Richard A. Bartle's Review of IoK

Name: Island of Kesmai
Location: CompuServe
Pricing Structure: $12.50/hour plus $9.40/hour for UK players

Brief Description:
First-generation graphics game.

Island of Kesmai (or IOK ) is Compuserve's best-selling game - its popularity exceeds that of British Legends , which came on-line later.

IOK is primarily a role-playing game. Beginners have to select from various character classes and races (each of which have their advantages and disadvantages), and they are assigned 6 property values (strength, intelligence, dexterity, wisdom, stamina and constitution). The parallels with AD&D are clear.

IOK is in many ways like a conventional MUA. Players move by typing in directions, and there are commands to pick up, drop, examine and throw objects. There is little breadth, true, and hardly any depth, but it does have complexity enough to merit a 160+ page manual. Subtle differences between character classes, and a range of effects dependent on players' statistics, do give an impression of realism.

The main point about IOK , however, is its display. Rather than textual room descriptions, IOK gives a bird's eye view of the area local to the player. The game is grid-based, and players see a 6 by 6 matrix drawn using pairs of ASCII characters. This may be incomplete, since areas not in line-of-sight are not drawn.

The display is crude. Common features have their own symbols (eg. walls are [], fire is **), but mobiles (critters) and players are simply listed as letters, with a key to decode them printed alongside the map; this is necessary because players can occupy the same square, and thus couldn't be drawn graphically. There is some informational content in mobiles' names, eg. !Nocha is of neutral alignment, +Nocha would be evil (and likely to attack).

There are client programs available which make playing IOK easier, and which tart up the display. However, at present there is no software on general release that produces quality graphics (an Amiga terminal driver has been made available just this month, but so far only 6 people have downloaded it). This is something which must surely come soon - if IOK were given Dungeon Master graphics, for example, it would be almost irresistible. The game is structured specifically for automatically-generated graphical displays, and it's amazing that nothing beyond crude ASCII is used.

The atmosphere in IOK is enforced friendliness. Attacking other players, while possible, produces howls of outrage and the attacker will become a pariah. Communication over distance is not possible, so even if there are 50 people playing you can only talk to those in the same "room" as you.

Players in IOK progress by finding money, and using it to buy equipment or training. There is no overall goal - the players just try to keep alive. However, since some people have been playing for years, they can build up incredibly powerful personae, and it is unlikely that they will ever die. Even if they do, they will be resurrected automatically unless killed by a flesh-eating mobile. In order to keep these long-term players from getting bored, the game is continually added to, with new sections of increasingly dangerous monsters and bigger rewards. This does have the effect of keeping high-level players interested, but it makes the game even more daunting for newcomers. Because of this, IOK has two games - basic and advanced.

The game does have resets, but they are over a long period of time - 60 days or so. Individual objects and puzzles can be reset on their own - necessary, as players take them with them when they quit.

In many ways, IOK is like Rogue or Hack. It has a similar display, similar commands, slightly more depth (mobiles that speak gibberish, mobiles that can only be damaged by weapons made of a certain material), and is multi-player. Nevertheless, even Hack is compulsive, and as IOK is multi-player that makes it doubly so.

IOK appeals to people who like complex (yet often arbitrary) interactions between objects, lots of detailed rules, and no descriptive text. Were a large games company to muscle in on the play-by-modem scene, this is the kind of game they'd probably go for. In the long term, it's a bad move because IOK makes many mistakes - it can't go on expanding indefinitely, for example. However, with a good client it could be very impressive for a few years, and that would certainly be enough to make a large amount of money.

Basically, Island of Kesmai is an average, role-playing style MUA, with a crude graphical interface and not a great deal else. However, it is tuned to perfection, and when a proper client is written it should be very impressive.

"In 2.5 years of playing, I've never been on-line when there weren't at least 3 other players, and there are usually 10-60 players."                

 -- Dragon [magazine]

"When you become involved in Island of Kesmai, you find yourself thinking of it not so much as a game but as a place."      

  -- Randy Eichman [player]

"Expect your first dragon-slaying outing to take a few hours. Your adventure could end in glory or in a dragon's stomach, but chances are you'll have a great time either way."                 

-- CompuServe [magazine]

"Kesmai's creators have fashioned a revolutionary experience."               

  -- Dragon [magazine]