“If I remember correctly, you’re a long-time Kingdom of Loathing player, right?” says Zach “Jick” Johnson immediately after introducing himself over the phone. Johnson and his company, Asymmetric Publications, are making the rounds with West of Loathing a, relatively recently announced title that’s appeared at the likes of Indiecade. It’s a fair question, as West of Loathing is a game that is essentially an extension of Kingdom–a game I’ve played off and on since 2003.
“So,” Johnson, who serves as creative director and artist at the company, continues, “basically, KoL is our venerable multiplayer web game. and West of Loathing is a single-player adventure RPG that is a spin-off of that game. Set in its world but with a more sort of modern sensibilities, but still sticking to the aesthetics… I’ve really got to get a paragraph down that I can issue comfortably. It’s always so hard to tell where people are coming from in terms of what things need to be explained and what things don’t.”
“To somebody who’s totally unfamiliar with anything we’ve made,” interjects Kevin “HotStuff” Simmons, “I would say it’s an adventure RPG that we like to think of a *Skyrim* with beans and big hats.”
Or, as he also says, it’s “a stick figure game full of adventure and humor and dumb jokes.” Simmons is a producer and business manager at the company, though I know him instead as the creator of some particularly difficult Kingdom of Loathing puzzles. The game’s been around for 13 years, but West of Loathing is the first time there’s been anything set in the same universe. If Loathing is a franchise, it’s a poorly exploited one.
But it’s not the first new game Asymmetric’s made since KoL. That illustrious honor goes to Word Realms, a game about fighting with words as spells and weapons. As in, combat is resolved by spelling bigger and better words than your NPC opponent. For example, a simple “team” would lose against “steam” or the like. It’s an oversimplification, but not by much. Part of why West of Loathing has taken so long to happen is because of the company’s sophomore effort.
“Word Realms wasn’t particularly successful,” Johnson admits, “so it took me a little while to get back in the mood to try another side project.” The company did a contract educational game for a company they met at Indiecade a couple years ago that’s since been released as MasterSwords, a version of World Realms. At the time of our interview, it wasn’t clear whether the finished project would see the light of day.
Even if MasterSwords hadn’t released, the game provided the backbone for West of Loathing. Its development allowed Johnson and company to learn a reasonable workflow for a project of its size, and gave them practice with the Unity engine. “At that point,” says Johnson, “we were like, ‘well, why don’t we use some of what we learned making KoL, and use some of what we learned making this educational game to try to make a more modern game in the KoL aesthetic?’”
That isn’t to say the two games — Kingdom of Loathing and West of Loathing — share much beyond a universe and general theme. Johnson likens the former to a service whereas West of Loathing is very much a product. As of our interview, there were no plans for DLC, but there could be sequels on the horizon.
“It’s not the kind of game that will continue to get content updates over time,” says Johnson. “It’s more of a game where — if it is successful, we will make a sequel. And if that one is successful we will make another one. They’ll be not precisely episodic but just a series of much shorter, much more constrained single-player games. We make them and they’re done.”
But what exactly is the point of West of Loathing? Why now? Where does it exist in relation to the original Kingdom of Loathing? The idea for West of Loathing actually played out in Kingdom of Loathing as something known as a Challenge Path, a set of specific constraints imposed on players during a single run of the game. Same name and everything.
“We’re not planning on discontinuing development on Kingdom of Loathing anytime soon,” Simmons adds. That’s why they’re talking more in terms of sequels rather than continuous content development. “This is a second line of games, and we didn’t want two entire properties that we would have to develop and maintain and come up with new content for in perpetuity.”
“It’s certainly not a thing you’re going to play instead of KoL,” says Johnson, “it would be a thing you would play in addition, but we’re trying to be realistic about what the market is like and what the curb appeal of this product is like.” Johnson also notes that it’s “more to look at than KoL, but it is not much to look at.” The animations are fancier, and there’s a smoothness absent the browser-based game, but that’s pretty much it.
The two describe the finished game as being about four hours long if all you’re looking to do is finish, but it’s hard to put a number on it if that’s not the case. “We joke about this,” says Johnson, “but I really am looking to things like the later Fallout games or Elder Scrolls games for kind of an inspiration for how this feels. And, you know, Oblivion was four hours long if all you did was the main quest line, but it’s a thousand hours long if you want to go everywhere and see everything.”
Even with that in mind, they’re not trying to immediately overwhelm players. The UI, the way in which content gets introduced, the whole concept … to paraphrase Johnson and Simmons, all of it’s meant to get out of the way and let players play. This was put to the test at the Power of Play event earlier this year in Seattle, where folks played the demo, and seemingly had a good time of it even if they didn’t fully understand what was going on. There’s no reason to think the same isn’t true of their Indiecade showing.
“For people who have played KoL before,” says Johnson as our conversation concludes, “something that we hear a lot of the time is that it’s, like, ‘well, I still like what you guys are doing, but KoL is so intimidating to come back to once you’ve been gone for a while’ — this is a way to get a much more manageably sized experience of an Asymmetric game.”
In other words, 13 years of experience boiled down into a single, standalone game. One with stick figures, beans, and big hats.