GameDev Thoughts: Why Are Modern Roguelike Games So Popular?

Roguelikes are one of the oldest genres in video game history, but they have never reached mainstream popularity until recently. Why is that? Well, this probably comes down to usability issues. Old roguelikes are incredibly complex to start and have a high learning curve when it comes to understanding the game’s user interface. People don’t want to dive into that bundle of confusion that initially results, and thus the genre was relegated to the hardcore niche. Roguelikes are making a return in the past few years, and here’s my take on the reasons why.

The answer here again relates to usability. Modern roguelikes tend to borrow mechanics from other genres that make them seem more familiar, such as platformers or shoot-em-ups. Because of this familiarity, people can finally dive right into one of these games and not feel completely confused, and this has caused the genre as a whole to skyrocket. This raises another question, though; why do people enjoy roguelikes? While some people might denote this as a “roguelite” instead, the general opinion is that roguelikes usually have two main aspects to them: randomized levels and permadeath. Both of these have mass appeal — people enjoy randomized levels as they enjoy learning how to adapt to a game’s scenarios via improvisation rather than just learning how to do something then repeating that over and over. The randomized nature of these levels also allows for creativity in the solution to every problem, and thus constantly challenges us to find the best answer. People really enjoy the feeling of exploring the unexplored, and if designed correctly, roguelikes should give that feeling with every passing playthrough.

With that out of the way, why do people like permadeath? Well, this is a slightly stranger enjoyment, but I believe people enjoy it because it forces you to change up your strategy every playthrough if you no longer have access to a permanently progressing character. In addition to that, permadeath can give each playthrough meaning. People enjoy that feeling of tension with video games, and enjoy being creative with what they can do to beat every level with a more tangible form of punishment, so permadeath is sometimes a natural fit. It’s worth noting that many roguelikes today have slight amounts of persistent progression that lasts throughout playthroughs, but that doesn’t get rid of any of the benefits of permadeath. These persistent progression mechanics instead usually serve to enhance the game experience and helps players feel like they’re making actual progress even through numerous deaths, so that they don’t quit due to sheer frustration.

Important Takeaways: Modern roguelikes have been picking up in popularity because they’re actually playable by a majority of mainstream gamers. Older roguelikes never hit mainstream partly because players hate feeling utterly confused upon booting up the game. In addition to just being more playable, players are able to enjoy the core aspects of roguelikes: randomized levels and permadeath. Randomized levels make every playthrough fresh and allows for players to work through whatever the game throws at them by giving them the potential for more creativity in their problem solving. Permadeath gives a feeling of importance to each playthrough, and forces you to change your strategy to adapt to the tension of losing your character. These two elements are powerful in their own rights, but when combined, prove to make popular a very compelling genre. That’s not to say that every game with randomized levels and permadeath are good, but that these elements serve to greatly enhance what makes many video games fun in the first place: challenge and discovery.