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Column: At Play

COLUMN: @Play: Excerpts from a Roguelike Encyclopedia, Part 1

March 20, 2011 12:00 AM |

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 time out - a look at initial entries Harris has compiled from an in-progress Roguelike encyclopedia.]

For a while now I've been working on a general encyclopedia of roguelikes, covering many games, general concepts, some specifics of the big games, and general items of interest.

It's still very much a work in progress. What follows, presented for general interest, entertainment, and maybe just a little education, is some excerpts from this document. (Included entries may not match their final form.)

AMULET (of Life Saving)
This particularly useful amulet instantly revives the player character when he is killed. The item is destroyed in the process. In Nethack, this also remedies whatever condition it was that caused the death. If run out of hit points it completely heals; if starved to death it fills the stomach, it reverses stoning, and so on. (There at least two exceptions to this: self-genocide and brainlessness.)

In the process, and in one of the many homages to classic Dungeons & Dragons the game offers, it drains one point of Constitution, although this is much less of a problem in Nethack since that statistic fluctuates with exercise. It still adds one to the player's “death count,” and in fact is the only way to do this without ending the game or being in either discovery or wizard mode.

In ADOM, Amulets of Life Saving only protect against running out of hit points.

COLUMN: @Play: The Eight Rules of Roguelike Design

January 22, 2011 12:00 PM |

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

Back in November, in the previous @Play column, I mentioned a number of proposed rules of roguelike design, and promised soon to describe them. It's taken a bit longer than I expected, but here they are.

I call these rules for rhetorical purposes only. I don't think there are any inviolate laws of game design. But given we are talking about roguelikes, there are certain properties that have been important to the genre.

Maybe not to all roguelike games; some of these have to do with designing a good item identification system, for instance, and many of the more recent games do not use that. I'm fairly outspoken in my appreciation for item-ID systems, so please calibrate your wonk-o-meter appropriately.

I use the term "reasonable play" several times here. It refers to being in a neutral state in terms of danger. For example, almost any bad effect from using an item can prove fatal if the player uses it at the wrong time. Discovering the potion of confusion by quaffing when a troll is attacking you is dangerous—so don't do that!

f you're down to one hit point, even slight damage could kill you, and some games have items that do piddling damage, so don't do that either. Most of the time in a roguelike the player is not in immediate danger. That is the fact on which the idea of reasonable play rests. Unknown items are possibly dangerous, so there must exist times of lesser danger in which to try them. A game built on the idea of literally constant peril would have different design demands. You are on your own in figuring those out.

COLUMN: @Play: Check And Mate

November 11, 2010 12:00 AM |

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 time, he looks at fairness and 'critical moments' in - and partially outside - the genre.]

Here is another column on roguelike design issues. This one is also somewhat common to games other than roguelikes that still strive to provide a “roguelike feel.” I use that term meaning games that seek to be more about providing an environment in which interesting situations can arise spontaneously and randomly, instead of all being pre-made by a level designer.

If a game has pre-made levels potential problem situations can simply be made not to ever occur. In a game that generates situations algorithmically, a lot more care must be given to, generally, the rules of the world, and, specifically, the items and monsters within it, so as to be fair to the player.

Player fairness, to the uninitiated, might seem to be a laughable thing for roguelikes to worry about. Is this not the genre that contains Nethack, of that legendary player mortality rate? But in fact Nethack is an almost ludicrously fair game; the fact that 10+ game winning streaks are possible, covering all the races and roles, proves that. When you look closely at it, nearly all causes of death come down to player ignorance or carelessness.

COLUMN: @Play: Sprinting Rapidly Through The Dungeon

October 13, 2010 12:00 AM |

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 time, he reveals exciting new Dungeon Crawl variant Dungeon Sprint.]

You start up a game of Dungeon Crawl without thinking about it too clearly. You pick name, race and class. Afterward you're asked a question about which “map” you want to play. What does it mean by that? Who cares, let's just get started. You pick the first, and begin in a room with one door out, to the right. You go through.

It's Ijyb with a wand of negative energy?! He zaps you and you DIE? What?!

You start a new game, with all the same options. Weirdly, you start in the same room, and through the door is Ijyb again. This doesn't seem very random.... You manage to kill Ijyb (he doesn't seem to have the wand this time), and you get a whole experience level for killing him. But in the next room is an ogre. Smack! You die again.

A few games later you get through Ijyb and, somehow, the ogre as well. At experience level 4 after killing two monsters you feel pretty smug, so naturally Sigmund himself waits beyond the next door.

What probably happened was that you accidentally started your game in a special mode included as part of the newest version. Welcome to Dungeon Sprint, Dungeon Crawl's rather more intense variant, now included as part of the 0.7 release.

COLUMN: @Play: The Implementation Specifics Of Mayflight

September 20, 2010 12:00 AM |

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 time, he continues his coverage of his roguelike-inpired game Mayflight by examining how he implemented key facets of the title.]

This is the second half of our coverage on Mayflight, an algorithmically-generated exploratory platform game of interest to this column due to the roguelike game borrowings made by its creator and developer. That person is myself, John Harris. The first half, which contains download links, appeared here.

MAYFLIGHT_751105050.pngThis time we focus on some of the under-the-hood aspects of the game: the room and area builders, the random seeding system that makes the seemingly-infinite game world possible, and the algorithmic background generator. The first article covered some aspects borrowed from or inspired by roguelikes; this one is my attempt to give back to the genre, listing some elements of Mayflight's design that might be interesting to the community. Chief among them are the background generator, which turned out surprisingly well, and the room builder routine, which utilizes a system, to my knowledge, that has never been used in a computer game before.

This article is probably most interesting to developers. I apologize to the more general roguelike enthusiast audience, and assure you that we'll be returning to @Play's more traditional stomping grounds next time.

COLUMN: @Play: Introducing Mayflight - Using Roguelike Design Lessons in a Non-Roguelike

September 2, 2010 12:00 PM |

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 time, John uses this column to introduce his first-ever game project, Mayflight, which uses Roguelike concepts in a platform game.]

NOTE: I've fixed a few bugs and created a new version. The one on YoYoGames' site, linked below, is currently locked at v1.01. A more recent version is available here. Details are given below, behind the fold.

It's been a while since the last @Play column! Sorry for the long delay. I was working very hard on a personal game project. I bring it up because, as luck would have it, that project is the subject of this column....

The months I was MIA I spent working on a personal game development project, called Mayflight. (It's available for download from here. I've put most of a demo playthrough up on YouTube in this playlist.) And in its construction, I ended up using a good number of roguelike design concepts to make a game that no one would mistake for a roguelike.

MAYFLIGHT_9001288004608.pngI'm still recovering from the development process so I need to get back into the swing of things concerning roguelikes (Dungeon Crawl had another major release while I was gone!), but considering that Mayflight uses random area generation and more than a few roguelike design principles, it might be useful and interesting to go over some aspects of the game's design, especially since the game, itself, is not a roguelike, not even in the style of Spelunky, which prizes object interactions.

COLUMN: @Play: Chocobo's Dungeon for Wii

May 29, 2010 12:00 AM |

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 time - a look at Square Enix's chocobo-starring, Rogue-ish Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon for Nintendo's Wii.]

We looked at Shiren the Wanderer for the Wii a little while ago. Interestingly, that is only one of three roguelike or quasi-roguelike games for the system. The other two are Baroque, which we'll be looking at shortly (so everyone in the comments can be patient a little while longer) and Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon.

cdchocobo.jpgChocobo's Dungeon is a sorta-sequel to Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon, a Playstation roguelike originally developed by Chunsoft, the Mystery Dungeon people who also made the Torneko games and Shiren the Wanderer. Chunsoft has made many roguelikes and quasi-roguelikes licensed to other companies using their properties.

This is what brought us the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games, which are breathtakingly boring but still, among their audience, remarkably popular. Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon was a similar kind of thing. While the Chocobo's Dungeon games have been developed by Square (and later instalments by h.a.n.d.), the first two at least were supervised by the president of Chunsoft, so at least some know-how is behind them.

COLUMN: @Play: Purposes for Randomization in Game Design

May 12, 2010 12:00 AM |

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 time -- a look at how randomization of game elements - so popular in Roguelikes - works to draw in the player and provide replayability.]

Roguelikes are the genre of game most associated with randomization of game content. Some other games, especially classic games, feature substantial random elements, but most of them use them as an afterthought, or in an ineffective manner, or without fully realizing how they change the dynamics of their game.

As an example I offer a Gamecube game, Nintendo's Pikmin 2. One of the advertised features for the game of the randomized dungeons that players would enter during play. I consider that the original Pikmin, which had little or no random elements, to be brilliantly designed.

It forced players to make wise use of their actions within a strict time limit (30 game days), and yet the limit was short enough that mistakes were duly punished and players had a disincentive to grind for additional troops. Yet, it wasn't really so difficult that it took players more than one or two attempts to win. And really dedicated players could win surprisingly quickly; the shortest possible time to win was nine game days out of the thirty allowed.

But some players, and more importantly game blogs, complained about the overall time limit, so it was removed in the sequel. Further, for the random dungeons which were advertised as the major addition to the game, the day timer is disabled. Each floor's layout is not actually randomly generated: instead, the maze layout, the treasures to be found, the resources provided, and the enemy opposition are all static, predetermined for each floor. Without the timer, there is no pressure that might force players to move on without having found everything.

The only real randomness is in the locations of all these things. Scrambling the start location too helps a little, but not much. Thus, the only effect that the randomness has on the game is the order in which things are found and the relatively small variable tactical challenge that comes from fighting enemies under differing terrain conditions. For all the promise that randomization maps held, it really barely made any more sense to scramble object locations than to keep them static too.

When does it make sense to randomize? What benefits does this provide to a computer game? Here are a few. (I should warn you ahead of time, this is one of the more "out there" columns in the sequence....)

@Play: Interview - Enjoy A Coffee Break Of Victory With Desktop Dungeons

April 7, 2010 12:00 AM |

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 time - an interview with Rodain Joubert about the buzzed about Desktop Dungeons.]

Desktop Dungeons is a quick-play freeware PC dungeon exploration game that has been enjoying tremendous popularity over the last few months. Each game involves a single screen of a dungeon, and is typically less than thirty minutes to complete. Yet it provides an abundance of races and classes to play as, and special dungeon types to explore, that endlessly remix its small number of basic elements into completely new challenges each time.

As comments in blog posts about it tend to point out, Desktop Dungeons is not technically a roguelike game. It doesn't have tactical combat, has no identification features, and it's simulation of time is fairly simplistic. And yet, it has some fairly strong ties to roguelikes that definitely brings it into the purview of a roguelike column.

It is a game, ultimately, about gaining levels and making good use of limited resources, it's quite difficult and yet also has a strong sense of balance, where a decision made half the game ago can suddenly be what pushes you over the edge at the end. Also, live or die, each game is usually less than thirty minutes, so bad decisions don't drag you down. If it turns out you can't win, you just retire and try again. Really good players can tackle one of the challenge dungeons, or even participate in ranked games the scores of which get uploaded to an online scoreboard.

The game seems to be pretty popular on the gaming blogs right now. In this interview with South African creator Rodain Joubert, alias "Nandrew," we discuss the game's creation, its great, sudden popularity, its inspiration in Dungeon Crawl, and a little bit about goats and orcs.

[Note: I forgot I had Derek Yu's custom tileset for the game installed when I took a couple of the screenshots. I'm leaving them in, however, because his set is great. Not that the originals are a slouch mind you....]

COLUMN: @Play: Wii-ren the Wanderer

March 24, 2010 12:00 PM |

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 time - a detailed look at Atlus' Shiren The Wanderer for the Wii.]

“Shiren the Wanderer” is Atlus' name for their U.S edition of the two-years-old most recent Shiren game released in Japan, for the Wii game console. More properly the name is applied to a whole series of games, some of which I've mentioned here before. The games are of varying quality, but even the weakest Shiren game possesses awesome features and wonderful gameplay entirely absent elsewhere in the JRPG field.

This is a game of survival, of improbable escapes from tight situations. Once you learn to play a Shiren game well, you will constantly amaze yourself with the scrapes you get out of. Until you learn to do this you will die a lot, but no dungeon is really very long so you can always try again.

shirendsbox.jpgThey really are something special. So special that I have already spent four whole columns talking about them, three on the Super Famicom game [Journal 1, Journal 2, Final Problem] and one of the recent DS port [here], the first Shiren game ever to officially make it to the United States. The Wii game which I cover now is the second game to make it here.

shirenwii_boxart.jpgI talk the game up here at the beginning because, while good in a good number of ways, compared to the DS game, Shiren the Wanderer for Wii is not as good. Instead of the big single-dungeon structure that tends to work best for it, this edition is split up in a number of smaller dungeons, somewhat in the style of Pokemon Rescue Team. Further, most of these dungeons are set up as being one part of a longer journey, so Shiren retains his character level between them instead of starting from scratch each time. The high score and rescue features that were in the Japanese version have all been excised from this one, an unavoidable detriment to a wholehearted recommendation. And don't get me started on the cutscenes.... But even with all these problems, it is still the best (and nearly the only) game of its type for the Wii, and one of the few commercial console roguelikes to see release in the U.S. that is really worth playing.