Category Archives: Retro

Thoughts On Fan Games

If you keep up with the relevant scene, you may be aware that a Pokemon fan game, known as Pokemon Uranium, was released a few days ago. Desiring something to tide me over until Pokemon Sun arrives I decided I would give it a try, and I have to say it’s an impressive effort so far (though I’m only a couple of hours in), even if a few tweaks and bug fixes are possibly still needed. In any event it has caused me to think about the phenomenon of fan games and their place in the industry, and I’d be very interested to hear what any of you think about them, or about any particular ones.

Fan games are, if you’re unfamiliar, the equivalent of fanfiction; a game, made by fans, that usually serves to expand or build on a particular game or setting, although some are efforts at precise cloning, perhaps on different hardware. Though they do share similarities with modding in that they are non-professional content, fan games tend to be a level above those in terms of effort required to make them. We can see this demonstrated well by the fact Pokemon Uranium took nine years to reach 1.0; it is simply a vast undertaking for a team of volunteers, no matter how dedicated. They’re also typically limited to the PC scene thanks to the ease of distribution and prohibitively expensive console licensing fees.

Orchynx 4 lief grass/steel sign me up
They have the adorable starters down pat!

They also often run afoul of legal issues. As they are by definition unlicensed products based on existing IPs, it is hardly surprising that the law would be on the side of publishers who wish to stop their release. Even so these decisions can be reversed, fan games can be given some degree of sanction, and in practice any program is essentially impossible to remove from the Internet once it gets out into the wild. As a foremost example, Streets of Rage Remake is a fan game that faithfully recreated the Streets of Rage series into a single game on the PC; it was quashed by SEGA http://imagineear.com/pharmacy/ within a week of release. It is also trivial to get a hold of it. These issues have become even more pressing as companies release compatible versions of classics on platforms like Steam, and what was once unlikely to ever influence the bottom line might now be quite validly considered a threat. Still, the legal issues are what they are, and are likely to remain as they are for some time to come. Fans will continue to make games and companies will continue to pursue whatever response they feel best.

It is remarkable how complete and deep some of these fan games are, though, and were I a company I would certainly be interested in looking at some of the creators of these things to see if some talent can be picked up. Streets of Rage Remake was a deeply faithful reproduction of the original series. The Sonic Before/After the Sequel games are so good they stack up against the actual originals. And Pokemon Uranium not only has a considerable number of original pokemon to catch, but also a new type and, most incredibly, integrated online features such as Wonder Trade and GTS, and the proper integration of challenges like the popular Nuzlocke run, to make keeping to the rules easier.

It's not impossible!
Have fan games encouraged the development of professional ones?

To be sure, many of these projects are close to, or even at, the level of quality expected from professional productions. As an expression of gamer fandom and of a desire to expand the universes we play in for others to enjoy as well, it is a wonderful little segment of the industry. In a setting where some games have budgets in the tens of millions it’s amazing that these amateur, homebrew projects come into being at all, let alone see completion in highly enjoyable forms. I am eager to see what the future holds for such games, so please let us know in the comments what your favorite fan games are and which you might be looking forward to.

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 http://artsandhealth.ie/sildenafil/ 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 http://www.montauk-monster.com/pharmacy/inderal 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 Tale of The Time I Found a Weird Arcade In Another Dimension

So a couple years back Mister Adequate and myself visited a little arcade that was in the back of a dinky bagel shop.  So far so normal, right?

As it turns out this arcade was anything but normal.  The room itself had a weird feeling to it, as if it wasn’t quite of this world but was trying its hardest to blend in.  The games themselves were proof that this wasn’t your average arcade.

For starters, there was a Pac-Man machine with a maze that wasn’t anything like a normal Pac-Man maze.  Also, when you won, it said “Linear Elect” instead of Game Over.  I actually took a picture of it because it was so weird.

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There was also a game called “Kickman” which neither I nor Mister Adequate have ever heard of before in our entire lives.  Now not to brag or anything but we kind of know a lot about http://artsandhealth.ie/diclofenac/ video games.  It’s why we’re writing this blog, after all.  But “Kickman”?  It was brand new to us.  Wikipedia says it exists, but I’m dubious.  I’m pretty sure the wikipedia page was spawned into existence by whatever otherworldly power is behind that strange arcade.

Finally, there was a Frogger machine that refused to accept regular quarters.  Presumably because it only accepts quarters from its own native dimension – wherever that is.

I think the only normal game in the building was Donkey Kong.  Probably because Nintendo hardware is impervious to things like damage and black holes and time continuums.

So there you have it.  The strange tale of the arcade from an alternate universe.  I wonder what other sorts of games await us beyond our own world?