On Roguelikes and Progression Systems

I talked a bit about it here and there but I love the genre of Roguelike games or games that are “like Rogue” or so-called “Rogue-lites” which are games that are like roguelikes. I enjoy them a lot, which is partially because of how you can play those games over and over again and when you lose, you lose your progress. Depending on the game, you have some keepsake or some permanent currency that helps you increase a stat or unlock new items, leading to better runs and easier victories – but at their core, roguelikes are supposed to be challenging, meaning that you have to really try hard so that you don’t have to start over again. The reason why I’m bringing this up is that I stumbled across this opinion that someone had and it made me wanna talk about progression in games.

This streamer (and game dev) that I watched earlier essentially was playing Inscryption for the first time. After three hours, he had to end the stream, though – and went on a mini-rant about how it’s bad game design to lose all progress after you die. Given that Inscryption is a roguelike game, I then asked if that dev disliked roguelikes in general and he said answered with a strong “yes”, before mentioning how it’s like “everything you did was for nought” and how he wished that the cards would have personalities and how he would enjoy it if they maybe begged for their lives when you sacrifice them. He also wished for the cards to give you clues as to how to beat the guy you’re essentially playing against… and it’s ironic that the game does that but let’s not get into that. His point was that the only roguelike game he liked was this other game that had a currency that you could then invest into stats between runs… and Hades then was mentioned in chat and the dev in question said that Hades was barely tolerable and that it felt like you were supposed to play many many runs before you could actually get anywhere with the progression, which again is ironic.

So, anyhow, that developer is known for developing a game for years now and not really getting anywhere and I don’t value their opinion on game design that much, especially given that their game doesn’t work from a game design perspective. BUT their disliking of roguelike titles is incredibly valid. It’s perfectly fine for people to not be on-board with the “you die, you restart” formula. I hated it when my save file would get restarted when I played this Mario game ages ago where I lost all the 1UPs on some stupid side-scrolling level… So, it’s surprising that I’m fine with having to restart a Risk of Rain 2 run after killing it for two hours straight.

When I explained what roguelikes are to my better half, she didn’t get how a game where death means that you lose everything could ever be fun. Again, perfectly valid. Hence, this post is basically about 1) how it’s valid to not like something and to just avoid the genre – as well as 2) why is permadeath so enticing.

1) This is something that a lot of people have trouble with actually. When you dislike something, it’s hard to not say so and talk about it. It takes some restraint to just look away and not get into it too much. Some people have an easier time with that but a lot of other people (including me) fall into that pattern of talking about things that just aren’t for them. I mean, I’m not into platformers and I hate stuff like contact damage and timers as well as side-scrolling sections that add extra pressure to you as a player… but I still talk about these things and mention how a game that I want to like is not my cup of tea because of its platforming segments. It’s perfectly valid to dislike something and to therefore avoid it completely. Some people end up still playing it “to get it” but they dislike it and then they rant about it, which is… fine at its core but problematic when it turns into a constant complaining about it despite it being their own choice. Similarly, I love roguelikes but I don’t try to push it onto people. When I recommend roguelikes to people that aren’t too much into the genre, I give them a warning together with the recommendation. I’ve been friends with people in the past that would try to push their likes and dislikes, views and opinions, etc. onto other people, trying to convince them to get into it, almost to the point where it got toxic. What I’m trying to say is: “It’s totally fine if something is not for you. If you still engage with it, that’s on you though.”

Onto number 2: Permadeath isn’t for everyone. It’s added pressure and difficulty. There’s a risk involved. Not everyone likes it. But it also adds meaning to your every decision, move and mistake. Every mistake could cost you the run. Falling off the map in Risk of Rain 2 means lots of damage that doesn’t result in immediate death itself… but it often can result in you getting shot by some small enemy and that results in the end of your run. It’s fine to make mistakes. You learn from them. Hence, it’s great how in roguelikes, you can die and restart in a matter of seconds. It’s incredibly fast to go from run to run and it’s in the game design that you fail at times!

And well, game design is the big word that I’ve been throwing out there but essentially, roguelikes are designed around the idea of every run potentially ending in seconds and every new run being able to be started in seconds as well. They’re supposed to be played multiple times. Roguelites are less punishing due to permanent character progression. Every death means progress in both roguelikes and roguelites, though, as making a mistake means that you can learn from it as well, even if you don’t get any permanent currency or an unlock. Given that you’re supposed to play it multiple times, runs are kept unique and procedurally or even randomly generated, resulting in you never facing the exact same run. This results in replayability which then softens the blow of technically doing the same thing over and over again.

Nobody complains about how you’re always starting every survival game by gathering wood – because it’s normal for the genre. Similarly, Roguelikes always start with you at a relatively weak level. You may struggle with mini-bosses, elites, or even the boss of the early stages – but as you gain power-ups and experience, you get stronger and struggle less. Bosses that brought you close to Death’s Door at first, suddenly appear like normal enemies in later stages – but because you progressed so much, you don’t struggle quite as much against them, meaning that you get to fulfil that power fantasy of sucker-punching the guy that bullied you on your way home from school. Take that, Dylan! 

And well, that ties into other mechanics and features that games have. Hades, for instance, sprinkles in the element of a pretty great plot by having you die plenty of times. Yes, farming darkness is “grindy” but after every death, you have a chance to level up your relationships and progress with the story by talking to various characters, unlocking “prophecies” in the process. It’s great how the replayability of the runs ties into new content with each time you step through the river Styx into the House of Hades. It just works as a whole concept because of how it combines storytelling and replayability into a whole thing that is incredibly polished and amazing!

Meanwhile, that developer’s game doesn’t quite work because it combines the idea of a Persona style game with the prospect of killing to get together with your love interest. A Stealth game like Hitman relies on having characters in it that you can dispose of that don’t have a background story or anything like that attached to them. A story-heavy game like Persona relies on its cast of characters to carry the story and you can’t really dispose of any member of the cast without it affecting the grand scheme of things. Combining the influences of both into your game causes issues turning it into a game that doesn’t necessarily excel at what makes either great.

I feel like it’s fine for you to have a different viewpoint on this but personally, I think that if you don’t like your progress getting restarted when you mess up, then roguelikes might not be for ya. Character progression is great and all but I find it hard to keep going with games like Stardew Valley or Satisfactory. I’d rather start a new world or a new farm than finish the community centre (never done it in my 120 hours so far!) or the space elevator. I mean, that also basically means that games like that that take a bit longer to get to a certain point aren’t necessarily for me but if I actively pursue them regardless of that, then I can’t really complain about having started yet another new farm and still rooting for Harvey all the way. Character progression and permanent currency are nice and all in roguelikes and rogue-lites alike but it has the risk of making the player focus on acquiring that exact currency, resulting in your game potentially being seen as a “grindy” game, even if it’s not really all that grindy. 

And that… lessens the blow of your game. It causes a game to lose its edge and it makes it seem less interesting once a player gets into the mindset that it, in fact, is just a huge grind. I didn’t enjoy Hades for a while once I was at the 80-hour mark because I figured that gems required lots of farming… but then I got back into it, free of that mentality, and really enjoyed it, playing 22 more hours of that game in the process – and those were probably the best 22 hours I had with the game as I unlocked most of the stuff and even got to the Epilogue!

This post was first published on Indiecator by Dan Indiecator aka MagiWasTaken. If you like what you see here and want to see more, you can check me out on Twitch and YouTube as well.

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