Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Not done yet

There is more @Play to come, but at the moment I'm having to support myself with paying work.  Please stand by.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

EXTRA: Satoru Iwata knew what roguelikes are

Ishihara: [...] Mystery Dungeon games have their roots in old-school RPG titles, the type they often call 'roguelike' games.

Iwata: Ah yes. 'Roguelikes' are dungeon-exploring RPGs in which the map is altered every time you play, with the terrain and the locations of items and monsters also changing. This gives the games a depth that means you can play them over and over again without getting bored. The game that was really crammed full that kind of enjoyment, while being accessible for everyone to play, was Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon.

Ishihara: At the time, the tagline for the game claimed that it was a "game you could play a thousand times" and I think that I, for one, really did! After I started working on the Pokémon games, therefore, I was always really keen to create a game that would connect Pokémon to the Mystery Dungeon series. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon was the game that arose from that desire.


Iwata: Nagahata-san, what kind of process did you go through, transforming the idea of a roguelike game into the Mystery Dungeon series? When you first set out, you didn't know how a game like that would be received by home console owners, did you?

Nagahata: No, we didn't. At that time, Dragon Quest-style RPGs were the mainstream and very little was known about roguelike games, generally. So it was definitely a bit of a gamble. After all, players would sometimes play roguelike games for hours or even tens of hours, only to suddenly be dumped right back in square one with all their progress wiped out. Basically, however, all the development staff told us that this kind of game was definitely enjoyable, and that gave us the motivation we needed to get started.

Iwata: There's certainly an element of 'spiritual training' to these games, isn't there? They're constructed in a really enjoyable way, but every now again they're just so unforgiving that they make you want to cry. You were really motivated to bring that particular brand of enjoyment to as many people as possible, though, weren't you?

Source: Iwata Asks on Pokemon Mystery Dungeon

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

@Play 82: The Talks of the International Roguelike Developers Conference US, 2015

One month ago was the first annual (we hope!) U.S. metting of the IRDC, The International Roguelike Developers Conference, organized this year by Todd Page! I was on hand (slightly incognito -- if you were there I was the one who looked the most like Cousin Itt) and, after reviewing the archives of the talks put together by Kawaii Dragoness I have managed to compile notes on the presentations presented by the presenters present. Those notes follow. By the way, the European IRDC just finished up, but considering the lateness of this installment I think I'll leave it to someone else to write up those.

I believe strongly in hyperlinks, so before we get underway, here are some useful sites: IRDC US Tumblr - Ultima Ratio Regnum's page on the Euro IRDC - IRDC US's Twitch TV page - Logo Surströmming's YouTube page, where some of these talks are archived.

The talks were held at Georgia Tech university in scenic downtown Atlanta, and Saturday and Sunday stretched from 10 a.m. to around 5 p.m.  A Starbucks was in easy walking distance, as was the hotel that some of the guys were staying at, to which we retired Saturday evening to discuss matters of game design.  Kawaii Dragoness mentioned hotel room Soul Calibur sessions stretching late into the night.  (Of recent versions, unfortunately; to me, it's not Soul Calibur if it's not on a Dreamcast.  There was a time when Ivy's breasts weren't bigger than her head goddammit.)

Most of went to Ray's New York Pizza for lunch Saturday where, flush with the recent news that Freehold Games' Sproggiwood was to be featured on the iOS App Store, Brian Bucklew generously paid for everyone's food!  He also knows a great deal about board games, I discovered Saturday evening!

For Sunday's lunch, the group split up; I went with the younger participants to a nearby Five Guys where, unfortunately, we were rained in by one of Atlanta's ludicrously sudden and intense thunderstorms.  It was there, by the way, that I made the discovery that fresh jalapeno slices should be treated with great respect....

Miscellaneous games and projects overheard mention while at the conference: Infra Arcana, Necklace of the Eye, No Man's Sky, Pixel Dungeon, Heavy Axe, the Doom procedural level generator OBLIGE, Artemis Bridge Simulator, Alien: Isolation, Chromehounds and the Roblox game Mad Murderer.

1. Todd Page, organizer of IRDC US 2015, Opening Remarks YouTube
Getting us underway....

2. Jeff Lait, star roguelike developer and many-time 7DRL participant: "An Apologia for the Berlin Interpretation/Why Balance Is Terrible/An Algebra Of Roguelikes" YouTube

Covers a lot of varied territory, including balance issues and dungeon generation and representation in memory. Lait created POWDER and many 7DRL games, many of them very interesting.

Of particular interest is his discussion of non-Cartesian representations of dungeons, that is, not representing the dungeon as a 2D, XY-based map. I found that fascinating, since it gives some of the implementation details of Jacob's Matrix, a 7DRL Lait made a few years ago in which you explore a non-Euclidian space.  (I wrote about it some time back in one of the @Plays on 7DRL....)

Remember Portal? How the world you viewed through a portal looked just like the world outside of it? Like that, except, when you see through a portal in Jacob's Matrix, you don't see that it's a portal. Different parts of the world of Jacob's Matrix can be connected together in strange ways, and what's more, portals can even rotate your perspective, meaning that "north" is not necessarily the top of the screen, and can in fact change for you depending on what parts of the dungeon you've been through. You can return to your starting point after exploring for a while by a circuitous route, but you might not recognize it, because your perspective may have rotated.

It's an amazing, mind-expanding game, in fact Lait mentions in the talk that it was *too* mind-expanding and confusing, and so toned down those aspects in later games he's made with that engine, as well as explaining some facts of how it was made, without using a traditional two-dimensional array for world representation. Some technical details of his implementation are presented.

I also appreciated his comments about rare content, aspects of a game that don't reveal themselves after one or even many plays, that only show up at unusual moments, giving as an example NetHack's pit viper joke. And it also claims that balance is overrated, that unbalanced moments may make a game more challenging, but they also make it interesting, and adds texture to the play, an evocative term that I've found myself using sometimes as well.

Jacob's Matrix, and many of Jeff Lait's other games, can be found here. His POWDER can be found on the iOS App Store here.

3. Lee Djavaherian, tinkerer and hardware hacker: "A Tiny Room In A Tiny World" YouTube

Lee brought along a small toy treasure chest that, he reveals, actually itself completely contains the hardware used to play a roguelike game! It was made using a small, ultra-low-power microcontroller processor that runs on solar cells. It has no display but offers its display through a serial port, which can be viewed through a terminal emulator. It even communicates using Morse code.

He also goes over some of the history of computer roleplay gaming, leading up to the Video Game Crash of 1983. His mentioning of the Apple II game system EAMON is particularly interesting. In my alternate life as Metafilter's JHarris, I once made a post about EAMON. If you want to know more, it is here.  EAMON is a particularly twisty maze of passages; there's a website about it here.

Many aspects of the device's construction are discussed and illustrated. I'm still not sure exactly how it works, he didn't demonstrate it, I think due to time concerns. But, fortunately, he's put up a page discussing the project.

4. Brian Bucklew, co-founder of Freehold Games: "Data Driven Engines of Qud And Sproggiwood" YouTube

Freehold Games is an up-and-coming developer, and during the conference Brian Bucklew discovered that their Sproggiwood was due to be featured on the iOS App Store. (It's also on the Google Play Store.) He discusses Qud's early history and its class construction, especially regarding inheritance and behaviors, and other implementation details.

One goal of his in Qud's design, he notes, is his aspiration to remove the code as a barrier to inspiration, an interesting goal that I think may be ultimately impossible depending on how you interpret it, but still you can get quite far. He describes this in terms of how the ease of adding items and features to the game scales well as the game's complexity increases, so the 4,000th item added takes the same effort as the fifth.

Caves of Qud, which you can download and play from their website for free here, sounds amazing, and I have no idea why it's been off of my radar for so long. I had a chance to speak a little with Brian, and can confirm he's an extremely nice individual. And he knows about a lot of Eurogames, which is a sign of a well-rounded game designer. It is so nice to hear that he and colleague Jason Grimblat (see later) are making a go at it in the lottery of the App Store.

5. Brett Gildersleeve, author of Rogue Space Marine: "Rogue Space Marine Development Inspiration" YouTube

Brett Gildersleeve talks about Spelunky's level generator (which has a web page describing and demonstrating it) and his own game Rogue Space Marine. The stuff on Spelunky is terrific, and this should be watched for that reason at least, but it's also worth it for glimpses of the play of Rogue Space Marine, which actually introduces aspects of bullet dodging shooters into a turn-based roguelike. Watch and be amazed! Anyway, what Rogue Space Marine and Spelunky have in common is a mixture of pre-fab and randomized level generation, as a way to better ensure interesting situations.

The 7DRL page for Rogue Space Marine, which includes a 30-minute play video and a download link, is here.

6. Jim Shepherd, developer of Dungeonmans: "The Procedural Battlefield"

Leading off with a (joking?) idea for a new game called GRIZBAND, where you play as a bear. Jim Shepherd designed Dungeonmans, and talks about designing interesting play areas, and the uses of pre-made areas vs procedurally-constructed areas, which may be nominally different every game, but may not produce interesting situations. Brought up is the design of Dungeonmans, and mentioned is the sainted name of Dwarf Fortress. In practical matters, Shepherd suggests, when creating those interesting pre-made areas, not making an editor program, but using raw text files....

BTW, I can vouch that Shepherd's game Dungeonmans (Steam, $15) is entertaining and interesting! It's got roguelike play, but of particular interest is how the focus is on the world around the player, and the metagame where you're improving the fortunes of an adventurer academy as character after character advances through a randomized world.

7. Jared Corduan, mathematician: "Math-like Roguelikes" YouTube

He presents four roguelike-related puzzles from the realm of recreational mathematics for developers and viewers to think about. The first is John Horton Conway's "Angel And Devil," otherwise known as the Angel problem (Wikipedia), involving hemming in an angel on an infinite checkerboard. The others are "Lemming On A Chessboard," "Homocidal Chauffeur," "3-Way Duel" and "Chomp."

8. Sheridan Rathbun, developer of Barony: "Barony Post-Mortem" YouTube

Barony is a first-person perspective roguelike that offers four-player cooperative play! His talk is a personal story of trying to make it as a young, up-and-coming indie roguelike developer. It is available on IndieGameStand and Desura ($7), and is soon coming to Steam! Its homepage is here.

9. Bob Saunders, author of Approaching Infinity: "Infinite Gameplay" YouTube

Discusses his game Approaching Infinity ($40), a "space roguelike" with both personal exploration and spaceship combat sections published by Shrapnel Games. In particular, there's no limit to the game size and there's no cap to the player's statistics. An amusing aspect of his game, he reveals, is a planet where the terrain spells out "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra," a reference to a particular Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. Stay geeky, Bob Saunders!

10. Cameron Kunzelman, developer and 2CI Fellow in New And Emerging Media at Georgia State University: "The Artisanal Rouguelike"

Cameron Kunzelman did a talk about "The Artisanal Rouguelike" about indie roguelike game constructions before and now. A major theme of his talk is procedural generation, which is turned to more and more often by developers of all levels as a way to decrease the effort needed to create content.

Kunzelman has a blog, at, which not only talks about his game releases but also features writing on other games, including some non-roguelikes, which are rumored to exist out there somewhere.

11. Eben Howard: "FOV and You"

Eben Howard's talk "FOV and You" is about line-of-sight algorithms, showing off a variety of them, their uses and drawbacks, with a custom-written Java applet, and also covers the use of a roguelike library, Squidlib. It should be of immense interest to most traditional roguelike developers, especially new devs who are interested in learning about the fundamental algorithms of the genre.

Howard has a website,, where he posts news about the development of SquidLib.

12. Adam Boyd, former moderator for r/pixeldungeon: "Everyone's @ Home"

Adam Boyd is (was?) a moderator on the popular subreddit for the game Pixel Dungeon, and presented a talk about the maintenance of a community devoted to a roguelike game, and the interplay between the developer and the fans (the dev added an area to his game and other features based on memes in the community). Pixel Dungeon is now available on Steam ($5), desktop systems (free, requires Java), Android (free, but w/in-app purchases) and iOS ($3)

13. Jason Grimblat, co-founder of Freehold Games: "@ Meets ?: Collaborative Storytelling Through Procedural Generation" YouTube

Beginning with video of players going through Freehold's post-apocalyptic roguelike Caves of Qud (the video carries the subtitle Antelopes vs. Molluscs — note, the video doesn't actually begin until the 5:30 mark, so you may want to skip to there), the talk moves into how the players took random details provided by the game and built them into a backstory, an explanatory narrative that fit the supplied data. This is of course part of the appeal of Dwarf Fortress. Grimblat makes a distinction between developer stories, pre-written content for players to consume, and player stories, which they create themselves.

He then describes how collaborative storytelling works in Jason Morningstar's wonderful pen-and-paper game Fiasco, which is all about the constructions of these kinds of narratives, and asks what hints we can glean from it. Fiasco is particularly relevant because it doesn't have a referee or GM to author a scenario for the players to inhabit; the players work together to construct those elements. (By the way, have you heard of Fiasco? It is not a roguelike, but it's wonderful! While it's not free itself, it has all these free supplements....)

The final section has to do with the themes of the classic post-apocalyptic RPG Gamma World, and how they were adapted for Caves of Qud.

14. Rob Parker, researcher for the University of Waterloo: "The Role Of Permadeath In Roguelike Games"

One of the most-associated features with roguelike gaming is permadeath, the idea that player only has one shot at each play and has to start over if his character dies. He talks about permadeath in content of player learning, content unlock systems and procedural generation. Rob Parker mentions, by the way, that he's working on a roguelike based on David Lynch's movies and Laura Dern's career. I have difficulty imagining such a thing, and am eagerly waiting to see what he makes.


Sorry this one took so long, building links takes time and energy.  I'd like to call out to anyone with experience with the Japanese game Rogue Hearts Dungeon: does anyone reading this have experience with it?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

EXTRA: Junethack

Just a reminder going out that the 2015 Junethack NetHack tournament, covering a wide assortment of forks, is currently in progress.  Even if you're bored with NetHack, there are some interesting versions up there, especially dNethack (which has nine new-fangled "alignment keys") and, for those who like an older style of game, NetHack 1.3d.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Upcoming: @Play 82 on IRDC US 2015

I'm putting the NetHack variant article on hold (which has taken a while as I think abou it and mutated a bit) and going to instead write about the talks of last week's IRDC US and the attendees and their games.  Hope to have this up later today, which probably means it'll be up in another week or something.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

International Roguelike Developers Conference, Atlanta GA

It's looking like I'm going to be at the International Roguelike Developers Conference in Atlanta, GA, USA this coming weekend!  I got back in touch too late to do any presenting, but I should be there.  If you're going to be there too, you'll know me as the guy with absurd amounts of hair and wearing a Cthulhu shirt.

(BTW, money is going to be tight for me there, so donations are welcome, in cash or food.  Food especially!)

@Play is taking a while again, something that paying work continues to get in the way of.  More news there when it happens, I am hoping to get the next thing up before the conference.  If it doesn't, the next thing may actually be a recap of the conference....

Saturday, May 16, 2015

EXTRA: Roguelike Radio celebrates 100 episodes!

The newest episode hasn't been posted yet, but Darren Grey just announced it on his Twitter feed.  When it appears, of course, it'll show up on the Roguelike Radio blog.

@Play 82 is still in the works.  Doing something on all the Nethack variants turned out to be too big a bite, so I'm looking into ways to usefully lessen the scope.  Please stand by.

But not literally.  You might get tired.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

EXTRA: Bay12 Games (of Dwarf Fortress) has a Patreon

Extra thing for people reading this, Bay12 Games, half of which is the amazing Tarn Adams (who I interviewed before for Gamasutra) has started a Patreon to help secure the future of Dwarf Fortress.  It is a worthy goal I believe: I feel strongly that DF is one of the most important games of our generation.

It only takes a dollar a month, less than a cup of coffee reminds spokesdwarf Urist Struthers, to feed and clothe dwarf child Urist McDestitute and her 39 cats in the manner in which they are accustomed.  If you have a couple of bucks to spare each month, why not shoot them to the dwarfs, I'm sure it'll be of great solace to them in the trying, goblin-besieged, elf-annoyed, werewolf-cursed, demon-beset times ahead of them.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

@Play 81: Rogue's Item ID in Too Much Yet Not Enough Detail

Last time I said that the least-copied feature of Rogue is its item identification system. Of the horde of "roguelike" and "roguelite" games now flooding Steam, very few think to adopt this aspect. Darren Gray, who I'll have you know is pretty sharp on roguelike ideas generally, suggested that people participating in the Seven-Day Roguelike challenge don't bother implementing an item ID system.

Well, I'm here to make an attempt to argue against all that. Rogue is probably the most tightly-designed computer game I know of (and I know of over a thousand), and every aspect refers, in some way, to another aspect, no part of it can be considered in complete isolation from the others, and that includes item identification. I think not only does item identification add something interesting and substantive to it, but that it ties the rest of the game together, that it's really a part of a whole with the other things that make Rogue fascinating, and that the things it adds are not easily replace with other features. But, as with everything else in your design (if you aren't a designer then bear with me), you shouldn't include item ID thoughtlessly: instead, you have to work carefully to make it fit in with the rest of the game, in order to get the greatest benefit from it in terms of depth of player choices. But this is just like everything else in your game, so really it's not any different from deciding what powers your monsters should have or whether you should have a food clock or not.

The core idea is that items in an identification system, the things you collect in the dungeon that go under the increasingly-overused name loot, can have hidden properties. You don't know everything about the objects you're carrying at first sight. Some things about them are known from casual observation, like what general type it is (Sword? Armor? Potion? Ring?), but for some things there's an additional descriptor, like a color (pink potion) or material (lapis lazuli ring) that extends across a hidden class of items. Many items have individual properties themselves that have to be discovered uniquely for each one, like plus or curse status, but for this discussion we're concerned about the descriptive classes of items, not miscellaneous aspects.

Item ID, Fantasy Literature, and AD&D

The idea that magic items may not be known to the player immediately on finding is something that dates back to the roots of fantasy role-playing gaming: fantasy literature.

Sainted Gary Gygax drew from many sources when inventing (with Dave Arneson) Dungeons & Dragons. But a common thread running through a lot of it, something that if you asked me isn't played up nearly as much these days as it should, is that magic is mysterious. Even to a wizard, spells are dangerous business, not always working as you expect. It doesn't make sense that a Level 1 Rogue Muggle would be able to recognize a Sword of Casual Dismemberment on first glance, or even thirtieth.

This is of course another intrusion of that persistent game designer bugaboo, realism. Making appeals to reality is doubly damned these days, first for being inconvenient to play, second for being outright ludicrous in a genre where people throw around fireballs, monsters breathe fire, and gold never seems to lose its value despite the hundreds of thousands of pieces PCs exchange for their diamond swords. And yet, you can never wholly discard realism. After all, we meet Harry Potter properly first, not as a wizard himself, but as a dejected adoptee of non-magical caretakers. Bilbo Baggins is a relatable character, not because he's a Hobbit, or he might have a distant fairy ancestor, or he has a sword named Sting or a ring of invisibility, but because we meet him in a hole in the ground, surrounded by comfortable, normal furnishings. If you're going to author fantasy – and make no mistake, fantasy game designers are authors whether they want to be or not – your work will be more understandable if you have some realistic basis behind it, or at least a logical basis.

(Note 1: I mentioned the list of Gygax's inspirations for D&D, the famous 1st Edition DMG Appendix N, in a previous column. I was inordinately pleased to see that it has returned to the game, with additions, in the form of D&D 5th edition's Appendix D. Note 2: This plea of mine, for play mechanics that at least have some root in realism, it's something that matters more than just the subject of this essay. I might write a column about it later, it's a far-reaching concept.)

Which isn't to say that magic shouldn't be strange and exotic, no, just the opposite. Part of the job of the magic system designer is to interface the realism needed to be understandable, to be relatable, with the wonder of magic, to which it is fundamentally opposed. Reconciling these things is (and should be!) a hard problem, and how you go about it reveals a lot of what you're about as a designer. I could name names here, revealing examples of games that I don't think do it well. There are lots of them. But I prefer here to show by example, showing off a game that does it right. And hey, that game is Rogue itself, and its magic system basically is its item system.

Speaking of Gygax's Dungeon Master's Guide.... Have you ever read the magic item descriptions in the back of it? That whole book is amazing. Whatever you think about it in terms of playability as a game (there's plenty good and bad if you can sift through it all), you have to admit that it's brimming with joy and full of ideas, hundreds of ideas. Its magic item lists are terrific. Of course all the editions of D&D provide a certain amount of fun just to flip through, to read about dozens of strange, bizarre and enchanting gizmos, but the 1st Edition book is unquestionably the best, in terms of both ambition and range. (Note: each subsequent edition bled a little more of that joy out of it. Don't look for it in 4th Edition.)

Anyway, I bring the list up because of a special kind of item that's spread through the magic item listings, intermingling with the more useful devices, and those are the bad items.

Alongside listings for things like sword +1, +2 vs. magic-using and enchanted creatures (I like to imagine it like a long, sharpened spork) is sword +1, cursed. Although it's a +1 sword, and thus "one better," in a Spinal Tap sense, than an ordinary weapon, the sword magically compels the wielder to fight to the death in all battles, which isn't a recipe for long survival against dungeon monsters. It's an item you're really better off without. Then there's the plate mail of vulnerability, which "appears to every test to be magical +1, +2, or +3 armor," but is actually cursed, carries a protection penalty, and immediately falls apart when struck on a natural roll of 20. Then there's the shield -1, missile attractor, the talisman of yearning (which tries to make the wielder drown himself), the vacuous grimoire (which permanently sucks some of the reader's Intelligence and/or Wisdom scores into it), the stone of weight that NetHack players will recognize as like a lodestone, the potion of delusion, the rug of smothering, the scarab of death, and so on. All of this is just from a casual scan; there's plenty more. Pretty much every baneful object in the 1E DMG mentions what other, helpful magic object it's indistinguishable from.

The origins of CRPGs were recreations of pen-and-paper RPGs. And we've covered before that Rogue's closest analogue was to the random dungeon generation tables in another of 1st edition AD&D's marvelous appendices. But most computer fantasy games, for one reason or other, didn't try to simulate this aspect of the game, the presence of bad items. Part of the reason was likely technical, for a bad item can only have a chance of inflicting its badness if a player decides to use it, and that depends on disguising it, which is an extra layer of complexity to add to a game running on limited hardware.

But it should be noted... "because that's how D&D did it" isn't always a good justification for including something in your own game. Rogue's random item system is arguably better than 1E D&D's! Effectively, cursed items in D&D are impossible to tell apart from their helpful lookalikes until triggered, even if one has been seen before. They are basically an elaborate screwing-over mechanism, provided by Gygax to the DM, to help keep metagaming players in line. ("A magic bowl? I've seen one of those before, dibs!") Such items have no good purpose in a roguelike game.

Item ID in action

If you don't have substantial experience with Rogue this article might seem a bit esoteric. The following narrative is intended to give you some idea of how random items work during play. Our hero Rodney the Rogue enters the dungeon at the top level and begins exploring....

LEVEL 1: He finds one unknown potion and two unknown scrolls of different types. He doesn't do anything with them yet. Not much to say yet.

LEVEL 2: The monster opposition is still fairly light. A ring, a wand and a longsword are found. The player switches from his starting +1, +1 mace to the longsword; it's +0, +0, but not cursed. On the average, this a slight improvement. If it had been cursed he would have to rely on random items to drop the sword.

LEVEL 3: This is the first level with Giant Ants (in some versions called Rattlesnakes). These can drain Strength (the sole attribute score) on a successful hit. Two more potions are found here, and two more scrolls, and a food ration. One of the potions is of the same type as the one found on Level 1 (they're both "plaid," however that works), and he also now has two of one type of scroll (they have the same title, something like "swerr mep"). Rodney makes the decision to test-ID one of the scrolls, hoping it might be Identify (the most common scroll). It is! He wisely uses it on the ring (the hardest kinds of item to figure out) and finds out it's a ring of Teleportation. These are cursed and annoying, but potentially a lifesaver. He keeps it in his pack, but mentally notes when he runs out of room it's high priority for trashing.

He also tries one of the duplicate potions, which provides the message "you feel much better." The potion is of Extra Healing; even though he was fully healed when he drank it, Extra Healing potions raise your maximum hit points by two in such a case. That's a nice bonus, but he decides it's better to keep the remaining potion in reserve for emergencies. Later on, when monster attacks do more damage than an Extra Healing potion restores, he'll drink it for further maximum HP. Healing potions also curse confusion, blindness and hallucination. Blindness is the big one there, one usually wants to see that ended as soon as possible, so it's worth hanging on to one until the potion of blindness is discovered.

LEVEL 4: The new monster here is Orcs, which aren't too much trouble. Rodney finds another ring, two more potions, and one more scroll. He's now carrying 18 items, and maximum is 26; not tight yet, but it's getting there. The potion is a duplicate of one he's carrying so he drinks it. "you feel very sick", and he loses three points of Strength! It was Poison. This puts his Strength down from its starting 16 to 13. This isn't a huge problem yet, but with Giant Ants around the Strength loss may continue. A Strength of 6 is the trouble zone, that's where penalties begin to accrue. (He did lose some combat potency though, because Strength 16 provides a +1 bonus.)

He drops the duplicate potion of Poison and tries his last unknown potion, and it turns out to be Raise Strength. That was a mixed blessing. It puts his Strength back up to 14, but if he had drank it before drinking the Poison his Strength would have gone up to 17. But what's more, his "natural" strength (that is, the highest your Strength has ever been in the current game) would also have gone up to 17. The difference is what happens when a potion of Restore Strength is drunk; it restores up to natural Strength. When he does find a Restore Strength potion now, he'll end up with 16 instead of 17. It was bad luck that he drank the Poison before the Raise Strength.

In Rogue these things happen all the time. One cannot let himself get worked up about what could have been if there had been no way to know. Of course, he could have spent his spare scroll of Identify on one of the potions. But now thinking about it Rodney is reminded he has an unknown ring, and tries the Identify scroll on it to discover to his delight that it's a ring of Slow Digestion, one of the most valuable rings. Once put on this cuts food consumption by 50%, significantly reducing the pressure of the food clock. It's a good thing, actually much better than having a Strength of 17. Having good identification priorities tends to work in a player's favor in the long run.

LEVEL 5: The new monster is Zombie, still not a huge problem. Treasure found on this floor is two new scrolls and a suit of Chain Mail. That's probably going to be better than the +1 Ring Mail Rodney began with, but when he tries it on he finds to his dismay that it's cursed and -2! His best option now, Rodney reasons, is to test ID the new scrolls.

Three possibilities will free him of the armor. a scroll of Remove Curse will lift the curse and let him switch back to his Ring Mail, which is one point better than the -2 Chain Mail. Or a scroll could be Enchant Armor, which would raise the Chain Mail to -1, the same power as the +1 Ring Mail, and also lift the curse. And it could be Protect Armor, which wouldn't change the plus or power, but would lift the curse, and also protect the Chain Mail from erosion from rust traps and Rust Monsters, who will begin appearing on Level 9. He reads them both: the first produces the message "you hear a high-pitched humming noise". It was Aggravate Monster, a bad scroll, but all it does is wake up all the beasties on the current level and make them want to attack the player, which is not a bad thing on such an easy level. Really, it's a blessing that it was discovered among such innocent surroundings. The other is an enchant scroll - but it's Enchant Weapon. Rodney's Longsword is now +0, +1. Not bad, but he's still stuck with the armor for the time being....

And so the game continues. Rodney is an experienced player, so as he decides whether to use-test items he keeps in mind all the things that haven't been discovered yet, in order to minimize risk. The worst of them all is the potion of Blindness, which at best means drinking a Healing potion to immediately cure, and at worst makes the game unplayable for several hundred turns, causing the player to get beat up by monsters he can't effectively run from because he can't see them while also taking a big hit to hunger, because you can't effectively explore what you can't see. The beginning of the tough monsters is Level 13, home of the Trolls (although Centuars can hurt before then). A blind player will probably die if he meets a Troll, so it's best either to discover Blindness before then or to abandon use-testing potions there. If they aren't known by that point, he'll probably try to use Identify schools on potions from then on, until Blindness becomes known.

He's conflicted about that wand in his inventory. It's usually pretty easy to identify wands, but the problem is, if it's Polymorph it could be a game ender if the dice don't roll just right. On the other hand, if Rodney stood on a scroll of Scare Monster and created an extremely hard enemy with a wand of Polymorph, he could gain a huge windfall of experience points without much trouble. This is still risky (if the monster's new form is Dragon then Rodney will get fried), but the prospect of getting free experience quickly is enticing enough that some people will throw caution to the wind. Maybe the danger could be minimized if the player were standing near the stairs? And so on.

What They Did, and Didn't

This is the system I described last time: each kind of magical item has an obvious specific description that are randomized each game. Potions come with colors, patterns and other descriptions, for instance, and even without using them, if you find two blue potions you know they're at least the same kind. Scrolls, wands and rings work similarly. You can find out what items do conclusively with a scroll of identify, or sometimes just from using them, or sometimes speculatively, where the game will ask you what you want to call that type of item. If definitely identified that class of item will be permanently named for the rest of the game; if known speculatively it can be renamed later, although if it's later conclusively identified the definite name will overwrite the guess.

The most interesting thing about the system, to my eyes, is its originality. No idea emerges from whole cloth, and every thought a human being has ever had has had antecedents, inspirations, foundations. But it didn't originate in AD&D, whose bad items, the Dungeon Master's Guide says, are indistinguishable from the good ones, even by magical means. According to the descriptions given there, no amount of examination will be enough to distinguish a bowl of commanding water elementals from a bowl of watery death. If divination could do the job the DMG doesn't say, effectively leaving it up to the tender mercies of the DM.

The way Rogue does it makes for interesting situations, of the type demonstrated in the play example above.  It gives the player an additional way to demonstrate skill, and thematically it makes a point about the nature of magic. But a lot of games don't do this, they don't bother to offer item identification as a subgame, and it's often not bad that they don't!

If you implement item ID badly, what you end up with can be distracting, or annoying, or even frustrating. If all items are identified immediately on the point of use (Mystery Dungeon games sometimes do this in bonus dungeons), then you effectively make the first item of each type the player finds a waste ("Oh, so that's what that did. If only I had another one."), and if it's a bad item, the effect is not that different from a trap that the player merely has leeway towards when it goes off, unless he decides simply to never use-ID anything.

This isn't to steer you away from making games with it, but instead to suggest caution.  If you're going to put randomized item definitions in your game, here's some important questions to ask yourself:
  • Can you use the item without identifying it first? If not, then why require item identification at all? In principle it just makes players wait until town to get the thing identified, or to just throw away such items. You should be trying to increase the number of interesting decisions the player has to make. In Rogue, all items can be used, whether you know what they are or not, although the consequences might be dire. Make the player decide: use it and maybe get hit with a bad effect, or save it and maybe get killed when the right thing could have saved your life.
  • Are there any bad items that the player might find? If not, then there's not much reason not to wait for a tight spot before testing, on the off chance that it'll be a helpful thing. In Rogue, every item type has bad versions mixed in with the good ones.
  • Are sources of identification scarce and uncertain enough that the player may be seriously inconvenienced should he decide to wait until using instead of using right away? If not, then best play demands that the player always wait, and the purpose of identification is lost. In Rogue, the only means of definite identification besides use is identify scrolls, which are the most common scroll, but still random.

    Enough yet? We're just getting started!
  • Is the game hard enough that the player has to use unknown items once in awhile? If not, then he'd be foolish to take risks, and the items might as well not even be in the game. Some games are so easy that a skilled player might not have to use any items at all, unknown or known. In Rogue... well, the game is of legendary difficulty.
  • Are items sometimes not identified after use? If not, then it only takes finding a single example of each item to learn what it is. In Rogue, frequently items are not ID'd on use. Particularly rings are only ever identified with scrolls or careful observation, but other items that sometimes appear to do nothing on use might not be ID'd.
  • Does it matter much what order items are used in, or do item effects mean different things situationally? If not, then item effects start to look like a sequence of unrelated events, rather than something that builds on the rest of the game. We saw how Rogue does it in the play example: if you drink Raise Strength then Poison, the effect is different than if you drank Poison then Raise Strength. Same items, but different consequences depending on how the player uses them. Healing potions can provide either a large immediate benefit or a small permanent benefit, depending on how many hit points the player has then drank, and can also cure blindness, making them incredibly valuable before Blindness potions are known.

    Still a bit left....

  • Can bad items sometimes be put to positive use? If not, then it starts to look again like the random number generator is directly determining how well the player will do, as opposed to giving him an opportunity to use his skill to make the most of a situation. In Rogue: actually, most bad items don't have much in the way of alternative uses, although bad potions can be thrown at monsters to affect them sometimes.
  • Is it possible to identify things in ways other than use and Identify scrolls? If not, well it's not a huge thing; there aren't many items in Rogue that can be figured out without use or identification. (There is one though, and it's important!) But this is one of the best aspects of NetHack's item ID: serious thought has obviously gone into making many items discoverable without identification, and even if it seems a bit easy in some cases (wands are pretty easy once you know how), it's still pretty interesting, without requiring a player resort to such means, if he happens to be unspoiled or doesn't want to bother.
  • Are there enough items in the game, relative to the length of the game and item generation rate, that the player is reasonably sure not to find everything in one game? If not, then at the point where the player knows what all the items are, item ID becomes moot. This is particularly bad for in NetHack, where most stuff is known by midgame. In Rogue: players will typically find around 60% of possible item types in a winning game. (Note 1: NetHack's DevTeam actually took some controversial steps, according to some fans, to remedy this, by introducing the possibility for some items and monster attacks to unidentify items. Note 2: ToeJam's Randomizer item, mentioned in @Play 79, is one way around this, by giving players the possibility of accidentally scrambling the item definitions.)
That last bit, by the way, goes a bit against prevailing game design dogma, which says you don't need a lot of kinds of items so long as they all fulfill some role in the game. Well, that does make sense... maybe it'd be more accurate to say that it's an argument against excessive game length. The greater the proportion of things you can discover in one playthrough, the easier the game becomes. Of course some items should be more common than others, even to the point where they're very likely to show up. A good argument could be made that scrolls of identification are important enough that the player should probably always find a few, and of course food rations in a game with a strong food clock are important enough that even Rogue guarantees they turn up one level in three.

There's another reason for having more items in the game than could be generated each play, and that's variety. If you can't find, say, a Ring of Slow Digestion in your current game, you'll have to made do without, using the magic items that are otherwise generated to make up for it. One way to think about it: if everything can reasonably be found in one play, then the player can use whatever tools he likes the best, which gives him greater agency, which means he gets to play the way he wants, true, but also means once he's won once he's much less likely to want to play again after winning – there's little scope to vary the game on successive plays. If the player must instead adapt his playing style to the situation, then replayability is increased.

     -     -     -     -     - 

This has all been a huge infodump, and I'm sorry if it's been fairly obscure for casual readers. And yet there's still a lot left to say! But that I'll save for later.

Rogue's random items are carefully selected so that each has a specific gameplay purpose, some way in which it either lessens the weight of difficulty or (for bad or obfuscatory items) increases it. NetHack's items show similar attention to detail, each item with a specific play purpose. And there's still the topic of the identifications system of the future: Rogue's ID system is based on descriptions, but what would a game be like in which you had to, say, discover the specific gravities of potions to identify them, or apply something like the Mohs hardness scale to gemstones, or figure out a magic language to read the titles of scrolls? Maybe items types should be harder to differentiate from each other, or more vaguely typed. Don't be too quick to decry these ideas! It's not as easy to tell what ideas are good or not except in hindsight, and even then, execution is everything.

A game in which item identification takes center stage would be harder compared to Rogue, all other things being equal. So, what if we relaxed the difficulty in some other way? Maybe make the food clock is a little more generous, or give the monsters a bit less variety. Maybe such a game should provide players a list of all the possible items in the game, in order to reduce the usefulness of spoilers and FAQs?

An idea that I personally quite like is including a lot more kinds of items than could possibly appear in a single play-through, reducing the availability percentage from Rogue's 60% to something more like 35-40%. What would the consequences of this be on the game? Individual items would have to have less subtle effects, perhaps, to make up for the fact that the player probably won't be able to find more than one. Or maybe the possible items could be selected randomly from a list before the game starts, and those items would be the only ones generated; that way, whatever you do find, you have a good chance of finding more than one of, but other things won't show up at all.

Some of these items seem interesting, but they all also have their negative aspects. This is because Rogue's item ID system is exceptionally well-balanced. It's difficult to usefully change it in a way that could unequivocally be seen as better. To me, that indicates genius game design. But it also makes Rogue ID system a tough act to follow… which may explain, ultimately, why so few other games have tried to follow it.

Appendix: Rogue's Magic Items (source, plus a couple of contributions)

These items are those found in common versions of Rogue. Some versions may differ, like by splitting up identify scrolls among different item types or not offering scrolls of vorpalize weapon, so this should not be taken as definitive.

Scrolls: Monster Confusion, Magic Mapping, Hold Monster, Enchant Armor, Identify, Scare Monster, Food Detection, Teleportation, Enchant Weapon, Remove Curse, Protect Armor, Vorpalize Weapon, Light, Gold Detection, Genocide, Create Monster (bad), Aggravate Monster (bad), Sleep (bad), Blank Paper (useless)

Potions: Healing, Extra Healing, Gain Strength, Restore Strength, Haste Self, Magic Detection, Monster Detection, Raise Level, Restore Strength, See Invisible, Levitation, Blindness (bad), Confusion (bad), Paralysis (bad), Poison (bad), Hallucination (bad), Thirst Quenching (useless)

Rings: Add Strength, Dexterity, Increase Damage, Maintain Armor, Protection, Regeneration, Searching, Slow Digestion, Stealth, Sustain Strength, Teleportation, Aggravate Monster (bad), Adornment (useless)

Wands/Staves: Light, Striking, Lightning, Fire, Cold, Magic Missile, Slow Monster, Teleport Away, Cancellation, Drain Life (often bad), Polymorph (often bad), Haste Monster (bad), Invisibility (bad), Teleport To (bad), Nothing (useless)

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Steam's roguelike sale, mentioned a couple of days ago at the Blogger @Play blog, continues until April 27.  If for no other reason it's a good time to get Spelunky and FTL for very little money, but there are a number of other interesting games offered too.  For a few more, follow that link right there.

It seems like this column took forever to write, and I'm still not entirely happy with it, but it's up now at least, remaining problems can be fixed later.  Because it took me nearly a month and a half to get up, I'm going to try to get the next one up fairly soon, maybe a review, maybe a review of one of those games in the Steam sale?  Hmmmm....

Friday, April 24, 2015

Steam sale on roguelikes

Yes, still working on @Play 81, on Rogue's item ID system, which has been "almost finished" for a week now.  In the meantime....
Steam seems to be having a sale on roguelikes (or at least games that call themselves roguelikes) right now.  Of particular note, the amazing Spelunky is $3.74, and FTL is around $2.49.

From a glance, the more interesting games in the list (some I am collecting myself for later review) seem to be (I vouch for none of these, and lack of inclusion should not note lack of quality): Don't Starve, WazHack, OneWay Heroics, Legend of Dungeon, Risk of Rain, Paranautical Activity, Sunless Sea, Delver, Tower of Guns, Dungeonmans, Vertical Drop Heroes and Cargo Commander.

Weirdly, there's an item on Steam named "Vulture for NetHack," for $3, which seems like it might be a Steam port of the ancient (approaching a decade old by this point) Vulture's Eye version of NetHack.  This is odd because both Vulture's Eye and NetHack are open source.  The NetHack Wiki page on it notes that they plan to add SLASH'EM and SporkHack as "free DLC."

I am given to wonder what the DevTeam thinks of this.  They are quite serious about the openness of their game.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


It's been through a couple of restarts and a refocusing, but it's finally approaching completion, @Play 81 is on the item identification system in Rogue, which I've always found one of its most fascinating elements, and yet is probably its least copied.

Something else--

Is anyone here familiar with the Japanese roguelike scene?  In addition to the Mystery Dungeon games, which I have to say, other than the genius of the original SNES and (to a slightly lesser extent) DS versions of the original Shiren, I mostly have been left cold by, I'm not hugely familiar with them.  I've heard that a Wizardry roguelike, "Wizrogue," is in the works, and of course there was Rogue Hearts Dungeon (an expansion of the original Rogue, I seem to remember), and other Mystery Dungeon games (including one on Etrian Odyssey) besides that for all I actually know could be brilliant.

I would greatly like to write on these games but the prospect of learning Japanese is only the beginning of the wall I'd have to scale, as the titles themselves, not to mention platforms, would also have to be obtained.  Is anyone else out there writing about Japanese market roguelike gaming on the internet?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

EXTRA: ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove makes it

The Kickstarter for ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove has made it to completion!  At this moment, with 39 hours to go, it's approaching its first stretch goal.

The biggest stretch goal is probably the one at $550K, which is guest composers.  The one at $500, extra characters, is also nice.  At $600K, $700K and $800K there's PS4, Xbox One and Wii U versions.  (Which makes me a little sad, as the one of the three I own is a Wii U, but no matter.  I'm sure if the game sells a ton they'll release it for every platform they think it'll be profitable on.)

I'm having to have the next @Play up by the end of the month....

Friday, March 20, 2015

EXTRA: Humble Weekly Bundle features roguelikes

The current Humble Weekly Bundle features six roguelike games.  Vertical Drop Heroes HD, A Wizard's Lizard, The Nightmare Cooperative are the primary components.  Beating the average (currently under $5) adds Road Not Taken and early access to Delver.  Pay at least $8 to gain Heavy Bullets.

I personally speak for none of these games, one way or the other; I've not heard of any of them before, and with the number of self-proclaimed roguelikes available on Steam proliferating lately there is no way I can test them all, even if I had the money to scoop them up (which I do not).  I mention them in case one of you thinks they sound interesting.  Check them out and see if you like!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Extra: CRPG Pundit recaps CRPGS from 1975-1983

We here at @Play pride ourselves on being reasonably conversant on the history of role-playing games and the evolution of their design trends.  But when someone with greater experience comes along we can only bow to it.  The CRPG Addict has been playing through all the surviving Western-developed CRPGs, in rough order, and has made an excellent post summarizing the field between the years 1975 and 1983.

While it doesn't cover the "lost" roguelikes of the Roguelike Restoration Project, his blog may be the most comprehensive treatment of the development of CRPGs in existence.  It's important reading not just for the historical perspective, the time he's covered is one of amazing ingenuity in design, and lots of games of the time contain one-off features that haven't been followed-upon by any successors, sometimes simply for reasons of obscurity.  It's a treasure trove for computer role-playing designers, and I'm not just saying that for his pick for 1980's most significant game.

Also of interest to CRPG designers: the early games of Nihon Falcom, such as the Dragon Slayer series and Ys, which are just as formative to the JRPG scene as Wizardry and Ultima are to western gaming.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

@Play #80: Welcome back to the Dungeons of Doom

You are lucky! Full moon tonight.

This marks something of a revival of my old GameSetWatch column, @Play. That one slowed to a halt because it was getting harder to avoid repeating myself, or had to resort almost to filler columns to keep it going. Particularly, I had a sense that I had said everything that needed saying. That's not a bad excuse to not say anything.

But then something happened. Like a gas spore struck by an arrow, roguelikes exploded.

Before, the closest to mainstream roguelikes were things like the Mystery Dungeon series, which were a stretch even in their native Japan, or the Diablo games. Now, it seems almost like every other new indie game on the Steam store is tagged roguelike, 108 of them as of this writing. Before our hiatus, Spelunky (one of the best real-time roguelike-inspired games) was a promising freeware creation. Now it's available for Xbox 360, PS3, Vita, and Steam, has fascinated hundreds of thousands of players with its terrific procedurally-generated gameplay, and has been the focus of many livestreams and YouTube recordings by star players like BaerTaffy and Bananasaurus. That indicates, to me, that the lessons of roguelike games have gotten out to some extent, and even been embraced, and I find that heartening. And ToME, under the name Tles of Maj'Eyal, is there, and ADOM is coming, and Desktop Dungeons has been there for a while!  But it's not enough.

Anyway, there is no reason to restate the things I already said well enough on GameSetWatch. That site is still up (thanks Simon!) and all my columns, for their faults, are still there, and most of the things I said then are just as valid now. But it might be good to recap the basic points I made during its run. Here are most of them, in summary, and after that we can move on to new material.

All About @, Again

Possibly of use: The first column of the original run, from eight years ago, which contains a different, shorter, introduction.

rogue (from deb package bsd-nonfree)
A roguelike game is, in the broadest sense, a game that is like Rogue. One way to stylize that name, by the way, is with a lowercase first letter, as "rogue," as it is a Unix command. But you can be forgiven for writing it like Rogue, and that's what I'm going to do. (The same goes, by the way, for nethack/Nethack, even though that game is officially called NetHack, and I'm going to try to writing it like that in the future.)

There is no official definition for "roguelike," nor an official body to substantively define it. It was adapted by fans to refer to games that took Rogue (1980) as a starting point and elaborated upon it. It itself took inspiration from the Dungeons & Dragons books (OD&D: 1974, AD&D 1E: 1977) and possibly earlier computer RPGs like dnd and Oubliette, which can still be played on the PLATO system running on Cyber1. Some of the earliest roguelikes, after Rogue, are nearly forgotten games like Advanced Rogue, SuperRogue, Ultra-Rogue, and Xrogue. It is very hard to play them in their original forms, but modern ports of some can be gotten from the Roguelike Restoration Project. Other prominent early roguelikes include Moria, Larn and Hack. Some of those games got their own variants: Moria was modified into UMoria and then Angband, Larn to ULarn, and Hack to NetHack. New variants are produced to this day. Angband has dozens of variants, and NetHack has gained quite a few just in the past few years. There's also standalone roguelikes ADOM and Brogue, among others. All of these are console-based, text games, but it is not necessary to be a console game to be roguelike, especially not now.

Rogue is one of the most interesting games, relative to what was floating around at the time of its creation, that there ever has been, and it's still pretty fascinating now. It was released the same year as Pac-Man. I refer to it in the present tense because people still play Rogue. It is a randomly-generated exploration game, using a simplified version of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules, in which the player guides a surrogate character through a treacherous labyrinth of monsters and traps. Rogue is particularly known for its great difficulty, its system of permanent character death (usually shortened to "permadeath"), its variety of play experience, its random game world, its tactical combat, the deep nature of its simulated world, its unique item identification system, and its replayability. Many of these things individually have given a game reason to be called, at one time or other, by some person, "roguelike." Because there is no official definition of the term, despite some creditable efforts like the Berlin Interpretation, lots of people use it to describe lots of different things, so let's briefly address each of the things in that list.

Difficulty: Rogue is very hard, and some later games are even harder. Some versions of Rogue are crushingly hard.

moria (Linux Mint)
Rogue belonged to what I continue to call the "Mount Everest" school of design, where the game is supposed to be a just barely surmountable obstacle, to a hypothetical player. You may not win this game now; you may not win it ever. But even if you lose, if the game is doing its job right, it feels good if you just play better than you usually do (this is why many roguelikes provide high score tables). Or at least, it should ideally. The game is very hard, but you know it's very hard, so failure is not a matter of shame. If you're the kind of person who absolutely must beat every game you play then roguelikes may not be for you.

But difficulty isn't enough by itself. There are lots of hard games that aren't really roguelike in nature, indeed most games released to arcades. Difficulty is by no means exclusive to roguelikes, but in subtle ways it improves many of our other aspects here: if the game isn't hard, then why do you care about exploring unknown dungeons or identifying items?

Winning at Rogue is something to aspire to, with practice, experience, and (sometimes) lots of spoilers. But even with spoilers, winning is far from guaranteed, and for this fact looking up FAQs is considered to be fairer game than when playing other, more static genres. This is because of--

Randomness: Every time you play Rogue, the game generates the dungeon anew.

There are lots of games that use randomness that aren't roguelike. Particularly, there are games that use it in a trivial way, that is, in a way that doesn't really affect the play. If you randomly generate a dungeon layout it may seem rogue-ish, but there are lots of ways you can lay out rooms and corridors that don't ultimately make any difference to the choices you make, not if you always stock that dungeon level with the same items and monsters, not if the critical path is always functionally the same, not if there isn't some resource management aspect to exploration that gives weight to that randomness. And it's also possible for a game to be too random, where the spikes up and down on the player power graph matter more than the player's skill. Usually good roguelike design is "spikier" than you might expect from playing other games, but still, if you're constantly running into top-of-the-line Dragons on level one, it's possible that the game is more about hoping the random dungeon generator doesn't generate impossible situations. That's especially important because of--
NetHack 3.4.3 (console, Linux Mint)

Permadeath: When you die, that doesn't mean you load in your last save. The game is over. The next game, you must start from scratch.

This is still the most controversial aspect of roguelikes, although it really shouldn't be. Games were like this from the very early days. You can't save your place in Space Invaders and return to it. Likewise, if your character dies in a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, at least at low levels, he's gone, your DM isn't going to resurrect him on a whim. At least, not if he's any good.

The common defense of permadeath given by enthusiasts, which I've been known to use myself sometimes, is that it gives weight to your decisions. But I think that's kind of a cop out. This isn't a special attribute of roguelikes, that's just what games are, it speaks more to a deficiency in modern gaming that gives players unlimited do-overs. It was a niche idea to be able to return indefinitely to saved positions, originally in adventure games where exploring the consequences of your decisions is part of the fun, that snuck out of its genre into other genres where, divorced of its original context, it lost its original purpose and became something games just had to have, like happened later with experience levels, character unlocks and loot grind.

One variation on this idea I've heard bandied about lately has been called perma-consequence, the idea of there being other states than death that might not be simply reversible. Rest assured, we'll be returning to this idea.

Variety of play: This is not a commonly recognized attribute, but it gives a game a kind of roguelike feel. Random dungeon maps by themselves are not enough to make a game substantively different between plays. The player must be offered meaningfully different choices between plays. In Rogue, depending on what items you find, or which enemies end up being most common, you may end up playing in an entirely different manner. For success, the player must, to some extent, adapt to the situation, rather than adapt the situation to his playing style.

This is such an essential part of the best roguelikes, yet it's recognized so little, that I'll probably be devoting a column to this one before long.

Tactical combat: The classic roguelike paradigm involves exploring a grid-based world where enemies have largely the same abilities as the player. Movement and attacks each take up an amount of time, and so one must frequently make decisions as to the best way to fight, or whether to retreat.

I'm not devoting that many words to this one because the meaning of roguelike has been drifting as of late. I'm still something of a die-hard, the word to me still tends to mean Turn-based Overhead Tactical Combat (Am I allowed to coin spurious acronyms, like "4X"? If so, how about TOTC, pronounced tot-ic?). The term roguelikelike has been suggested, but it puts me to mind of a certain shield-eating Zelda enemy. I suppose you could also use quasi-roguelike (because "quasi" is a cool prefix) or rogue-ish. Just so you know, we'll be covering partly roguelike games here, too.

Depth of world: Rogue's game universe supports many different kinds of action, some of them useful only in obscure circumstances, but everything is useful at some point or other. Walls and floors can be searched for traps; you can rest in one place to regain hit points faster; rings provide special powers but at a cost of food consumption; you can throw arrows sure, but if you take a turn to wield a bow first they'll be much more effective; armor greatly increases your survival odds against powerful monsters, but wearing it makes you uniquely vulnerable to the one monster who cannot inflict physical damage on you; and the mere act of dropping a certain kind of item can save your life. Many actions turn up unexpectedly useful, but only experience (or spoilers) can tell you how.

If you consider depth of world to be measured in the variety of things the player can do, then this could also be considered one of the hardest hurdles to clear in learning how to play Rogue. The keyboard interface could be considered obtuse to present-day players. Its key layout is inspired by the Unix text editor vi, using hjkl for orthogonal movement, and allowing players to prefix some commands with numbers in order to repeat them (like typing "20s" to search twenty times in place).

Angband 3.3.2 (ASCII window, Linux Mint)
At the time and places of Rogue's initial popularity most players could be presumed to know vi keys, and be used to its command mode, the inspiration for Rogue's terseness of communication, but few people these days who aren't Unix mavens learn vi. (If you're interested in learning vi, playing Rogue could be considered a way to get used to its movement system, although its diagonal keys are not used there.) By the way, most modern variants of Rogue and console roguelikes support using a number pad for movement. If you're interested in playing classic roguelike games on a laptop, you should either make sure to get a model with a numpad or invest in a cheap USB numpad keyboard add-on. (I got mine ten years ago and it's still kicking.)

Anyway, even if you know vi, there's plenty of new key commands to learn. In most cases these commands are pretty obvious by their letter, or are not too dangerous if you press keys to figure out. To eat something you press 'e', for instance, and to read something press 'r'. A few are more idiosyncratic: to drink a potion, you press 'q', for "quaff." 'w' stands for wield and is how you equip weapons; Shift-'W', however, means wear, and is how you put on armor. One thing that's nearly universal to all roguelikes, however, is 'i', for inventory.

Item ID: This is one of Rogue's less-copied features, but one that has a profound effect on its gameplay. As other games hosting random dungeons have increased in number, this has become probably Rogue's most defining characteristic, and the one enamored-of most by the Hack-like branch of its descendents.

Scattered throughout the dungeon are randomized magic items going by different descriptions, like "orange potion" or "lapis lazuli ring." Their purposes are scrambled within their item classes from a number of possible effects that are consistent for their descriptions. An orange potion, for instance, may be extra healing one game, gain level the next, and blindness in still another. Importantly however, while their functions change from game to game, within a single game they're the same: orange potions won't suddenly take on a different quality but remain consistent in function until you die. (This is one reason that permadeath is important to Rogue.)

Mixed in with the good magic items are some bad ones – drinking a potion of blindness is generally a pretty bad thing to do in Rogue, but because you don't know which kind of potion will blind you before drinking, you usually get burned by each type once, at some point. This can be escaped, however, through the use of a special kind of item, the scroll of identify, which will infallibly identify one item you're carrying. Unfortunately, scrolls are themselves one of the random item types, and so you will have to use-test at least a few items before you find out what the identify scrolls are. (I call use testing items to find out what they are "trial ID," as in trial-and-error. I'm not sure why I started calling it that; maybe it reminds me of drug trials.)

Once the game is satisfied that you definitely know what an item is, it will rename it for convenience: it'll stop calling them orange potions and instead say something like "potion of extra healing." Many roguelikes that adopt an item identification system, especially the more difficult variants of the Japanese Mystery Dungeon games, will identify these items immediately on their first use, under the philosophy that if you took the risk in using it you deserve to know what it is, but Rogue does not always do that. Instead, if you use an item, it will be identified for you if the game judges its effect was obvious enough. Sometimes this is definite (it's usually pretty obvious when you've been blinded), but other times may be situational. A few kinds of items will never be identified from use, but clues may be provided for you to make a good guess. In those cases the game will ask "What do you want to call it?" and ask you for a name. It will then rename the item to that, saying, depending on what you entered, "a potion called [what you said]." You can also manually name items with a special command, in case you got some outside hint.

By the way, Rogue's item identification system most likely has its root in 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons, which has a number of cursed and otherwise-bad magic items that exist mostly to be confused with good items of the same type. In AD&D, many of these items were outright lethal, like the Bowl of Watery Death, which existed only to screw over players who thought they were getting a Bowl of Commanding Water Elementals. Rogue versions, at least, are much fairer: no Rogue magic item can kill you by itself, although some may end up deadly combined with other situations.

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup 13.1 (console, Linux Mint)
Replayability: This comes last because it's the most important. All of the previously mentioned features are at the service of this one. Rogue is a game that's intended to be played many times. Most of the time you'll lose, but even when you win, it'll still be fun to play next time. This is the primary measure, in my eyes, of whether a game that calls itself "roguelike" is doing justice to the fearsome legacy it invokes. If you can't start a dozen games and still feel interested in playing from the first move, then there's an important lesson the game hasn't picked up.

A game where you can't die, but is varied enough that each game feels like its own adventure, is, in one sense, more roguelike than a boring game with permadeath, random dungeons and scrambled magic items.

Here are some other relevant points I've argued for over the years:
  • While trends and fads may make some things seem more interesting to us, at different times, than others, game design doesn't go obsolete.
  • Grind is bad; players should not be kept from the "good stuff" in a game by having to pay their dues in terms of time played.  This is degenerate game design.  Think carefully about the consequences of this; while there are fewer always-bad things a designer can do than you might think, as a designer, you should know why you're doing it.
  • To avoid becoming grind, player improvement must come with risk of loss, either of resources or outright game failure.
  • While permadeath can be good, preserving state in a game long-term, between games, is a very interesting idea – it's what gives a game continuity of experience, that makes a play one long game instead of string of isolated, unrelated situations. There is probably an upcoming column on this matter.
  • Randomness can be very interesting in a game, if used properly.  However, random dungeons by themselves are not enough, if the contents of those dungeons is always the same.  You might as well just have pre-made dungeons in that case.
  • Pure randomness can be worse than pre-written content; at least the latter is presumably playable once.
  • Good random content generation filters its randomness, uses it to create good content while remaining both challenging and winnable.
  • That said, good roguelike design doesn't take it easy on the player based on his state.  If you're low on health, sources of healing do not magically become more common.  This is because roguelikes are fundamentally exploration simulations, and cooking the dice in favor of the player is breaking the simulation.  Roguelikes are not play experiences, they are challenges; you don't play them to feel empowered, but to see what will happen.
  • Longer games must be more fair to the player, must be more certainly winnable, and must generally be easier. For all these reasons, shorter roguelikes tend to be best. The sting of a loss is proportional to the amount of time spent playing.
  • Balancing this out, winning a good roguelike game does not make future wins foregone conclusions. A well-designed game can still be challenging and fun even after many victories.
  • The first time you finish a good roguelike, you generally have the feeling that you lucked out. You probably did, but you learned a lot to get there.
  • Tactical combat is considered by some to be an essential element of roguelikes, but increasingly many interesting examples of the genre do not require it.
  • Some roguelikes have interesting features by which the events of successive games can modify the game world, and affect later games. At best this results in features like NetHack's bones levels and Shiren the Wanderer's multi-game quests; at worst, the player may end up having to "level up"* the game world to make it easier in order to have even a chance at winning. We'll talk about this more when we get to reviewing Rogue Legacy.
Where are we going from here? Well, there's a lot of game design issues regarding roguelikes left to cover. Then there's covering tournaments and game jams, including the always-amazing 7DRL which is going as I speak, and may become the focus of the next column! There's reviews, and lots of them. Variants and patches to tell you about. Interviews and follow-ups. The occasional playthrough. Trivia, novelties and oddities. Sometimes the work of other enthusiasts. That is, all the stuff we used to cover. I am, however, expanding the focus of the column somewhat. Roguelikes are still the primary focus, but because the roguelike flavor has leached a bit into other genres, we'll talk sometimes about those games. Roguelikes are one of the prime examples of what bigshot game devs call "procedural generation," and I'll take that as my excuse to talk more about those issues, and the philosophy behind it.

This is nothing that long-time readers should look askance at. If you are such a reader, welcome back! If you're a newcomer, don't worry! All new readers receive a pile of food and some darts completely for free, and one complementary expensive camera. Be sure to take lots of pictures of the wildlife; your life may depend upon it. When (if?) you see Twoflower tell him I said "Hi."  Until next time, once again, this is John "@rodneylives" Harris, still waiting by those down stairs, wondering what happened to that dog.

* A final note. This is going to sound pedantic but I don't care, I spent years writing @Play and figure I've earned some orneriness. I insist that the proper term to use in roleplaying games, if you have to use experience levels at all, is to "gain a level," not to "level up," which is Engrish come home by way of console JRPGs. I am playful with this insistence because I don't actually care.  But if I were ever to edit a New Yorker-style magazine somehow devoted to video and computer games, then this would be the first thing I threw into my gnomish and inscrutable style guide. And diaereses over adjacent vowels in separate syllables, of course: this is a civilized column.

All screenshots taken in cool-retro-term, running on current Linux Mint.  It's the best way to pretend you're back in the 80s playing on a flickering CRT!


As said above, the 7DRL Challenge is going on right now, where a bunch of guys try to create a roguelike game in a week.  A few important roguelikes, got their start as 7DRL jamgames, and it's notable because every year there are both an unusually high number of both entries and awesome projects.  You should check it out!  One Twitter user who's been following them is @dungeonbard.  Maybe worth checking out?

(CORRECTION: DoomRL, apparently, did not get its start as a 7DRL as previously reported.)

Friday, March 6, 2015

A little more on TJ&E's Kickstarter

I believe this article in the L.A. Times, combined with the Kickstarter text and videos, successfully address every qualm I expressed in @Play 79.  Go Team ToeJam!

I've got two or three possible next columns coming up.  It's possible the review essay might not show up for a little while.  There's so much to talk about!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Where we've been

I'm starting to work towards archiving and maybe making an ebook out of notable @Play columns.  Towards this end, and to help me avoid going over old ground too much, I've made a list of all 79 columns to date, which I present here.  On off weeks, I will also be republishing the best of the original run of @Play here.  Note though that there's no links yet, it took me long enough to build the list.  They're not too hard to find on GameSetWatch still.

001: An Introduction to some Rogue-s: Introduction to the genre & basics.
002: What the hell does Q do again?: Basic roguelike keys, basics of vi
003: Rogue and its inspiration: OD&D, AD&D, pen and paper random generation tables
004: Giant Eel Stories #1: Stories of NetHack ascensions form Usenet
005: Review: Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Blue & Red (DS & GBA)
006: ToeJam & Earl: The Roguelike That's Not an RPG: On ToeJam & Earl (Sega Genesis)
007: Thou Art Early, But We'll Admit Thee: Ways to Die in NetHack
008: A View of the Field: The major roguelikes as of November 2006
009: Hack Hacks: Popular and interesting NetHack patches as of November 2006
010: A Coward Dies a Thousand Deaths, My Computer Several Billion: Automatic players Rog-O-Matic and Angband Borg
011: I Never Meta Rogue I Didn't Like: Metagame aspects of roguelikes, that is, aspects that persist outside the current game
012: Giant Eel Stories #2: More NetHack ascensions from Usenet
013: Mapping the Infinite Cavern: Dungeon generation in prominent roguelikes
014: ADOM, NetHack With a Goatee: Introduction to ADOM
015: Tips For Travel in Gridland: Basic roguelike tactics
016: Before Learning to Walk, One Must First Crawl: Introduction to Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup as of March 2007 (the game has changed a lot since then)
017: I Believe It Not!: In-jokes of NetHack
018: Storytelling, Bah!: The limits of using games as a storytelling medium
019: Doom, Doom, Doom, Doom: Review of DoomRL
020: Hack's Lost Brother: Information on Amiga HackLite
021: Things to Do While Visiting Ancardia: Quests of ADOM
022: Spoiled for Options: The relationship between NetHack and spoilers
023: Architecture of the Mystery Dungeon: Introduction to Mystery Dungeon series
024: Taloon's Mystery Dungeon, in Great Detail: Playthrough of that game (Super Famicom fan translated)
025: A Journey to Table Mountain, Part 1: Shiren the Wanderer (Super Famicom fan translated) playthrough start
026: A Journey to Table Mountain, Part 2: Conclusion
027: Fei's Problems: Conquering Fei's Final Problem in Shiren the Wanderer
028: Balancing a Game That Looks Balanceless: Notable NetHack exploits
029: Review of Glenn Wichmann's Seven Day Quest
030: Introduction to POWDER (various)
031: Homebrew Roguelikes on the DS
032: A Quick Look at the NetHack Sources: Compiling NetHack for yourself
033: Introduction to Angband
034: NetHack Intensified: Introduction to SLASH'EM
035: The Delights of Mystery Dungeon: Getting started with Shiren the Wanderer DS
036: Introduction to Larn
037: Roguelikes & OD&D
038: Towards Building a Better Dungeon: Lacks in traditional roguelike gaming
039: Super-Rogue, Banished to the Deeper Regions: Introducing the Roguelike Restoration Project & Super-Rogue
040: Review: Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja (DS)
041: Brought to You Today by the Letter...: On the use of letters to represent monsters
042: Modeling Motion on a Dungeon Grid: On benefits and limitation of a grid-based universe
043: Eye of the Vulture: NetHack graphic variant Vulture's Eye
044: Introduction to Legerdemain
045: Review of Monstania (Super Famicom fan translated)
046: Ten Years of the devnull NetHack Tournament, Part 1
047: Ten Years of the devnull NetHack Tournament, Part 2: Interview with tournament maintainer Robin Bandy
048: Objects of Collection: Item types in classic roguelikes
049: Cause For Incursion: Review of Incursion: Halls of the Goblin King (using 3E AD&D rules), supplement on Vancian Magic
050: Spelunk, Spelunk, Spelunk: Review of Splunky Freeware, column retrospective
051: XRogue Has Not Yet Ceased to Be: Info on RRP games Advanced Rogue and XRogue
052: 2009 7DRL Winners, Part 1
053: 2009 7DRL Winners, Part 2
054: How to Win at NetHack
055: The Rights to Rogue: On untangling the ownership of Rogue
056: 2009 7DRL Winners, Part 3
057: Review of Fatal Labyrinth (Sega Genesis)
058: Introducing SporkHack and UnNetHack: On a couple of balance variants for NetHack
059: The Python Strikes!  You are Being Squeezed: On the uses and limits of Python as a roguelike dev language
060: Interview with Keith Burgun, designer of 100 Rogues
061: A Date with Asuka: on Dreamcast Mystery Dungeon
062: Potions and Scrolls: One-use magic items in Rogue
063: Dreamforge's Dungeon Hack (DOS)
064: The Berlin Interpretation
065: Crawlapalooza, Part 1: Skills and Advancement
066: (Crawlapalooza, Part 2) What's With All These Skills, Anyway?: Examing the skills themselves
067: (Crawlapalooza, Part 3) Beogh's Liturgical School for Orcs: role and race selection in Crawl (as of February 2010)
068: (Crawlapalooza, Part 4) Travel Functions & Play Aids: Special features of DCSS
069: Wii-ren the Wanderer: Review of Wii Shiren the Wanderer
070: Interview with Rodain "Nandrew" Joubert, creator of Desktop Dungeons Freeware
071: Purposes for Randomization in Game Design: On the rationale for randomizing game maps and other elements
072: Review: Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon (Wii)
073: Mayflight #1
074: Mayflight #2
075: Sprinting Rapidly Through the Dungeon: DCSS's Dungeon Sprint mode
076: Check and Made: On the idea of critical moments and the writer's First Law Of Roguelike Design
077: Eight Rules of Roguelike Design
078: Excerpts from a Roguelike Encyclopedia, Part 1
--- The great divide ---
079: The Re-return of ToeJam & Earl