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'Roguelikes': Getting to the heart of the it-genre

May 21, 2014 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

Over the last year, the roguelike has become the it-genre, particularly for independent developers. While debate remains over what constitutes a roguelike or whether the term should even be used, there's no argument around the fact that both developers and players have come to love these games for their endless, procedural challenges.

This year's best student game in the Independent Games Festival was Risk of Rain; Klei Entertainment sold over a million copies of Don't Starve last year. These are just two obvious success stories that owe a lot to the appeal of roguelike mechanics.

Tanya X. Short of Kitfox Games (Shattered Planet) succinctly captures this appeal: "As a designer, and as a player, I love procedurally generated, system-driven games because I'm curious."

That hook has lead more and more to explore the boundaries of roguelike game design. "I think success breeds success," says Don't Starve lead Kevin Forbes. "There have been a couple of really good games in the past few years that serve both as an introduction for players, and as inspiration for developers."

"There's a book that could be written on this topic."

Daniel Cook, developer at Spry Fox (Road Not Taken) explains another key element of the genre -- its longevity. "I've been playing NetHack for well over 20 years. It is very much a hobby for me. The long-term variability, depth of mastery, and richness of evergreen surprising moments are an anomaly in this era of disposable movie games," he says. In fact, the roguelike -- from its history to its design space -- is so fruitful that "there's a book that could be written on this topic," he says.

"When some journalist / grad student / pundit asks 'What is the culturally relevant future of the game industry?' one loud and clear answer should be 'roguelikes,'" says Cook.

Why do players and developers love them? 

The roguelike has caught on not just with developers, but also with players. Why is that? 100 Rogues developer Keith Burgun puts it down to a renaissance of players looking for games that offer rich play experiences -- which we can also see in the surge of popularity of everything from Minecraft to European board games, he suggests.

"I think people are just slowly, but surely, getting a tiny bit more ground about 'what games are.'  They are realizing that games are fundamentally way more than just a Universal Studios theme park ride."

He continues, "I think they're starting to realize how important gameplay -- quality interactions -- are, and that's causing more and more of them to look in places that they wouldn't have before."

Short notes that players are attracted not to the idea of the "roguelike" per se, but the experiences these games afford to them: "People don't play first person shooters because they like the word FPS; people play FPSes because they enjoy shooting guns as an immersive experience."

"What I love as a player is that I'm constantly running into new situations that I want to share with my friends," Cook says. Short agrees: "Their value tends to be in providing the maximum possible array of outcomes... i.e. satisfying novelty as long as possible, with the minimum number of elements."

Burgun notes that this novelty can speak to gamers in a very basic way, with roguelikes offering "so much stuff in one package that surely something in there, you're going to enjoy."

"As a player, I feel like any given mechanic or system can reliably be pushed to its limits, as a challenge and as a strategic tool."

"You can be surprised by something new every time you play. You can challenge yourself to learn about and master complex systems," Forbes says. "I think that a lot of players really appreciate being able to direct their own experience, and emergent gameplay lets things happen that keep the experience fresh. There's a level of replayability inherent to the genre that's sorely missing these days."

The roguelike allows for "unique, surreal and wonderful collisions between player agency and complex systems," says Cook, a mode of expression that is "unique to games."

Forbes continues this thought: "I've always found it odd we game designers have such an exciting, unique medium to work with, but so often waste its potential trying to emulate film."

It's the potential for surprise that can excite both the player and the developer, Short says. "As a player, I feel like any given mechanic or system can reliably be pushed to its limits, as a challenge and as a strategic tool. And as a designer, it's incredibly satisfying to watch players use your systems to come up with new strategies you didn't think of."

Developer appeal goes further than that

But its appeal for developers extends well beyond that: Roguelikes provide an exciting creative space, certainly, but the genre also allows today's smaller teams to stretch their resources.

"I think every designer now has to ask themselves, at the start of any game project these days, 'Is there any way I can procedurally generate any of my content without the quality suffering enormously?' Any answers to the affirmative must be taken seriously. The value-to-cost ratio is just too high," Short says.

Cook puts it more succinctly: "One- or two-person teams can't afford to make 100 hours of sexy 3D-storytime. But they can make 100 hours of roguelike bliss."

"One- or two-person teams can't afford to make 100 hours of sexy 3D-storytime. But they can make 100 hours of roguelike bliss."

The savings is not simply based on the fact that content is generated procedurally and thus, in some sense, free -- the thinking required to create games like these also insures design changes won't result in costly rework, says Cook. "With static levels, a change to your core mechanics could result in months of rework," Cook says. "Regenerating levels after a change to your game mechanics is a trivial exercise. Content becomes amenable to cheap refactoring."

That flexibility also results in a fundamentally different kind of gameplay, says Defender's Quest developer Lars Doucet. "In most other games, you can always reset, or reload, and use your knowledge of the future (or of unchanging levels) to march your way forward. Most video games are like karate katas that you practice over and over again. With roguelikes and procedural death labyrinths, it's an actual fight on the streets -- you don't know what's coming at you, and you have to improvise and think on your feet."

This procedural flexibility, in concert with mechanics like permadeth that the genre has popularized, "opens up the possibility for single-player video games to actually be contests -- to be competitive -- to be a thing you can win and lose," notes Burgun.

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sean lindskog
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You guys nailed it. Thanks Christian and interviewees.

Don't Starve and FTL, both games with very roguelike qualities, are two of my recent favorites.

The thing that really stands out to me is this. A roguelike is make or break on the quality of your game systems. 'Cause that's pretty much all you got. You can't rescue a shitty roguelike with shiny production value or Hollywood-esque "movie game" scripted content. These games kneel down and worship at the altar of the Game Systems Gods. These game systems better be great because there's nothing else to hide behind.

Patrick Casey
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Agreed. Both Christian and the interviewees nailed it.

And YOU nailed it with this comment and your one below. Well done!

Bart Stewart
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The question I keep coming back to is this: Why does deliberately combining exploration-friendly PCG with exploration-punishing permadeath ever seem like a good idea to any developer?

I don't say they "shouldn't" ever be blended; trying different combinations is interesting. But the reason why Rogue/Hack and their ilk killed off the player character randomly wasn't because of any modern notions of challenge or excitement or social competition -- it was because programmers ran out of RAM! When you had so many interesting things you wanted players to be able to see, there wasn't room for or interest in gentle failure mechanics. You "died," you started a new game.

Why do game developers today think it's a good idea to copy that mechanic when the constraint that originally required it no longer exists?

For various reasons I also strongly support the development of "procedurally generated, system-driven games." That is a valuable design model for all the reasons given in this article. It's why I've been watching with great interest Josh Parnell's Limit Theory ( ame) since its successful Kickstarter.

It's the retention of that other structural choice now called permadeath that I'm not convinced will be broadly appealing... or necessary. It was tolerated 35+ years ago, and obviously there are some gamers who like being abused with a "game over" after a lot of time invested in progress. But I'm not persuaded that's going to be a popular component in more mainstream games.

I'm familiar with the "mastery" argument. I'm doubtful that it will resonate with most people, who don't like to lose.

The really ironic thing is that this article shows up just as I am finishing porting a 1985 version of the classic STARTREK game from PL/I to JavaScript. It's filled with completely random game-terminating moments. So this question of permadeath as a "feature" is one that's very fresh for me.

Why in the world should this instant-loss-of-progress thing be perpetuated when the other component -- procedurally-generated complex systems to explore -- is so much more interesting and welcoming?

sean lindskog
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Permadeath is all about the visceral feeling of true risk.

If I don't win this battle, it's game over. In my brain, risk/reward are balanced emotions. Exploring to that new, deep, dangerous part of the game is tremendously more satisfying to me if it is *risky*. It is much less satisfying if it is just the eventual result of putting enough hours into the game (and reloading as many times as needed).

Along the same vein, the feeling of accomplishment is much greater if there is a real chance of failure along the way.

Now, certain game mechanics make permadeath work better or worse. For my tastes, I tend to dislike anything I perceive as an "unfair death" in a permadeath game. Alternatively, if immediately after dying, my brain goes, "here's what I should have done...", then I'm likely to dive back in.

Also, procedurally generated games tend to work well with pernadeath, since you get a fresh new game world to match your newly honed skills against. Rather than just repeating the exact same content.

Paul Schwanz
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I think your last point gets the correlation right. Permadeath benefits from procedurally generated content in order to stay fresh each time around. But I'm with Bart in that procedurally generated games don't necessarily benefit from permadeath.

I think that permadeath is attractive primarily to achievers and not to explorers, while procedurally generated content is attractive primarily to explorers. But permadeath can grow old quickly even for achievers if they have to do the same thing over and over again with each restart (though Dark Souls is an interesting counterpoint). This is where roguelikes solve an issue for the achiever who is interested in permadeath.

Roguelikes may also attract some explorers because of the possibilites presented through procedural generation and complex system interactions, but these gamers will find permadeath an annoyance to endure. I think there are valid game designs out there that will embrace the PCG mechanics of roguelikes while eschewing permadeath that have the potential to hit the sweet spot for many explorers, though achievers will probably be lost in the process.

Ujn Hunter
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If there is no risk of dying, it's boring. Who wants to just click through a never ending procedural dungeon?

David Paris
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Having written some of the really early Rogue-likes, permadeath didn't have anything to do with RAM. It was more that it gave you the opportunity to put the player through another iteration of the full random and customization process from the beginning, giving another pass at hitting some of the large amounts of content that would not all show up in a single-play through, and reset their progress so they'd have to keep playing. Beating the entire game, although possible, should be a monumental and lucky event, and rare enough that every discrete doing so was a unique diamond, worthy of retelling and different from the experience of the next guy (or same guy) who would do the same.

However, that sort of progress reset is really tailored towards a fairly hardcore gamer, and not very friendly to less laser-focused players. Over time we have come to realize that although these super-hardcore types do exist, and that most people enjoy a challenge, the average player got more enjoyment and utility out of the game if it was a bit less punishing. Since we're usually looking to reach a broader audience, this translated into more forgiving reset mechanics, lack of permadeath, etc...

Lorenzo Gatti
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You seem to confuse skill-intensive roleplaying games with easy and grinding-intensive adventures.
Expecting to win any individual game by accumulating enough "progress" and "exploration" is an extravagantly arrogant notion; the real progress and exploration, and arguably the real fun, is learning strategy and pulling off cool stunts over the course of many games.
The character deaths you see as "instant loss of progress" are, for normal players, the appropriate consequence of a mistake or an excessive risk, and to some extent an appropriate form of roleplaying (adventures in dangerous places should be actually dangerous).
When a character dies, progress in the wrong direction isn't really progress, and loss of a failed game or an unsuccessful experiment isn't really a loss.

Andrew Pellerano
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There is the concept of N*M design where I create N things along one axis, M things along another, and then the resulting combinatorial matrix allows for N*M possibilities. Traditional games take more of an N+M approach which requires lots of content and large teams.

It's only by coincidence that roguelikes rely heavily on N*M. There's opportunity to find other uses for N*M in other genres as well

Karl E
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Seems like a low ambition... shouldn't N^M possibilities be the goal to strive for? Every new orthogonal variable is a new axis in the space of possibilities.

sean lindskog
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My games are cos(N ^ log(M)) * rand(42)

Andrew Pellerano
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I think what you're describing is just N*M*L*K*J... For example a player stat system may let you choose from 3 classes and then stat points across 6 properties that range from 1 to 10. That's 3*10*10*10*10*10 character possibilities, not 3^6.

I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around a concrete example of N^M, do you have one in mind?

Karl E
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The social aspects of PCG cannot be overemphasized. These games can be lonely and players are itching to share any events they believe they are the only person in the world to have experienced. Also, players should be able to experiment with the PCG mechanisms themselves and share the results. After all, the best PCG algorithms can be used by anyone who can enter seed values and wait to see what comes out.

Matt Mirrorfish
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I second the comments on PGC and risk. The feeling that you have this seed/world once and will lose it if you make a mistake is very compelling to me.

Also for someone like me who is predominantly mechanics/systems oriented and not interested in long stories the fact that I can have a 15-45 minute experience that feels complete and exciting is very valuable.

I think perma death is also an interesting motivator for learning, which is the primary axis of progress through these worlds. I really appreciate an opportunity to practice and learn a set of adaptive skills against a difficult but fair, non-repetitive teacher. Playing the system feels much more like learning the way your friend plays go then memorizing a series of jumps or whatever. Great piece!

Fabian Fischer
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It's funny how we call so many things "roguelikes" these days.

Thankfully we are slowly but surely rediscovering what strategy games actually are about: Decisions and consequences. And to support that we simply need(!) a way to lose (“permadeath”). Also, we need to make sure that the system doesn’t degrade into a puzzle that you just learn the solution to. The latter is the reason why we need(!) some form of randomization to make sure that the player will always actually make decisions instead of just inputting the solution.

By far most video games of the last decades were (extremely elaborate) puzzles with little to no dynamic gameplay, most of them trying to be like movies on top of that (thereby completely disrespecting the uniqueness of the artform of creating interactive systems). Today we’re finally getting away from that idea again.

The only reason we associate these “features” (actually they’re really just necessities) with Rogue is that roguelikes have been this bastion of actual meaningful decision-making in the gaming world for a long time. Most of today’s “roguelikes” are not at all like Rogue, except for these two fundamental necessities of strategy games. I know, people have thus invented terms like “roguelike-like” or “rogue-lite”, but in any case it really doesn’t have all that much to do with Rogue anymore.

Anyways, because we’re rediscovering these things, it’s an amazing time to be a gamer! ;)

Charlie Saunders
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This article is really insightful - I wonder how long the big boom in roguelike games will last? Hopefully a while! I think the blend of instant death and random generation is a winning formula. It's a reasonably simple genre to develop, too, as small additions can add whole new levels of game play experiences.