It's very difficult to design a great roguelike game.
The random nature of the environments and the harsh punishment for failure are key to the genre's appeal, but they require a very fine balance between difficulty and fairness. Players can quickly get frustrated if a roguelike seems too hard or too random, especially if they don’t fully understand why it was that they failed.
Typically, this is solved by having a deeply systemic but clearly communicated logic to the game. Spelunky does this exceptionally well, not only with the way that the player and the environment interact, but also how the environment interacts with itself.
With Cryptark, the new roguelike from Alien Trap (who previously developed Capsized and Apotheon), Jesse McGibney and his team decided to take another tack.
They let the player dig their own grave, so to speak.
Choose the form of your destruction
“A lot of the difficulty in Cryptark comes out of tying the economic system to the roguelike framework--by making your money your life.” McGibney tells me.
"Mixing up the objectives keeps you from just finding something that works and sticking with it. That’s where a game gets stale."
Cryptark is a game that casts you as a space pirate, shooting your way through derelict ships and disabling their automated security systems so that you can sell their parts for scrap. The trick of it is that each level has its own value, which is augmented by side objectives like keeping certain systems intact, destroying certain systems, or completing the level with less equipment that you would necessarily feel comfortable with.
“You could make your life really easy,” McGibney continues, “but it would cost a lot of money to do. We introduced a really nice skill ceiling where you could make life hard for yourself, but your margins would go way up. Bastion had a similar system that was built on giving yourself handicaps. That’s something that roguelike communities engage in a lot. They’ll do daily challenges, or like an eggplant run in Spelunky.”
What makes this successful in Cryptark is that, for most of the game, the difficulty arises out of the player’s own choices. Each level has three side objectives. Taken individually, they might seem fairly trivial, but each additional one you attempt to complete compounds the difficulty. This means that when you fail, it feels very much like you are the victim of your own arrogance and greed.
This extends even as far as the levels that you play, with each ‘stage’ offering you a selection of four different derelict ships to choose from. They vary in difficulty and style, with the easier ships being worth less, and the harder more, so that you’re entirely complicit in the level that’s selected. They’re still randomly generated and populated, but now it’s your randomly generated and populated level, rather than just the one you’re lumped with.
“With Cryptark we wanted those random elements, but we wanted the player to be able to make that decision, as the crux of the game is that risk/reward. They need to have the option to make the risk to get the reward. If they have multiple levels to choose from, it’s more their fault if they choose the ship that ends up beating them, rather than feeling as though it was the fault of the RNG.”
Making frequent deaths seem less unfair
This idea of player complicity neatly sidesteps the problem of fairness for the most part. Cryptark is a game that gets difficult quickly, but there’s enough of a buffer in the way your ‘life’ works (the cash reserves you have) that you can stomach a few failed missions so long as you’re not too greedy with your loadouts. This is best illustrated through the fact that even the amount of health you have is tied into the economy, each health point increasing the cost of that mission by a hefty chunk.
“Because everything is tied to the money system, it means we can really put a lot of emphasis on the player in terms of what they go with.” McGibney tells me. “The objectives were a way to really mix it up, and we’re going to be adding a even weirder and crazier objectives, As they give a lot money to the player, it’s another incentive to play, and keeps you from getting into a rut in your playstyle. It keeps you from finding what works and sticking with it, because that’s where the game gets stale.”
This is all illustrated by the profit margin, Cryptark’s way of scoring its players. The cheaper you can make your loadout, the more of a payout you can get from each level, and the higher your score. “You’re making a bet against the level, really.” McGibney explains. “You’re weighing your skill against the difficulty of the level, and saying that you can go in with x handicap and still come out on top.”
Which is the essence of the roguelike genre, really. It's just not usually distilled into such a capitalistic expression.