So why is it that Rogue-likes/Rogue-like-likes/Rogue-lites (this is all getting a bit Metal sub-genre isn’t it?) have become so popular again recently? I reckon if you got most PC gamers to name their top ten games at the moment, there would definitely be at least one of this genre in there. Personally I’m all up in the genre right now, with The Binding of Isaac, Rogue Legacy, FTL: Faster Than Light and – a recent entry – Tower of Guns making an appearance. Indie Haven’s editor-in-chief, Jose, has also found himself playing rogue-likes more and more recently.

Let’s briefly explain what Rogue-likes are before I jump into a more detailed analysis of elements. What these games broadly boil down to are the concepts of randomly generated maps, coupled with RPG-style character advancement – experience, levels, equipment all that kind of stuff – and permadeath. Essentially they the videogame version of a classic Dungeons and Dragons dungeon crawl. The name “rogue-like” comes from these games using a similar set of systems to the 1980 Unix based game Rogue, which inspired Nethack, the Diablo series, as well as numberless derivatives of all those games, including the ones I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Now, I don’t really want to get bogged down in the strict definitions of ‘Rogue-likes’, ‘Rogue-like-likes’ and “Rogue-lites’ because, honestly, it’s really pointless, as well as incredibly tedious. Luckily, fellow contributor Alison pointed me towards the excellent Procedural Death Jam – it starts today and, depending on when this goes out, has probably already begun, SO GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER AND GET ON THAT… ahem. This is where I first came across the term “Procedural Death Labyrinth,” which sums up these games nicely – so that’s how I’m going to describe them. If you want to debate the finer points of the sub-genre’s definition, go somewhere else, because I am so not interested.

That'll kill you

That’ll kill you

Anyway, blah blah blah, explanation explanation explanation. Why do I think these games have become so popular? First, from a developer’s point of view, because they’re a really efficient way to make a game: set up the parameters correctly and you can have a game with, in theory, infinite replayability. This isn’t at all accusing them of laziness, getting those parameters to work together to create a random but coherent level is going to be a bloody huge amount of work, but the amount of play-time it can generate compared to a game with pre-designed levels and a finite path is exponentially larger. Therefore providing the consumer with a much fuller experience, especially when these games are often being developed by individuals/small teams who simply couldn’t handle the workload of a more traditionally designed game.

To give a practical example, I’ve put 122 hours in The Binding of Isaac. Follow the link and you can see how much more time has been put into that than Civ 5… Civ 5 for goodness sake, the notorious time-eater of “just one more turn”, has been easily outstripped by a game about a naked baby crying his way around a hellish basement. Now that’s value for money right there.

That also demonstrates the second reason I think these games are doing so well: value for money. The efficient nature of the development and the ability to create with smaller teams drives the cost of these game right down, they’ll rarely break £15, if that. Now if I’ve managed to get 122 hours out of a game which I think cost me about £6… I don’t think anything has ever given even close to that much entertainment for that amount of money.

That's a lot of possible bosses for under a tenner

That’s a lot of possible bosses for under a tenner.
Image by ATrickyCarnie

The third reason is more about gameplay than it is about costs. Basically, everyone loves the experience of facing up to a challenge, failing, training to become stronger, returning to the challenge, then kicking the crap out of it. That kind of reward is pretty much why people play games and it’s something that a traditional RPG provides in spades – in fact the lack of this system is one of the main reasons people cite if they don’t much like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion… that and the fact the characters look like they’re made out of radioactive blamange, but I digress.

What PDL games provide is that feeling, but sped up. In other games, taking the Final Fantasy series as an extreme example, this “training” could mean hours of tedious grinding in order to see some tangible improvement – a form which meant no one but the most dedicated of fans found it a rewarding experience. However, with a PDL these effects can be felt within minutes. I’m particularly thinking of Rogue Legacy here where, in just a couple of runs, enemies that were once utterly devastating become only mediocre threats. PDL games encourage you to feel like a badass for relatively little work, which ups the fun factor considerably.

Yet, if you want to get really into a PDL – and put in, oh I don’t know, 122 hours or something – then the games can still provide a substantial challenge because, although they’re quick to show your progress, the speedy nature of an individual playthrough means the difficulty can be ramped up to max without it feeling cruel. Die in 2 minutes? Oh well, just jump straight back in, you probably earned some items/ money in those minutes to help you for the next run. A bonus side effect of this, demonstrated by games like Dark Souls, is that PDLs feed into the general gaming communities’ hankering for challenging games that don’t hold coddle the player.

The final point I want to make is, possibly, a little cynical but may be no less valid for that: PDL games are easily marketable through short form Let’s Plays. The quick playthroughs mean that whole runs of the game can be easily broken down into episodes and the speedy pace of tangible progression means that viewers will see improvement in each of these episodes, instead of the same old grind, which makes for much more compelling viewing. Need an example? Just look at Northern Lion’s 700+ episode run through of The Binding of Isaac.

They’re tough, quick-fire, cheap and yield a great sense of progression. Although there are hundreds of crappy games – looking at you Steam Greenlight – sporting “roguelike elements” trying to jump on the hype train before the gravy boat sinks like a torturously mixed metaphor; there are still oodles of super fun PDLs that the gaming public can, and have, sunk their teeth into.