Thursday, November 15, 2018

@Play 87: Interview with Josh Ge, Creator of Cogmind

Cogmind  (Steam link) is a unique roguelike game. It is generally in the traditional style, a turn-based map exploration game. The default graphics are done with tiles, but beneath them it even has the ASCII interface aficionados know and love.

As with many traditional roguelikes, there's a heavy emphasis on the items you find. In fact, the items are most of your character. Although you get the opportunity to upgrade the number of item slots each of your bot's four major areas, Power, Propulsion, Utility and Weapons, slots are useless unless there's something in them. And those items are often taking damage or wearing out, frequently requiring improvisation on the part of the player.

This interview with Cogmind's creator, Josh Ge, is nearly two years in the making! The possibility arose back at Roguelike Celebration 2016, but various things kept coming up. We finally concluded it mid-October 2018. Because of this, some of the information in the first section is somewhat out-of-date. Most of this interview was conducted over Twitter, with some email. It has been edited for publication.

This interview was first published in the fanzine Extended Play, available for free on its homepage and on the Internet Archive.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

@Play 86: Interview with Dr. Thomas Biskup, Creator of ADOM

Although marketing and endless cloning have devalued the meaning of the term “roguelike” in recent years (most of which should be called “roguelites,” if even that), there are six games, I say, that should be considered the Major Roguelikes, the canonical ones, those that combine fidelity to the concept with popularity and size of player base: Rogue itself of course, NetHack, Angband, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, Brogue, and ADOM, a.k.a. “Ancient Domains of Mystery.”

Of all of these, only the last two could rightly be considered the work of a single person. And of them all, only ADOM’s source code is not available to a curious player. (Rogue was never released as open-source, but the common variant Rogue Clone IV was.) Thanks to the 7DRL competition (“7-Day Roguelike”), thousands of people have made toy roguelikes of their own, but to create one on the scale of ADOM, a game arguably as complex as even mighty NetHack itself, is a terrific feat.

Fortunately, ADOM creator Dr. Thomas Biskup is both friendly and willing to talk about the game he has spent so much time and energy on, and recently spoke with us about both ADOM and its in-development sequel, Ultimate ADOM.

The first part of this interview was done about a year and a half ago. The second half was done recently, and is generally up-to-date. The whole has been trimmed somewhat and edited for publication.

John Harris: So, first question: How did ADOM get started?

Dr. Thomas Biskup: ADOM got started when I, during my days as a student of computer science, decided to learn a new programming language (C specifically). I learn best when I have some kind of project in front of me and at that time I had played games like DND, Rogue, Hack and NetHack (and seen Omega) and loved the genre. I was fascinated by the random generation parts as well as the single player exploration style of these games and felt I needed to understand how they work. So trying to use my growing C skills to that effect seemed natural. But when I started diving into the NetHack sources (which seemed to be the most detailed and thus most interesting candidate) I quickly learned how advanced and complicated those sources were. Which lead me to believe that it might be much simpler to write a game of my own. And it definitely seemed to be a lot more fun to figure things out for myself instead of spending many hours understanding the genius of others. So I started writing my own roguelike game, first trying to create a map, then figuring out how to dig tunnels, place the '@' on the screen and get it to move. All in all, things were a lot more complicated than I had expected, and so it about two years passed until, in summer of 1994, I finally has something in my hands that seemed like it could be the base for a working game. And that's the true (source code) roots of ADOM. Things started to progress a lot more quickly once I had figured out the real structure of what I wanted to build and so ADOM began to take form over the next two years that lead to initial releases and finally to the well-known and quite widespread game that ADOM is today.

Harris: Ah!  I've had a look at the NetHack sources myself and can vouch for the complexity, a lot of which comes from its having a lot of people work on it for such a long time, bolting on features here and there.  It's surprising that it holds together so well given its developement history!  I remember reading that NH 3.0 was the occasion of a big code cleanup, and the (then) recently released NH 3.6 was another such cleanup.

That has to be one advantage of working on a project largely by yourself, you don't have to worry so much about breaking something someone else has written, either technically or in design. Actually, that's an assumption on my part.  Do you have any help on developing ADOM now, or is it still largely yourself?

Biskup: Having a project of your own IMHO has several big advantages:
1. Your learning rate is exponentially higher compared to extending stuff other people have created. Because you need to figure out everything on your own.
2. You can more easily (or better: at all) realize your vision of how a game should be and feel. If you build on someone elses work lots of assumptions already will have been built into the game and if you don't like that stuff it's a hell lot of work (if at all possible) to get this stuff removed. Especially if you are getting into that project as a newcomer.
3. Forking an existing project probably will make you unhappy as you will have a hard time keeping up with ongoing work in the parallel project, both due to technical reasons (integrating parallel code changes can be impossible) and for design reasons (e.g. figuring out what all the minute changes all over the code mean and how they affect the vision behind your fork). And you'll always be compared to the original, which can be good and bad, but IMHO in the end distracts from your own design.

Team ADOM nowadays includes myself, as the maintainer and programmer for the core game and content; Jochen Terstiege, as the only other person worldwide with access to the ADOM sources, he's managing the build infrastructure, the Steam deployments, fixing programming bugs and working on the integration of sounds and NotEye and is a column of stability and quality for ADOM; Zeno, who's the genius behind NotEye and thus the reason for ADOM having graphics nowadays; Lucas Dieguez, who's our master composer and responsible for the incredible soundtrack that ADOM has nowadays; and Krzysztof Dycha, who's our head artist and Michelangelo, having single-handedly created each and every image in the graphical version of ADOM, literally the work of years.

So on one hand I'm still working alone on ADOM (e.g. the core game), on the other hand I'm part of the best team ever, as those guys are so immensely creative and resourceful that we keep pushing each other. I love working with each and everyone and believe that we have a lot of awesome stuff in store for the future.

Finally, there's our incredibly loyal, and once again growing, community. There are so many people out there that spark new ideas by using our bug/rfe database at and thus also help in evolving ADOM. The game wouldn't be what it is today without all these awesome people!

Harris: When I first played ADOM, I came to it from NetHack, which contains many references to classic Dungeons & Dragons, in its monsters and its story, as well as many literary and pop culture references. When I came to ADOM from there, I was taken aback a bit by how the game struck out on its own, largely with its own self-contained mythology and setting. Now, I think that setting is one of ADOM's strongest aspects. It seems to me now that part of the game is discovering the unusual, sometimes terrifically unusual, properties of items like the si, or all the herbs, or the many artifacts. Were these created specifically for the game, or do they draw from some other source, either outside or self-created?

Biskup: I would say that most of the content is "self-created" or "other-created" but inspired by a variety of existing sources. E.g. the general idea for corruption came from the Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing Game with its notion of Chaos encroaching upon civilization. Andor Drakon as the god of Chaos goes back to an AD&D character of mine (1st/2nd edition), who started as an evil cleric worshiping a minor demon and at some point killed his god and managed to ascend to immortality. Imagine the original Andor Drakon in his immortal form a bit like Sardo Numspa from The Golden Child. The "si" also comes from a very long-running 1st AD&D campaign where a friend of mine and I played two dwarves, Gorko Galgenstrick and Groron Garman. One day my friend suddenly discovered a "si" in his hand-written equipment list and we had no idea how it got there. We made fun of it and months later we suddenly discovered a second "si" on this equipment list. From there the inside joke about a reproducing artifact started which in the end made its way into ADOM.

Many other details, like Aylas scarf, Brannalbins cloak and Rolf, come from characters I or friends played during D&D and AD&D campaigns.

Another huge part of influence have been the comments from the ADOM community over so many years. There are tons of awesome details that have been suggested directly or indirectly by fans of the game. I try to select those things that IMHO match the tune of the game best.

Finally, some parts have been created only for ADOM, especially the whole elemental mythology thing that is still evolving. The outlaw village, Terinyo, the black druid and such elements have been specifically created for ADOM.

So, all in all, its a big hodge podge of influences. The main criteria for inclusion being that I either am somehow emotionally attached to the various parts or that I just loved the suggestions or ideas of others so much that they needed to become a part of the game.

Harris: I like that, it gets in some of the community aspects of open source game creation, while allowing the source to remain closed and thus preserve some mystery for the players.

ADOM developed had to pause for a while.  Could you tell us why it ceased, when it picked back up, and give us a current status report?  It's on Steam now, how is that treating you?

Biskup: ADOM basically paused from 2001 to 2012. The reason behind it was real life. In 1998 I started working full time as my life as a student came to an end, which already ate up lots of free time, and by 2001 we founded a company, QuinScape. I'm still working their today with my two founding colleagues. We have more than 100 employees these days and are a healthy and experienced IT integrator. Founding a company takes so much energy, more than many people think, that my time with ADOM really deteriorated. Then in 2003/2004 I, for some reason, decided that my ego needed to see if I could do a PhD as a hobby project while building the company. So I started doing that during the early morning and late night hours. Then my then girlfriend and I decided to get married, which happened in 2009. Luckily she blackmailed me to finish my PhD by then.

But I was quite busy, to put it carefully. And I had started programming ADOM II (JADE) in Java as a kind of sequel. So I really just did neither have the time nor the inclination to work on ADOM and the longer you pause the harder it gets to come back. Luckily my very good friend Jochen Terstiege, who’s now part of Team ADOM, kept pestering me about doing more with it. And at some point in 2010 he showed me an iPad prototype he had started. (He had access to the sources because he had been doing lots of ports starting with the Amiga port from as early as 1996 or 1997).

That got me back up somewhat, and I restarted work on JADE after a kind of meditation about my hobbies during a vacation in Thailand in 2010. At that point I had been running four or five blogs, been writing various pen & paper RPGs. (I even got published in Germany with the only true world-wide pulp RPG magazine. I don't mean the RPG genre but the RPG format. Search for "Maddrax" and "Thomas Biskup" and you should be able to find some traces.) But I kept wondering: what am I looking for and in the end I noticed that I was looking for something that I already had found with ADOM: A great community to exchange ideas with and then put them into some kind of game.

So I said, "OK, let's scratch all that stuff and resume work on ADOM." Which let to the release of JADE 0.0.1 on the 2nd of July, 2011, which led to more polite pushing from Jochen. which led to us devising the ADOM crowdfunding campaign which started on the 2nd of July, 2012, and was quite successful giving us about $90,000 to work with. The money led to the formation of Team ADOM and the actual resurrection of ADOM development.

While we still have a couple of rewards to finish from the campaign (it's been a very long run), we are immensely proud on how ADOM has turned out in the past four years, with scores of soundtracks, amazing graphics, a modernized UI (although we can do so much more in that area) and so much new content.

The most recent high point has been the release on Steam in November 2015. This has opened up a new source of revenue, which is important. I yet have to earn a single dollar with ADOM. So far all the money is going into paying the Team members while I continue to work for free.

While initial sales have decreased overall sales still are on a good level that should allow us to continue for years to come we now are working in the next level. Which means: Finally getting done with the remaining crowdfunding promises and then moving into a bright future for ADOM. We have collected tons of awesome ideas but so far lacked the time to work on them since we mostly are focused on the crowdfunding stuff. It will be a kind of relief to have that done and be able to do create stuff more freely.

Just pick it up on Steam []. It's an awesome, yet difficult, game.

Harris: Wait, so you got your PhD?  I should be calling you Dr. Biskup then! And it's so great to hear ADOM's back up and running!

If you don't mind, I'd like to move more into game design issues. One of ADOM's most distinctive elements is the corruption clock, which replaces Rogue's food clock as the primary force pushing the player forward. While there are ways to counter it, I think it does a good job of forcing the player onward, especially since a few of the corruptions, such as Mana Battery and Poison Hands, have the potential to make the game much more challenging to play.  What inspired the idea?

Biskup: Yeah, I got a PhD. But only people that annoy me need to call me "Dr. Biskup," so you are safe.

Regarding corruption: I always loved Warhammer Fantasy Role-play, and how the chaos creatures sported various kinds of corruptions. I also loved how the Broo in Runequest were kind of randomly corrupted. And I always loved mutations in Gamma World. I'm a huge Gamma World fan and in ancient times I even ran the official Gamma World mailing list, when mailing lists still were the greatest thing on earth.

All this came together when thinking about corruptions. I always liked the phrase "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." So I thought that it might be kind of cool to have something in the game that can make you more powerful but at the same time can cause all kind of trouble for you. (Don't ask me about my idea for chaos wizards and chaos necromancers as PC classes….)

As I also liked the idea of having an ongoing story in ADOM, I felt that the battle against Chaos might be more tangible due to a kind of lingering corruption effect that gets stronger over time. In the beginning it was not imagined to be a replacement/substitute/rival to the hunger system, but rather as something that connected you more closely to the overarching story.

The specific corruptions evolved from a mix of my ideas and things that were brought up by ADOM fans during those early golden days. Mana battery, if I remember correctly, is something that was brought up by one of the community people and I loved it so much that it had to be integrated.

Nowadays I love corruption as a rather unique mechanism to intertwine game design issues (the time clock you mention) and story issues (the world becoming a darker place). For ADOM II and ADOM III, if I ever were to do the latter, corruption would be a lot more prevalent in the overall world. Other beings and monsters also would slowly corrupt and degenerate, the weather would be more noticeably affected (it is affected by corruption in ADOM but probably nobody’s noticed), plants should mutate, and I have this vision of the world slowly turning into this purple corruption haze. Tentacles everywhere.

And I would love to add more means where you consciously have to trade power for corruption, such as a means for players to strengthen their spells by absorbing corruption. I love tempting people I guess.

[The following is the more recent portion of the interview.]

Harris: Have you tried D&D 5th edition yet?

Biskup: I actually own most of the books but haven't done much with it to be honest. I like what I see but I am a firm believer in simple skill systems and I am kind of angry about them for not even considering to do a simple standard skill system. And I was a little scared away because I thought that the very flat power curve doesn't nicely mirror the hero's journey I personally expect from D&D. There is just too little difference for me in the skill abilities of a 1st level fighter compared to a 20th level fighter.

But I really like how they otherwise smoothed the system. I hate 4th edition with a passion and 3rd just was too complex for my tastes.

Harris: Yeah, I hate lots of things about 4th edition. Two members of our group played a great deal of 3rd edition and are, by all accounts, experts at it. That made it very imposing to run. They know all the exploits, and so it was almost impossible for me to challenge them! In 3rd edition, it felt like I was either handing them a few XP, or handing them a ton of XP.

Biskup: I'm a 1st/2nd edition traditionalist, and actually there is yet another RPG I'm writing on the sidelines that collects all my house rules for my personal "perfect edition of (A)D&D." But who isn't these days?

The exploitation topic also is one of the things I disliked about 3rd edition. it just seemed to allow for far too much min-maxing for my tastes, and tended to lead people to search for optimal builds and stuff. I don't like that. I'm more into storytelling.

I like kind of crunchy systems nonetheless but I'm more into winging stuff when I am the GM. I need a kind of loose system of mid complexity. And complexity-wise, 2nd edition was perfect for me. We heavily used the skill system and were kind of loose with races and classes and that came pretty close to our favored style. Because we had enough crunch for the gaming side but mostly focused on the stories.

Harris: Yeah. I think there's less min-maxing in 5E, but it's still there. I've been working on a megadungeon to lead them through, it's been lots of fun for everyone.

Biskup: Mega-dungeons are an awesome topic. I really would love to do one of my own these days but sadly, with our recently born daughter, my already pressed schedule now is even worse.

It's an awesome idea, Castle Greyhawk kind of stuff. Like in the golden days of RPGs. I love that! I was so eager about the first part(s) published by Troll Lord Games, but sadly the trolls were to slow. And Gail Gygax somehow doesn't seem likely to do anything with the inheritance. A true shame.

I was at last years GEN CON, with all the special sessions on its 50 years. It was a mind-blowing experience meeting all the old legends and hearing them talk about the early days. Amazing days. I loved every minute, and got many nice pictures with them I'm such a fanboy. We actually plan to have some of them writing stories for Ultimate ADOM. I'm kind of excited about that and hope it all works out like we plan.

Harris: That must have been awesome. I never get to go to conventions, except for Dragon*Con, which happens to be relatively close to me.

Biskup: I have been to two GEN CONs but that's about all I do. We have the Spiel game fair over here in Essen. It's the largest gaming convention in the world for traditional board games. Sadly, RPGs these days are a minor topic there. But I have been to each and every Spiel since 1988. A great tradition I hope to keep up for many years. It's brilliant. And luckily just a 30 minute drive (roughly) from me.

Harris: I still can't help but think of ADOM as a new kid on the block, even after all this time, even though Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup and Brogue both came out after it and have been around for years. What do you think about those cocky upstart games? And how about the phenomenon of "rogue-lites," randomly-generated action games inspired by roguelikes?

Biskup: I personally think the problem with ADOM is that it had this long pause in the middle. That's IMHO why it sometimes feels young and ancient at the same time.

Harris: Considering how long NetHack's pauses are, I think you have no need to feel insecure there.

Biskup: I still remember when Dungeon Crawl took it's first steps and Linley started showing the source code. It was a brilliant mess. I was kind of wowed by all the things he did but kind of scared by the way how he coded it. I am highly impressed by what these games achieved and how many innovations they introduced.

Games like Brogue and DCSS are really inspiring to me. They urge me to hopefully push the boundaries even further with Ultimate ADOM. It's great to see such games because IMHO they are very important in keeping the roguelike flame alive. And I love how alive the scene feels. So many people working on innovative games. It's just great how procedural generation, permadeath, randomized game settings and stuff are more and more becoming mainstream.

I also kind of like rogue-lites, although they aren't my personal favorite. But it's interesting to see roguelike principles being applied to other gaming genres. What I hate is the kind of confusion that seems to get created in the wake. Many studios seem to enjoy trying to derive marketing benefits by calling their games roguelike, although they really aren't. That's kind of annoying. But it's a personal pet peeve and probably doesn't matter to the world.

So overall, I'm happy to see so many roguish activities and feel both inspired and challenged by them.

Harris: Yeah, it seems like half the games on Steam these days claim to be roguelike.

Biskup: It's really bad, especially on Steam. But Steam generally is a rotten swamp in many ways, although I'm grateful for the benefits it offers to ADOM! ;-) I'm annoyed about them killing Greenlight, although it was not really brilliant. But it was better than the "give us $100 and publish a game" approach. I wish they'd ask for like "give us $5000 and publish a game". or at least $2000. Something that stops the crap from appearing.

Harris: Last year I had a short gig for MobyGames, helping to fill out their database. It involved going through a list of new games on Steam and filling out their information. Some of them were hilariously bad. One was basically a love letter to Donald Trump. A first person shooter where the player was "American President, John Trump," and went and shot up mafia guys. [The game is “The Last Hope: Trump Vs. Mafia.”]

Biskup:  Aargh. That sounds truly bad.

Harris: Perhaps predictably, it was put out by a Russian publisher.

Biskup: LOL If it were a Hollywood story everyone would be saying "Nah, unbelievable crap."

Harris: Here's another question. One of the things about ADOM is how it takes ideas from NetHack and Angband and extends them. Like NetHack's shops, item systems, complex monsters and clever item uses, and Angband's monster memory and (in the Infinite Dungeon) regenerating levels. I really like that aspect of it, how it's willing to take those ideas and present its own take on them. I guess it's less of a question and more of a statement, heh. There's more there I'm sure that I've missed.

Biskup: "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” That's a true observation. I basically took the features from other games I loved and kind of tried to impress my own tastes. And in many cases the community also provided awesome variations on ideas that I loved.

Design for me has a lot to do with trying to improve on things that work well. So you'll find a lot of that in ADOM.

Harris: Yet there’s so many new things. Especially the quest structure. I don't think there's really any other game that uses quests like ADOM does. I think they're so effective. They're what really give the game its form.

Biskup: The quests again come from my preference for storytelling. I know that many players consider roguelike games more like a tactical challenge or puzzle to solve. For me it always has been about trying to tell an interesting story and enrich it with all the random things to make it endlessly replayable.

Harris: Yet it's a form of storytelling that structures the game. In a lot of games, storytelling kind of comes at the expense of gameplay. ADOM is a huge counterexample to that, that you can have pre-defined quests that are enhanced by randomness.

Biskup: That's also something we hopefully will hugely improve on in Ultimate ADOM. We have plans for very extensive story lines that overlap and touch each other... but in different random ways in each game. Including factions with their own goals that will drive the world forward and leave it to the player to decide, when he/she wants to interact with what parts of a huge flowing and ever-changing story line.

Harris: My favorite example is trying to save Yriggs.

Biskup: Why do you like that example so much?

Harris: I remember first finding out about it, discovering it in the game myself. I remember trying to get Yrrigs up to the healer, just on a whim, and being surprised that it worked.

What I like about it especially is that its nature is heavily dependent on the randomness of the dungeon. It's a very interesting tactical challenge, it could be very easy or hard depending on how the levels lay out and what monsters get in the way.

Biskup: I personally feel these days that tiny constant blimps of static storyline in a hugely random world leave for the best emergent experiences. Such experiences get people to talk about their emotions when they played their particular variant of e.g. the Yrrigs quest, and that's just wonderful.

Did you already manage to do the new ice queen quest and solve her secret mystery. You'll love that. It's a kind of mega-Yrrigs story.

Harris: I've not gotten to the Ice Queen, I haven't had much chance to dive into post-revival ADOM unfortunately.

Biskup: Ah, you'd love it. But it's very very high level. And the ramifications of that secret quest actually carry over to Ultimate ADOM.

Harris: My guilty secret is, for how much I write about games, I don't get to play them a lot these days.

Biskup: LOL, it's the same with me and programming games. No time to play them. That's why I am so bad at ADOM.

Harris: What other kinds of games have you played, or consider inspiring? CRPGs, like say the D&D Gold Box games? Any Legend of Zelda?

Biskup: Ah, I'm a fan of some ancient games. Regarding ADOM, the two most influential games probably have been the original Wasteland, for it's incredible amount of secret side quests and mysteries, and Bard's Tale III, just for the complexity of the dungeon story. I also love Realms of Impossibility, on the Commodore 64, for the sense of wonder it instilled into me as a child. I loved the very first "Fate" game for the "every action has a consequence" tag line, and that's again something I'm trying to stress to death for Ultimate ADOM.

Harris: Ah Bard's Tale. I played almost to the end of BT2, only to get caught up in that annoying last puzzle snare.

Biskup: I liked Phantasie III on the Amiga for it's brutal combat, weird races and again the sense of wonder it instilled in me. I solved all of the first three Bard's tales spending endless hours on them. BT III was simply brilliant.

Harris: I never got the chance to play 3, but I still have my BT2 maps somewhere. I hope they do a good job with the new BT game. By all accounts people like Wasteland 2, so hopes are running high.

Biskup: Naturally I played some of the Gold Box games. Pool of Radiance was brilliant. And that strange special extra end fight with the Beholder corps finally inspired a super difficult new end quest in recent ADOM releases, that you only can play after actually winning ADOM.

Harris: Aaaah interesting! Which means I'll probably never see it.

Biskup: That new end quest probably will be seen by 0.0001% of all players.

Harris: Which means 100 people will probably blog about it Tuesday, and they'll speedrun it at next year's SGDQ.

Biskup: LOL, yeah. I backed the new BT and am kind of curious if they will manage to be successful. I also backed Wasteland 2 and have the limited edition box standing here on my shelf... and sadly so far had no time to even try it.

Harris: I wonder what the dungeons will look like. Will it still have Wizardry-style mazes?

Biskup: I hope they go that way. But I only have seen a few combat scenes. Again, no time to follow on the details.

Harris: Let's talk about ADOM's skill system a bit.

Biskup: Interesting topic, as it will be completely different in Ultimate ADOM. I'm thinking a lot about it these days as soon we are going to add the new skill system to UA.

Harris: It's probably my favorite thing about the game, because of its similarity to classic Runequest/Call of Cthulhu percentile skills.

Biskup: Interesting. I dislike it with a passion these days, although I loved it when I initially implemented it.

Harris: That is interesting! How are you dissatisfied with it?

Biskup: On several levels:

1. I find it too granular these days. It's kind of fiddly and more recent players seem to wonder about all the numbers. As small steps in the skill have barely any noticeable effect it IMHO wastes mind space by appearing more crunchy than it needs to be.
2. These days I dislike that some skills work automatically and others need to be activated manually. It's kind of complex to understand for players.
3. They do not feel very balanced as far as usefulness goes. You have stuff like Bridge Building beside stuff like Alertness or Concentration. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it feels kind of ugly.
4. These days I also feel that games become more interesting if the choices you have to make are kind of painful. In ADOM it's more like "pump points into the skills until they are at 100 but the road to that score doesn't matter too much."

Harris: I can't disagree with any of those things. I think Point 4 is particularly insightful. Games are basically about the choices the player makes, and if the choice is painful it means it’s important, and thus of particular interest. It is good design in general to eliminate no-brainer choices.

Biskup: So for UA I have different plans which currently run along the following lines: Skills probably will have but five or six levels (apprentice, journeyman, expert, master, grand master, legend - something like that). Each and every level will add something very meaningful. E.g. "Observation" at level 1 might yield basic data about monsters and items, at level 2 you might learn about PV/DV/hitpoints, at level 3 about power points and spells, etc. It's kind of gamey but has actual meaning. And if every skill is as useful at every level every choice will be painful. To increase the pain you probably will get but 1 or 2 skills per level to increase by one single level. And suddenly you get something that allows for vastly different play and character experiences.

I'm still working on the design details (and the skill list and levels in particular) but the basic design will be the one just described.

Harris: I agree about the need to accommodate different play and experiences. Expanding the possibility space of gameplay.

Biskup: I actually also will be doing some brutal things like removing the need for identifying items. It might be an option for some kind of hardcore mode, though.

Harris: That is interesting. It might be a good decision, depending on the rest of the design.

Biskup: I feel that it doesn't add much to the game for most players these days. It's very hard to identify items, and the presence of cursed items (in their current state) makes it even more dangerous and often ruins fun. So instead of something exciting (myriads of wonderfully alien items), we have a kind of dreary task ahead (what do I do with all that stuff I don't understand). Which is the reason why cursed items in UA also will be very different.

Curses will be much rarer and they will vary. Things like, "can't be unequipped for the next 100 turns," "will cause 4d8 damage if you unequip it," "will confuse you for 2d10 turns when you unequip it," and similar stuff. So, curses that add interesting choices.

Harris: Item identification is a weird thing, it can be done well, but the game that did the best, arguably, is still the original Rogue. Because means of identification were fairly rare in Rogue, and so often you had to use unidentified items, and take on the risks of using a bad one. Because you also relied heavily on your items in Rogue. It was that combination, you had to use items, but often didn't know what they were, that gave weight to that game's bad items and identification.

Biskup: Considering the tons of items in ADOM, I feel that having constant risks while using them bar a large fun part of the game from you. I’d rather add a lot more interesting uses and combinations to the game regarding what you can do with items.

Harris: I'm sure you'll find the best solution. You made ADOM, I feel like we can trust you on that.

Biskup: LOL, thanks. No pressure here.

Harris: I had something in my notes about "item power" vs "level power." Like, I see Nethack as a game mostly about item power. If you have the right stuff you can go pretty far, even at experience level 1. And that game doesn't generally weight item generation by dungeon level, so you can potentially find good stuff (rarely) on level 1.

Whereas I see Angband as being a game about level power, about what your character's experience level is. And ADOM I see as being a synthesis of the approaches.

Biskup: I see. Personally I believe in striking a better balance. Levels and their effects IMHO should be interesting, otherwise you kind of could get rid of levels and classes and that stuff. But interesting items should be able to change the mixture. Because items are somewhat random and randomness adds to emergent storylines. ("Man, I found that nasty eternium long spear of devastation at level 3 and it allowed me to….") So I am a believer in the middle ground here.

Harris: It is a good approach, and I like that idea of emergent storylines. The story of your character. The events and adventures that make him memorable, defined by his situations.

Biskup: It would be nice if you can get far simply based on skill and your level/class combination, but item powers should be able to steer you on new paths and approaches. And sometimes it's just nice to require certain items for certain quests or monsters. And I love how people find new approaches to defeating monsters by using items in interesting ways, such as all that stuff with wands of door creation and limiting movement of certain monsters. I never thought about that when I designed the wand.

Harris: What I see as positive about that approach is, most commercial gamedevs would see something they didn't intend as an exploit that has to be stamped out. A lot of Big Designers come to see player ingenuity as something to be fought.

Biskup: I really take the opposite position, unless something totally unbalances the very basic experience. But it's great to have these incredible innovative solutions to complex problems, and I intend to offer a lot more of that in UA because you will have pretty new innovative new ways of combining things.

Harris: I was reading the ADOM Wiki a bit to prepare for this, there's some weird stuff there.

Biskup: So you probably know more about ADOM than me. (Starts digging up the source code….)

Harris: The wiki mentions code diving to get information, which is cheating. But it also mentions a player called Anilatix who cast the Create Item spell over 150K times. And made a webpage with the results in spreadsheet form! I have the link here. All to try to figure out the item generation algorithm. I'm amused, amazed and kind of frightened of that level of player obsession.

Biskup: Wow. I didn't know that. LOL, ah, I see. I am humbled by these incredibly persistent people. Reading the binary code probably would have been less painful.

Harris: I remember the early days of the Ultimate Ending, when no one knew what it was.

Biskup: Glory days.

Harris: I kind of wonder if a secret like that would be found faster now.

Biskup: That's why there is the scroll of omnipotence in the game now... and nobody so far has managed to read it...

Harris: I've been watching SGDQ, the speedrun marathon, and some of the things people have discovered in these games kind of make me despair that people will ever be able to hide game secrets in code ever again. Well, the scroll of omnipotence kind of proves it's possible then!

Biskup: I'm not sure. In the days of yore there were amazing players from Russia that disassembled the binary and were able to point out bugs to me in a precision that I found unbelievable, for someone not having the actual source code. Such skills more and more seem to get lost these days. It's extremely hard I guess. And usually can only succeed if people do not have the right combination of skills. Grond e.g. is an extremely skilled player and he is so fast in figuring out things (and reporting bugs) it's amazing.

Harris: That was nice of them. I shudder to think of what their skills would be used for now.

Biskup: LOL, yeah.

Thanks to Dr. Biskup for spending time to talk with me, and for being patient between the two interview sections. ADOM, one of the greatest roguelikes of all, is available on Steam for $14.99. Somewhat older versions are available from the game’s home page, at

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Slashware's game Ananias releases on Steam

I got an email from Santiago Zapata that his roguelike Ananias is about to release on Steam tomorrow.  They're having a release party on Twitch at:  It's already on Google Play.  The game's website is here.

I can't say much about it myself, but it might be worth checking in on tomorrow's stream to see if it's your cup of tea!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Zelda Randomizer set to stream at 2 PM Eastern

Aiming to stream an unseen Zelda Randomizer game (barring technical difficulties) today at 2 PM Eastern, at

Friday, December 16, 2016

Stuff concerning @Play, Zelda Randomizer and other things

Hey all!  I feel that I'm starting to build up a list of new topics to discuss, so expect blog resumption soon!

On that note, tomorrow (Saturday) I am going to stream a never-seen-before play of a Zelda Randomizer game.  All the dungeons in different places, the rooms scrambled, the items placed who-knows-where, possible Patra in the first dungeon, and so on.  I will post details, including Twitch channel, when it's ready to go.  (Zelda Randomizer is the thing I wrote about for the @Play book, which got republished on Kotaku a few months ago.)

Speaking of which... I've been wondering if it might be a fun activity to use duplicate Zelda Randomizer games to have multiple people playing, not as a race as is sometimes done over at Speed Runs Live, but as a kind of cooperative thing, where players comment in a chat room about their discoveries and help each other get through the game.  Hmm....

In other news, I'm considering writing another book, although shorter and cheaper, about the stories behind some of the known glitches and odd behaviors of a variety of games.  For example, it's a generally known trick among classic arcade fans that if you wait long enough on the first level the bugs stop shooting at you, and then never shoot for the rest of the game, but the website Computer Archeology discovered why it happens.  I've collected a large number of these odd facts.  Once in a while I post one of them to a website (usually Metafilter), and when I do there's about a 10% chance a big site picks it up and makes a story out of it, such as when Press The Buttons reblogged my discovery of the secret behavior of the fishmen in the original Castlevania.  So I figure I might as well make a book out of 'em, heh.

News on the stream tomorrow....

Friday, September 23, 2016

Roguelike Celebration, Notes on My Talk

I am back, at last, from Roguelike Celebration in San Francisco, and the longest trip I've taken in my whole life.  Thanks to the people who ran it for helping me to attend and for putting up with a hick from rural Georgia.  When I wasn't working on and fretting about the presentation (I was hacking away on it literally minutes before I presented it), I had a great time!

Here are all the talks of the conference, which might be useful to you even if you were there, since they had two tracks going simultaneously.

Other people have discussed the experience of being there. I did that kind of thing last year with IRDC US 2015, so I'll spare you all that this time and, instead, provide an addendum to my own weird little talk.

Carrying the vagueish title "Difficulty in random dungeon games" and noticably not carrying a description like the other talks, mine was, I believe disjoined and weird and rambling, with actual slides marked "Aside." They're not *really* asides, they're there for a reason, the slides being the skeleton that the connective tissue of my talk was supposed to join together, y'see. Whether I succeeded in that or not, well, I leave to you to decide.

Here is the talk (YouTube). Here are my slides (Dropbox link, Powerpoint)

Gachami (Copyright Konami)
Note that I didn't get through the whole thing; the presentation ran out of time right before the Bubble Bobble slide, the point of which was to demonstrate an obscure, but not truly random, play mechanic as an example of the kind of trend-causing behavior I was talking about. (If you get to the end of the slides you'll find a picture of Gachami, who is my favorite video game character of the hour. I heard that the rules of the Internet require me to provide that. Anyway, here's video of the game she's from, the ridiculous Gachagachamp.  It is not a roguelike.)

Speaking of unasked-for personal opinions, my favorite moment of the conference was when one of the Rogue devs (did I mention all three of the creators of Rogue were in the room at the same time, for the first time in 30 years? SO AWESOME!!!) asked the crowd if anyone there knew what Rog-O-Matic was, and of the hundred-or-so people there just two hands went up. One of them was mine; I've even written an article that half of which was on Rog-O-Matic! (I think it's in the book? Here it is on GameSetWatch.)

I am making this post because it is the culmination of ideas and thoughts I've been struggling to render on @Play for literally years. I'm not even convinced the main part of the presentation, on "Knowledge, Logic and Wit," is even useful, but people told me they liked it anyway. I could write several articles on these things, especially "Wit." Yes it's a terrible name, someone suggested "intuition" but that doesn't get to the heart of it I think? One could also call it general skill of playing video games.

Anyway, here are my comments on the talk:

1. I worked feverishly the days before the talk trying to assemble a jumble of thoughts into something coherent. This is why the title doesn't really fit the subject well; it drifted a bit in the days, indeed hours, before I gave it.

2. There is a whole essay to be written on how CRPGs have drifted fron pen-and-paper RPGs, often for the worse. It's the copy-of-a-copy phenomenon: early CRPGs were inspired by PnP RPGs, while later CRPGs were inspired by other CRPGs. These days, it's often CRPGs-inspired-by-JRPGs-inspired-by-older-CRPGs. (Remember: Yuji Horii was inspired to create Dragon Quest from seeing Ultima games on display on a trip to the US.)

3. There are multiple essays to be written elaborating on what exactly I mean by Knowledge, Logic and Wit. One thing I wanted to make clearer in the talk: "Wit," in addition to being not the greatest name, is also kind of a cheat, defined as everything that isn't the other two. It might be dividable into narrower categories. Also note that this classification of skill doesn't map as well to real-time and action games, in which reaction speed and decision making under time contraints also matter.

4. On grind: Now understand, I believe that if something is fun, it is its own justification. People play horribly grindy games of their own free will, so I have to conclude there is something enjoyable they get out of them. That doesn't mean that I think people should pander to this desire, the playing of basically empty games. (Some people who make horribly grindy games often think of game design in behavioral terms, like it were a Skinner box. I couldn't be more against that.)

My definition of "grind" is, something mechanical a player has to do to pass time in a game before he's allowed to get to interesting gameplay. Ideally players will have interesting decisions to make at low levels and high. The attempted elimination of gride is DCSS's aim, and it's admirable. (I even think they go a bit too far in it, but I can't fault them for trying.)

It is worth noting that many players (especially retrogamers) believe that Dungeons & Dragons itself is best played as a low-level game, that characters get too powerful at levels above six or so. Interested readers are directed to search out "E6," a variant of D&D that limits players to 6th level.

But what makes grind, grind? Aren't games played for enjoyment, regardless of the form it takes? I don't think so. Listen this.

One aspect of gaming that I hear no one talk about is their improving aspect. That is, playing games helps build alertness, ability to think under pressure, ability to judge situations, ability to look ahead to future game states, logical thinking, intuition, and a plethora of other skills that have real and direct applications for everybody! People who play strategy games very well are likely to be very smart, and people who strive to learn to play strategy games well will become smarter as a result. I don't mean this in an airy "Brain Training" way, but that well-made games push players to improve themselves as a basic function of their playing. Badly made games reward only luck, time, and/or money put into the playing.

This is why I said the human race will thank you for eliminating grind.  It's not entirely hyperbole; it literally wastes the player's time.

5. Every time I try to pin down exactly what wit is I don't do a great job. But there is something there.
Part of it, as mentioned previously, is general skill at gaming. When you've gotten good at Pac-Man, some of the skill transfers over to other maze-like, and even general action gaming. And some of the skill even transfers, slightly, potentially, to real-life situations. (See "improving aspect," above.) Some of it is putting yourself in the mindset of the game designer; detecting when something seems *too easy*, that sort of thing. Some of it is guessing story direction, like figuring out the villain ahead of time in Scooby-Doo. Some of it is subconscious pattern recognition.

Some is getting better with (player) experience, which I find to be a very interesting process in non real-time games....

6. So why is it useful to name Wit at all? Because, and here is the thing: when the moon is full, I think the purpose of roguelike design is to preserve the function of Wit in a game for as long as possible.
The nature of Wit is that it turns into Knowledge (conscious information about the game) with practice. In a non-randomized game, this is nearly immediate, which is why they aren't replayable. Once you know the game, if the game doesn't change on succeeding plays, the fun is gone.

Randomization obfuscates the processes of the game, changing the world on successive plays, which keeps it in the domain of Wit longer. This is not forever, it's only a delaying process. A walkthrough of NetHack doesn't tell you, step by step, how to win, but there are plenty of spoilers that explain almost everything about the game that can be explained.  If the processes that produced those items were somehow randomized, then those spoilers wouldn't work, but more would arise that detailed the meta-processes used, and so on, without end.  That doesn't mean randomization isn't a (very!) good idea, just that it delays the inevitable.

Even without spoilers and walkthroughs, them you can figure out some things about the game, pick up some Knowledge, but some of that is purposely made invalid when the game ends. But even if all the visually-signifying characteristics of the game changed from play to play, the underlying algorithms remain the same, which keeps the game consistent between plays, which players can subconsciously detect as Wit, but will eventually become Knowledge, which, when applied with Logic, is a surer means of winning.

This is because the nature of thoughtful play involves analysis, which is the process of formalizing successful approaches. This is why I am fascinated by games that cannot be so easily analyzed. Someone came up to me (I forgot who, sorry!) and suggested Go as a game that appeals to Wit very well, and yes that's an extremely good observation. Although analysis provides some headways into Go, the same things that keep computers from playing as well as expert Go players are the same things that keep it in the domain of "Wit," which seems to point at something fundamental. Machine learning folks may have a better name for it than I. Maybe "intractability?"

Anyway, that's it for the moment. Now that the monkey is off my back, maybe I can write @Play columns more frequently again! Until next time....

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Something called the Casino Dungeon

Not a new @Play yet, indeed the time required to write a full column is rather a lot so I might be changing the format soon to something shorter, and also something that covers a wider array of random and procedural-content gaming.  But also....

I'm working on a couple of things that I've been calling SECRET PROJECTS, but they're not really secret so much so much as I don't want to get anyone's hopes up.  But the one I'm working on now is starting to look like it'll at least hit a stage where there will be a good, playable prototype, and I want to ask for you guys' opinions on it when it does.

The working title... well originally (as in, years ago, when I first had the idea) it was going to be Dungeon Solitaire, but then someone else took that name.  (Let's be clear, the Dungeon Solitaire that's already out there I have nothing to do with.)  And anyway it's not really solitaire, but it is a game that uses traditional playing cards.

Playing a ton of Game Freak's Pocket Card Jockey lately, a game I obviously like a whole lot but am still ambivalent about, has convinced me to dust the idea out and finally push through the many weird design questions I still had about it and at least see if someone other than me will find this interesting.

It has more than a few links to old-school, pen-and-paper roleplay gaming, in that characters are fragile and the dungeon is really dangerous.  The dungeons are randomized too, which by my standard at least puts it into roguelike territory, so I'll probably be talking more about it here in the coming weeks.

It's also inspired a bit by an obscure game in D&D's history, the weird roleplaying card game Dragonlance 5th Age, of which I actually have a deck somewhere around here, even though I've only gotten to play it once.  Combat, in some ways, is kind of like a trick-taking card game played against AI opponents.  That kind of replaces the traditional roguelike tactical combat, but like traditional roguelikes, dealing with and taking advantage of the AI is part of the game.

Anyway, when it's in a state to see I'll put it up here, and you can have a look for yourself.  A bit of advance warning though, the prototype will be a console program, and require Python 2.7.