whole game, to explore everywhere (who want to get every trophy, get every tattoo, see every location, complete every quest)
Hearts = Players who want to socialize, meet others, do good deeds (and end up often in chat/forums)
Clubs = Players who want to triumph over other players (PvPers)
The categories are not mutually exclusive - people often exhibit various amounts of the traits in each category. (Coldfront, L.L.C., 2008a)

Extended from Bartle’s test, a well-known clan in KoL called “The Rye” made a version of the Bartle test specifically aimed at its players (therye.org, n.d.). An automatically generated report of the results offers something along
the lines:

Your results are as follows: 

Heart: 30.56% 
Diamond: 16.67% 
Spade: 45.83% 
Club: 6.94%

Your original scores were as follows: 

Heart: 110
Diamond: 60
Spade: 165
Club: 25

One could speculate that similar kinds of tests, verified through statistics for both reliability and validity, could say something significant about what kinds of audiences prefer different kinds of activities within computer games. Further, educational technologists could then customize gameplay activities based on the types of gameplay preferred by specific students. If our current trend of game customization toward specific kinds of players is to be fostered, one might consider the way KoL offers a variety of activities within its domain, to sustain membership and engage players in the most effective of ways.

KoL offers a unique method to let players “win” the game, yet keep returning to play additional times; it’s called ascension. Upon completion of all the KoL quests, players get the option to ascend, restarting the game from the beginning, and choosing to be a different player with different traits and playing the same game with additional, modified content.

Ascension exists to keep the game interesting for players once they’ve completed all the quests and gotten all the trophies and acquired all the items and collected all the meat and have basically run out of other things to do. There is new content available only to those who have ascended, and to see the whole game you will have to ascend at least 3 times, if not more. There will be new leaderboards related to ascension that will give more players the chance to see their names in lights, as opposed to just the few that started playing the game in 2003. (Coldfront, L.L.C., 2008b)

Why do you think people keep coming back to KoL, and returning to play? What is the biggest motivation for KoL players?

Mr. Skullhead: I think there are several, and no one is more important than the others. Some people keep playing to optimize their gameplay and get on leaderboards, which works because KoL does have a pretty deep strategical underpinning. Others keep playing because we continuously update -- others stop playing for a while and check back now and then to see what’s new. Others come for the game and stay for the community -- we have plenty of folks who don’t really play turns anymore, but they still log on every day to chat. The nice thing is, those people usually get into new content, too, so we can keep them excited about the game.

I think the constant updating, constant refining, and close communication with the player base are the things that have directly led to our continued success.

Jick: I think people initially get hooked on the ‘always leave ‘em wanting more’ aspect of the limited-turns model, but the people who stick around in the long term do so because of the community. It’s a good batch of people.

Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning how much I admire KoL’s unique business model. KoL is free for all players who have Internet access: just create a username and password and you have all of the game available to you. They do not have any advertisements or product placements within the game to earn money. Instead, they encourage players to “donate” to the game makers and server hosters, a group that by all accounts is only a small handful of people. Instead of earning money through game sales or advertising, donations are encouraged within the game by offering an in-game reward called a “Mr. Accessory” that is added to the inventory of the gamer’s account. Referred to as “Mr. A’s,” they can then be traded or sold within the game for some limited (and therefore often highly sought after) items. Players may individually donate any amount they wish, and their abilities within the game are improved, but a player who doesn’t donate anything might just as well succeed. With many Mr. A’s, it is easier to produce many of the rewarded leaderboard efforts in the game, such as quick ascensions and pvp prowess, so the most serious of gamers might end up donating much more than what they would spend on a COTS game. How much do the creators of KoL earn with this technique? One measure for answering this question is to consider the number of unique accounts that have logged in during a given time period. Generally, the numbers are: 1,000 players at any given instant, 30,000 per day, 60,000 per week, and 100,000 per month. Approximately 1,250 new accounts are being created every day, but the number of players that log in per day/week/month has remained relatively constant. (Coldfront, L.L.C., 2008b). Clearly, this method of earning is dependent on keeping existing gamers active, and attracting new gamers as well. This places a lot of pressure on the development team to keep improving the game, creating new actions and activities, fixing any bugs that emerge, and catering to its constituency. Because of the success of this model so far, it is equally as clear that the development team uses its talents effectively, and understands the motivations embedded within Hearts, Clubs, Spades and Diamonds that keep players engaged.

It has taken me a long time to finally realize that the drawing of the Grue is actually darkness surrounding grue eyes. Instead, I always thought it looked like a small, fuzzy creature much like a Gnauga without teeth. Was that your intention, or am I completely off?

Jick: It was always meant to be eyes in darkness, but I think EVERYBODY who looks at it sees it as some kind of fuzzball.

Well, since everyone thought it looked like a fuzzball, I added my discovery to the KoL wiki and contributed back the gaming community. Perhaps I am becoming a higher percentage Heart than I used to be.


1 The screen captures are from a Z version of Dungeon, an early work that would become Zork (Anderson et. al, 1978-1979), and viewed on a Macintosh in the Zoom interpreter v1.0.3 by Andrew Hunter.

2 There are many excellent examples of Interactive Fiction, the style and creation of the genre, research and archives of the games, stories, and research regarding it. I recommend Nick Montfort’s “Twisty Little Passages” (Montfort, 2003a) and exploring Emily Short’s Internet resources for overviews (http://emshort.wordpress.com/.). A short list of other research-related materials includes: (Desilets, 1999) (Duncan & Shelton, 2006) (Duncan, et. al ,2006) (Granade, 2005) (Howell & Yellowlees, 1990) (Ladd, 2006) (Montfort, 2003b) (Nelson & Knight, 2003) (Shelton, 2005) (Shelton, Neville & McInnis, 2008) (Tillman, 1997). The IF Archive is an ongoing collection of IF resources:
http://ifarchive.org/ ; and the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games (SPAG) has many items
of interest: http://www.sparkynet.com/spag/ .

3 In early 2009, a group within Activision Publishing, Inc. (Jolt Online Gaming) has breathed new life into the series, promising a forthcoming RPG web browser version of the Great Underground Empire called Legends of Zork. See http://www.legendsofzork.com/

4 The screen captures are from various places within the Kingdom of Loathing are courtesy of Asymmetric Publications, LLC. The screen capture from the Coldfront KoL wiki is courtesy of Coldfront LLC.


Thanks to Greg “gharp” Harper for his help answering questions regarding KoL and supplying some screenshots. Much of the information contained in the chapter would not have been possible without the help of the Coldfront KoL wiki and its contributors. Special thanks to Zack “Jick” Johnson and Joshua “Mr. Skullhead” Nite of Asymmetric Publications, LLC for offering their thoughts within this chapter, and of course, for creating and maintaining the ever-expanding KoL.