Category Archives: Ideas

Part 3 of A Big-Budget Roguelike?

The concluding entry in Mr. Adequate’s ‘A Big-Budget Roguelike’ series. If you missed them, read Part 1 and Part 2!

This is the fact that roguelikes are traditionally turn-based. This is vastly more consequential that first blush suggests, so much so that I think addressing it one way or another would be among the most important parts of any effort to make a big-budget roguelike. The reason for this is that being turn-based is what dictates the pace of the game, and what makes all those other elements important in turn. You enter a room in a dungeon and see three monsters, two of which you recognize as tough enemies, the third you’ve never seen before. Now you have to stop and think; Can you guess what the third monster can do, and how strong it is? At this point the many options of a roguelike come into play, and being turn-based is at the heart of that. Out of all your skills, spells, and items, which ones will serve you best in this encounter? Wiping out some small-time idiot is simple, but when you come up against a challenge in a roguelike, it is a tense game of tactics, luck, and knowing what you have on hand and how to use it. The fondest memories of pretty much any roguelike player will come from these fights, where you overcome ridiculous odds through the clever use of your tools, and most roguelikes pride themselves on designing encounters which can go from unwinnable to trivial depending on the player’s use of their tools.

Also note that there are a million items as well.
The skills available to just one class.

Going real-time changes that equation. By definition if your players can’t stop and think, your game design has to accommodate that. Imagine trying to play Dark Souls with the number of skills, items, potions, etc., that are present in a game like ToME. It simply isn’t feasible. There are still solutions to this; you could have a turn-based first-person dungeon crawler nonetheless, a game like Legend of Grimrock or Etrian Odyssey, as there is certainly a healthy market. You could do as The Elder Scrolls does, and have real-time combat with the ability to pause, go through all your spells or items, and select them or use them instantly. That gets unwieldy, but may be a sufficient solution. And this all assumes a change from the top-down grid-based perspective anyway, and that may not actually be needed. Instead you could keep that but have very high quality graphics, properly animated sprites, and plentiful effects. I am not entirely convinced of how well that could sell, but it is certainly one angle that would be interesting to see attempted.

And in the end I might just be barking up the wrong tree here. As I said above this is a hobbyist’s genre. Modern indie stuff has hugely benefited from the possibilities opened up by crowdfunding, and more than one existing roguelike has used it in order to improve. Games like ToME, ADOM, and Cataclysm have expanded gameplay as well as made themselves more attractive, whilst a game like Dungeonmans has helped refine things so that it is more accessible. Games from FTL to Project Zomboid have taken aspects of the genre and made something new. Japanese devs have always taken some parts of Roguelikes and incorporated them into exciting games, with a particular focus on first person, Dragon Quest-inspired dungeon crawlers. All of this makes it hard to predict the future of the genre, as it may inspire a bigger effort from a bigger developer who thinks they see a niche, or it may simply continue being a smaller, constantly remixed genre for those who want to go and find it.

I'm definitely going to resist the siren song of Legion btw.
It wouldn’t be the first time a genre has had an unexpected breakout hit that changes everything!

Either way, though, Procedural Death Labyrinths are in rude health as a genre. There are a wealth of entries that range from the brutally hardcore NetHack to the much more approachable, yet still challenging, Dungeonmans. And as I have said there are also many games that take some aspects of the genre whilst leaving others behind to make new subgenres or gameplay experiences. Despite this I would still love to see a company with real resources take a shot at the genre. Any takers? From Software? Bethesda? Anyone?

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!

Brexit Simulator 2016

By now you have almost certainly heard that, in an historic referendum, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Whilst markets and quite possibly nations crumble, an interesting idea occurred to me. Where is the game about this?

Well, of course, there’s unlikely to be a game about this issue specifically because it has only just happened, and it was not the outcome which was expected at that. No, what I am really getting at is where are the games about a topic like this. There are a lot of games, primarily in the simulation/strategy/management tent, which focus on some kind of aggressive acquisition of objectives. Be it land, money, resources, there’s plenty of games out there if you want to relive the campaigns of generals from Alexander to Napoleon. But what if you’d rather a game where you choose between playing Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Wilson, or Orlando, in an effort to get the best deal possible after the war is over?

When I found this file it was called "clemmie.jpg" and I ain't changing that.
Preorder bonus is early 20th century statesman’s facial hair.

In games, conflict is rarely boring. You are thrust into the action whether as a foot soldier or high-level commander, and charged with anything from assaulting Caen to stopping an armored breakthrough with limited resources to crossing the Rubicon. And these are often mightily enjoyable experiences when you’re in the safety of your own home. On occasion a game takes a look at the costs of war too, whether through the strikingly austere presentation of DEFCON or by directly putting you in the shoes of a civilian, as in This War Of Mine. Yet the end of war is never treated with the same kind of detail. In some games such as those from Paradox there is often a nod to the complexities thereof, for instance by making wars require explicit casus belli, but even this is not the norm. Generally peace is achieved through extracting resources, territory, or both, and nothing more is said on the matter.

Moreover this is far from the only kind of non-conflict topic which could be examined in a game. As I said, what about a game where you have to negotiate a country’s exit from (or indeed accession to) the EU? Whatever one thinks of that decision nobody denies that leaving will be a vastly complicated and lengthy procedure, with an extraordinary number of issues that have to be settled before the exit can actually take place. Or what about a constituent part of the UK, where you play as for instance Scotland trying to negotiate independence from the UK and EU membership at the same time?

There were some historical inaccuracies, yes, but "English get tae fuck" remains a powerful rallying cry.
Every man dies. Not every man truly spergs.

These do have the potential to be dry topics. One of my classes in university was on the EU, and much of it was indeed quite a dry and thick topic. However, our final exam was not a written one but rather a role-playing exercise where we formed groups of delegates from EU member nations, and the EU itself, to try and resolve a policy issue that was put to us. This was stressful due to being an exam, but it was also a lively back-and-forth affair of trying to set out our position, suss out everyone else’s, and of giving and getting compromises until everyone went away annoyed but ultimately willing to commit to the deal.

There are a vast number of examples where peaceful negotiations, peace treaties, and so forth could be used as a model for such a game and I am just providing a couple of particularly salient examples to make my case. The next question, if that basic idea is accepted, is how could such a game be made? In truth I am quite a bit less certain about this than that it should be tried. It would not be a totally new genre – games such as Democracy 3 and Shadow President provide at least an outline to start from – but it would nonetheless be something that needs to be developed largely from scratch, without the convenient genre conventions (and occasional crutches) that typically provide the framework for both designers and players to rely on.

What about a city builder where you deal with a large army invading as the civil administrator?
It’s not like genres haven’t been invented before though.

We can draw some outlines though. First is to establish what constitutes win, and lose, conditions. I suspect it would be best to focus on a particular situation, such as Brexit or Versailles, rather than to have a one-size-fits-all approach with multiple scenarios. That sounds limiting, and I do believe some element of randomness should be present (e.g. a Versailles game should involve a possibility for the US to be absent, or Imperial Russia to still be present with no Brest-Litovsk having taken place, or so forth). How to define victories and losses in such a game would be the real problem, in no small part because such things were hotly contested in real life. My proposition would be that the country or interest you represent would have some semi-random objectives it wishes to achieve, and your job is to do that. Post-game, you would ideally be shown the longer-term consequences of these choices, but I’m not sure that it would be good to e.g. be France at Versailles, get everything Maréchal Foch wanted, and then see that twenty years later your success as a player led to WW2. Failure states, conversely, could encompass a whole array of things, from simply not getting everything you wanted to reigniting the war.

Gameplay itself could meanwhile take quite a variety of forms. The two which most immediately spring to mind are either dialog trees and responses, something like L.A. Noire perhaps, or by making some sort of card game in the style of Fate of the World or the diplomacy side of Star Ruler 2. These are obviously fairly at odds in how they approach matters and the former would seem to be much more difficult to implement well than the latter. Regardless it would be a venture into untested waters, and in the absence of glamor I expect such games would be exclusively the domain of indie devs. If any do want to give it a shot, you’ve certainly got one potential customer who would be deeply interested in taking a look!

I would love to hear what you think about this possibility. Have I missed any obvious ways it might be implemented? Any problems you can foresee? Are there in fact such games in existence, which I am unaware of? Please leave your comments!