Friday, May 25, 2012

Episode 36: Coffeebreak Roguelikes

Welcome to Roguelike Radio episode 36, where we talk about Coffeebreak Roguelikes. Talking this episode are Darren Grey, Ido Yehieli, John Harris and Keith Burgun.

You can download the mp3 of the podcast, play it in the embedded player below, or you can follow us on iTunes.

Topics discussed this week include:
- Source and evolution of the term "coffeebreak", and its obsoleteness in the modern scene
- Roguelikes as fantasy simulators
- Why players like big games and developers like small games
- Player time and design efficiency
- Depth and variety instead of length
- Encouraging replayability, with a debate on the use of unlocks, achievements and different game modes/challenges
- The need to focus on tight mechanics and cut out the chaff
- How coffeebreaks deserve more attention and the need to champion them more
- What coffeebreaks can't do

Join us next week for a live recording from the International Roguelike Development Conference being held in London on 2nd and 3rd of June.


  1. For me, they are all short games. :-)

  2. Hmm, I forgot to mention one other thing coffeebreaks have less scope to accomplish, and that's surprise the developer. The bigger games have more scope from the interaction of complex elements to produce gameplay that was beyond the design of the developer. Things like being able to win without any kills in ADOM - Thomas Biskup was genuinely surprised when he heard that was possible.

    I've come to the conclusion that "ludic games" is the best term for pure gameplay focused games, like chess or Zaga-33. It's a term I've seen used elsewhere, and represents the values of such games in a short and clear way.

  3. Or "mastery-process intensive", as Daniel Cook called them in a recent article:

    1. Um, bleh, that post badly needs some attention from the Plain English police :/ I get what it's saying but there are far less obscure ways of expressing the concepts.

      I like the term "ludic" since it's simple :) The word seems to be coming into more use lately, perhaps being popularised by Ludum Dare or by the academic communities studying games (academics love Latin terms). The full description of what it means would take much longer to describe of course, but a good terminology needs to be short and recognisable.

      I present the "Grey Model" for elements of games ;)
      - Ludic: the basic play systems and logical interaction mechanics
      - Aesthetic: the look, sound and feel of the game
      - Narrative: the story (whether pre-written or emergent)
      - Social: interaction with other players
      - Explorative: world interaction and freedom of play

      Games can involve any subset of these to varying degrees. These terms are all recognisable, and are also directed towards what appeals to players. Some people like aesthetic games with a strong narrative component (many RPGs), others pure ludic games with social elements (such as boardgames). Personally I like all elements depending on my mood, though aesthetic is probably the least ranked.

    2. I mentioned, somewhat, this sort of model when I talked about what gamers value when over-analyzing this year's Roguelike of The Year poll on Rogue Temple.

      You can use it to identify subsets of gamers by what they value in a game. Personally I rank 'narrative' not only low, but I actually think it hinders a game. I prefer a cohesive theme in place of narrative...but perhaps what's what you mean when you say a narrative may be 'emergent.'

      I value mechanics (ludic) the most highly.

  4. As I'm getting older, I am getting more and more sensitive to no-brainers in games. The other day I tried to play DCSS, which generally has been one of my favorite roguelikes, and... I just couldn't.

    Like, obviously I use the auto-explore key "o" a lot. But what I realized was, for at least the first 2 or 3 levels, I would certainly trust "o" to also do the fighting for me as well. It could basically just play the game for me completely until I encounter a monster with high stats or 2 or more monsters at once.

    In short, the first few levels are just a goddamn waste of time. This is how this relates to our discussion. Long roguelikes are just wasteful. Games need to respect the audience's time, which is a gift.

    1. This is a problem many roguelikes face - the early game is made easy so the game is approachable, but it ends up becoming repetitive and boring. You said in the ep about tutorials and easy modes being a better way of doing this, but many players ignore this. There's a hard balance between attracting new players and keeping the existing community happy.

      Frozen Depths has a nice system of letting you skip the first 10 levels and start with some extra gear. Technically playing through the 10 levels is optimal (you'll get more stuff) but for an experienced player it's much more fun to skip them.

    2. I was about to mention frozen depths too, only I think you can take it into even greater resolution by letting players decide which level to start from (possibly giving them extra points instead of the "stuff" they might have otherwise accumulated, if your game has such a concept).

      Tetris and many arcade games employ that method.

    3. I think this can also be ascribed to the race/class system. Races/classes are intentionally not balanced in order to function in a dual role as a difficulty setting. This decision has its strongest effect in the early game since the early game needs to be possible for any combo to finish.

    4. I patted myself on the back for suggesting a solution to this problem in Brogue.

      Classes. Or at least character creation.

      You can start the game as an adventurer and go through the first couple of levels and see what you find, thus building your character through play, or you can start on a later level (I think it's 5 where it starts to get really interesting).

      If you start on a later level you can choose from several preset classes which will have an average quality gear load out appropriate to the chosen class.

      Further, as you reach the level where it starts to get hard (5?), the player can bump into the Wise Man or Master Trainer or whatever and turn in all of their gear and equipment in exchange for a chosen 'class' themed loadout.

      I really thought some of this was a good idea.

    5. To me that goes against the whole classless philosophy of Brogue. So much of the game is about dealing with what you find and adapting to your circumstances. If you get to choose your toolset at the start then the game loses one of its interesting traits.

      It could probably stand to learn from Powder, which similarly is classless but is fun and interesting from the get-go. Probably because it's more challenging at the very start.

    6. Well it wouldn't really be a 'class' per se. Nothing is stopping you from gearing out however you want. I just thought a player might like the option of skipping the first part of the game and starting with a gear load out that corresponds thematically with a 'class'.

      It'd be an interesting option that skips the 'build' section of the game.

      You don't even need to make it a 'class' themed gear choice. You could just let the player pick from several items and start later.

      Ultimately what will happen is that the beginning will just start getting more interesting/challenging. Actually, this has already happened with Brogue to my satisfaction. But remember I'm not that great a player. :-)

  5. Great show guys.

    It occurs to me that you could replace the need for unlocks or choosing your own difficult with secrets: things that would allow you to quickly skip the early game, once you have learnt how to take advantage of something which you learn about later in the game, or when you've been spoiled. e.g. particular terrain being destructible, and having that terrain occur before the fact you are shown that the terrain is destructible, and have the terrain then hide either stairs and/or treasure rooms which you can use to skip the early game.

    1. I like this. Spelunky does this. Why make the player replay things he's already mastered when he's really interested in tackling the new challenges.

      Super Mario Bros also did this to some extent. Except practically all the kids knew about the warp zones...One funny note though, last weekend I showed a 9 year old the warp zones. He's been playing his dad's old NES and just had no idea. Next time I'll be showing him the JUSTIN BAILEY code in Metroid. I'm his gaming hero.

  6. Shouldn't have Spelunky or Cardinal Quest or Desktop Dungeons have received more air time? They are bite-sized and seem to fit the bill perfectly.

    Also no mention of one of my personal favorites: Lost Labyrinth. The original version was innovative enough to warrant a fork. No need for separate character and dungeon levels - both happen when going down the stairs. Cardinal movement. Food clock. Special rooms, trainers, shops that appear randomly. Gods, Altars and Pentagrams. Freeform character creation. With the appropriate skills combat is anything BUT bump to attack. Despite all that incredibly fast paced.

    1. There are hundreds of coffeebreaks we could have mentioned and discussed in detail. Heck we've already had whole episode on CQ and DD, and hopefully in future we'll cover Lost Labyrinth and Spelunky. Feel free to post your own favourites in comments though, and shout out more about them in all the forums :)

    2. Sweet! Looking forward to future podcasts even more.

      Particularly the next one - with this year's roguelike developments IRDC 2012 is bound to be very inspiring. Hope you have a great time.

    3. I'm with you Erdraug. Unbelievably pumped.

  7. You guys got way off in the weeds at the end there. Did someone actually try and argue that music is more evolved now that the 100-piece symphony orchestra has faded in favor of two guitars and a drum set?

    I don't think any creative medium necessarily arcs towards simpler forms as time does on. These things are fashions. Tastes change, the audience changes, and the artwork changes with them. And it will never stop changing.

    1. The point was that the perception of "bigger is automatically better" is wrong. Bigger can be good, but the way to improve a game isn't necessarily to add more stuff to it. In other arts there is no similar assumption that scale is better, and there is an acceptance of a wide variety of scales dependant on what works best for the piece. We need more of an acceptance of this in games. Tetris vs Skyrim is the same as Einaudi vs Beethoven. Well, figuratively speaking.

      Roguelikes suffer especially from this "MOAR" approach to content. I blame Nethack and Angband. But then I blame them for everything wrong in the genre :P

  8. "In other arts there is no similar assumption that scale is better,"

    This simply isn't true. I was surprised to hear Mr. Burgun citing literature as an example of a 'mature' artform unconcerned with scale, apparently forgetting that the novel is often regarded as the height of literary achievement and clearly enjoys greater popularity, even among the elite. If anything I'd say it's the opposite, that there's no comparable sentiment in literature to correct the over-appreciation of novels over short stories in the name of efficiency and creating something more manageable for busy social climbers.

    The whole sentiment seems absurd to me. We all know bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, but can a game be improved by adding content? Absolutely, and I can't understand why anyone would claim otherwise. The developers out there like Brian Fargo and Jordan Weisman aren't making a mistake when they promise their fans more content. They have a finger on the pulse of today's players, (who as much as they are demanding tighter gameplay and greater challenge are above all hungry for content), whereas you guys seem to be missing something fundamental.

    1. >"In other arts there is no similar assumption that scale is better,"

      Of course, in ANY medium you have some of this, and you always will. The difference is that with videogames, you have many, many "experts" thinking that bigger is better.

    2. There's nothing in literary circles that says a novel has more merit than a poem. There's an acceptance that they are both different and equally valuable. Novels sell more of course, but we're talking about crticial response. And when it comes to writing novels it's oft-repeated that a book is not finished until you cut out all that can be cut.

      I don't doubt that Fargo and Weisman know full well what players want. And doubtless much of the added content will improve the game. The problem is mostly with the assumption by all that bigger is automatically better. Some games have suffered by being artificially lengthened by publisher demands because they thoguht that's what customers want - that they won't pay for a 6 hour game. Of course the rigid pricing structure of the industry has a negative role to play there too...

      On the other hand Portal was praised for not stretching the game out and being an appropritately short game. Each title has its own appropriate length, and we shouldn't get lost in the thought that the epic games are naturally the best games.

    3. I think short games are really interesting. Some of my favorite games have been short, recently VVVVVV and Journey, both of which are easily less than 5 hours long (minus time you might spend on achievements and challenges). I'm torn about this in that I wish the games had lasted longer, but at the same time they would have ended up being different games entirely. But I think in the end a longer game of an equal "quality" is going to win out. The longer something is (at least to a point) the more of an impact I think it can have (assuming it keeps the quality up). Of course what is that sweet spot I cannot say.

      Another thing to consider is replayability. Short games are easy to replay because it is not much of a time commitment. However, if the game is an epic 60hour+ rpg, you may have fond memories of the experience but not be willing to set aside so much time. I think in this sense, short games have a real advantage in that they can hit on something special in a short time, and something that you can convey to people by having them play the game. It's not as easy to share the experience of a long game with people.

  9. There is an issue I've noticed come up more and more in these podcasts. While you're saying in these comments that it is the perception that "bigger is better", it feels like on the podcast you're arguing for why big games should not be made at all. I understood all the points made and I've played Brogue, Spelunky, Desktop Dungeons, Sil, Nethack, Crawl, Tome. They don't play the same way, which was the point of the podcast but the podcast seems like it's trying to convince me that bigger games like nethack, tome and crawl SHOULD NOT exist.

    This seems to mirror the problem FPSes have struggled with for a time. When Duke Nukem 3D existed, everyone said it was great but then tactical shooters came out and Medal of Honour and Halo and other such games were released and suddenly we didn't have a split between games, we just completely dropped the entire fast-paced genre of FPSes that had come before. And now a decade later, people realised hmm... maybe that was a mistake. But people are already entrenched NOW and shifting back is an issue. There is a big difference between saying let's do this less and this style of game has no merit and everytime Keith Burgen (I think it's him) talks about epic roguelikes, it reminds me of people fervently saying that Call of Duty is the definitive method of designing a FPS. Moderation is good.

    I did however whole-heartedly agree with the efficiency argument. That was a very valid and well-deserved point.

    1. Weird, I thought I was bending over backwards to make clear that I do not exclusively enjoy small games and that there are many things small games just aren't capable of. I think the problem is more of balance - big games get all the coverage and attention, whilst small games are left unplayed with only the developer caring about them. Which is a huge shame when there are so many great smaller games out there that don't even take much of the player's time to enjoy.

      So we're shouting loud about these games not because we want people to stop playing the big ones, but because we need a better balance in the community. If you have 100 hours to sink into a huge epic game surely you can divert 1 or 2 of those hours to try out some of these little games too?

      Plus it's important to make the efficiency argument clear to developers. Some people shove fake content into their games or stretch out the level sizes and dungeon lengths to keep people playing longer. This is good if there's the content to support it, but bad if it just leads to repetition (roguelikes should *never* allow themselves to be repetitive - it goes against the ethos of the genre in my view). For instance when we covered Frozen Depths we commented that it was trying too hard to be like the bigger games with its long dungeons and unfairly punishing items, and the dev agreed with most of our points after the ep. Roguelikes should embrace the coffeebreak philosophy if it suits the game instead of trying to make a small game look like Nethack.

  10. Then I'm sorry. It was a knee-jerk reaction to a comment said much in a much earlier episode about how the answer to alot of problems seems to lie in making smaller games (somewhere near the identify systems or something). Sadly, I feel that there are some games that WOULD have benefited from more content because of how "solveable" they are. The benefit of larger content is that it CAN (not necessarily so) become harder to solve for them due to the increased interactions and possibly diverse gameplay. For example, Spelunky was incredibly interesting and was a joy and beauty to play. But once I beat it? It stayed beaten forever. I couldn't die in it anymore unless I actually tried, to the point where I could just finish the game with just starting bombs and ropes and nothing more. The game was solved, a winning gameplan was found and there was no more point in playing if it was basicly a won game everytime I loaded it. This is a danger of small games that was briefly mentioned but not really gone into. The issue of solvability is why short games can sometimes RELY on unlockables to get the game played. Because once it's understood there might be actually nothing more to be done whereas a large game can keep generating weirdness and combinations and play experiences for a long time.

    I do agree that if there is to be an expectation of player interaction, then the game must give some meaning to them. I think on some level indie games are doing this more; AAA titles are more focussed on lavish displays because they sell the games for profit more than as labours of love (or at least a mix of the two). So I doubt we'll see the removal of "big is better" but I think people check into the indie scene like Peter Molyneux will have a greater appreciation for a concise well-executed idea.

    Anyway, I'm sorry for jumping to conclusions. Hope you're enjoying the conference.

    1. Sorry for the double post but I can't seem to edit my post above. The other thing about why smaller games might not get much attention is because the genre typically has an emphasis on knowledge for the player to uncover. Good strategies, how to stay alive, how to use your skills better and things. As a result, even if the game is somewhat small, that inclination is there to believe that the information to be mined will be kinda big. And so even for a small roguelike, some people might not get into them because of the amount of what people can essentially feel is an upfront pay-in-advance cost before they really come to enjoy the game. Even a small roguelike like Desktop Dungeons required you to understand how it worked before it became easier to play. And since the game won't be that long, it can feel abit disproportionate to the timesink in learning. Some people like me can overlook it but alot of people can't. This might be why the bundle of roguelikes idea might not work.

      I think to adapt on that, it might be better to also rate them on how deep the game is to get (how you'll figure out the scale will be hard) and what other roguelikes can help you approach this game (for example, if you've played nethack, you will find this game easy). This might help people see just how accessible the games actually are. It might backfire and give more popular games that are always used as a baseline more hype but that was just a suggestion. It's not my place to say what can and can't be done here. Anyway, sorry for the double post.

  11. Listening to my backlog of podcasts, I was curious about the game John Harris mentions around 21 minutes into this episode. He says he's playing an emulated arcade RPG called "Catat." I've tried googling and I think I must have the spelling of the name wrong. Can you clarify the name of this game?

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.