Friday, July 17, 2009

Voluntary Downward Vertical Progression

I've been spending a bit of time on a return trip to the Kingdom of Loathing recently. KOL is a massively single player broswer-based game, running on a free-to-play with RMT item shop business model, and I'm taking another shot at the game in part because I'm pressed for time.

My wife and I are in the process of moving to our first house and acquiring a dog (yes, in that order), and I've been hard pressed to carve out the kind of 2 hour sessions needed to find a group and run a 5-man in WoW or make serious headway on leveling other characters. KOL has fit nicely into a niche of something I can sneak 20-30 minutes at without feeling like it has taken half of my gaming session just to reach my quest destination.

Anyway, the reason why this becomes blog fodder is that I have just started my first "Bad Moon" ascension. When characters beat the final boss of the game's main plot, they can ascend and start the game over as a reincarnated level one character who retains one of the class skills from their previous life. A character who earns the ability to choose to be reborn under the unlucky "bad moon", however, loses access to everything - all their skills, all their gear, all their familiars (including the ones from the RMT item shop), everything is off-limits until they can complete the Bad Moon ascension.

Why would someone like myself, a relatively achievement-oriented player who has taken the time to complete seventy two ascensions (my character history is here, if any of you play and are curious) suddenly choose to reset myself to the status of a completely new level one character?

When Scaling Becomes a Problem
The developers have made an impressive effort at the nigh-herculean job of balancing the game around a single character potentially having access to every spell, skill, and bonus in the game.

Most abilities scale with a character's current level/stats. Your muscle-bound fighter classes can use the top end offensive spells in the game - indeed, knowing them is a huge advantage when faced with physical-immune monsters - but will do only a fraction of the damage that a real caster can. Still, you will eventually cherry pick enough abilities to start papering over the weaknesses of your current class, ignoring the places where its tools are limited in favor of superior skills from elsewhere. Starting with a clean slate means an opportunity to experience each class as a stand-alone entity, something I haven't done since 2005.

The other issue is somewhat specific to the game's turn system. Players actions per day are limited by a consumable resource called "adventures". You get a certain number of turns each day regardless of your actions, and can increase that number by eating food, drinking booze, and grinding unused equipment into a chewable gum-like paste (that's the way logic works in this game ;)). However, the quality of the stuff you can consume is also limited by level, and players have a limited daily appetite.

Starting off with a totally blank slate in-game, but a solid knowledge of where to go to farm level appropriate consumables, I was able to generate maybe 60 adventures per day. With the crafted foods and bonuses I have access to when I'm not using any voluntary restrictions, that number is well above 100, and it probably breaks 200 if I'm prepared to use the really expensive, high end stuff.

In other words, the amount of time it will take to use up my available turns can swing by 2-4 fold depending on my in-game level. (You can roll over up to 200 adventures per day, but you can still end up with 100+ use-or-lose turns per day relatively easily.) This can translate into less time than you would have liked to spend on the game at low levels (before you've unlocked the best stuff) and more time than you would have preferred to spend at higher levels.

In my new Bad Moon run, on the other hand, I can only eat what I'm able to catch, and I wouldn't be able to cook the best stuff if I did stumble upon the proper ingredients. I still generate more turns per day at higher levels, as the consumables obtained from regular adventuring improve in quality, but it's much less of a steep curve than I have with all the crafting skills.

Incentives and a trustworthy item store
There are some in-game incentives to complete a bad moon ascension. I can still learn a new skill per run for use whenever I choose not to play the Bad Moon game. There is also reward gear that offers massive stat bonuses, useful for attempting to meet the bar for some optional endgame content that requires players to achieve insanely high buffed stats. There are also records and leaderboards for completing runs in fewer days/turns.

Beyond that, though, the actual experience of playing the game differs dramatically as players take on more voluntary challenges. Though there is combat, the game is fundamentally a puzzle-solving exercise. If you're trying to beat your personal best time, you will want to arrive at level 10 with as much of the groundwork for completing the level 10 quests as possible. In more permissive modes, that means preparing stuff in advance (during your previous ascension), while the more limited modes require that you find the time to farm the stuff yourself.

In particular, I've been very impressed with the relatively laid back approach to RMT in the game. The item shop offers equipment (usable in some of the game's modes), familiars and skills (usable in all of the game's modes other than Bad Moon). Most of these items are limited edition, buy it this month, hope you can find it on the game's mall, or do without. If you're bent on pushing the envelope and making the leaderboards outside of Bad Moon, you will almost certainly want at least a few of these items, and may never be able to be fully competitive with people who have the old stuff. If, on the other hand, you're just in it to set a new personal best, gaining a little bit more power with each run, you can literally play the game every day, for free, indefinitely, without ever paying the devs a cent, or ever being nagged in game about why you should be purchasing anything.

Part of this is possible because the game's graphics are black and white, 2-D line sketches. Even so, I don't think I've ever seen a game that depends on its RMT item shop to pay the bills voluntarily introduce a format that makes a level playing field by effectively banning all RMT items. They actually want you to be able to have fun - even if you're competitive - regardless of whether you want to support them. I don't really need any more item shop rewards these days - they are all permanent, and I have enough from back when I played the game daily that I can get by without any upgrades. Still, comparing my feelings about the way this game handles its RMT to more current offerings, part of me feels like I should buy up the next item I have a chance of using, just to support the game.

As to the question I asked up top about why I would voluntarily take a huge number of steps down the vertical progression curve, even if only temporarily? Sometimes the journey really is more the reward, and the incentives are only the sign posts that point you in the direction of the next adventure.


Andrew said...

KoL was a blast back in the day - I ascended countless times while I played, but eventually burnt out on it.

Apparently they've done a lot of changes since I stopped playing, including completely overhauling the end game.

I think I'll log in right now just for the hell of it.....

Andrew said...

It's been a while since I logged in!

Turns Played (this run): 1,167
Days Played (this run): 1,046

Whoops =)

Yeebo said...

KoL is ten kinds of awesome. Maybe even 11 or 12.