Tanya X. Short is the captain of Kitfox Games. They're developing a survival-strategy RPG for tablet and PC called Shattered Planet. It may or may not be a roguelike.
It’s pretty clear we have a problem.
Developers and players alike use the word Roguelike as if it were a perfectly valid genre of gameplay. We even use the term sometimes to describe our own games we are trying to sell to people.
Stop to think – how do we describe those games where you jump around on platforms, often die from falling on pits, and sometimes you kill enemies by jumping on them? It’s not a “Mario-like”. It’s a “platformer”.
The short answer: Platformer is more accurate, easier to understand/remember for people who have perhaps never played a Mario game, and doesn't imply a thematic genre.
Imagine an alternate universe in which all "jumper games" felt obligated to include plumbers and mushrooms as thematic elements. Loosening the label up into “Mario-likelike” or “Mario-lite” might make it less limiting, but actually more vague and potentially confusing.
As game developers, we are responsible for how we describe the games we make, yet continually trap ourselves in a loop of calling our own game essentially a clone of someone else’s, with lengthy footnotes explaining why that isn’t actually the case.
In the indie game space, design and marketing are often so tightly linked that we may forget the power we have over our product’s message. We aren’t used to the idea that we’re shaping the player’s narrative about our game – that the terms we use on our websites, in our Kickstarters, or elsewhere in our marketing might skew the attitudes of our fans, and our industry.
In fact, the idea of changing our fanbase’s vocabulary about our game can seem terrifying, if not downright impossible. Some, such as the good folks at Roguelike Radio, would say these are simply traits that all modern games should aspire to, and is part of why we're seeing them pop up in every genre and platform. And really, it’s culture. How do you change culture?
Fortunately, it’s not a new problem.
If you don’t remember, Grand Theft Auto III’s release in 2001 was a major event in our industry. For some years afterwards, it seemed every game had to have some element of wandering around aimlessly, destroying your surroundings and causing chaos, or else it wasn’t considered AAA. Most of these “heavily inspired” products (to put it kindly) also included similar themes of guns, crime, and dense urban environments. Unsurprisingly, it was natural to call these games “Grand Theft Auto clones”, because they were, in fact, trying to replicate the success of the GTA series and doing their best to improve on it.
However, journalists liked some of these so-called clones, and many of them had new mechanics or themes that didn’t quite fit the bill. Some struggled, toying with terms mostly focused on themes, like “crime games”, “crime-based action games”, or even “gangsta genre” (thanks CNN). By fall 2006, however, Wikipedia records the term “sandbox games” coming into vogue, capturing the spirit of free play and pointless chaos embodied in the sandbox of our childhoods.
It's worth noting that the term Grand Theft Auto Clone is still useful -- when specifically talking about games that have the same theme, marketing, and feature set.
Remember even further back, to the days of Wolfenstein? Here’s a hint to get your research started:
Well, maybe, but as both an experienced designer and as a newbie marketer, there are a few problems here.
The ultimate proof? In order to talk intelligently about the range of gameplay encompassed by “Roguelike,” fans and independent developers have attempted to classify the genre into sub-categories, but these are, themselves, full of specific references (Hacklike, Bandlikes, ADOMlikes, ZAngbandlike).
Less strictly, I think we can all agree that words mean things. They matter. They change how we think, how we behave, and how we express ourselves. Why would we settle for calling our games part of a genre essentially named "almost-clones of this other game you like"?
Even on the Shattered Planet game page, horror of horrors, the word "roguelike" appears!? Why?
And, ultimately, any press is good press. It can be more difficult to control the narrative if you are an indie developer, because your “marketing spend” is often about community building and encouraging your fans to create their own conversations about your game... and who are we to tell them what terms to use and not use? We don’t sell boxes from a TV commercial tagline, a magazine spread, or often even Steam banners or any other “top-down” forms of communication. We're just scraping by. So, when your fans, or the media, call your game a “roguelike”, you thank your lucky stars for any attention at all.
But the truth is that we can't let our players dictate how we talk about games, game design, and genre direction. At the very least, it needs to be a dialogue, and as designers, developers, and marketers, we have the responsibility to strive to present our creations accurately and courageously.
"Hey!" you might be thinking, "You can't summarise this article yet! You haven't told me how to fix the problem! What word am I SUPPOSED to be using, tyrannical smartypants?!"
Here's a few ideas:
I don't think any of those are quite ready for the back of the AAA box, but may inspire someone better at this whole "tagline" thing than I am, maybe even someone with millions of dollars and focus groups behind them. Elegance is usually deceptively expensive. The mental leap between "GTA-clone" (invoking violence, immature sexualisation, and driving) and "sandbox" (invoking experimentation, childlike glee and impermanence) is longer than it seems, after the fact. I look forward to seeing who chimes in in the comments.
For now, as an opening to the conversation, my suggestion is this: ask yourself why you want to use the word. For me, I intend to take a long look at my game, at my community, and shape gaming culture carefully. What is it about Rogue or its progeny that you want to compare yourself to? Why are you using procedural generation or permadeath in the first place, beyond getting a few extra hits from /r/roguelikes? Within that explanation somewhere, is there a word we should be using?
Special thanks to my ex-colleague and good friend David Fathers for originally spurring debate on this topic.