Roguelikes of
No Time To Play

The Gameplay of Electric Rogue

(Archived from the original Tumblr post for safekeeping.)

It all started nearly two years ago, when my plan to revive an even older graphics engine quickly gave birth to a roguelike prototype – a very traditional one apart from the first-person perspective. Well, and the core gameplay concept, but I never got that far because of fundamental difficulties. But said concept proved to work just as well with a cyberpunk theme, a choice made after switching from raytraced sprites to vector art revealed that my skills weren't yet up to par, so a more abstract environment was the way to go.

That was in spring. A month later, you could run around a random map, picking up keycards and activating terminals. Pretty fun, and most importantly intuitive, but not much of a game. Especially as it ran into an unexpected issue: I could think of various enemies with all kinds of attacks, but none of them made for interesting combat.

Between the need to work on a more marketable game port and the grand website migration this autumn, the whole thing was shelved for half a year or so. Once the hiatus ended, it took little to decide that procedural generation wouldn't work, so each level map would have to be randomly selected from a pre-made list – an approach hardly unheard of in roguelikes (see Ularn). As for the gameplay, well, why not make it about something else instead? Adding a move count limit turned Electric Rogue into a planning game, where several tries would be needed to figure out the shortest route around a level.

The result was more entertaining than it had any right to be. Too bare and repetitive, however, and I knew from experience most people would hate it. Worse, there was no guarantee that any given level would be solvable, since keycards could be located wherever. But even just a few bonus moves could make subsequent play trivial if you got lucky. And making it so that when running out of moves you'd start taking damage instead – while eliminating retries – made exploring the map a lot less meaningful.

It could have been the end of it, this time for real, but then I remembered a possible source of inspiration: Myst (no relation to the great classic), a minimal yet very challenging roguelike by Oleg Dolya, a.k.a. Watabou (creator of the much more famous Pixel Dungeon). Three new sprites and a bunch of coding later, the game had enemies that regularly became vulnerable as they came at you, making the otherwise simple combat into a tactical dance.

And the gameplay clicked! Suddenly there were all kinds of decisions to be made: which way to go next, when to fight and when to take a detour, whether to hunt down that tempting power-up or not. One last addition, this time inspired by another roguelike called Netpack – itself based on good old Pac-Man – was to turn the hunters into the hunted for a few moves every time you pick up a keycard.

Early feedback is very encouraging, and this could only happen because Electric Rogue draws from three different sources; even the premise can be traced back to my older game RogueBot. The first-person view, too, brings with it a notion of facing direction that most such games lack, with implications for the AI if nothing else. Besides, the feel itself matters: most players compare the game with old dungeon crawlers, which isn't the right guess as to where I got the idea all that time ago, but tells me how to advertise.

More about that, however, in another article.