KoL, Content, and the End of Things

Throughout the month of August, I'm aiming to write 25 blog posts. This is post #9 of 25. Find them all in the "blogathon 2014" category.

This isn’t what I wanted to write about today. I started a post called “In Defense of Fuck” about swearing, and I really wanted to sit down after work and finish it up. But “In Defense of Fuck” will have to wait, I suppose, ’cause there’s something else on my mind today.

That something is this:
Kingdom of Loathing letter about ads

When some players of Kingdom of Loathing, my absolute favorite online game, logged on today, they saw this note. As they clicked around in the game and adventured, something was different: banner ads were displayed at the top and bottom of combats.

I didn’t see the ads. The community put their heads together on the official game forums and came to the conclusion that players who had previously donated money to support the game–a group I am most certainly part of–weren’t being served ads; only those who hadn’t donated were. But even if I’m not experiencing ads in KoL, the fact that it’s come to this makes my heart sink.

The Little Game That Could

Kingdom of Loathing was launched in February 2003 by Zack “Jick” Johnson. Jick, a programmer, had been experimenting with other web games at the time, but wasn’t happy with them, so he gave himself a blogathon-esque project: make a game in a week and publish it online. The result was mostly a joke–the character classes included “Seal Clubber”, “Pastamancer”, and “Accordion Thief”–but he published it nevertheless. Within a year, there were 300,000 player accounts and Jick had invited his childhood friend, Josh Nite, to join the development team.

It started as a side project. Jick would work on KoL during his lunch breaks, but before long, enough player donations were coming in that he was able to quit his job and work on KoL full-time. Then he was making enough to hire Nite. Before long, KoL was earning enough in donations to support a small staff.

The game encouraged donations via a special in-game store, but that was the extent of it. Today, “Free to Play” games that squeeze money out of players at every possible turn are widely reviled, but KoL is nothing like that. From start to finish, the game can be played and enjoyed in full without ever paying a cent. Players who want to donate can receive special items for doing so, but those items have always been tradable, meaning no content is ever locked behind a paywall. And for years and years, it worked. Donations flowed in, the game continued to grow, and there was never an ad on the site. In fact, the idea was so ludicrous that in 2005, an April Fools’ Day joke involved fake banner ads plastered across the game.

In an effort to increase revenue, a small number of tasteful and unobtrusive advertisements have been added to the site.

Site announcement, April 1, 2005

I’ve loved Kingdom of Loathing since I first started playing, which must have been almost ten years ago. For years, I’ve been a regular donor, chipping in on a monthly basis. Sure, I get powerful items in return, but that’s not really the sole reason I donate; after all, I haven’t actually sat down and played the game in months, yet I’ve still donated. I give my money to Kingdom of Loathing because it’s an incredibly clever, well-designed game with a brilliant community. I want to see it stick around.

In a way, I think KoL and Jonathan Coulton are kindred spirits. Coulton, a musician, rose to fame in 2005 with “Thing a Week,” a 52-week challenge to publish one song for free every week. The resulting songs–which include Re: Your Brains, the story of a zombie invasion as told through an office memo; and I’m Your Moon, a touching love song written to Pluto after its demotion to “dwarf planet” status–resonated with nerdy audiences, and Coulton skyrocketed to internet stardom, later releasing his own studio album, Artificial Heart.

Artificial Heart

Coulton and KoL both exemplified a new type of creative success on the internet, one that didn’t rely on big publishers or greedy money-grabbing. They were small, independent, genuine. They interacted with their fans.

I was only in high school, but I felt it in my bones: Coulton and KoL were going to lead the way to a revolutionary new business model.

In hindsight, I may have been mistaken there.

Having Your (Free) Cake and Eating It Too

Jonathan Coulton’s music was free, but much of the music I listened to when I was younger was not, and that rubbed me the wrong way. Ads on websites did too; I found them so obnoxious that when I learned about ad-blocking browser plugins, I immediately downloaded and began using them.

I griped about ads and hid them, then I griped about paywalls when they came up. I griped about ads on YouTube videos when I tried to listen to my favorite music for free. Anything and everything that interfered with my ideal, ad-free world where everything was free of charge, I griped about.

I’m ashamed to say that it took me until only a few years ago to realize how unsustainable an idea that was.

It all boils down to this: Content is created by the hard work of people, and those people deserve to be paid. Good content doesn’t exist unless its creators are supported, and clicking “Like” on Facebook, though it may help a creator in some vague sense, doesn’t pay the bills or encourage future creation like financial support does.

This is why I donate to Kingdom of Loathing. It’s why I unblock the ads from almost any site I visit more than once a week, why I buy my music, and why I use Flattr to donate to creators whose work I love. Without people chipping in to support creators, those creators and their creations will dry up.

And that’s a scary thought to me.

Facing Mortality

Death doesn’t scare me. I have long since made peace with the fact that one day, I will die. I don’t relish the thought, of course, but I accept it, and it doesn’t stand in the way of my appreciation of my life. Everything has a season. Permanence is not the sole measure of value. An amazing meal doesn’t become less amazing because it ends.

And for the most part, I’m pretty good about extending this philosophy to other parts of my life. Relationships? Check. Experiences? Check. Normally, the end of things doesn’t scare me.

But when I think about it, that’s what makes this letter from Jick so hard for me to read. It’s not an actual indicator of financial crisis–as he says, he’s experimenting now so he doesn’t have to make difficult decisions in the future. I don’t care about the ads, because I’m happy to allow some advertisements into my life if it means the content creators I appreciate can continue doing their great work. On a deep, fundamental level, what kills me about this letter is that it’s a reminder that KoL is mortal. One day, KoL will die. That day might be two, five, or fifteen years down the line, but it’s still coming. This game that I’ve loved so long will eventually cease to exist.

I don’t know how to handle that. I’m not ready to accept the end of such a rich experience.

So I’ll keep donating, perhaps a bit more than usual, encourage others to do the same, and hope that’ll be enough to stave off the end I know will eventually come.[ref]Oh, and hey, if you play, please drop me a line! I’m Southwest (#532423).[/ref]

Letter image by Zack “Jick” Johnson of Asymmetric Publications.

Artifical Heart cover by Sam Potts.