Should Roguelikes be Winnable?

A topic that I’ve been thinking about recently has to do with balancing roguelikes. If you haven’t heard the term balance before, it basically refers to making a game fair through adjusting values: enemy health, enemy strength, items you find, your health, your strength, and so on.

For a normal RPG, you balance a game so that a skilled player can win and so nothing feels unfair. An example of something an RPG fan might find unfair is an “out of depth” enemy that instantly and unavoidably kills you (this happens in many roguelikes).

Many developers and players think this is bad game design because the player couldn’t do anything about it. Why bother getting good at a game if you will just lose to unpredictable circumstances? The game cheated you somehow, and many players quit various roguelikes before getting better for exactly this reason.

This post isn’t so much on actual balance as it is on two distinct philosophies on the winnability of a roguelike. This is a design choice that must be thought about carefully in roguelike design, and it doesn’t even come up for other types of games.

The question: Should a skilled player be able to win?

Most modern game designers would laugh at this question. Their games are designed so that you don’t even need skill to win. Winning is the default position. Your hand will be held through the process. Checkpoints are made every step of the way so you can try something again if you mess it up.

This might be surprising to people not immersed in the genre, but many classic roguelike games have a steep enough skill hurdle that probably less than 10% who ever play will get a win (maybe even as low as 1%). Sometimes it can take years of playing a game to get good enough at it to win. But the game is balanced such that a really skilled player can win almost every time.

Think about that for a second. This is quite a feat. Here’s an analogy which isn’t perfect: think about running a 5 minute mile. Almost no runner (even ones that train very, very hard) achieves this. But once they do, they can reproduce it many times. This is what makes roguelikes great. The focus is on player skill and progression not on character progression. You get a sense of real accomplishment.

After I wrote this post, I did a search for the topic and found it discussed at the Brogue forums. It seems there isn’t an easy way to even define “winnable.” I’ll give you my definition in a bit, but I want to dispel the obvious one as not being a good one.

We already have to distinguish between the game being winnable and the winnability of a given seed (industry term for a particular playthrough). This is only weird for roguelikes, because the game is different every time you play.

One might try to define a game as winnable if approximately 100% of the seeds can be won with “perfect play.” But using perfect play is problematic in a roguelike because of the randomness. Perfect play means you play in a way that perfectly maximizes your chance of winning.

It isn’t hard to think of situations in which sub-optimal play will randomly luck into a win and optimal play loses the seed (e.g. you need magic reflection, so you check Sokoban, but encounter an enemy with a wand of death that kills you, but the unskilled player doesn’t check Sokoban and goes on to win).

This is kind of funny, because now we have a problem with defining winnable even for a seed. Should it mean: someone somewhere won the seed? This, too, seems problematic. I’ll try to explain why from the commentary at the Brogue forum discussion. One person claimed that at least 80% of Brogue seeds are winnable based on the fact that people got wins on around 80 of the last 100 weekend challenge competitions (not the same person).

Let’s digress to make the problem with the above analysis clear. Suppose we make a game. Flip a coin. If it is heads you win and tails you lose. Under the perfect play definition, the game is not winnable. In other words, perfect play does not guarantee a win. Under the definition that some person somewhere was able to win, it is winnable.

Here’s where things get interesting. If we think about what percentage of seeds can be won, we better find out that the answer is 50%, because this is our expected percentage of games a player that plays perfectly would win. But in the above Brogue analysis, the commenter takes a pool of players and asks if any of them has won. This should greatly inflate the win percentage, because it is like taking 5 coins and flipping them all at the same time and seeing if any were wins.

To get around this subtlety, I’ll call a game winnable if a single skilled player can get a win streak of say 10 or so. A good example of this is NetHack. The vast majority of people who play will never get a win ever. But Adeon has a win streak of 29, and many people have streaks of 10. This proves that it is a game that can be won basically every time (and many consider it so easy they self-impose crazy challenges and still win).

Other famous roguelikes that have this same philosophy are Tales of Maj’Eyal (on normal/adventure at least) or from the “roguelite” genre The Binding of Isaac (where people have 150+ win streaks).

At this point you’re probably thinking, what other philosophy could there be? No one could possibly want to play a game for which you work really hard for 1,000 hours learning to make all the best moves, and yet the design will still have you lose to random impossible scenarios. It wouldn’t be fun. It would be pure frustration.

But people do this all the time in other types of games. The best example I can think of is poker. It takes a huge number of hours of training to become good enough to make roughly the best plays. You can be the best in the world and still lose due to the inherent randomness. You can only see how good someone is through long-term averages.

One way to think of this philosophy is: losing is fun, winning is more fun, winning every time is too easy and boring. Traditional roguelikes are fun, because you get in seemingly impossible situations but with enough skill you can think your way out. You can have a lot of confidence that you will basically never be randomly put in an impossible situation. Losing is your own fault, and you can get better from it.

If you take this alternate philosophy, the fun comes from the fact that you don’t know if a given situation is impossible. Maybe you just weren’t good enough. Balancing so that there are impossible situations makes it so that the top of the skill curve can still feel challenged.

I think the biggest difficulty with balancing in this manner is that a highly skilled player may never reach a 10 streak, but they should probably still be able to win something like 6 or 7 of those 10 games. This would be a very difficult balance to achieve. It is much easier to make it winnable.

Roguelikes already have a very small market. Part of what keeps people interested is that when they lose, it is their own fault. They don’t feel cheated. A game that was upfront about containing a large number of impossible seeds would probably narrow the market even more. One way to mitigate the pain would be for the game to keep track of your monthly win percent. That way you can track your progress.

I haven’t heard of this before. I’d be curious if anyone knows of any roguelikes that fit this design philosophy. The two that come to mind are Sword of the Stars: The Pit and Brogue. Both feel like you can just not find the items necessary to get a run off the ground. But I’m not very good at either, so it could be player error. There are people with about 2500 hours of play in The Pit, so I’d be curious to see if they could get a 5 streak on Normal mode (most refuse to play that difficulty since they’ve won on much harder).


One thought on “Should Roguelikes be Winnable?

  1. Excellent analysis, thank you for putting it out there. One point I will raise on the winnability of roguelikes like Nethack is their reliance on arcane lore. Beginning players would not be able to win unless they gather a vast body of facts that cant easily be found by either trial and error or in-game mechanisms. In a game like nethack it seems like once those facts are mastered the game is much more easily won (even in streaks!). This places much more emphasis for the winnability of a given seed on player knowledge of the game rather than the procedurally generated content inherent to any individual seed. While many roguelikes have this factor of arcane lore, some rely on it more than others. Brogue, for instance, is very transparant about all items and enemies in the game. As a result more reliance is placed on the RNG to compensate for the missing “lore factor”. That, I think, makes the game more difficult for skilled players and lowers the possible number of winning ‘streaks’ substantially.

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