Table of Contents

1 Repetition and Death - The Fun of Roguelike Game Design

I love Roguelikes. It's my absolute favorite genre of video games. I'd like to talk a bit about them in this blog post; specifically what I believe makes them so compelling, and what keeps me spending my scarce video game time in this genre.

1.1 Preamble and Rogue Primer

There seem to be several competing definitions of what a 'roguelike' is. It's a topic that is frequently debated by lovers of the genre and it's associtated offshoots.

Skip this section if you're familiar/uninterested in the Roguelike definition argument and are more interested in my thoughts on what makes these games fun/interesting.


I tend to like the following break downs:

Rogue/like/: A genre characterized by its similarity to the game Rogue (1980). Rogue was originally released for Unix mainframe systems.

Additionally: See the following HTTP website for the "Berlin Interpretation" of what a roguelike is: ->

The above is widely used as a yard stick to determine if something is a roguelike or not, though not everyone agrees on this definition.

What I typically think of as a Roguelike is a game with the following characteristics:

-> ASCII and/or tile based graphics
-> Turn based game play
-> Permadeath
-> Procedural generation of game objects (levels, items, etc)

Examples of classic Roguelikes (excluding Rogue):

  • Moria
  • Angbad
  • Hack/NetHack
  • Dwarf Fortress (Adventure Mode)

Some modern games that I think encapsulate the spirit of these classic games, while modernizing their interfaces and ergonomics are games such as:

  • Caves of Qud
  • Cogmind
  • Riftwizard
  • Many others, see "Traditional Roguelike" tag on Steam for more examples


So now that we've covered the definition of a Roguelike, lets look at a slightly different definition that's emergered in the last two decades or so. What many people call a 'Roguelite'.

Rogue/lite/: A genre that borrows many gameplay and game design elements from classic Roguelikes, but abandons others in service to a different game design or direction. This is a very diverse genre, that mashes Roguelike mechanics with a diverse set of other genres like first person shooters, action RPGs, strategy games, and more.

Modern examples of what I'd call roguelites:

  • Dead Cells
  • Hades
  • Ziggurat
  • FTL
  • Risk of Rain / Risk of Rain 2
  • Slay The Spire
  • Enter The Gungeon
  • Many many more, see the "Roguelike" tag on Steam

Many roguelites typically include what I call a "inverse difficulty curve" mechanic, which I'll touch more on in the next section.

1.2 What Makes Roguelikes/Roguelites So Fun

Note: Henceforth when I say RLs I mean the broader genre of roguelike and roguelites, unless otherwise specified.

At a high level, I think the answer to this question (for me) is pretty simple. The best RLs keep one design choice at their center IMHO:

–> Sufficient mastery of the games systems allows you to trivialize the games difficulty.

Put another way, once you know the game well enough and have traversed it's skill curve, inventive and exicting synergies should start to emerge that you can capitalize on to absolutely "break" the game. The euphoria of completely dominating a game, by having mastered a set of "hard skills" and "abstract skills" is (for me) unparalleled in comparison to other video game genres.

–> "Hard skills" can be defined as skill that's related to direct player input and control mastery. This is for stuff like dodging attacks, managing inventory, memorizing enemy moves, etc. Typically these are less prevalent in "classic" roguelikes

–> "Soft skills" can be defined as mastery over the games systems. Things like core mechanic functionality, understanding how gameplay elements/effects synergize and reinforce emergent properties.
—> Eg. Your character has spell that sets themselves on fire, but you have a fire resistance amulet and the floor is covered in flammable oil

We'll come back to this idea, but lets take a step back for a moment.


Most RLs typically contain the following ingrediants at the core of their design:

–> A repetative core gameplay loop, structured upon a base set of design choices

–> Some kind of core hook(s), designed to keep you engaged with the repetative game loop

This classification might on it's face seem to exclude a favorite RL of yours, but allow me to explain with some examples.

The (roguelite) game Hades has a tight core gameplay loop. You have movement, a dash, and 3 different attacks. Enemies spawn, and you fight them. Layered on top, you have a number of different systems that start to ramp up the depth of the games systems.

As you progress through the game, these systems start to get more complex and offer more choices. These systems (in Hades' case, the excellent story as well), define the "hooks" that take what is at it's core a relatively simple game, and turn it into something remarkable.

To look at a more "classic" roguelike like Caves of Qud, the core hook is the vast set of emergent gameplay possibilties offered by the games core systems. Because the ingame world is vast and uses meticulously curated procedural generation, the oppertunities for making exciting game play choices are extremely vast, which creates a desire to continue playing and experimenting.

As you spend more time in the game, you start to understand how your interactions with these gameplay systems inform other system interactions you'll have later on. After a sufficient amount of time engaging with these systems, you start to see clear (or sometimes unclear) patterns of how to maximize your effectiveness.

At it's best, your time spend mastering the "hard skills" and "abstract skills" is rewarded by gameplay events where you make a fool of the games difficulty.

Because you've developed such a deep understanding of the systems, you can now absolutely crush the game as a satisfying reward for your skill and ingenuity.


In RLs I see two kind of distinct patterns for leading the player to this game breaking power fantasy.

In modern roguelites, I typically see this being introduced as what I called earlier an "inverse difficulty curve".

Games that implement this system will typically have some kind of character state that is tracked across runs of the core gameplay loop. Advancing this state makes every subsequent run easier, or at least presents more choices.

An example of this is something like Enter The Gungeon. When you start the game, you have very few items unlocked, and you also don't have a good grasp on the "hard skills", as you just started playing. As you play (and fail), you might unlock a new gun or item every other run.

Over time, this effect snowballs. As you get better at the "hard skills", so does your understanding of the "abstract skills", and you have more choices (items/spells/powerups) at your disposal.

This actually has the effect of making the game easier over time, but very cleverly, and without changing the feel of the game that much. Good roguelites pace the challenge of the game to match this easier-over-time feeling.

The culmination of this is typically "clearing" the dungeon/story/etc of the game for the first time, usually on what I'd call a "broken" run.

A run of the core game where you've finally internalized the hard skills and systems well enough to complete a run of the game, and managed to do so with a spectacular set of gameplay decisions.

Capitalizing on this understanding can lead you to keep running the game, ever searching for an even more broken run, where you've capitalized even further on your knowledge of the games systems.


In more classic Roguelike's, that don't offer this so called "inverse difficulty curve", typically the carrot on the stick is the implicit desire to clear the game. For example in NetHack, to reach the lowest floor of the dungeon. But more than that, it's the fun of dynamically adapting to the choices the games systems present you.

RLs typically use procedural generation to create what can sometimes feel like a slot machine. There's this intoxicating brew when starting a run of what kind of luck you'll have, what kind of items you'll discover, what kind of build will emerge based on the choices the game presents you.

In games like Caves of Qud, I've had runs end minutes into them, due to poor luck, poor gameplay decisions made on my part, etc. I've also had runs where all of my choices happened to make sense and perfect synergies revealed themselves and I absolutely mopped up.

But these are typically outliers, and not where the real joy lies IMHO.

The best runs are those that keep you constantly guessing, on the edge of your seat. Forcing you to constantly reevaluate your build, the choices you've made so far. They force you to make difficult compromises between what's fun, interesting, and viable.

They push your understanding and intuition about the games systems to the absolute limit, and when you overcome these challeneges, it is the absolute pinnacle of what video games can offer as a form of entertainment.

In my opinion at least.

1.3 Closing Thoughts

If you made it all the way here, thanks for reading, I know this was a longer one. I surprisingly have quite a bit more to say on this topic, but figured I'd maybe leave it for another time, as I've already coverted a lot here.

If you already love and play lots of RLs, right on.

If you're someone who hasn't checked them out yet, I'd encourage you to give them a try, there's nothing quite like them :)

Thanks for reading

Created: 2022-01-26 Wed 15:19