Category Archives: History

Part 2 of a Big-Budget Roguelike?

Part 2 of a multi-part series by Mr. Adequate looking at the possibilities of making a roguelike with a generous budget. Read Part 1 here!

The modern trends in and around the genre imply that the apparent conflict between long roguelikes and short gamer attention spans is not insurmountable. A particular subgroup of the genre has come to be called “Coffeebreak roguelikes”, and they gained this name by being games you could fire up and play for ten or fifteen minutes while taking a coffee break. There are obvious contradictions with some of the points that define the genre, most especially as a coffeebreak roguelike is explicitly one that can be learned with great ease. The difficulty for developers arises in designing a game that distinguishes between difficulty of learning to play, and difficulty of mastering. Chess, for example, has rules that can be explained in a few minutes and can be picked up in a game or two, yet is a game of astonishing depth and ongoing tactical evolution. I would say that the accessible roguelike needs, as a top priority, to make itself approachable, so players can pick it up and know what they are doing and how to do what they want as quickly as possible. Coffeebreak roguelikes are certainly a step in that direction, and in particular games like DooMRL or Dungeonmans are vastly more approachable than some of the old games.

Similarly we have seen roguelikes which make a concerted effort to be more aesthetically appealing to players. Graphics remain basic and actual animations are rare, but it’s hard to think of modern roguelikes which do not have either inbuilt tilesets or easily modded ones. Roguelikes also run into an unusual problem in this regard because their sheer scope makes having a graphical representation for every possible item, monster, and piece of equipment, is difficult to achieve. This wasn’t a problem in the old days when a tyrannical, lordly dragon was represented simply by a ‘D’. Modern games even within the genre are more hesitant about doing that, and those who seek to branch out take pains to meet that challenge, but a complex roguelike with a large budget would have to devote considerable dev resources to the task.

Come on Bethesda, you made Daggerfall, make TES VI this big!
Dwarf Fortress is only part Roguelike but the scope of the map makes the point.

Perhaps that is an inherent contradiction. Perhaps the complexity expected from roguelikes as a genre makes the idea of a complex one in a 3D world and first person perspective simply unworkable. Is there actually a way that, say, the vast array of items and their interactions in NetHack could be done in a modern RPG UI? I’m sure it could. Could it be meaningfully better than the system that we have in NetHack today? That’s a less certain prospect. There is a lot of information to convey in most roguelikes, and the detail demanded the genre means shortcuts such as showing a sword does fire damage by having it be on fire isn’t enough. That would be good, sure, but players want and need the details. Does it do a flat +3 fire damage? Does it do 1d6 fire damage? Yet roguelikes also have a lot of hidden information, quite deliberately, because the process of learning is largely the point. In truth much of the appeal of roguelikes is in not starting with the kind of information players desire. You learn it over time, hard-won knowledge through repeated playthroughs. This weapon is good for this situation. This spell is good for this enemy. Combine X and Y items to make Z potion. True, this is part of most games to some extent, but it is taken to its logical conclusion with the roguelike genre.

In roguelikes as they stand this tension has been resolved mostly in favor of complexity and obscurity, and there is much to commend that approach. Whether it could be applied successfully to a game with more stereotypically large production values is another matter. A bigger budget means that a bigger audience, with higher sales, is needed to break even. There is something of an instinctive assumption that this just doesn’t comport with the kind of gameplay a roguelike has, but there is a shining example of a game that demonstrates quite conclusively that very difficult games can be very popular. That game, or rather series, is Dark Souls, notorious for unforgiving gameplay that takes effort and mastery, as well as learning about different weapons, timings, and what enemies can do. That is not to say the game is a roguelike, as it shares similarities only in that they are RPGs of a form and both are difficult, but rather to highlight that difficulty is not necessarily a bar to success – there is a potential customer base for difficult games of some considerable size.

dark souls dot gif

By the same token, roguelikes have had a surprisingly large effect outside their own genre in recent years, with many games taking inspiration in one way or another to create new experiences. These have been termed “roguelites”, as they typically adopt some aspects of the genre but not others, such as having randomly generated levels and loot but no permadeath. Some games also feature Ironman modes, which can be chosen by players who do seek the thrill of permadeath, but can be left off for those who want a more traditional progression through a game. There are many examples of elements of roguelikes being adopted by other genres or subgenres – perhaps most notable is the randomization of loot, areas, and to some extent enemies which the Diablo series took. From there a whole subgenre of ARPG was built, and that in turn influenced games of all kinds. When you pick up a really powerful purple gun in Borderlands? Ultimately that stems from roguelikes.

Roguelites now encompass games such as The Binding of Isaac, FTL, Rogue Legacy, and Risk of Rain, all of which draw some but not all elements of the genre in, and often mix them with others. It’s probably not fair to actually use the roguelite label as one of definition, in fact, because it’s more about games of other types that have adopted parts of roguelikes, rather than it being a subgenre of roguelikes. Still, things such as permadeath, randomly generated levels, random loot, and more are far from unknown to players who have never even heard of Rogue. It’s a different fact, and one which knits all those disparate mechanics together, that in my eyes really makes a roguelike.

Tune in next time to find out what this central element is in the third and final part of the series, now available right here!

Part 1 of A Big-Budget Roguelike?

In this multi-part series, Mr. Adequate takes a look at the roguelike genre and asks; what if someone with money made one?

Roguelikes. A genre steeped in misty and foreboding lore, a place where the truly hardcore dwell and where mastery of a single game can easily take years or even more. This is the genre of archaic acronyms like ToME and ADOM, inscrutable graphics that have until recently almost always been ASCII and nothing but, and most of all brutally unforgiving gameplay, which the fans of course love and relish. But why has the genre stayed in this niche? Where is the ‘big budget’ roguelike, or if not triple-A at least a medium level game with enough funding for animation and better UIs?

In order to explore this question, we need to know what we mean by the term roguelike, and my argument will also hinge on a look at the influences the genre has had on others, which is surprisingly varied. Roguelikes, as you may discern from the name, are games which are like Rogue. Released all the way back in 1980, before even Pike and I were born, Rogue wasn’t actually the first entry in the genre but was by far the most successful of the early contenders, and as this was an era when genre names were deeply unoriginal (remember “Doom-Clone”?) that was the name that stuck. Unlike the transition from Doom-clone to First Person Shooter, Roguelikes have never attained a more generic genre name, and so we still refer to a game that is now 36 years old to describe them. That said, note that the term “Procedural Death Labyrinths” or PDLs does exist even if it lacks much currency. For a good discussion of the genre’s name take a look at Tanya X. Short’s article on Gamasutra about the matter.

The monster actually looks like he's real sleepy tbh, not that scary.
Get ready to git gud.

Once Rogue arrived, the genre started to gain traction and staples of the genre such as NetHack, Angband, and Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADoM) would drop through the 80s and 90s. These games shared certain qualities that made them obvious descendants of Rogue and which codified the genre, among which were;

– Dungeon crawling as the primary thing you are doing

– Built on a core of RPG elements, which is to say stats, levels, etc.

– Turn-based combat

– A typically vast array of skills, items, equipment, monsters, and so on

– Procedurally or randomly generated levels

– Very basic aesthetically, with ASCII graphics and sometimes no sound or music at all

– Permadeath, so if you die, you’re dead and that character is gone forever; you often have to reroll the world as well

Still, the genre has always had some flux in it and that has colored efforts to pin down exactly what a roguelike is. Even the most well-meaning and intelligent efforts such as the Berlin Interpretation run into controversy, especially due to the influence the genre is now having outside of the core canon of games that are almost universally agreed to fit into the genre.

Roguelikes developed in a unique situation that led to this rather uncommon combination of features. A large influence on their evolution was the university culture of the 80s, where the computer and still young Internet created a potent and hitherto unseen space for sharing ideas and information. The terminal computers of the day were not exactly powerhouses and this led to extremely compact programs when people started to make games. The genre can perhaps be thought of as a collection of preset rules which interact to create the procedural elements – those rules can be programmed far more efficiently than a comparable number of levels. This also explains the spartan aesthetic elements and ASCII graphics, as anything more was prohibitive in both computing demands and Internet capacity.

Now imagine learning what the symbols for 400+ monsters are.
So this is basically what it looked like as a genre.

This created a culture of hobbyists, who were making these games because they enjoyed tinkering, to improve their skills, or to experiment with gameplay mechanics. In turn this meant a very open culture developed where the games were almost all freeware, where source code was shared, and where forks were actively encouraged. Indeed most of the older extant roguelikes trace their lineage to a different version of themselves. For instance, Rogue was cloned as a game called Hack, and further development on Hack is what morphed it into the seminal NetHack.

The upshot of this was in turn to make a genre that was dedicated to its vision, with developers dedicated to their games, and players dedicated to mastery. Roguelikes are uncommon in that they are explicitly very, very hard games most of the time, and many can take years of play to even complete once, nevermind to actually master. This is a point of great pride for essentially everyone in the community. The level of complexity in a game is often held up as a virtue and, when you really get to grips with something and discover the tremendously improbable ways you can combine skills and items to achieve victory, it’s easy to see why. The downside is that accessibility has suffered and until recently has been a low priority for developers. Just getting to grips with the basics of playing the game, the equivalent of learning to jump, fire a gun, and throw a grenade in Halo, can be daunting. In my experience this is not something that engenders much elitism among roguelike players, rather the attitude is “Yes, it’s a pain to learn, but it’s so worth it!” but nonetheless for a new player approaching the genre can be deeply intimidating.

Yadda yadda Matrix joke.
This is the most thrilling zombie attack ever, I swear.

Here, perhaps, we see the first true obstacle to the creation of a big-budget roguelike, as most gamers today are thought to want fairly short adventures of something between, say, eight and twenty hours. Those who want longer games still have their genres and some do very well (Consider Pillars of Eternity’s success for a prime example), but aside from the occasional Skyrim it’s just not what players as a whole are looking for. There’s almost certainly truth to this view, as only a small subset of people who play games really have the time or inclination to invest dozens of hours into games with any regularity, even though we probably all have the rare one that sucks us in far beyond what we expected.

Next time, we’ll look at trends in modern roguelikes and roguelites for some ideas of how a big-budget roguelike might stumble, and what it might do to bring in the masses.
Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here!

The PlayStation Neo and the Xbox Scorpio – Can the Console Cycle be Subverted?

Welcome to Every Video Games, our new blog that is about, well, each and every single video games that has ever been made! As you may be aware or have noticed, we had a previous blog about the same topic, which has become defunct. Those archives remain available for anyone who is interested, but we are looking to create a new and rejuvenated blog for your enjoyment so it may be wisest to consider them as two separate blogs, the archives simply happen to be here. We may well end up covering topics we have talked about previously, but hopefully the distance of time will offer new perspectives. Now, with that prelude out of the way, let us get right to business, the discussion of every video games!

And let’s start with a germane enough topic, the news from E3. Specifically, I’d like to talk about the console situation, because we’re in a rather unusual place and the only parallels I can draw don’t bode particularly well, though I’m not sure how strong those parallels are.

But let’s back up a little to talk about what exactly the E3 console news is. Before the show, rumors were flying around about console announcements from both Sony and Microsoft; rumors of particular interest because they did not just say that there would be the typical new mid-cycle upgrades in the vein of a smaller or slim model that has been popular since at least the PSOne. As the announcements bore out (especially on the Microsoft side) the rumors were largely correct.

First off is the Xbox One S, which does fit more into the mid-life upgrade model. There are modest hardware upgrades that revolve primarily around facilitating 4K and HDR Color, whilst being smaller and presumably somewhat lighter as well. There will also be a version with a 2TB hard drive, much larger than the existing 1TB largest drive for the Xone. So far this is all fairly typical and an unsurprising development in the console lifecycle.

Of more interest is the Xbox Scorpio, as well as the Playstation 4 Neo, though we have fewer details about the latter. It’s hardly a surprise that Microsoft would tout the raw power of the Scorpio and calling it “the most powerful console ever”, but simultaneously it is not a new console as such. Indeed, marketing head Alan Greenburg has said that Scorpio will not feature any exclusive titles (A claim questioned by his colleague Shannon Loftis in a later interview.)

So what does the Scorpio purport to do? First is that aforementioned raw power and it is, admittedly, an impressive spec sheet. It has an eight-core APU with tremendous memory bandwidth and six teraflops of graphical performance. These specs are indeed vastly more powerful than the existing PS4 and Xone, and that is precisely the point which raises eyebrows when we are told that there is meant to be total compatibility, yet at the same time a boost in performance if playing the game on the new console as opposed to the older one.

When you go home tonight there's gonna be another core in your console!
“Don’t call me Xbox Scorpion. It’s Xbox ScorpiO! But don’t call me that either, call me Hank!”

Something here, it would seem, has the potential to go awry. I will not say something doesn’t add up, as that would be too strong a statement at this stage, but I definitely see the possibility for this to not all work out as we are being told it will. At the very least it means developers will have to do additional work in order to ensure a given game runs appropriately on both systems, though one hopes this will be a relatively small undertaking thanks to presumed architectural similarities, something Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Andrew House asserts to be true. Nonetheless, there is a risk that smaller or indie devs will face difficulties or have to make a choice about which iteration to release on, and if so a fragmented marketplace could reduce their viability overall. More problematic is the possibility of games being advertised as compatible with both, but in reality only having functionality on the more powerful option. What redress would players have in such a case? And if, as Microsoft and Sony have both intimated, this kind of rolling upgrade is their intended new norm, what happens another console or two down the line, when all these issues will come to the fore even if they have been successfully answered in the short term?

The concern I have is that consoles are meant to offer ease of use and absolutely rigid compatibility, where a game for a system is always a game for that system. Yes, many consoles offer varying degrees of backwards compatibility, but as good of a feature as that is, it has always been understood as a bonus to some extent, and one which is readily thrown out by console makers if it cannot be done cheaply or easily enough. This is in contrast to the PC scene where researching, purchasing, and installing upgrades is commonplace and where many players build their gaming rigs from scratch. Turning consoles into more of a PC-style platform seems like it could be risky, given that these are the tradeoffs as they currently stand.

Moreover there is, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, scope to draw some parallels. Now, this is less a question of compatibility and more of customer understanding and awareness, but nonetheless the point should probably be made. In short the gaming public likes consoles to be clearly distinct from each other and has historically had little interest in upgrades. People want to buy a console and for that to last for several years, half a decade or more, before they buy the next one. For examples of this we can begin by turning our minds back to the mid-90s, when SEGA was still a major console player and Sony was only just entering the scene. SEGA’s downfall as a console manufacturer began here, and even the Dreamcast (which is for my money essentially the platonic ideal of a video game system) couldn’t save it. See, what SEGA did was, they saw the next generation was coming and intended to get on board. But rather than putting their resources solely into what would become the Saturn, they sought to extend the lifespan of the Mega Drive/Genesis. They did this with not one, but two, hardware addons, the SEGA-CD and the 32X. Both improved the console’s performance. Both allowed designers to implement impressive new graphics, sound, and gameplay. Both had games which were well-regarded, and at least the SEGA CD has a few which remain fondly remembered today. And both were, ultimately, failures to some extent, though the 32X moreso than the SEGA-CD.

Ready to form Voltron! Interlocks connected!
The Mega Drive, SEGA-CD, and 32X all at once!

The CD came out in 1991/2 in various regions, which was about three years into the Mega Drive’s life, and offered a pretty obvious benefit in terms of power that led to a spate of early-90s FMV games that have become so infamous. It also had the requisite games which were more about showing off power than gameplay, in games like Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side. Still, it also offered games like Sonic CD, Lunar: The Silver Star, and Lunar: Eternal Blue, as well as improved versions of existing games and arcade ports. However it also had a high price point and an ultimately underwhelming library of games. The price point made it hard to justify getting alongside the base console, whilst the kind of devoted player willing to shell out the money might well already have many games the system possessed, albeit in 16-bit form. Still, although not a success, the SEGA-CD was not a disastrous failure either.

The 32X was another matter. This was not a CD based upgrade but a cartridge based one, intended to extend the lifespan of the Mega Drive into the early 32-bit era that was approaching rapidly. Quite a bit more rapidly than SEGA seemed to anticipate, in fact – the 32X ended up releasing alongside their 32-bit Saturn console, which as then-producer of SEGA of America said later, “it made us look greedy and dumb to consumers.” Now, the 32X was not without its own merits. The price point was much lower than the CD had been or the Saturn and PlayStation would be and it had significant early demand, with retailers around the 1994 holiday season running out of stocks in North America, whilst releases in Japan and Europe both had similarly good results. At the time it was seen by many as a reasonable alternative to the more expensive CD-based systems that were arriving; less powerful, yes, but also more approachable for the less-hardcore gamer.

Sadly things did not pan out as SEGA hoped. High initial demand rapidly declined as the system’s small library grew only slowly, whilst players were rapidly wowed by the potential of the CD-based systems and games like WipeOut and Panzer Dragoon, whilst offering competetive ports of both arcade and PC games. The 32X did manage a couple of these, with a well-regarded version of Virtua Fighting being a particular highlight among its limited library, but it floundered and failed with a library that totalled only forty games, six of which required both the 32X and SEGA-CD to play.

Ultimately these served exactly the opposite purpose to their intentions. The 32X especially cannibalized SEGA Saturn sales and made the company look, as stated, either greedy or incompetent. Meanwhile it could not measure up to the dedicated CD systems. Devs poured time and money into what would be a pit, souring relations with SEGA, which was not something they could afford with the relative difficulty of working with the Saturn’s architecture as well as the more libertine, adult-oriented attitude Sony was adopting to tremendous success.

If games influenced us we'd all be sitting in dark rooms listening to techno and eating pills.
Video games so good they induce nosebleeds! JUST LIKE DRUGS!

Moving on from that SEGA history piece, more recently there has been a somewhat mundane yet nonetheless consequential issue with the Wii and Wii U. Nintendo’s Wii was, of course, a titanic success, proving popular with many demographics and selling over one hundred million units globally. The Wii U has in turn floundered. There are a multitude of factors which may explain this, but among them are the twin issues of confusion over naming and of confusion over why one should bother with what looks like a modest upgrade. See, those same demographics who made the Wii so successful are often not the kind of person who pays very close attention to the gaming scene. Not being involved in the cycle of console generations and upgrades it is hard to explain why they would want to get a new console when their existing one does what they want. Moreover, the similarity in names combined with the absence of a clear ‘killer app’ for the non-gaming crowd made it extremely difficult for Nintendo to drive sales. Name confusion has been cited by industry figures as a major bar for the Wii U, and though that might be overstating the point or ascribing a number of factors to that single issue, it seems eminently possible that the same problem could be repeated with the Neo and S/Scorpio versions of the PS4 and XBox One. Will Sony and Microsoft have to do as Nintendo did, and explain that these are distinct systems, not simply addons to their existing consoles? In part that will depend on the nature of the upgrades of course, but in part it will depend on factors like available games and marketing.

Is there, therefore, a risk that customers will think the Neo is simply an expensive addon for their existing PlayStation 4, which allows them to play in 4K? That the Scorpio is an accessory needing a Xone and primarily for use with VR games? (Speaking of which if things are meant to be compatible both ways, but the Scorpio is especially made to be VR compatible, one wonders whether the Xone will remain as current as MS are insisting.) It’s entirely possible the issues will be overcome and these mid-cycle consoles will prove to be successful, even enough to herald a new way of iterating that replaces console generations as we know them. But I wouldn’t put too much money on that, as the history of the industry suggests there are big pitfalls which would need to be navigated, and if the examples of SEGA in the 90s and Nintendo more recently are not studied carefully, I suspect we’ll be seeing disappointed console manufacturers within a couple of years.

What do you all think about this issue? Are the parallels I identified legitimate, or am I overstating the case? Are these upgrades unnecessary, or do they perhaps offer a lot of potential for devs to take advantage of new possibilities without leaving existing systems behind too rapidly? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!