Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Why am I not that excited about Jupiter Hell

The roguelike community was recently all over about Jupiter Hell — a roguelike with modern 3D graphics, which has recently run a very successful crowdfounding campaign. I am quite sure Jupiter Hell will be a great game — after all, Darren Grey and Kornel Kisielewicz are both working on its gameplay, and both are well known to create fantastic roguelikes. This post is a response to a post by Darren Grey, who believes that Jupiter Hell is a gateway for our beloved genre to get its deserved mainstream acceptance.

I tend to play mostly indie games: roguelikes, roguelites, some other games too. Occassionally I do try big mainstream hits, but I am rarely satisfied with them. For example, Witcher II. I have been playing mostly for the story. Most of the game was fighting, exploring, and collecting items. Fights were irrelevant (lack of permadeath!) and boring, and were an obstacle in the story, rather than the fun part. The game would be better without them. And without walking around and collecting items. One could say that it was still better than games that I could not play at all, but this does not change the point: I feel that it would be better if all the game — all the boring 20 hours — were removed, thus leaving just a nice two hour long movie. Diablo II is mostly a real-time roguelike, but I have found no point to try it with permadeath, as I have found it much more boring than roguelikes. I have similar feelings with other RPGs. First person shooters are not interesting at all. I have a relatively good chance to like mainstream strategy games, but I am often annoyed by too much micromanagement, or by animations which I have to watch again and again — when working on the animations in NotEye (for ADOM), I have taken care to have them so that they don't slow a fast player down, and it is great that JH goes the same route with its adaptative animation system.

On the other hand, a big part of the roguelike culture is its wonderful community. Barriers between creators and players are lowered. Players are encouraged to report bugs, provide their own ideas, and even learn programming and create their own variants or games in events such as the 7DRL challenge. This leads lone passionate developers working in their spare time to create awesome games (ADOM, Dungeon Crawl, Spelunky, DRL). Often playable for free — the motivation for creating these games was the fun of creating great games, games they would like to play themselves, rather than financial gains. These games won't have good graphics or polish,but are much better than the mainstream in my experience. I find the roguelikedev communities much more appealing than the general gamedev ones, which IME tend to concentrate on graphics and monetization too much.

So I would like more people to see that games with low production value / free / created by lone developers can be much better than the current mainstream games. Why people don't see this?

Maybe gamers in general believe that a game without high production value, or a free game, cannot be good? By a game with high production value I mean one which has, or appears to have, lots of money poured into its creation: complex graphics, cutscenes, professional voice acting, general polish, trailers, and so on. Will Jupiter Hell be really able to compete with popular AAA games on these grounds? And if it will, I do not see how would such players join our creative community, or try the relatives of Jupiter Hell — all the other great roguelikes — which do not have this production value.

Or maybe the contrary is true: popularity is actually not about 3D graphics? Angry Birds do not have 3D graphics, indies and roguelites neither, and they are quite popular too nowadays — not sure how good measure of popularity this, but by the number of Steam reviews, FTL is roughly on the level of popular strategy and RPG games. Ragnarok and JauntTrooper: Mission Thunderbolt were both awesome roguelikes, and they appeared to have features to appeal the mainstream — quite good graphics for their time, mouse control, permadeath only as an option. Still, they have failed. On the other hand, the insane success of Minecraft, despite being started by a lone developer inspired by ADOM and NetHack, and not having high production value, is a huge surprise. What was the cause of this? Marketing? Simply luck (what becomes popular and what not, actually depends largely on random factors, and Notch seems to agree)? Whatever the problem is, will Jupiter Hell avoid it?

Maybe the roguelikes are not popular because is just hard to explain what they actually are? I think I have that problem with HyperRogue — its defining feature is that it takes part in the hyperbolic plane. Unless you are interested in mathematics, you won't know why would that be interesting — things like "a roguelike in the DOOM universe" or "a vampire roguelike" are easier to explain (assuming that you know what "roguelike" is), so people looking for new roguelikes would probably be more likely to try these. We call these games roguelikes precisely because they are so hard to explain — after all, other genres are named after their features, not after a notable game in that genre :) People are afraid of trying new things. I have updated the homepage of HyperRogue so that it explains the point of the game to new players, without scaring them off with difficult words such as "roguelike" or "hyperbolic geometry".

The Kickstarter page for Jupiter Hell explains that it is a "turn-based sci-fi roguelike/RPG". I think that categorizing roguelikes as a subgenre of RPG might contribute to the obscurity of roguelikes. The success of the Witcher series suggests that fans of RPGs do like games like this: nice story, gameplay not getting in the way. Maybe they do not get what they expect when trying roguelikes. Such people would be put off by permadeath, and the low focus on story typical to roguelikes. I have seen opinions that Diablo is not a RPG — and Diablo is quite similar to roguelikes, so I guess we would see such opinions on roguelikes too if they were more popular. On the other hand, a strategy fan would be much more likely to understand the point of procedural generation and permadeath (strategy games are often procedurally generated, and even if they don't usually feature permadeath, it is quite clear that this is the noble way to play). I am of a strong opinion that roguelikes are actually closer to strategy games than RPGs, they actually are turn-based tactics games. XCOM does have important RPG elements (story, character advancement, inventories) yet it is not seen as an RPG. Maybe we should rather market roguelikes as single-character turn-based tactical games, and emphasize the benefits of being single-character to players of XCOM and such (more action, more detailed characters, less micromanagement).

Or maybe we should try to find new players even further. Most people are not gamers, and I have a feeling that a popular opinion is that intelligent people do read books, or play games such as Chess, playing boardgames is cool, but playing computer games is a stupid thing to do. Such people would not care about graphics that much — everybody knows that a book is not to be judged by its cover, and Chess is the same game, whether you play it with beautiful pieces or not. Andrzej Sapkowski, the author of the series of books that the Witcher game is based on, said "I don't know many people who have played that game, because I tend to with intelligent people". I have watched Evelyn Lamb's talk Visualizing hyperbolic geometry. I think HyperRogue is a great tool for visualizing hyperbolic geometry, but it is only mentioned on the last slide (about minute 33): "I am too scared to do it, because I might like it, and then I won't ever do any work again". It appears that she had experiences with computer games similar to my experiences with Witcher, i.e., that they are a waste of time, and she was afraid that HyperRogue would be like this too. Whenever I see a game described as "addictive", I think it is not a good thing. Far too many games demand the player's time without giving anything in return. Skinner boxes, grinding, free games which allow you to use money to speed things up, unlocks which make the character stronger. Well designed roguelikes don't. In HyperRogue, even the Hyperstone Quest, which is considered very hard, can be done in just about two hours by a skilled player. Obviously getting that level of skill might take lots of time, but the game does not slow you down, only your own ability to learn new things. And learning is fun.

Maybe such non-gamers would be actually put off by the graphics of Jupiter Hell? I have read somewhere that all popular games fall in one of just three graphical styles. Jupiter Hell looks like a quite generic photorealistic violent game. Roguelikes are to a big extent a computer version of board games, and when watching the animations in the Jupiter Hell teasers, it has struck me that it does not look like a board game, thus confusing the potential players about the point of the game yet again. HyperRogue has recently received 3D graphics and adaptative animations too, but our design goals were different. Recently I have received a spam e-mail offering 3D models. I have looked at the (still 2D) screenshots of HyperRogue and decided that, even though the graphics in HyperRogue are nowhere as good as the art by M. C. Escher which inspired it, it is unique and thus looks much better than any generic 3D models. The new animations are consciously made to be not realistic — to emphasize that battles are to provide challenge for the player, as capturing the opponent's pieces in Chess, not meaningless violence for its own sake.

Obscurity of roguelikes is a big mystery for us roguelike fans, we could only guess the reasons. This post turned out very long, and yet it does not cover everything. Roguelikes have evolved in a completely different way than the mainstream games, and I think that we should be proud of that, instead of seeing it as an disadvantage. Please share your thoughts in the comments, or just play the most satisfying games in existence :)


  1. Wow, this went in many directions! I'll try to offer some notions in some kind of relative order without succumbing to the temptations of a mega post in turn as you've all seen enough of those from me over the years to last several lifetimes. ;)

    -I think the community aspect should be well in hand for JH---not only due to the Chaosforge stable pedigree all these years up to now but also, though Kornel would have to clarify on his own timeline for sure, The Plan to go at it fairly open source from early on with the critical engine thanks to the overwhelmingly and surprisingly to him reception of DRL doing such during the course of the campaign.

    -Definitely a fair point of contention on the gulfs of production values amidst the myriad quality Roguelikes out there---I should think the hope is the core essence will have a unifying effect in the long term with JH serving to merely open the door that has perhaps been arbitrarily held shut to most preconceived notions...or the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine get sucked down, whatever works. Jupiter Hell can achieve the hazy/vaunted dream that was so thoroughly undermined by exigent circumstances held by Scallywag: In the Lair of the Medusa in terms of tech and all else~

    -The pre-Dredmor/Isaac, non-Japan Western Roguelike commercial market did indeed have some harsh casualties by which we are still feeling the repercussions in both absolutes and the wars of perception and Ought To Be's---the markets have broadly changed tremendously alongside a different set of audience and exposure problems, to be sure, so probably they are the better for it having been able to peer back at that history and mark it well, especially Scallywag's lamentable fate, compared to those trailblazers having to fare about as well as somebody's first party playing Oregon Trail---valuable lessons and all.

    -Aside from the graphics being used to get over the hump, as it were, I think the main gap JH stands a chance of breaching is one of aesthetics of atmospherics and sheer spectacle. It is one thing to read an outlandish description of something happening, a long cherished thing deep to the Roguelike experience, but in this case having a chance to see it actually play out beyond the insular confines of solely imagination stands a different sort of chance at resonating with people compared to the old standards and even the likes of Dwarf Fortress. 3D has been a stumbling point where no real traction has been managed as an experimental space in the RL scene---which is honestly saying something as I view even the 2D moorings as being rather far from being all that fully realized themselves.

    -RL Obscurity comes down to cases of history going awry, the tech ceiling at pivotal times, business luck most rotten, P&P wranglings---the essence is steeped in the 80's and the works reached for beyond their grasp and still left undone same as many others from that era. Only in recent years, as I've been ranting so very long, is the collective momentum starting to circle back to those times again to hopefully better ends so long as history isn't forgotten and enough of the most unfortunate of trouble spots can somehow be navigated.

  2. I agree with pretty much everything you say. I'm in the odd position of working on Jupiter Hell but not exactly being in the target market for it (gameplay-wise I am, but graphically I prefer abstract representation that communicates gameplay elements efficiently).

    The big thing about Jupiter Hell drawing people in is that there definitely have been people drawn into the roguelike genre by Spelunky or FTL. I've seen lots of posts by people who eventually found their way to DCSS or Brogue, but stated they never would have touched those games originally because of the intimidating interface and artstyle. The roguelites acted as gateways.

    With X-COM I saw an even bigger crowd of people get into a type of gameplay that was long thought dead in AAA games. Turn-based tactics popular again! Even Ironman mode was popular! The opportunity is clear. There are people out there who will play tactical, thoughtful games if presented as nicely as X-COM was. And that's exactly what Jupiter Hell is aiming for.

    Success is down to many random factors though, as you've said. You mention Ragnarok as a failure, but then Shiren the Wanderer managed to be a big success. I'm hoping Jupiter Hell gets lucky here :)

  3. Just admit You envy the great graphics of Jupiter Hell :)

    I really do think nice graphics and smooth animations are for the best. And it has the classic ASCII mode for hardcore roguelikers too! So what to want more?
    Personally I agree that abstract graphic representation is the greatest, since it stimulates our imagination thus making playing roguelikes like reading a book.
    On the other hand, we are in the minority. All of my friends once said they'd love to play ADOM if it has at least a glimpse of graphics. But on the other hand, now it has and they didn't play it either.
    It's like, people are very easily manipulated, and marketing specialists know it best.

    On one hand I agree the best games there are created by low-budget studios. Maybe it's because of lack of constraints. The ideas are worth the most.
    On the other hand, games are basically made to make profit, and it's normal and natural. If You can reach a larger target audience - do it!


    1. Yeah, I agree on many points. Rebelstar, an ancient ancestor of XCOM, replaced its graphics with an abstract (non-ASCII) representation when you were targetting, and that was great :) ASCII is a big barrier, but I think that people who say that they are pushed away by too simple tiles are simply giving an excuse. Hopefully libraries which allow to create games with nice graphics and smooth animations easily get more popular, so more hobbyist devs can use them :)