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The Importance of Roguelike Food Clocks

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Traditionally a majority of roguelikes include some sort of food system. Hunger management does seem like a natural part of role-play adventuring, but it also serves a much more important function: Pushing the player along is an integral part of [most] good roguelike design.

All but sandbox games present the player with a specific goal to aim for, though achieving that goal should be about more than a brute force grind to become unstoppable. Of course we could simply use various means to directly cap player power, like stat ceilings or limiting the amount of items available, though I’d argue against these methods because they essentially take options away from the player. From a player’s point of view, the constraint which affords the most flexibility is how much time they have to achieve the goal--within this constraint the player can do whatever they want.

Types of Food Clock

Using an arbitrary turn count (the roguelike equivalent of a real-time timer) is one option, though a rarely used one. Why not give the player some amount of control over the mechanic?

The most common food clock is, unsurprisingly, actual food and hunger. It’s easily understood, and the timer becomes closely integrated with elements of the game mechanics themselves (searching, combat, looting, identification), making it feel more natural.

DCSS_starving

You won’t see this in Cogmind.

But food doesn’t work for all games. Some take place in an incompatible setting, or prefer to avoid the burden (on either designer or player) of integrating it with the game’s other mechanics.

One common alternative is to have some dire threat chasing you. This is more literally something behind the player “pushing” them to advance. FTL uses this mechanic.

Any food clock puts a (sometimes soft) time limit on the player’s game and therefore limits what the player is capable of. The endlessly leveling mummy trick (mummies don’t need to eat) in old versions of DCSS is one example of what happens when a food clock mechanic breaks down in a generic roguelike--the developers had to introduce a new spawning timer mechanic to deal with that and similar scumming behavior.

Regardless of the method used, they all benefit the experience by pushing the player forward. In a broader sense, being pushed along forces decisions, counteracting the player tendency to postpone decisions as long as possible, or at least until sufficient knowledge or ability is obtained to ensure a certain outcome. This tendency is at odds with the core roguelike experience--solving randomized problems. It’s an inherently less interesting way to play a game since it removes most of the challenge. (One exception would be those players who are “just along for the ride” when they play a game; definitely a minority of roguelike players, though perhaps more common with AAA games that focus on style rather than substance.)

More specifically, food clocks cut down on grinding, which is good design. (Unless you’re trying to make an addictive MMORPG or similar that milks poor gamers for their money/time.) Those who grind will likely have less fun in the process, and anyone who doesn’t grind will consider the game poorly balanced or outright unfair. In other words, a food clock is saving players from themselves. Herein lies a golden rule of game design: If the optimal way to play a game is to do something boring, players will still do it even if it makes their experience less enjoyable. Thus a well-designed game should strive to avoid rewarding this kind of behavior.

Cogmind’s goal to provide a grind-free experience goes hand in hand with pushing the player along. A food clock is essential here.

Cogmind’s Food Clock

So what about food for robots? Well, we could artificially require some resource as a substitute, but I’d rather not go that route. I don’t particularly want another resource management sub-game that ties into everything else, nor is there a need for one.

Cogmind instead wraps the food clock more directly into the existing game mechanics, specifically stealth and combat (and by extension play style).

The more you affect the environment, the greater the enemy response to your presence. Remaining stealthy is one way to postpone a stronger response, and I believe that as a more difficult challenge, successful use of stealth is a very valid way to operate outside the normal food clock. But once you mess up and the fighting begins, the cumulative effect of your presence can eventually snowball into a big mess. This increases the pressure to leave the area. Theoretically you could continue to fight, but against an unlimited army you can only lose to attrition. Did I mention you can’t repair your core? (Note: The “presence” effect is less pronounced through the first few depths to make them a little easier; in the 7DRL the first three Materials floors didn’t have any pressure to move on at all.) As Cogmind grows more powerful, though, you evolve to cover your core with more parts and attrition via integrity damage becomes less of a threat. It’s at this point in the game, about one-third through, that electromagnetic damage appears. EM damage is the game’s original (and most convincing) food clock mechanic.

Regardless of where they impact, hits taken from EM attacks can result in system corruption, which in turn causes all sorts of nasty things to happen. Current list of random effects due to system corruption:

  • Random log messages (harmless, just annoying)
  • Data loss: Forget the layout of one or more previously explored areas of the map
  • Data loss: Forget what certain parts do--they become unidentified
  • Misinterpreted scan data: Low/medium-level robot sensors display incorrect information
  • Misdirections: Unintentionally move in the wrong direction
  • (more to come)

As system corruption accumulates from subsequent attacks, the random effects progressively worsen and grow more frequent. Corruption can even kill Cogmind if it reaches 100%, though the side effects are likely to be deadly long before then.

cogmind_corruption_feedback

In case you haven’t yet noticed the side effects, while corrupted your map will also occasionally glitch as a reminder.

Corruption resets to zero on reaching each new depth (because that’s when you evolve), so suffering the effects of corruption can be a very powerful motivator to forge ahead. Cleaning system corruption any other way is not easy.

Aside from corruption, in the mid- to late-game main maps (as opposed to side-routes) your location will occasionally be pinpointed and a strike team sent to deal with you. While Cogmind is more than capable of dealing with one of these teams, engaging them is tempting you to begin the whole snowball process of you interacting with more and more of the map’s inhabitants, attracting attention and increasing your “presence.” There are other strategies for handling these teams, but those are for you to discover ;)

Reinforcing this whole food clock system is the fact that you can only move forward in the world--there is no way to revisit previously explored levels. But that’s a topic for another post.

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6 Comments

  1. rsaarelm
    Posted December 26, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    So you’re going to have an amnesia mechanic? It’s a bit iffy if you go with the roguelike design idea that optimal play should be non-boring. In a game with the possibility for amnesia, optimal play is going to involve drawing every map and writing down every item identification by hand the moment you first get the information, just in case an amnesia effect will later wipe out the in-game memory. Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup devs are pretty strict about the nonboring optimal play thing, and they removed the amnesia effects from the game at one point.

    • Kyzrati
      Posted December 26, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      Non-boring optimal play is definitely an important design goal, one taken into consideration with much of Cogmind’s design.

      The amnesia mechanic in particular is one of those things left in from the 7DRL. It’s effects aren’t as serious or noticeable as they were/would be in DCSS. Here the loss of map information is more of a small nuisance to be dealt with by in-game methods, if at all.

      In general maps and map sub-areas are a lot more “disposable” since you cannot visit previous maps, nor will you generally want to revisit areas on the same map you’ve already been to (except perhaps in the local area to avoid detection or for tactical positioning). Spending time backtracking actually makes the game much more difficult because you have a soft time limit on each map, and it’s not your usual dungeon crawl where there is a static number of enemies on a given floor--waste too much time and you’ll be in trouble… That and maps are much larger than your average subterranean roguelike at 200×200, making meta maps a lot more troublesome and, combined with the other factors at play, not really worth it.

      The main way to play Cogmind is to always be moving forward. Of course there are in-game ways to mitigate the loss of map information if keeping it is very important to the player, and certain play styles make it easier to quickly recover that information, or avoid losing it in the first place.

      Overall this mechanic plays a pretty small role in the game, and its effects are annoying but not debilitating, mostly existing for the flavor since there are so many built-in ways to counteract it:

      -Avoid the sole type of enemy that can deal EM damage
      -Insulate against EM damage
      -Equip parts that remove system corruption
      -Hack ubiquitous terminals for map layout information
      -Equip terrain scanners to continually reveal the map
      -Send out drones to do your mapping for you
      -Go up any stairs to reset your corruption level

      Even so, once the game is out there in players’ hands I’m sure there will be design issues worth reconsidering. If not this it’ll be a dozen other things =p.

      I’d really like to add more corruption effects--the list of effects actually has yet to expand from its original 7DRL implementation (and is relatively short), but I didn’t want them to be too deadly, at least not individually, so at the time I went with random effects that are individually relatively benign, but which can contribute to a loss in the bigger picture. Expanding and tweaking these effects will be one of the things to do once playtesting begins in earnest. I look forward to getting feedback on the experience!

  2. Angelo
    Posted December 28, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Hum… I hope that pressure to keep moving forward won’t annoy the completionist me, that’s needs to check every room and every object of every map. :)

    • Kyzrati
      Posted December 28, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      You will… probably die if you always give in to your completionist tendencies, at least using standard straightforward strategies. It would be possible to see most everything if you 1) get really good and/or 2) focus on stealth and hacking to avoid as many confrontations as possible while trying to mitigate enemy responses through terminals. Of course, know that you can’t technically visit all areas of a single generated world, since once you choose one map/path, others are closed off by that decision.

      That said, there will be an “exploration percentage” reported at the end of your game, showing exactly how much of the world you managed to explore. A high value here could be a goal worth aiming for. I do plan to run competition(s) like I did with the 7DRL, and there will be recognition for those who do the most exploring.

  3. screeg
    Posted January 15, 2015 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    I like the idea behind pushing the player forward, but I don’t think “annoying” effects that are unrelated to gameplay (a timed glitching display and random log messages) should be part of them. Similar to your dislike of chores in computer games, I don’t believe you should annoy players as a way to enforce certain behaviors.

    • Kyzrati
      Posted January 15, 2015 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

      I think you may have misinterpreted (or I misrepresented) the intent of that particular feature. The idea isn’t to annoy the player at all (nor is it frequent enough to be that annoying, though for sure everyone has their own degree of what they might believe is “too annoying”).

      One of the things I noticed among public feedback from the prototype was that players sometimes didn’t realize certain aspects of their situation until it was too late--low integrity, high heat, running out of resources, high system corruption, etc. As such there are now a number of audiovisual cues for all kinds of conditions that you would want to be aware of.

      In particular the glitch/log effect therefore serves two purposes: enhance immersion and, more importantly, remind the player that you are partially corrupted and could therefore suffer side effects unless you deal with it. (There are other ways to get rid of corruption--you don’t have to leave the map.)

      Also, you can always deactivate the glitch effect in the options menu, because I understand that for some players it may be too annoying or unnecessary, while for others it’s an important reminder you wouldn’t want to miss. A huge number of the UI features are toggleable in the ever-expanding options menu! Because every player is different, I believe the experience should be as customizable as possible.

      (By the way, thanks for the comment on the Under Rail forums =p)

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