My Philosophy and the Tale of 100 Rogues

Keith Burgun's picture

In December of 2008, a friend of mine was asked by his boss to create an iPhone game for their company.  He and I were already engaged in some independent game development, so he said "I know just the guy to help us!"  That guy's name is... me! 

Keith's Picture!
Pictured: My Face (got stuck like that long ago)

I'm a writer, artist, musician, and even a little bit programmer, but I usually introduce myself to people as a game designer.  Most indie developers (or pros, for that matter) don't refer to themselves in this way - if a person designed and programmed a game they'll usually say they're the programmer or software engineer.  Game design is too often an afterthought - something that someone just does - despite the fact that it is the most important element (and the only necessary element) to creating games.  After all, you can create a game with nothing but words (like the game "Ghost") or nothing but rocks (like the game "Let's Throw Rocks At Each Other").  Game design is so ubiquitous to the human experience that we do it all the time without necessarily even realizing it.  As children, we practiced the art of game design when we would tell our friends "Ok!  You can't touch the rugs!"  And then if that was too hard, we'd practice our game balancing skills by "patching" our game - perhaps by saying something like "alright, well, you can touch the rug as long as you have your hands on the table."  Children understand the craft of game design without anyone explaining it to them, and yet so many in video game development in particular seem to lose sight of this as adults.  I have many theories for why this happens;  it's often the technological arms-race that we get sucked into, or a feeling like our games have to be more than just games to be worth anyone's time, or perhaps we just get lost in the theming of a game.  With my first commercial game, I was determined to not let any of those things happen.

So I started the long journey that was 100 Rogues in December of 2008.  It wouldn't be released until May of this year (2010), so it took about 18 months to complete - a damn long time in the world of iPhone apps.  We had been playing this interesting indie game "POWDER" (created by Jeff Lait and ported to every platform ever) and we decided "hey! let's make a POWDER clone!"  I thought that the game had a lot of potential, but I knew I could do it better.  Like all creative crafts, game design can only pull from things the game designer himself is aware of.  I knew a lot about games, but at the time, I had no idea that POWDER was just the tip of a massive, 30 year old iceberg - the Roguelike genre (here's the wikipedia page on Roguelikes, if you aren't familiar).

In my research, I soon ended up contacting Roguelike guru John Harris - he runs a GameSetWatch column called "@Play" which discusses all things Roguelike.  He and I soon became friends, and he opened my eyes to a whole new world of games that I hadn't known before.  "Nethack", "ADOM", "DoomRL" - there was just so much to learn - that is, once you get over some terrifying bumps in the road.  The first one that really hooked me was Mystery Dungeon:  Shiren the Wanderer for Super Famicom (also recently ported to the Nintendo DS).  I found a ROM of the fan-translated game and I was HOOKED!  Compared to most roguelikes, Shiren sported a more disciplined design, with beautiful, animated 2D pixel art and music by the legendary Koichi Sugiyama (of Dragon Quest fame).  I knew that these were all qualities 100 Rogues would need to have, as an iPhone game.  Along the way, I also got very into "Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup", which while it is a fantastic game, the original author, Linley, was not very disciplined about throwing things into his game.  Despite its being a wonderful game, my experience with DC:SS may have actually been a negative influence on the design of 100 Rogues (later, the lead designer himself David Ploog told me that he himself thought DC:SS's design to be a bit out of control, and that they were in the process of trimming it.  A week after he told me that, they cut out an entire school of magic, so I guess he meant it!).

I also figured I needed to know more about my platform.  Now, I've never been an Apple guy, but I got myself an iTouch and started perusing various games on the App Store.  Let's just say that "unimpressed" is a severe understatement - most of the games, even some of the more popular games on the App Store looked like a teenager's Myspace page, and played like a pop-up advertisement ("hit the monkey and win 5 free iPod Nanos!").  If this was what the iPhone people were used to, then there was no way I would be getting away with the complexity of your average Roguelike game.  Actually, that was entirely fine by me - I believe that the best games have a super-simple, elegant design, such as the original Super Mario Brothers or Tetris.  The limitation of having no buttons was a good exercise in game design (but dear god, I can't wait to go back to buttons!).

100 Rogues.
Two of our classes, the Crusader and the Wizard

So here was my great idea for my Roguelike game: unlike most of them, where you generally fight one monster at a time and rely on a slew of items and your basic attack and throw abilities, my game would pit you against packs (mobs) of monsters at all times, and you would have a bunch of "skills" you'd have to use to defeat them all.  I didn't intend on doing this, but what I ended up with was a design that looked a good bit like "Diablo II - Roguelike Edition".  Our lead artist Blake Reynolds and I drew up designs for four character classes who would be defined not as much by stats (for we wanted to keep the numbers as minimal as possible), but by their skills.  For instance, a Crusader has the ability to wear heavy armor and deal close-range magical attacks, but the Fairy Wizard can't wear heavy armor but instead can deal massive damage at a range and teleport around.  We went with a simple three stat setup - Health (obvious), Energy (used for casting spells), and Strength (determines damage dealt with all weapons).  A system of "speed" and dexterity were not added to the game, as we determined that we could express quickness through character abilities.  For instance, a to-be-released class, the Skellyman Scoundrel (here's a very early video design tour on her), her speed is expressed through abilities that allow her to jump over enemy's heads, or throw down smokebombs to confuse and blind everyone.  We took a pretty decently disciplined look at items, inspired by both Valve's Team Fortress 2 and the aformentioned Shiren the Wanderer.  In TF2, none of the weapons are better or worse than any of the others;  instead, they're all like tools in a toolbox.  I was inspired by this because I feel like in most dungeon crawls, 99% of the stuff you find is completely useless garbage that has no use (other than to be sold, which I'll also address in a minute).  And in Shiren, there are specific "classes of item" for each "class of use".  So, anything that's a one-shot consumable (like a health potion or a strength-up potion) is a "weed", anything that has multiple charges of spells is a "staff", and you have just three equip slots:  "weapon", "shield"(acts as armor in most games), and armlets (which give special benefits such as immunities).  This has huge benefits to clarity, and so we tried to emulate that with our item system (although I might've gotten a little item-lusty after so much damned Dungeon Crawl!)

Oh, one of the most controversial design aspects of 100 Rogues is that you cannot sell items to our item shop - only buying is possible.  This is for a very specific reason, and actually I copied it, and its rationale from Dungeon Crawl.  What's really cool about DC:SS is that in their in-game Help, they have a section on "Philosophy".  In this section, the designer talks about his anti-grind and anti-no brainer philosophy.

"A very important point in Crawl is steering away from no-brainers. Speaking about games in general, wherever there's a no-brainer, that means the development team put a lot of effort into providing a "choice" that's really not an interesting choice at all. And that's a horrible lost opportunity for fun."

To me, the act we're so used to in games like Diablo of selling items qualifies as a no brainer.  I have a +3 Godlike Sword of the Skull, so hmm, should I sell off these five regular "Shortswords" I have?  In most of these games, selling items isn't a real choice, and therefore it isn't a strong gameplay mechanic in most of these games;  you simply sell off the stuff that's clearly worse than what you've currently got.  A lot of people complained, saying "but selling items is FUN!"  But "Fun" can, of course mean many different things.  A well-designed game is one that delivers "fun" upon overcoming a challenge, realizing that you have learned a new skill as a player.  Selling an item teaches you nothing and is not a challenge or a risk.  I think the reason people think that selling items is fun is because it benefits them as a player, and because it exploits an evolutionarily-rooted biological need to "collect".  This is the territory of slot-machines, not good games.

The Crusader shootin' some Magic at a bunch of rats

The story of 100 Rogues is not yet over, and I wouldn't have it any other way.  I believe that software should be supported and taken care of for as long as is possible - years or even decades - as opposed to the more common belief in sequels.  For as much as I dislike paying 50 dollars for incremental fixes/improvements which could have been in a free patch, I cannot stand the cannibalistic disrespect we offer our software once it has been sequeled.  "Abandonware" is something that we should be ashamed of.

I'm new here at Armchair Arcade, but I'm a big fan of the editors here and have been a reader for some time.  I hope that this story serves as a decent introduction to myself and my philosophy on games.


Rowdy Rob
Rowdy Rob's picture
Joined: 09/04/2006
Very interesting!
Keith Burgun wrote:

I hope that this story serves as a decent introduction to myself and my philosophy on games.

Mission accomplished; very fascinating and cool!

I'm curious, though, as to what the technical details of the development process was. Did you use an available iPhone game engine, or did you hard-code the game yourself (or with partners)?

Keith Burgun
Keith Burgun's picture
Joined: 09/06/2010
Coding etc.

Actually I didn't do any programming on 100 Rogues. A Mr. Wesley Paugh handled all of that, so I can't really answer that question. I designed it, did some art and about half of the music. With that said, I believe we used Cocos2D, which Mr. Paugh expressed some amount of frustration with more than once. But that's more of like, a graphics engine than a game engine or anything; so yeah, it was coded essentially from scratch.

Wes Paugh (not verified)
Tech stuff

The game was built on the cocos2d engine. As Keith mentioned, it definitely had some quirks, but I really couldn't have asked for a better starting point. I should also mention that we're somewhat stuck with Cocos2d v.7, which is basically a beta build. It works well enough for our purposes and the upgrade process would be drastic and error-prone enough that we may as well stick with it, but the recently released .99 is better in just about every way, from what I've seen and heard.

Joined: 05/20/2006
Was this done in your spare

Was this done in your spare time? iPhone games without a major licensed brand are a big gamble money-wise & I wouldn't want to spend more than a few weeks on one.

Keith Burgun
Keith Burgun's picture
Joined: 09/06/2010
It's complicated.

Sort of. I only work a few hours a week (teaching art classes) so I do have a LOT of spare time, and making games has always been my ambition. With that said, I was paid for *some* of my work by the publisher, Fusion Reactions. It was a labor of love, though. We just believe in the game, and didn't really care if it's a big gamble money-wise or not.

Tim "Lord Gek" Jordan (not verified)
Proof positive, by your own

Proof positive, by your own words, there is some solid design philosophy behind the game AND that you are not at all well, Keith!

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Excellent post, and you do

Excellent post, and you do really do a good job articulating your vision of good game design. I was thinking about what you said about selling items; I've noticed that in many recent RPGs. Of course I collect everything my characters can carry and sell it so I can buy whatever is available at the store. Most games have a weight penalty, such as Pool of Radiance, so even though the game let you collect everything dropped by monsters (such as the proverbial 20 sets of leather armor, 20 short swords, etc.), you'd eventually be so weighed down it wasn't worth running it all back to the store. Then Dungeon Siege added a pack mule to help you carry all that junk. I thought that was funny and brilliant. But, yeah, playing Drakensang has reminded me of how tedious it is, since they added a slow animation that plays every time you reach into every corpse to collect the loot. BOOOOoooring. It would've been much better just to throw up a loot screen and let you do it all in one fell swoop.

IIRC, the later M&M games had a spell you could cast that would transmute all the loot you found into gold (the amount depended on the quality of the item and your proficiency with the spell). Again, brilliant solution, and it made sense in the context. I don't know why more games haven't used a system like that. I could also see having non-combat units (followers) who follow along behind the party (at a very safe distance) and collect items they don't pick up, perhaps offering the player a percentage of the profits when they get back to town.

At any rate, I'd be careful about dismissing collecting stuff. I think that's a big part of what draws many people to the genre. They love (on some level) farming. It's always fun to kill a monster and see all kinds of loot dropping out. I guess it's like a kid with a pinata. Why let slot machines have all the fun? :)

Keith Burgun
Keith Burgun's picture
Joined: 09/06/2010
I do agree that selling stuff

I do agree that selling stuff / collecting CAN be made more of a "choice", by using stuff like encumbrance to slightly balance it out - the thing is that in most modern RPGs, it isn't.

I really do think there's a difference between the kind of "fun" that comes from collection and fun that comes from solid gameplay involving choices and learning and threats of failure.

Collection is "fun" because it exploits a base human need to gather. In order to help us survive winters and hard times, we evolved a mechanism that releases endorphins from the act of collecting - this is why it's satisfying to collect, while you're doing it. The thing is, it's an empty satisfaction - there's nothing to look back on and be proud of or happy about. Diablo and just about every modern MMO (Especially WoW) basically live, almost entirely, off of this.

Good, solid gameplay - challenges that involves risks of real failure and requires LEARNING to overcome - this is a kind of fun that you can look back on and feel good about. I used to play Diablo, for hours on end, until I noticed this difference. After playing it I would feel like "what the HELL am I doing?!" This is because I'm not learning anything or risking anything in playing it, and even though it's triggering this evolutionary mechanism, after awhile I realize that it's this pointless endless loop. I think that games like that are closer to psychoactive drugs than they are to true games; you'll hear stories of drug users getting the same 'wasted my time' feeling after awhile.

So, in conclusion, it isn't that I'm *necessarily* against collecting specifically, it's that I'm against no-brainers and exploitative game design.

Bret Yingling (not verified)

Me and Keith sometimes argue about this stuff.

I would say that with gathering, Keith is absolutely right about exploiting a human need. But does that differ from our basic human need to hunt (hunting and combat being similar in a lot of ways)? I'd say if you try and downplay 'collection' gameplay, downplay it when developers can't seem to make it as interesting as combat.

You said something like, "I really do think there's a difference between the kind of "fun" that comes from collection and fun that comes from solid gameplay involving choices and learning and threats of failure." I can't help but think that when you say 'solid gameplay involving choices and learning and threats of failure' that you are talking about combat. I believe there is just as much incentive to make a gathering game as there is a strategic turn-based combat game. They could both be entertaining.

We've already explored the facets of combat and how that can be applied to games more than anything else. Someday soon it may be imperative for designers to think of non-combat activities, and bringing them up to speed. Both you (Keith) and Matt Barton have talked about trends in the industry that have threatened RPGs because of bad design. I think this should be one of them. With a lot of RPGs focusing too much on combat, there isn't room for any depth in Charisma based, Intelligence based, or Wisdom based activities. You guys probably know your D&D so I'll just say this: how many times has a Charisma based character let you down when you've picked up the 'bluff' skill or even the 'diplomacy' skill? The systems are just so balanced towards combat, that unless you have a particularly good dungeon master, your character that should be able to talk himself out of every situation, is useless!

I want to have a post of my own on this. So I'll save the details. But, I would love to see (for example) a game like Harvest Moon taken to the next level of detail. Farming is fun, and combat is fun - they do exploit basic human desires... but, maybe all addictive games do that. I would never stop playing Tetris because I thought it was exploiting my human desire for making order out of chaos.

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Those are good points, Bret.

Those are good points, Bret. I too have thought a lot about non-combat activities, but they are rarely fun. I can't think of many examples of non-combat stuff that really was fun. The example that usually gets brought up is fishing in some of the Zelda games. I guess that was moderately enjoyable. The WoW trades aren't much fun at all. How fun is it to have to skin every critter you kill, or hit every ore vein? I guess there's a certain thrill of discovery, but I loathed having to scour the countryside for some herb or vein, and making stuff wasn't fun at all. It would also be very nice if the game responded intelligently to your alchemical knowledge. It seems realistic that if you were really a successful alchemist, people would come from all over to ask you for cures and such; at least they would venerate you. That would be a nice touch to feel that the others in the game (including enemies) were reluctant to injure you since you might prove so vital to them.

Some RPGs have fun trading games tacked on, so you can buy and sell between towns or cities. That makes sense in most contexts, especially when the area between the two towns is dangerous.

You'd think more games would find ways to make alchemy fun, though they almost always seem to ignore what made real-life alchemists enjoy it--all the arcane lore and esoterica (though it was more like chemistry than magic in many cases). Really making a good simulation would be a game itself, with all the equipment, parameters, recipes, etc.

IIRC, Betrayal in Antara (can't recall if Krondor had it too) had a very nice spell-discovery system. It's been a long time, but I remember having a great deal of fun experimenting to find new spells. I also loved how the game Enchanter (a text adventure) had such wacky spells that appeared at first to be totally useless but turned out to have very specific uses. I could see adapting something like this, so that there were a hundred minor spells (cantrips), of which players might randomly discover a dozen or so during any one play-through. These could range from silly things like turning orcs bright pink (which might also enrage them, making them more dangerous) to apparently useless things like making all your gold coins look like copper. That latter might serve you if you were visited by a tax collector. A clever player could figure out that use for it and be really pleased with himself, though it wouldn't bring the game to a screeching halt if he didn't.


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