When Irrational Studios head Ken Levine wrote about The Future of PC Gaming on Kotaku last month, he mentioned a little-known iPhone game called 100 Rogues. It seems an odd thing to bring up in an article about PC gaming, but this is the kind of game that gets stuck in your head.
100 Rogues is described as a roguelike, but really it sits somewhere between a roguelike and an action RPG. It’s a solo turn-based hack and slash adventure through randomly generated levels of a monster-infested dungeon, where progress is irreversible, death is permanent and loot is everything. The world it presents is cheerfully erratic, with traditional fantasy creatures like rats and skeletons existing alongside invisible babies, anthropomorphised bags of flour and cowboy-hatted robot bandits that shoot homing missiles. Usable objects range from swords and healing potions to butter knives (for softening up your enemies), dodgeballs (which make you taunt your opponent as you throw them) and a Griffin Slayer (in a game that features no griffins).
Unlike traditional roguelikes, which are presented in simple ASCII graphics or static tiles, 100 Rogues features gorgeously animated pixel art. The animation is pretty and expressive, giving characters a strong sense of personality and intention, but it comes at the cost of diversity: it’s not possible to include the raw volume of content found in games like Angband and Dwarf Fortress when every idea needs to be matched with art. Still, compared to non-ASCII games, there’s plenty of material in there, and what exists is pleasantly bonkers.
I wasn’t convinced when I first tried the game. Over a few weeks, though, it’s become the one single-player game on my iPod Touch that I keep coming back to with enthusiasm. There’s a level of strategy to encounters that isn’t obvious at first, and the “random” generation of levels is underpinned by rules that keep the flow of the experience consistently engaging. For example, each room you enter contains a mob of mixed enemies, large enough to kill a careless player but nearly always manageable with some thought and planning. The mana pool for spells and abilities is small, but refills quite fast, which allows the player to use their abilities regularly, but keeps them close to the risk of being cornered without any mana to cast a healing or teleport spell – the surest path to an ignoble death.
It’s obvious a lot of thought went into the details of this game’s design, so I spoke to the lead designer, Keith Burgun, and the software programmer, Wes Paugh, about their experience making 100 Rogues and plans for the future…
RedKingsDream: One thing that stands out about 100 Rogues is the sturdiness of its controls. The App Store is full of games with awkward, hacky controls, but 100 Rogues doesn’t suffer that very badly, aside from the odd misplaced touch. For a genre that isn’t native to the iPhone, it suits the touch screen well. Was the initial idea for the game heavily guided by the characteristics of the iPhone, or did you begin with a cool idea and then try to figure out how to build it for that platform?
Keith Burgun: I would say both. The task was to build an iPhone game first, and then the next question was “what kind of game would be good on the iPhone”. A Roguelike with a good visual presentation seemed a very good fit.
Wes Paugh: As far as input design, the device definitely drove the mechanics. Roguelikes traditionally offer 8-direction movement, which we decided against very early on. Errant taps and touches are inevitable without the tactile feedback of a physical controller, and 4-direction movement greatly reduces the incidence of fatal mistakes.
We have had a number of requests for inclusion of a virtual d-pad in the game as another input option. Technically the game has a virtual d-pad, it just takes up the whole screen. In a turn-based game as difficult as 100 Rogues, moving the wrong way will get you killed sometimes. The input mechanism we chose used the highest number of pixels-per-gesture we could come up with. Any other input option would reduce the size of each move ‘button’, increasing the likelihood of not gesturing appropriately, and therefore death. We want our monsters to kill you, not a UI we provide.
Virtual input devices have been made to work comfortably, most notably in Epic Citadel, but there are few games for which even that would be practical. We chose to embrace the quirks of the interface, and the game is much better for it.
RKD: So you started developing 100 Rogues in December 2008, released it early this year and added a substantial amount of content since then. How much further are you planning to expand the game?
WP: From the start, we’ve been planning on 4 player classes, and more worlds. Now that version 2.0 is out, we are starting work on the first new character class, the Skellyman Scoundrel. She’s got a real thirst for vengeance through subtle, yet maniacal, brutality, and she’s obsessed with blood, always trying to deal critical damage to monsters that can spill it.
After she has been added to the game, we’re looking to refine and expand existing mechanics more. There are rough plans for optional sections to be added to the dungeons that resemble quest areas with NPCs, and for further adoption of traditional roguelike mechanics like item identification and traps. We’ll also continue adding new monsters, rebalancing skills and enhancing their identities, and adding challenges to Challenge Mode with regular updates.
KB: Yeah – there are also discussions about other possible game modes and other ways we can expand on 100 Rogues. I’m very excited about the future of 100 Rogues, because from a design perspective this is where the most learning for me can happen. We can try out a new game mode for instance and see just what that does to the gameplay, and the player base. For instance, Challenge Mode was very helpful for me in helping to develop the class skills – it was a filter, and only a skill with a little dimension could get through.
RKD: That iterative design process has obviously helped the game, but it means that, by iPhone standards, 100 Rogues has been in development for a very long time. How do you think that approach has worked out for you? If you had another great idea for an iPhone game tomorrow, would you go about it the same way?
WP: Release smaller and release earlier. Our frequent updates of varying sizes have gone over really well. We’ve got great fans that have stuck with us through thick and thin, and have loved seeing the game evolve and expand (not to mention providing feedback that has significantly shaped the game’s direction). A game with as modular a design as a Roguelike could easily benefit from tiny, periodic releases earlier in development.
KB: I agree that any future iPhone games I work on would be far smaller in scope as a project – it just makes more sense given the platform. However with that said – REGARDLESS of the scope or size of a project, I would always want to support it for as long as possible. I think the idea that you make a game, then just move onto the next game is horribly wasteful. Games take time to mature, even after they have shipped, and they deserve to be taken care of forever.
RKD: My pet peeve in iPhone gaming is not being able to listen to my own music while the game is running – something 100 Rogues doesn’t (seem to) support. Any plans to implement that?
WP: Yep, absolutely. Actually, until about a month ago, your iPod music continued playing after the App launched. We lost the functionality in 1.08 when we upgraded to iOS 4.0 to support Game Center, but will have it back in the live version of the game in the next month, roughly. And! Since I was looking at the problem anyway, I incorporated the iPod Playlist Selection interface into our options menu, so you’ll be able to choose your music after the game has started, and switch back to the game soundtrack without reloading.
RKD: Excellent. Finally, is there anything you can say yet about Dinofarm Games’ next project?
KB: I don’t want to go into too much detail now – it’s a ways off – but if you’re familiar with SSI’s 5-Star General series then you’d have a decent idea of what the gameplay is like. Expect us to treat that genre as we have treated the Roguelike genre with 100 Rogues – balance innovation with keeping what was great about the genre, and immerse it with a charming, somewhat silly theme. That’s pretty much the philosophy of myself and our lead artist Blake Reynolds.