Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This month -- 100 Rogues is a promising commercial roguelike for the iPhone with an abundance of whimsical personality and unique gameplay, due for release in a couple of months. In this Q&A, I ask the game's lead designer Keith Burgun about the game and its inspirations.]

JH: First off, tell us about yourself, your company and your team.

KB: I'm Keith Burgun, lead designer at Dinofarm Games. We're a four man team consisting of myself, Jonathan Bryan (producer, programmer), Blake Reynolds (artist) and Wesley Paugh (programmer). Our publisher, Fusion Reactions, and its office are in Rochester, NY. Blake and I both live in Westchester however, so we end up making many long trips.

JH: Your project is called 100 Rogues (the Facebook page has a gameplay video, for those interested in seeing more). Would you like to tell us generally about the setting of your game?

KB: The setting is a mysterious, scary, yet silly dungeon. The mood or voice of the game can be best explained as "fantasy by guys who don't know fantasy, and who are pretty strange". I get a lot of inspiration from teaching children's art classes - some of the stuff kids come up with is just so outrageous and hilarious, and I would love to see a game with that kind of spirit. So we have a basic fantasy dungeon setting, with your standard fare: skeletons, ghosts, rats and the like.

But we also have a cowboy-ish looking Bandit, a flying baby with bat wings, and quite a few other oddities like that. Also, it's a class-based game, and we've been working hard to make sure that the classes all have not only their own style of play, but also a personality. Not enough personality in games these days, if you ask me.

JH: Teaching kids art classes! That sounds interesting. Did the bucket-head Crusader come from that?

KB: Not directly, but in spirit I think so. The Crusader is very childlike, so having the simple bucket-like shape for his helmet helps to bring that out. There's nothing in this game that has been directly stolen from a child's artwork, however, we did take lots of inspiration, and even a monster, from a strange obscure Famicom game called "100 World's Story". It's not a roguelike, but I highly recommend it!

[JH's note: I have played 100 World's Story, and can vouch for it. It's a Famicom RPG board game, like Sugoro Quest in a way, but with a very different style. It's more simulationist .and competitive. It's very much a multiplayer game, and it's entirely unique. There is an English translation available from Romhacking.net.]

JH: Personality is something that could be considered to be lacking in roguelikes, which usually go for generic adventurers the player can then overlay his own character impressions upon instead of making him follow a designer's conception. If a roguelike features strongly-defined characters they'd really have to be winners. Obviously you think the ones in 100 Rogues stack up; care to give any specific examples?

100rogues1.pngKB: Well, it's one thing if you intentionally go for non-characters and allowing the player to imagine his own personality. I would never complain about that. What I don't like is when games do have characters, but they're just forgettable, boring, cliche stereotypes.

Of course, I do think our characters are interesting enough to warrant their existence. Currently, we've got four classes, two of which will be available upon initial release, and the other two will be released in free downloads shortly after. The Human Crusader (male) is a child-like paladin-type with an invincibility complex - in fact, he even is at a tactical advantage when surrounded. The Fairy Wizard (female) is a brooding, angsty fairy who summons perfect beautiful crystals, and then simply bludgeons her foes with them.

Later, we will release the Skellyman Scoundrel (female), who's sort of a thief/rogue type class. As well as being (predictably) very sneaky, she has a taste for poetry and melodrama; she's got one spell where she lifts off her skull and recites a magic poem which causes all sorts of havoc. And finally, the Dinoman Bruiser (male). He's somewhat similar to a barbarian, although soft spoken and pragmatic, and with an ability called "Ancestral Spirit" which allows him to turn into a Dinosaur for awhile.

Anyway, the personality is something that is difficult to express in mere words. It's something you get from experiencing all of the game's elements - the music, the art, the illustrations - and I hope it gets across to people.

JH: How closely does 100 Rogues hew to the system created by Toy, Wichman and Arnold in Rogue? That is, are there any significant changes to the ruleset in your game?

KB: Well, our goal is to bring a true roguelike into the mainstream. So, I looked at what the core elements of what makes a roguelike, which I see as being turn-based gameplay, randomly generated content, permadeath, to name a few. So our game has all those. Now, there are some other things that generally come along with roguelikes which we are not including in our game.

What has always bothered me is the learning curve - in "Rogue" and in "Nethack", it's not at all obvious for a new player how they interact with objects, or even what objects actually are. I don't think it's good if your player has to learn what the difference between a lowercase and capital B represent on the screen. I am all for representative, simple graphics, but I do think clarity is very important, especially when you're going for a mainstream reception. We also have a very smooth, clear GUI which was designed to be as easy to use as possible. Another similarity we will have with most roguelikes is high levels of un-forgiving difficulty.

JH: Difficulty sounds good. David Ploog of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has identified high difficulty as an essential roguelike characteristic. Do you think, however, that this will harm your audience?

KB: I don't think it should harm our audience. Look at Tetris. I've been playing for twenty years, and I still always die at some point before level 10, yet that doesn't make it any less fun. With most video games these days, there's an expectation that the game will hold your hand all the way to the very end. So I think that our game will break that expectation, but people will be happily surprised and reminded of the fact that winning isn't everything in games.

Plus, there will be little victories throughout anyway - celebratory confetti and balloons over the player's corpse when they've died but reached a high score. This way all players will get some positive feedback and learn early on that it's not about beating the game, it's about seeing how well you can do (much like Tetris).

JH: What other games, roguelike or otherwise, would you say have inspired your game?

100rogues2.pngKB: Diablo (especially the alpha version which was turn based), Shiren the Wanderer, Chess, WarCraft III, Team Fortress 2. I've always had a deep love for randomly generated content, as well as turn-based gameplay, which is what led me to discover the Roguelike genre. The first Roguelike I actually played was POWDER, which I still absolutely love, and when we first started making this game our original idea was "hey, let's make a POWDER clone for the iPhone!" It ended up becoming much different.

I put WarCraft III in there because our game is skill based, and I was very inspired by how the heroes in that game really ended up playing and even feeling different because of the skills. Team Fortress 2 because of their system of balanced weaponry - the weapons in their game (and in our game) are all simply tools, each good for a specific job, none being simply *better* than any other. Chess because we want each of our battles to be strategic in a similar way as a game of Chess.

JH: Randomization plays a big role in nearly all roguelikes, lending the genre its characteristic replayability. Does 100 Rogues make any/effective use of randomized elements?

KB: Absolutely. All our maps are entirely randomized, as well as item drops and monsters. The only element we have which is not random are our bosses. We have a few bosses in our game which function similarly to some of the more clever bosses you'd find in a Super Nintendo game that have a set of behavior patterns.

JH: In the old days of computer gaming, social play, even for essentially solo games, was important. Many popular roguelikes were played in campus computer labs and sport high score lists. Does 100 Rogues support score lists?

KB: Yes. We have a set of online scoreboards, as well as a local scoreboard, so that you can dominate your unskilled friends and family, as well as be schooled globally by Koreans. In addition, we also have several tabs, such as "Highest Score", "Highest Score with Crusader", "Highest Score while Inebriated", just to name a few.

JH: I've heard you talk before about how character skills, as opposed to items, are the focus of your game. Would you like to elaborate upon this? Give any examples?

KB: For a long time, I've felt that the items situation in RPGs was a bit out of control and illogical. The main issue that bothers me is the fact that you constantly have to go to the item shop, simply to get all the benefits of your experience levels. So, okay, now I have 10 STR, now I can get the Super Sword, better go do that. Oh now I have 12, now I have go to get the Super Duper Sword. Better go do that. So essentially, games are forcing you to do an action which is simply an extention of your character level.

In other words, there is no strategic reason why you wouldn't buy the Super Duper Sword, it's just, you either do it, or you aren't getting the full benefits of your level. I find this to be unnecessarily burdening the player with a repetitive action. Even if a game doesn't have an item shop, it will work by dungeon level instead of character level. Oh, now I'm at dungeon level 10, now I have a chance to find the Super Duper Sword. Once I find it, what am I going to do with the Super sword? It's garbage.

I hate how in Diablo, most of the items you find are just clutter because of this reason - nothing but something you have to go and sell (once again, a burden on the player). Some may argue It's FUN to sell stuff and to buy the newest available sword, and I agree, it's just that I think actually playing the game is MORE fun.

100rogues3.pngIn addition to this, we're just a few guys on a small budget, so we are limited by the amount of *stuff* we can put into the game. We figure we need to work smarter, not harder. I looked at Chess, and thought to myself, "all they needed to do was change the way things can move and attack, and look how much strategy and depth they created!" So we designed a few character classes which each have their own set of abilities which will not only define how they can attack, heal themselves, and move around, but can be used in concert to create large advantages for the player when used wisely. Simple examples of this would be an area-of-effect skill that fires in a straight line, requiring you to line up as many bad guys as you can, or positioning yourself safely behind a strong summoned creature as you use ranged or magical attacks.

JH: How have you adapted the roguelike control system to the iPhone's touchscreen? Any use for the tilt sensor at all?

KB: It's just as you would expect - click in a direction to move in that direction. Touch a monster to attack it. We developed a radial menu system that appears when you touch your character, allowing you to use their abilities. No use for the tilt sensor at this time.

JH: One of the tensions of roguelike design is the difference player knowledge of the game world makes upon the game. Nethack is (in)famous for this, how you have to nearly have an Associate's Degree to play the game well, but all that stuff does lend the game a certain personality, unlike the more-generic, but fairer to unspoiled players, Dungeon Crawl. Where does your game fall between these two?

KB: Right. Well, our game is designed for everyone to be able to play by making how everything works as obvious as possible. Of course, there is still stuff the player just has to learn. For example, it's difficult to imply to the player that a metallic monster is immune to magic, but we figure once you cast a spell on it and it has no effect, you'll get the idea.

We are planning to add a lot of content to the game post-release (something on the order of two to three times what will be there on release), but I am personally against adding anything that requires arbitrary knowledge. I want all of the elements to be there, simple, visible, but add up to something complex. Again, look at Chess. There aren't any secrets about the way units work. It's just that, when you play a lot, the complexities start to naturally occur. That's what we're going for. In terms of personality, I agree that the arbitrary-knowledge-requirements in a game like Nethack do indeed give it personality. Our game has a lot of personality too, it just comes from a different place.

JH: The visual arts are not something that traditionally has had much to do with roguelikes; Nethack's VGA graphics turn out to be a hacked-together version of the graphics from an old home computer version of Rogue. Tell me a bit about the art style of the game, which from the Crusader concept video at least looks fairly charming.

KB: There's a lot that's different about our game, visually. One of the tenets of our art style for 100 Rogues was that, for all the in-game art, every single pixel was placed by an artist. So there's no anti-aliasing, vector art, 3D art, resizing, anything like that. The pixels you see in the end are exactly the pixels the artists put down. That may sound like something insignificant but we believe it makes a difference overall in the end.

Our art director Blake Reynolds was behind the visual look of almost every character in the game, and he and I agree that these days, it's difficult to find a game that isn't typical japanese anime style, or going for some sort of realism. What we really were going for was a sort of "classic American illustration" look. We're highly inspired by the Walt Disney animation style, especially films like Beauty and the Beast, and so there's definitely an element of that in there. I think when people sit down with this game, they will immediately notice that the game is totally visually unique.

JH: About how long will it take to play through the game?

KB: Most games will not result in completion of the game, as it is very difficult. It's hard to say exactly how long the game will take to beat, but we estimate somewhere around 30-45 minutes.

JH: Are there any cool development or testing stories you'd like to share?

KB: Yeah. This one time, Blake and I were on a trip up to Rochester. It's about a five hour trip, so we stopped at a rest stop to get some MacDonald's. So I ordered a Cheese Hamburger and some Chicken Nuggets. So I finally get my order, open up the bag, and sure enough there's no food inside, but rather a swirling black Doom vortex. It sucked me and Blake both into the vortex, where we landed in the Dinosaur Days. Just then, we fought a GALACTIC DEMON! Blake rocket jumped up on the palm tree and began kicking coconuts at the creature. "RAGHHH... I'M TOO EVIL FOR THIS" said the demon. Then a Dinosaur came! The End.

[100 Rogues has a Facebook page where you could find out more and keep up with news about the game. Keith Burgun has a website called Expensive Planetarium -- he's also a member of The Video Game Cover Band. Pretty cool!]