I have recently been thinking (and having several fruitful email exchanges) about metagame unlocks in roguelikes or other procedurally generated games: by this I mean things like player classes in TOME, ships in FTL, items and characters in The Binding of Isaac, and so forth. When one considers the design rationale behind these types of unlocks, there are several obvious justifications normally given:
– Extend Time / Gate Content. The most obvious one: the more “content” there is in your game and the longer it takes to access it, the longer the player will play your game for.
– Sense of Progress. The player dies in a permadeath game and feels angry or upset because nothing was achieved – unless, so the argument goes, they also unlocked something in the process, in which case that death no longer feels “meaningless”. Although making instinctive sense, this argument is the crux of the problem, and will be returned to later.
– Maximize Variation. The longer the developers hold off on showing the player everything, the more varied those things will seem as the player slowly comes to discover everything the game holds, rather than having it all dropped in your lap at the start.
– Learning Curve / Gate Content. This is true in several ways. Firstly, unlocks slow the learning curve down because you aren’t given everything at the start; secondly, it also means that you can learn something “new” when you unlock a new whatever, meaning that if you have some advanced and challenging classes, and some simple classes, you give the player the simple ones and let them unlock the challenging ones. I am also aware that I’ve used “gate content” twice, but that is because as a phrase it could apply to both of these; you gate content to extend playtime, but you can also gate content in order to offer a slow trickle of items/classes/ships/weapons/whatever to the play in order to aid their learning process, rather than dumping them in a massive world of complex interactions.
Now, obviously some of these are related – for example, gating content means a sense of progress when you unlock that content – so these three are not perfectly polarized, but those are effectively the four justifications.
However, as my considerations have continued, I have come to a conclusion: that these unlocks actually weaken the abilities of players to win the game, rather than strengthening it (as one might think). Failing to offer a player the full potential spectrum of things at the start of the game may, indeed, encourage players to stick around longer and offer a softer learning curve, but it also (as I will argue in this piece) means that fewer players will ever complete the game than if all unlocks were available at the start. And surely, ultimately, the “real” satisfaction comes from completing a challenging game, not from interim achievements along the way?
My claim, in essence, is this:
The existence of an unlock system tricks the player into thinking their “progress” derived from a failed playthrough is in the unlock, not in the skills and knowledge they gained (or should gain) by understanding how they died. This, in turn, makes for weaker players (and/or lowers the skill ceiling some players can achieve) by failing to “force” players to confront their decision-making processes, and thereby improve at the game.
Now, to explain this in a little more detail.
When players die in a roguelike, it is easy to feel one has achieved nothing. In games so heavily focused around winning/ascending, it is difficult not to feel that you’ve just wasted hours, or sometimes even days and weeks, on a character who then eventually died: you didn’t find the aligned altar on the Astral Plane, you didn’t leave the dungeon with the Orb of Zot, and you didn’t defeat the Rebel Flagship, so… what was the point?
As players get better at roguelikes, many come to realize that this is not the case: a death is always a learning opportunity. A reflective player will look back and realize (and here I draw from the DCSS statement of game philosophy) what it was that went wrong, which in roguelikes generally falls into two categories. Either a) some significant strategic mistake was made several/many turns/minutes/hours ago which doomed (or almost doomed) the player character to destruction at a later point, or b) an immediate short-term tactic mistake was made (or sequence of mistakes were made) which, although prior strategic decisions had been sound, led to the player character’s death. Both of these are easy to reflect on – for the first, a player can wonder if they chose the wrong skills for their character, the wrong items at the shop, the wrong build, etc; and for the second, a player can wonder if they should have retreated, used a panic item, not got into that fight in the first place, treated a certain enemy with more respect, understood more deeply how a certain mechanic worked, etc. In a roguelike, death should be first and foremost a learning experience: one which encourages reflection, and therefore (hopefully!) improvement.
However, instead of being forced to reflect on your own failings as a player and try to improve last time…
You get a ship. (Or a class, species, character, or whatever).
The important point here is this: whereas the player must figure out they are meant to learn – no roguelike says “You died! You should think about how you died. Would you like to play again? Y/N”, and instead it just leaves you to your own devices to figure that out – the unlock is obvious, clear, and explicit. When you’re given an obvious reward, few players are ever going to think about the non-obvious rewards, especially when the obvious rewards appear to enhance their chances of success in the game. I therefore fear that the player comes to learn that their deaths are meaningful insofar as they yield new unlocks, not insofar as they yield new information or understanding or ways to avoid their demise.
In contrast to “modern roguelikes”, most classic roguelikes give the player everything from the start:
In Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, for instance, you can immediately pick any species and any class and any religion. This means that you can immediately try other options, other builds, other religions, other classes, species, and so forth, and even if you keep dying as a Minotaur and then try an Octopode (a foolish move since the latter is a far more challenging species), even a new-to-roguelike player will surely learn: changing species isn’t going to save me. Sure, there are probably some species which are slightly more in-tune with a player’s overall playstyle (I, for instance, prefer melee characters in almost all games with the classic melee/ranged/magic triumvirate), but picking one species over another will almost never be the difference between a player who can win and a player who can’t, as there are so many skills in DCSS and other roguelikes which are transferable across multiple classes. Since you “get” nothing for your death, therefore, and since you quickly learn that choosing other options adds variety but doesn’t strengthen or weaken your characters much (they do a little, but only a little), your only option to improve at the game is to learn from that death.
To conclude this point, let’s have a look at FTL as an illustrative case study of this phenomenon which, I feel, should concern those of us who make roguelikes or aspire to make them. There is something very interesting about the FTL community (at least those parts of it which I have seen/interacted with/spied upon). The community seems to be divided into two groups – a very large group of players who find even Easy mode to be extremely challenging, and then a smaller (but not tiny) group who find Hard mode to be trivial (or at least perfectly winnable with a little concentration and effort). As I mentioned in Crawl, it is extremely unlikely that changing species will earn a losing player a win, although it is of course possible a player’s skill will be so precisely balanced that they can come within an inch of victory with weaker species, and win with stronger species. Expanding this to FTL, we can graph (loosely, and without axes) the community as looking something like this from my experience and examination:
Now, naturally there are some small categories of players not shown here (who can just about win on Hard, or just about win on Normal, and so forth), and as I say, this is based on my reading of the FTL community, but I think these categories are comparatively small, and the ones shown here are the important ones for our discussion. There seem few (again, this is my judgement from a long time in the community, not quantitative academic research) FTL players who can master Normal, but are never able to progress onto Hard: Hard simply requires using the same skills as you do in normal, but doing so more optimally, more carefully, more often, or more intelligently; and, in some cases, learning some fairly simple microing skills which can be picked up from a quick view of a Youtube video. Once a player has understood the game well enough to beat Normal, it seems they will almost always be capable of progressing onto beating Hard, and then becoming a player who can make a solid attempt at beating Hard mode every time.
However, the focus here is on that yellow band of players: the tiny percentage who cannot beat the game with the Kestrel A, for example, but can with the Mantis B or the Crystal B or one of the other amazing ships. My point is this: this sliver of the player base is tiny. Were this is a large part of the player base, then I think ship unlocks turning player attention away from their own learning processes would be fine, forgivable, and maybe even desirable, if it led to a lot of players beating the game. However, for every one player who can just about beat the game with the strongest ships which they unlocked, I would argue there are more players who don’t fully appreciate the importance of learning from deaths, and fill up the FTL forums with those endless comments of “the game’s all luck!” and so forth, because ship unlocks distract them from understanding (or having any chance of ever understanding!) that they should be learning from their deaths. It runs the risk of fostering a very undesirable mindset: that the game is to blame for their deaths. Once a roguelike player starts blaming the game instead of blaming themselves, it’s hard to return to the light and realize that, in any well-made roguelike, a player’s deaths should always be their own fault, and a skilled player should win 100% of the time (which FTL comes extremely close to adhering to). By seeing an unlocked ship, players fixate upon it, are distracted by it, and don’t even consider the possibility of some other outcome from their deaths. Yes, of course, just dying with no intermittent reward is brutal: but I think it breeds stronger players in the long term.
Therefore, to conclude, I would argue that the extent to which unlocks hide player learning is far greater (in most cases) than the extent to which strong unlocks will help weaker players to victory. Yes, of course, in some rare cases unlocking the Mantis B will help an FTL player who has never won before win; but in many more cases, I believe, the progression of unlockables distracts players from mastering their skills, and makes players believe that they only need this item, this powerup, this character, or whatever, in order to finally secure that first victory; when in fact, of course, a tenet of good roguelike design is that a skilled player should be able to win 100% of the time regardless of starting conditions (or as close to 100% as possible), and Isaac and FTL and TOME certainly adhere to that.
If the game is always winnable, then it follows that your starting class/ship/whatever doesn’t matter; if that doesn’t matter, then players are wrong to think their new unlocks will “help” them towards victory; and if that’s the case, then it is potentially detrimental to have these unlocks which hide learning outcomes beyond the latest shiny item/class/whatever.
A few final notes. Firstly, I realize this is a contentious hypothesis, and I am sure some people will disagree: that’s good, I want to foster debate. Secondly, I aim to critique these games, but not criticize them – I think FTL is a tremendous game, and likewise its contemporaries in this entry, and I think for an experienced roguelike player who understands the metagame learning outcomes, the ship unlock system is fine; but I remain confident that it weakens the average player’s skill (given how many people playing FTL will never have played a classic roguelike), and that this is a clearly undesirable outcome (which is not to say that other outcomes, like a shallower learning curve, are also bad; metagame unlock systems are most likely a mixture of desirable and undesirable traits). Thirdly, I don’t mean to present players as feckless fools who are easily compelled by a shiny bauble; however, one must face the compelling evidence that the majority of players find roguelikes extremely challenging, that a lot of players instinctively blame “the game” when they lose, that the idea of learning-from-deaths in PCG games does not come instinctively to a wide range of players, and that it is much easier to think one needs a new unlock to beat a game than to actually study and focus on the game itself. Fourthly, of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing “achievements” over “victory” – but one has to assume your average FTL player would, indeed, actually like to win the game at some point… but might struggle to do so when new ships, not their own skill and reflection, seem to be the way to success.
EDIT: in light of some comments and discussion, a few additional thoughts. Firstly, people do of course play games for a million different reasons, and that’s great! I’m speaking here purely from one perspective, probably a “classic roguelike” mindset (whatever that may be). Secondly, as I do mention above, I am not arguing that metagames are terrible; I actually have no issue with them per se and enjoy many of the games with metagames in, but I stand by my hypothesis here about the risk of “masking” in-game learning. Thirdly, player-bases for classic and modern roguelikes are certainly distinct (though overlapping), and that merits further analysis. Fourthly, there are of course demographic questions of “classic” players and “modern” players which cannot be addressed here. Fifthly, to repeat, the only purpose of this post is to try to open a question about metagames and player learning, not to insult any games, nor their players. I welcome all thoughts, whether you agree with this proposal, or think I’m talking nonsense, or anywhere in-between. Let me know, but do please keep it civil.
EDIT II: Please don’t fixate on the graph. I meant it to purely illustrate (in the literal sense of that word) my theory. Nobody has sound demographic data on the interaction between playing difficulties, beating difficulties, and player attitudes which I’m discussing here – these are just my reflections from a long time in the community. Please try to discuss the question of metagaming and skill and learning, not the bloody half-assed graph!