PAX West 2017: West of Loathing Interview w/Zack Johnson

By Jaime Skelton (MissyS), Editor-in-Chief

West of Loathing might be the dream come true for every Kingdom of Loathing fan. The browser-based MMO, full of stick figures and absurd humor, is relatable from all walks of life, so it was no surprise to me that many of my colleagues purchased West of Loathing – an RPG made in a similar vein, but not directly tied to Kingdom of Loathing (KOL) – within a day or two of its release on Steam. Our news editor even eagerly rushed to publish a review. With the game’s viral popularity, PAX West made a perfect chance to talk with Zack Johnson, founder of Asymmetric and creator of the Loathing “universe,” about the game’s development and success so far.

“We wanted something that people were like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what Kingdom of Loathing would look like if it were this kind of game,” Zack affirmed as I congratulated their success. The accolades have been flowing for West of Loathing, and that included the game’s inclusion in the exclusive “PAX 10” at PAX West 2017, reserved for the best and brightest indie games. A month after release, WOL sits with a cozy metacritic score of 88 and approximately 99% positive reviews on Steam.

West of Loathing Conversation Screenshot

So how did Asymmetric go from a browser-based MMO to a single player RPG? “We needed to make something new. Kingdom of Loathing is still fine, but it made less and less money over time, and we wanted to be able to keep the team together,” Zack says. “We needed to make something we could sell to a more modern audience. We were hoping it would crossover and sell to more than just KOL fans.”

And West of Loathing has, indeed, managed to do so. While there was a initial burst of KOL players in the beginning, press coverage and word of mouth quickly spread, to a point where most of the West of Loathing players were not KOL players, or even familiar with the older game. Meanwhile, Kingdom of Loathing has seen a consistently higher rate of concurrent users online, to the tune of about 20%, and new sign-ups are back to peak levels.

West of Loathing Combat Screenshot

I asked Zack about the choice of a Western theme, given that Kingdom of Loathing has a more generic fantasy setting. “I always felt like the Wild West was just as good an RPG setting as medieval Europe, just because it has a lot of the same sort of tropes,” he explains. “There’s good versus evil, a lot of fighting, treasure, mines to go into, the level of technology is comprehensible . . . it’s never made sense to me there aren’t more RPGs that are Western.”

As for the class choices – Cowpuncher, Bean Slinger, and Snake Oiler – Zack really doesn’t remember how they came about. “We sort of just wrote them down and said ‘Yep, that looks good,'” he said.

West of Loathing Rock Monster Screenshot

So what does the future hold for Asymmetric? Zack says they are looking to do some DLC for West of Loathing over the next year, and the team is already eagerly discussing their next game. “The development of West of Loathing was in large part an investment in the engine that it runs in,” he says, explaining that the team has built a custom engine within Unity that works well enough they can simply focus on creating content. “From the ground up, the tools, the engine, everything was just designed to stay out of our way and let us make stuff as fast as we could.” And that only leaves more possibilities for the future.

West of Loathing is available on Steam now for $10.99 US.

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