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Designing the deceptively simple stick figure RPG West of Loathing
August 9, 2017 | By Joel Couture

August 9, 2017 | By Joel Couture
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video



West of Loathing is a silly Wild West RPG for PCs from the developers of the browser-based fantasy MMO Kingdom of Loathing, which was equally silly.

To the untrained eye, West of Loathing looks incredibly simplistic, with its stick figure art and monochromatic palette. But it represents a huge jump  for Asymmetric Publications, who developed the game.

“It's weird -- so many of the things that are new in our latest game are just things like 'you are a character moving around in a space' or 'there is music,'" says creative director Zack Johnson. "Really basic stuff, but since Kingdom of Loathing was just a web page, this is totally new territory for us.”

Having motion, animated characters and enemies, music, and other things most developers take for granted was a large change for the studio, especially when they wanted to maintain that same sense of absurd humor that made Kingdom of Loathing so popular with its fans since its launch in 2003.

Clever work with animation, looking for strengths in supposed limitations, knowing what the team was comfortable doing, and never letting go of that desire to make the rest of the development team laugh would help them get over those hurdles.

Finding the right setting

"There are so many reasons the Wild West works as a fantasy setting. It's always been genuinely surprising to me that more RPGs aren't set there."

Moving from a website-based fantasy RPG to a fully animated Wild West RPG may seem like a big leap, but ito the developers, the two milieus feel adjacent to each other.

“I've always felt like the Wild West was just as appropriate a setting for a fantasy RPG as the weird default depiction of medieval Europe is," says Johnson.

"It's got an immediately comprehensible level of technology, plenty of cliched good vs. evil tropes, an inherently hostile environment to explore, a focus on fighting and treasure. There are so many reasons it works as a fantasy setting. It's always been genuinely surprising to me that more RPGs aren't set there, and I guess I wanted to do my part to correct the oversight.”

A scribbled version of Medieval Europe was where they had spent much of their time in Kingdom of Loathing, having Turtle Tamers and Pastamancers fight their way through silly situations and combat against rabbits, crates, and knob goblins.

The various expectations of the setting, as Johnson laid out, could also be transferred to a Wild West setting, only instead of Pastamancers, a gun-toting Beanslinger or silver-tongued Snake Oiler could fill in the role. Magic might seem out of place in this setting, but Asymmetric discovered that vintage technology, frontier spirituality, and high explosives could fill that same role.

Kingdom of Loathing had wildly anachronistic bad guys. West of Loathing
aims to be more true to its skewed vision of the Wild West,

“I definitely thought it'd be nice to constrain the thematic space a little bit -- Kingdom of Loathing is very broad in the genres it plays with, and it's full of anything-goes anachronisms and non-sequiturs," says Johnson. "Sticking to a single setting was an interesting challenge, and I think it was good for us to have some constraints.”

Knowing your team's strengths

"Working on Kingdom of Loathing for so long has really taught us what our strengths are. We can make a lot of content in comparatively little time, as long as the tools are built to make it easy to add stuff to the game."

It was more than sticking to a familiar kind of setting that helped Johnson develop West of Loathing. Knowing the team’s strengths from years working on Kingdom of Loathing would also help them develop in this new territory.

“Working on Kingdom of Loathing for so long has really taught us what our strengths are as a company, which helped us build West of Loathing in a way that facilitated them, rather than getting in the way of them," says Johnson.

"We can make a lot of content in comparatively little time, as long as the tools are built to make it easy to add stuff to the game.”

This was something Johnson and the team at Asymmetric had learned over a few other titles they’d previously made in between the two Loathing games.

“We made a couple of other games between Kingdom of Loathing and West of Loathing that were each instructive in a different way," he says. "Word Realms is a Flash-based word combat game, kind of a Battle Scrabble. It was meant to be a quick project, but it dragged on for years due to the tools and engine not really supporting our workflow very well.”


Word Realm offered Asymmetric many instructive examples on how not to make a game

“We learned a lot of things NOT to do from that one," he adds. "Then a few years later we were contracted to make a kid's game (in Unity) called MasterSwords.  From the outset, we designed that engine to be as flexible and data-driven as possible.  That experience really made it clear to us that we could make a good Loathing game with more modern technology.”

Reach for the sky:  amping up the action with animation

"I like to joke that the game has programmer art and artist code."

“When I first started working on Kingdom of Loathing, I couldn't afford to hire an artist, so I just drew the stuff myself.” says Johnson. “That's why the art is what it is. I like to joke that the game has programmer art and artist code.”

This lighthearted stick figure art had become a calling card, and a trademark look for the developer, capturing the humor of the game at a glance. It was something the developer had become skilled at over time as well, letting them create funny situations despite the style’s apparent simplicity.  

“Over the course of drawing thousands of things, I got better at it, and it developed into an actual style, but I think it has retained an essential absence of self-seriousness that makes it feel more like a choice on our part than a limitation. And since it has always seemed to resonate with our fans, I think the main thing I've done right is just to leave well enough alone.” says Johnson.


West of Loathing has the same minimalist art style as Kingdom of Loathing

"The thing that was the most unexpected was how challenging it was to make combat funny when it was being shown graphically rather than just described in text."

“The thing that was the most unexpected was how challenging it was to make combat funny when it was being shown graphically rather than just described in text," says Johnson.

"Wes Cleveland, our animator, is really our secret weapon here.  He's got this incredible visual comic sensibility, and he brings our stuff to life in a way we'd never have dreamed was possible.”

The artist had a great deal to work with from the writing they had been doing on combat for years. The flavor text on combat actions and all other items and activities in the game, would use that brilliantly absurdist tone that the team had spent years honing.

“It's just kinda what we do,"  says Johnson. "Since Kingdom of Loathing is a game that is essentially just text, we've always needed to make sure that the writing in the game, no matter where it is, is of a consistent tone and level of quality.  We've been working on this kind of thing together for a long, long time now.”


Take out the scary Jellybean bandit with ensorcelled skull chips

West of Loathing appears to be a huge departure from anything the developer had done before, but in every aspect, Johnson found some element of the familiar. The new setting, the comparatively ambitious action, the non-static imagery, were all shoot through with the unmistakable comic sensibility that players expect from Asymmetric. “I don't think we could make a serious game if we tried.” says Johnson.



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