Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Layering of Rogue-Lights

Rogue-lights generally have two currencies the player receives, one within the run and one outside of it. The currency within the run is generally used on temporary upgrades, relics that give the player an upper hand, but expire at the end of the run. The currency that persists outside the run is used for permanent upgrades, such as dealing more damage or starting with more health, that help the player steadily improve, even in the face of failure.

This is the brilliance of the rogue-light design over the original rogue-like. Even if a player has a bad run, they still gain some sort of long term progress rather than having to bang their head against the same wall over and over without anything to show for it. Lately I've noticed a maturation of this design, where there is not one avenue of long term progression, but several overlapping methods of long term progression to encourage play.

This design element is probably best known as the One More Turn feeling you get from a game like Civilization. The original Civilization's design accidentally stumbled on an overlapping structure of short, medium, and long term goals that make it so the player is always working towards something, always accomplishing something else, always planning on the next thing they want to do. A player might be positioning soldiers for a coming war in the short term, then deciding what building to put in a new city, strategizing on what paths to take in the tech tree. It ensures that no matter what's going on, there's always something happening this turn to keep the player's interest, always something that will need to be done next turn to keep them playing.

Recently I played two rogue-lights that either intentionally or not replicated this system in their upgrade trees. It ensured that even if I had an unsuccessful run and acquired little of the long term currency, I was still working towards goals, I was still making progress.

The first of those games was Children of Morta, a rogue-light dungeon crawler in the vain of something like Diablo or Gauntlet. The game centers around a family tying to fight an evil god. Each run the player selects a family member to play as, each with their own abilities and play style, and fights through several levels of a dungeon. The run ends when either the player defeats the boss, or the player is killed. Regardless, the player leaves the dungeon with whatever gold they've acquired, to be used on permanent upgrades. So far so normal.

The added layer comes in with how the characters progress. Each family member gains experience independent of the other, increasing in level and unlocking new skills as they progress, standard to most RPGs. On top of this, every four levels the characters gain a special perk that applies to every other family member. So instead of just that character dealing extra damage, now all the characters deal extra damage. This is great not only because it helps layer on added progression, but because it incentivizes players to use all of the characters, even if it isn't a play style they would normally try.

The second game was Pathway, a sort of XCOM meets Indiana Jones style rogue light, where the runs are these FTL style maps punctuated by XCOM like tactical battles. What's partially unique about Pathway is there is no in run currency. The game uses money as both the in run currency and out of run currency, creating an interesting dynamic where the player has to choose between buying more supplies for this run or rolling the dice and saving the cash for permanent upgrades later.

In addition to cash which can be used for upgrades to the party's jeep (essentially their base), individual characters level up and gain abilities, just like in Children of Morta. On top of this the player finds items and equipment as loot that can be given to characters and that persists between runs. Once again you have an overlapping system where you're always working toward something. Even if you didn't get any good loot from that fight, at least your characters gained some experience. Even if you got wiped in a battle and didn't level up, you got some cash for permanent upgrades. Maybe several battles have gone past without much experience or gold gained, but you got a cool new rifle or set of armor out of it.

By layering these upgrades, the game not only keeps the player invested, it provides that same One More Turn experience, luring the player into going on just one more run when they might otherwise think it was pointless. Growing up, I never got into Shoot 'em Ups, or scrolling shooters because I was god awful at them. In recent years however I took a strong liking to the Sky Force games, which are vertical scrolling systems with added rogue-like elements, so even if you fail a run you have some currency left over with which to upgrade your ship.

Borrowing these design choices and philosophies from other genres can not only help to re-invigorate old genres by turning them into rogue-likes, but it can also breathe new life into the still young rogue-like genre. I loved FTL but damn was that game hard. Not only was it challenged on its face, but there was a lot of RNG that could send a run sideways. It was really frustrating in that game to lose through what felt like random chance and have nothing to show for it but a slightly better understanding of the game.

Pathway, which has a very similar set up to FTL in terms of its map progression, softens that blow by making sure the player is always gaining something. XCOM, the other game that Pathway borrows heavily from, often suffers from what players perceived to be bad RNG. The difference is that when a battle goes south in XCOM, not only does the player walk away with nothing, but they walk away with a permanent loss, a setback that delays progress toward the overarching goal of defeating the aliens and saving the world.

Overlapping progression like those in Pathway and Children of Morta help the player feel like they're gaining something even when losing. It makes us feel like we aren't wasting our time, like we're still crawling forward toward the summit even if it's only an inch by inch. As designers I think there's a lot to learn here and a lot of room left to experiment in the genre. If nothing else, it will keep these games interesting and the player engaged.

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