IRDC 2015

I’ve just got back from this year’s (UK) IRDC! Here’s a little report on my (mis)adventures at the conference, how things went overall, the speakers and talks we had, some reflections on boardgames from a person who never plays boardgames, and a couple of broader game design-y thoughts thrown into the mix.

The National Videogame Arcade

So, first off, I must give an immense thank you to the National Videogame Arcade for agreeing to host us, and even kinder, for agreeing to fund the conference themselves! I appreciate it immensely, and it was a pleasure to get to use a really great conference space in a building full of awesome gaming stuff. The broad question of “how should we curate/display/archive computer/video games?” is an ongoing debate in academia and elsewhere which is far beyond the scope of this blog entry, but suffice to say: I think the NVA offers a great experience in its ongoing exhibits, there has clearly been a lot of thought put into every area of the building, and the conference/speaking area is very welcoming and has a strongly collaborative atmosphere to it. I also very much appreciate being asked to speak at the GameCity Nights event on the Thursday before the conference, which was great, and for the NVA’s understanding when I was suddenly too ill on the Friday to give a second talk to Notts students.


So: after the successful first talk, and feeling wretched on Friday from a sudden bout of food poisoning and losing my voice, we then moved onto the conference proper:

Day 1


On the first day we had fourteen talks, and hopefully we’ll get all/most of these on Youtube soon:

1025 – “”And [my bot] vowed to return victorious!”: Spelunky as an AI Benchmark” (Tommy Thompson)
1050 –Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup Development” (Pete Hurst)
1115 – “Alternative Death Systems” (Darren Grey)
1140 – “Generative Design” (Paul Jeffries)
1205 –Modability and You” (DarkGod)
1330 – “Making a Roguelike that uses Twitter Data” (Sean Oxspring)
1355 – KeeperRL Development” (Michal Brzozowski)
1420 –The Curious Expedition Development” (Johannes Kristmann)
1445 – “Murder Puzzle – No Longer a Roguelike” (Ido Yehieli)
1510 – “Scaling Brogue (Flend)
1535 – “Creating a Procedural Level Editor” (T M Stoddard)
1600 –Sir, you are Being Hunted Development” (Tom Betts)
1625 – “Algorithmic Generation of Global Racial, Cultural, Religious, and Architectural Variation” (Me!)


Talk 1 Talk 2 Talk 3

There were some very interesting talks in the bunch! I tried to mix up the scheduling of the AI and the PCG, the modern and classic roguelikes, the technical and the aesthetic, etc etc, and I think it went reasonably well. It’s also nice to give people a chance to present their work who perhaps aren’t used to presenting to other game developers/designers, and I think the strong inclusivity of an unconference like the IRDC is one of its strengths (even if we do get some slightly “rougher” or earlier-research talks than in other conferences!). Afterwards, we grabbed some food, but I still felt like crap, so sadly I had to back out and get an early night (and so I could get back to the NVA early the net morning, too).


Day 2

On Day 2 I felt less wretched, and the plan for this day was to have an exhibition of both roguelike art and classic roguelike games, and to try and encourage those who came into the NVA into the exhibition to try their hands at the games.

This… was not totally successful. The setup was great, the posters were really well-printed and looked awesome, but there were several issues. Firstly, the fact the room was down a corridor and around a corner from the main lobby definitely had an impact; even with the large “COME PLAY ROGUELIKES!” sign an NVA staff member kindly deployed, it still appeared “off the beaten track” from the rest of the arcade (though there was obviously nothing that could be done in this regard, and the room itself was great); secondly I perhaps should have included more non-ASCII roguelikes in the mix and I had perhaps underestimated how scary and un-user-friendly these appeared, even with our residents experts (and a number of the devs of the games on display!) on standby to help out; thirdly, I had miscalculated what I thought the demographics of the NVA’s attendance, and a far larger percentage of those turning up were children and young teenagers, rather than older teenagers-and-older which I’d expected; and fourthly I should have deployed some kind of chart showing the controls for each game, as well as having experts on-hand to help.


But: it was the first time we’d tried anything like this (and the first time a roguelike exhibition/showcase has ever been tried?), so I still think it was a worthwhile experiment, and if something of the sort is ever attempted again, it’s clear we need to make some significant changes, and to alter our plans on the fly based on where we’re based, if it’s going to be a success. We got probably around two dozen people of various ages over the day trying them out, and I was pleased to see a number of players spending time on DoomRL, The Curious Expedition and my own work, but it definitely stands more as a useful experiment than, if we’re honest, a great success. I might write up some more thoughts in the future on displaying games whose mechanics are not immediately obvious (I noted the NVA had Pole Riders set up, and the ease with which people could pick it up and play it really hammered home that a lot more effort will/would be needed to make a roguelike, or some comparable game, at all easy to pick up, or to at least intrigue people enough that they’re willing to spend a few minutes figuring out what to do), but that’s all for now.


Afterwards, myself and a few companions went off to play boardgames, and this brings me to my next (slightly more abstract) discussion which isn’t actually related to the IRDC specifically…

Thoughts on Boardgames

At this point I must make a shameful and shocking confession – I don’t play boardgames at all. I’m aware of the incredible growth of boardgames in the last ~5 years, and I think it’s great because anything which brings games (of any sort) to wider and wider audiences can only be good, and people who do play boardgames tell me there are some real gems out there (even if I haven’t encountered them). Anyway, Darren Grey had brought along a bunch of board games, and I decided to give them a whirl, playing some Labyrinth, Hey That’s my Fish, Coup, Resistance, and Welcome to the Dungeon, and I must say I enjoyed them all tremendously (Resistance was my favourite without a doubt, at least in part because it was akin to the thirty-player month-long games of Werewolf I used to play on twoplustwo back in my poker days).

Whilst playing these I was particularly struck by their similarities to a number of traditional (meaning 52-cards, 4-suits, 13-ranks) card games. Coup had a rummy-like aspect; Resistance was, on one level, somewhat akin to a trick-taking game with a trump card (the “Fail” card); Labyrinth was also somewhat akin to rummy’s card-counting necessity when trying to deduce the melds one’s opponent might be pursuing; Welcome to the Dungeon was strongly reminiscent of bidding in Bridge where one strikes a balance between making a successful bid more challenging to your foes, and establishing a bid you think you can actually make; and so on. Perhaps this is just my brain (well-attuned as it is to classic-card-games) making certain connections where others would make different connections, but I still thought it was interesting how many mechanics seemed to me to have been developed from more traditional card games.

I also found myself surprised by how much I struggled with hex games compared to square-grid games, and this has made me ponder a little more about whether whatever ability I have to rapidly “read” a computer game simply doesn’t transfer that well into board games. This seemed particularly strong when I noticed I was winning every game of Labyrinth – based on a square grid – and losing every game of Hey That’s my Fish – based on a hexagonal grid! Now, this is a small sample size, of course: I think we played three games of Labyrinth and around eight games of Hey, That’s My Fish. However, the statistics remain rather striking: a 100% win rate on the square-tile game, and a 0% win rate on the hexagon-tile game, both of which were four-player games. I realize that in x% of times (where x is a number I cannot calculate right now) that will just be from variance and luck, but I don’t think it’s that. Multiple times in Hey, That’s My Fish I made a move without realizing how good that move would be for somebody else, and not of course out of any misunderstanding of the core mechanics – I just didn’t see what would happen. I also failed to spot potentially strong moves on the hex grid multiple times, and found it surprisingly tricky to calculate sensible future moves by the other players. By contrast, I felt I was playing Labyrinth very strongly, making educated guesses about what objectives other players were going for, thinking through carefully all the repercussions of my moves, and utilizing the “fixed” and “movable” points on the map as best as possible (particularly trying to place my piece in a fixed location where possible to reduce the possibility of my opponents messing with my positioning). Either way, I’ll ponder this a little bit more, but I’m definitely interested in board games from this point onwards and I finally acknowledge Darren’s insistence that board games have a lot to teach us about game design…

Oh, yes, and we signed the NVA Developers’ Wall! A great honour!


A Couple More Things

– Next year, we might in Paris. I put this here in the hope that the person who offered this will now feel compelled to host it in order to not disappoint!

– The Curious Expedition is a delightful game, a wonderful addition to the growing arsenal of modern non-ASCII roguelikes, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Go and buy it now!

– I was told yet again that I should do a 7DRL some time… but don’t hold your breath.

– I had some super-interesting discussions with other excellent games thinkers about the possibility of totally removing combat from URR. I continue to ponder this idea, but haven’t reached a conclusion yet.

– Lastly, and not related to the IRDC: something extremely exciting is hopefully soon to be confirmed, and it is something that I think everybody who reads this blog is going to be interested in. More on this when I can speak about it (assuming it all comes together!)

– Next week: pathfinding and crowds?!?! I’ve gone through two models of crowd mechanics already, and neither was good enough, but I think I’ve finally cracked it this time.

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38 thoughts on “IRDC 2015

  1. Thanks again for hosting and organising! It all went really well and you did a great job keeping people to time and herding the cats about when needed 🙂

    I think in future on the “exhibition” side it might have been better if someone was delegated that task and maybe gave more thought and emphasis to it. If it ever happens again!

    Glad to hear you’ve been converted to board games 😉 I think some of your comparison to traditional card game mechanics speak to the universality of many game mechanics. Also I did show you games which I more figured you’d enjoy… There a wealth of other types of game out there.

    Was funny seeing how obsessed you became with winning Hey, That’s My Fish – the true roguelike player mindset! 😀 I’d love to show you some other types of games in future. There’s a few that have a nice roguelike feel, and some like Tales of Arabian Nights that you might find particularly inspiring for Ultima Ratio Regum.

    • Thanks :)! Agreed re: exhibition – it definitely served to highlight what would be needed on a second attempt, and someone “dedicated” to that aspect would definitely be very useful (and more specific thoughts about how we plan to draw people in). Board games are bloody great! I’ll be playing more in the future, hopefully (once I move back to York I might be housesharing with someone who is a board-gamer, so that will help). A deliciously board-gamey future awaits…

  2. Thank you for all the work you put into the event! You did a great job, as did the NVA staff. I didn’t get chance to check out the exhibition upstairs but I fully intend to pop in the next time I’m in the area.

    Although the public roguelike room wasn’t the hit we all hoped it might have been, I don’t think that’s anything to feel bad about. We got a reasonably steady (if slow) trickle of visitors throughout the day and some of them hung around surprisingly long. As the first attempt at something of that nature with a game genre which can seem unwelcoming and impenetrable to newcomers, it went fine. A lot was learnt about how to approach something like that in the future, so I consider that a win.

    It’s interesting that you find hexes more difficult to grasp. I wonder what is about six-directional space that throws you. Personally I don’t really find either form more or less difficult than the other, but you and I certainly approach games in a different way. We might have fundamentally different ways of looking at problems.

    I think you’re right that many modern board and card games feature elements taken from much older games, because every generation of designers is inspired by the games they’ve played. Newer games build on earlier ones, which in turn built on still earlier ones. In some respects you could say that modern board games are expansions and reinterpretations of old ones. The same is true of roguelikes!

    • Thanks, and thank you for coming! I didn’t either, actually, though I’ll likewise definitely have a proper look at the NVA itself next time I’m there (I’ll be trying to go to some GameCity events in the future). I totally agree with your paragraph about the exhibition. Hexes: yeah, I’m not sure either. Aside from Civ V, which does use Hexes but only on a “small scale” (as in, you aren’t removing tiles from the hex grid, you can’t move infinitely in each direction, and you really DO have as long as you want for each move, and believe me, I take full advantage of that!); and very true re: reinterpretation!

    • Yes please!
      Removing combat entirely will be too extreme IMO.

      I think making the combat to be quite lethal and very risky for players (and the NPCs too) will be much more interesting/beneficial.

      The combat should reinforce the notion that violence is (usually) not the best solution and the consequences will be dire indeed.

      • I think there’s a lot of merit to the idea that the challenges you need to overcome aren’t about smacking foes around. Based on the information Mark has revealed so far about URR, I can imagine it being combat-free.

        • Likewise (not of course because I have anything against combat in games, but I am explicitly trying to do stuff that’s new/fresh/etc) – as I say, probably a decision in the next ~6 months, but let me get this NPC release out first!

      • I was the one who suggested he get rid of combat, or at least roguelike-style combat. The reason being that if the game is primarily exploration and culture based the player will never really get to learn an interesting combat system. Any complexity in a rarely used system that could kill the player will annoy a lot of players!

        Instead I suggested something like in Tales of Arabian Nights (the board game) where certain key items or skills can let you win at certain combats, but otherwise you get injured / jailed / cursed, etc, or maybe even die. It would fit in better with the rest of the gameplay (well, when we see some gameplay 😉 ).

        • You weren’t actually the only one! Which I guess tells me something in its own right about what seems interesting about the project to people keeping track on it, and it is definitely something I’m keeping in mind (hence my current serious consideration of going no-combat). As you say, the problem is LEARNING the combat system, and if it’s super-rare and super-deadly… that’s cool, and exciting, but could just result in some profoundly bull-shit-ty deaths. I do like this possibility of items/skills “resolving” combat, or possibly you always have the ability to surrender with other outcomes. One of those two (or both) seem very promising. Or combat is there, in detail, but it can be ignored. There’s lots of options, but the “there is combat, it’s rare and deadly, and *necessary* seems seriously flawed.

          • The other option is to make it common but easily avoided and very deadly/impactful. The Curious Expedition is like this. Encounters can happen often, but you can run away from them and often choose to do so because they have such a high resource cost.

            There’s all sorts of thoughts about interface and such as well. Simple bump to attack doesn’t fit well with your game, I would have thought. But going beyond that leads to delicate issues of UI design and boring menu-based gameplay.

            The other big question to me is if combat as a mechanic is really that interesting to you as a designer. You clearly enjoy creating these detailed procedural systems, yet combat seems entirely unrelated to that (or at least it’s hard to see how to make it very related – you don’t care about the pattern on the sword as you plunge it into someone’s heart). An important part of hobbyist game development is finding the things that motivate you as a designer. I would have thought if combat systems really interested you then you would have been on top of them already. Instead I think you need to focus much more on systems and gameplay that interact with all of the procedural world-building that clearly motivates you a great deal.

          • I agree, the deadly-but-easy-to-avoid model is… maybe the one I’m leaning towards at the moment? I’m not going with bump-to-attack either way, I have something else in mind which I think could be quite deep, but also quite streamlined! And as for whether it is interesting to me: it definitely is something which interests me, and I do think I can come up with something very interesting for it (I’ve vaguely talked on the blog before about some of my ideas, but I’m leaving the detail until I decide whether we are going to have rare-and-deadly-and-avoidable combat or not, though I am leaning towards yes), and I still think it would be a logical addition… but only as an addition to the core detective-work procedural-puzzle gameplay, or something. Either way, it’s a few months yet until I need to figure this out – this release is NPCs and conversations, next release will be things like coinage and travel, then around then I need to make a decision. I still have time!

      • ^ this is what my original plan was, and for the time being, it is still my plan now. Rare, deadly combat… though that does run into a few obvious major balance issues. If you have no “practice” at combat, then run into your first battle, and it’s deadly and you die, that’s rubbish! There probably need to be some other options, say, or the ability to surrender, or…

        • Oh yes please!!
          Rare, deadly combat, plus a mean to surrender OR avoiding the combat completely sounds pretty awesome!
          But in the end URR is your baby. And I will always support your vision and creativity for the advancement of our beloved roguelike in general. 🙂
          We need more project like this and I hope I’ll make my own someday!

          • This is my thinking at the moment too! Rare, deadly, but you can avoid and it is fully optional. I think that’s a strong model to keep in my head whilst I think it through further…

        • IRL, the less you practice something, the less you’re proficient doing it.

          If someone is planning to be more forceful to solve certain situations, should be prepared (maybe the game can provide ways to practice, train, etc?).

          Someone who doesn’t want to use violence, should do what it does in real life: avoid combat situations. (Running, diplomacy, etc)

          Sometimes life is not fair and gives us what we didn’t ask… But maybe that’s an element that will keep the player more mindful of their actions? A danger element might add some “spice” to the game.

          Plus, combat is an easy way to give the player the feel that it’s interacting and changing the world. Walking around, searching for clues, talking…. Is all fine. But combat… There’s danger, there’s interaction, there’s consequences.

          But that’s my opinion, this is the author’s game, it’s his vision that he should persue (just remember that you envisioned combat in the first place and even mentioned Dark Souls, eh ;)).

          • Well, it is permadeath, but I am considering some very unusual failure states to go alongside the standard “you have no health left”. In keeping with the game’s core mechanics/themes – maybe you die if you are erased from history? Or if your family is? Or if your home nation becomes replaced by another nation? I think those could make for some super-interesting failure states.

            Combat: interacting and changing… I partly agree, but when you will hopefully be toying with the fates of nations and changing the shape of the world map, I’d think that would be a lot more interesting! And the DS-style combat is still what I have in mind, and as I say, I think I will still be including combat, but as a fully optional system of some sort.

            Probably. : )

  3. Thank you very much for the writeup, Mark. I really enjoyed this meetup and thought it was probably the best organized one in which I had participated. I throughoutly enjoyed the creative discussions with all of the participants. Sure, the exhibition experiment failed, but I think there is something to this idea. Next year it won’t be in my hands, but I already have some ideas of how this could be done in Berlin to reach more people and in general be a little bit more accessible. Heck, I might try a roguelike exhibition without the need of the IRDC attached to it 😉
    Also, as I said, I’m really looking forward to the cultural investigator game. Listen to your guts 😉

    • That’s great! Very glad to hear it; and I agree, the discussions are often the best parts (though obviously it’s still good to be able to display your work, and for newer devs to get a chance to show off their work, practice public speaking, etc). Oooh, very interesting re: RL exhibition without an IRDC! I am very intrigued. And as for combat… as I say, I think the no-combat argument is a really strong one for something very new and unusual and different. I’ll probably be making the final decision around the end of the calendar year!

  4. Thank you very much for organizing this and letting me come up and speak about my work on it. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this event but I left knowing I had a great time and spoke with many great people. Hopefully I’ll be able to go to the next IRDC with some more work to show.

  5. IRDC in Paris?
    Yes, this way I would maybe come next year^^

    I’m glad ot see this event went well, now I have to see the videos of the talks ! Congratulations for organizing it !
    If I had the money and time, I would have come !

    ps : I wonder what is the surprise that you prepare

  6. Wow, can’t wait to watch all the videos, what an awesome gathering of roguelike developer masterminds. 🙂
    Great post, thank you!

    ps. I only miss Thomas Biskup (ADOM), I know he is very busy with getting Adom to Steam and writing the Adom RPG.

  7. Thanks again for organizing, Mark – it was a great conference with great people and I’ve come away from it with bunch of new ideas I’m itching to code up.

    I think the exhibition side of things was always going to be a bit of a hard sell to random people wandering the arcade. A few more accessible titles might have helped a bit (maybe some mobile titles or 7DRLs), but there aren’t really any roguelikes I would exactly describe as ‘pick up and play’! One thing I would definitely suggest to anybody wanting to do something like that again would be to have a print-out of the control keys next to each game, it would make getting going a lot less painful.

    • You’re welcome! Glad you came, and it’s always good to meet other “names” one has seen but never encountered. Exhibition: oh, certainly, I don’t disagree. We should definitely have printed out the relevant controls and had them next to each game, and perhaps reset each game to a starting condition after each person tried it? Roguelikes require an active reset, I’d say, unlike something like Poleriders (which I think was on show in the lobby?) where Players 1 and 2 can leave the game, Players 3 and 4 can pick it up, and there’s no loss of understanding/grounding from having not played from the start.

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  9. Huh, I can’t imagine URR without combat.. How would that work? Like… An exploration game? Those are cool, but you know, for making a good exploration game you need appealing, beautiful graphics full of colors and in general appealing for the eye – not ASCII. I would really like if you can make a tiny explanation on this, I simply can’t see URR without combat.

    • The core, even if I have combat, will be the “cultural detective work” idea I’m working with – tracking ideas and concepts across cultures/religions/societies to zero in on a small number of secret objectives scattered around the map. Any combat will be additional… and hang on, are you saying URR *doesn’t* have beautiful graphics full of colours and isn’t appealing to the eye?! Because if so, I beg to differ!

      • You DO have beautiful graphics for:

        – Terrain and Buildings
        – Closeup inspection views

        But you made the decision to for the topdown map view, use single ANSI characters for things that are no larger than a single tile (i suggested to go with single-color (or two-color at most) iconic visuals instead). You stated the reason for sticking with “ANSI everywhere” is – well, you didn’t really state the reason, but it sounded much like you saw it as a challenge, which indeed it is – IMO an unwinnable challenge.

        Hence, URR indeed is beautiful for closeup pics and terrain, but for the topdown view, chars and items are as “encoded/cryptic” as any other ASCII roguelike. IMO, sticking with ANSI for everything was indeed “technically consistent” and “a challenge”, but i don’t think it was aesthetically consistent or a choice with good odds of winning the gamble.

        • Hmm, I have to disagree. I think it is very aesthetically consistent, *and* I think the ASCII/ANSI I use to display the world is significantly clearer than that which a lot of roguelikes do. Now, maybe in part that’s because I have a large field of vision (in the latest version), or because a lot of areas are quite large, or because the world is quite “realistic” so there are fewer strange combinations of symbols/colours, but I think it has resulted in a very accessible “classic”-looking roguelike game. Indeed, having showed it off at a range of conferences/conventions, I’ve never actually had a single “I can’t read this game” comment from non-roguelike players, which I take to be a very good sign…

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