Types of Roguelikes

Ive been playing a lot of nethack guys

Whenever I mention that I like to play nethack, or that I am still playing nethack, I often get questions asking if I have played "X" roguelike. The most common one being Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.

While I'm alway happy to answer peoples question, these questions I often find kind of curious. The reality is that roguelikes like DCSS and wildly different from Nethack, and are even more different from the Modern style of roguelikes. So asking this question is a bit like asking "Do you like Baldurs Gate?" after someone has mentioned they like Final Fantasy.

Anyways, because I get those kind of questions often, I figured I would at least explain how these roguelikes are differnet, and what I kind of view as the three major types of roguelikes that exist today.

So here they are (in no particular order).

Modern Rogulike (The Roguelite)

FTL, Rogue Legacy, Crypt Of The Necrodancer

The Modern Roguelike is currently the most popular kind of rogulike. The term Roguelite actually captures a lot of what separates this sub-genre from the other two, but people sometimes do not like the term, thinking that it's used to put down this style of roguelike (which admittedly it may have been originally).

The two main key components that define a Modern Roguelike are: Low focus on the meta-game as a core part of the game, and a design that encourages short quick plays where randomness greatly varies the experience and provides difficulty.

A good example is Rogue Legacy. That game is very much designed for a player to replay the dungeon it generates over and over again in quick succession. You can tell that this is a core philosophy of that game by the Trait mechanic, a mechanic that only really makes sense if the player is going to have to play a lot of the game over and over again.

Rogue Legacy also introduced the cross-run progression mechanic which more of these Modern Roguelikes are adopting. This lets the user feel a sense of progression over time, and with enough perks/upgrades it helps reduce how much the randomness can affect a game.

As the term Roguelite implies, these games are meant more for short playthroughs with little attachment to any one playthrough. In fact, with many of these games, extended playing of the games can be frustrating, as the more one plays the one more gets frustrated at how much of the game is determined by randomness.

Classic Roguelike

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, ToME, Dungeons of Dredmor, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon

The Classical roguelike is the second most popular type of modern roguelike. These are the closest of the current style of roguelikes to the original type of roguelikes. These are often RPGs, but do not have to be.

The main defining characteristics of the Classic Roguelike are: Low focus on the meta-game as a core part of the game, and designed for long and involved runs that can take anywhere from 10 minutes to 20 hours.

These roguelikes are the closest to the modern Dungeon Crawler. Think Diablo and other loot games, except with random generation of dungeons and perma-death. The games are designed for players to find lots of loot (which is randomly variant), and to progress through a lot of levels. They also tend to include many different roles that players can play with large variance between roles.

For example, Tales Of Maj'Eyal (or ToME), includes a very large world with multiple areas and dungeons. All of these areas are randomly generated, and the game includes multiple quests and plenty of monsters to kill for random loot. The main goal of the game, and most of these games, is progression for the sake of progression.

As I mentioned before, if what I'm describing doesn't sound that different from a Diablo or a Baldur's Gate, but with turn based mechanics, that is because it isn't that different. These are essentially similar to those style of games, but with perma-death and randomness.


Nethack, Spelunky

The Hacklike is the rare unicorn of the roguelike spectrum, both in terms of modern roguelikes and older roguelikes. This style of roguelike caters to a niche audience, and requires a significant investment from both the developer and player, and as a result these are somewhat rare.

The main defining characteristic of the Hacklike is: The meta-game is the game, all of the game is more or less designed around the player learning the ins and outs of the mechanics. Once enough of the metagame is understood, the game is consistently beatable. The randomness exists mainly as a variance to allow the player to learn the meta-game, and not to provide actual difficulty.

This style of roguelike is also sometimes reffered to as "puzzle games pretending to be roguelikes".

Another thing that defines a 'Hacklike' is what is called the 'YASD', or 'Yet Another Stupid Death'. Once a player has learned sufficient knowledge of the metagame, any death or loss of the game is often followed by the player thinking 'that was my fault'. This is a consequent of the strict meta-game that exists, and deaths that feel this way are called 'YASD', as they often make the player feel stupid.

Spelunky, the most modern incarnation of this aspect, introduced a new idea of the "Daily Challenge" to the genre. This was something that nethack communities had actually done before, but Spelunky was the first game to introduce it as a built in mechanic. The concept of this challenge is to provide the same dungeon to different players, and see who can do the best trying to beat it. In other words, the challenge is in who can figure out the puzzle that is the game the best.

That's all folks

And there you have it, those are the major types of roguelikes that kind of exist today. Now obviously these divisions are getting more and more fluid (Crypt of the Necrodancer for example has some modes that seem to be inspired by Hacklikes), and the genre is constantly evolving. However, I think this at least captures the major divisions between roguelikes.

Posted by Mijati

Where would you classify the binding of issac?

For the most part it follows what you describe as "Hacklike" except that there is some kind of progression in it (unlocking new items that you have a chance to find). However the meta game is a huge part of it (understanding where the secret rooms are, how to manipulate the items etc.)

Posted by LtSquigs

@mijati: I havent played enough BoI to really know where to classify it.

I should note, meta-game can greatly affect any one of these games, it affects every game really. The existence of a meta-game or that the meta-game makes a game easier is itself not what defines a hacklike.

What defines a hacklike is that the entire game is designed around the meta-game. That mechanics in the game exist to either help you learn or force you learn that meta-game (think the shortcuts in spelunky). That the meta-game is the main and core focus of the game.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

I'm particularly fond of anything that has random dungeons, light penalties for death, and a sense of progression. I'm generally terrible at games, so the knowledge that if I work at it, I can level the playing field eventually is hugely appealing. I think my favorite so far is NISA's ZHP, which looks impenetrable until you pick it up, start playing, and realize it's a roguelite for us baby men gamers.

Edited by fisk0

So, would you say the lack of direct progression (apart from you better understanding the mechanics/meta-game) between runs is a trait of the hacklite or some other subgenre of roguelikes? I mean, most of the Roguelites have that thing where the game progressively gets easier as you unlock more powerful things/upgrades (maybe until you defeat some specific boss, at which point it increases the difficulty across the board, but this too gets easier over time as you increase your character's starting health or gear), whereas something like Spelunky and (if I recall correctly) Nethack, both new and returning players start with the exact same abilities.

Posted by LtSquigs

@fisk0: So far yes, but there hasnt been much evolution in that area. The progression stuff is sort of a more recent development even in Rogue-Lites.

Theoretically BoI has progression mechanics, and Im not sure if thats a hack-like or not.

I think progression mechanics can work in a hacklike, sort of like an extended tutorial (like LoL where you have to reach level 30 before you unlock everything), but I think for it to work right you would want to reach that point where you unlock everything, have all the tools, and then need to solve the puzzle.

Posted by Mento

Binding of Isaac's a combination of both, really. The meta-game is figuring out what all the items do and how all the monsters/bosses work, but it's also heavily luck-based.

Spelunky's a curious case because it's not that easy to beat even if you know what you're doing. It's not too tactical, being a real-time platformer that will kill you if you dilly-dally, so a player's reflexes and skill are always factors. With NetHack and its ilk, you have all the time in the world to plan your next move. In Spelunky, you can say it's YASD if you get eaten by a plant you're holding like a goddamn idiot, but if you're taking damage from a spider because it jumped awkwardly, or an arrow trap at the edge of the screen that you couldn't see until it was too late, it's more just messing up because the game is difficult. BoI's sort of like Spelunky in that regard, because even if you're knowledgeable about the game you can still get overwhelmed by regular encounters if you're not playing well.

Progression, I think, should be the key factor in your designation of what constitutes a "Roguelite". If you're able to find ways of making the game easier on yourself for the next run, it's a compromise the designers included to lessen the severity of the game's difficulty as well as diminishing the randomness factor. So Binding of Isaac probably belongs there, as certain characters and items that are unlocked after performing certain feats can make the game substantially easier. Or harder, in some cases.

Talking of tricky-to-define Roguelikes, you ever try One Way Heroics? It's an interesting twist on the format.

Posted by ChrisTaran

Great read @ltsquigs! Though I think I have no idea what meta-game means at all :p

Posted by Prestige

@ltsquigs: I also don't really understand what you mean by game versus metagame. I've always thought "metagame" just meant using information from outside the game, but perhaps that's not how you're using it here? I can understand that Nethack would be especially good at driving players to seek outside information because it has so many mysterious messages and tricky interactions. I'm not sure that Spelunky falls into the same category. I appreciate the fact that Spelunky also contains complex and surprising interactions between characters and objects, but I don't know that it's any more likely to drive players to seek outside information than FTL or ToME, for example.

As for "roguelites," I always thought they were simply games that used some roguelike elements, but not enough to be considered a traditional roguelike, regardless of other issues like the expected length of a playthrough.

Posted by Praxis

This was an interesting read, though I'm a bit mystified by the distinction between 'Classic Roguelike' and 'Hacklike.' Admittedly, I've only ever played one such game, DoomRL, but it seems like that game would fit neatly into either or both categories. I suppose it ultimately depends on how you define 'meta-game,' which in and of itself is a word that people tend to disagree on.

Posted by Baal_Sagoth

Very interesting. I hadn't thought about the field in this way. It all makes sense though. So the peculiar conclusion for me is that I played "Hacklikes" the least of all the variants of roguelikes. I already loved FTL anyway and Abyss Odyssey has finally given me a variation of Rogue Legacy that I can fully get behind. So I don't seem to have any problems with roguelites other than devs pretending to be something they're blatantly not.

The Classic category took most of my time, primarily because it contains my personal favorite ToME. This is definitely what I think of first when the general term comes up.

I wonder if the strong puzzle elements might be what holds me back from fully appreciating what seems to be your favorite variant. It's unlikely to be the time investment since the Classics can have that just like you said. Might have to give one of these another shot and keep that distinction in mind. Maybe I'll learn something.

I like that your definitions get away from relying too heavily on things like visual style, turn-based or real-time and so forth. This more abstract approach seems to be pretty promising.

Posted by internal_dialogue

@ltsquigs Your description of the "Hacklike" makes me think of Dark Souls. Interesting.

Posted by LtSquigs

@internal_dialogue: I was going to make Dark Souls an honorable mention in that Category. Obviously its not a roguelike (not random, no perma death), but it has a lot of the same elements that make hacklikes what they are (puzzle like, a lot of the game is figuring out the crazy complex systems in it).

@prestige @christaran: Ah I meant to add a section on what I mean by meta-game but forgot, maybe ill edit it in. It's hard to come up with a quick description of what it is, but I think I can try an explain by example?

An example of a regular game would be something like the shooting mechanics in BoI, the platforming aspects in Spelunky/Rogue Legacy, or in nethack the turn based movement/attack interactions. It's all stuff that's self contained in the game, the main way you interact with a game.

The meta-game would be the next step up, information about how the game works and interacts so that you can come up with strategies to beat it, also known as theorycrafting in MMO circles. All games have some level of meta-game (Rogue Legacy it would be things like knowing what all the possible spells do and strategizing based off that).

Some games though take it to a level of absurdity, those would be the hacklikes. Examples of things that typically count as meta-game in nethack: Knowing reading cursed scrolls do different things than reading uncursed scrolls, knowing that reading scrolls while confused do different things, abusing monster properties for yourself, etc. Theres honestly too much to quickly describe with nethack.

Obviously every game has some level of this meta-information (that can sometimes be learned through playing the game), but how much this meta-game is incorporated into the game itself and how much it effects how the game is played is varied. That variation is what separates hacklikes from other roguelikes. With hacklikes a large and complex meta-game is desirable, and is in fact the main meat of the game experience. With other roguelikes the meta-game is incidental to the game, and often does not have as large of an impact.

Posted by Brodehouse

I'm here to push a horn that says Abyss Oddysey for anyone interested in roguelites that handle like Super Smashstlevania.

Edited by Synaptic

I feel like you're missing an increasingly popular genre among roguelikes: the "survival" game. Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead and Unreal World are very well regarded and offer experiences that differ significantly from traditional roguelikes while maintaining core similarities

Posted by LtSquigs

@synaptic: I'm not sure those are roguelikes, those seem to be their own genre (and somewhat a sub-genre of the minecraft genre)

Posted by Dan_CiTi

I love this especially the thoughts on meta game affecting the game so severely, especially in a game like Street Fighter or Dota.

Posted by Supa_Kappa

An interesting read. Especially considering I've been playing a lot of ToME and NetHack lately. I'd definitely class BoI as a hacklike that appears at first to be a modern roguelike. It wasn't until about ten hours of time with it that I discovered that it had any real depth. But the meta is there and it is what makes BoI something more special than I thought it was.

Posted by chrisbob

Ballsy list. First time I've seen someone explicitly group Nethack and Spelunky like that but the reasoning is sound. More traditional communities like the RogueBasin wiki have a much deeper rabbit hole and use the term Hacklike to differentiate between Bands. Essentially to mark the early split between variants of games like Nethack and games like Angband. Their main differences don't focus on metagames but mechanics like the existence or non existence of a hunger meter pushing the player forward, which now that I think about it, Spelunky sort of has in the form of the Ghost clock.

Posted by LtSquigs

@chrisbob: Thats where I stole the term hacklike, admittedly. I just think it can be repurposed to apply to modern roguelikes, as we move away from specific RPG mechanics being the separator.

Posted by theimmortalbum

@ltsquigs Ian, I need your nethack preferences file. That's a pretty setup you have and my lack of initiative to set that thing up properly is killing me! I want to play Nethack (huge fan of DCSS but haven't ever gotten far), but yeah.

Posted by SgtSphynx

@ltsquigs Hey Ian, you mention DoD but you don't actually say anything about it. It happens to be one of my favorite games and I was wondering what your opinion of it is.

Posted by Devise22

This is a fantastic right up. After recently beating Yama on Spelunky and playing a ton of FTL and Rogue Legacy I really do see distinct differences. You nail it right on the head. A game like Spleunky is designed completely around that meta game. After the time into Spelunky you are simply a better player at the game. You consistently get deeper runs, and only your own mistakes cost you.

With Rogue Legacy you can learn parts of the meta game, such as the way specific monsters behave, but the game can still screw you with certain rooms and placements. Even then, I'd venture to say it'd bey near impossible for most players to beat a game like Rogue Legacy if there was no permanent upgrade system. Imagine if it was more structured, such as a Spelunkey and the only upgrades you get where in specific playthroughs?

Anyway enjoyable read and good analysis.

Posted by LtSquigs

@sgtsphynx: I've played it a bit, but I don't think its for me. I tend to not enjoy the dungeon crawly type of games as much as I used to, but it seems well made and pretty intricate.

Posted by cassus

You guys have to play ToME. I tried it after Snide mentioned it years back. It is wonderful, just wonderful. If you like Dragon Age you're going to feel pretty comfortable with how the skills work. I enjoyed it a lot. There is also a live chat overlay where you can watch other people die horrible deaths, and ask questions and so on. BRILLIANT game if you want to get into roguelikes. Very accessible and hella deep.

Edited by cmikaiti

I want to add that I think the best roguelikes keep everything from you at the beginning. Instead of a potion of strength, it will be a mottled potion. Instead of a wand of invisibility, it will be an Alder wand. Everything must be discovered each time. Similarly, the best roguelikes allow you to essentially break the game. You may get a wand of tunneling that lets you tear through the map or a wand of extinction that lets you eliminate an entire enemy type. One of my favorites from the late 90's was Ragnarok (wow, I can not figure out how to create links... so it is at http://www.roguetemple.com/reviews/ragnarok/)I died so many times in that game, but got a little farther each time, often finding the ghost of my previous character with some of my loot left.