In The Problem with the Roguelike Metagame Mark R. Johnson analyzes the impact unlocks have on roguelike players’ psychology. He makes the case that players see the unlocks as the reason why they can’t win, and become fixated on the fact that they don’t have the unlocks instead of focusing on learning the game and overcoming challenges by improving their skill. Mark holds that unlocks are therefore a detriment to the player experience if we design roguelikes with the intent that sufficiently skilled players should be able to win the game roughly 100% of the time.
Mike Says: I hadn’t given much thought to unlock design in roguelikes, but Mark makes a believable argument. In my experience if a roguelike doesn’t give me access to options unless I fulfill some arbitrary condition in a prior playthrough, I’m much more likely to get bored with the game before unlocking even half the content: I’ll probably lose a bunch of times without unlocking anything, get tired of the character I have to play, and at that point shelve the game.
Richard Says: Mark does a pretty solid job explaining his ideas. He starts by breaking things down. Then he presents a clear argument. Drawing from and listening to the community is a move straight out of my book! He’s non-aggressive and open to constructive debate. Someone give this man a gold star, or a ship, or power-up, or whatever!
Mark’s model of the learning player is simplistic to a fault, and he puts too much genre focus on the conventions of the roguelike genre instead of the genre’s underlying design, which includes similarities to most skill-based games. Pick any genre or any hard game and you have a similar situation where players are forced to learn from their play attempts. If there’s any persistence, unlocks, or even suspended power-ups like in Super Mario Bros., you’ll find that most beginning players will lean on those systems, but not to the exclusion of understanding the consequences of their gameplay. It’s because they understand (or are beginning to) why they lost that they put together a plan of action that involves using an unlock, power-up, etc.
Part of Mark’s central argument builds on a weak correlation between unlocks and how players learn complex games from their attempts. Roguelikes are strategy games, which stress player knowledge skill most of all. There’s typically a lot of information to learn and no wrong way to learn it. Until the player understands a large amount of gameplay complexities (rules/data) they will make uninformed decisions and therefore their play experience won’t be one of interesting choices. So I don’t blame players who reach for helper items, unlocks, or other “cheating” upgrades. Being thrown head first into the deep end of a gameplay system like classic roguelikes and learning your way to victory is a pretty ridiculous task. This is probably the reason why roguelikes are so niche. The logic behind Mark’s argument reminds me of the theoretical player perspective.
Chris says: I liked this article a lot, though I think Richard is right that he focuses a bit too much on a niche genre to make his central point. Mark’s argument can be applied elsewhere. I do wish that Mark had expanded a bit more on what he considers to be the “undesirable mindset” generated by unlock systems in roguelikes. He says this mindset consists in thinking “that the game is to blame for their deaths.” But the game is always to blame for a player’s death. Clearly, Mark knows this and is trying to get at some unique sense of unfairness players feel when they die in roguelikes that feature an unlock system as opposed to roguelikes that force players to confront their own strategic failings. But he doesn’t fully elucidate where this unique sense of unfairness comes from.