The Challenges of Creating a Ridiculously Open-Ended Roguelike
"Streets of Rogue is a fascinating mess, in the best way possible." - Game Informer
I've been developing games since I was eight years old, but Streets of Rogue is by far the most challenging project I've ever embarked upon. So how did this whole thing get started, and why is it such a tricky game to make?
Birth of a Monster
Streets of Rogue initially came as something of a reaction to Wasteland 2’s first alpha in late 2013. I’m been a big fan of the Fallout series since the first game was released. My most standout memories are of visiting Junktown for the first time, running around town doing quests for people, finding a new companion, drinking at the bar, and ultimately teaming up with the sheriff to take out a corrupt casino owner.
So I loaded up Wasteland 2 in the hopes of finding similar experiences. Then I was immediately hit with a nearly impenetrable wall of stats. I tinkered around for a bit in the world, but found the game’s UI so cumbersome and the level of complexity so overwhelming for a first-time player that it actually gave me anxiety. I’m sure InXile has made vast improvements to the game since I last played, but my initial reaction got me thinking: What if I could create a similarly open-ended, city-based world full of quests and RPG trappings, but get to the real core of what I personally like about these games in a much more streamlined, action-oriented sort of way. I had also long been a fan of the roguelike genre and was currently playing a lot of Spelunky and Isaac, so hey, what if my game were also a rogue-lite along these same sort of lines.
No possibility of feature creep, no sir!
I started envisioning scenarios that could potentially play out in a game like this, and there was one that stuck with me. Let’s say the player has a mission to retrieve a piece of paper with a valuable formula from a science lab. He could run in, shoot everyone and take the formula. He could bribe the guard, walk in, stealthily tranquilize the scientist with a dart and take the formula. He could poison the lab’s air filtration unit, causing the scientists to run out, at which point he could pickpocket the formula off a scientist. He could hack a computer and open the doors of some caged gorillas, causing them to run out and beat up the scientists and allowing the player to grab the formula in the hullabaloo. That one caused me giggle out loud, which meant I obviously had to make the game. (And by the way, it’s actually possible to do all of those things in the game right now! It took two years to get there, but it was worth it!)
The open-ended nature of the game would allow me to adopt a "kitchen sink" mentality, and throw in whatever crazy, funny things I could dream up. As a teenager developing games in the late '90s and early '00s, I feel like me and a lot of my contemporaries took this approach to our work. This often resulted in some truly memorable, idiosyncratic experiences where the creators' personalities were on full display. Streets of Rogue would allow me the opportunity to share something unique with the world, not to mention have a lot of fun with the design process.
Another big part why I wanted to make this game, is that I hadn’t seen another rogue-lite that tried to do this sort of freeform Deus Ex-ish gameplay. Two years later, I still haven’t seen one. It seemed like a logical place to try and take the genre....
Is it already obvious why this is a mess?
I suspect that the lack of attempts to make this sort of game is in part due to the fact that it’s really, really hard to pull off something like this. The more freedom you give the player, the more complex things get for the programmer, and I wanted the player to have a LOT of abilities beyond combat. Then, add in AI-based agents in a city environment who own property, have alliances, and are generally expected to act like human beings in a real(ish)-world environment and react appropriately to the player’s most edge-case-y actions. Then add in all the randomness that comes with the roguelike genre, and, well... as you might imagine, things can get pretty hairy.
From a game design standpoint, it’s equally tricky to create this type of gameplay in a highly randomized world. Right from the start, I knew that game balance was going to be a major issue. And truth be told, this game is never going to have the carefully crafted level of balance that a lot of roguelikes do. I’m not even sure if it’s possible. Spend a bit of time in the game and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Unless I can really pull off some miraculous feats of game design, SOR is always going to be on the messy side.
But I think that’s ok! I want hardcore min-maxers to have fun figuring out ways to exploit the crap out of this game (which I’ll certainly attempt to alleviate with patches), and I want more casual players to have fun just messing around with the game’s systems and creating cool/interesting scenarios.
I think I have this under control!
Lately, I've been attempting to put a stop to adding major new game mechanics, and have even begun cutting certain long-standing features. The core gameplay is getting to the point where I can shift my focus to adding heaping helpings of content and balance to the game.
Whether Streets of Rogue ultimately succeeds in its attempt to bring freeform gameplay to the roguelike genre remains to be seen. But two things are certain: I'm having a blast making this thing, and the results are going to be absolutely nuts!
Streets of Rogue's alpha is available to download at StreetsOfRogue.com