Monday, December 9, 2013

Episode 84: Nethack

This is episode 84 of Roguelike Radio, where we discuss Nethack, on the 10th anniversary of its last release. Talking this episode are Darren Grey, John HarrisJeff Lait, David Ploog, Patric Mueller, Derek Ray and Pasi Kallinen.

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

Topics raised:
 - A history lesson from John Harris, and
 - What made the game so popular? How did it become so ubiquitous?
 - The influence on Nethack on all of roguelikedom, and the old hack/band split
 - What makes a game Nethacky? Interactions with everything (especially items), special cases, spoilers / learning the details, shop you can steal from...
 - Who are the devteam? Will there ever be a new version?
 - So many variants, with specific talk on Slash'Em, Nethack 4.0, UnNethack, SporkHack, and the interface-tweaked server version
 - Grind, and the onus on the designer to remove beneficial grind instead of leaving players to choose

 - Nethack's basis on D&D, including its many polearms (Gary Gygax loved them)
 - The difficulty in removing features from games and the reactionary nature of communities
 - Sokoban, grr!!
 - Gehennom! *yawn*
 - Nethack discussed as "the roguelike", both inside and outside the genre, such as in the That Was History's History of Rogue
 - The disconnect between what developers hate yet players don't mind or actively embrace. Many devs are disparaging of Nethack yet players are still playing it in droves to this day.
 - The toy/sandbox nature of Nethack, such that you can mess around in it a lot, giving the game extreme longevity
 - The dated interface (almost unchanged in 20 years!) Will there ever be a good mobile version?
 - The role of the server in keeping the community alive
 - Project management, leadership and design goals in a large game's development
 - Remembering the role of Izchak Miller
 - The future of Nethack..? Why do people keep playing? Is it now an unchanging piece of history?

Join us next time on Roguelike Radio for potentially an end of the year show!


  1. What! A 2+ hour podcast on Nethack? What a tedious monster. ;-)

  2. Sounds like the Dev Team needs to hand that thing off, publicly, so we can move forward.

  3. As for memories. I actually got started as a kid with an old version of Hack my dad gave me. I played it on my 386 computer. I had a bunch of 'hints' printed out on the old green and white printer paper, the kind with the holes on the sides you could tear off. It was pages and pages, some of them repeats.

    I remember many sweet hints. Like "Rings are just wands twisted in a circle" and something about the hints being unreliable. Also something about eating a leprechaun in an item shop. You would teleport.

    I remember there were no races to choose, just a class, and you always started with a small dog. You could be an archaeologist and a caveman, I remember that distinctly.

    I've tried to find this version of the game but have so far failed. I think it was pre-Nethack.

    1. Hack was my first roguelike too, on the Amiga. It had cute little tiles :) What made it extra accessible was a menu system for the commands that also showed the keyboard shortcuts, so you could learn them quite easily. It taught me the word quaff!

      Not sure which version it was mind. Have you played hack121?

    2. I have. It's not quite what I remember...but I was very young.

    3. I think it's hack1.03, but I don't have a working version. With so many other great games to play I guess I've never bothered to figure it out.

    4. Darren: rogue on the amiga/atari st also had the same gui and I think same tiles :)

    5. Darren: Slash'EM has a menu of commands that can be brought up by pressing escape, like the one that comes up by pressing enter in modern Angband. I haven't seen any demand for it to be featured in any other variant.

      In the podcast itself, you said you wished NetHack could let you pick an item and bring up a menu of actions you could perform with it. What nobody mentioned is that almost every variant has had this feature for years! For example, selecting a whip from the inventory brings up a menu like this in UnNetHack:

      Do what with the bullwhip?

      a - Lash out with this whip
      d - Drop this item
      E - Write on the floor with this object
      I - Describe this item
      Q - Quiver this item for easy throwing
      t - Throw this item
      w - Unwield your weapon
      x - Ready this as an alternate weapon

      The same menu in DynaHack is a little more compact:

      an uncursed +2 bullwhip (weapon in hand) {20}

      a - apply
      A - adjust letter
      d - drop
      E - engrave
      n - name
      t - throw
      w - unwield (empty)
      / - describe

      In this case, 'w' is unwield because the whip is already wielded, and describe is '/' because it's the default key to describe things in the game.

    6. Looks like RevivedHack uses the old 1.03 code but with some altered visuals and sound.

      Thanks to Getter for the heads up.

  4. The devteam won't hand over anything but the source is free and open. I think it is more a psychological affair: as long as the playerbase expects the devteam to ship another release, they still "have it". Whereas once the playerbase accepts a fork, the vaniall devteam lost it. Such a transition is never easy unless the maintainers cooperate (which did happen for Crawl, for example). Still, the transition Hack -> Nethack was exactly a hostile takeover, and it only needed two years, not ten. :(

    1. dpeg, you mentioned in the podcast that you wanted an option to suppress the intro text that nobody reads. I'm not sure at what point in time in NetHack's history that was, but NetHack 3.4.3 has the "legacy" option which does exactly that.

    2. tung: Yes, of course! My point was more that "story-telling" in roguelikes should not be done using paragraphs of text -- if well done, the story should be emergent! Nethack's starting screen says something which is completely unrelated to all gameplay, and the Quest wall of text unfortunately is even opposite to the gameplay experience. I am really unhappy about the latter because following the text would open up very cool gameplay possibilities!

  5. Is someone editing these shows now? I find the close editing of words very distracting. Need some space between sentences or it sounds realy awkward and hard to listen to!

    1. They've always been edited! New editor in for this ep though, and he may have been a little tight with the cropping at points. Feedback appreciated :)

    2. I did notice this as well Darren, a bit close with John.

    3. I only criticize because I love

    4. It's worth noting that you may want to consider looking in to editing your podcast into multiple sections. As Joseph said, "A 2+ hour podcast on Nethack? What a tedious monster."

      I had the time to listen through from one end to the other but I find it tedious (such as in the last episode on ASCII) to have to write down when I stopped listening and then pick it up later. Picking it up by section 1, section 2, section 3, etc, would be a lot easier.

      Also worth noting - never played Nethack. Never played Rogue either. I may have heard them and learned what their game mechanics were from these roguelikes games I have played but they are only mere basis for today's Roguelikes.

    5. Actually Davion I was making a play on words, talking about Nethack being a tedious monster that really does require a lengthy episode.

      This episode did not drag for me at all, which at over 2 hours is amazing.

  6. I disagree on your comment about a disconnect between what designers and players want with regards to UI, specifically your example of Dwarf Fortress. DF is a one of a kind game, and despite several copycats out there, none of them offers everything DF has. The core of the DF game is sufficient to keep people slogging through the horrendous UI to play it.

    Not me, though. When it switched to 3d years ago the horrible UI was too much for me to bother with, so I gave up on it. It's a shame since I know there's a great game in there, but I have no interest in wasting my time suffering that way

    1. The point was more about general design than just UI. Players are fine with scummy options and spoiler-reliant game design, whilst developers are severely harsh in their criticism of it. But it applies to UI too - the core players get over the UI learning curve and just enjoy the game. When other criticise the difficult UI they get very defensive, because for them there is no longer a difficult UI to learn. We thus end up with a big imbalance of opinions on such issues.

    2. This newbie-veteran divide extends into the gameplay balance itself. There's lots of opportunities for variants to add variety to NetHack's gameplay, but most of those also make the game harder, which sits fine for veterans but drives newbies away (see the top-voted answer to why /r/nethack folks don't play variants: This is probably the biggest reason why SporkHack wasn't received by players as well as it could have been.

      This makes it hard for variants to add variety to the basic gameplay of NetHack: since players boycott them, this eventually kills discussion and interest in variants, even though variants do a whole lot more than just make the game harder.

    3. as far as mobile version UI goes, nethack is one of my favorites, at least in android. As opposed to both dcss and angband variants (mostly for playing sil) the virtual keyboards used are really annoying and you end up with impossible viewports in phones (dunno about tablets). If I feel playing a couple of turns I am more likely to fire up nethack than any other roguelike (except for pixel dungeon which is THE best roguelike for mobile for me, thats for another topic tho')

  7. One thing I forgot to mention on the show is that as a NetHack fork developer I wouldn't recommend trying to design your fork such that you get the approval of the hard core vanilla players. This will not work as vanilla players want vanilla and you can't compete with that. Other players are usually more open but there's the damn "I'll first master NetHack before I'll try any variant" argument.

    I can't believe that we almost forgot to mention Izchak if Pasi didn't bring him up. If you look at the database entry on you'll see that the notion of him as a mediator or leader is not far off. Althought if you #chat with the shopkeeper Izchak in Minetown, one of the possible replies is "Izchak says that getting the devteam's agreement on anything is difficult.". :-)

  8. Quite a comprehensive episode---the only other things that come to mind that could've fit well into the mix would be the progeny of sorts that Nethack ended up with, Diggr(perhaps Incavead as well) and PRIME....each taking a different feel on the heritage, each very overt about it, and each yet to really break out.

    I do find it curious that the Mystery Dungeon series ended up being the longest running, and most successful, project that was very much a distillation and style-injection of Nethack more than any other of the classics of the time by Chunsoft. Hell, about the only other of the classics that got such a thing is ADOM spawning Elona long after the fact..and even that's a cat of a different stripe altogether. It seems off somehow that they, as a foreign commercial enterprise, were the only ones to really take a wholesale crack at The Problem from that particular angle and it speaks highly of the deeply buried core of the Nethack experience that they were able wrangle such ongoing success with it in terms of players who may very well not even know Nethack exists yet quite like much of the feelings and unknowing callbacks/hat-tippings.

    Though it also illustrates another point made on the show that they "stopped" after gleaning from The Standard that is/was Nethack and seemingly just closed off unto a bubble of their own instead of continuing to sip from the well of major Roguelikes and movements within it in the years to follow.

  9. I'll back up the guy that said some people got into NetHack thinking it had something to do with hacking networks, I think that's the reason I downloaded it for the first time about 20 years ago.

  10. Darren talks about as the toy element. The sandbox game.

    The sense of mystery and wonder is the thing that still makes me misty-eyed about nethack. The essence of nethack is not the grindy game. It's the game I loaded before before the spoilers, a child with a very under-powered computer who had been recommended this game. And the discovery of the sophistication (the dev team have thought of everything) and the ruthlessness of it. Yet through a very thin, symbolic interface.

    Nethack is like an earlier version of the minecraft idea. The sophistication is false - it has been brute-forced by the dev team. And then - it's not really a sandbox game. The hunger clock is fairly brutal, and there's a complicated, boring, well-defined game ending. Hence the desire for grinding.

    There's definitely room for a better nethack than nethack. Building it will be tough going.

  11. As always I listened to this on my 90-minute drive to work, and was surprised to hear quite a lot of RLs players and known developers, who must have played enough Nethack to see at least some of its positive sides, being unanimously negative about it **across the board**. While some of your criticism is justified (the UI, length of the maze, Sokoban oh god why), your usual critical examination of a game gradually changed to invalid arguments and petty (sometimes patronizing) claims, and a real sense of contempt; I'm not joking - if you listen to the end of that podcast again you'll hear (among the extensive talk of the dev-team-melodrama which went over my head) quite a lot of dismissive, hyperbolic claims, not just about the game but about its playerbase as well, and by the end of the podcast, after nearly EVERY aspect of the game has been diagnosed as either a flaw or a useless relic, it feels like you just loath it; which is a very strange way to feel about a roguelike. I could be wrong but that's the impression I got as a listener.

    For instance, claiming that some veterans can beat Nethack 20 times in a row, and that therefor Nethack isn't challenging, is like claiming that since some men can perform professionally in the Olympics then breaking world records isn't very hard after all; saying that Nethack make its new players farm gold because they still haven't discovered its actual usefulness , is to say that all meta-knowledge of game intricacies should be immediately apparent, otherwise the game is at fault; and to say that spoiler-knowledge as a secret handshake, or acquiring the experience to be able to abuse game mechanics and feel successful, or that being popular enough to gain lots of praise are bad things, is quite silly. They're not - I LIKE the idea that I've acquired enough knowledge and experience to get myself out of sticky situations I once couldn't handle - that's skill over time! - and I like the idea that I can give another that information to get him out of a bind, and Nethack's popular enough to attract players who would have otherwise not tried roguelikes at all; saying otherwise would be patronizing and dismissing perfectly valid forms of entertainment. And to me, hearing someone complain that a game gives them *too much* freedom of interactivity or that it's a bad introduction to rogoulikes is just grasping at straws; and I understand that many of you are developers, but none of those 40 minutes devoted to dev-team/community drama reflect badly on the actual game.

    Sure, Nethack (as many games) has some prominent, extreme design decisions (some of which more "technological compromises" than "design choices"), but just because some players don't enjoy them does not make them *wrong*, it just makes them fit a certain target audience, and that target audience loves them, apparently (and apparently does not include the hosts).

    And a last note on pudding farming and item hoarding: to say that a game needs to regulate its players' instincts to avoid causing them harm is to say that your players **cannot self-regulate**, which is a terrible thing to think of them. Players who choose to spend hours pudding-farming, do so knowing that they could have spent that time already beating the game.

    Otherwise I really love the podcasts and the usual discussion, keep up the good work.

    1. Keep in mind Darren hates NetHack; I believe he once described it as a "spoilerific clusterfuck" on his Twitter. I'm a little surprised he didn't do what he did for the Shiren episode and leave it to people who had played the game within the last 10 years, but he hosts the podcast so I kinda get it.

      The presence of David on the other hand was a big surprise, being the design lead of Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup whose core thesis is that NetHack is a bad game. His discussion of selling the armor from Fort Ludios, a location with enough gold to buy out every single shop in the game, was particularly quaint. Even after John pointed out that gold has very little impact at the point of the game (which is true), his shop-selling topic managed to overshadow the topic of altars raised by Derek, which unlike shop-selling has very real implications on gameplay.

      Re. the dev team/community "melodrama", it's true that they aren't relevant if you just play NetHack, but lots of people talk about it and play the game because they heard about it from others. If the dev team/community were proactive about change, many of the criticisms mentioned in the podcast would be solved problems; in fact, they are solved problems in variants, but if people don't play them or talk about them, they may as well not exist.

      Re. players self-regulating: Nick, the maintainer-to-be of future Angband releases, had this to say about the ability to scum in Angband: "[...] there are massive advantages to trusting players and treating them like adults." (

      There's this meme in the roguelike community that a tighter game is a better game, but there's a lot to be said about games that allow you to create your own strategies and not punish players for them just because the dev team declares them to be "unfun" and find ways to make them sub-optimal.

    2. Whoah, I never said that about Nethack! I'm frequently not pleasant about it, I must admit, but I tried to hold back on criticism. Nethack is still a big part of our history and is to be admired for many of the things it did well. I tried to bring up some topics along those lines on the show. My biggest problem with the game actually is that it is considered the de facto roguelike by so many players, both in and out of the community - which isn't the game itself's fault, of course.

      Also, I did warn that we may not be kind about the game. I know it's a big fan favourite, but anything that hasn't been updated in so long is bound to appear outdated to modern developers. We're a development-focused show so picking holes in games kinda comes naturally. That's not always nice to hear as a fan, but when it comes to designing new games it's important to learn from the mistakes of the past.

      As for letting players do what they want, I think it goes without saying that I hugely disagree :) Mechanics have power to shape player behaviour, and if you leave gaps in your design players will exploit them, even if it makes the game less fun for them. This is seen sooo much in terrible grindy games, or in F2P games that use psychological tricks to make people fork over money. We're talking about roguelikes here, where mechanics are king, design is everything - you have to design around player behaviour and close off anything that will encourage people to play in a way that is bad for their enjoyment.

      The fact that you use Angband as a counterexample just reinforces my point ;) (Have I mentioned we'll have an Angband ep soon...? Maybe I shouldn't appear on that one...)

    3. "As for letting players do what they want, I think it goes without saying that I hugely disagree :) Mechanics have power to shape player behaviour, and if you leave gaps in your design players will exploit them, even if it makes the game less fun for them."

      You need to consider that different players have different mindsets. For some people, exploring the possibilities of the mechanics is part of the fun. When I first got into Nethack in the early 00s, it was "advertised" to me as a "game where you can do anything". That's what got me interested in it in the first place.

      I tend to play tighter, more focused roguelikes like Crawl or Brogue these days, so I understand where you're coming from, but I think that both "styles" (competitive roguelikes and exploratory roguelikes, something like that?) have their place. :)

    4. Re: Being able to beat nethack 20 times in a row being an issue... This stems from the philosophy that roguelikes should generate unwinnable or nearly unwinnable sessions at least once in 20 times. Nethack may feel like it does to most people, but to experts who know all its secrets it clearly does not...

      And that gets to the core of the complaint. Nethack is all in the spoilers. Maybe there's a way to learn to be an expert without referring to spoilers or the source code, but I doubt anyone's actually done it... :) I guess I can somewhat see both sides of this. Experts at any game can do amazing things mere mortals cannot, and can beat them with impunity. I guess the key assumption here is that a good roguelike frequently generates unwinnable situations. Debate that.

      I agree with Darren on the pudding farming and other situations where grinding is a beneficial strategy. 2 things happen when you have the option to grind: 1) Users complain that the game is too easy until 2) Grinding makes the game too easy so the game adapts to be harder to challenge the grinder, but that in turn makes grinding a required part of play.

      If Nethack wasn't so long maybe some of its issues wouldn't be a problem, but I personally gave up at the castle. I feel sorry for anyone who spends a thousand games trying to solve the vibrating square...

      But I'll also admit a bias against long form roguelikes.

  12. Had an idea for an episode: Broken roguelikes, mostly thinking of IVAN but any others you can come up with of noble failures :)

  13. Here's to the first month that Roguelike Radio has entirely missed in its two and a quarter year history. I'm sure you're close to releasing a new episode, but yeah, was a bit disappointed when I checked. Anyway, can't wait for the next one.

    1. Yeah, sorry :( We have an ep recorded but not edited yet. We usually have a few weeks break over Christmas, mind. Will get the new ep to you as soon as we can...

      If you have requests for new episodes please let us know! Community demands are always a good motivator ;)

    2. Not necessarily a demand but perhaps an idea for an episode. Recently someone posted an interview with Darkgod on ToME and while not directly asked - in two of his answers to questions he complained about the UI of Roguelikes.

      Maybe there could be an episode about general accessibility in playing a game - outside of the UI which might make the game physically less accessible to play the game, this might include things in the game such as the games learning curve, hidden or untold mechanics (besides hidden stats, it isn't like everyone knew off he bat about DoomRL's corner shooting if they went into the game blind). Discussion could probably also include positive things to accessibility too like DCSS's Tutorials and or Addons in ToME.

    3. Have you listened to episode 40, Designing for Non-Roguelikers? I think it addresses all of those things :)

  14. Listened to the episode, but I would have to say that the episode only indirectly gets to things from a design angle looking over a player.

    Ultimately perhaps what I'm suggesting is what you as players might think about roguelike design:

    What information are you as the player receiving or not receiving before, during, or after you play a roguelike? Talk about the points of too much information, too little information, unneeded information, cryptic or sealed information.

    What options are available to break you into the game or not break you into playing the game? What has the developer done to help you as a player learn the controls, the game mechanics, or your avatar? Pretty straight forward questions.

    How much control do you have over your character in the game versus the RNG? Balancing of features, relevance of 'getting lucky' to win or play well.

    How intuitive is it to sit down and play the game? Modern UI's versus retro or antique ones, general need to have to have some sort of manual in one hand while playing the game with the other.

  15. Now that I've worked through most of the backlog of old episodes I haven't listened to, I'm starting to look forward even more to the new ones.

    But I do see an inevitable problem coming - there's no way that new episode production can keep up with my appetite.

    So can you please begin procedurally generating the new episodes so I have an infinite number to listen to?

    Thanks in advance.

  16. Awesome podcast. Very informative. Nethack is where i started, and i still like it alot despite all its interface and anti player issues. I suck at it, never got past about the 12 level.

  17. So no new episodes since December, is this podcast deceased?

  18. also waiting for new episodes. Where art thou?

  19. At the rate we've been waiting, I'm wondering how bad a 'RAW' episode might be.

    1. Hah, would be much easier if I could just shove those out. But often they are really bad in places... Still, feel free to get in touch privately if you want the unedited file.