Tackling Progression In Roguelikes

Tackling Progression In Roguelikes

Roguelikes have grown and grown in popularity over the years. The pseudo-randomly generated gameplay leads to endless replayability, especially when tied to gameplay mechanics that are rewarding to master.

That mastery was traditionally the sole form of progression. Permanent deaths and countless hazards meant that the only way to move forward was to get better. Now, that’s not always the case.

In Mark Brown’s latest Game Maker’s Toolkit, he discusses how different roguelike handle player progression.

Brown uses a broader definition of ‘roguelike’, stating that there are two key concepts that define the genre: randomly generated levels that are different each time you play, and perma-death that losses your progress when you fail.

That perma-death is a sticking point for a lot of players. It feels bad to die and be sent back to square one, especially if you invest a lot of time into a single attempt. Players lose any tangible benefits gained during that attempts and may not have realised that they gained new knowledge about how the game works, how enemies move and interact or simply got a little bit better of moving through the game.

An increasingly popular way for developers to tackle this is to give players tangible progression that persists between attempts. Rogue Legacy, Dead Cells and Hades are all games that give persistent upgrades to the players to cancel out the feeling of wasted time.

This causes issues with the difficult curve of the game. Brown uses the example of Spelunky as a more traditional roguelike where every time you play the game is mechanically the same. You always start with four health, four bombs, four ropes and no money. To get through the game, you have to get better. Difficulty is a wall to climb over. Some people will get there quickly, some will take a long time and other won’t get over it at all.

Games with persistent upgrades, however, will become progressively easier as the player unlocks more upgrades. The wall starts off nigh-insurmountable but you can walk along it to eventually find a spot low enough to climb over.

The problem is that the upgrades system can feel like a grind. Like the player is working to get enough unlocks to reach the point where they can beat the game instead of mastering the tools that they have. When a player fails in games like this, they’re often left wondering if they didn’t make it because of their own failings or because they simply hadn’t unlocked enough things.

I’ve personally struggled with this in Dead Cells where it felt like a lot of my early deaths were simply because I didn’t have the tools to get through. Having to unlock additional health potions, new weapons and new movement techniques means that the character in a new save file of Dead Cells is incredibly weak and was personally a huge source of frustration.

Tackling Progression In Roguelikes

Spelunky is one of my all-time favourite games and Into the Breach was my game of the year for 2018. These are both games that anyone could beat from a fresh install. You don’t need upgrades to get through, just knowledge of the game and some practice. This is a huge design challenge and it’s easy to see how developers don’t want to go down that route. Instead of an attempt ending in death and failure, instead it ends with the player unlocking something.

That unlocking system works better, as Brown argues, when it doesn’t impact the player’s ability to finish the game.

In Nuclear Throne, players unlock new characters with new play styles that are not necessarily more powerful than the default options while Hades gives lore and story content as players move through the game. Considering that Hades is made by Supergiant games – who are renowned for their storytelling – unlocking story is a very strong motivator to keep going.

Progression in roguelikes is a discussion that I’ve had countless times over the years. I lean heavily towards Brown’s thinking that adding persistent upgrades can lead to a grind that de-emphasizes player skill. It’s not the only school of thought and finding the right balance is a challenge for developers to tackle in their own ways.



    • have always wounded what an MMO Rouge Like could like
      Anarchy Online has quite a robust mission system, built on randomly generated content. Hunt through for a mission you like, go off to the spawn location, and enter the door/cave its pointed to.

      The world in general still has content, and there is a static dungeon or 5, but you basically run through those missions to get the upgrades you need. There are third party apps the game encourages you to use that make farming those missions considerably easier but it all revolves around that random content.

      Its quite a dated game now, but it works very well. Simiarly, the original Star Wars Galaxies had a randomly generated mission process as well, though not to the same extent. Most of the time it was just killing nests of mobs, though there were the occasional foray into a bigger random nest.

      City of Heroes could have done similar. It was set up beautifully for it, with doors everywhere. It just needed some sort of mission terminal setup similar to AO and SWG and it would have instantly worked.

  • Persistence in upgrades after death is something that’s more of a hallmark of Dark Souls than Rogue.

    If anything, these should be called ‘Soulslikes’. But that also gets wrapped up in the language around their visual language, combat philosophy, world-building, etc.

    Whereas many, many, many ‘roguelikes’ share more – visually and mechanically – with Rogue than they do with Dark Souls, and it’s just that persistence-through-death mechanic that they’ve stolen.

    Personally, I prefer persistence and grinding upgrades to compensate for lack of skill. The absence of progression coupled with permadeath is just too much like a board game or the arcade games of the 70s-80s, designed to eat coins. It makes me feel like I’m wasting my time in building nothing more than my skill, when instead with every death I could be contributing to the buildup of in-game power. People like to build things. A powerful save file is one such thing.

    • I agree on the persistence thing. Fair enough you can’t really finish a persistent upgrade rogue-lite-esque game from a fresh install, but if you’re good at it, you could start a new game and have the required upgrades for your playstyle incredibly quickly. Building that character at a super fast rate and finishing it again with only the bare essentials feels good for a veteran. Having the feeling of progression feels good for a new player.

      The Souls-like style is pretty much the same. It’s possible to finish a souls game with practically zero upgrading, but that’s a self-imposed challenge for a veteran. The building of a character and widening of playstyle options that comes from progression really makes the thing worthwhile for me.

    • Dark Souls is hardly the progenitor of that kind of design. If anything, the design of having things persist after death in a Rogue-like would be much more likely to have come from the Mystery Dungeon series (Also known as Shiren the Wanderer) which has been around much, much longer. (First release was 1993)

      It, AFAIK, was the first Rogue-like series to allow you some form of persistence after death in that you could store items in a warehouse so if you died you could take them out and use them in another adventure.

    • Old enough to have been weaned on Nethack and Ghost and Goblins, perma-death is fine, as long as demises are clearly my own fault. That’s difficult to juggle with the other classic rougelike tell: procedural generation. But deterministic is fun too (cref: Into the Breach).

      Anyhoo – I like the clean slate to start afresh on my quest for that perfect run. And perma-death means your poor choices never saddle you for long! 🙂

  • Yeah I prefer the progression via mastery approach. Not that the grind isn’t fun, just that there’s plenty of games that already do that.

    Has anyone played Prey: Mooncrash much? I haven’t put any time into it yet but the approach to progression there looks pretty good – kind of a mix between grinding knowledge and grinding currency. Level layout is the same each time though so I guess technically it’s not a roguelike.

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