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.
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.