The roguelike genre is incredibly popular but they can also be pretty hit and miss. Indie gems populate Steam and some rise clearly above the rest. Games like Spelunky, Dead Cells, and Enter the Gungeon are all household names but what makes these achieve such success as not only great games, but great roguelikes? We talked to game designer at Dodge Roll Games Dave Crooks again about the team’s previous game Enter the Gungeon, its mysterious next title, and the ingredients of a good roguelike.
GameRevolution: What’s the Dodge Roll team working on at the moment?
Dave Crooks: The team is working on some more cleanup with Gungeon and [finishing] some small update we’re going to do. And so we are sort of transitioning into the next project. It’s just being prototyped now and it’s pretty exciting but it’s very early. It’s like a tech demo and I’m excited about it but I don’t want to say anything. We’ve got to be very careful about how you telegraph things, especially in the gaming industry.
GR: Roguelike games seem to be a hard balance to hit, people either love them or hate them. With the success of Gungeon, what do you think makes a good roguelike?
DC: Oh my god, I don’t know. This is actually a particularly hard question for me because we never wanted to make a roguelike. Roguelike isn’t like our top genre, you know? It was sort of a reaction to what we were seeing in the industry so honestly, we were playing it as safe and sweet as we could. Like we obviously wanted to instill it with our life and everything but we would have done something like make Super Meat Boy 2 if it was just left up to our own devices the first time around.
I think getting a balance between the punishment, feeling like you’re still progressing on the meta progression of a roguelike, and also the variety of “I had a successful and complete arc in one run.” Getting that balance in the game design is probably the strongest thing.
But one of the things that makes most roguelikes, especially action roguelikes is the way they feel. So I would say make sure your controls work really well but it’s a tough question because there’s so many things, like how do you balance for the optimal thing to do if I didn’t get a good item in the first room is to just restart? And every roguelike has a different answer for that. And I think Slay the Spire has an awesome answer to that which is basically you have to beat the first boss to get a starting item. So it stops you from just [saying] “I screwed up in the first combat, let me restart.”
So, I don’t know. Everyone’s got their own approach. There’s enough takes on it. I would say that making sure the player doesn’t feel completely abused when they die is probably a good one. I think we’re not that great about that actually and I think we’ll do better with that in the future. I think our next game will be challenging but it will not be quite as brutal as Gungeon.
You’ve got to find that balance where the player doesn’t feel like you’re handing them a gold star. So we learned some really good lessons with feedback from Gungeon and we’ve tried to implement a lot of them in our Advanced Gungeons and Dragons update. The enemies didn’t get any less deadly but we made the player feel more powerful. That seemed to work out well.
GR: With that in mind, what’s the worst thing a roguelike can do?
DC: The feeling that I just wasted like 30 minutes is probably the worst. I would say that’s probably the single worst and we talked about it with most of the team. And one of our guys just straight up doesn’t like roguelikes. He’s proud of Gungeon and he thinks moment-to-moment it’s fun but he hates dying.
So we’re trying to work on coming up with some good ideas to soften that a little bit with the next game. Which I’m not even going to say whether or not it’s going to be a roguelike because it’s still so early we don’t know. But it will probably have some procedural elements to it. We definitely want to make it less “Oh, I just threw out 30 minutes.” The other thing is the lack of variety.
GR: Your game is particularly visually intensive with lots of stuff on screen coming at the player at once. When do you decide there’s too much on the screen for the player to handle?
DC: When it starts to dip below 30 frames per second. Yeah, we don’t really have a “this is too visually stimulating” [quota] in terms of the number of things on the screen. We tried to develop a language so you knew what to look at.
The whole thing with Gungeon is the aiming is extremely assisted. On mouse and keyboard, it’s not, but on the controller, it’s very assisted. So you don’t need to really look at the enemies. You just need to be aware of where they are. Just kind of look at your player and move, just like a bullet hell game.
In most bullet hell games, you’re just going up so you don’t really have to look. So we wanted the aiming system to be as helpful as possible so you could do that bullet hell thing of looking at your character and moving through the bullets.
It’s more like just designing a visual language. Because we hit a number of walls where we wanted to do a crazy pattern but there’s too many bullets on screen and our physics engine was built for a platformer, so it’s really accurate but it’s way too math intensive. So we [would] just need to spend a while optimizing because the answer can’t be to make the pattern less cool. Other than that, as many bullets as possible as long as it runs well.
GR: So how does it feel when you’re playing your own game? Do you enjoy it?
DC: I have played it way more than I ever thought I would. It’s pretty inflating. Sometimes I’ll just see something we did and I’ll be like “Man!” Because it’s been so long, I’ll have completely forgot that we did it. And I’ll be like “That’s so funny! We’re really funny!” It makes me feel good.
We’re really proud of the game. There are a number of things that we think we could have done better and obviously we learn from them. For the most part, we think it controls really well and we think the bosses are fun and funny and there’s a lot of humor in there.
Yeah, it’s nice to play and be all like “Oh this isn’t shit, it’s pretty good.” Like even just a few months ago, I played it again. I was testing the update and I hadn’t actually watched our opening cinematic in forever and I was watching it and I was “Oh man this is great!” It made me smile.