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Hail to the King: Amulets and Checkmates and Chogue, oh my!

In this short essay, Pippin explains how he and Jonathan Lessard figured out an ending to their Rogue/chess hybrid Chogue, providing an in depth example of their approach to hybridisation in game design.

Pippin Barr, Blogger

June 22, 2018

5 Min Read

One of the outstanding issues we’ve had with Chogue almost from the beginning has been the question of how it ends. Thanks to our hazy assumptions about how classic Rogue works (we figured, without checking, that it was an infinite series of procedural dungeons) we ended up deciding, without really deciding, to go with chess’s endings in terms of our design through hybridisation.

That meant that we would use checkmate as the determiner of a game won or lost. Except that in the context of our dungeons and the balance of the game and most of all the AI, checkmate is pretty hard to accomplish and it’s really not very satisfying. So as a kind of further hybrid decision, the game ends when you capture the enemy king or your king is captured. Not quite checkmate, but rather what checkmate implied - which is itself kind of nice, because it’s almost a transgressive treat, as a chess player, to actually capture the opponent’s king rather than just prove you could. It also fits well with the opening screen of the game, in which the enemy king escapes down some stairs on a regular chess board - it makes dramatic sense that the game ends when you track him down.

All was well with this ‘checkmate’ decision, with the enemy king appearing with increasing possibility as you go further down in the dungeons. We even implemented the idea that if you’re not careful the king will escape down further sets of stairs when threatened, which was fun. However, a challenge emerged when we sent the game out to testers and heard back from one of them that they felt frustrated by capturing the king and having the game end - they wanted something more roguelike in which they could challenge themselves to go deeper!

Putting aside the mild elation that anyone wanted to play the game more at all, this was a potential issue. Chess has a very sharp endpoint and isn’t designed to last for eons (long, drawn-out games notwithstanding), which is in tension with the roguelike tradition of procedural content and potential infinity. Our response was to scramble our way into a screen in which, upon capturing the enemy king, the player can decide to end there or to carry on exploring the (now kingless) dungeon. This felt like a fair approach, essentially giving players the option of choosing a chess or Rogueresolution to that key moment. It’s true that it only felt like a ‘good enough’ decision, but it was, well, good enough.

As it turns out, though, we were being somewhat seduced into thinking about Rogueas a roguelike (apparent even in my language above). Chogue is a hybrid of chess and Rogue, two real games. It’s a roguelike in that sense only, not in the broader game culture meaning of the term. Really, it’s a Rogue-like, if anything. On the morning of one of our final sprint days to get “Chogue Classic” (working title) out the door, I happened to do some reading about Rogue and therefore happened to run into the fact that Rogue totally has a well-defined ending.

Rogue victory screen (image from The CRPG Addict)

In Rogue your objective is not to go ever downward, surviving infinite levels of dungeon, although it’s true that each level is procedurally generated (and thus you potentially can go down infinite levels). No, your objective is to find the Amulet of Yendor and return it to the surface. The amulet spawns on level 26. So this actually gives Rogue a very well-defined structure. (If you’re curious you can read a couple of people’s reports of finishing Rogue here and here.)

After telling Jonathan about it, both of us shared the same immediate thought: “The King of Yendor!” Rogue’s structure solved the problems we’d been having with Chogue entirely. The objective of Chogue is now to capture/vanquish the King of Yendor and then return to the “light of day” (Rogue’s manual and the game itself talk endlessly about this), which will be represented by the initial chess board level. It’s a very neat and tidy solution to what was one of the few elements of the game that was feeling kind of dissatisfying and not cleanly resolved. It also addresses the desire for more ‘extreme’/elongated play as we’ve set the King of Yendor to appear at level 13 (26 was deemed too insane in our context), and getting there and back will not be easy. It’s very satisfying that it comes directly out of the method of design via hybridisation we’ve been using all along in terms of choosing a decision from one game or the other.

Another bonus of this approach that we discovered is the reintroduction of a tiny amount of narrative. Very early in our design process we’d talked about making a very different version of a chess+Rogue game that focused on procedural storytelling, a challenge we were both interested in. Over time, obviously, Choguebecame a more formal game and the narrative drained away. With the introduction of a quest structure, though, and particularly in the form of the King of Yendor the narrative element is back in a pleasingly understated way.

Simply finding the in the game king is a thrill, but noticing that when he attacks or is attacked the flavour text says something like “The King of Yendor captured your pawn” is surprisingly powerful. Every other piece is referred to only by its type, only the King of Yendor is named in this way, and it implies a potentially epic backstory that the player can, if they wish, fill in for themselves. The disjunction between that kind of narrative and chess is especially fun. Along with this, the game now has an ending with a narrative resolution, the player having gone on their long journey to slay the King of Yendor and then return home to be celebrated. It means something, you know?

So in the end, by staying true to the design process we set for ourselves of choosing decisions from either chess or Rogue, and remembering that we’re talking about Rogue and not a roguelike, we’ve ended up with a kind of perfect shape for the game that will hopefully satisfy its players as much as it satisfies us. It feels good to follow a semi-formal process like this and see that the result of that commitment is a really coherent piece of work.

Long live the King of Yendor!

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