Thanks to sales and developer press keys, I’ve played a lot of rogue-like and rogue-light designed titles this year. And outside of a few standouts (Dead Cells, Slay the Spire), I keep finding myself returning to the Binding of Isaac. BOI is not the most complicated rogue-like on the market, but what it does well is that secret sauce that I feel a lot of rogue-like designers are not figuring out.
Length vs. Depth:
Rogue-likes operate under a different set of rules compared to traditional games. In a regular game, a title is designed around one long playthrough from start to finish. New content for these games will directly add to the length of the title with more stuff to do.
Rogue-Likes are not designed around one play, but multiple. In fact, if a player sees everything in a rogue-like on a single play, then that is a failure on the designer’s part.
One of the common elements I see in rogue-likes that don’t work for me, is designing it to be very hard, but not having enough content to make the runs feel varied. Just being hard does not make a good rogue-like; there needs to be a reason to keep playing outside of just wanting to see the end. Even more so if an entire run is only going to be less than an hour to get through.
With that said however, adding length to a rogue-like typically doesn’t work, as the rest of the game experience would still be as repetitive. In my multi-part series on replayability we talked about the importance of variance in order to keep a game replayable. The more ways the game can keep making legitimately different runs, the more replayable the game is.
In the final part, I talked about why The Binding of Isaac continues to be one of the most replayable rogue-likes. However, I want to talk more about what supplemental content is, and there is another game that we’re going to focus on.
Grand Supplemental Content:
For a lot of our talks about replayability and variance in game design, we’ve focused on the rogue-like genre, but there is another one that makes extensive use of supplemental content. When we talk about strategy games with grand campaigns or 4X-style design, they can be great examples of supplemental content.
Both Firaxis and Paradox Interactive release supplemental content for their titles. At the low end of the scale, there are examples like new units or enemies and new events that can come up. Where things get really interesting is with the idea of adding in new game systems to their titles post-release.
With both XCOM Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2, Firaxis added in new systems that became integrated into the core gameplay loop. With EU, there was MELD, genetics and MEC upgrades, and the enemy faction. With XCOM 2, fans got the Chosen, new mission types, relationship bonuses, and the custom poster designs.
While I’m not as familiar with Paradox’s games, it doesn’t take long to look at the pages of DLC for each one of their titles, and the big additions with their expansions. Again, we’re not talking about content that adds length, but elements that change how a game plays out on different runs.
When a developer does supplemental content right, it can in some sense invalidate the original release, as fans will not want to go back to the base game without the additional content. With that said, it does raise an interesting discussion about said initial release.
Buying a Lemon:
The argument over what should and shouldn’t be included in the 1.0 version of your game has grown thanks to on disc DLC and day one patches. Having months, or even years, planned out for additional content can be a good thing… unless the game fails.
This can lead to a catch 22 situation where your DLC could make your game amazing, but the base game was not enough to get sales to justify developing it. On the other hand, you could take a great game that earned you profit and run it into the ground with constant changes and increasingly more expensive DLC.
There is no easy answer to this sadly, and it’s up to you as the designer to figure out what is considered version 1.0 of your game. The beauty of supplemental content is that it can take something great and make it better, but there still needs to be a foundation to grow on. The examples from Firaxis and Paradox Interactive mentioned above are more exceptions than the rule.
Leaving content purposely under developed or missing and promising that it will be added in later is not how you want to pitch your game to consumers. There should still be a completed game at 1.0 for fans to buy.
Another element of this is being able to properly present your game and future plans to consumers. Putting out a smaller, but completed game with plans for future DLC, looks better compared to a larger game with missing content and DLC coming. As another benefit, if the DLC plans fall through, you’ll still have what is considered a completed game for people to buy and won’t feel like they’re being mislead about the content.
When it works, supplemental content can keep a game relevant for years to come, but banking your entire success on it is not wise.