Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On introducing newbies to roguelikes

During the past couple of months I have been thinking a lot about how to make ADOM II more newbie friendly. Thanks to various comments from the community I was pointed to several of the current "hot" games like DCSS, Brogue and Tome 4. While this so far has been an interesting romp and while I still feel the need to develop my own game as none of these games seems to satisfy my needs I also noticed that there seems to be one essential truth regarding the question of what should be done to be a more user-friendly roguelike game. For every praised feature there usually was an equal amount of criticism regarding said feature. This morning I was pointed to Darrens post about designing for non-roguelikers and while I don't agree with all the points this really gave me a new idea that I plan to follow through with ADOM II 0.3.x (although not for ADOM II 0.3.0 - I have tinkered with that version for long enough and now it finally needs to be finished).

Here's my line of thoughts...

My first thought was "well, you can't please everyone". Then I thought "But why not try? Just do it in a gradual way and don't enforce one style of play". So ADOM II 0.3.1 will introduce a lot of functions to make the game tremendously more newbie friendly while retaining all the options you know from ADOM. They just will be much easier to learn. How's that going to be?
  1. ADOM II 0.3.0 already will differentiate between a main screen for beginners and for experts. Starting with 0.3.1 they will be functionally very different. In order to do that I will introduce the technical notion of game configurations (which technically already exist but were planned to be used for something else). The specific configuration will affect how the game plays and behaves.
  2. Options to configure include the following:
    1. Should the game use small maps?
    2. Should the game allow diagonal movement (for both players and monsters)?
    3. Should the game display extra hints about possible keyboard commands?
    4. Should hunger be activated?
    5. Should you be allowed to select your skills individually?
    6. Should you be allowed to select your talents [once implemented] individually?
  3. When you start a new game from the beginner main screen you will be asked for race, class, name and be done. You can play right away. Extra hints will be activated and hunger will be deactivated. ADOM II 0.3.1 also will memorize your selection and some hot key (ENTER?) will auto-start the game with your previous configuration.
  4. When you start the tutorial the game from the beginner screen you will be asked for race, class and name (and receive information about good beginner combinations) and will start the game in a configuration that (a) displays hints, (b) deactivates hunger, (c) only uses small maps and (d) deactivates diagonal movement up to level 3 (when gaining level 3 diagonal movement will be activated and you will be introduced to that additional complexity). Some hot key (SPACE) will activate the previous tutorial combination.
  5. On the screen starting the game will offer a lot more options:
    • Start tutorial game (as under #3, SPACE restarts the previous selection).
    • Start basic game (as under  #3).
    • Start standard game (select race, class, name and be done; ENTER uses the last selection; the normal game starts).
    • Start expert game (select race, class, name, skills, star signs and talents [once implemented]). The normal game starts.
    • Start customized game. Allows you to select which options mentioned under #2 you want to activate and then proceeds with starting the configured game. ADOM II will memorize your selection and ALT-ENTER will restart your previous configuration. CTRL-ALT-ENTER will restart both your previous configuration and selection of race, class, ...
  6. ADOM II 0.3.1 will add a context menu to the full screen mode that can be activated by right-clicking. It will add both the possible commands for the current position as well as all the configuration options from the configuration menu available at the top of the window in windowed game mode.
  7. SPACE as a contextual action is probably the one thing that fascinated me most as I for whatever reasons failed to ever think about it. SPACE in ADOM II 0.3.1 will check all reasonable actions for the current context (e.g. pick up items, eat food when hungry, drink potion if having one available, read scrolls if available, open doors, close doors, attack enemies). If only one option is available it will be automatically selected, for more than one you will be prompted about your choice.
  8. Contextual hints will be displayed in a sidebar to the right (in the default screen configuration).
  9. The inventory system will be simplified in that pressing 'I' (to get to the stuff list) and then selecting an item will allow you to choose among all reasonable actions for that item (drop, eat, read, process, use, ...).
  10. The new manual will be a beautiful and hyperlinked PDF manual with charts, diagrams and pictures.
  11. The new manual will be accompanied by a cheat sheet with all the important keyboard options. Maybe two cheat sheets (one for beginners, one for experts).
This should allow all the possible combinations and gradually introduce the player to the more complex concepts of the game. As in beginner mode during each step in the game hints will indicate possible actions and SPACE will allow to use contextual commands this really should simplify the UI. Nonetheless I intend to keep commands like 'e'at, 'r'ead, etc. for expert players as selection is faster. Then it's up to the player to play in the way he prefers to play.

Avoiding perma-death will remain a feature of ADOM Deluxe though.

So what do you think? Is all this clearly explained :-) In my mind I now see a simplified and gradual game experience and can't wait to implement it for ADOM II 0.3.1. So I'm now off to work and tonight will start to put the finishing touches on ADOM II 0.3.0. Still shooting for a weekend release...


  1. I think Incursion Roguelike is dealing with beginners in quite a good way: a bunch of options allow the game to be really easier (no out of depth monsters, halve monsters life, give hints, no permadeaths, and some others) and when any of these options is changed from normal value, the game is set in explore mode, thus not recording highscores.

    Whenever the player is feeling more confident in his skills within the game, he will set back to normal roguelike parameters anyway!

  2. Just be careful how you refer to such modes - call them Quick Play or something similar rather than "Newbie" mode.

  3. Sounds like you're planning on making ADOM II almost modular, like ToME 4 is - great idea! :)

    1. Modularity is the second name of ADOM II -that's why it's so much fun to extend ADOM II compared to what it takes in ADOM...

  4. Aren't you overcomplicating game with a lot of options, modes, e.t.c?
    It an art to make game both complex and user-friendly.
    And lot of options is not the right way.

    1. But look at it like this: On the beginner screen there are two options: Start tutorial and start game (besides reading the manual and restoring a game). Pretty simple. The tutorial activates everything that simplifies your life, the beginner game just deactivates the most lethal danger in the beginning and adds some explanations.

      The expert screen is just that... an expert screen. All the keyboard shortcuts will only come into play once you really get the hang of it and the rest is very graphic and mouse-controlled. With contextual help everywhere.

      Let me try to surprise you... I think that Darrens ideas really lead into the right direction, I personally just don't enjoy enforcing a game style on people that is too different from my preferences ;-)

  5. Being introduced to diagonal movement during a tutorial at level 3 would make me close the game in disgust. There's making the game less harsh on newbies, and there's actively insulting their intelligence.

    The same goes in general for the distinction between "expert mode" and "beginner mode". That just seems an overall misguided concept to me. ADOM just IS a complicated game. ADOM II will be even more so (at least that's the direction it's taking). You can't and shouldn't attempt to pretend otherwise.

    Take a game like Dwarf Fortress. Complexity isn't a vice. Dwarf Fortress is somewhat easier to get into simply because it has a menu system that tries to get the controls you need displayed when you need them. (It doesn't even have less buttons - it just does a better job of showing them to you than the ADOM keybindings list.)

    I really, honestly think you've been victim to a misunderstanding (or I am, in which case I apologize, I don't know any better): ADOM isn't "too complex". The CONTROLS are. That's what you need to adress. Points 6 to 11 sound perfectly reasonable. But you're going to have a hard enough time just developing ONE game. If you're going to add different modes at all, don't make the easier mode less complex, i.e. interesting. Make it more forgiving.

    In fact, you need just one configurable option, if any at all, and it's mystifying to me why it wasn't listed above. You need a box that can be unchecked before game start which says "Death is permanent". If you're going to deviate from the old-school roguelike tradition of being fiendishly hard in order to chase the "modern roguelike" train, start with that one.

    1. I have to sort of agree with Silfir here. There are two different problems that are worth considering here, and they are not completely overlapping. A lot of the steps that you talk about in your post are more aimed at solving the problem of "How do I reduce the learning curve of getting people into the game?" I don't know that this is necessarily the question that needs to be answered. I think the question at the heart of many of the recent discussions is more like: "How do I make the user experience as pleasant as possible without sacrificing content that I want to keep?"

      By my count, there are 123 separate keystroke commands available to the user in ADOM I. I started playing ADOM in 2001 or so, and have been playing off-and-on fairly consistently since then, and I would say that there are at least thirty commands on that list that I have never intentionally used in play and wouldn't know what button to press to activate them, and probably another thirty that I know, but use once per game or less. I'm sure that other experienced players would probably roughly agree with that assessment. In other words, I would suspect you could probably get rid of half of the commands available in ADOM, and you would probably not see any significant changes in the play of the game. With a smart, sleek, interface, you might be able to cut that down to 40 keys, maybe less. This would be a *HUGE* improvement in the playability of the game, both for beginners and for experts, at virtually no loss of content. And it makes the game more newbie-friendly as a bonus, because the result of such a purge will (hopefully) result in making the play of the game that much more intuitive. Although perhaps it is not as complicated of game as ADOM, I note as reference that, excluding play-customizable hotkeys, Skyrim uses 25 keys and mouse. I suspect that you'll find that's probably the upper limit on most modern, certainly commercial, games.

    2. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that trying to reduce the learning curve is necessarily a bad thing either; having some built-in tutorial options is probably a good idea. However, I believe that simplifying the interface is probably worth doing even if it didn't reduce the learning curve at all.

  6. I do think the introduction to diagonal thing is a bit misguided. There should simply be a 4-way option in the game. Anyone playing on a laptop would benefit from this.

  7. Would they, though? Sure you don't have to think of alternate solutions for laptop users without numpads that way (laptop user does not equal not having a numpad), but they're still playing a game with only half the movement - a much different, overall shallower game, if you ask me.

    If you're diagonally adjacent (not technically adjacent, but I'm not sure how to say this) to an enemy in the no-diagonal system and they move, they have to pick a side to approach you from (one of two, both of which are whopping 45 degrees off). If they pick the wrong one, you can just run a circle. You can endlessly avoid fights by moving away from the adjacent position - and all that in much smaller spaces. Of course you can tune the AI so that it will always pick the route to approach you that blocks off all escape routes - but now you're programming a pathfinding AI just for the non-diagonal scheme so it isn't terrible!

  8. I had presumed we were at the point where the "4-way solution" was to simply have a button press serve as a simple toggle like the Chunsoft games have been doing since the very first entry when all anybody had was a dpad?

    I would also say focus less on "newbie friendly" and moreso on "newbie impressive" outside of obvious things like getting the number of controls keys under control as per Silfir above and whatnot. For many Roguelikes, that sadly never gain too much tractions, you begin unremarkably and tend to soon die horribly before coming across any "interesting" happenings that serve as hallmarks of the institution that somewhat do much of the heavy listing in terms of distinguishing the lot from others in the RPG camp---things like Angband Orc Pits, Tension rooms, etc.

    So, perhaps center on making the first...hmm....5-15 minutes compellingly outlandish so that the players will want to see the likes of it again, or how much further down the rabbit hole goes, versus expecting them to wrestle with controls and "unremarkable tedium" to even get to any of the "good stuff" many quite literally wouldn't know they've been missing out on and take it from there? Drama/Relative Calm/Drama tends to beat Calm/Drama/Calm when it comes to garnering an audience and holding them in terms of games and just about everything else...

    Controls as a thing to "master" or "exploit" beyond twitch reflex situations just seems to run counter to the actual "Game" thrust of things---all it need be is a spiffy, straightforward enabler allowing the player's ever-growing wits and interactions with the world at play to come through without any nonsense.

    Alternatively: My *Draft Silfir* campaign would SURELY help draw in newcomers---his is the perfect voice for a grizzled dwarven veteran to explain the mindset to the approach for an adventure in such a context before saving the fledgling player via sacrifice against some ludicrous horde and then leaving them to ponder and act upon his last words~

    1. For an "interesting" happening, one possibility might be to have the PC's starting history affect their location a little bit, say after the first 20 or 30 deaths. Eg. Occasionally your PC will start the game as a prisoner on the third level of an orcish settlement, will have to steal some equipment and fight (or sneak) their way out, or start in a settlement that is under siege or something, or will begin adventuring as a result of the non-debilitating corruption that you picked up or something. Play up the RPG elements a little.

    2. Ultimately, things like that definitely add a sense to things. What I'm mainly gunning for is straight-away doings---things to captivate/impress folks before they've died a single time, let alone dozens. The original ADOM having set pieces remains one of the defining traits---it just needs to be kicked up several notches towards the logical conclusions.

      Spend some time watching how the first half-hour of any number of modern or classic RPGs and/or Roguelikes unfold via Youtube---then seek to better them on one front or another. The ADOM stable can't compete in terms of massive budget, but what it can do, and frankly needs to do, is be ruthlessly agile in terms of adventuring circumstances for the playerbase bearing in mind what the competition of all stripes are managing.

  9. Thanks everyone for considering the alternative approaches. I agree with many but my point is that I don't see these options as mutually exclusive.

    Look at it like this: ADOM II still is in a very early state of development. Although it's now been out for more than a year, it's still version 0.2.8 and I'm kind of old school as far as version numbering goes... so ADOM II still is a game in its infancy.

    I e.g. totally agree with making the start of the game a lot more interesting to newbies and I happily will comply with that... once there is enough content in ADOM II to allow for that. Right now ADOM II still is a pretty light on content and I am still working on making it more feature complete... thus it's now much easier to simplify the initial learning curve than to make the game a lot more enticing... simply because a lot of content detail still needs to be implemented.

    Otherwise I totally agree. Remember that the very first versions of ADOM II didn't even feature the Drakalor Chain - or in other words: There is no reason to really always start in that place. It's so for now just because... so accessibility (from the fun point of view) will be a gradual addition... each minor version at least should add another important aspect. Nothing is mutually exclusive. So keep the suggestions coming as there is no one true way.

    You also can see that in the crowd funding campaign (a lot of people clamored about "add tiles to get ore folks into the campaign") and so far this is not really the case ;-)

    1. Yes, unfortunately it seems that those hordes of people saying "I don't donate because there are no tiles" don't put their money where their mouth is...

    2. Unfortunately we may have missed the boat for many of them. It's hard to get people's attention more than once.