PlomRogue Development Blog

IRDC 2014

Some belated notes (many of them only peripheral to PlomRogue development) on an event that happened two months ago: the International Roguelike Development Conference (IRDC). Each year, IRDC takes place in a different city. This year, it took place in Berlin, Germany (from May 9th to May 11th, at the co-up coworking space). I live in Berlin, and I sort of develop a roguelike – so I had to attend. I'm glad I did: I learned a lot, and met very friendly people.

Some of the attendants' names I had read before. In one way or another, they shared guilt in me starting PlomRogue: Radomir Dopieralski aka TheSheep wrote the tutorial "How To Write A Roguelike in 15 Steps" – which had made writing roguelikes seem dangerously easy to me. And Mark Johnson is the brain behind the amazing Ultima Ratio Regum project. Not that I ever actually played that game: I've repeatedly failed in getting it to run on my Linux. But – consider these descriptions and screenshots on RogueBasin. When I saw these, I knew I wanted to play something like that. And if I couldn't with this game (owing to it not running on my system), well. Then I'd have to code my own "something like that"! (There's of course no chance I'll get as far as Ultima Ratio Regum does any time soon …)

At IRDC I learned about many other people's projects and ideas. Almost every participant did at least one presentation. Some just spent a few minutes to show games they currently work on. Those games often deviated in many ways from the "Berlin Interpretation" (a set of criteria to define roguelike-ness – proposed at the IRDC 2008 that also took place in Berlin). But in one way or another, they all used core roguelike concepts. Longer talks dealt with specific development problems, such as: How to build levels around plot structures using graph theory (flend, developer of TraumaRL). How to enhance simple hand drawings into fancy game graphics (Radomir Dopieralski / TheSheep). How to use JavaScript for writing roguelikes (0ndras, developer of rot.js). How to randomly generate different styles of art and language (Mark Johnson on his strategies in Ultima Ratio Regum). How to develop games with the Unity game engine (jpeg and @_Chorge in two separate presentations).

Some game-philosophical talks were held by Darren Grey (developer of many roguelikes, and main force behind the highly recommended Roguelike Radio podcast). Darren sparked minor controversies on a few game design issues. He attacked uses of numbers and elaborate interfaces. To him, too much gameplay relied on players working with numbers – learning, remembering, and calculating them. Darren seemed to argue: Game elements should not differ mainly by quantity or name – they should instead differ by quality or mechanism. Some of Darren's points were opposed by other IRDC participants: They defended what he attacked as parts of their gameplay fun. Juggling numbers or names may do nothing for winning a game – but it might satisfy other psychological urges: immersion in the game world, decorating and personalizing one's character, feeding one's imagination and sense of scale. This felt a bit like a clash of two different (though not necessarily irreconcilable) gaming philosophies: One favored "gaminess" – playing to exercise one's competitiveness, to overcome challenges, to solve well-defined problems. The other favored "experience" – playing to explore and contemplate fantasy worlds, and to imagine oneself as a productive part of them. Personally, I think I favor the second one.

I met a few NetHack enthusiasts at IRDC. My own NetHack experiences up to then had been short and unfriendly. But here, my interest in the game was renewed – especially by conversations with Patric Mueller aka bhaak. He is a developer of two NetHack forks: UnNetHack aims to carefully update NetHack (seemingly abandoned by its original coders for now) while keeping true to its spirit. NetHack-de aims to translate the original NetHack into German – and (so it seems) experiment with computational linguistics. Bhaak and others at IRDC encouraged me to give NetHack another try. In the two months since, as a consequence, I became hooked on it. I got as far down as dungeon level 10 now, and finished Sokoban. I expect to find that Amulet in but a few years from now …

There was much chatting about life as an indie game coder. It did not sound like an easy way to make a living – not with roguelikes, anyway. Most attendants seemed to depend on other sources for income. Crowdfunding was much discussed, but with skepticism: too much reliance on crowd-pleasing promises hard (or, game-design-wise, dangerous) to keep. Other modes of competition came up as important – mainly participation in game jams, such as Ludum Dare. Naturally, the 7DRL (Seven Day Roguelike) Challenge was a common experience: a once-a-year endeavor to write roguelikes in a single week. Me, I could hardly see myself participating in this: I'm much too slow in producing anything.

But I sort of promised at IRDC to give the next 7DRL a try. That happened as a result of my own short PlomRogue presentation. With the project's current state, I did not have much to show. But I did talk a bit about my troublesome indecision: coding every possible path instead of settling on one; making everything an option that can be configured freely. In other words: writing not a game, but a game engine – the urge to which, I was told at IRDC, was a known problem in the scene. But building your own engine might lead to one good thing: finally having available a game engine that you trust (if you are as distrustful as me against what's not your own code). So other IRDC participants suggested: Why not use this engine of yours to build 7DRLs on it (instead of coding them from scratch)? I had not considered that possibility before. I agreed to the idea. I'll have to get my "engine" into shape now till the next 7DRL challenge.

In closing, one more important link: Roguelike Radio #88 – which is a collective recap of IRDC with many participants (jump to 1:00:18 for me discussing how PlomRogue became engine instead of game). Oh, and most importantly – many thanks to Ido Yehieli aka tametick / "the friendly game developer" for organizing the whole conference!

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