Words: 1743 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes
A while back I did an essay using Returnal as a jumping off point for discussing how roguelike games build their progression systems. The subject of that essay had been one of player direction: the need to make sure that it is clear what players should be doing at each step, so that they can best be able to complete a run.
This time around I wanted to discuss the same idea of progression systems in roguelike games, but from a different standpoint. This time, I will be looking at how these systems can be used to encourage or discourage players from continuing the game, even when it is clear what players should be doing.
The basis for our investigation is going to be how players interact with the premise of trying over and over again. I’ll use a brief comparison of two games – Hades and Skul the Hero Slayer – as a way of looking at how two games with otherwise identical systems have two different frameworks for progression.
How players progress can determine their desire to keep playing. When players feel stuck, they can often decide to give up. Of course, if a game feels too easy, players may feel bored and drop the game as a consequence. There is a fine line that needs to be walked regarding how challenge is presented to players. And in a roguelike, that challenge has to be filtered through the lens of repeated attempts.
I’ll begin with a basic layout of the systems in Hades and Skul, and then explain the core difference in how the two games approach progression, and how those approaches impact the player’s experience.
The Basic Framework
The overlap between Hades and Skul is pretty significant. Hades has the player controlling Zagreus, the son of the Underworld god Hades, as he attempts to escape the realm of the dead. The game puts the player in a series of rooms with a variety of enemies that must be defeated to move on, with a reward being provided that can be used either to make Zagreus stronger for the particular run, or to upgrade Zagreus’s stats for later runs. The game offers the player choices between rooms with different rewards, so that they can decide if they want to focus on particular skills or items – going for victory on this run or trying to play the long game. Zagreus progresses through various areas, each with a boss fight at the end, and enemies get progressively stronger and more complex as the character (presumably) gets stronger as well.
In Skul, the player controls a small skeleton that serves the Demon King, who has been captured by humans. The skeleton’s goal is to fight through the human forces to rescue said Demon King. The game puts the player in a series of rooms with a variety of enemies that must be defeated to move on, and once all enemies are defeated the player is given a reward. The rewards are solely focused on the particular run at hand; while there are permanent upgrades that can be purchased, the currency to purchase them are received merely upon killing enemies. The game (mostly) gives players a choice about what kinds of rooms to enter so that players can tailor their rewards a bit and get the best possible build to complete the run. The player goes through various areas, each with a boss fight at the end, and enemies get progressively stronger and more complex as the character (presumably) gets stronger as well.
Both games rely on the player’s ability to monitor threats and avoid damage. It is key to avoid taking damage, because healing is not frequent. So the player’s most important skill is dodging. Both games also give players a variety of options on how to build up their characters, depending on what they find. In Hades, Zagreus gets various skills from the Olympian gods which can be mixed, paired, discarded, and upgraded. In Skul, the skeleton can hold up to two different “heads” at a time and switch between them, with each head having their own methods of attack, movement, and skills.
I cover these similarities not because I think there is some sense of copying going on. Even insofar as there might be, the two games end up being different enough that they still feel distinct. Their similarities make them highly comparable, but that is all we should be focused on.
Getting to the End
So if those are the basic systems, how do the games handle progression differently?
In Hades, the game doesn’t actually end just upon beating the final boss. Rather, winning once sets in motion a series of events that encourages the player to keep playing through to beat the game over and over again. Even though the game can be fairly difficult, as the player gets better and better beating the game gets easier and easier. And with a variety of unlocks and upgrades that the player gets throughout the game, as well as the variety of character builds available, players can start figuring out which strategies work and which ones don’t. The player makes slow and steady strides, which in turn lead to the player eventually completing the game over and over again. And the game’s own story and progression are built around not just replaying, but continually winning.
By comparison, Skul is much more about getting to the end once. The challenge comes from just getting there: health is limited, enemies hit hard, and bosses have complex movesets that require careful timing and knowledge. The game is more difficult, because the content is pretty much all there in that single playthrough. The game does not demand perfection of the player, and it allows the player to make small pieces of progress as they learn more about enemies, bosses, and movement. But there is no real incentive to keep playing once the final boss is defeated. Which in turn means that the game’s difficulty is centered more around keeping you from winning.
Now there’s nothing wrong about the latter setup. Making a game difficult as a challenge to the player is fine. And the fact that both games allow the player to essentially determine how much of a challenge they want prevents either game from necessarily getting too hard, although Skul could still veer closer to that end because it still needs its challenge as a way of encouraging further play.
The difference in approaches, though, do have impacts on how players relate to the game.
In Hades, the focus is on victory and rewarding victory. While the player struggles to win, winning eventually becomes a “default” state as the player gets better and upgrades Zagreus more. At which point, the player is given access to challenges for increasing the difficulty, all of which are optional. The player then has the opportunity to dictate exactly how they continue playing the game. They can steadily increase the difficulty for further rewards or more challenge while they continue beating the game to progress the game’s narrative. Or they can ignore the challenges and other systems entirely in order to focus on that narrative.
In Skul, the focus is on struggle, which means the default state is “defeat.” The player has some options, but those options are limited, and they are all geared toward the same end goal: beat the game. The game gives the player help as they get further along, but the game’s own setup means that it is still actively fighting against the player, preventing them from winning.
The approach given in Hades ends up being better because it is encouraging. Players like victories. And the opportunity to get more victories is going to generally be preferred over repeated defeat. There is a limit to this preference, and players usually are going to find easy victories boring. Hence where the option for challenges becomes important: players continually determine a level where the game is neither too hard nor too easy, while still being able to feed the desire to win.
Conversely, Skul is discouraging. While players can ultimately attain the skill necessary to succeed, the amount of time and effort that needs to be put in to reach the end will start to weigh upon the player. After so many failed attempts, the player may well decide to give up.
To put this a different way, imagine that both games had an expected playtime of 20 hours. For Hades, a given player is expected to spend about 7-8 hours figuring out how to get through the game, and the remaining hours completing the game again as they see fit to finish out the story. Comparatively, for Skul, a given player is expected to spend all 20 hours figuring out how to win.
In this hypothetical, the games are of the same length. But Hades presents those 20 hours in a way that the player is less likely to get bored or so frustrated that they choose to quit. When you hit the point that you’ve won, you are given a goal that pushes you to keep playing. In Skul, though, those same 20 hours are a trial in incremental progress. So long as the player makes progress, it may be enough to keep them playing until they get to the end, but the slow nature of that progress – coupled with the sting of defeat – can leave a bad taste in the player’s mouth.
I offer this comparison as a way of thinking about the construction of roguelikes and how victory gets built into them. Often we think of victory as a condition that needs to be met once, and once it is done there is nothing further to the game. As a consequence, we think about roguelikes as a process of trial-and-error, where we make attempts, fail, and just keep trying over and over again until we finally succeed.
But there are different approaches to the genre, and one thing that can help – especially if we want to emphasize challenge – is to use the condition of victory as a reward for players. Obviously this is not the sole method by which we make roguelikes enjoyable. But all else equal, the feeling that you can win – proven by the fact that you have won – is going to encourage players to stick with a game more than the potential that you might win.