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.