'Roguelikes': Getting to the heart of the it-genre
May 21, 2014 Page 2 of 2
Anyone who has made a game has first-hand experience with gameplay systems that never took off, and games that never delivered the promise of their initial prototypes. Roguelikes are also insurance against facing that scenario, argues Cook.
"There's nothing worse than finding yourself six months into production only to discover that the mechanics that seemed convincing enough in test tube of preproduction are in fact shallow and boring," he says. "By prototyping with procedural levels, you are forced to make your core mechanics robust in the face of really bizarre scenarios. This robustness tends to yield playspaces that deal with all sorts of abuse in terms of future expansions or balancing issues while still remaining fun."
He zooms out: "On a higher conceptual level, roguelikes pose a strong aesthetic stance. They say: What if our game was treated like code? With simple modular objects; with systems of interaction; with a certain physics to the world."
This allows for better collaborations -- a particular must for small teams -- argues Short. "I think roguelike design is extremely programmer-friendly… which means indie-friendly, since most indie companies are at least 50 percent programmers. Roguelikes are puzzles to be solved, and programmers (and technical designers) dig puzzles."
This leads to games that are well defined by their own gaminess. "They aren't shy about being games with game verbs and abstract game-like rules," says Cook. "Sure, that fluffy writing and art stuff can improve a roguelike, but the core fun is the logic of the systems. Systems beyond spreadsheets," adds Short.
All of the above cascades into a game that is primed for constant evolution -- which is increasingly crucial as game developers strive to keep players interested in a game past an initial purchase, and to build communities. That's another secret to their appeal for developers.
"They're perfect for constant evolution. Every additional item isn't a new episode – it's a new world of possibility," says Short. "Now that it's common knowledge that you can sell your initial game, and keep working on it, potentially forever… it's an indie dream come true."
"Here's a style of game that thrives on never being finished."
"With a roguelike, you can add in 2,000 new objects and the whole system adapts with the press of a button. It is still hard work, of course, but here's a style of game that thrives on never being finished," says Cook.
"There's a lifetime of potential expansions you could pour into a roguelike. How wonderful would it be to have a community playing a game 30 years from now that they still consider fresh and exciting?"
It goes further than that, however, says Short. "The value of proc-gen isn't just in replayability; players comparing stories and strategies of how they survived a roguelike is part word-of-mouth marketing and part player generated content! Normally, you don't get that kind of community-building virality except in multiplayer."
That has already driven success for Don't Starve. "Social media and the whole Let's Play scene are providing a platform for players to present their play as performance, which works really well with procedural and emergent gameplay. It's also free advertising, which is hard to resist," Forbes says.
Flexibility, adaptability, and the future
Roguelike elements are fast becoming part of the fabric of gaming -- even creeping into triple-A titles. "I think the fact that a game like Demon's Souls has mass appeal means that players are warming to some of the ideas," says Forbes.
Even players with much more casual tastes are also prepped to appreciate the fruits of the genre, Short argues: "Games like Candy Crush demand mastery and improvisation. It won't be long before a roguelike takes the mainstream by storm."
"It won't be long before a roguelike takes the mainstream by storm."
The genre is highly adaptable, as Doucet points out, which also bodes well for its success. "I can start one of those up, have a unique and interesting experience in 15 minutes, get my butt kicked, and try again. This is very important when you're an adult and have less time. Within those parameters, it's the perfect genre for me."
Cook suggests that the "roguelike" is a framework to build a game on. He sees Edmund McMillen's The Binding of Isaac as a great example of how melding roguelike concepts to ideas taken from other games can still lead to a coherent and compelling whole.
"What I find exciting is how people are now breeding these wild chimeras out of a half dozen different genres and gluing it all together with roguelike architectures. The architectural element, how the various individual design patterns fit together into a robust whole, is something that is worth more attention," Cook says.
Its changeability opens up thematic possibilities, too. "I want to use the genre as a way to explore real-life conditions. In real life, you can't hit the reset button and use knowledge of the future to subvert the challenges in front of you," says Doucet. In his spare time, he's been working on Tourette's Quest, a game that explores his own personal challenges. Thanks to the genre's strengths, he says, "I can make a game that's fundamentally about risk management and learning to embrace the physical limitations of a disability."
Despite the potential of the genre, Cook also worries that it could become played out. It's a danger of any genre that comes into fashion. "There's an opportunity to make better games by smaller teams. The risk is that they just copy tired patterns and run the concept into the ground."
This article has consciously sidestepped the issue of orthodoxy that has been such a piece of the discussion around the roguelike genre. Forbes' take on his own game exemplifies this conversation well: "Don't Starve uses permadeath, procedural world generation, and discoverable rules-based systems. It's quite a bit less directed than a classical roguelike, and in fact I would consider it more roguelike-inspired than an actual example of the genre."
"Probably, the genre should be destroyed, and actually I'd argue it maybe already has been."
Both Doucet and Short have covered this topic in depth, if you're interested in learning more. Burgun, in fact, doesn't see the value of considering it a genre rather than a set of mechanics to experiment with: "Probably, the genre should be destroyed, and actually I'd argue it maybe already has been." The goal of this article is concentrating on what core roguelike mechanics make possible for game developers.
It's clear that, genre or not, the design elements that make these games compelling are both identifiable and useable in a wide variety of contexts; they are now part of the lexicon of game design.
Our interviewees paint a bright future for games which take inspiration from these mechanics, and it isn't purely because they're compelling to play: there are also production and promotional reasons that make them extremely attractive. That adds up to a recipe for an enduring legacy.
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