Action Roguelike Game Design I

If you follow me on twitter you know that one of the projects I’m working on is a video game. Although this was intended to mostly be a self improvement blog, I will occasionally foray into some of the stuff I’m working on. So fair warning that if you’re not interested in game design this post will probably bore you or go over your head.

Anyway, on to business. With the release of Binding of Isaac in 2011 an entire genre of what are best described as “action rogue-likes” was created. While I don’t think any of the follow-ups ever dethroned BoI or its sequel (and the subsequent add-ons and dlcs), the genre remains a favorite of independent game developers. It works very well with low res (read: relatively cheap, easy to produce) pixel art. It can support the kind of complex mechanics and interactions that serious game designers fantasize about endlessly. And most importantly, they are fun to play.

One of the more fun parts of Binding of Isaac is the ability to modify your primary weapon (tears) in various ways. You start off with low damage tears with medium range and medium rate of fire. As you collect power-ups you can both increase various parameters (tear speed, fire rate, damage, range) as well as the tears behavior (obtain arrow shaped tears that pierce through enemies, spectral tears that move through solid objects, or convert the tears altogether into different projectiles like bombs or rockets).

To make this work, however, you need a very wide variety of items (otherwise the game becomes predictive, and a lot of the enjoyment of BoI is that powerful combos are fairly rare, which makes them all the more satisfying when you get the items for one).

Other games, like Nuclear Throne or Enter the Gungeon take a different approach. They have many weapons (especially Enter the Gungeon, which as you might be able to tell by the name, revolves almost entirely around guns and ammunition, even the enemies are anthropomorphic bullets) but there isn’t a lot of modification for each individual one. The more subdued but moodier Our Darker Purpose is similar to Isaac in that the main character’s fire arrow can be customized a bit (although not to nearly the crazy stuff Isaac’s tears can do later in the game), and can also acquire secondary projectiles in the form of rolling flames or sound notes with short but erratic movement.

My own project’s development has slowed down considerably because for the longest time I couldn’t get a weapon system that satisfied every itch I had when it comes to playing games in this genre.

The game (working name Divine Arch) is still in pre-alpha, with only enough code to test ideas I need to see in action. I’m more focused on the design and producing graphics for now since the former is the most important part and the latter the most time consuming.

I’ve gone through several systems:

  • Different weapons that produce different projectiles. But this grossly overcomplicated their modification. Not enough mods per weapon and weapon progression feels shallow. But too many weapons and having mods for each one becomes a nightmare.
  • Class based weapons. This can be the best of both worlds but also the worst: 4 weapon types, all with different upgrade paths. You can still pick up mods that affect all weapons, but again, I would have to make A LOT of modifiers that are not gonna be available to the player unless they are playing with a specific class.
  • The Binding of Isaac model: different classes/characters all use the same basic weapon, pour all efforts into creating as many modifiers as possible. As BoI showed though, often modifiers simply end up overriding other modifiers because there is no reasonable way to implement them both (although synergies were somewhat improved with the latest DLC).

In the end, I am sticking with the model of giving each class their own weapon. However, I am keeping the direct upgrading fairly shallow. Each weapon has two vertical upgrades (upgrades that increase its power) and a choice of two horizontal upgrades (upgrades that add or modify function). IE: the Inquisitor’s bolts can be upgraded to either pierce through enemies or do extra damage with each subsequent hit on the first horizontal upgrade.

This (and 2-3 passive abilities per class) should be enough to differentiate the characters enough while the rest of the design effort will be put into items that provide improvements to every weapon and class.

For my next post on this subject I will go over my thoughts on character progression so stay tuned.