Looking up the tags “roguelite” or “roguelike” in Steam will net you pages on pages of games. Each one has different themes, gameplay, combat, mechanics… But they’re all united under this genre. Especially for indie developers, roguelites are one of the most popular game genres out there. Why could that be? Surely there are easier, less complicated games to make, right? Well, perhaps it’s because roguelikes have a ton of advantages to make use of.
Why Do Indie Devs Love Roguelites?
Before we begin, we should define what a “Roguelite” is. These games involve you, the player, going on a single quest, or “run.” If your character dies during the run, or you fail an event important enough to end the run, then you restart from the beginning. Over time, by completing more and more runs, you’ll unlock more things to help you on your quest.
Steam’s not the only place where you can find roguelikes dotted around, but it’s probably the best place to look. There are so many inventive and unique games that follow the similar formula! So, what reasons do indie devs have to create these sort of games?
Are They Easy To Make?
Depending on the game, these can be somewhat easy to create. Because most roguelites use procedural generation (making specific tiles and rooms, and then putting the rooms together randomly), devs can make massive and varied runs without making an infinite number of levels. This allows players to have a different experience on each run, without needing too much effort from the level designers and developers.
Does that mean that these maps take little effort to create? Absolutely not. In fact, many of these maps and tiles require a lot of dedication and attention to build. There are updates to these tiles constantly to increase the game’s longevity and to fix bugs or bad gameplay that may crop up.
Roguelites also tend to need less levels in total to be an effective experience. Hades, for instance, only has four worlds for player to explore, usually around 40-50 rooms. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not too many. And the artists can instead focus on making the levels of hell distinct and wonderful, rather than worrying about game length.
That being said, a lot of these games have to worry about building (and balancing) a ridiculous number of upgrade paths. Sometimes, that can make the roguelike lose difficulty over time, since the player is constantly gaining strength. Making sure players always have a uniquely difficult experience can be infuriatingly difficult. Proper playtesting is critical, and not all game studios can afford to have multiple playtesters. This, by far, is the hardest part of making a roguelike, especially if you want to make one that’s challenging but fair.
In general, though, since the developers can focus their efforts on a specific grouping of levels, it does tend to be a touch easier than traditional games. Just in total workload, rather than making a quality game.
Roguelite Character Designs
The primary character of a roguelite can make or break the game. These characters range from extremely goofy (like the Redneck in Immortal Redneck) to incredibly engaging (Zagreus in Hades).
The character tends to be what the story of the roguelike depends on… Which can make some stories a bit generic. Story is rarely a major part of roguelites, but some games can make a really compelling story from the gameplay. Noita, for instance, has little story told to the player. It instead requires multiple runs and player interpretation to make a story out of it. For some players, this style of storytelling can be immensely engaging. For others… well, most roguelikes just don’t have a hugely in-depth level of story.
Enemies… Enemies in roguelikes can be a bit hit-or-miss. Bosses tend to be really unique to keep players interested in fighting them. The Binding of Isaac has a ton of really weird enemies, but the bosses are on another level. You don’t tend to forget these bosses, because they are an important part of (most) roguelites.
As described above, the most important part of the roguelike is that progression is slow but definite. As the player’s skill increases, they should be rewarded with more and more potential goods. This can range from Risk of Rain 2, where players get achievements that unlock more items, to Rogue Legacy, where players purchase small upgrades over time.
No matter how a roguelite gives players more power, they must be careful about pacing. Pacing is critical to keeping the interest of the players. If a roguelike gives rewards too fast, then the player can consistently beat it, and that might lead to boredom. If it’s too slow, then that can make some players frustrated with their progress (either due to lack of skill or how tedious it is to get rewards). Thus, most roguelites must find the happy medium between these two extremes and meet their players’ demands.
That being said, most roguelikes do emphasize difficulty over anything else. Or at least difficulty is a big theme for most of these games. These roguelites grasp onto a player’s innate want to “beat” the game, and thus losing is just another step towards victory. Roguelites feed into this tendency a ton by rewarding players who lost with extra items, upgrades, or consumables. This keeps the cycle going; the player gets closer and closer to the next milestone, and the game gives them more and more help to reach that milestone.
Most players have some way to win, because of this progression. Even if you aren’t perfect at the gameplay, the hope is that you can build up the supplies to beat the game through stats, rather than relying on skill.
Not all games are able to meet all players’ skill sets, unfortunately. The roguelike genre tends to be cutthroat due to the death-ended runs. Some games, like Hades, offers a way to decrease the difficulty slightly to help players out a bit.
So, why do developers like making roguelites so much? There’s three major reasons, I think:
- Less development time on levels, more time on polish
- There tends to be less emphasis on story so gameplay is easier to refine (though some studios take the opportunity to use the formula and experiment with storytelling!)
- The progression cycle of roguelikes is addictive, and it’s easy to keep player retention with it
To say that these are the sole reasons that a game developer may pursue a roguelite is ridiculous, but these are the reasons that I think roguelikes are so popular right now. What do you think?
Check out some of our other Guide Fall original feature articles here!
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Jason Toro-McCue has committed his schooling to the study of the connection between game design and narrative. When he's not working on this bond through writing articles or guides, he's playing Dungeons & Dragons, or just playing games themselves and looking at the story there.