Loved the article.Roguelikes: The Rebirth of the Counterculture
Challenge is back. If you want it.
By Mike MahardyThere are no checkpoints. There is no certainty. In a roguelike there is only progress, and the looming threat of losing everything.
The game industry is replete with casual, easy-to-beat games. But a number of developers are intent on bucking that trend. These devs are taking the inherent difficulty and randomization of roguelikes and mashing it together with modern conventions like fast-paced action, characterization, and RPG elements. They’re combining the best parts from the past with the most promising of the present.
In doing so, these teams have revived the roguelike, and given it a permanent place in the modern games industry.
The Binding of Isaac Trailer
Some brief background, if you’re unfamiliar - the roguelike genre was born in 1980, with a game called (what else?) Rogue. A group of college students saw the potential to build a game around delving into a dungeon that randomly generates its layout and enemies each time players enter. In Rogue, dungeons rearranged before each session, based on mathematical algorithms. The endless replayability led to instant popularity, and sparked a handful of subsequent titles that borrowed from the idea, creating the terms “roguelike” and leading to a wave of cult-classic dungeon crawlers throughout the 80s like Telengard, Moria, and Nethack.
Super Meat Boy creator Edmund McMillen took inspiration from several early roguelikes and the next generation of games they eventually spawned. Spelunky, Minecraft and the original Diablo have all impacted his work - titles that took the randomized content of a roguelike and added something new to the formula.
Screenshot from the 1980 game Rogue
Bringing Roguelikes Back
When McMillen began work on The Binding of Isaac in 2011, he didn’t have high hopes for the game. It took him only three months to make. It was an experiment, a “game jam” project made in Flash, playable in web browsers.
“I didn’t think people would really like it,” McMillen told IGN. “It was so hardcore. Back then, it was kind of like, ‘Why would I want to play a game where, when I die, I lose everything?’ But in order for the game to be good, you have to have those limitations.”
The idea of enjoying failure - it was such a hard thing to explain to people at first.
McMillen wanted people to enjoy dying in Isaac. He wanted people to learn from their mistakes. And to his surprise (and delight), it eventually caught on.
“The idea of enjoying failure - it was such a hard thing to explain to people at first,” McMillen said. “But then, they just seemed to get it. Now, it’s just accepted, with this huge surge of those types of games.”
The Binding of Isaac slowly garnered a following –– McMillen said he sold between 200-300 titles per day for six months after release, but those numbers skyrocketed to 3,000 copies a day with the game’s expansion, Wrath of the Lamb, in 2012; to date, including bundle and DRM free sales, McMillen has sold well over 3 million copies of the game.
The Binding of Isaac Weird Trailer
People started asking for a fuller, more fleshed-out version of Isaac. McMillen is now supervising development on The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. He handed over responsibilities to developer Nicalis Inc. for the revamped title, and signs off on larger design decisions and adjustments.
Rebirth’s development is only possible thanks to the paradoxical rise in roguelike popularity in the last several years - even McMillen couldn’t have predicted that audiences would once again grow accustomed to constant failure and death.
Other developers, like Klei Entertainment and Subset Games, mirrored McMillen’s interest in permanent death and severe consequences for failure with games like Don’t Starve and FTL: Faster Than Light. These studios took the roguelike genre’s principles and shaped them to fit their own needs, molding them to fit the game they set out to make. Roguelikes are no longer relegated to delving into deep dungeons.
While some developers intentionally set out to evolve and iterate on the roguelike’s key principles, others stumbled upon the genre by sheer accident.
Rogue Legacy Review Commentary
Teddy Lee was never a huge fan of the traditional roguelike. The thought of starting over with nothing to show for it didn’t appeal to him. His game, Rogue Legacy, began as a Metroidvania style game - a 2D platformer with exploration aspects.
But in the conceptual stages of development, Lee and his brother Kenny realized that kind of game would require more resources than their two-man team had at its disposal. So, they compromised.
“We like taking mechanics and pushing things as far as they can go,” Lee said. “We liked the idea of mastering a game’s core systems, and how everything you do [in a roguelike] is integral to the learning experience. That’s where character development comes in.”
Rogue Legacy - Rogue Legacy Commentary
Upon dying in Rogue Legacy, players choose an heir to their previous character, essentially maintaining the equipment and attribute upgrades any ancestors acquired. The new heirs can also be color-blind, and have dementia or dyslexia, affecting the gameplay in myriad ways.
Lee said this characterization and transference of progress was integral to their design intents with Rogue Legacy. The system maintains the random dungeon generation of a roguelike, but allows players to progress under an empirical umbrella, maintaining essential skills and equipment from game to game.
“We wanted to challenge ourselves,” Lee said. “And we wanted to make a roguelike that we would want to play. Character growth is key to any good roguelike, and it took center stage in Rogue Legacy. It ties things together for us.”
We could make a fun game without needing 20 or 30 people.
For Lee, developing a roguelike was as much a matter of available resources as it was of design. The self-maintaining nature of procedural generation worked well for the limited resources Lee had, and allowed him to make a fully developed title.
The same is true for Hopoo Games’ Risk of Rain.
Paul Morse and Duncan Drummond, the two halves of Hopoo Games, are college students. They play a lot of games, as do many of their friends. And in December 2012, the pair decided to try their hands at game development.
“As a two-man team, we couldn’t make a huge game,” Morse said. “But we had seen this ‘coming-back’ of roguelikes, and with the access to design tools that don’t require a lot of money to take advantage of, we could make a fun game without needing 20 or 30 people.”
Hopoo Games' Risk of Rain
Responding to Difficulty
The two worked on Risk of Rain between classes. They showed it to their friends. And when a large number of students around campus began asking to play it, Morse realized Hopoo was on to something. The two used the student body as a test group, changing design tenets and minor facets of Risk of Rain based on feedback from the local game community.
“We had a few people saying, ‘This is way too hard, people are going to get wrecked right away,’” Morse said. “But when we made it easier, fans wanted it to be harder again. Since that point, we decided to just take the risk. We kept it hard.”
When we made it easier, fans wanted it to be harder again.
Morse and Drummond wanted to capitalize on the recent ‘renaissance of roguelikes,’ as Morse calls it. The team wanted to make a game they, and the people they played games with, would love playing. And it worked.
Since its November, 2013 release, Risk of Rain has garnered enough of a following to justify a PlayStation Vita port this year. To Morse, it’s a testament to the renewed popularity of difficult, and ultimately rewarding, games.
“I think people have once again started to realize that, when they buy a game, they want to dive into it really deeply,” Morse said.
McMillen agrees, saying that, as a developer, he wants to respect not only players’ time, but their intelligence. He said that, at this point, games shouldn’t have explicit instructions. Developers should trust that players are intuitive enough to learn a game’s rule sets on their own.
Spelunky PC Launch Trailer
A lot of games nowadays treat you like a little kid. They assume you’re dumb...
“I think difficult games are the most fun, because no one likes being talked down to,” McMillen said. “And I feel like a lot of games nowadays treat you like a little kid. They assume you’re dumb, incompetent. But I respect you enough to know that you know how to play a video game.”
Despite their growing popularity, developing a roguelike involves a lot of risk, and there’s no guarantee of high sales or an avid fanbase. The inherent difficulty of the genre is enough to push a lot of players away, and the lack of direction doesn’t conform to the standards of many modern releases.
But for McMillen, Lee and Morse, that’s where the fun lies –– in evolving a genre notorious for its difficulty, and breathing new life into it. The fact that small teams can create games that don’t follow the rules, but still provide a lasting experience, is what keeps these developers going.
“These games, they stand the test of time, because they don’t end,” McMillen said. “[They’re] always different. And making a game where something is so open that the game improvises itself, it’s kind of a magical thing. And there is definitely a future in that. An untapped future.”
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Roguelikes: The Rebirth of the Counterculture -awesome article
Love Rogue like games.
The endless possibilities they bring and fact that the underlying system is a lot more complex than they seem. (AI can smell you and may pick items from floor and use them.. etc.)
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