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Dare you fight the possessed tomatoes?

Quirky, stick-figure "Kingdom of Loathing" shows continued promise of independent game-writing.

It was like any other afternoon until the possessed can of tomatoes attacked.

Luckily, a few good whacks with a saucepan quieted it right down, and the young sauceror was able to go on with his adventures in the "Kingdom of Loathing."

So goes a typical moment in a quirky online game that has become an object of cultish adoration among the 130,000-plus people who play it. With graphics drawn in static, stick-figure scribbles, it's a throwback to the early days of computer gaming, and about as far from the high-resolution worlds of "Doom 3" or "EverQuest" as it's possible to be.


What's new:
Quirky, stick-figure "Kingdom of Loathing" has become an object of cultish adoration among the 130,000-plus people who play it.

Bottom line:
"Kingdom of Loathing" shows continued promise of independent game-writing, even as professional game development becomes mired in multibillion-dollar budgets and strings of sequels.

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And that, say many of "Kingdom of Loathing's" dedicated denizens, is the point.

"The inspired simplicity of the stick figures and limited playing time each day hooked me the first day, (and) I haven't logged on to 'EverQuest' since," Phil Showalter, a Memphis, Tenn., software developer, wrote in an e-mail interview. "KoL takes about an hour a day, and that's it until tomorrow, which is perfect with an enjoyable cup of coffee in the morning. Not to mention it's free."

The game, now a year and a half old, is one of the brightest--and weirdest--lights of the independent game development world. As "The Blair Witch Project" or "El Mariachi" did for independent film, it is showing that a project with a shoestring budget still has room to flourish, even as professional game development becomes mired in multibillion-dollar budgets and strings of sequels.

"Kingdom of Loathing" is the brainchild of 28-year-old Arizona programmer Zack Johnson. He's not a professional game maker, but he has been building games for himself since college.

He said that he finally got tired of nobody seeing his work, and he told himself he'd give himself a week to build a new game and see what happened if he released it for free on the Net.

"Part of that in the beginning was a low self-esteem thing," he said in an interview. "I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to pay for it."

Almost two years later, he's been working on it nearly nonstop. He has vowed to keep it free, but has set up donations on the site and sells T-shirts and other merchandise. A few months ago, he realized he was making enough money to quit his day job in programming and work on the game full-time.

The actual game plays like a version of "Dungeons and Dragons" run by the creators of Monty Python, with a seriously vegetable-phobic 14-year-old acting as creative consultant. A longtime friend, Josh Nite, co-writes the content with Johnson.

The basic format is familiar to anyone who's spent any time with computer games: Adventurer goes on quest, fights monsters, gains treasure and skills. Like other online games, players can band together into guilds or clans and play together, sharing useful items with each other and attacking rival clans.

It's the world that's different. Characters include "Pastamancers" and "Accordion Thieves." Monsters range from the fiendish can of asparagus ("Cans of asparagus aren't normally all that scary, but this one's got a knife!" the game says) to the "grave rober zmobies" that haunt the Misspelled Cemetary.

"I stumbled onto KoL when my friend randomly sent me some quotes from the game, specifically a battle with an undead macaroni elbow who tries to 'pastaslap you in the bung,'" wrote "CrazyAnnie," an artist from Boston who has been a dedicated player for the last three months, in an e-mail interview. "I think this might be the secret to KoL's appeal, however--it doesn't take itself seriously with the fantasy role-playing schtick, thereby making it more accessible to a wider range of fans."

A decades-old appeal
If this sounds familiar, it might be because the game owes more to the original text adventure games of the mid-1970s and 1980s than to today's gaming hits.

Computer games like "Adventure," "Colossal Caves" and "Zork" were originally written in much the same way, by single developers or small teams of writers, mostly in their spare time, and released freely on university networks or the ARPANet that preceded today's Internet.

Those games, written solely in text before graphics-based systems were widely available, were infused with much the same surreal sense of humor. As they moved to personal computers with the release of the Apple II in the late 1970s, and to PCs in the 1980s, a generation of game players internalized their quirky style.

Johnson said he hasn't had any official contact with game publishers, despite the large size of his audience. He gets about 1,000 new people signing up per day, he said.

Nevertheless, he said he has informally talked to developers at Microsoft and elsewhere who are avid players. And they should take note. Without any advertising or market research, he and his co-writer have successfully achieved two of game developers' holy grails: a thriving community and a large population of players who are women or who aren't regular gamers.

Tne "Kingdom of Loathing" community is based around chat boards, forums, and an in-game market. Fans meet up virtually to swap tips, trade items in what has become a functioning economy, and solve puzzles together. Out of the game, people have developed networks of fan sites--with KoL-themed art--and even meet up offline.

Johnson said it's impossible to tell how many of his players are women, but he puts a very rough estimate at 40 percent, based on the donation pools and forum names. Even if that's an overestimate, it's high compared with almost any other game.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, about 39 percent of video and computer game players are women. That figure includes products like online poker and backgammon and is much lower for retail games or online worlds.

"EverQuest," the most popular online role-playing game in the United States, is populated by only about 15 percent women. Game developers have tried hard to expand their mostly male audience over the past years, but with limited success.

"The Sims Online" was one recent attempt to make an online game that appealed to women and casual gamers, with publisher Electronic Arts hoping to capitalize on the nearly universal appeal of the single-player "The Sims" game. But the game fell far short of expectations, reaching just over 100,000 players at its peak, and then falling fast.

Johnson said he'd like to make another game when "Kingdom of Loathing" runs its course. He's working on a comic book and a card game based on the idea. But for now, he's still working with his partner on developing new content for the current game, including the completion of the final Naughty Sorceress quest.

Already, people have fought their way through the Stone Mariachis, the Fickle Finger of F8, and a Beer Batter, and are waiting for the Sorceress herself to appear. But it takes time to think of exactly what comes next, even working on the game full-time, he said.

"I have to wander around the house randomly cleaning stuff, and then sit down to do some code cleanup," Johnson said. "It's like any creative process; you can't schedule it."