12 min read

@Play 82: IRDC US 2015

On the talks of IRDC US 2015.

One month ago was the first annual (we hope!) U.S. metting of the IRDC, The International Roguelike Developers Conference, organized this year by Todd Page! I was on hand (slightly incognito -- if you were there I was the one who looked the most like Cousin Itt) and, after reviewing the archives of the talks put together by Kawaii Dragoness I have managed to compile notes on the presentations presented by the presenters present. Those notes follow. By the way, the European IRDC just finished up, but considering the lateness of this installment I think I'll leave it to someone else to write up those.

I believe strongly in hyperlinks, so before we get underway, here are some useful sites: IRDC US Tumblr - Ultima Ratio Regnum's page on the Euro IRDC - IRDC US's Twitch TV page - Logo Surströmming's YouTube page, where some of these talks are archived.

The talks were held at Georgia Tech university in scenic downtown Atlanta, and Saturday and Sunday stretched from 10 a.m. to around 5 p.m.  A Starbucks was in easy walking distance, as was the hotel that some of the guys were staying at, to which we retired Saturday evening to discuss matters of game design.  Kawaii Dragoness mentioned hotel room Soul Calibur sessions stretching late into the night.  (Of recent versions, unfortunately; to me, it's not Soul Calibur if it's not on a Dreamcast.  There was a time when Ivy's breasts weren't bigger than her head goddammit.)

Most of us went to Ray's New York Pizza for lunch Saturday where, flush with the recent news that Freehold Games' Sproggiwood was to be featured on the iOS App Store, Brian Bucklew generously paid for everyone's food!  He also knows a great deal about board games, I discovered Saturday evening!

For Sunday's lunch, the group split up; I went with the younger participants to a nearby Five Guys where, unfortunately, we were rained in by one of Atlanta's ludicrously sudden and intense thunderstorms.  It was there, by the way, that I made the discovery that fresh jalapeno slices should be treated with great respect....

Miscellaneous games and projects overheard mention while at the conference: Infra Arcana, Necklace of the Eye, No Man's Sky, Pixel Dungeon, Heavy Axe, the Doom procedural level generator OBLIGE, Artemis Bridge Simulator, Alien: Isolation, Chromehounds and the Roblox game Mad Murderer.

(Note: I was unable to get videos to embed on Gamasutra's blogging platform.  The Blogspot version of @Play has YouTube videos inlined for convenience and visual interest.)

1. Todd Page, organizer of IRDC US 2015, Opening Remarks YouTube

Getting us underway....

2. Jeff Lait, star roguelike developer and many-time 7DRL participant: "An Apologia for the Berlin Interpretation/Why Balance Is Terrible/An Algebra Of Roguelikes" YouTube

Covers a lot of varied territory, including balance issues and dungeon generation and representation in memory. Lait created POWDER and many 7DRL games, many of them very interesting.

Of particular interest is his discussion of non-Cartesian representations of dungeons, that is, not representing the dungeon as a 2D, XY-based map. I found that fascinating, since it gives some of the implementation details of Jacob's Matrix, a 7DRL Lait made a few years ago in which you explore a non-Euclidian space.  (I wrote about it some time back in one of the @Plays on 7DRL....)

Remember Portal? How the world you viewed through a portal looked just like the world outside of it? Like that, except, when you see through a portal in Jacob's Matrix, you don't see that it's a portal. Different parts of the world of Jacob's Matrix can be connected together in strange ways, and what's more, portals can even rotate your perspective, meaning that "north" is not necessarily the top of the screen, and can in fact change for you depending on what parts of the dungeon you've been through. You can return to your starting point after exploring for a while by a circuitous route, but you might not recognize it, because your perspective may have rotated.

It's an amazing, mind-expanding game, in fact Lait mentions in the talk that it was *too* mind-expanding and confusing, and so toned down those aspects in later games he's made with that engine, as well as explaining some facts of how it was made, without using a traditional two-dimensional array for world representation. Some technical details of his implementation are presented.

I also appreciated his comments about rare content, aspects of a game that don't reveal themselves after one or even many plays, that only show up at unusual moments, giving as an example NetHack's pit viper joke. And it also claims that balance is overrated, that unbalanced moments may make a game more challenging, but they also make it interesting, and adds texture to the play, an evocative term that I've found myself using sometimes as well.

Jacob's Matrix, and many of Jeff Lait's other games, can be found here. His POWDER can be found on the iOS App Store here.

3. Lee Djavaherian, tinkerer and hardware hacker: "A Tiny Room In A Tiny World" YouTube

Lee brought along a small toy treasure chest that, he reveals, actually itself completely contains the hardware used to play a roguelike game! It was made using a small, ultra-low-power microcontroller processor that runs on solar cells. It has no display but offers its display through a serial port, which can be viewed through a terminal emulator. It even communicates using Morse code.

He also goes over some of the history of computer roleplay gaming, leading up to the Video Game Crash of 1983. His mentioning of the Apple II game system EAMON is particularly interesting. In my alternate life as Metafilter's JHarris, I once made a post about EAMON. If you want to know more, it is here.  EAMON is a particularly twisty maze of passages; there's a website about it here.

Many aspects of the device's construction are discussed and illustrated. I'm still not sure exactly how it works, he didn't demonstrate it, I think due to time concerns. But, fortunately, he's put up a page discussing the project.

4. Brian Bucklew, co-founder of Freehold Games: "Data Driven Engines of Qud And Sproggiwood" YouTube

Freehold Games is an up-and-coming developer, and during the conference Brian Bucklew discovered that their Sproggiwood was due to be featured on the iOS App Store. (It's also on the Google Play Store.) He discusses Qud's early history and its class construction, especially regarding inheritance and behaviors, and other implementation details.

One goal of his in Qud's design, he notes, is his aspiration to remove the code as a barrier to inspiration, an interesting goal that I think may be ultimately impossible depending on how you interpret it, but still you can get quite far. He describes this in terms of how the ease of adding items and features to the game scales well as the game's complexity increases, so the 4,000th item added takes the same effort as the fifth.

Caves of Qud, which you can download and play from their website for free here, sounds amazing, and I have no idea why it's been off of my radar for so long. I had a chance to speak a little with Brian, and can confirm he's an extremely nice individual. And he knows about a lot of Eurogames, which is a sign of a well-rounded game designer. It is so nice to hear that he and colleague Jason Grimblat (see later) are making a go at it in the lottery of the App Store.

5. Brett Gildersleeve, author of Rogue Space Marine: "Rogue Space Marine Development Inspiration" YouTube

Brett Gildersleeve talks about Spelunky's level generator (which has a web page describing and demonstrating it) and his own game Rogue Space Marine. The stuff on Spelunky is terrific, and this should be watched for that reason at least, but it's also worth it for glimpses of the play of Rogue Space Marine, which actually introduces aspects of bullet dodging shooters into a turn-based roguelike. Watch and be amazed! Anyway, what Rogue Space Marine and Spelunky have in common is a mixture of pre-fab and randomized level generation, as a way to better ensure interesting situations.

The 7DRL page for Rogue Space Marine, which includes a 30-minute play video and a download link, is here.

6. Jim Shepherd, developer of Dungeonmans: "The Procedural Battlefield"

Leading off with a (joking?) idea for a new game called GRIZBAND, where you play as a bear. Jim Shepherd designed Dungeonmans, and talks about designing interesting play areas, and the uses of pre-made areas vs procedurally-constructed areas, which may be nominally different every game, but may not produce interesting situations. Brought up is the design of Dungeonmans, and mentioned is the sainted name of Dwarf Fortress. In practical matters, Shepherd suggests, when creating those interesting pre-made areas, not making an editor program, but using raw text files....

BTW, I can vouch that Shepherd's game Dungeonmans (Steam, $15) is entertaining and interesting! It's got roguelike play, but of particular interest is how the focus is on the world around the player, and the metagame where you're improving the fortunes of an adventurer academy as character after character advances through a randomized world.

7. Jared Corduan, mathematician: "Math-like Roguelikes" YouTube

He presents four roguelike-related puzzles from the realm of recreational mathematics for developers and viewers to think about. The first is John Horton Conway's "Angel And Devil," otherwise known as the Angel problem (Wikipedia), involving hemming in an angel on an infinite checkerboard. The others are "Lemming On A Chessboard," "Homocidal Chauffeur," "3-Way Duel" and "Chomp."

8. Sheridan Rathbun, developer of Barony: "Barony Post-Mortem" YouTube

Barony is a first-person perspective roguelike that offers four-player cooperative play! His talk is a personal story of trying to make it as a young, up-and-coming indie roguelike developer. It is available on IndieGameStand and Desura ($7), and is soon coming to Steam! Its homepage is here.

9. Bob Saunders, author of Approaching Infinity: "Infinite Gameplay" YouTube

Discusses his game Approaching Infinity ($40), a "space roguelike" with both personal exploration and spaceship combat sections published by Shrapnel Games. In particular, there's no limit to the game size and there's no cap to the player's statistics. An amusing aspect of his game, he reveals, is a planet where the terrain spells out "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra," a reference to a particular Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. Stay geeky, Bob Saunders!

10. Cameron Kunzelman, developer and 2CI Fellow in New And Emerging Media at Georgia State University: "The Artisanal Rouguelike"

Cameron Kunzelman did a talk about "The Artisanal Rouguelike" about indie roguelike game constructions before and now. A major theme of his talk is procedural generation, which is turned to more and more often by developers of all levels as a way to decrease the effort needed to create content.

Kunzelman has a blog, at, which not only talks about his game releases but also features writing on other games, including some non-roguelikes, which are rumored to exist out there somewhere.

11. Eben Howard: "FOV and You"

Eben Howard's talk "FOV and You" is about line-of-sight algorithms, showing off a variety of them, their uses and drawbacks, with a custom-written Java applet, and also covers the use of a roguelike library, Squidlib. It should be of immense interest to most traditional roguelike developers, especially new devs who are interested in learning about the fundamental algorithms of the genre.

Howard has a website,, where he posts news about the development of SquidLib.

12. Adam Boyd, former moderator for r/pixeldungeon: "Everyone's @ Home"

Adam Boyd is (was?) a moderator on the popular subreddit for the game Pixel Dungeon, and presented a talk about the maintenance of a community devoted to a roguelike game, and the interplay between the developer and the fans (the dev added an area to his game and other features based on memes in the community). Pixel Dungeon is now available on Steam ($5), desktop systems (free, requires Java), Android (free, but w/in-app purchases) and iOS ($3)

13. Jason Grimblat, co-founder of Freehold Games: "@ Meets ?: Collaborative Storytelling Through Procedural Generation" YouTube

Beginning with video of players going through Freehold's post-apocalyptic roguelike Caves of Qud (the video carries the subtitle Antelopes vs. Molluscs — note, the video doesn't actually begin until the 5:30 mark, so you may want to skip to there), the talk moves into how the players took random details provided by the game and built them into a backstory, an explanatory narrative that fit the supplied data. This is of course part of the appeal of Dwarf Fortress. Grimblat makes a distinction between developer stories, pre-written content for players to consume, and player stories, which they create themselves.

He then describes how collaborative storytelling works in Jason Morningstar's wonderful pen-and-paper game Fiasco, which is all about the constructions of these kinds of narratives, and asks what hints we can glean from it. Fiasco is particularly relevant because it doesn't have a referee or GM to author a scenario for the players to inhabit; the players work together to construct those elements. (By the way, have you heard of Fiasco? It is not a roguelike, but it's wonderful! While it's not free itself, it has all these free supplements....)

The final section has to do with the themes of the classic post-apocalyptic RPG Gamma World, and how they were adapted for Caves of Qud.

14. Rob Parker, researcher for the University of Waterloo: "The Role Of Permadeath In Roguelike Games"

One of the most-associated features with roguelike gaming is permadeath, the idea that player only has one shot at each play and has to start over if his character dies. He talks about permadeath in content of player learning, content unlock systems and procedural generation. Rob Parker mentions, by the way, that he's working on a roguelike based on David Lynch's movies and Laura Dern's career. I have difficulty imagining such a thing, and am eagerly waiting to see what he makes.


Sorry this one took so long, building links takes time and energy.  I'd like to call out to anyone with experience with the Japanese game Rogue Hearts Dungeon: does anyone reading this have experience with it?



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