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The History of Rogue: Have @ You, You Deadly Zs
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The History of Rogue: Have @ You, You Deadly Zs

May 5, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In the latest in a series of Gamasutra-exclusive bonus material originally to be included in Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton's new book Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time, the authors investigate the origins, permutations, and legacy of Rogue, one of the most quietly influential and long-lived games ever created. Previously in this 'bonus material' series: Elite, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Pinball Construction Set and Pong.]

Rogue: Exploring the Dungeons of Doom (aka Rogue), created in the early 1980s[1] by Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman, is an intriguing game for many reasons. For one, it's still being actively played, ported, enhanced, and forked[2] two decades later -- a fact that challenges its description as just a "vintage" or "retro" game.

It's also among a scant handful of games that have achieved worldwide recognition despite originating on UNIX[3], a platform better suited for science and industry than computer games.

Indeed, many UNIX terminals lack all but the most basic audiovisuals, so Rogue and the majority of other games for the platform have to rely on text or "character-set graphics," which is to say pictures made up of characters like = and [][4].

It's also important to consider the community in which Rogue originated. Programmers like Toy and Wichman had a different background than most developers of commercial games, who were (and are) primarily concerned with making profit.

Whereas developers like Richard Garriott (see book Chapter 23, "Ultima (1980): The Immaculate Conception of the Computer Role-Playing Game") and Roberta Williams (see book Chapter 11, "King's Quest: Quest for the Crown (1984): Perilous Puzzles, Thorny Thrones") would have thought it crazy to share the source code of their bestselling games with their competitors, many UNIX developers (especially those in academic settings) tended to freely share their programs and their code.

Rogue and many of its derivatives rely entirely on character-set graphics to depict dungeons and monsters. Shown here is a battle between the player's character (the "@" symbol) and a kobold (represented by the "K").

The money was assumed to be in the hardware, not the software. Hardware companies modified UNIX as they saw fit, but it soon became apparent that an industry-wide standard was needed to ensure compatibility.

AT&T and Bell Labs, who owned UNIX, began to license closed-source versions of UNIX for commercial use, but other companies banded together to create open-source alternatives. One of these was BSD UNIX, developed at the University of California at Berkeley, where Michael Toy was a student.

One important feature of BSD UNIX was Ken Arnold's curses, a library of functions for drawing pictures on the screen using a terminal's character set. Although there were certainly serious uses for curses, it was also a great tool for making games.

Toy and Wichman, who were schoolmates at the time, had already dabbled in game development before, creating text adventures[5], among other small projects. Curses inspired them to create a "graphical" role-playing game, which would depict dungeons from a top-down perspective.

The monsters, treasures, traps, and other objects would be represented by certain symbols; Z for zombie, for instance. The player's character was an @ -- perhaps a play on "where you're at." However, the graphics routines, while certainly innovative, weren't the game's most distinguishing feature; procedurally generated -- or created on the fly -- dungeons were.

Shown here is Rogue Clone IV, which shows what the game could look like using the IBM PC's character set and basic color.

[1] The BSD UNIX distribution 4.2 in 1980 included a binary version of Rogue, allowing for wide distribution, which is the pivotal release event we'll use for initial dating. See

[2] A "fork" occurs when a programming project splits off into separate projects, usually controlled by different groups of programmers.

[3] Also written "Unix".

[4] A similar scenario played out for many home users who utilized the popular CP/M operating system standard of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which had few, if any, graphical features in its myriad implementations. Naturally, CP/M was a target for many roguelike developments, including the commercial Nemesis from SuperSoft (1981).

[5] See book Chapter 25, "Zork: Text Imps versus Graphics Grues" for more on text adventures.

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Matt Barton
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Thanks for the comments, Robert. I assume you're speaking from personal experience or familiarity with the developers? The story I've heard (and one passed along here:
tml) is that the code was open source. I found some interviews with Wichman about the game, but some mention that 4.2 included a binary of Rogue, though it's unclear whether the code was also included.

Roberto Alfonso
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My favorite genre nowadays. It is good that dungeons crawlers/rogue-like games are getting some love from developers for the DS (Mystery Dungeons, Etrian Odyssey, etc). What I like from these games is punishment you face if you take a misstep. In many strategy games you are able to situate your pieces before the stage begins, but in these games, every time you walk to a wrong position the opponent comes closer. It doesn't matter whether the punishment is now or later, it will eventually come.

And since most have limited equipment, you must use items at the very exact moment. Sometimes you may want to drink a potion in the move, but you risk having to battle with hurt characters.

I thank Shiren the Wanderer for taking away the "item collection" from Final Fantasy. In Square Enix games you usually don't use the most powerful items (like megalixirs) because they are limited. You keep them as if they were collectible cards. However, in rogue-like games you get used to use them even if they are unique, because it is either using it and stay alive or die.

Someone invited me to the 7-day Roguelike competence (, but I didn't have time to spare. However, it is always good to try those games, since the concept is always the same, but the enemies, items and stages are completely different.

ANdrew Grillet
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The price for BSD distributions dependend on who you were - for an academic institution it was the price of a blank 2400 foot tape! And it was eventually ruled that "since the US tax payer had paid for it, the US tax payer was entitled to use it" and the licence became the legendary BSD licence still widely used today (new versions of OpenBSD, FreeBSD and NetBSD all released in the last couple of weeks.)

In the 80's the BSD licence was widely interpreted (by geeks and hippies, no one else cared) as "you can do what you like with the code, including, but not limited to, killing time and making babies (or vice versa), so long as the Regents of Berkeley get the credit for it".

BSD and LSD both came from Berkeley (allegedly).

David Dingwall
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A quick comment from Europe. Wherever the source :-) Rogue code flowed freely around those universities with source code licences from AT&T and Berkeley. We even ran a back-ported edition on BSD 2.10 on PDP11s which is kind of sad/wierd.

Although your article focuses on individual gameplay, it's interesting you don't mention rogue-o-matic. It also did the rounds of universities a couple of years later. As the player aquired skills in Rogue, your character's attributes impacted how you did against different monsters. Rogue-o-matic ran the game automatically, aquiring skills and points until, the character died. The "-o-matic" part blended the genes/attributes of past "players" to hopefully build better ones the next time round. Hell of a way to use up spare VAX cycles at night, and have blagging rights with other universities half the way around the world.

Of course these days "scripting" of WoW or EVE Online is seen as a Very Bad Thing(TM). Twenty odd years ago this was bleading edge stuff, and secretly had the AI researchers working on it too.

Taylor Venable
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Robert Allen: You seem to be confusing usage terms with license cost with copyright. You said: "Neither BSD Unix nor Rogue were anything close to open source. The source code for both was copyright Berkeley Regents or somesuch." These premises, even if true, have no relation. Nearly all code is copyright somebody, unless it's placed in the public domain, because U.S. copyright law is implicit (by the very act of creating something you have copyright on it). On licensing and usage terms, I quote Marshall Kirk McKusick (from "The Design and Implementation of the FreeBSD Operating System", page 9): "Up through the release of 4.3BSD Tahoe, all recipients of BSD had to first get an AT&T source license. That was because the BSD systems were never released by Berkeley in a binary-only format; the distributions always contained the complete source to every part of the system." This elucidates some of the discrepancies in the comments above. An AT&T source license was required because the BSD source code contained AT&T UNIX code. But since Berkeley developed the TCP/IP stack in 4BSD, many people wanted to get that without having to pay increasingly high rates for the AT&T code. This lead to the Net and Net2 releases which contained no AT&T code, and also eventually (after a lawsuit with USL / Novell over six remaining files added to Net2 by Bill Jolitz and distributed by BSDI) to 4.4BSD-Lite and 4.4BSD-Lite release 2. So that covers licensing questions, so what about cost? McKusick further notes that "[a]lthough Berkeley charged a $1000 fee to get a tape, anyone was free to get a copy from somebody who already had it." Berkeley, if not establishing these trends of open distribution over the 'net, was certainly on the leading edge of its adoption.

Shane OGorman
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I have a question about the game that I have always wondered since playing as a kid.

There used to be a way to hit I think it was ctr-z or some secret combination and it would ask for Wizards password. But I would dig through the code and try to find what it might be and I have never found an answer to it.

Also I assume there is no end? It always felt like they had meant for one but it just never got finished.

Ken Arnold
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Interesting to see that folks are still talking about this.

When Michael transfered to UC Berkeley, I got sucked in to rogue development as well, so let me clarify about the license terms. (By the way, Michael and Glenn weren't worried that text-based games became boring to the *player* after they were finished. They wanted to write a game that wouldn't become boring to *themselves*, as the authors.)

At the time we were unaware of licensing issues and what they meant. Believe it or not, licensing was not a major issue for most folks writing software, especially at academic institutions, and even more especially for folks writing something on their own time like we were. From the start, Michael and Glenn had stamped a U.C. Regents copyright notice on the code and mostly left it at that.

But it's true that we tried to keep the source tightly controlled. The primary reason was that we were trying to keep the playing field (as it were) level between people who could read and understand the source and those who did not. Later, when we added the "save" feature, we also didn't want people to have the clues to the file format to see how we secured it. To respect this, the source to rogue was left off the BSD tapes, shipping only a binary copy.

To be honest, near the end, when commercialization occurred to us, we held it tightly for that reason as well. In those days that seemed reasonable, but it's not something I would do now. In fact, now I would publish the thing anyway, as the gameplay isn't compromised and it's clearer that this is the real value.

But primarily we controlled the source for (perceived) gameplay issues. The Regents license at the time made source available to academic institutions for basically free, and to commercial licensees for a non-trivial chunk of change. That isn't like open source at all. But the control was primarily (for us) not a licensing issue until very near the end. I think it's most reasonable to say that it was at a time where at Berkeley the licensing issue had not come in to focus for any but a very few running the BSD project. The GNU project hadn't yet started, so it was a question that as yet had no center, although a few battles were underway that were important to changing that. So to me it's a bit anachronistic to apply terms like "open source licensing" to a world in which the issues it addresses were for the most part unformulated. It's a bit like applying the term "constitutional rights" to a time before people conceptualized constitutional government -- you can make logically correct statements, but it implies a thought process that wasn't underway.

People did grab sources, and some of them did get sent around. So there are some actual versions floating around, and some re-writes as well. The latest version of the source I have is up on : To the best of my knowledge, neither Michael nor Glenn have more recent versions.

On some other posts:

(*) rogue-o-matic was way, way cool. Once it came out, I made sure that every subsequent version of rogue had a new feature in it that broke rogue-o-matic, just to see what they'd do to respond.

(*) That people tried to hack the top score file was one of the main reasons we tried to hide the source. We didn't want to help them out, and wanted people to earn the scores they posted to be fair to those who couldn't hack.

(*) LSD was discovered by a Swiss scientist. It can be said, however, that Berkeley figured out what to do with it. ;-)

(*) The wizard's password for most of its life at Berkeley (post-Santa Cruz) was "cute,huh". Now that I've let that out, the black helicopters will be coming for me...

Michael Paese
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I'm an old player from the early 80s - I'm sure it took a full point off my GPA at the time, it was so addictive!

Anyways, I've picked up playing around with the game recently, and wanted to try a few things out.

I was trying to get into DM mode, but the password above doesn't want to work.

It keeps giving me the message "hmmm, were you ever as smart as Ken Arnold"

This is V1.1, SN:1349 (Mr Mctesq was here)

Any ideas? I'd love to check it out, just one more thing to check off my list. ;-)

Robin Green
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Interesting note: Michael Toy currently works at OnLive in Palo Alto.

Matt Barton
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Wow, Ken Arnold himself! Thanks so much for clearing up on those issues, Ken, and thanks again to Robert for raising these issues. We had a chance to talk to Bob Citelli (of Epyx) about Rogue. According to him, baseball stat games and Rogue did very well on some early computer platforms, but I still see them being eclipsed by Ultima III and the rest. It's funny that Epyx also published Sword of Fargoal, which, as you know, is more or less a graphical interpretation of Rogue, with procedurally-generated dungeons and the like (albeit much simpler gameplay). Of course there was also Telengard.

If you guys are into this stuff, don't forget the earlier Gamasutra article:

Tons of stuff there, and I believe the author even has a book out on the topic. ;)

Shane OGorman
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Now if I only had a non-64 bit OS to play the game to try out that password. I guess asking the guy who designed it when I was a kid was probably out of the question. But 25 years later getting the answer is still pretty cool.

Daniel Jensen
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General Allen,

I think you're confusing rogue with nethack. No version of rogue I remember had corpses, shops or fake amulets. Nethack had/has all of those things.

I found your comment about an unknown person posting the source on forum very interesting. Did that happen after I left? I don't remember hearing anything about it before this. I have my suspicions about who it was and how they got it, though.

Jason Stevens
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For anyone interested, you can download & run 4.2 BSD on windows here:

And yes, rogue is totally playable!

Daniel Jensen
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That's possible, but probably would have been noticed unless the targeted terminal was left logged in and unattended at the time. I was thinking of something much more straightforward. At one time another student asked to borrow my terminal while I was using the games account. When he returned it, I checked the history and saw that it had been cleared. I asked him what he had been doing, but he wouldn't tell me. At the time, I thought he had probably squirrelled away a copy of a game somewhere so that he could play it at times when gsh wouldn't let him, but now I wonder.

Glenn Wichman
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Wow, look, the gang's all here! Hi, Ken, Daniel, Allen!

I'll add my perspective on the whole rights issue. We never gave it any thought, at least I didn't. Rogue was not done for course credit, and we didn't ask anyone's permission to do it. And I certainly didn't put the copyright notices in the source files. I just (inappropriately) considered Rogue to be our property because it was our creation written on our own initiative on our own time. It belonged to the regents by virtue of having been written using their equipment. I assume the copyright notices got added once development moved to Berkeley, probably a policy for any source code that was included in BSD.

Glenn Wichman
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And a note about the Atari ST version (which I wrote): By default it displayed a graphical dungeon, but it was pretty simple to change the setting to showing good old ASCII characters (in this mode you could see the whole map). I suspect most players switched to ASCII mode pretty quickly.

I stand by my conviction that piracy was an enormous impediment to Rogue's commercial success, although obviously there is never one single reason. Much of the target audience was already used to playing Rogue "for free" (really part of their tuition, actually) at college, and I think the idea of paying for the game seemed odd. I can hardly complain about this since we also got to develop the original version "for free" on UC's equipment.

Glenn Wichman
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Robert: No eating of corpses in the canonical Rogue. If someone added that to some source code, I'm very sure it wasn't me, and I'm almost as sure it wasn't Michael, Jon or Ken.

Roberto Alfonso
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Indeed, it is incredible that a feature can bring so many legends here :-) I would love to read an article with not only unique insights about the game, but also the different technical limitations back in the day, your thoughts on the current status of roguelike games, and your current works!

Glenn Wichman
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A little insight into technical limitations: The Macintosh version of Rogue had to fit on 1 400K floppy disk, and had to run in 60K of memory (the Mac had 128K, but 68K was used up by the operating system) Also, to get to the computer, we had to walk uphill both ways through the snow!

Bill Loguidice
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I love how all of the different Epyx (and Epyx-licensed) versions of Rogue had different feature-sets (looks) depending upon the platform. I've been trying to collect all of the different boxed versions for that very reason. I'm glad I got the photo of the Mac version in there, though I wish I could have eliminated the scan-line.

Glenn Wichman
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Michael was writing the Amiga version at the same time I was writing the Atari ST version. We were having a bit of friendly rivalry over who could create the cooler game, which is why we each added some features that the other didn't have.

Robert Nesius
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Found my way here via a slashdot article... looks like I'm a little late to the party but in any case, here's a helpful link to keep the various "roguelikes" straight.

@Glenn - my first encounter with Rogue was on my neighbor's Atari ST. Loved it. Thanks for your efforts there.

When I bust out a rogue-like, I go for Angband these days. I never liked Nethack - to me it's the "emacs of roguelikes". 8^D

Iain Maclean
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Glen, Ken, Daniel, Allen....legends indeed.

Firstly, sincere gratitude to all involved for many years (and in equal measure) enjoyment and frustration in my pursuit of that 'Holy Grail' of all games! (Rogue Clone IV)

However, that balance has (as of this morning) irrevocably changed when I emerged absolutely delighted from level 1, clutching the coveted 'Amulet of Yendor'

Indeed a 'life defining moment' and one that I will cherish in perpituity..".A Total Winner on Level 27"

Again...thanks to all !

ps..what is significance of 'other Amulets' which I chose to avoid on return journey ?