The Problem with the Roguelike Metagame

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).

FTLLL

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:

Craww

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:

FTL

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.

In summary:

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!

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81 thoughts on “The Problem with the Roguelike Metagame

  1. That’s a fantastic analysis. I had never thought of roguelikes that way but I agree with you.
    It does make me see the definition of a “roguelike” as even more blurry though.
    One game that comes to mind is Rogue Legacy. I had tons of fun with it, but I wonder where it fits in, because the game pretty much revolves around upgrades. It’s a fundamental game mechanic and I imagine it’s nigh impossible to beat it without them. That falls out of your definition in the “If the game is always winnable” condition, so then I assume that although it has permadeath and an objective, it can’t really be considered a roguelike even in “modern roguelike” terms.

    • Thanks! And yeah, it does – no doubt. I think a formalistic approach to what is a roguelike is a dull and uninteresting question, but maybe a slightly more abstract approach – how much does skill and learning matter? – might be more interesting. Personally, I think Rogue Legacy goes further, because the meta unlocks ARE better, your characters DO improve, so you can just keep beating your head against the wall until you succeed! As you say, “nigh impossible to beat it without them” (that is my interpretation/reading of the game too), and that… is not a design sensibility I like. Too JRPG for my tastes.

    • I am a massive fan of roguelikes, but I do not consider Rogue Legacy to be one. It’s a very very fun game and I enjoyed beating it, but it misses so many hallmarks of classic roguelikes that I’d hesitate to even call it a rogue-lite. The only Rogue-ish thing in it is the randomly generated level, which truth be told are not very random at all. Even dying doesn’t *really* start you off with a new character – the upgrade system overpowers the differences in classes to a large degree. I think the biggest thing that sets it apart in my mind is this – you do not improve over the course of a run. You don’t level up or find better weapons until after the run is over.

      • Thanks for comment; and indeed, I think Rogue Legacy shares almost nothing with roguelikes (even it being a “legacy” seems quite generous!). A lot of people in the roguelike community have strong issues with Rogue Legacy for a lot of valid reasons, so rest assured, you aren’t the only one who feels this way (and I agree).

  2. I have to agree with this analysis. It always bothered me to have to play hours and hours to just get, you know, the full game. I can understand the need to soften the lurning curve but you can do something like DCSS ; after you choose a race, background that are not recommended are grayed. If I recall correctly, even in race description it is written that this species is challenging (or not particularly). So it seems to be a good compromise ; getting everything but be warned in advance of the challenge.
    Even if I like FTL or TOME, the need to play onto a certain point in the game to get some classes/races (in the case of TOME) really annoy me, which is why I never dig too far into the game… I mean what the hell, what if NetHack doesn’t let you choose healer for example because “it’s hard for beginners, get to Gehenna first to unlock the class”… what?
    Or else, in any RPG that isn’t a roguelike (can roguelikes fully be included in the rpg category? It’s a debate for another time), this elements of design and progression makes even less sense : what if in Baldur’s Gate you can’t choose Druid for your character because “Druid is a class belonging to Mage category blah blah you have to finish the first five chapter to unlock the class”.
    The “unlock item/class/whatev when you arrive at a certain point in the game” is even more absurd with non-RPGs games or simply with games with long playtime.
    In fact, this feature, that I don’t hate mind you, seems to be only compatible with games which playtime are fairly short, such as every game with permadeath (not all of them are roguelikes !)
    But I will play more ToME sometime, I guess.

    • Your comment (I agree, by the way) raises another interesting question: how do we define “having access to the full game”? Is that having access to all START conditions, or having all levels unlocked, or having the requisite physical/strategic skill to reach all areas? It’s a tricky question, and speaks to a lot of game literacy questions which really interest me as a games academic as well as a designer.

      I must say, though, I do think metagame works fine in shorter games, and you’re completely right there. A metagame in a long roguelike where you expect 12+ hour runs would not sit well with me, whilst one where every playthrough is 1-2 hours is… more acceptable, anyway, though obviously I speak as someone who understands the absolutely vital role of learning outcomes in becoming a more skilled roguelike player. Each playthrough is less “its own thing”, and more… understood as one of many playthroughs? I’m not sure how to best understand/define that.

      • In the case of what you took as examples, FTL/TOME, having access to the full game is getting all unlockable elements, so classes, races and ships (I don’t know is anything left to unlock of a significant importance) at start. In these cases, it’s having access to all start conditions as you said.

  3. You have several valid points, but I think you are only exploring one side of the fun aspect of gaming. Take The Binding of Isaac for example- it is built around skill, absolutely- but unlocking items is quite fundamental to realizing how much variety and fun is possible within it its context. Does BoI unlockables distract from the overall goal? No I don’t think so, at least in my experience, the gain in player skill (a twitch skill, granted) was an organic process, which was moved along in great part because I remained interested in the new abilities, or new bosses unlocked etc.

    • I think you’re right, and in BoI this issue is significantly lessened. Why? I’m… not really sure. Perhaps because it is a more twitch-reflex game which makes *how you improve* – i.e. get faster, get quicker, dodge better! – clearer than in FTL, where a lot of skills are hidden (better micro, cycling boarders, optimal weapon decisions, etc). It’s hard to say of course which is a “harder” game as they are entirely different aside from being modern roguelikes, but I think the visibility of “skill” is a crucial factor there.

  4. > And surely, ultimately, the “real” satisfaction comes from completing a challenging game, not from interim achievements along the way?

    Disagree strongly. Many very fun games don’t even /have/ a way to “complete” them – Dwarf Fortress doesn’t, and Kerbal Space Program didn’t when I last played (pre career mode). It’s a rare game that I want to 100% complete, so it’s good if there are palpable achievements along the way.

    • That’s true, but I meant only games with a clear win condition! Again, as in many other posts on the site, I do acknowledge my background/bias in competitive gaming, and that inevitably influences my outlook (as everyone’s is influenced by their history); to me, what you’ve described just speaks to a very different mentality, but I find it tricky to see what people would “get” out of roguelikes (modern or classic) if you aren’t, ultimately, playing for the win. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t intermittent achievements! But are there players who really play FTL just to unlock things and never try to defeat the flagship? Ahhhh… that seems unlikely.

      • I’ve been playing FTL for pretty long now and have not defeated the flagship yet. For me, there is just too much luck involved in finding the right upgrades to defeat it. Instead, I have settled on unlocking the locked content. I check what I need to do to unlock it, then try to work towards that goal, and then use what I unlocked to see how it changes the game. And it’s totally fun (to me). It’s like ignoring the main quest in Skyrim and just do all the side quests and/or just go exploring, which is a totally valid way to play a game in my eyes.

        In the end, I think, you only described an aspect of roguelikes that YOU do not like personally. Just because you don’t understand why someone (read: you) would like some part of a certain game, doesn’t mean that there aren’t others that enjoy exactly this aspect of that game.

        • > For me, there is just too much luck involved in finding the right upgrades to defeat it.

          There are people (myself included) who have many game win-streaks on Hard mode (my personal best is currently eight or so, but there are people with all-ship win streaks) – if that’s not proof that FTL isn’t based on luck, I don’t know what is! And I think your comment conflates critique/criticism a little; as I stated, I don’t dislike these games for using metagame unlocks, and I’m not actually suggesting it’s not a valid way to play. I enjoy a lot of these games, but I’m rather trying to question whether or not having these unlocks seems to mask the necessity for the player learning – and, if you don’t mind my saying, your comment seems to support this hypothesis!

          • Maybe then the problem is that the learning is too difficult?

            Many people approach games without a strong internal drive to mastery. You very clearly aren’t in that set, but in writing a game that satisfies yourself you’re not catering to that audience. Which, as you’ve said, is consistent with your intent, but I question your intent.

            I remember, while working on my PhD, telling a world-famous faculty member that if I was making things difficult to understand perhaps that was a pointed comment to my audience that they needed to “up their game”. He said nothing, but it’s clear a couple of decades later that I was so very wrong.

          • Heh. I appreciate this comment, both in game designer terms, and academically.

            I… in large part, I adhere to the Pynchon Rationale – “why should things be easy to understand”? I totally acknowledge the Richard Feynman logic that if you can’t explain something to a first year you don’t fully understand it… but I just don’t know if I agree. I think some things cannot be fully explained without a serious grounding in a lot of other essential related topics.

            You are of course right that not all people approach from an interest in mastery, and that I do. But honestly, the best experiences I have ever had in games have been those where the game forced me to up my game, and I did, and the outcome was all the better for it. I’m not sure how well that applies to academic work, and I do strive to make my academic work accessible without sacrificing depth, but in games… well, I can only repeat the above – when I’ve been forced to up my game, I’ve had my best experiences, and I feel a lot of classic roguelike players have had similar experiences getting their first victory after years and years (see the follow-up post), and those experiences are, I think, hugely desirable and interesting.

  5. Have you heard of Cogmind? I felt the Dev’s blog posts explaining his decisions in game design were interesting. His blog seems somewhat similar in theme to your’s, dissecting and examining roguelikes as you design your own. Here’s a link if you’d like to take a look: http://www.gridsagegames.com/blog/

    If you already know about Cogmind I’d still like to know you’re opinion on it or the dev’s thoughts on roguelikes. (I’m not affiliated with the game except as a fan.)

    • Of course! I read his blog and I think it’s excellent (and as you say, a similar development + thoughts style of blog); I haven’t played it yet (but in honestly I’ve been playing so few games in the last few months that’s hardly surprising), but I think it looks amazing. I really like the “robot ecosystems” idea as taking some of the interesting(ish) simulationist elements from other games and making that the core of the game seems really interesting.

      • I got the Cogmind alpha 3-4 days ago and… it’s super cool beside the fact that it is an alpha, it doesn’t have the taste nor the smell, it feels really well done.

  6. Some interesting thoughts, but I think your conclusion of unlocks making players worse is a but far-fetched. Your graph is drawn from thin air – if you want to seriously analyse such effects then take the publicly available stats for ToME and Crawl.

    I dislike too many unlocks and unlocks that are very hard/tricky/luck-driven. For a time-starved player like myself they’re a nuisance. But a few unlocks that make little difference to the overall content? No harm in that, and lots of bonuses for both the dev and the players.

    • Oy! I do not agree with “thin air” – as I do state in the entry, this is not hard quantitative research! *But*, I have spent a lot of time in the FTL forums in the last couple of years, and I feel very confident that it is accurate from a massive number of threads and discussions I’ve checked out. It is obviously meant to be illustrative, not exact (note the lack of axes), since this is ultimately a qualitative piece (even if I use a “graph” for illustration). I wasn’t aware there were even publicly-available stats for TOME, though I know DCSS does a lot of data mining. I may give those a look for a follow-up…

      Equally, I was of course aware I was posting something that would elicit strong opinions, but that’s fine – I don’t think it’s the full story (a conversation at this point with Daniel Cook and several others on Twitter speaks to selection bias in classic RL players) but I think it does, to an extent, explain something of the skill difference there appears to be between “classic” and “modern” roguelike players, from what I’ve observed.

      • I’ve only worked on a few rogue-like-likes. They may be a bit too non-traditional to pull too many lessons (Realm of the Mad God, Road Not Taken and a new one we are doing right now)

        What I’ve observed (with metrics, forum posts are notoriously biased…in many cases worse than no data when it comes to measuring actual player behavior)
        – The big issues come during the first few deaths. Modern players are not trained to think of death as a learning experience. They are trained to think of it as punishment. So they bail if they think the designer is arbitrarily beating them. “I’m not a masochist! Why should I put up with this crappy treatment?”
        – Unlocks (and leveling boost and other techniques along these lines) give modern players a big fat clue that ‘hey, there is a purpose to death other than pure sadistic punishment’. That’s a critical message to convey, because they’ve never heard it before. In all their years of playing games. You need to be really blunt and unlocks are pretty darned blunt. We can bemoan the fact that this is their perspective, but such is life.
        – The percentage that get through a rogue-like game without this handholding is vanishingly small. If you look at the actual numbers, expect ~1%. So take that chart and shrink the green area to almost nothing.

        The key worry to this essay is ‘hey, if we don’t acculturate them to be introspective and self teach skillz, they’ll never learn skillz.”

        In my experience, you can always put engaged players in situations that require skill and signal to them clearly that hey, they need to step their game up. That’s easy stuff and it does *not* need to be part of your new user experience. The bigger issue is that these game hemorrhage new players almost immediately. (Because you keep hitting them. Over and over again!) They never even get to the engaged state. You can’t teach skillz a player that has quit your game.

        Old school rogue-like players exist in 1) excruciatingly small numbers 2) Are the hardened survivors. They are the 1%. Everything they state about how players learn and enjoy games is a wild outlier. Imagine rogue-likes are a desert island with 1 dude on it. “Well, I survived by cannibalizing all my friends. That’s how you live the good life!” Maybe not everyone wants to be or can be that dude. And maybe their advice is worth taking with a grain of salt (and pepper!)

        • Very interesting comment (and as you say, forum posting is of course totally biased!). The key worry is, actually, a pretty accurate summary.

          > That’s a critical message to convey, because they’ve never heard it before. In all their years of playing games. You need to be really blunt and unlocks are pretty darned blunt. We can bemoan the fact that this is their perspective, but such is life.

          Ahhhh… I agree that’s a critical message to convey, but I still feel we lose something by doing it this way. Now, obviously I do speak as someone releasing his game for free, and who will release all future games for free, and if someone (a year or so hence when the game is full of gameplay) can’t figure out what to do, or feels annoyed/angry about dying… I don’t really mind. It doesn’t bother me since I’m creating my game for the creative/artistic fulfillment, not to make a living, so I perhaps have more freedom to be a “purist”. Not saying that’s better/worse, but certainly a different approach. I don’t think you have to be blunt, for myself, and I think (in extreme cases) that strays from “helping players” to “talking down to players” – but it’s a blurred line!

          > The percentage that get through a rogue-like game without this handholding is vanishingly small. If you look at the actual numbers, expect ~1%.

          Agreed! But the feeling is so glorious I think we should be promoting that for the players who can manage it, even if we lose some players in the process. But that’s just me.

          > Maybe not everyone wants to be or can be that dude

          Ha, excellent (and worryingly accurate) analogy/summary. I do agree… but again, I think completing a classic roguelike is a sufficiently satisfying experience (YAVP posts screaming in celebration, saying things like “this is my greatest achievement in gaming” etc are testament to this), and I think we should be promoting that at all costs! But yeah… maybe salt would be prudent.

  7. i have to admit a certain disliking of ian bogost but i think he’s right when he says games are, at root and to be seen most clearly when they are at their best, systems. systems that invite their mastery. so this decides the question for me. metagaming of this sort punishes players who know what they’re doing on a fresh save file. its not the worst design decision you can make but it’s certainly a cowardly one

    in dark souls you can choose to start the game with a key that can unlock a door to a later part of the game. that key, and the knowledge required to make use of it, is what metagaming should be (is, actually), not unlocks

    • > metagaming of this sort punishes players who know what they’re doing on a fresh save file.

      This is an interesting way to express the issue, and an angle (or a sub-angle?) that I hadn’t really considered before. I’ll have to think more about this one (and yeah, I *love* the Master Key/Pendant, it’s a very amusing bit of metagamey semi-trolling).

  8. As someone who is currently designing a game that is at least a little bit inspired by FTL, this posting comes at an opportune time for me. I was intending having ship unlocks in my game, if I can figure out enough meaningful variations. The question is, should I have them unlock based on some progression criteria, or should I make them all available to the player from the start?

    With respect to FTL, it was my impression the extra ships in FTL exist as a way to keep the game ‘fresh’ for experienced players. I don’t know if they confer any advantage – I’m not actually good enough at FTL to have unlocked more than a couple – but they do vary up the gameplay.

    Reasons to not offer everything from the beginning are:

    1. Provide a meta-game that extends beyond a single run. Even if the some ships deliberately gimped you (like the Shrine unlocks in Bastion), the fanatical player would still want to unlock them for bragging rights, and just to see how they played.

    2. To keep things fresh. There are players that like to have everything available from the get-go – Project Cars has won plaudits for making all the cars available to players at the start rather than having a career mode where you have to earn them. But although that sounds great – “why do games always put artificial barriers in our way?” – I believe that players get extra enjoyment from not having everything at the start. After all in the core game you don’t have all the weapons from the start.

    3. To avoid player confusion. OK, this is more tenuous as of course the ‘advanced’ ships could be signposted to say that beginners shouldn’t play them, but who’s going to listen to that – no one thinks of themselves as a beginner. If this was my main motivation for having unlockables, I would at least have a cheat code that made them all available. Although I believe in the first 2 points above, I do acknowledge that it’s annoying when someone tells you about something cool in a game you own, but you can’t play with it yourself because you haven’t unlocked it yet.

    Overall I think having an unlockables meta-game in a single-life game isn’t a bad thing, as long as you don’t violate the golden rule: that the game must be beatable with the default config. An example of a game that IMO goes too far with the meta-game is Rogue Legacy. It might well be beatable with your first character if you have really supreme skill, but the stuff you unlock generation after generation makes the game significantly easier to the extent that it plays more like an RPG than a Roguelike. It’s like you have one character that has multiple lives that gets stronger each time.

    I do see where you are coming from with players potentially getting confused into thinking that the unlocks are way to progress though. I would make it clear in my game that the unlockable ships are effectively bonus content rather than part of the core game.

    • Thanks for the very interesting comment!

      > extra ships in FTL exist as a way to keep the game ‘fresh’ for experienced players.

      That’s so interesting, as I’d say the opposite… though do you mean experienced *with FTL*, or experienced *with roguelikes*? If the latter, I think that doesn’t seem to be the case since surely experienced players would just like everything there from the start to strategize with; if the former, that’s a very intriguing possibility, and maybe that’s true, though I suppose that’s just a sub-set of the gating content argument (which is not necessarily bad/wrong!).

      1 & 2 are certainly justifications often raised, as is 3, though I think 3 runs the greatest risk of insulting the player and assuming they can only deal with a “toned down” version of your game at the start. Yeah, Rogue Legacy is basically a game entirely designed around grinding. I think the solution you’ve found to emphasize bonus content may be workable, though I guess it depends on how challenging your game is, in terms of the importance of learning outcomes on each death. I very much appreciate the detailed comment and engaging with the article though; let me know what you come up with!

      • Ultima:

        (Some of these ideas may be similar to our discussion on reddit)

        I think the thing to keep in mind here is that these preferences are subjective. You can make sweeping generalizations all day long, but I disagree with the idea that unlocks detract from learning/skill, as they’ve certainly added to mine.

        What drew me into ToME was the variety of classes, and that I had to go out of my way to achieve some thematic goal in-line with the class to unlock it. Some of the unlocks improved my player skill. Those that didn’t (and often those that did as well) deepened my immersion in Eyal and my understanding of the universe’s flavor, the tangle of forces that collectively shape it.

        ToME, which is extremely addon-friendly, has one addon in particular that allows players to ignore race/class unlocks. This in no way invalidates online character (vault) data or saves; rather, it’s something for those who find race/class locks to be arbitrary and unfun.

        I personally enjoyed how ToME and FTL handled unlocks; some of FTL’s unlocks in particular (Zoltan B ಠ_ಠ) definitely made me a stronger player, as they required me to hone my skill with a specific ship (which = specific playstyle, at least early on) under rather tight constraints.

        Anyways, I don’t think an option is a particularly bad way to address the issue. Players like myself who enjoy unlocks can leave them in, while those who want to access and master everything from the get-go are free to do without.

        I’ve personally not had much experience with your #3, but I’m the type who usually needs to *do* something a few times before I get it just right. I wouldn’t dream of feeling insulted, at least by the games I’ve played so far.

        I like the way you think, the way you approach ideas and discuss them with others, but if I may be so bold, I’d say your personal biases are not coloring, but rather dichotomizing your perception of the issue.

        • I’ve sort-of replied to some of these TOME thoughts on Reddit (very interesting!), but succinctly:

          You may be so bold! I always want people to speak their mind’s on this blog – in many thousands of comments and replies in the last few years, I’ve only ever had to remove a single comment for being offensive. Now, re: coloring/dichotomizing… an interesting point, and my reply is going to have to speak to my game design philosophy more generally.

          Basically, I’m a great believer in what one might call “stark” mechanics. So, rather than having you choose Str +1 or Wil +1, you should be able to rarely choose Str +10 or Wil +10 instead. The more extreme a decision, the more meaningful a decision, whereas a steady stream of tiny decisions makes each one less important, and is generally (generally!) a sign of “looser” game design where your choices matter less. One can also generally see this in games with “stats” instead of “traits”, where “traits” games have generally bolder decisions to make, since traits are either/or, rather than creeping upwards. I would extend that, on a more macro level, to game design as a whole: I don’t like starting out with half the options then unlocking the other half, because that just serves as a steady drip-feed. I think it is far more meaningful to be given all options and then left to your own devices (i.e. skill) to decide between them. So I actually think “dichotomizing” makes for *stronger game design* where your choices are increasingly meaningful (indeed, I am probably going to entirely do away with stats in URR as a reflection of this thinking, or at the most, have their role be extremely minimal). I realize I’m slightly straying on a tangent from what you were saying, but I hope that’s explained my position a little better! As with all entries like this, it touches on a hundred other topics which could all be posts in themselves…

          Also (last thing) – I would argue that I/we, as (a) game designer(s), have an obligation to be actively controversial, to challenge accepted thinking, to make bold statements and see where that gets us, rather than just agreeing to reiterate and thereby recreate and cement existing orthodoxy. Not that the orthodoxy is always wrong… but it can always do with a good shake.

  9. “And surely, ultimately, the “real” satisfaction comes from completing a challenging game, not from interim achievements along the way?”

    I don’t know about you, but I have dumped many hours into DCSS and have yet to progress beyond the second rune. Roguelikes are hard and actually beating them is not that common an achievement, so to ask players to patiently beat their head against a wall for 150 hours with no real measures of progress is probably asking too much.

    • Ah, but that’s not no progress, is it? You’ve clearly had progress if you’ve reached a second rune! As a player I would still understand that as part of a broader narrative of working towards the first win – I think getting the runes (or in DCSS, getting to a new branch or whatever for the first time) are great metrics of progress, and those were how I measured my progress until my first wins. And those progress metrics are *in* the game, and I think all the better for it. Integrating those types of milestones into the game seems like something which is less likely to “hide” the fact you should be learning from your deaths.

  10. Pingback: Lazy Reading for 2015/05/24 – DragonFly BSD Digest

  11. An article from my favorite gaming intellectual about my favorite subject? Exciting! Down with the impure progressors!

  12. so whats the real problem? is it the ability to unlock? or the unbalanced ships(or classes). I think you are mixing the reasons here.

    I see you have a good point here; I played rogue legacy and enjoyed it, but it bothered me so much how ridicules it was, because eventually you will keep getting more powerful to the point its no longer challenging(and I beat it while I still can upgrade skills twice as I already had)

    a lot of modern rogue likes tend to be bad if not terrible. (rogue legacy was an exception and I am not going into why right now) but its not the case in FTL.

    in FTL you dont get stronger ships, you just get different ships (or worse ships), its just that people find it easier to play some ships. its different play style not good or bad. even though I had many ships unlocked; my first win was with Kestrel A. and I still think its one of the most reliable ships in the game. and I dont think Mantis B is better at all (and I know a lot will agree/disagree with me and I would write a whole blog about why I think Kestrel A is incredible and what I can do with it…)

    take a look at dont starve; except for Woddie(cz he is fairly OP) the characters are balanced, after playing so much with it, I think Wilson(the first character) is the best for me. Willow has a lighter that is very cool but doesnt really do much and has less sanity. Wickerbottom has some abilities, extra sanity but she cant sleep.but I wont be surprised if someone told me she is better than wilson. and even in a game fairly balanced like this one, I think a lot of people will say this or that are better or worse. thats will happen even in classic rogue-likes. its called different play styles. (the truth is you cant make a game 100% balanced, not even Chess but I am not going into it)

    so I think the issue is not with “unlocking” new classes, but with a) getting more powerful with unlocking. and b)the classes(all available or not) are not balanced.

    anyway, without a doubt there is other disadvantages to unlocking new stuff in a rogue like(or any game really) but in FTL case, I think it was a valid design choice. if they let me play any ship I would have played stealth and died 266 times to get to sector2! same goes fot Zoltan B, Rock A and many more. see the Kestrel A has a very good load out for both new and experienced players. a reliable missile weapon, a very good weapon with power efficiency . not to mention the good layout, for your inner rooms/doors. and all sub-systems are installed.

    in classic rogue likes you wont really mess up that much whatever you choose. I know I did not. (even though in most of them playing the warrior is easier usually for new players, but playing as a mage is nothing like playing stealth for new players)

    • I take your point, but I think “the balance of meta-unlocks” is a slightly different issue from “having meta-unlocks per se”, which is more what I’m getting at, but I totally get what you;re saying above the —. However, I don’t think I’m mixing the reasons, since I’m not really talking about unbalanced ships, but more about the issues that might come with having a meta-unlock system. Thanks for the thoughts though! I didn’t play Rogue Legacy precisely because I knew the *necessity* of grinding would drive me around the bend.

  13. The “unlocks” are useful when they serve as a mechanics tutorial, and slowly show some alternate ways to beat the challenges the game throws at you. Some games really are complicated enough to need a tutorial, but many players hate tutorials. If done well, giving content is small doses serves as a tutorial in disguise and it benefits the player.

    That said, I hate when you can’t beat the game with the first build / character available, because then the game is punishing you for not using the content you’ve ‘unlocked’.
    I think of Risk of Rain, a really lovely game with some too powerful characters at the middle-end. That makes you feel as if all the skill you gained playing the three or four first characters is worthless, and the hours played with them just a road to get the overpowered character to win the game in the first run.

    • Re: unlocks, I totally get the value of them as tutorials (even if I have a strange burning hatred of tutorials); though I’m still not sure if that “justifies” it. I totally agree though re: not being able to beat it with early characters! Totally ridiculous.

    • I did beat Risk of Rain with every character. I agree that some characters are more powerful than others. But here is the thing: Using these powerful characters gives you more freedom to try out things to better understand the mechanics of the game. Which in my case helped me to beat Risk of Rain with the other characters. Similar to what you said about unlocks being a kind of tutorial. And that is an arguement you can therefore make for FTL too. I have not defeated the flagship yet, but every new ship I try out, forces me to play in a different way and increases my understanding of how the game works.

      In comparison, I still feel that FTL has a bigger luck factor than Risk of Rain. And Sword of the Stars has a bigger luck factor than FTL. The reason for this, I think, is twofold:

      1. Too many different items decrease the chance that you will get an item that will be helpful to the upgrade path you have chosen for a playthrough.

      2. Too few ways to put an item to use decrease the chance that you will get an item that will be helpful to the upgrade path you have chosen for a playthrough.

      That’s the genius of Spelunky, I think. There not that many items, but each item can be untilized in different ways. And you are not even dependant on upgrades. Just using the 4 bombs, ropes, and hearts that you start with, you can beat the game. In the other games mentioned (Risk of Rain, FTL, and Sword of the Stars) you will not be able to beat the game without any upgrades. One could even argue that all the upgrades that you get during the game are like unlocks for this particular playthrough, making the arguement of this article void.

      And these all are reasons why I disagree that unlocks (be they short-term or permanent) are bad.

      • > One could even argue that all the upgrades that you get during the game are like unlocks for this particular playthrough, making the arguement of this article void.

        Woooooooah. That’s a stretch! I don’t know how one can even slightly argue that – they’re nothing of the sort since they a) relate to a single instance of the game, not the overall metagame, b) they are as you say an integral part of the game (that’s like saying finding any useful item in any game, and that item being useful, means that unlockable items are fine?!), and c) it’s just a total category error: something used across instances of the game, and something used in one instance of the game, surely doesn’t have any possible overlap for being understood as “unlocks”.

      • “…the chance that you will get an item that will be helpful to the upgrade path you have chosen for a playthrough.”

        This is where I think you go wrong. That’s not a useful way to think in a rogue-like. You don’t choose the upgrade path; the upgrade path chooses you. Did you stick too rigidly to a particular path and the RNG didn’t give you the items you “needed”? That’s the game trying to teach you to be more flexible.

        • Ah, a good point, and one I didn’t spot – yeah, the upgrade path generally chooses you, as you say, and a player who insists on sticking to that short weapon because they’ve trained Short Weapons to 5, instead of switching to Heavy Weapons upon finding the +10/+10 Axe of Destruction… is not going to do well.

  14. Incredible how this article and discussion spread on reddit ^^ As players and designers, we MUST talk about game design more !

    • I know! And I of course totally agree. I’m glad it has generated some interesting discussion; next week will be a proper URRpdate (at last!) but then the week after I’ll probably put out a follow-up piece…

  15. While I’d agree with your general statements about roguelikes, I’m going to contest your point about FTL. In fact, I would put myself and every other person I know who plays the game in that yellow band (a good 7 or 8 of us!).

    At between 30 and 70 hours in-game apiece, every one of us has beaten it with some ships and not with others. Very few attempts are made on Hard due to a desire to simply win on a respectable difficulty with every ship (save for a couple who stick with Easy, where they are occasionally able to win).

    For me personally, I can pull out a Normal victory with the Osprey A nearly every time, but it’s a struggle to even make it to the fifth sector with the Osprey C. I rarely try Hard because there’s no point in making a challenging task more difficult, though I will move up if I’m replaying a ship with which I’ve already won.

    But whenever I introduce someone to the game and see them struggle, I will always tell them to push for unlocking the Osprey A. It’s very similar to the Kestrel, but I’ve found that massive laser makes a huge difference. And the friends who have sunk hours and hours into the game without an Easy victory have almost always pulled through with that ship.

    So my disagreement is twofold. One, I believe that yellow band is larger than you think, it just doesn’t have as much of a distinguishing presence in the community. And two, that the ship definitely matters and that by experimenting with different styles, players will often find one that suits them and improve on it all the way to their first win.

    • Ha, really? That’s amusing/interesting about the yellow band, as I’d put nobody I know in that group! Still, just shows the difficulty in attaining any kind of meaningful demographic information. As for your second point, a few people have mentioned playstyle (and indeed I do in the original piece), and I agree that this is something which merits further analysis, and I’ll definitely be writing about in the follow-up!

  16. I agree that the main takeaway from a roguelike death should be the learning experience. However, I think your premise that the most important part of a roguelike is winning is entirely off, and without that premise your justifications for gated content blow the argument against out of the water. It’s interesting that you paraphrase the DCSS mantra while making an argument based on a premise that is fundamentally the opposite of that mantra: that the point of a roguelike is to get to the end.

    It’s the losing that is fun, and I think gated content makes it more fun. Not because it makes you more powerful on your next run (in fact, I think ideally it shouldn’t), but because it gives you a different way to play. As you more or less said, a roguelike is all about learning by diving in and getting yourself killed. In FTL, a new ship unlock means that I have to learn an entirely new style of play. I’m going to dive in and get myself killed so hard until I’ve learned how to operate an effective boarding crew with the mantis or use drones effectively or whatever. But I’m gonna have fun dying because I’m doing it in a new and interesting way. In fact, even if roguelikes are about winning, I’d argue that the stronger player is the one who feels compelled to learn those new things by the unlock as opposed to the guy who tries a Felid on DCSS and then goes “Oh, lame I died on D3 I’m gonna be an Orc again and convert the masses.”

    Also stop ragging on the Kestrel, some of my best runs are in that ship. The multi-racial scripted event perks are real, bruh.

    • Thanks for the interesting comment. I’ve always been in two minds about the “losing is fun” thing (and clearly it is most explicitly stated in Dwarf Fortress, but I agree, many share that perspective) – half of me sees that perspective and thinks it is surely a positive thing for keeping people interested in the genre, but the other half of me strongly disagrees, and thinks that losing is “fun” (again, a contentious word – do we mean enjoyable and engaging, or frivolous and trivial, or something in the middle?) can only really be understood in an eventual narrative towards a victory. I saw this in part because of all those YAVP forum posts from people who’ve spent 10 years playing NetHack and finally got a victory – that feeling seems so amazing that I think we should be designed to try to optimize those experiences, even if it means making losing more painful.

      And the Kestrel is splendid!

  17. Looks like you opened up quite a discussion with this one.

    I think the “classic rougelike mindset” is deranged by metagame unlocks. A meticulous lot, they go for the unlocks to optimize the “main game” experience, because it is an advantage to be levered. Normally, that is the name of the game in a rougelike; be as savvy, clever, or quick as you can to maximize your advantage against a very difficult challenge. This is perverted by the meta-game unlocks such that the game becomes this little feedback loop of getting unlocks to prepare for playing and beating the “real game”. By the time users get around to going through the game, much of the content has lost its luster, and that now has the connotation: a series of objects exploited to gain unlocks.

    Maybe that would work for FTL, but for URR, with its social, cultural, intellectual, etc. aspects would be totally blunted by this approach. FTL had an atmosphere of sound and sight, and while URR has beautifully generated graphics, it also has alot of its atmosphere tied up in the details of game content that meta-unlocks would exsanguinate.

    • Although I suppose your question is more general than URR. I don’t know what to say about that, because in general case arguments people’s opinion’s usually come down to some baseless position. And there is nothing wrong with that! Sometimes there is no base, and something just stands… anyways, I’m an old battle codger and a purist when it comes to rougelikes, so I’ll offer the naked assertion that meta-unlocks belong to some other type of game inspired by rougelikes.

      • Yeha, I am talking a bit more generally here, and clearly it differs from game to game, and I do acknowledge in a game where the extended playthrough is shorter, for instance, metagame unlocks certainly make more sense. I don’t want to get into the what-is-a-roguelike-debate here though (and I use the terms “classic” and “modern” roguelikes always for this reason, since both “classic” and “modern” are words which can imply both positive and negative connotations), but it certainly seriously alters player experience…

    • I did rather…

      > be as savvy, clever, or quick as you can to maximize your advantage against a very difficult challenge. This is perverted by the meta-game unlocks such that the game becomes this little feedback loop of getting unlocks to prepare for playing and beating the “real game”.

      Perfectly put, I think. It changes our understanding of how the different components of the game fit together and I think your comment about “a series of objects exploited to gain unlocks” is a *really* interesting/astute way to describe it. I’ll have to think some more about this kind of “materialist” angle to how it makes us look at in-game content. And yeah, I totally agree re: URR – the world needs to be incredibly dense the first time you play, and every time you play; I can’t think of any kind of meaningful metagame I could reply which wouldn’t just make me think “Ok… but why not have this content in EVERY playthrough?!?”

  18. Ironically, my perspective with death in roguelikes has been exactly the opposite: I always feel like it is a cheap trick to try to keep “everything new” thanks to forcing me to drowning me against a seemingly unbeatable wave of enemies. I am not unlocking that level 50 fire spell, I am merely reaching it for the first time – by chance, nonetheless – because the game decided to send me less enemies this playthrough than earlier ones.

    That is not to say permadeath is a bad thing (I know it is one of the staples of the genre, after all) but I see it as a cheap way of forcing learning that should ideally be better integrated with the game. Consider FTL itself: It is really lame that I cannot continue my adventure because I ran out of fuel simply because the game did not provide me enough of it.

    I realize it is a different genre and all, but consider the original Super Mario. Because in that game you got to *try* different means in the same level before complete failure (running out of lives), you could actually learn if there was a secret platform or alternative way to move past obstacles. You were not forced to replay the whole game from scratch just to try a theory: You could actually test it repeadtedly, with even more ease if you played with higher skill and earned extra lives. In Super Mario the balance between learning and death was nicely done.

    Some games have other ways of teaching learning that I also consider viable. For example Dwarf Fortress is a confusing mess (I have still not learned everything there is to it, in truth) but it’s difficulty is embedded in it’s learning curve: Once you get the hang of it then it opens different ways of playing and enjoying it.. Whatever you adhere to it’s “lossing is fun” motto or like me find that building a huge metropolis is better, the game offers both kinds of players the ability to experiment and try new things. Sure, attacks and disasters occur… But they are far from being the focus of the game.

    But at the same time, U.R.R. does not strike me as truly fitting for the permadeath experience. It seems to have such a large, expansive game world that dying on the first trip due to the bad luck of having bandits attack me feels like a complete cheat out of the experience. Perhaps I am wrong, but from all I have seen U.R.R. contrasts with Skyrim. Whereas Skyrim is primarily interested in looking pretty and offering breathtaking sights, U.R.R. wants to offer a breathtakingly immersive world: Detailed with cultures, religions, nations, people. It is meant to be explored and interacted with, not merely “seen”. Permadeath would take away from this experience. Having to go through the same routine all over again (meet the people I have already seen, the merchants I *know* to sell certain kinds of items, etc.) because of a bad dice roll would be incredibly frustrating. It already was such during the days of ToME 2 (and I played the Theme mod which offered a lot more Tolkien lore and monsters) so it would be a shame to repeat it in a game like this.

    I also agree with you that offering unlocks seems to spoil the experience further (what is the point of trying to beat the game on the first try if you *must* lose to enjoy all it has to offer?). One of my problems with games like FTL is that your first ship seems to be designed *specifically* to make it hard to beat the game, while other ships (such as the Cruiser) make the task considerably easier.

    P.S.: An apology because I seem to have trouble expressing my issues with certain aspects of the roguelike genre. This may cause this post to seem repeating and boringt, for which I am sorry.

    • Interesting post! I can identify a bunch of questions/comments here.

      Firstly, your comments on failure.

      > I am not unlocking that level 50 fire spell, I am merely reaching it for the first time – by chance, nonetheless – because the game decided to send me less enemies this playthrough than earlier ones.

      > It is really lame that I cannot continue my adventure because I ran out of fuel simply because the game did not provide me enough of it.

      I really don’t think that’s a robust thought process! Surely in a classic roguelike you got further because you played better? Similarly, FTL, even on Hard mode, I have almost never run out of fuel, and when I do and have to wait for a ship, that’s part of the game’s balance; less fuel should mean you’ve been given more of other stuff. Those comments seem to imply a lack of agency on your part (which I don’t mean critically, I’m just trying to make sure I understand your comment correctly) and you’re putting success/failure down to the fluke of the game, rather than your own skill. Since many players (myself included) can get many-game win streaks with FTL on Hard Mode and 26-species win-streaks on DCSS (myself not included in this case, though I would expect certainly expect a 50%+ win rate on 3-rune attempts with most species), we can readily see that success/failure isn’t actually tied to what the game decides to throw you. Seen over many playthroughs, it is entirely down to one’s own ability.

      > But at the same time, U.R.R. does not strike me as truly fitting for the permadeath experience. It seems to have such a large, expansive game world that dying on the first trip due to the bad luck of having bandits attack me feels like a complete cheat out of the experience.

      Interesting! Actually, honestly, I like this idea precisely because it’s like the real world. We might be robbed of seeing the entire world through our mistakes; we will never get to visit any country unless we’re very wealthy (very brave!) and able to consume a wide range of diets (I only add that point speaking as someone with various allergies, blah blah, but it’s surprisingly relevant when going to countries where one cannot unproblematically make oneself understood in English). I find that a very exciting idea because it gives meaning and weight – what nations and cultures and secrets and riddles am I missing out on if I don’t play my cards right?!

      > due to the bad luck of having bandits attack

      Again, this returns to my original comment: in good roguelike design, this should never happen. One should never die to luck, and I think the levels of mastery people can attain in FTL, DCSS and every other roguelike speak to this. With sufficient skill/mastery, *you’ll never die*, and this is the case in almost all RLs, and if there are true “random” deaths in URR, then that’ll be a failure of design, whereas deaths should always be a failure of player mastery.

      > Having to go through the same routine all over again (meet the people I have already seen, the merchants I *know* to sell certain kinds of items, etc.) because of a bad dice roll would be incredibly frustrating.

      I do agree with this (aside from blaming it on a bad dice roll! If one’s life/death in an RL comes down to a single roll, there was certainly some strategic/tactical error committed earlier on) – that’s why I’m working extremely hard to make the variation in the world so extreme that one never feels one is “exploring the same lands” again on another playthrough.

      > An apology

      Not a problem! It’s a complex question which touches on a lot of other domains of theoretical game design/theory, and I hope you aren’t offended by my comments; but I think you’re looking to luck when that isn’t the way to think about roguelikes. Whether we struggle to reach Sector 2 in FTL or get Hard win-streaks, that’s entirely down to our skill, and seeing it from that perspective is the only way to improve in the game – it does, admittedly, foster quite a hyper-critical mindset, and I know some players don’t like that, but it’s the only way to really master these types of games!

      • “I really don’t think that’s a robust thought process! Surely in a classic roguelike you got further because you played better?”

        A valid complaint, specially considering that each player has a unique (if somewhat similar sometimes), experience when playing these kinds of games.

        Allow me to eloborate on that: I am well aware that I am not the best roguelike player ever (far from it, I might very well be amongst the worst), but sometimes I am also well aware that the game effectively cheat met out of a victory due to the circumstances it presented me. Let me develop the fuel example: I had a playthrough during which all sectors up to 4 had more or less expected events (good, bad, ugly) but by now I am well prepared for those. Fuel vendors have been few and far, but they always enabled me to run through the sector without major difficulty. Then sector 5 has literally no merchants, and sector 6 decides to place the only shop on the other side of the map (requiring me to go past the exist, no less). I run out of fuel and no help comes, so game over.

        What I should note is also interesting is that the exact opposite case has occurred to me as well: I had a slew of playthroughs in which enemies were surprisingly easy to defeat and/or I managed to reach the final sector almost unopposed.

        “Seen over many playthroughs, it is entirely down to one’s own ability.”

        As before, I realize that these scenarios are part of the game’s possible situations, but they are incredibly frustrating and *do* feel a little bit out of place. In perspective, the first one makes the Federation look like a bunch of tools – considering it’s heroes are in this case the unluckiest people in the galaxy, why does the Federation depend on such people to save it? The second one does the reverse, making the Rebel army look so ineffective as to make you wonder how they could defeat the Federation in the first place.

        “With sufficient skill/mastery, *you’ll never die*, and this is the case in almost all RLs, and if there are true “random” deaths in URR, then that’ll be a failure of design, whereas deaths should always be a failure of player mastery.”

        Let me rephrase my other point as well; I am not bashing the roguelike concept of permadeath due to randomness, what I am saying is that it *can* be a potential annoyance when coupled with particularly unlucky/lucky situations. You brought up DCSS, so let me say that in DCSS I have almost never died due to starvation. The most prominent example purely my mistake – essentially I berseked at normal food levels against a group of undead. Death in this case does not cheat me out of anything because it *was* my mistake. But what if the game did not allow me to eat chunks as it does? What if I was dependent on random food generation each level? Starvation would become much more chance-based, which can easily ruin an otherwise perfect run. Here the cause of my death was clear: I berseked at the wrong moment and at the wrong place, but it was solely my fault. I was aware of the environment, my enemies, my status and my situation. In the FTL hard/easy case, I was never given such choices: Merchants were all on vacation or the Rebel fleet hired the Three Stooges to lead it. And that *does* feel like a cheat, considering that I am playing the game to beat it.

        “Interesting! Actually, honestly, I like this idea precisely because it’s like the real world. We might be robbed of seeing the entire world through our mistakes;”

        That is a good point. But consider this: What is the difference between a driver crashing into a wall and dying because he was drunk and a pedestrian getting run over by a drunk driver? The driver cannot claim chance: *He* made the choice to drive while drunk. The pedestrian, barring superhuman abilities / luck / other chance-based solutions does not have any solution to the problem other than “I should have stayed at home that day”. How was he to know that a certain car would hit a certain point that certain day?

        “[…]that’s why I’m working extremely hard to make the variation in the world so extreme that one never feels one is “exploring the same lands” again on another playthrough.”

        That is a design concept I can support wholeheartedly. Looking forward to it!

        “[…]but it’s the only way to really master these types of games!”

        I am well aware that these games are not for the “casual” player (they require investment, even if you only make a few moves per day). But my point is that whereas my runs through DCSS had given me all the tools to win and I could win only by mastering them, FLT had a few odd days when it threw me scenarios which were quite unwinnable from the get go. Generally they do not happen, but when they do they ruin an otherwise seamless experience.

        • “FLT had a few odd days when it threw me scenarios which were quite unwinnable from the get go.”
          — And some scenearios through which I would breeze through like it was a tutorial, too, which ruin the experience as well.

        • All interesting thoughts! Obviously without seeing the FTL run its tricky to say, but I remain confident that 100% of all Easy/Normal runs are winnable, and… 98% of Hard mode runs? With that said, though, I know that I come from a particular competitive gaming background, and that obviously (as you say!) not everyone has the time/inclination/whatever to emulate that kind of “practice”, which is obviously fine; I try to let that be experience which informs my work, rather than bias which clouds it. I love your comment about the competence of the Rebel Fleet, btw.

          Anyway – all other interesting comments, though I am still forced to disagree with the un-winnability of FTL, basically ever! Forgive my lack of a longer reply this time, but there’s just so many comments to get to! Really appreciate all the thoughts, though – and I’ll be interested to see if you think URR has enough “early game variation” once we’re a little further down the line.

  19. All valid criticism of the roguelike meta-game.

    I frankly despised the gated upgrades in Rogue Legacy, and it has forever turned me cold to the idea of gated unlocks in roguelike/roguelite games. As I played the game, it became increasingly obvious that I never had even a ghost of a chance of “beating” the game unless I did the game grinding to unlock all the powers. That the game also gated my ability to unlock powers, making it less and less likely that I could unlock each successive power, became the tipping point that caused me to quit a game that I otherwise enjoyed.

    I think there is still a place for gated content, however. I think the gating to reduce the initial complexity is a valid reason to gate some content – traditional roguelikes, such as DCSS and NetHack and Dwarf Fortress, can be pretty overwhelming to new players, and I suspect we lose a fair part of the potential community due to that wall of complexity. A more gated experience might help ease people into the game. This is little different from the idea of an “in-game tutorial”, for instance, which constrains your experience to help you master the conventions of the game before throwing you into the “real” game. If that gating could be turned off by veteran players who don’t need it, or if it is quickly unlocked to the “full” game, it might be an overall win for the community.

    But ultimately, the problem might not be in the gated content at all. The problem might be that it’s all in service to “winning” the game. If the goal of the game is to get that “amulet of Yendor”, or whatever macguffin you dangle in front of the player, then you introduce two problems:

    First, anything that doesn’t end in ascension is a failure to the player. If you could somehow avoid that feeling, there wouldn’t be a need to compensate for the end of the game feeling meaningless. If there could be intrinsic play rewards – the fun is in the play, rather than the success – then there’s no feeling of meaninglessness associated with not playing perfectly to the very end.

    Second, you have to push achievement of that goal to the very end of player experience and capability. If you could get the Amulet of Yendor on your first try at a game, what’s the point in playing again? You end up adding many interstitial challenges to ensure that the game has a respectable play value. Again, this leads to more of that gated content for the reasons you described.

    I think a lot of the motivations for introducing gated content go away when you move away from “the one big goal” to a more sandbox-y approach to the modelled world. Dwarf Fortress, for instance, doesn’t specify anything particular you must achieve in order to be ordained a “winner”, and as a result, you can contentedly play the game for hours and days without worrying about whether you’re going to “win”. Indeed, it sets up the specific expectation that *no matter what, you will eventually fail* – the whole “losing is fun” mantra. Naively, it seems like that would scare players away in droves, but it’s oddly freeing to newcomers, because it basically says, “If your fortress falls, don’t feel bad. It was an inevitability. The goal is to try different strategies to see how long you can last, and to make cool fortresses for your dwarves. There is no winning this game, so focus on having fun while you play.” I suspect this is one of the reasons why Dwarf Fortress can get away with having no gated content and that “wall” of initial learning – there’s no metagame penalty for learning only parts of the game at a time. “This time, I’ll learn about smelting steel.”

    I’ve actually thought quite a bit about this gating concept for Lone Spelunker. I considered starting with “newbie” caves and letting you unlock more challenging caves by completing easier caves. This would gate the difficulty of the game, and it would also extend the exposure of the game’s content. It would also add prestige to players who had unlocked the higher-level caves, since it would be evidence of their mastery of the lower-level caves.

    But ultimately, I decided against it. It just felt like cruft. The main thrust of the game was to explore, not to advance. Even the meta-game “achievements” I added are more to draw people to discover the cool places that get generated in the caves than anything else. I still provide “beginner” caves, but it’s up to the players to decide for themselves when they’re ready for more challenging caves – the game doesn’t impose that. That felt like the sweet spot – to help players that want an ease-in path to the game, but to not enforce that from my end.

    • Thanks for the detailed thoughts! Yeah, I think the same way about Rogue Legacy, though that’s a more general criticism I suppose of unlocks being required (or borderline required) to win, rather than hiding skill development (so basically a large yellow section on the graph instead of a tiny yellow section, which is clearly/surely worse). That is certainly true re: DCSS, I’m sure there are players who started playing as Vamp/Mummy instead of Garg/Minotaur or something, found the game tough, and quit. Your two problems are interesting though:

      1) That’s very true – but I think a lot of players, myself included, see everything leading up a victory as part of the narrative towards that victory. Of course I hate to die after a long run in a classic roguelike, but I always understand that as enjoyable because it *leads to a victory*, not unenjoyable because it failed to be a victory. I mean, obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most people enjoy playing roguelikes even without a victory, since the ongoing feeling of “this run is going well, don’t get too nervous, don’t screw it up…” can be very exciting. I think that’s a great interim reward for lots of folk.

      2) This is a really interesting point, though I feel it surely applies to only a tiny fraction of people. Admittedly, I actually found that with NetHack myself! My first win was after around a fortnight; I tried a few other classes, and a few conducts, then basically stopped playing. Is this a game design flaw problem? I… think it’s probably not, when you have people saying “I’ve played for 30 years and never won” – I obviously recognize I wasn’t the intended “demographic”. But you’re certainly right, maybe I would have kept playing with someone else; I think DCSS is great in this regard, I love the extended endgame, the incredible variety in species/gods, etc; there’s so much to keep you interested (whereas in NetHack, all runs kind of blur into the same run past a certain point).

      Great thoughts re: DF.

      I think your logic makes sense for LS (and thanks for the comment here, btw!) and I like the idea of just leaving all the caves “open” for players to try as and when. I really like that approach, actually, though so few games do that (though so few games even have a design structure where that would be an option in the first place)!

  20. I didn’t notice anyone mention long term replayability, either. My biggest objection to unlocks is when I return to the game I had fun with a few years down the road, the last thing I want to do is have to re-unlock all the starter stuff. But no way I’m on the same level I was, or have my saved game or same computer.

    Also, I once hacked Rogue to ignore food, and the game was much easier. That both made it boring and made me mad – I’ve died in that game just for lack of food, all my life? But I don’t want it boring. Dilemma!

    • Also an interesting point! I hadn’t thought of that. There’s actually a lot of good work in game studies around the “pragmatics” of game play (console vs pc, using controllers, different peripherals, game formats, how much does the original format matter, etc) and this seems to be one of those issues. I wonder how often it happens, though, to leave one metagame roguelike and then return? Maybe none/few of those are even old enough yet for us to know… and excellent Brogue tale!

  21. One of the most interesting articles I’ve read on the topic of game design – you designers should really write more about mechanics for us analytical nerds!

    Actually, I’m a “yellow band” FTL player myself (I did beat the game with the Kestrel, but I’m definitely not on the right side of the graph).

    • Heh, thanks! I’d say around 60% of the posts here are updates on my own game, but the remaining 40% are very much general design criticism/critique/analysis. And that’s interesting that you’re a yellow band player! I think that band is also going to be much larger/smaller for some games than others, which is another thing to consider too…

    • Hmmm – I’m not sure I follow your logic. Can you elaborate? Are you thinking that it’s ok to have unlocks on Normal, because by then the player should have learned how to learn, as it were?

  22. Not all playthroughs result in a successful unlock, only the ones where the player was (moderately) successful/did something new. Meaning that should a weaker player play endlessly, they would not unlock more should they not confront their decision-making process. So I am not certain your claim is fully substantiated.

    I do agree with you that it is not the game’s fault, that it is not all luck. But in order for the players to accept this, they ought to have a certain level of maturity as well as knowledge (these words don’t feel right). These characteristics of the player are not transferable from the game, they are there or not there when the player starts playing. (Now having read your reservation/notes), you are right, reflection does not come naturally to many. But I hold that reflection is more of a player based value/skill than a game mechanic of sorts. Even without an unlock system in place, there will always be players who go straight for the “best” class/ship and blame their losses on the game’s unfairness/randomness rather than their choices, and they would say that they were making the “best” class/ship/weapon choices, but still would not be reflective enough to notice their tactics/strategy.

    I agree with your saying that not having rewards breeds stronger and more dedicated players. I would defend this by saying that the “reward” players are just playing it to achieve that next ship/weapon/thing, whereas the “skill” players are in it for the long term and challenge of being the “very best” (like no one ever was). Just thought your point was valid, so good job.

    A final analytical point that I came up with while reading this post is that winning/completing the game (destroying the flagship) is also an unlock in some ways. I have no way of defending this point, and I am not sure that I have developed/thought it through enough, but I thought that I should at least put it out there.

    And to end on a light note, I do not like your comments section. I write my post while reading, as I get my ideas. But with you writer types, the comments section is longer than the actual post and it is a pain to get down here. Just look at the scroll bar at the bottom of the original post. For me it is about 1/5 of the total content. So, boo, comments bad.

    • > But in order for the players to accept this, they ought to have a certain level of maturity as well as knowledge (these words don’t feel right).

      I agree, though as you say/imply, it’s hard to use those kinds of terms and it sounds inherently condescending. These are indeed characteristics of players, and reflection and the development towards mastery, however strong/weak or important/tangential to a player’s player experience, is obviously wildly varied. Iain Banks once used the term “general game-playing principles”, and in a way, that’s what I think we’re talking about: the ability to read the game, to understand what matters and what doesn’t, and to form coherent strategies based upon that knowledge, regardless of what the game is. I think it’s a really interesting idea, and something I’m hoping to do some research on in the future, alongside the wider question of “game literacy”. I agree with your reward/skill distinction very much (and excellent use of the Poketheme); and yeah, I think you’re right to say the line between “unlocking” and “winning” is maybe much vaguer than I wrote here. That definitely needs some more reflection on my part. Ha, sorry! I actually want to widen the comments section so there’s less scrolling required, but it’s just one thing on a list of a million things which need doing, and inevitably it isn’t the #1 priority…

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  25. Just something I’d like to add. When a game has enough content from the start, I always have a desire to keep playing it. There are still a million things I’ve never done or seen in Dwarf Fortress, but I know they’re possible so I keep playing. I still haven’t played as every culture in Civilization 5 or Dominions 4 and I keep playing them trying out each culture and seeing which I like better. So if URR has enough stuff to see and do, I’ll keep playing it.

  26. Some scattered thoughts:

    1) Unlocks feel like a cheap alternative to getting people to keep playing your game, as opposed to actually making your game entertaining enough to hold player’s attentions without such a psychological exploit. This particularly shows itself when you look at games where keep playing even though they quit having fun 20 hours earlier.

    For an extreme example, look at Call of Duty. People max their level and lose interest in playing, because they are “done”. Prestige exists to get people to reset their level and do it all again. And again. And again. Modern Warfare 3 was particularly telling, because it had two post-release updates that increased the number of times that you could prestige, and after each patch you had players returning to the game just to play through 5 more prestiges. Note that they were players who were only willing to play the game again when it gave them more entirely hollow achievements to reach, and who quit again after getting through those new prestiges. People who actively and vocally hated the game would return to get those additional prestiges.

    Unlocks are actually a pretty nasty factor in game design. Rather than a game being fun to play, people now rely on unlocks, leveling, and achievements to give them a reason to play. While they’ll complain about time sinks and grind, they’ll complain if those same time sinks and grind are absent.

    2) I rather hate it when games lock alternative play methods behind some measure of progress or arbitrary achievement. The dev might have figured a Kobald Enchanter is a hard class, and locked it behind some arbitrary point, but maybe I’d have fun starting with it and even possibly do better than I manage with Generic Human Sword-person.

    I had that issue with FTL, where more ship variety at the start might have made it less annoying to restart. The alternate ship designs would themselves probably have helped me learn more about the game’s different mechanics and approaches. But most of the ships were locked behind arbitrary and even random-chance requirements that weren’t themselves fun to deal with.

    3) FTL is poor at explaining why you failed, or what actions you need to change in order to improve.

    Classic roguelikes are fairly immediate in determining cause of death. Yes, you can die deaths of a thousand cuts, but you can come to pretty immediate conclusions when you are killed by a ranged poison attack that does more than twice your max hp. (They might not be the best conclusions, but they are conclusions that can improve your survivability.) If you starve, then you need to find more ways to get food, to progress faster, or to lower your metabolism. If you died because you read a scroll of summon monster in the middle of the room, then you know not to read such unidentified scrolls in such situations again (unless the alternative is already death.) If an equipment destroying monster destroys your only source of recall, and you spend a long grueling trek where bad luck ultimately leads to your death, you can rather immediately realize that the fault wasn’t bad luck but rather that you had relied too heavily on one source of destructible recall.

    Deaths in FTL can be somewhat divorced from their causes. Worse, aspects of FTL’s design make luck look like an even greater factor than it is (and it already is a strong factor.) You can easily paste enemies in your current sector, but get trashed in the next sector. You know that you needed different weapons or tactics, but you don’t know what you needed, and what you could get depended on random chance. Running out of fuel is the result of luck and a string of decisions, and the immediate solution of “stock more fuel” will most likely lead to you not having the money for repairs or necessary upgrades on your next play (if you don’t have the bad luck to not even get enough shops to buy too much fuel next time.) You lose a crew member on a purely random encounter, which turns you against the game’s luck-driven encounters. (Flip a coin: Heads means the game gets easier. Tails means you will now die within the next 20 minutes.)

    • 1) Agreed; that’s something very different to an actual competitive game, of course. The competition might be the “mediator” for gaining these achievements and things, but I think competition has its own value for its own sake. I’m reminded of an Iain Banks quote (who I’ve mentioned twice in the replies I’ve left tonight in this thread!): “The point of the game was to win; he’d been forgetting that. Nothing else mattered, nothing else hung on the outcome of the game either. The game was irrelevant, therefore it could be allowed to mean everything”. If we have games focused around competition, but then we hide that “pure” competition under something else… what does this result in? I’m not sure, but I think you’ve described the problem very well.

      2) Agreed!

      3)

      > Deaths in FTL can be somewhat divorced from their causes.

      Exactly. Most FTL deaths are strategic – “I bought Weapon X instead of buying Weapon Y three sectors ago, and that was the biggest problem”. Classic RLs tend to have tactical deaths (though obviously strategic concerns matter), and the immediacy of tactical deaths are so much easier to discern and then to think about. I’ll probably mention this more in the follow-up article too!

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  28. I have very little experience with Roguelikes (though I have played FTL), so maybe they’re designed better than typical games. I can say that I tend to avoid games with permadeath because I do not trust game developers to be good teachers.

    To me, your post is less about unlocks, and much more about the teacher/student relationship. The game designer is the teacher. They have created the world, set its rules, and are rewarding players for learning those rules. Players are the students, ever attempting to figure out what the rules are. Most game designers do a terrible job at communicating where the player screwed up.

    Take FTL as an example. I adored this game, but we can use it as a common language. I’m playing, got into a fight, and I just died. Now I need to figure out why. Was it a) I equipped the wrong weapons b) I had the wrong crew c) I told the crew to do the wrong things d) an RNG that hates me e) I didn’t realize my opponents didn’t need to breath air f) some combination of the above? Notice that some of these mistakes are things you should have done differently during a fight, and some are things you should have done differently upwards of an hour ago. How does FTL communicate that you died because of a mistake made 20 minutes ago?

    Let’s think about an FPS for a moment. If I shoot someone in the head, and they charge after me, did I a) fail to hit them b) fail to use a big enough gun or c) headshots don’t matter in this game? How does a player distinguish between these options?

    A good teacher will tell you what you did wrong and how to do better next time. They offer clear feedback that emphasizes one lesson at a time. Games… Don’t. Not usually. Far too often designers let players eliminate variables one at a time until they finally learn what the designer had meant for them to do. When death is the only teaching tool and primary fail state, it feels incredibly disrespectful of my time to have to beat my head against the wall and hope this game wasn’t designed by lunatics.

    By contrast, I’ve spent a lot of time in a tower defense game called “Defense Grid”. It has this _amazing_ rewind system that let’s me back up and try different things. So if I had gotten myself in a blind alley of build order, I could go back and radically readjust my thinking. It’s more fun to work away at a point of failure until I overcome it than it is to start from ground zero and put another 5hrs into getting back to where I failed.

    I am, by nature, more than happy to fail. I can actually enjoy it. But I want to learn from it. When failure means growth and knowledge, I can be excited and happy. I bounce off a lot of games because they feel like the designer doesn’t want me to learn, they want me to already know.

    League of Legends has a great popup when a player dies. It shows them where the damage came from and how to avoid that damage in the future. I get general strategy tips about how to deal with certain foes. It’s a very nice tool!

    I think that’s my challenge to you as a designer: when I fail, let me know why. Expose the systems interacted with and show me how to do it better. Signpost good play by creating achievements. Let me experiment in a controlled way, so that I can interact with only a few systems at once. Let me know why I died.

    • This is a really interesting point, and I agree with the majority of what you wrote. It is, indeed, a question of the game teaching the player how to play better, and as you say, in something like an FPS the cause of death is clear – they were faster, more accurate, more tactically astute and attacked you from behind, or whatever – whereas in FTL, as I mention in the follow-up post to this entry, it is often somewhat trickier to identify the cause, since the cause is not “immediate”. It is, certainly, extremely tricky to communicate this well without being condescending (at least, I think it is) and although I haven’t played the games you mention (not even League!), I understand the rationale, and FTL doesn’t really communicate it all. With all of that said, though, a large part of me still feels that the game not communicating that doesn’t have to be a bad thing; it just sets the bar for deducing the game’s systems a tad higher, although that is obviously going to alienate some players. In this regard I think of card games – by which I mean 52–card-deck games, gin/poker/hearts/whist/bridge/whatever – as very relevant, since there is literally nothing to do except go out and learn, or continue to be defeated (although I’m sure some poker apps or whatever give you pop-ups explaining what a pair is!). So (to end this rambling, but forgive me, it is late and I am jet-lagged) – I agree it’s a challenge to explain the failure, but I think it’s also fine to “give” the player nothing except their own faculties. Both have their pros and cons!

      • I want you to know that I bookmarked this post specifically because I saw that you were making thoughtful, interesting replies to comments. So: Kudos!

        “I agree it’s a challenge to explain the failure, but I think it’s also fine to “give” the player nothing except their own faculties. Both have their pros and cons!”

        I think we’re in broad agreement here. I will add that I think it’s important to somehow explain to a player that their problem was _solvable given their tools_. Maybe not tell them how, or give them more information than the mere fact of solveability, but players can be forgiven for thinking that the problem they ran into is a fault of the designer. The fact that so many FTL players blame the RNG instead of their own skills is telling.

        I’m thinking of that scene in Star Wars: Empire Strikes back when Luke is told to lift his X-Wing from the swamp. He tries, fails, and declares it impossible. Then Yoda does it, and Luke goes “ah ha!” Knowing that some people can win +90% of their FTL games on Hard means that my own failures are probably not a result of the RNG. That’s important information.

        (And now to go read your follow up posts! 🙂 )

        • Ha, well that is excellent!

          > _solvable given their tools_

          That is an interesting distinction, and I agree. Reminds me of the roguelike-ish “Ending” – most of the levels are winnable, but a very small number are not fully winnable and this is not apparent until you’re well into a level; it made me realize what an odd experience it is to play a game (and by extension, I guess, a game) where you don’t “know” it can be won. So I totally agree! And I love the analogy.

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