Tanya X. Short is the captain of Kitfox Games. They're developing a survival-strategy RPG for tablet and PC called Shattered Planet. It may or may not be a roguelike.
It's pretty clear we have a problem.
Developers and players alike use the word Roguelike as if it were a perfectly valid genre of gameplay. We even use the term sometimes to describe our own games we are trying to sell to people.
Stop to think: how do we describe those games where you jump around on platforms, often die from falling on pits, and sometimes you kill enemies by jumping on them? It's not a "Mario-like". It's a platformer.
The short answer: Platformer is more accurate, easier to understand/remember for people who have perhaps never played a Mario game, and doesn't imply a thematic genre.
Imagine an alternate universe in which all "jumper games" felt obligated to include plumbers and mushrooms as thematic elements. Loosening the label up into "Mario-likelike" or "Mario-lite" might make it less limiting, but actually more vague and potentially confusing.
As game developers, we are responsible for how we describe the games we make, yet continually trap ourselves in a loop of calling our own game essentially a clone of someone else's, with lengthy footnotes explaining why that isn't actually the case.
In the indie game space, design and marketing are often so tightly linked that we may forget the power we have over our product's message. We aren't used to the idea that we're shaping the player's narrative about our game that the terms we use on our websites, in our Kickstarters, or elsewhere in our marketing might skew the attitudes of our fans, and our industry.
In fact, the idea of changing our fanbase's vocabulary about our game can seem terrifying, if not downright impossible. Some, such as the good folks at Roguelike Radio, would say these are simply traits that all modern games should aspire to, and is part of why we're seeing them pop up in every genre and platform. And really, it's culture. How do you change culture?
Fortunately, it's not a new problem.
This Isn't the First Time, or Even the Second
1. Sandbox/Open World games.
If you don't remember, Grand Theft Auto III's release in 2001 was a major event in our industry. For some years afterwards, it seemed every game had to have some element of wandering around aimlessly, destroying your surroundings and causing chaos, or else it wasn't considered AAA. Most of these "heavily inspired" products (to put it kindly) also included similar themes of guns, crime, and dense urban environments. Unsurprisingly, it was natural to call these games Grand Theft Auto clones, because they were, in fact, trying to replicate the success of the GTA series and doing their best to improve on it.
However, journalists liked some of these so-called clones, and many of them had new mechanics or themes that didn't quite fit the bill. Some struggled, toying with terms mostly focused on themes, like "crime games", "crime-based action games", or even "gangsta genre" (thanks CNN). By fall 2006, however, Wikipedia records the term "sandbox games" coming into vogue, capturing the spirit of free play and pointless chaos embodied in the sandbox of our childhoods.
It's worth noting that the term Grand Theft Auto Clone is still useful -- when specifically talking about games that have the same theme, marketing, and feature set.
2. First Person Shooters
Remember even further back, to the days of Wolfenstein? Here's a hint to get your research started:
But What's Wrong with "Roguelike"? It's True!
Well, maybe, but as both an experienced designer and as a newbie marketer, there are a few problems here. It's...
- Imprecise. Describes too many kinds of games! Impossible to know what exactly someone means when they say it's Roguelike. You probably think by now that it means procedural content and strong death penalty, according to the Berlin Interpretation, but that's not all you're encapsulating there!
- Misleading. People can hear what they want to hear. Enthusiasts of a particular Rogue-like will be excited to hear that another upcoming similar game... but how similar is it really? Will someone who likes Binding of Isaac find a similar affection for FTL? Should a fan of Rogue Legacy be excited about a ZAngband remake?
- Limiting. Strongly implies a theme, when often it's only intended to restrict mechanics. Why are roguelikes so often in dungeons instead of similarly popular settings like castles, WW2 battlefields, or space-ships? On the other hand, are castles and spaceships really the best settings for a Metroidvania? We may never know.
- Clubby. Inaccessible, requires lots of explanation. Makes you feel like a cool insider when you use jargon, but hopefully by now, as developers, we can all agree that not making potential future players feel stupid is better for business in the long-run.
The ultimate proof? In order to talk intelligently about the range of gameplay encompassed by Roguelike, fans and independent developers have attempted to classify the genre into sub-categories, but these are, themselves, full of specific references (Hacklike, Bandlikes, ADOMlikes, ZAngbandlike).
Less strictly, I think we can all agree that words mean things. They matter. They change how we think, how we behave, and how we express ourselves. Why would we settle for calling our games part of a genre essentially named "almost-clones of this other game you like"?
But It's So Tempting...
Even on the Shattered Planet game page, horror of horrors, the word "roguelike" appears!? Why?
- It's natural, and contagious. When you're strongly inspired by a game, it's natural (especially for humble independent developers) to want to give credit to your predecessor, while also gaining prestige subtly by association. Similarly, if your predecessor describes themselves as being in a particular genre, it is natural to use that genre label yourself. You fool yourself into thinking it adds clarity and association, without questioning the quality of the label. If your favorite game in the world used it, clearly it functions well enough, right?
- Accuracy. This is less and less true, but some games are truly Rogue-clones. I adore Brogue (is there any better way to spend 15 minutes?), and it might as well be called ClickRogue. For these, all right, I wave the white flag. You guys are making Roguelikes. I accept that... but everyone else should cut it out! Including me!
- Fans. This is the other side of the Clubby coin. When used to market a game, roguelike can attract instant interest, as it was an underserved niche for decades in the West. The closer your game is to Rogue, the less this feels like a con; but being similar to a beloved game is a less desirable tactic than marketing your game based on its own unique merits.
- Stickiness. The longer a term is used, the more insidious it becomes, with all of its problems and benefits increasing. At this point, Roguelike has been used for 30+ years... it may be with us for a long time. However, I believe that just as soon as a big studio gets in on the roguelike action, complete with a AAA marketing budget, we'll start hearing better, more accurate terms come into use (I'm looking at you, Ubisoft/Activision/EA).
- Evolutions. Due to the discomfort caused by the problems discussed earlier, Rogue-like-like and Rogue-lite have come into vogue (see FTL or Rogue Legacy). These try to bypass direct association with Rogue itself, but this is a false solution. In the end, they are even more vague, just as clubby, and even less explanatory.
And, ultimately, any press is good press. It can be more difficult to control the narrative if you are an indie developer, because your "marketing spend" (ha) is often about community building and encouraging your fans to create their own conversations about your game... and who are we to tell them what terms to use and not use? We don't sell boxes from a TV commercial tagline, a magazine spread, or often even Steam banners or any other top-down forms of communication. We're just scraping by. So, when your fans, or the media, call your game a roguelike, you don't correct them -- you thank your lucky stars for any attention at all.
But the truth is that we can't let our players dictate how we talk about games, game design, and genre direction. At the very least, it needs to be a dialogue, and as designers, developers, and marketers, we have the responsibility to strive to present our creations accurately and courageously.
"Hey!" you might be thinking, "You can't summarize this article yet! You haven't told me how to fix the problem! What word am I SUPPOSED to be using, tyrannical smartypants?!"
The truth is, I don't think there IS a single word, specifically because Roguelike itself is being used in a few different ways to mean a few different things. So here's a few ideas for possible replacements, depending on context:
- Mastery: a game about learning a particular skill extremely well. Guitar Hero is, in this way, a mastery simulation, and Rogue is a mastery RPG.
- Improvisation: a game about decisions made on the fly, adjusting dynamically as the game evolves. Werewolf is then an improvisation card game, and Rogue is an improvisation RPG.
- Evergreen: a game that is intended to be played in hobby-like habits over years, allowing players to express themselves at their own pace. Sudoku is an evergreen puzzle game; Rogue is an evergreen RPG. Credit goes to Daniel Cook for this one.
- Mystery: a game primarily about discovering unknowns and revealing procedurally generated secrets? Perhaps the first 20 turns of Civilisation are a mystery simulator. Taken from the Japanese term for Roguelikes, "Mystery Dungeon".
- Shuffled: a game that uses procedural generation to fluff up and add replayability to standard genre content. Used in opposition to bespoke hand-crafted content. Spelunky could be described as the pinnacle of the shuffled platformer, while Rogue is a shuffled RPG.
- Uncompromising: a game with high stakes and heavy loss. Taken directly from the Don't Starve tagline, one of the few examples of a procedurally generated game with permadeath that doesn't use roguelike anywhere in its marketing.
I don't think any of those are quite ready for the back of the AAA box, but may inspire someone better at this whole "tagline" thing than I am, maybe even someone with millions of dollars and focus groups behind them. Elegance is usually deceptively expensive. The mental leap between "GTA-clone" (invoking violence, immature sexualisation, and driving) and "sandbox" (invoking experimentation, childlike glee and impermanence) is longer than it seems, after the fact. I look forward to seeing who chimes in in the comments.
For now, as an opening to the conversation, my suggestion is this: ask yourself why you want to use the word. For me, I intend to take a long look at my game, at my community, and shape gaming culture carefully. What is it about Rogue or its progeny that you want to compare yourself to? Why are you using procedural generation or permadeath in the first place, beyond getting a few extra hits from /r/roguelikes? Within that explanation somewhere, is there a word we should be using?
Special thanks to my ex-colleague and good friend David Fathers for originally spurring debate on this topic.