Call it envy, call it admiration, call it inspiration it’s a bit of all of this. Here’s a game that I have never seen labeled as indie even though you cannot get more indie than this. Since 2003 Zack Johnson has built a small successful empire that should part of models for all indie developers. I’m not a journalist or a professional blogger so allow me here to take a look at this success in my own way.

First if you don’t know what Kingdom of Loathing is I suggest you to take a look at the most recent interview with Zach on DIYGamer here. Even better go take a look at the game here:

If I have to pick from my own list of huge web-game  success KoL is probably first on my list even ahead of Runescape (no disrespect to Andrew Gower). Why? Because it started as nothing. Nothing as “I just do it and let’s see what happens”. Even better the guy is running his business by not even knowing the exact number of players … That’s doing what you like in a perfect world …

I never say that KoL was one of my inspiration to start to work on my own games because frankly I didn’t think it was so huge until recently. KoL was always for me that game that was probably some kind of hobby for 1 or 2 persons but I couldn’t be more wrong …

18 months after release Zack Johnson was making enough money to quit his day job … only based on donations … If I compare myself to him 18 months after the release of Golemizer I was still struggling to have the game to pay for the server it’s running on (and it might get back to that as May sales are terrible and the number of players is far from rising even with 3 “partners” that are doing nothing to promote the game …). As I’m writing this there are 8 persons working on KoL … Even in my wildest dreams I never expected that much.

KoL is a fairly simple game. Meaning that someone with my knowledge could probably easily code a clone without sweating. The key to KoL is not in its wonderful architecture. If you go read some of my previous posts there was a time that I was thinking that building “something amazingly fucking awesome” was enough to know some success. I should have known better … KoL rely on simple concepts and simple gameplay. Just that alone surely isn’t enough to make a success but somehow it worked for KoL.

The first thing to notice about KoL is the humor present all over the game. You just cannot play KoL if you’re not ready to face jokes and even stupid ones. Not everyone can make this kind of humor work and I surely wouldn’t be able. First because that’s just not me and second because I’m far from being bilingual. I manage to get myself understood in english but that requires a bit more efforts (if you notice that some phrases are strangely worded that’s not me being illiterate it’s just me not knowing how to say it in a better way).

The second thing that makes KoL what it is is the community. KoL has a vibrant community which can sound strange for a game that it not real-time. For some devs forums are a necessary pain but for KoL it’s a natural path to success. Initially the game was only funded by donations (for some basic gift if I’m not mistaken). You need to have a strong community to make enough money to leave your day job after 18 months when it’s your only way to make money. KoL had and still have that.

Of course a strong community of 100 players isn’t enough to make a full salary. That’s when I’m having a harder time to figure out how KoL became so popular. Even if KoL is a little wonder by itself I doubt that it was enough to get such critical mass of players. There had to be something more. First step to get new players is to make sure people know your game actually exists … That was always my biggest problem.

With an ARPU between $0.80 and $1.00 per month Golemizer was what you could call an amazing success. But when there are only 200-300 active players you can hardly call this anything but a hobby (that’s at best $200-$300 per month so just enough for the servers). So Golemizer was just “perfect” … Well it was doing well enough. It just never had enough players to make it something more than a hobby. I tried a lot of things. First the typical press release, then advertising (which is expensive for little results by the way), then partnership with portals that just don’t care about promoting the game, social media (Facebook, Twitter), incentive voting, … I’m out of ideas. Those all brought some results but I needed to get where visibility is best which are review websites and interviews. That never happened.

But how did KoL was able to “make it happen”? Well first KoL was released in 2003. The web wasn’t what it is back then. I surely don’t want to take anything out of KoL success but when the crowd is smaller it’s much easier to be noticed. Maybe you don’t remember but WoW wasn’t even released in 2003 … The humor probably helped to get the community together and when you have a strong (strong and wide) community then you start to drag the attention. People won’t talk about you just because you released a game. People will talk about you because people are playing your game … unless you have a marketing department dedicated to the promotion of your game. KoL had the number so slowly we started to see articles about it. Again back in 2003 there was no FarmVille, no Mafia War and my beloved original Archmage web game was dying (no monetization at all not even ads if I remember well) …

Now am I saying that KoL would fail if it was released tomorrow? Not quite but I surely think the story would have been different. Some games still become bedtime stories for the small game developer that I am but the reality is now completely different then back in 2003. I am still convinced though that KoL is one of those games that just was meant to be successful. Built by 1 person and 18 months later it becomes a full-time job. That’s really a bedtime story I’d like to live …

It can be done and it has been done. You just can’t take a recipe and repeat it for yourself in the hope that it wil give the same results though. Watching this kind of success is both inspiring and depressing. It gives you the strength to believe that you can make it as well but it also leaves you to wonder how you could achieve the same thing. Like I said I could create a KoL clone tomorrow but it surely wouldn’t have the same success. It’s not just about tech or wanting real hard that something will happen. There are things that are out of your control and those are the frustrating parts. As soon as you talk about these things there is always someone to tell you that you are one little whiny bitch. That’s always easier to say to someone else than trying to make it happen for yourself.

I can’t lie and say that I’m not “studying” KoL in the hope to find something in it but I’m not delusional either. KoL is one game and anything else is different and might (and will) bring different results. Dreaming of having your own KoL helps damn well to sleep at night though.