100 Rogues’ Quest For The Mainstream

The roguelike is a superniche genre characterized by low-color ASCII graphics, high difficulty, and frequent death that erases all in-game progress. Classic examples have names like Rogue, Nethack and Angband. You live by your experience rather than your experience points, because your character's XP and everything else are wiped out every time a random enemy puts you to sleep and euthanizes you. You build skills over weeks, months, or years of engagement. It’s the opposite of the modern-day single-player thrill ride, where you ramp up your power steadily over eight hours till you finally save the world.

In this climate, fans of the roguelike may resign themselves to mainstream invisibility. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having niche interests, but if you believe your pastime is delightful—immersive, deep and rewarding—don’t you want to share it with everyone? If you believe it can deliver some of what’s missing from videogames generally, don’t you want to spread it around? In a way, the roguelike fan’s conundrum is like that of the videogame fan facing the non-gaming mainstream—sure, you could just quietly enjoy your games, but don’t you want those outside to appreciate what they’re missing?

Meet Keith Burgun, a lifelong computer-game tinkerer who (together with three collaborators at Dinofarm Games) recently started working on his first commercial title, which is coming out for iPhone. So far, so typical of the thousands of prospectors in the ongoing App-Store gold rush. But this project, 100 Rogues, is an original roguelike, and Keith is a man with a mission: "trying to bring the roguelike into the mainstream—while still a roguelike."

The “still-a-roguelike” proviso is key. Today there are many mainstream roguelike-likes—the Diablo series and its offspring (an early version of Diablo was turn-based), the wonderful indie platformer Spelunky, and so on. But they are not true examples of the genre—the glorious Spelunky because its underlying mechanics are those of a real-time platformer rather than turn-based RPG, and everything else because each lacks one or more of the features that make roguelikes so quintessentially “hardcore.” Shiren the Wanderer, Keith’s favorite roguelike, is the closest thing we have to a mainstream roguelike, and it's hardly mainstream.

Keith believes that roguelikes can be popular. Difficulty and permanent death do not necessarily make mainstream success impossible. He brings up the example of Tetris: If you make it five minutes in Tetris before permadeath, you're doing well. Tetris is a high-intensity, short-duration game that's massively popular even though when you fail (and you will fail) there's nothing you can take with you. Despite being a very old-school experience, it’s something people are happy to buy and play on modern computers and consoles.

So Tetris can succeed. What about 100 Rogues? Keith professes to believe you can get an audience interested in anything good, "if you present it the right way." Roguelikes, Keith believes, have yet to be presented the right way to generate mainstream interest (check out the US box art for Shiren DS). For example, mainstream gamers are accustomed to expect protagonists who are "hero-type characters—we imagine a hero becoming victorious and winning." Needless to say, this is dissonant with the roguelike experience of repeated death and failure. So the player is taught early in 100 Rogues that the avatars are, well, "rogues—low-lifes." They're expendable. Keith describes a sequence from the early game where some authority figures present the player with a quest, but are bored and disrespectful—conveying the feeling that they don't especially care about the protagonist and don't want or expect to see him again.

The studio is working hard to give the game a graphical personality—de rigueur for games generally but unusual in a genre where the art is so consistently dull. The same impulse animates the cartoonish character classes, but the game’s personality goes deeper, reaching for strategic elegance. Although all roguelikes have elements of strategy and tactics, Keith and his team aim to make enemy encounters "chess-like" and "spatial" by emphasizing the importance of geography, movement and positioning. Like chess pieces, different classes move in different ways, producing a strategic richness that builds with the way enemies are encountered. "All enemies will appear in mobs," requiring players to think hard about the interaction of their skills and the map layout. It’s one of the many interesting things about 100 Rogues’ design.

If these promises all pan out, 100 Rogues will be an excellent addition to the catalog of roguelikes. Whether it can also win the argument about mainstreaming roguelikes is much harder to say, but I’m definitely looking forward to it. Reaching for the mainstream can help us grow, even if our efforts ultimately fall short.

100 Rogues is currently in open beta and should be coming to the App Store later this year.

Comments

Ok, so the good news is the post is back up. The bad news is I deleted the original one by mistake because I ... I really have no idea what I was thinking on that one. Mistook my buttons.

I look forward to the released product. I'm interested in Rogue-likes in theory, but I'm generally put off by the ASCII graphics.

Anyways, given my recent forays into the genre, the idea of something like this on my iPhone is an appealing one. The platform is good for it, even though most of the games I've tried so far have been fairly slapdash.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

I look forward to the released product. I'm interested in Rogue-likes in theory, but I'm generally put off by the ASCII graphics.

For me, the biggest barrier to learning most roguelikes is not the graphics but the input method. You have to memorize tons of arbitrary key bindings, and / or navigate crazy menus. This is a problem that the iPhone platform forces developers to solve, I think, since you only get touch input.

The developer sends along this youtube demo.

I love Rogue-likes so yes, I am interested! However...

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having niche interests, but if you believe your pastime is delightful—immersive, deep and rewarding—don’t you want to share it with everyone?

Yes, I do. The question is, how much should I twist my pastime to make everyone interested in it? I don't want to share something I love with everyone if in order to share it, it must become something I don't love.

Sounds like Keith might be on the right track. I'm definitely eager to see what he comes up with.

The App Store release is pretty smart. I'm wondering what the reaction will be from people not exposed to the Roguelike. It's not exactly a casual gaming tour de force. I wonder what the reception will be.

grobstein wrote:

The developer sends along this youtube demo.

I have a serious soft spot in my heart for roguelikes, spending many hundreds of hours playing Angband (and Moria before that). This video really REALLY intrigues me. Absolutely a day 1 purchase for me (if it isn't insanely expensive).

merphle wrote:

(if it isn't insanely expensive).

I just had a brilliant idea -- Charge users something like $5.00 for the core game, then 0.50 every time they die.

I'll hold their experience hostage to teach them how valuable it all is.

Kaching!

Spaz wrote:
merphle wrote:

(if it isn't insanely expensive).

I just had a brilliant idea -- Charge users something like $5.00 for the core game, then 0.50 every time they die.

I'll hold their experience hostage to teach them how valuable it all is.

Kaching!

Oh god that's brilliant. Like an arcade machine with no overhead. Would worry about backlash tho =P

If you're interested in this, you may also want to check out the iPhone remake of Sword of Fargoal, which reviews describe as a relatively casual roguelike.

sounds awesome, looking forward to a release

If I delete an post, it stays deleted, FOREVER. You lose everything! Stop coddling the reader.

edit: No, that's stupid, ignore this post

Well, if anyone's still interested in a PC roguelike, I've rediscovered the genre's best: Pick Crawl, Powder, DoomRL, Frozen Depths, and Desktop Dungeons.

http://gog.is/dungeon/crawl/stone/soup
http://gog.is/powder/roguelike
http://gog.is/doomrl
http://gog.is/frozen/depths
http://forums.tidemedia.co.za/nag/sh...

I recommend Crawl or Powder, Crawl's more complicated, but has a kickass tutorial mode. Desktop Dungeons goes for a "10 minute roguelike" mode.

Be not afraid, for roguelikes are awesome and not that hard.

The Article wrote:

Keith believes that roguelikes can be popular. Difficulty and permanent death do not necessarily make mainstream success impossible. He brings up the example of Tetris: If you make it five minutes in Tetris before permadeath, you're doing well. Tetris is a high-intensity, short-duration game that's massively popular even though when you fail (and you will fail) there's nothing you can take with you. Despite being a very old-school experience, it’s something people are happy to buy and play on modern computers and consoles.

Full stop. I agree with the article's call to champion the rogue-like as a genre that warrants further attention and I concur with Keith when he says, later on, that the presentation and delivery can be just as important, if not more so, than the actual content itself at times...but this paragraph threw me so far off the trail that I had to read it twice.

The difference in probability spaces between Tetris and almost any rogue-like is astronomical. Both games share an element of randomness, sure, but players approach Tetris knowing that there is a very limited number of actions and strategic possibilities ahead of them; with NetHack or Angband, they fling themselves into the middle of a busy highway of crazy, punitive mechanics.

Any attempt to ascribe a deeper connection to the two out of reference to some common characteristics seems completely offkey to me; no amount of differences in "presentation" can make up that gap, in my opinion.

OzymandiasAV wrote:
The Article wrote:

Keith believes that roguelikes can be popular. Difficulty and permanent death do not necessarily make mainstream success impossible. He brings up the example of Tetris: If you make it five minutes in Tetris before permadeath, you're doing well. Tetris is a high-intensity, short-duration game that's massively popular even though when you fail (and you will fail) there's nothing you can take with you. Despite being a very old-school experience, it’s something people are happy to buy and play on modern computers and consoles.

Full stop. I agree with the article's call to champion the rogue-like as a genre that warrants further attention and I concur with Keith when he says, later on, that the presentation and delivery can be just as important, if not more so, than the actual content itself at times...but this paragraph threw me so far off the trail that I had to read it twice.

The difference in probability spaces between Tetris and almost any rogue-like is astronomical. Both games share an element of randomness, sure, but players approach Tetris knowing that there is a very limited number of actions and strategic possibilities ahead of them; with NetHack or Angband, they fling themselves into the middle of a busy highway of crazy, punitive mechanics.

Any attempt to ascribe a deeper connection to the two out of reference to some common characteristics seems completely offkey to me; no amount of differences in "presentation" can make up that gap, in my opinion.

Well, how relevant the analogy is depends on what you think is most scary about roguelikes. Tetris and roguelikes have in common a short game leading to a permanent death that obliterates all progress; Tetris shows that this can be palatable, at least in principle.

I think you're right that there are also other things that make roguelikes daunting.

OzymandiasAV wrote:

The difference in probability spaces between Tetris and almost any rogue-like is astronomical. Both games share an element of randomness, sure, but players approach Tetris knowing that there is a very limited number of actions and strategic possibilities ahead of them; with NetHack or Angband, they fling themselves into the middle of a busy highway of crazy, punitive mechanics.

I don't disagree with your comparison between the two, but I think Mr. Burgun was trying to clarify the idea that "gamers" don't like challenge and that they really, really hate starting from scratch after failure.

Because, really, that's one of the main critiques of the Roguelike -- too hard, too punishing, too painful to lose everything at a moment. On the other hand, we're content to bash our brains in through Tetris, losing tons of progress without anything to show for it. And it's wildly addicting.

Spaz wrote:
OzymandiasAV wrote:

The difference in probability spaces between Tetris and almost any rogue-like is astronomical. Both games share an element of randomness, sure, but players approach Tetris knowing that there is a very limited number of actions and strategic possibilities ahead of them; with NetHack or Angband, they fling themselves into the middle of a busy highway of crazy, punitive mechanics.

I don't disagree with your comparison between the two, but I think Mr. Burgun was trying to clarify the idea that "gamers" don't like challenge and that they really, really hate starting from scratch after failure.

Because, really, that's one of the main critiques of the Roguelike -- too hard, too punishing, too painful to lose everything at a moment. On the other hand, we're content to bash our brains in through Tetris, losing tons of progress without anything to show for it. And it's wildly addicting.

OK, well, is the addicting bit the simplicity or the permadeath? That's key. It's really easy to teach Tetris to a non-gamer. Usually, within a few minutes, they become a gamer, in some sense of the word. I do agree that death should have some consequences in games, though. I mean, it's a basic life lesson -- don't die too much.

Nyles,

Personally, I think it's a mixed salad metaphor (I don't know what that means, really, but it sounds delicious). The simplicity is the hook, but cheating death is really what's amazing. Like, the sense that every time I pick the game up, I'm actively fighting against an ignoble death at the hands of that little f*cker N block is so thrilling.

Fighting back from the brink is a fantastic feeling, both because I've come so far and because I feel like I've beat the game to a small degree.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

I look forward to the released product. I'm interested in Rogue-likes in theory, but I'm generally put off by the ASCII graphics.

grobstein wrote:
ClockworkHouse wrote:

I look forward to the released product. I'm interested in Rogue-likes in theory, but I'm generally put off by the ASCII graphics.

For me, the biggest barrier to learning most roguelikes is not the graphics but the input method. You have to memorize tons of arbitrary key bindings, and / or navigate crazy menus. This is a problem that the iPhone platform forces developers to solve, I think, since you only get touch input.

I was going to recommend Powder, but doctorfrog beat me to it. It's got cute graphics and uses mouse input with a few hotkeys. It also has a tutorial.

gogogogo

*edit*

Oh, and the roguelike/teris parallel is genius. It's only 'gamers' who hate losing progress, casual audiences whose only experience of gaming is Tetris on their phone don't seem to mind.

Shiren The Wanderer (Wii) is a very laid back roguelike (main story line). It is almost casual and has a nice, smooth learning curve. And I love Shiren on the DS... the interface is really not that hard to learn. But it has a lot of depth to it... The store houses are fantastic! and the jars! ... it is by far the best DS game (for me)... it is the first roguelike I played, and I don't have any motivation to go to a PC rogulike. Looking forward to 100 Rogues for the iPhone!

cheers

This is an interesting idea, but I don't think that rogue-like games will ever have mainstream appeal personally. This is fine; we shouldn't require that our favourite games have mainstream appeal in order to be considered "successful".

I also think the Tetris analogy is seriously flawed. Tetris is a short game by design. If you get far in Tetris and then die, yes, you have to start all over again. However, you only played for 5-10 minutes tops. These rogue-like games require you to play for much longer with the increasing risk of losing all that progress. Now some people like that intensity and challenge, and that's cool, but I seriously doubt that this level of hardcore is going to have mainstream appeal. I certainly don't like it.

I would compare it more to Bejeweled, where you can play for hours before the board is drained. I had a 20 hours game going of Bejeweled 2 on the 360 and had to save between sessions.

It is not terrible to lose progress in a roguelike if you are enjoying the game, because rougelikes are really about replayability.

The way is the goal.

Does this discussion thread remind anyone else of the old NMA invasions?

I've never been much into roguelikes, largely because I get enough frustration and unintelligible feedback in my 9-5, but I like the Tetris analogy. I think it's very possible--probable, even--that my approach to roguelikes as "like an RPG that trades out story in exchange for masochism" was very much a part of why I couldn't enjoy them. In RPGs, I am there to take my time and explore possibilities without much fear of punishment. But in puzzle games, I sit down knowing that I'll fail multiple times, and that the only progress I'll leave with is a spot on the leader board and more finely honed skills. I think the mindset I have at playing a puzzle game would be much better suited to enjoying a roguelike.

The only problem left is that I frequently find I have to save and walk away from games after only 20 minutes of play.

grobstein wrote:

Well, how relevant the analogy is depends on what you think is most scary about roguelikes. Tetris and roguelikes have in common a short game leading to a permanent death that obliterates all progress; Tetris shows that this can be palatable, at least in principle.

I think you're right that there are also other things that make roguelikes daunting.

Both of those factors may be similar in isolation, but they have entirely different implications within the context of the games being compared. It's like using a six minute performance of Terry Riley's "In C" to compare that song with "Hey Jude"; after all, both performances were around the same length of time and both songs were written in the 60s, right?

The contexts behind these shortened playthroughs are different because the number of probable outcomes in these games is vastly different.

In a five-to-ten minute game of Tetris, you've seen most of what that game has to offer; there may be a few variations (different combinations or sequences of tetrads) that remain unseen in that limited time, but the overall theme is probably very clear to a player by that point, regardless.

A player can certainly have a short playthrough of NetHack; most could probably argue that such a playthrough is very typical, at least for newcomers to the game. In that short span of time, though, the player has barely scratched the surface of the different possibilities that are offered by that game.

Spaz wrote:

I don't disagree with your comparison between the two, but I think Mr. Burgun was trying to clarify the idea that "gamers" don't like challenge and that they really, really hate starting from scratch after failure.

Because, really, that's one of the main critiques of the Roguelike -- too hard, too punishing, too painful to lose everything at a moment. On the other hand, we're content to bash our brains in through Tetris, losing tons of progress without anything to show for it. And it's wildly addicting.

I think a comparison on the aspect of difficulty misses the point as well, though, because I'm not sure that players would consider Tetris to be a challenging game. The amount of strategic complexity available to a player at any given time is hardly overwhelming -- they have only one tetrad to move in a very small period of time with a limited preview of the next tetrad(s) -- and players are already prepared for "defeat" by the premise of the game.

I would theorize that people come back to Tetris because it can consistently offer a rewarding experience for very small, periodic investments of time; sure, there are players that can play for long periods of time and push through to the limits of the game, but the scope and time invested into those advanced playthroughs are still incredibly small when compared against the long-running playthroughs that you can have in a given rogue-like.

If you're looking for points of comparison between Tetris and a rogue-like, I would point to the fact that both games leverage random generation of content in real-time. In my opinion, that is the dividing line between these types of games and "AAA games" that let the player journey through a carefully crafted, scripted experience.

grobstein wrote:
ClockworkHouse wrote:

I look forward to the released product. I'm interested in Rogue-likes in theory, but I'm generally put off by the ASCII graphics.

For me, the biggest barrier to learning most roguelikes is not the graphics but the input method. You have to memorize tons of arbitrary key bindings, and / or navigate crazy menus. This is a problem that the iPhone platform forces developers to solve, I think, since you only get touch input.

I tend to associate ASCII graphics with lousy input methods, so that may be my hangup more than the graphics themselves.

The really great thing about roguelikes, to me, is not that my character may die, but that death won't necessarily be meaningless and it is where more modern attempts are falling flat, in my opinion.

When you talk about permadeath in games like Nethack, Bejeweled and Geometry Wars, your progress is at least recorded in some way. With arcadey games you have a high score board. You have something to look at and say 'I did that'. There's a similar function in Nethack where your dead characters go to a top 10 sort of list that recounts your name, core stats, race, class, score and how you died.

Whats more is in Nethack you can leave behind a part of yourself when you lose. Ive had petrified statues of my old self, mummified remains of my old self, and ghostly hauntings of my former self come into new games to haunt, taunt, and kill the new me. Newer attempts in the genre have ignored those bits, I find.

Torchlight had a hardcore mode with permadeath but nothing fun remained of your former self except an entry on the character page. I think it was a missed opportunity.

Theres a lot of mystery too, in a roguelike. It goes beyond an indecipherable control scheme. You pick up an item and it's not a simple thing to find out what it does. It may not even be special, or it may be a +3 rustproof elven mithril coat with innate magical resistance, a key piece to surviving mid game levels.

There's a lot more to a roguelike than brutal difficulty and spitting on your grave when you die and I too believe it can become mainstream with enough care. I'm looking forward to finding out if 100 rogues got the important bits right.

polypusher wrote:

The really great thing about roguelikes, to me, is not that my character may die, but that death won't necessarily be meaningless and it is where more modern attempts are falling flat, in my opinion.

When you talk about permadeath in games like Nethack, Bejeweled and Geometry Wars, your progress is at least recorded in some way. With arcadey games you have a high score board. You have something to look at and say 'I did that'. There's a similar function in Nethack where your dead characters go to a top 10 sort of list that recounts your name, core stats, race, class, score and how you died.

Whats more is in Nethack you can leave behind a part of yourself when you lose. Ive had petrified statues of my old self, mummified remains of my old self, and ghostly hauntings of my former self come into new games to haunt, taunt, and kill the new me. Newer attempts in the genre have ignored those bits, I find.

Torchlight had a hardcore mode with permadeath but nothing fun remained of your former self except an entry on the character page. I think it was a missed opportunity.

Theres a lot of mystery too, in a roguelike. It goes beyond an indecipherable control scheme. You pick up an item and it's not a simple thing to find out what it does. It may not even be special, or it may be a +3 rustproof elven mithril coat with innate magical resistance, a key piece to surviving mid game levels.

There's a lot more to a roguelike than brutal difficulty and spitting on your grave when you die and I too believe it can become mainstream with enough care. I'm looking forward to finding out if 100 rogues got the important bits right.

And decursing and grabbing the +7 Vorpal Blade from your previous character's statue is always fun.

Kannon wrote:
polypusher wrote:

The really great thing about roguelikes, to me, is not that my character may die, but that death won't necessarily be meaningless and it is where more modern attempts are falling flat, in my opinion.

When you talk about permadeath in games like Nethack, Bejeweled and Geometry Wars, your progress is at least recorded in some way. With arcadey games you have a high score board. You have something to look at and say 'I did that'. There's a similar function in Nethack where your dead characters go to a top 10 sort of list that recounts your name, core stats, race, class, score and how you died.

Whats more is in Nethack you can leave behind a part of yourself when you lose. Ive had petrified statues of my old self, mummified remains of my old self, and ghostly hauntings of my former self come into new games to haunt, taunt, and kill the new me. Newer attempts in the genre have ignored those bits, I find.

Torchlight had a hardcore mode with permadeath but nothing fun remained of your former self except an entry on the character page. I think it was a missed opportunity.

Theres a lot of mystery too, in a roguelike. It goes beyond an indecipherable control scheme. You pick up an item and it's not a simple thing to find out what it does. It may not even be special, or it may be a +3 rustproof elven mithril coat with innate magical resistance, a key piece to surviving mid game levels.

There's a lot more to a roguelike than brutal difficulty and spitting on your grave when you die and I too believe it can become mainstream with enough care. I'm looking forward to finding out if 100 rogues got the important bits right.

And decursing and grabbing the +7 Vorpal Blade from your previous character's statue is always fun.

Or running in fear from the random dungeon monster who picked up your +7 Vorpal Blade from a previous game. That's pretty fun too

DorkmasterFlek wrote:

...I also think the Tetris analogy is seriously flawed. Tetris is a short game by design. If you get far in Tetris and then die, yes, you have to start all over again. However, you only played for 5-10 minutes tops. These rogue-like games require you to play for much longer with the increasing risk of losing all that progress. Now some people like that intensity and challenge, and that's cool, but I seriously doubt that this level of hardcore is going to have mainstream appeal. I certainly don't like it. :)

Losing a game of Tetris is the way it goes. But in rogue-like games you have the possibility of success. It kinda' sucks to lose your high-level halfling mage to a multichromatic dragon you polymorphed that beggar into, somewhat unexpectedly.