Increasing Challenge in Roguelikes

Increasing Challenge in Roguelikes
By Andrew Grech, aka Roguery

Have you ever felt that nothing beats the feeling of starting a new character in a roguelike game? When a character is young, it has tons of potential, and the level around it is full of opportunities and danger. Every encounter could be its last, simply because it hasn’t yet acquired the hitpoints or powerful items to blast through them. This feeling is enhanced when roguelikes have ample character creation options, so that every new beginning has some unique challenge to overcome and different strategies to be learnt. And don’t you just love it when you’re surrounded by wolves, have three hit points left, and have exactly two choices: one being to zap an unidentified wand, the other is to pray and hope that the two newts you sacrificed will have left Thoth in a good mood…

Then time passes. You find good equipment, and level up. The monsters that used to worry you now fall to a single hit. New monsters replace them, but they may be simply scaled-up versions of the easy fodder, with no new tricks or abilities. Maybe things eventually become boring, so as to make the player wonder if he or she should keep trawling the dungeon when it’s getting a bit old, or just select a new character and have some fun…

There are, in my opinion, two options regarding the late game in roguelikes. On one hand, the player can be so powerful that the final confrontation is the least challenging aspect of the game. Or the game could get harder in such a way that the player has to constantly face worse and worse odds, despite the increase in power that is endowed.

Which option is better depends upon the player. As pudding farmers in Nethack prove, there is satisfaction to be had in obtaining insane amounts of power and then slapping the endgame about to your heart’s content. On the other hand, Nethack’s popular optional conducts shows that other players like to make things hard for themselves.

Different roguelikes approach this in different ways.

Nethack and Slash’Em generally allow the player character to become very powerful about the time the castle is reached. By this time, magic resistance can be acquired, if it hasn’t already been. There are many ways of giving the player an advantage. Potions can increase the maximum level of hitpoints the character can attain, and once the alchemy system is mastered, there is no limit to the level that can be achieved. The infamous incubus/succubus can raise the player level indefinitely, in a relatively safe fashion if precautions are taken. Artifacts can be acquired by wishing and sacrificing, and both are quite easy methods to achieving some powerful aid. For those really power-hungry people, there is pudding farming, oft maligned by its detractors but certainly in the spirit of the game. In short, once a player has learnt how to take advantage of elements in-game, the only barriers to unlimited power are boredom or player choice. Even when these systems are not used extensively or abused, the player is often the most powerful thing in the game by the time he reaches the astral planes, so much so that ordinary fighting will not scare him in the least. The only things to be feared are monster attacks that bypass mere hitpoint reduction, but hurt the character in some other way – such as stoning, death (though magic resistance makes this a no-no), amnesia and item stealing. Unfortunately, this combined with the formulaic end-game makes the ending in Nethack someone tiresome, rather than the epic conclusion to the epic game it was meant to be.

On the other hand, Dungeon Crawl and its variant Stone Soup could not be more different in terms of providing player challenges. The developers goal is to reduce scumming by disallowing selling of items in-game, and placing emphasis upon keeping moving and thinking on the fly. Using hunger to lure the character deeper into the dungeon, the game constantly hurls bigger waves of nastier enemies at him or her. The character finds limited number of goods, with which to survive, and must make good use of them. One can get into trouble without doing anything wrong. A mistake can bring you to death’s door. Playing Crawl is an exciting experience, with only short breathers to restore magic points before the next room and the next onslaught. Occasionally it is also frustrating, getting you killed where you felt you did no wrong.

ADOM takes an interesting approach to game difficulty. On one level, waves upon waves of monsters can be swiftly destroyed with little skill. But then, monsters that can drain stats, corrupt or paralyze show up, and unlike in Nethack, these are rarely trivial problems. Corruption is a brilliant system whereby the middle to end game becomes a combination race against time and a interesting lesson in keeping a character alive when badly corrupted. The intense level of item destruction personally annoys me, but certainly encourages a cautious play style. The temples and challenge levels also keep things interesting and require the player to learn new tricks.

DoomRL handles the problem differently. Using a player selected difficulty level, challenge modes, and in-depth scoring, it allows the player to modify the challenge presented while rewarding more advanced players with new options. Even apart from this, the levels get progressively harder as time goes by and new monsters make appearances, as well as special pre-designed levels. While players can level up, the emphasis is upon skills and ammunition levels, keeping the game tense throughout.

Planning the player challenge is important in game design. While it is understandable if the game balance takes a while to emerge, one should think early on, “What frame of mind do I want the player in? Should he or she feel in control or on the run?” Different player groups like different mixtures, with some paradoxically liking both at the same time. Nethack has always had the ability to change the nature of the game from ‘yay, I’m winning’ to ‘oh my gosh!’ within the space of two turns. Player ability is also a hugely variant area. Some players will find a challenge difficult, while others will waltz through it. But games swiftly get stale when there is no challenge to them, or when there are few ways of dealing with game elements.

On the one hand, if one wants the player to be firmly in charge, then there have to be various mechanics by which the player can improve survival chances. An in-depth system for player improvement and customization is intriguing and means that next game will be radically different from this one.

Alternatively, to keep the game from becoming stale, there must be something that gives the player the urge to keep murdering various dungeon-fodder and taking their knick-knacks. Rewards work, but even better is the satisfaction gained from triumphing over a difficult level after a long hard battle. Enemies that have innovative skills to overcome and a cunning AI to make them hard to exploit go a long way to achieve this.

In closing, thanks for your unwavering attention to my walls of text. You could have started a new Nethack character off and reached level 3 in the time it took you to finish this. (Combat-wombat or wimpy tourist, I wonder?) Thanks for the attention.

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