This is when the red wine drinking (with their little pinky finger extended) hardcore gamers make a face and say, “X cannot be a rogue game. It does not have turn based combat. It has permanent upgrades. And, sometimes, it doesn’t have randomized areas.” I am so fortunate to have experienced gaming before the invention of the phrase ‘genre’ applied to gaming. Genre applies to the job the game does, not to the design of which the game is. The design of sports games have changed throughout the decades, yet they still perform the job of ‘sports’ to the pleasure centers around the players’ brain. The definition of a video game revolves around the pleasure it creates in the players’ heads, not in the ‘design’ of the game.
Looking at the Rogue “genre” for a moment, nearly all of these are indie games. You can play Minecraft as a ‘rogue’ game. What is going on here? We’re seeing some patterns.
Randomized levels or not, these games focus heavily on exploration.
There are no cinematic movies. Due to the heavy exploration and randomization, there can be no ‘story’ that is commonly thought of in video games.
When you die, it is game over. You lose everything. This means everyone has a huge fear of dying since it is disastrous.
If you observe players of these games, they love telling each other stories that happened to them in the game. “I was at my last health, but then came a crowd of monsters! I fled back in the hallway, got out my shotgun, and fired at them killing them all!” This Player Story may even grow beyond the player’s performance in the game. It is as if the player is making up his own story as he goes along!
No one goes into these games thinking they will ‘win’. There is constant challenge.
You are totally alone.
You are often alone in a dungeon or castle. The game does not revolve around NPCs and ‘conversations’.
In many ways, these games have unintentionally differentiated themselves from the AAA Industry Crap with their non-exploration, non-challenge, no player story, only story-from-designer, and no death games. They have also, unintentionally, stumbled closer and closer into Classic Gaming.
What do I mean by Classic Gaming? I mean more of the NES Era of gaming when games ceased being arcade games but weren’t 100% console games. Games like Legend of Zelda, Zelda 2, and Metroid cannot be done in the arcade but also predate the sole console definition of a ‘fat story, no challenge, no exploration, play until the next trigger activates the script’ type games.
Look at Metroid for the NES. Pretend you are back in time and playing it for the very first time. What would your experience be? The game is INSANELY difficult. It is very easy to get lost in it. There is also permanent death. You die once, game over. The experience of NES Metroid to rogue likes is identical in the beginning. The more you play, of course, you chart the landscape. You get permanent upgrades which makes combat easier. Despite all that, finishing the game is still difficult.
While as great as Super Metroid was, it really lost something special that was in the original Metroid. Super Metroid felt like you a formula where you went into an area, got map, got big power-up, killed boss, and then moved to next area to repeat the process. (Link to the Past has the same flaw.) Metroid always had a sense of being ‘wild’. Sakamoto revealed that much of the layout of Metroid was made really fast and without too much thought. Just like a procedural created level. It’s been difficult for me to express what it felt like playing the original Metroid when it was out, but it is similar to how a rogue-craft feels.
Legend of Zelda creates a similar feeling. You start off feeling weak, but you end up feeling strong! The game is extremely consistent in providing a challenge to the player. This is what is key to the appeal of rogue-likes. You are never really bored because there are no ‘flat’ areas of difficulty. When an area is too difficult, you run away and get upgrades. To those more skilled players, they keep playing even with bad gear. In Zelda 2, there is nothing but pure skill that prevents a player from advancing in the game with low levels.
You have to laugh when a game designer declares Monopoly is a ‘bad design’ because it is advantageous for someone to go to jail to prevent landing on other people’s squares. And yet, Monopoly keeps selling and has been selling for, what, seventy years? There is clearly something about the game that makes people still want to play it. Only arrogance would have someone declare it to be ‘bad design’. Rather, there is ‘good design’ in it, and we must discover what makes people keep returning to the game.
With a game like Rogue Legacy, I’ve heard, “it is just a grinding game.” Such a person doesn’t get it. When a game is skill based, you have players who have different experiences with the game due to varying skill levels. A less skilled player grinds to upgrade precisely because he is not that skilled. Do you NEED every missile pack or energy pack in Mertroid to beat the game? No. But the more you have, the easier the game will be. The grinding allows a perfect equilibrium for the player to find the pleasure between ‘too easy’ and ‘too hard’. In a game like Rogue Legacy, the difficulty is player dependent. Less skilled players will want to grind more. We see this happen all the time in classic RPGs where a player would upgrade Cecil and party to absurd levels before tackling the final boss in Final Fantasy IV. In games like Classic Zelda, a player could obtain all the heart pieces and items to make the game easier and fit his pleasure for challenge. Nintendo misinterprets this as to mean that players like scavenger hunts. No. Players like making their player more powerful so the frustrating parts become ‘challenging’.
Shigeru Miyamoto said that the warp zones in Super Mario Brothers were put there in case better players wanted to skip ahead to a world that fit their challenge threshold better. What Miyamoto did was say that the difficulty of the game revolved around the player and not the designer. Players can do other things that can make the game easier or harder. To make the game ‘easier’, Mario can grind by collecting all the coins, hitting all the blocks, and search for all the secret rooms. This makes Mario have more lives which means an easier time in future levels. Better players can skip all that. They can also opt not to get the mushroom so they remain small and vulnerable. The reason why Super Mario Brothers satisfied so many is because the difficulty of the game was largely in the players’ hands. (Interestingly, some games like the original Wing Commander did this as well.)
Look at Tetris. Does the difficulty of Tetris revolve around the game or around the player? The player can select various difficulties. The better the player does, the more difficult the game gets. The player is in a ‘zen’ moment where the difficulty fits his skill level perfectly until he gets to the more absurd higher levels. The mistakes the player makes in Tetris affect him in the future and makes the game harder. He could do it on purpose if he wished.
There is a great complexity in how these simplistic classic games managed challenge around the player that I don’t think anyone is seeing. One of the latest blockbuster hits, Minecraft, has the challenge entirely controlled by the player. He can go out in night… or not. He can go into the dungeon…. or not. He can get armor and weapons when he goes into the Nether World or… he can walk through the portal with nothing.
How I would love to play a Metroid game where I could get lost! How I would love to play a Zelda game where I have to leave an area to find upgrades because my skills cannot tackle the powerful enemies in that area. Nintendo doesn’t see the forest for the trees as they make games revolve around the director or the ‘level design’ instead of around the player.
There is one thing that won’t change anytime soon with gaming: every copy of a game will be identical and every player will be different. This is why the game must revolve around the player differences as that is the only true differentiating variable. Games people play for centuries like Chess and cards all revolve around the player styles. Why not video games?