Clothing, Characters, Inventory, Faces, Genetics, etc

Other stuff to read

Before we start this week’s entry, I have some other stuff you might all like to read! This week I had a piece published at First Person Scholar about the intriguing player-AI dialogue which develops in the danmaku game “Warning Forever”, and a piece in Memory Insufficient about the alternate history aesthetics of the Red Alert series. If you’re interested, do give them a read and support those other two sites!

Now, on to this week’s many attractions:

Clothes as Items, and Inventory Changes

Clothes have now been transported out of the file I use for working on the game’s graphics and added into the game itself, and turned into items (with a horrifyingly large number of variables – it took me much longer to integrate them than I expected). When you look at an item of clothing, it tells you nothing except the quality of the tailoring – “ornate”, “well-made” or “poorly made” – and what type of thing it is – “shirt”, “pair of trousers”, etc, and tells you nothing about the nation it is from, as that’s part of the learning/discovery process. Along side this implementation, the inventory system has been changed. Previously there were different keys for each action, so one would press ‘d’ to ‘drop’, ‘D’ to ‘drop several’, ‘t’ to throw’, and so forth; they’d then bring up your inventory, you’d select the item you wanted to perform the action with, and go ahead and do it. However, this meant you only saw the picture of the item when you pressed ‘i’ to simply look at your inventory, and that meant the images were (to an extent) being wasted. I’ve now changed it so that there are only two inventory functions: ‘i’ brings up your inventory, and ‘D’ allows you to drop many items at once (without looking at them). When you now press ‘i’, therefore, and choose an item, a line of text at the bottom of that item lists everything you can do with that item, so you always get to see the graphics, and the range of possibilities for each item is made a lot clearer (so things you can wear, or things you can use in some way, or eat, or whatever). I think this is a lot better, makes more use of the graphics, and tidies up the UI a little (given how many roguelikes use every damned letter on the keyboard). An example of a piece of clothing currently un-worn, and one being worn:


Character look-up

The look-up window for any character (player or NPC) has now been significantly changed and upgraded, and faces have also been moved out of the graphical-testing file and fully integrated into the game’s code. The first page currently shows the face of the NPC you’re looking at (or your own), and lists everything that person is currently wearing (which is visible; rings are “invisible” if they have gauntlets/gloves). The second page will soon show health, but I’m still working (yet again!) on thinking through how health is going to work, so we’ll have to see, and for now it has been removed (and will probably stay removed for 0.8 unless I finally figure out how health will work, even though I know how combat is going to work). So here’s a shot of me (without a first name, so the name up there is my family name), and this time I happened to be in the “scarification” civ. You’ll also notice I’ve made all eyes into a light grey instead of white! The reduced contrast is far less jarring.

Blue man shirt

Browsing clothes

The coolest thing about the new look-up? You can now hit Enter and browse through all the things a character is wearing, using the arrow keys. As you move around the “grid” of things the character has on them, each image then appears on the right-hand side (the first time the right side of the screen has ever been specially used!). For now, therefore, you can look over the upper- and lower-body garments, and boots, but I’ll be working on all non-armour garments in this release, meaning that we’ll be adding gloves, and probably cloaks too, but armour will come next time, and necklaces and rings will come… whenever. Either way, here are some nice illustrative screenshots of this! (With some placeholder first names and surnames…)

Blue man shirt

Blue man shirt

Blue man shirt

NPCs are now spawning

This speaks for itself, really, given the above screenshot. They don’t move, think, react, converse or do anything yet, but they are there, and the game can handle them and draw them correctly, and the player can ‘l’ook at them and browse what they’re wearing. My objective for this coming week before the IRDC is to really crunch and try to get crowd mechanics working to the point that NPCs will spawn and despawn out of the player’s line of sight. As for line of sight and field of view, there’s something cool on that point later down this entry…

Genetics, Culture, etc

I’m pleased to say (and one might extrapolate this from the integration of the facial images) that we’ve now got a model for genetics and cultures spreading around the globe. Genetically the game now chooses large chunks of land for eye and hair colours (they bleed out around the edge, but these screenshots show only the dominant colour in each region; equally, although these are very geometric and unsmooth, that doesn’t ultimately matter, since populations of NPCs in-game will always blend and travel). The first picture shows eye colour variation, the second hair colour, in a generated world:

Eyecolours Haircolours

As for how these work for individual NPCs, basically, each nation has a “core” set of values for their skin tones, eye colour, etc, and that’s based on what values are present in their capital city specifically. Equally, they can also spawn NPCs who might have been born hundreds of miles from the capital, but are still within the same nation. The further you get from a nation’s capital, therefore, the more and more people you’ll see who are born according to the demographics of that particular area, and the closer you get to the capital, the more you’ll see people who look like the people of that capital city. Cultural norms will be maintained however far you go – so people in the capital and a distant colony have the same hairstyles – but visual/genetic markers (eyes, skin, hair colour, etc) will vary as you move around. So if you have a capital city on the far, far east, and a colony of that nation on the far west, and in that colony you might expect 25% to “look like” they came from the capital in terms of eyes/skin/hair colour, most to look “native” to that colony in eyes/skin/hair etc, but they will be visually unified according to their hair styles, other cultural markers, beard styles, clothing, etc etc. So we basically have two layers – the “genetic” and the “cultural” – and these blend and intertwine as you move around the world. Also, different types of civilization have different levels of cultural variety – the open and well-traveled nomads have the most variation within a nation, the small tribal societies have the least, and the feudal civilizations are somewhere in the middle.

Field of View Optimization (at last!)

People have been asking for this for years, so I have finally put some time into optimizing the field of view algorithm, and now you can see basically everything on-screen at one time. Buildings will still have a reduced field of view, and it’ll reduce at night, too, but here’s a screenshot and a gif of wandering outside in the daytime:


URR fov

Next Week

Well, the IRDC is in a week’s time, and I’m crunching like mad to get some kind of NPC pathfinding/crowd mechanic simulation going there. It’s going reasonably well, and I think I’ll have something good to show off, but I’ve been running into some fundamental design questions – can NPCs push past each other, for instance, if one occupies a tile the other wants to get past – which have surprisingly far-reaching algorithmic implications for how pathfinding and gameplay will actually play out in the longer run.

Procedural Clothing Generation (Part 2 of ?)

This week I’ve finished off procedural clothing generation for the richest individuals in feudal nations. The game can now create upper-body garments, lower-body garments, and boots, for each civilization. These different garments across a given civilization maintain a consistency of colours, a general consistency of size/aesthetic, and a consistency of whether the patterns etched into the clothing are circles, octagons, squares etc, based on the visual preference of the nation in question. Thus far these are only the “upper-class” clothing variations, but I think one can reasonably extrapolate how the others will look (which will come in a few weeks, I expect). Here’s a summary of the three layers of clothing currently implemented – I’m also going to add gloves and cloaks this release, but haven’t got around to them yet (since they’re hardly a priority compared to implementing crowd mechanics before the UK IRDC in a fortnight’s time!), but they’ll probably reflect the coats of arms of important houses if upper-class cloaks, and then just have some appropriate patterns on for middle-class, and nothing special for lower-class. Anyway, onto the clothing of our procedurally-generated aristocrats:

Upper-Body Garments

There are currently seven “archetypes” for upper-body clothing, an example from each being shown below. I’m working on an eighth archetype but it is proving extremely challenging to make it look anything other than awful, so that one might not see the light of day. Regardless, each of these has three sub-archetypes, making for twenty-one high-level “clothing styles” at present, each of which then undergoes extensive randomness within that clothing style, meaning that even if the maximum number of feudal nations are present, there will still be several “unused” high-level clothing styles left over – so that’ll do for now.


Lower-Body Garments

It is very challenging to make “trousers” which look even vaguely as interesting as upper-body garments (or boots or gloves, for that matter!), but I’ve done my best. The “Japanese” and what I have taken to calling “Hebrewlonian” archetypes in the above picture (middle top, and third bottom) will count as both upper- and lower-body garments, whilst the lower-body garments shown here will be distributed to the rest of  the clothing styles. Although in many nations there will be little sexual dimorphism (so to speak) between clothing styles for men and women, this will not be the case in some cultures, and a “dress” clothing archetype has yet to be worked on (I’ll get to it in the next few weeks). So some nations have the J/H archetypes above for both sexes; some nations will have the other above clothing for both sexes; some will have different clothing for the two sexes (and this will all, obviously, be chosen procedurally). So, some trousers/skirts etc (skirts are especially hard to make interesting, but I’ve done my best):



Now onto the “paired” items of clothing – boots (and gloves). I decided for the time being to forego “shoes” and go with something of a Game of Thrones/TV-adaptation-of-Wolf-Hall logic, i.e. that even those at the very top of society have to give something towards practicality and pragmatism, and basically wear extremely nice boots, rather than wearing beautiful footwear which never comes anywhere near a bit of mud. Boots, like gloves, have a distinct item for each in a pair, so that we can handle things like losing limbs, damaged limbs, etc, later in the game. Gloves and boots use the same colour system – they take the established colours from the clothing above, and then blend it 70% into a generic “leather” colour, to give the impression of dyed leather. Boots are therefore deliberately a tad less “striking” in colour than other items, but still maintain a strong semblance of the same colour schemes. Remember, as always, that you’ll never see these next to each other in game!



Gloves are coming soon… but possibly not before the end of June, since now that I have the three most essential items of clothing in place, I’m working solely on NPC mechanics in preparation for showing off an interim “0.8”-ish building at the UK IRDC at the end of the month.

Complete Generated Clothing Sets:

Here are some complete (aside from gloves) “sets” of clothing – note, of course, that the zoom level does vary across each item of clothing so that the player can see maximum detail, and you’ll obviously never see them all in-game “lined up” like this, but I think it’s quite nice to look at some of the aesthetic consistencies across different items of clothing belonging to the aristocratic echelons of a given civilization:

Clothes 1

Clothes 2

Clothes 3

Clothes 4

(Note that Set 4 contains no lower-body garment since the robe covers both the upper- and lower-body slots, and also in some of these examples, the underlying pattern – square, diamond, etc – varies, which it won’t in the actual game.)

I will be working on middle-class and lower-class/slum clothing soon, but that’s taking a back-seat now to work on some mechanics for the version I want to be able to show off at the UK IRDC. There will also, of course, be distinct clothing styles for nomadic civilizations and tribal civilizations, but those are going to come along later, although I do have some ideas for what types of generators I’m going to build for both of those.

Future Mechanics

Clothing generation is increasingly pointing towards an obvious but potentially very interesting and unusual mechanic: the ability to “fake” being a member of a given culture. Perhaps you can don clothes of other cultures (and perhaps lighten/darken your skin, as many real-world explorers and “adventurers” in the distant past did for exactly this reason?) and attempt to “pass yourself off” as a native in a distant land… which then yields potential gameplay around attempting to maintain the deception, say appropriate things in conversation, and give nothing away, whilst perhaps other NPCs are capable of noticing slightly unusual things about your character which suggest to them that all is not as it seems? I think this could be some really interesting territory to explore in the future…

What next?

Well, we now have heads, upper-body and lower-body clothing, and boots, so I’d say we’re about to ready to actually create URR’s NPCs. This week I’m going to be working on optimizing the field-of-view algorithm which needs some serious improvement for the next release, creating the new “character lookup” window which has room to include a face and to scroll through their clothing (and in 0.9 their armour and weaponry, if any), and continuing to work on crowd mechanics, spawning/de-spawning NPCs, etc. See you next time for an update on hopefully all of these things!

Roguelike Metagames – The Sequel

Two weeks ago I posted the most controversial entry on this site to date, which got a lot of discussion going about roguelike metagames, both here and on Twitter and Reddit (and probably other places too, judging from the spread of popular entries I’ve posted in the past). It became apparent that a few things were unclear in the article which I then aimed to clarify, but broadly speaking it generated a lot of interesting and civil debate (with the rare insulting jerk, but then, this is the internet, isn’t it?). In fairness, I was aiming to be a little provocative with the piece, and I knew it would generate some strong feelings, but on the whole I’m pleased with the level of discussion we got going, and a number of very interesting angles I hadn’t considered were raised in the process, which I’d like to talk a bit about here whilst I continue working on crowd NPC mechanics for next week’s update. So, in no particular order:

Tactical and Strategic Failure

Several people explored the differences in what actually causes one’s death in a classic roguelike and a modern roguelike, and this is definitely worth mentioning. In a classic roguelike, one’s deaths are most often tactical – which is to say, that the player made a specific mistake (or series of mistakes) in a particular battle against a particular foe/collection of foes, and that resulted in their demise. Crucially, they would ordinarily begin that battle with full health, and lose it all. By contrast, in modern roguelikes one’s health tends to depreciate slower (since it does not recharge automatically as it does in most classic RLs) and one’s death is generally a slower, and more strategic affair – one died because of choosing to purchase Weapon X instead of Weapon Y two sectors ago, not because a particular battle went ill (though this will obviously occasionally happen, just as there can be rare but clear strategic errors in classic roguelikes). It is therefore important that we note that a tactical death is far more immediate and visual than a strategic death, and is likely an important additional factor which encourages player learning – when the mistake and cause of death is ordinarily so “obvious”, it is much simpler to reflect critically upon it.

Each ship as a different “game”?

A few people suggested that they viewed different ships in FTL (and perhaps different character/species/etc in other RLs) as being, on some level, “different games” – that one needs a completely different set of skills to use one ship than to use another. I’m inclined to disagree with that assertion, especially since RLs often rely on adaptation and dealing with whatever items you see, but it certainly opens a question onto how relevant different class/ship/species playstyles are and whether this encourages – or actually weakens – “overall” player learning. I don’t have any conclusions on this yet, although some roguelikes are certainly more similar from playthrough to playthrough than others.

Unlocks are Objectives in their own right

Equally, a number of respondents said that they viewed unlocks as “objectives” or small “victories” in their own right, rather than seeing only the “true” victory of the game (defeating the Flagship, ascending, killing Andor Drakon, etc). This is an interesting angle, and one that I think is best reflected in classic roguelikes by considering the feeling of reaching a new branch for the first time in DCSS, or entering Gehennom in NetHack, etc – that one is playing for slowly stacking up these victories, rather than “the win, or nothing”. The difference, of course, is that achieving access to more branches means one is getting closer to winning the game/ascending, whereas unlocks can sometimes be tangential, and in some cases the required gameplay to acquire an unlock can actually be detrimental to completing the game with that particular build (a few FTL achievements are somewhat like this). Do a lot of people work “only” to unlocks rather than ascending/defeating the Flagship/whatever, and if so, why? Is it from a tacit belief that they cannot “beat” the game, or is it from a desire for more common/rapid feelings of victory or achievement (see one of the below points for more on this), or something else? Leave your thoughts below!

Enhance User Experimentation by foregrounding options

A really interesting comment argued that having the unlocks appear gradually actually enhances the expectation on players to experiment. When something new is unlocked, the player wants to experiment with that thing, and that encourages new playstyles; by contrast, this comment argued (though a few people argued similar things too), having all the possible species/classes/whatever open at the start would actually encourage people to just find a single combo they’re decent with, and then never play anything else. This can only be answered with some serious research, but I think it’s a really interesting point, and one I didn’t consider in my first analysis.

Environmental Metagame and Player Metagame

Another comment raised the distinction about environmental metagame and player metagame, which is to say: are you unlocking new (and more challenging?) areas of the game when you unlock something, or are you unlocking something else for the player character when you unlock something (cf. the real vs virtual skill bit of this post below). I’d be inclined to say the environmental unlocks (like certain areas in Isaac) are more “acceptable” within the analytic framework I outlined in the previous entry because, if balanced correctly, players shouldn’t be banging their heads against the wall for weeks until they unlock it when they have the skill to play those areas… but then again, if that’s the case, then why not just have them unlocked from the start so the most skilled players can go straight onto them? If the idea is to restrict challenging areas until the player is good enough to handle them, surely the game should do it automatically without gating? This is an issue that definitely needs looking at some more – I’m not sure where I stand, but there’s undoubtedly an important environmental vs player distinction there.

The Line between Loss and Victory

A few comments – or rather, my own replies to a few comments – have made me realize I have a small but useful “follow-up” I can add to some of the points I made in the original post. In most classic roguelikes, a player can run the full spectrum of feelings as shown in the diagram below, which might occur when a player loses a great character after playing for 12+ hours and being within an inch of their first ascension, or finally getting that first ascension after months or years of effect:


However, a lot of comments said that metagame unlocks were dseirable to improve the rate at which players stick wih the game, keep people interested, and give everyone (or at least a larger number of people) some feeling(s) of satisfaction. When playthroughs are much shorter, and there is an expectation of regular smaller “victories”, I think we wind up with something like this:


The extremes at both ends are removed – you simply cannot become so involved in a character that their death is a genuine source of real-world sadness and you quit the game in frustration, but at the same time you’re never going to get people making those YAVP posts you see in NetHack and Crawl, along the lines of “I’ve been playing this game for twenty years, I’ve just won for the first time in my life, and it’s the greatest gaming achievement I could ever imagine“. Now, I think we want to be promoting those types of feelings. Yes, perhaps that means some players will just quit instantly without any interim rewards, but I think the tradeoff is allowing some players to have those amazing YAVP feelings. Fostering the feeling of incredible mastery in some players is, I would argue, a better outcome than fostering feelings of lesser mastery in a greater number of players. But I do, of course, recognize that the second of those is clearly superior for a commercial game, which complicates matters, but I think this is a point related to the original entry worth raising.

Virtual Skill and Real Skill

This discussion also seems to tie, in some games, into some of the debates around “real” and “virtual” skill – succinctly, real skill is the player improving, whilst virtual skill would be the player character improving. In FTL there are admittedly one or two ships which are atrociously bad, and one or two truly amazing, but for the most part the ships are broadly comparable (unlike, say, Rogue Legacy, where one’s character improving is borderline essential to any possible hope of victory). Do some unlocks improve virtual skill without affecting real skill? Certainly. How significant is this? It’s hard to say without further investigation, but definitely a last factor worth mentioning.

Concluding Thoughts

So, I’d like to thank everyone here, Reddit, Neogaf, Twitter, everywhere else, for their interesting discussions and comments about the piece, and for also helping me refine the argument by cutting out a little bit of chaff here and there when I was either repeating myself, or being just a tad ambiguous about my precise argument in a small number of places. The discussion has definitely raised a number of points which I’ve covered here – though my responses here are in some cases unformed and not meant to be exhaustive at all, and some of these issues I haven’t even come to my own conclusions on yet – and that’s a really great outcome! Thanks everyone for the discussion, leave any further thoughts/comments below, and next week I’ll be posting some more goodness on finishing off URR’s procedural clothing generation and crowd mechanics (hopefully!).

Procedural Clothing Generation (Part 1 of ?)

So, last week I posted an entry which generated a huge amount of discussion here, on Reddit, on Twitter, and (if past experience is anything to go by) probably a few other places I haven’t even noticed. To those who I still owe replies to – I’m getting to them! I’ll be posting a follow-up next week, but this week we’re onto another URRpdate, finally!

Clothing Generation

This week I’ve been working on both generating clothing styles for different civilizations. There are currently six “archetypal” clothing styles, each of which has three sub-styles within it, and each sub-style has its own variation between specific items of “identical” clothing (just small things like the width of clothing relating to the size of its owner, fractional colour differences, that kind of thing). As the maximum number of feudal civilizations the game allows at any one point is eighteen, this works out perfectly, so all/most of the styles will be reflected in each game (though I might add more later). I’ve so far worked entirely on upper-class clothing for rulers, aristocrats, military commanders, etc. There are several dozen colour combinations, and each nation will pick one for its upper-class clothing and then have those same colours reflected, to a lesser extent, in its middle/lower-class clothing. This week we’ll have the upper-class clothing, then next week the follow-up to the metagame post, then the week after that, probably the remainder of clothing and some early development of crowd mechanics, if we’re lucky?! So, here’s an illustrative sample of five of the six “archetypal” clothing styles (the last one is not yet finished):


Going clockwise from the top left, these are inspired by “classic” Western medieval clothing of leather (or other material) waistcoats and a shirt underneath, though here I’m treating them as a single garment; the second is inspired by Japanese kimonos; the third is inspired primarily by older Chinese styles of dress, and also some more “tailored” Western styles; the fourth (i.e. the bottom-right corner) is inspired from a range of styles including far more ancient Babylonian and Hebrew dress; the fifth is based on a lot of Eastern European royalty, and the sixth will be based on Renaissance Western Europe (but is proving surprisingly tricky to realize). These then have the three sub-styles as described above – which consist of different patterns, different locations of buttons, lengths of sleeves, sizes of collar, colour schemes, etc. To take a closer look at the variation within one archetype, let’s go with the Hebrewlonian (???) archetype, of which I’ve included three below. (There are actually a dozen different possible patterns which can appear on the “clasps”, but just weirdly enough, all three I took for this picture happened to select the same one, and now I’ve only just noticed this and I’m severely disinclined to go and generate them again, so we’re just going to have to make do with these). The left is “average” size (which will include “muscular” or whatever other build definitions I wind up with), the middle for someone slim/athletic, and the right for someone much heavier-set. So these would be belong to three neighboring civilizations who might have experienced a level of cultural bleeding between each other’s society, but maintain their own styles of dress nevertheless:

Robe VariationSo, each of these might be tethered to a different culture, but I’ll also be sure to place those cultures next to each other (think pre-modern China, Korea and Japan, for instance), so that you get some sense of “similarity” (sometimes) between clothing styles of nearby nations (though given that many nations might have complex territorial shapes, there is only so far this can be pushed). Naturally there will be coupled with appropriate lower-body garments, boots, gloves, etc, and then we’ll be done with clothing for this release (with armour and weapons… next release?). In the new NPC lookup (or the same for the player) you’ll be able to scroll through all the clothing on an NPC to let you examine what culture you think they might be from. Maybe a logical mechanic would be to have NPCs judge the player, at least in part, based on their clothing style (and many other factors) so that there might be some ability to attempt to pass “undercover” in nations unfriendly to your own. As with everything else: the game will never tell you “this is the clothing style of Nation X”, but once the player has that learned that, you should be able to come to recognize those you encounter in the street, or the origins of foreign merchants/travelers, etc.

I’m now working on two things simultaneously: crowd mechanics, and remaining items of clothing for middle-class and lower-class citizens, and then lower-body garments, boots/shoes, etc. I’m basically working to an “interim” deadline right now since I want to show off a stable build with crowd mechanics functioning (and all clothing items implemented) at the IRDC 2015 I’m hosting on 27-28 June, so all academic work is on hold now whilst I grind towards that goal. Metagame follow-up next week, then more delicious URRpdates!

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).


The important point here is this: whereas the player must figure out they are meant to learn – no roguelike says “You died! You should think about how you died. Would you like to play again? Y/N”, and instead it just leaves you to your own devices to figure that out – the unlock is obvious, clear, and explicit. When you’re given an obvious reward, few players are ever going to think about the non-obvious rewards, especially when the obvious rewards appear to enhance their chances of success in the game. I therefore fear that the player comes to learn that their deaths are meaningful insofar as they yield new unlocks, not insofar as they yield new information or understanding or ways to avoid their demise.

In contrast to “modern roguelikes”, most classic roguelikes give the player everything from the start:


In Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, for instance, you can immediately pick any species and any class and any religion. This means that you can immediately try other options, other builds, other religions, other classes, species, and so forth, and even if you keep dying as a Minotaur and then try an Octopode (a foolish move since the latter is a far more challenging species), even a new-to-roguelike player will surely learn: changing species isn’t going to save me. Sure, there are probably some species which are slightly more in-tune with a player’s overall playstyle (I, for instance, prefer melee characters in almost all games with the classic melee/ranged/magic triumvirate), but picking one species over another will almost never be the difference between a player who can win and a player who can’t, as there are so many skills in DCSS and other roguelikes which are transferable across multiple classes. Since you “get” nothing for your death, therefore, and since you quickly learn that choosing other options adds variety but doesn’t strengthen or weaken your characters much (they do a little, but only a little), your only option to improve at the game is to learn from that death.

To conclude this point, let’s have a look at FTL as an illustrative case study of this phenomenon which, I feel, should concern those of us who make roguelikes or aspire to make them. There is something very interesting about the FTL community (at least those parts of it which I have seen/interacted with/spied upon). The community seems to be divided into two groups – a very large group of players who find even Easy mode to be extremely challenging, and then a smaller (but not tiny) group who find Hard mode to be trivial (or at least perfectly winnable with a little concentration and effort). As I mentioned in Crawl, it is extremely unlikely that changing species will earn a losing player a win, although it is of course possible a player’s skill will be so precisely balanced that they can come within an inch of victory with weaker species, and win with stronger species. Expanding this to FTL, we can graph (loosely, and without axes) the community as looking something like this from my experience and examination:


Now, naturally there are some small categories of players not shown here (who can just about win on Hard, or just about win on Normal, and so forth), and as I say, this is based on my reading of the FTL community, but I think these categories are comparatively small, and the ones shown here are the important ones for our discussion. There seem few (again, this is my judgement from a long time in the community, not quantitative academic research) FTL players who can master Normal, but are never able to progress onto Hard: Hard simply requires using the same skills as you do in normal, but doing so more optimally, more carefully, more often, or more intelligently; and, in some cases, learning some fairly simple microing skills which can be picked up from a quick view of a Youtube video. Once a player has understood the game well enough to beat Normal, it seems they will almost always be capable of progressing onto beating Hard, and then becoming a player who can make a solid attempt at beating Hard mode every time.

However, the focus here is on that yellow band of players: the tiny percentage who cannot beat the game with the Kestrel A, for example, but can with the Mantis B or the Crystal B or one of the other amazing ships. My point is this: this sliver of the player base is tiny. Were this is a large part of the player base, then I think ship unlocks turning player attention away from their own learning processes would be fine, forgivable, and maybe even desirable, if it led to a lot of players beating the game. However, for every one player who can just about beat the game with the strongest ships which they unlocked, I would argue there are more players who don’t fully appreciate the importance of learning from deaths, and fill up the FTL forums with those endless comments of “the game’s all luck!” and so forth, because ship unlocks distract them from understanding (or having any chance of ever understanding!) that they should be learning from their deaths. It runs the risk of fostering a very undesirable mindset: that the game is to blame for their deaths. Once a roguelike player starts blaming the game instead of blaming themselves, it’s hard to return to the light and realize that, in any well-made roguelike, a player’s deaths should always be their own fault, and a skilled player should win 100% of the time (which FTL comes extremely close to adhering to). By seeing an unlocked ship, players fixate upon it, are distracted by it, and don’t even consider the possibility of some other outcome from their deaths. Yes, of course, just dying with no intermittent reward is brutal: but I think it breeds stronger players in the long term.

Therefore, to conclude, I would argue that the extent to which unlocks hide player learning is far greater (in most cases) than the extent to which strong unlocks will help weaker players to victory. Yes, of course, in some rare cases unlocking the Mantis B will help an FTL player who has never won before win; but in many more cases, I believe, the progression of unlockables distracts players from mastering their skills, and makes players believe that they only need this item, this powerup, this character, or whatever, in order to finally secure that first victory; when in fact, of course, a tenet of good roguelike design is that a skilled player should be able to win 100% of the time regardless of starting conditions (or as close to 100% as possible), and Isaac and FTL and TOME certainly adhere to that.

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!