On Binging

Playing West of Loathing has reminded me of months spent with Kingdom of Loathing. Man, I played that game hard, bouncing between massive bingeing and massive burnout. My comments on that game can hardly have been fair, both gamer stereotypes of fanboy and whiner.

Kingdom of Loathing gives you a limited number of turns per day. As you advance, you learn how to add more turns with consumables. That can dramatically extend your playtime per day, but it remains rather low at the start of a run. Kingdom of Loathing also has an ascension mechanic that allows for nearly endless runs through the game. You can keep playing more to get just a little bit stronger, along with the roller coaster of starting over weaker (but stronger than your last re-start) and going back to that early game with fewer turns (especially in hardcore mode).

I should note that some of this may have changed in the years since I last played. I may be referring to mechanics and modes that no longer exist. Sorry about that, this is more about me as a gamer than about the game itself.

When I wanted to play KoL, I wanted to play. At my peak, I had three accounts running at once for the three different ways you could approach the game (at the time): normal ascensions, hardcore ascensions, and not ascending. Those provided all three levels of access to your toys. Across the three of them, I had plenty of turns available to play each day. I could see how the game felt different in the different ways you could play it.

This led to the unhealthy feeling that I needed to get the most out of my turns on each character each day. Maybe not with the non-ascending character, who had no significant goals, but it was like I was racing the other two accounts against each other. Ascend as often as possible in both modes! You can imagine the days when the stars aligned and both accounts ascended on the same day. That means they were in the late game, with the best possible consumables to add extra turns, giving me a few hundred turns to play. Those late game turns can be somewhat delicate as you try to milk the most possible from the end of a run without slipping and failing to complete the run that day. Then ascend, and the newly ascended character starts on a fresh day, another 100-ish turns across the two accounts, maybe more since the non-hardcore account can pull some top quality food and keep playing at full speed.

As I recall, it was easily feasible to ascend every few days in normal mode and weekly in hardcore, and remember that the last day of one run became the first day of the next. I played Kingdom of Loathing at least as hard as we played any MMO, potentially seeing the entire game a few times in a week. Yeah, I could get really burned out by the end of a month, trying to collect all the ascension bonuses.

For whatever reason, I picked the most intensive, grindy approach possible. It was probably one of the most efficient approaches, insert here the usual quote about players optimizing away the fun. I really did enjoy the game, but not necessarily in a “fun” way when I was in that mode. It established flow and produced regular, visible units of achievement. I could compare my performance between strategies and runs, seeing the effects of small improvements accumulating. I was living my spreadsheet with stick figures.

And then it would periodically turn to ashes. I had a lot of time and attention invested, and that is a thin reed for a lot of weight. Sometimes I would just get tired, or I would despair of the relatively small units of progress as I methodically worked through the less valuable upgrades. I might have a bad run due to RNG or mistakes, easy to have happen when you have so many overlapping runs. And then I might turn on the game, as if it were grindy rather than I was grinding.

That is not completely unfair. The game supported and even incentivized repeated ascensions, and watching the top players compete on their speed ascensions was part of the entertainment. But Kingdom of Loathing also had inherent diminishing returns for repeated ascensions, as you picked the best powers first and were left with progressively weaker gains, sometimes nearly worthless but you were finishing out a set. I could watch those top players get burned out, especially when they managed two-day ascensions. Remember, the last day of a run is the first day of the next run, so that is playing through the entire game in a day.

There is a big difference between completing a game of a MOBA and completing an entire RPG, even a quick RPG.

As I reached the end of my time with Kingdom of Loathing, better incentives were coming into play. New content encouraged higher levels more than repeated runs, and there were cooperative elements that created a trade-off with intensely focusing on your personal grind. The developers were showing a better path than the one I was following, even as mine was leading me out.

You can have too much of anything. Kingdom of Loathing was how I chose to do that for a long while. I really liked Kingdom of Loathing. I do not know how much I liked how I played Kingdom of Loathing.

: Zubon