Towards a Better Roguelike: Getting Started

I’ve been working on developing a video game for the past year or so.

It’s something that’s very important to me, a passionate pursuit that saved me from the depths of despair, way back when. But, progress has come in fits and starts. I learned to use Unity, found that I absolutely hated it, switched to Godot, and have been messing around with that for a while now.


Most of the work I do, though, is actually just writing. Brainstorming ideas for the setting, gameplay, various sorts of intricate systems. In physical notebooks and in dozens of different documents on my computer. Writing away, planning and planning for all sorts of different things.

So, as long as I’m doing this, I thought I’d write a bit of my thoughts about game design here, on my blog. Let’s get into it!

I’m going to talk about roguelikes, and how I want to make a better one.

So, first off let’s define some terms, and be precise. A “roguelike” is, as the name would lead you believe, a game that is similar to Rogue. That being a PC game from the early ’80s, a simple dungeon crawler that very popular among college kids with a lot of free time and access to computers (some things never change).

Rogue was a game where you were an adventurer in a dungeon, you fought monsters and collected items and money, fighting your way to the bottom floor to win the Amulet of Yendor. It was procedurally generated, which is to say that the layout of floors of the dungeon were different every time you played. This gave it a lot of replay value, even if you won it was still fun to play again, as it would be different.


The popularity of this game spawned a whole genre, games that were like Rogue, or “roguelikes”. Slowly, it branched out into more and more complex and diverse forms, but some core tenets remained. There was an International Roguelike Development Conference in 2008, in Berlin, where they set down some rules (well, guidelines) to define what a roguelike actually is, or should be.

But I’m not gonna dig into those now. The Berlin Interpretation is interesting, and provides some insight into the limitations of the genre as it is practiced by the more hardcore fans. I’m going to talk more about my experiences playing roguelikes and how I see a way to improve upon the formula.

Roguelikes are a genre that I have always been interested in, but mostly from a distance, as I am not very good at playing them. At least, the more traditional, Berlin Interpretation-ish ones.

I’ve put dozens of hours into Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, Angband, Dungeons of Dredmore, Caves of Qud, and more. I never make very much progress, usually dying in some stupid way with plenty of healing and escape items in my inventory, simply from not paying enough attention.

This is, I think, a common experience. Roguelikes put a lot of pressure on the player to remember things, to pay close attention to what is going on, and to always be cautious and aware. Those are skills that I find easy to use when I’m playing, say, any given Dark Souls game, but in a roguelike I have more trouble.

One of the problems, I find, is that your options in a given situation end up being hidden away in various different menus, easy to forget about. I may be carrying a potion or scroll that would save me from that angry hydra or what-have-you, but do I know that I have that, and that it would, in fact, save me? Probably not.


This is compounded by another problem: Most of the time, you don’t need to be aware of the vast majority of your options. If you’re just fighting your 900th goblin of this floor of the dungeon, you don’t need to be digging deep in your inventory to survive the encounter. When emergencies do crop up, it is often too late to really do anything to fix them by the time you realize they’re happening.

To be successful, you must be constantly on edge, but also deal with a lot of boring situations that do not actually require your full attention. You have to be careful, but only for certain select scenarios that require specific actions to not die. It’s a tough skill to gain, and I haven’t made a lot of progress over the years, mostly due to discouragement.

The way I see it, a lot of these problems come down to the same thing: presentation. Basically every roguelike has a problem of not giving you the information that you need, when you need it.

Now, you could argue that this is part of the challenge! You’re supposed to be careful, and there’s no time pressure so you only have yourself to blame for not taking all the time you need to consider every single one of your options. But the number of options is so great, and the times when they are actually relevant are so few.

I posit that it is more engaging game design to be able to make a properly informed decision when the time comes rather than having it be a simple memory test. You don’t want to trick the player into making a bad decision because they didn’t know a good one was even available, you want to give them a fair chance and let them die on their own foolishness. At least, that’s what I want.

There are a lot of things you can do to improve this aspect of the game. Especially with the UI, adding colors and notices and whatnot to kind of paper over the problem. A lot of more modern roguelikes do this, but I think a more fundamental change is necessary to solve this fundamental problem.

Simply put, I want to make a roguelike with a JRPG-style battle system. This presentation is much better at showing all of your options, and your current situation. You could more easily be aware of any real threats, and respond accordingly.

Going along with that, another thing is that roguelikes could use more difficulty. Now, I know I said earlier that I am bad at roguelikes, why would I think they need to be harder? But I mean this in a slightly different way. I mean to say that they need to push the player to make hard decisions more often, not that they need to have a higher level of challenge overall.

This is the other change to solve the problem of unexpected emergencies. If every fight has at least a whiff of danger and desperation to it, then it is easier to remain on your toes. This is something that works extremely well in the Dark Souls series and its derivatives, even basic enemies can easily kill an experienced player if you are careless.

I am realizing there’s a lot more I want to get into, but they deserve more consideration. Their own separate posts, given more time to percolate. I have ideas about the proper use of randomness, types of combat, the use of intricate systems, the biases of programmers… it’s gonna be a whole Thing.

I shall collect my thoughts and return at a later date.

Image Credits:

A screenshot of Rogue (1980).

A screenshot of Angband (1990).

A screenshot of Tales of Maj’eyal (2012).

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