[Having come off of the complicated and lengthy process of developing and releasing iOS title 100 Rogues to limited success, developer Keith Burgun radically rethought what he wanted to achieve and what was even possible -- and in this article describes the ideas that led to his next game, Auro.]
In my previous Gamasutra article, "The Cautionary Tale Of 100 Rogues", I described the process behind designing, developing and marketing of my 2010 iOS game, 100 Rogues. My team, Dinofarm Games, and I have started working on a new game. While, on its face, it shares many surface-level things in common with 100 Rogues, I'd like to explain how and why I went back to the drawing board and looked at the fundamental aspects of the genre.
The new game in question is called Auro, named after the spoiled prince protagonist. To describe it in a line, it's a "turn-based, hex-based, dungeon-crawling strategy game". Note that it's not a "role playing game", and it's not a "roguelike". Which is funny, because the game's original working title was actually "THE ROGUELIKE".
However, as you'll see, my design process and philosophy stripped away so many elements of these genres that when I stepped back, I realized that what I had on my hands no longer fit that title. Players will decide for themselves, of course, but by sticking to a philosophy, I think I've stumbled upon something entirely new.
Not that it really needs to be said, if you've played 100 Rogues, but I'm a huge fan of roguelikes; Dungeon Crawl and Shiren the Wanderer are two of my all-time favorite games. However, I also think there are inherent problems with the genre. Some are probably thinking, "Yes -- they're too hard and unforgiving". Actually, though, I think that's one of the main things they do right.
The fact that these games are challenging, and your choices actually matter (because if you make a wrong choice, there are consequences that cannot be undone -- imagine that!) are exactly what make them fun and interesting. The problems as I see them with roguelikes are issues that face most video games: over-complexity, unfocused game design, and temporal inefficiency.
Before video games, there were still games, of course; board games, card games, sports, word games, and little "don't step on the black tiles!" type-games created by children. However, before computers, games had to be simple for practical reasons -- they were limited by the physical realities of the medium. For example, if you want your sport to catch on, it's very nice if a few friends and I can play with nothing more than a ball and a field. If we need 12 different types of balls, several goal-types, and lots of other equipment, we're just less likely to go to all of the trouble.
Computer games, however, do not have this limitation at all, and developers really take advantage of it. In fact, such great advantage has been taken of this ability to continually add more complexity to games, that we're now completely taken in by a sort of "more is more" philosophy.
I think that this negatively affects almost all modern video games, and with DLC and in-app purchases, the problem is certainly not going away (to put it lightly!)
But more is not always more. When adding "more" to a game you decrease the likelihood of being able to balance the game. If the game is not balanced, then a dominant strategy emerges -- that one weapon or unit or move that everyone uses over and over. Now where did your complexity go?
All of that effort designing, creating and implementing those features was wasted. Your game now effectively contains only a few usable items.
Great games usually don't have a ton of inherent complexity -- that is, the complexity of the rules and content. Great games have a limited amount of inherent complexity, and a great amount of emergent complexity -- the complexity that emerges through play.
For a great example, think of Go or Tetris -- the ingredients of the game are super-simple, but when you put them into action, it unfolds into an awesome array of meaningful choices. This is where we get the (now lost?) mantra that games should be "easy to learn, difficult to master". Many modern video games these days end up feeling more like an asset tour -- look through all the assets, use them all once, and then buy the next game.
Finally, we also want to be very careful when adding "more" to our game designs because the more we add, the more difficult our games are to learn. That's part of why we have this expectation that the first act of our games will be a tutorial -- because if anyone uninitiated by video games tries to play Ocarina of Time or Fable, they'll likely have a hard time picking up all of the complex rules from scratch.
This issue of more being more absolutely affects roguelike design. One could almost say that part of Nethack's appeal is this novelty idea that the game includes almost everything one could imagine (in fact, I believe it even includes a kitchen sink). Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup has, even by the admission of the lead designer, too much stuff. Early on in the 100 Rogues' development, I noticed that I was trying to add too much stuff as well. We had originally intended for many more weapon and armor types to be in the game, but stumbled into problems.