blog-post
Kirit Rayatt
Digital Strategist

Insight

2020-06-24

WTF is a Roguelike and why should I care?

Never heard of Roguelike games before? Well, Dead Cells has sold over 2.4 million copies, so it might be worth tuning in.

We’ve become so used to gaming genres like Action, RPG and FPS, that some of us haven’t stopped to see what’s going on beneath the surface. When it comes to these big genres, AAA gaming studios have found the perfect formula and they’re replicating it over and over again. But in the Indie underworld of gaming, new genres are emerging to innovate the gaming world and are fighting to take centre stage.

At Waste, we’ve been working on the launch of the upcoming Indie game, Roboquest, an action-packed FPS Roguelite (yup, Roguelike has sub-genres too). Let’s dive into what we’ve learnt about the history of this niche gaming genre, and why you should care…

Let’s start at the beginning...

In 1980, a dungeon-crawling video game was released under the name Rogue: Exploring the Dungeons of Doom. Inspired by text-based ASCII graphic computer games and fantasy themes, players must explore several layers of a dungeon to find the Amulet of Yendor. The game was turn-based, meaning that players had time to determine their next best move. Players are forced to make each action meaningful as one of the core features of the game is permadeath. If you die, you have to restart as a brand-new character, and you cannot reload from your previous save. HEAVY!

As you play through the game, the levels, enemy encounters and treasures are all procedurally generated – so no game is the same as the previous one. EXCITING!

Rogue, 1980

For a game this complicated, this doesn’t sound like much fun, but it was. In fact, it was so damn popular, it created a whole sub-genre - Roguelike!

Alright, so WTF is a Roguelike?

Would you believe me if I told you that there was so much debate about what a Roguelike is (and isn’t) that they had to create an official definition? Not kidding. The Berlin Interpretation created a definition at the International Roguelike Development Conference in 2008. In a nutshell, the definition outlined key high-value factors such as: 

  • Random level generation

  • Permadeath

  • Turn-based 

  • Hack-and-slash gameplay

Low-value factors included using ASCII characters, providing a tactical challenge to learn survival, and that the enemies should have similar abilities to the main character. 

Older Roguelikes were backed by a niche community that enjoyed the high complexity and learning curve of the game. These included a range of notable titles such as ADOM, Angband, Linley’s Dungeon Crawl and Nethack.

Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, 1997

Roguelikes kept developing and evolving to the point where a new sub-genre was created, Roguelite.

So what are Roguelites?

Roguelites, hybrid Roguelikes and everything in between, borrow from elements of Rogue and Roguelikes. Whilst this might sound similar to Roguelikes, there has been a lot of confusion between the two genres but there are a few key differences. Compared to Roguelikes, Roguelites have upgrades that pass on from run to run. As well as this, Roguelites gets increasingly easier as you progress through the game. The stronger you make your character, the easier the game gets to complete. On top of this, Roguelites are much lighter and lean into other familiar genres such as platformers and shooters. Remember that Roguelite game I mentioned earlier? The one that’s sold over 2.4 million copies? Well, that game, Dead Cells, borrows from Roguelike as well as action-based Metroid and Castlevania games.

Dead Cells, 2018

This increasing rise in popularity is due to the fact that it’s easier for gamers to jump into the game, but there’s an appeal for the randomized levels and permadeath. Having familiar aspects borrowed from the genre makes the game accessible but having those two specific features gives the enjoyment of learning, exploring and ultimately, experiencing a new challenge. 

I’ve made this super shiny table so you can remember the differences between the genres and impress your friends.

A genre defined by player/studio collaboration

Roguelikes and Roguelites are increasingly popular on Steam as they’re easy to pick up and play. They’re also inherently make-able for indie studios. The community has continued to thrive and develop as player/indie-developer relationships become interlinked. Players have a lot to say when it comes to giving feedback during Early Access and it’s got to the point where developers continue to ask for feedback to help shape the game. The game ends up being more of a collaboration and it’s become vital to developers to ensure that the game is matching up with player expectations. With rounds of Alpha and Beta testing, feedback loops and focus groups - developers need solutions and ideas to fine-tune the art direction and software mechanics.

During our research, we’ve learnt that hardcore gaming audiences can be quick to dismiss outright copycat games, and are constantly seeking truly original titles. Hardcore gamers are often found on Discord, Reddit and Twitter as well as streaming channels like Twitch and YouTube. Currently, for Roboquest, we’re running a closed Alpha on the Discord channel for the hardcore gamer fans. However, we’re also rolling out wider testing through an exclusive newsletter sign-up on their social channels. Roboquest also took part in the Steam Game Festival and released the Alpha as a demo, which led to an incredible amount of downloads and feedback. 

Whilst the genre has a wide community, the game needs its own dedicated community early on, as this loyalty can make or break whether the game is successful. Communication from the developers is key, and this is where community-based marketing plays a vital role. Often, Early Access games can remain unfinished and with Roguelites/Roguelikes being a niche genre, it’s important to build a community early on to help complete the game. Keeping the fans engaged with ongoing conversation, realistic expectations and building a strong relationship over time, helps to drive success. 

At every stage of the game development, the developers of Roboquest have been clear as to where the game is at and where it’s heading. We’ve worked together with the studio to create a story-driven content plan to help unpack all of the game’s features, running up to the Early Access launch of the game. From comic strips and gameplay moments to teases and trailers, we didn’t want to give too much away. Utilising social, we wanted to drive a sense of curiosity and intrigue before the game was fully launched.

So, where is Roguelike heading?

Whilst player/developer relationships can be strong, some players may feel like they still want more, or decide to form their own ideas. We can predict that we’ll see the early Roguelike/Roguelite developers running mini-courses on game development to help more players create their own games. This will lead to an even greater expansion of the genre as there are lots of opportunities that haven’t been tapped into yet, maybe we’ll see a Roguelite-inspired Minecraft someday. 

When it comes to the platforms, it’s safe to say that Steam presents some serious challenges with visibility. We’ve already seen how many developers have branched out onto other platforms such as Epic Games and even to the Switch store. In the future, developers and players alike will continue to branch out to create and discover new hidden gems.

With an increasingly overcrowded marketplace of games, players are keen to dive into more unique and niche genres. Whilst Roguelike and Roguelites came from a game, there are other hidden genres with their own communities that are waiting to be tapped into. 

If you haven’t had a chance to play a Roguelike or Roguelite game yet, now’s the time. In fact, Roboquest is coming out soon so you should probably play that one first. You can watch the trailer and wishlist the game here.