Even though, by his own admission, Dr. Mark R Johnson is still an “early-stage academic,” he has already made quite a dent in the world of video games. He has presented at dozens of video game conferences, including DiGRA and GDC Europe, co-hosted many Roguelike Radio episodes (a podcast devoted to all things roguelike) and is about to publish his first scholarly monograph titled “The Unpredictability of Gameplay” with Bloomsbury.

Aside from probing video games from his academic ivory tower, he has also braved the trenches of both professional gaming and indie development. In 2003 he was one of the highest-ranked players in the world of Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2. He later caught the Counter Strike bug, and has recently discovered the “bullet hell” Danmaku games, a genre in which he currently holds three world records. 2011 saw him enter game development as he started chipping away at Ultima Ratio Regum, a classic roguelike, with the end goal of “nothing short of the procedural generation of culture”.

One of Mark’s latest papers, titled ‘The Use of ASCII Graphics in Roguelikes: Aesthetic Nostalgia and Semiotic Difference,’ explores the tendency of a large contingent of roguelike developers to adhere to the same aesthetic code that has been around for almost 40 years now. First established by the trend-setting Rogue in 1980, it consists of using the limited set of single ASCII or ANSI characters to represent everything from enemies to trapdoors in games that often have large and complex worlds. Indie gems like FTL, The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky owe a lot to the gameplay philosophy embraced by classic roguelikes, and thanks to the work of people in this niche terms like “permadeath” and “procedural generation” have become commonplace.

Far from being overwhelmed by the growing tide of visually crisp games with beefy budgets, classic roguelikes are still a lively niche that seems to be going nowhere anytime soon.

(image – NetHack)

Could you talk a bit about how you decided to focus your research on classic roguelikes?

I started making Ultima Ratio Regum about five years back, and three years prior to that I first found about roguelikes through NetHack and I completely fell in love with them. Looking back now NetHack has a lot of flaws, to put it mildly, I think, but it still has that sort of je ne sais quoi charm to it, and playing any roguelikes was just so unlike any other game that I’d ever played before. After that I started playing things like DCSS and Dwarf Fortress and it kind of got to the point where I thought that I could make a game like this, because even though they all have quite complex emergence systems, the basic systems of roguelikes tend to be pretty simple, there’s no real graphics aspect, there’s no real sound design.

As someone who had never made any video game before I thought that this was fairly doable, so I googled “How to make a roguelike” and now five years later we have the game. And it wasn’t really a deliberate thing. About a year into making the game I wasn’t really sure what it was going to be, it started off as a DCSS clone and I got to a point where I thought that I either needed to work out what kind of game it was going to be, or I had to just call it a day and stop making it for a while, because it had no real focus, no real direction at that point.

Then one day I realized that roguelikes tend to focus on a very small number of themes, but writers like Umberto Eco and Borges talk a lot about things like infinity and chance and randomness and these sort of things. I thought that those might be really cool themes for roguelikes and no one’s really done this before, what about creating a non-combat roguelike in which you kind of play through an Umberto Eco novel? So after about a year it kind of metamorphized into its current state, which it will probably be in until it’s finished. It kind of became this opportunity to do this cool little project that increasingly became central to my identity, to what made me visible online and I never really expected that, so it was very strange.

Being a full-time academic and my research having had nothing to do with roguelikes at all, it was very strange to know that more people played Ultima Ratio Regum in one day than the number of people who’ve read my entire academic output ever, but I suppose that’s just the nature of the thing really.

Would you say that the ease of making roguelikes is a major thing that attracts people to the genre?

I think that roguelikes, probably more than any other game community, have very compressed boundaries between people who play and people who make, precisely because there are many roguelike making tutorials out there. That definitely has shaped the community in some broader way I think in that a lot of these games have really active modding scenes and a lot of games take on-board what random players do to add to those game, like vaults and so forth. I think this kind of compressing of the boundaries between people who make and people who play the games is very interesting and very central to the roguelike experience. I think that it in certain ways speaks to not the simplicity of roguelikes, but to the fact that roguelikes are very pared-down games, that there’s very little in them beyond the gameplay systems and there’s very little that obscures the gameplay systems from the player. Also, because they are open-source and because they tend to be managed by people who tend to know how to manage big projects, I think all these things make it much easier for people to get involved in helping to shape roguelikes going into the future.

I think that even though people present the ASCII thing as a purely aesthetic, nostalgia thing, to me it clearly signals some gameplay preferences. When things like FTL and The Binding of Isaac became so popular, so much more than any other classic rogue ever, the response was very strongly polarized between the people who said that “this is fantastic, it can only be good for us, it will bring more attention to the classic roguelike world”, which is what I said, and the people who said that “this is the worst thing ever, these are not even true roguelikes, they are shocking rip-offs”. I think the people who said that imagined it being this defence of a very hard and very complex gameplay style of classic roguelikes, but they didn’t appreciate that, Isaac less so, but a game like FTL is also insanely hard, the same goes for something like Spelunky, and I think that that kind of commitment to very hard and very challenging gameplay systems hasn’t been lost, but I think a lot of people at first thought it had been lost to the shift away from ASCII and ANSI graphics, because people so strongly associated that with what roguelikes were meant to be.

(image – FTL)

This debate about nomenclature, about what is and what isn’t a roguelike, it sounds very much like what’s been going on in the broader gaming community for a while now, this negotiation of identity.

I don’t know to what extent the roguelike community is indicative of the broader gaming community. I think in some ways it definitely has that balance of simultaneously both a deep conservatism and a deep excitement for new stuff, which I think epitomizes the broader gaming community without a doubt. People simultaneously put a lot of games on this pedestal, but they also get very excited about new games and are inevitably let down when those games fail to be as good as they had hoped. I think the roguelike world is definitely the same, in that there’s both a lot of excitement about ambitious new projects, but also this kind of deification of things like NetHack, games that have been around for so long and which still maintain a pretty dominant hold on what people play. I think with things like Cogmind and Caves of Qud, that has changed a little bit because they have become incredibly popular, but I don’t think they are played more than NetHack, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they are these days. I think new games can definitely break in, but I think they have to strike a balance between paying homage to all the old games and kind of emphasizing that they are true roguelikes, whilst also doing enough that is new to capture attention rather than being just clones of the classics.

Classic roguelikes have obviously influenced mainstream games by promoting more punishing gameplay systems, procedural generation and permadeath, do you see any filtering back of influence? Do you see what happens in the mainstream gaming world feeding back into the roguelike community?

Not a lot. You could call Binding of Isaac, FTL and Spelunky mainstream games in that they aren’t super niche roguelikes, but are you still indie when you sell more than Triple-A? I don’t know, who cares. But I think that all the indie roguelike-ey games like FTL, Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, Risk of Rain, Nuclear Throne, etc. Those have had an influence on the roguelike world in some way, I think they have shown how to make your game more popular beyond the roguelike world. However, I think that the two biggest games that have emerged from the purely roguelike world, i.e. Caves and Cogmind those are very much still traditional classic roguelikes, albeit with new twists and new systems, so I don’t think the mainstream game world has affected roguelikes at all, although it has raised people’s awareness.

The guy who makes Cogmind is making his full-time living off of that game, the Caves of Qud guys are making either part-time or full-time livings off Qud and that was completely unimaginable five years back. That has shown people that there is a market out there for classic roguelikes and that if you market your game correctly you can break, to a lesser extent, into the market. Aside from that I don’t think mainstream games have had much of an impact on roguelikes. People are either developing classic roguelikes or they are developing their own fan projects.

(image – Caves of Qud)

It seems like the roguelike genre is very contained and it’s kind of unique in that you can trace the lines of influence between games pretty easily, do you know any other game genres where that might be the case?

I would definitely agree that that is the case with roguelikes, I think you can definitely read a history from the ten big games – the five big modern ones plus the five big old ones like Larn and Omega. The only other genre I think you can read that kind of history in is, of all things, the real-time strategy genre, which I partly say because it’s essentially dead now and therefore you can kind of look at the entire thing and say “Ok, where did this come from and where did it end, and why did it end there?” i.e. “Why did it end with Starcraft 2?” I think in RTS games you can see a very clear progression in terms of game ideas and game systems. I would definitely compare it to roguelikes in terms of that clear historical aspect.

I suppose also fighting games, although I am speaking as someone who knows far less about fighting games than roguelikes or RTS games, but having talked to people who know way more about fighting games than I do, I get the impression that it’s less that you can trace a kind of clear lineage, it’s more like a branching tree as you go up the history, and that fighting games haven’t necessarily moved forward in a linear way, but have kind of gone down lots of alleys, some of which have worked well, some of which have been blind alleys. If you look at RTS games, broadly speaking, modern games are clearly at the end of this long process of working out what an RTS game should look like, whereas modern fighting games are not necessarily like that.

If this history is very important to understanding roguelikes, do you see some archiving effort being put into preserving these games?

Largely, yes. A few people curate these big zip files with hundreds of games in them and update those each 6 months or each year. And because community members make games, because these games are open-source, because they often have lots of versions, because a lot of people tend to be involved in their upkeep and partly because people are now starting to make money from roguelikes (mind-blowing), for all those reasons the roguelike community, I think, is very assiduous with its archiving, tracking and maintenance practices. And I doubt that will stop anytime soon. It’s less so for the older games, things of the Larn and Omega era, those tend to be less supported for modern computers and tend to be harder to find, harder to get to run. But everything from NetHack onwards tends to be well-archived.

(image – Cogmind)

Finally, could you talk a bit about your other research interests?

My academic research is purely on video games right now and, it probably always will be, I mean what else would I ever want to do, it’s the best job ever. My main research focus right now is on e-sports and online streaming and, to a lesser extent, other intersections between video games and money. I’m very interested in gambling, but not the kind of deviant, problem gambling, medical kind of stuff. I care more about what kinds of communities and cultures arise around people playing games for money.

I’m very interested in the kind of labour required to make a living from playing video games, so the work of people who livestream for a living is something I have been researching a lot in the last year. It’s very focused on what these people do behind the scenes to make their careers successful, how they have to structure their lives and their schedules to do these sorts of things. I think that although it’s easy to see why people would go into things like e-sports – it’s the appeal of playing for a living and that sounds great – I got into games academia since I could research games and make money from it, but just as I found that you still have to exist within the structures of academia, within the structures of the job market and within the structures of many other things, e-sports players and pro streamers, they, likewise, have very stressful lives. People used to say that playing poker for a living is a hard way to make an easy living and I think the same can be said of e-sports and streaming, and to a lesser extent just being a full time game dev is similar – people are attracted to this because games are, but when they get there they find out that it’s insanely hard work. So I want to unpick a little more the lives of people who work in games and whether these lives live up to what they had hoped when they first set out to play or make games for a living.

In terms of roguelikes, I do have a second paper I would like to write, which I have kind of planned and sketched out, but I currently have two papers in final edits, five other papers in progress and 15 papers in development, of which only one is this other roguelike paper, so I will get to it at some point, but possibly not very soon. Also, because the paper that I’ve already published on roguelikes is more on the humanities side of research than on the social sciences side, and I’m much more a social scientist than a humanities kind of researcher, so any more humanities, critical theory, aesthetics stuff I do is purely for my own enjoyment. Being an early career academic, it’s hard to not focus entirely on papers that will get me future jobs, because the academic job market is insanely competitive and insanely precarious. So I will do another paper on roguelikes and it will appear before the end of the decade, I can promise you that!

In the future, researching people who commit a huge amount of effort to making games without profit, like me, the people who maintain NetHack and the people who make other big games that don’t generate profit, I think that would be a really interesting research project.

(Featured image – screenshot of Ultima Ratio Regum, obtained from http://www.ultimaratioregum.co.uk/game/info/)