Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

Perhaps no genre of computer game has as as close a tie to the open source community as the roguelikes. Eric S. Raymond, noted open source booster, both wrote the guidebook to an earlier version of Nethack and wrote the oft-read argument for open software, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," in which Nethack is mentioned.

Angband's source is so open that it's become one of the most-permuted computer games of all time. Linley's Dungeon Crawl picked up new life when the Stone Soup guys started developing their variant, which is now recognized as pretty much the premier version of the game. And all of the 7DRLs are open source.

An interested observer could be forgiven for assuming all roguelikes must be open, but they aren't. None of the Japanese commercial roguelikes are. The source code of one of the big ones, ADOM, remains closed.

(This fact means the game is falling out of prominence now since all changes must be approved by the game's creator, Thomas Biskup, who has moved on to other things. But it also means it's the most mysterious of the major games.)

But the first closed-source roguelike is the first of all of them.

A recent article over at Gamasutra, "The History of Rogue: Have @ You, Deadly Zs" attracted a fair number of comments from people involved with the development of the original game, including Ken Arnold and Glenn Wichman, two out of the three of the original guys.

The information in the article's comments, which are fascinating, go as follows:

1. Rogue was, and is, copyrighted by the Regents of the University of California, with the justification that the game was developed on their computers. Whether that rationale would suffice today I don't know; most commercial software these days is owned by the developing studio under, if I remember correctly, the principle of work-for-hire.

But the developers were not concerned with it. The game continues to be distributed with BSD Unix, but unlike most of the other parts of the system, the source code is not shipped with it. The reason they gave for keeping it secret was to prevent people from source-diving to discover the game's secrets.

(Such diving is the main reason Nethack's so throughly spoiled now, and Rogue, being a much simpler game, would be more easily harmed by this inspection. Although take note: the game is also more resistant to spoiling, since it has far fewer tricks.)

It also hindered player efforts to hack save files, the high score list and the wizard's password. (To continue the comparison with Nethack: it contains consider safe file tampering protection, it doesn't bother protecting its score list, and access to its wizard mode can be compiled out of the game.)

Ken Arnold notes that at the time of the height of Rogue's popularity, Richard Stallman had yet to start the GNU project, upon which Linux and most of the current open source movement is based. Open source was just a vague notion floating around, not a legitimate movement yet.

This probably explains why Linux distributions make it available in an extra non-free supplement to the bsdgames package, although to produce that package they probably have the source code form somewhere. BSD's license was eventually opened, according to Andrew Grillet, since the U.S. taxpayer has ultimately funded it.

(It must be noted that many universities are not making this observation nowadays; patent rights are a source of income for some institutions.)

David Dingwall notes that Rogue's source, once escaped into the wild, quickly suffused the user communities for both BSD and AT&T versions of Unix, and that it was even backported to older versions of BSD running on PDP11s. He also notes the spread of Rog-O-Matic, the first roguelike "bot" and predecessor of Ben Harrison's Angband Borg.

2. The source code then escaped. Several possible incidents are reported in the comments about when this occured; a student used an open terminal logged into the games account, and the source was accidentally left world-readable one day. They then spread around between systems.

These inadvertent source releases could also be the origins of some of the code in the "lost roguelikes," which are all fairly close to Rogue in many of their features, but some/all of them could be reimplementations too.

3. When the developers of Rogue reimplemented it and attempted to sell it for home computers, first under the name A.I. Design, then when they granted a distribution license to fondly-remembered classic games company Epyx, they had another reason to horde the code; to preserve their commercial rights to the game.

The game didn't do well in the market, perhaps because of a high piracy rate, although the authors of the article doubt it. (And so do I, for that matter.) Ken Arnold states that if he wrote it now, he'd go ahead and publish the source. (He does have the source of the most recent version of the game up at Sourceforge.)

Mastertronic also released some versions for various computers, including the Commodore 64; I have no information on how they obtained the rights.

More information, gathered from other sources:

4. There is a game called "Rogue Clone" out there that is definitely open-source. It's an independent close reimplementation of Rogue and pretty much the same in most ways I've noticed. It may be a little easier; I've had multiple wins at Rogue Clone IV, but I've never won PC Rogue without cheating.

5. The "lost roguelikes," Advanced Rogue, Super-Rogue, UltraRogue and XRogue, as well as versions of the original game's source, are available from the online/offline Roguelike Restoration Project. They were also closed source for a long time, and have only recently been recovered and make working again.

Advanced Rogue's copyright notice states that AT&T is one of the copyright holders. This may be due to confusion over who owned the rights to Rogue; BSD Unix contained some AT&T code, and so BSD carried an AT&T copyright notice in addition to one held by the Regents of the University of California.

6. The game Hexarogue is a recreation of Rogue in Java using a hexagonal grid instead of a rectangular one. It also supplies two modes that are more like the original game, Newer Rogue and Old Rogue. These are also open.

7. There was also a Japanese version of the game, for early computers over there. The developer of that version seems to have authorized the Japan-only PS2 remake Rogue Hearts Dungeon. I suspect that these versions are not authorized by Rogue's creators. In any case, they do not seem to be open.

Other facts of possible interest:

- The wizard's password for the original versions of Rogue, according to Ken Arnold, is "cute,huh".

- The article shows a close-up image of the graphics from Glenn Wichman's Atari ST port of Rogue that makes it plain that Nethack's dungeon graphics are taken more-or-less directly from it.