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The Untapped Potential of Roguelikes – An Interview with Josh Ge

A four-year labour of love, Cogmind really caught our attention as a special, immersive and unique roguelike that seems to clash against current trends towards roguelikes.

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Earlier this week we reviewed the excellent Cogmind, a one-man production by developer Josh Ge. A four-year labor of love, Cogmind really caught our attention as a special, immersive and unique roguelike that seems to clash against current trends towards roguelikes. We spoke to Josh Ge to get his thoughts on current Roguelite trends, what he loves about traditional Roguelikes, and where he sees the genre going from here.

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It may not seem like it on the surface, but there’s a subtle rift between rogue-lites and rogue-likes, a term which people often confuse as the same thing; they are in reality two separate strains of a very similar genre. ‘Lites’ tend to be more focused, streamlined affairs that focus on a handful of gameplay mechanics wrapped around a procedural generation engine. ‘Likes’, however, are much broader in scope, and often have excellent world-building (as is the case in Cogmind) a plethora of complex systems vying for the player’s attention and a low-fi aesthetic that shuns conventional graphic trends. However, to Josh, it’s replayability that gives the genre it’s lasting appeal – a trait shared by both lites and likes. “You can learn the mechanics and systems of a game, but it will always be throwing new challenges at you,” Josh told us. “Not that every game has to be constantly challenging the player, but good roguelikes do a good job of this.”

It’s hard not to argue with Josh, especially as some of the best Roguelites in recent years also share this trope. For example, Enter The Gungeon is a fantastic example of high replay value albeit in a much more arcadey setting than the grim, digital corridors of Cogmind. We asked Josh about the popularity of these more approachable, accessible rogue”lites” over the years and if he feels like the association has hurt the roguelike genre somehow. He told us: “The good outweighs the bad, I think. We’ve found that a lot of people are learning about ‘true’/traditional roguelikes only due to the popularity of this new roguelite genre that’s popped up.” He’s right – Along with the likes of Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, there’s been a slew of brand new traditional Roguelikes such as Caves of Qud and indeed Cogmind itself. Though Josh remarks that the association is only annoying because often, the two terms are confused as one and the same – “Certainly it’s annoying that mainstream gamers now believe ‘roguelikes’ generally refers to real-time games, but oh well it’s a language trend that’s practically impossible to reverse.

It’s interesting then to note the history of both genres and indeed focus on the future of what could come next. Josh Jokingly tells us that much of what he wanted to see is already in Cogmind, but that a lot of the advances and evolutions to the genre come in several stages: “In the bigger picture I especially try to guide the development community to follow good UI practices and spread out into different themes rather than relying on the same old fantasy tropes” this is a great point, too, and Josh’s own work certainly reflects these ideas. Cogmind itself puts these two separate philosophies together in one unique package – it’s both a unique premise and fantastic UI design. The potential for rogulikes to expand and explore is only briefly touched upon in the likes of Cogmind, Caves of Qud, games where setting feels special and unique – expanding in this area would see the genre go from niche attraction to gaming’s answer to clever, grand literature.

Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, for Josh’s work, he takes most influence not from what roguelikes do well, but rather what they don’t: “Roguelikes are a great genre, but didn’t evolve like other genres have over the years. When I discovered the roguelike genre, I thought these games were so much fun, yet for some reason missing a lot of usability features found in other games that could make roguelikes even better.” – and that’s true. You can see the evolution of that idea in Cogmind – it’s UI design and general user-friendly approach to complex ideas is a breath of fresh air in what is essentially a very complicated, uncompromising game. So much of Cogminds complex systems are easy to grasp and understand thanks in large part to Josh’s excellent work on the UI and interface.

Josh also cites BattleTech/MechWarrior as a big influence on the customizable, robotic parts of the game. “I’m a huge fan of the series,” he says “I’ve been playing since tabletop in the early 90s, and most of the video games since.” Josh seems to have merely used it as a base, though – there are some advanced higher level mechanics in Cogmind that are clearly much expanded upon in his game, some of which would probably work great in a MechWarrior setting. He states “The influences are clearly still there, though, with heat mechanics, individual part destruction, and building robots from parts. In fact, to me, one of the best parts of MechWarrior is building your own mechs, and Cogmind is kinda like constantly building and maintaining your mech.”

Josh himself is no stranger to the roguelike genre – he currently moderates one of the biggest Roguelike developer communities on the internet and has himself given talks on the subject in San Francisco last year – by his own admission he “lives and breathes” roguelikes – much of Josh’s favourite moments over the years come from these events where he gets to share his expertise amongst other burgeoning developers – Josh isn’t just content with great game design, but also fostering a supportive attitude to his fellow developers.

And comparatively, it’s easy to look back on roguelite trends after a few hours with the games like Tales of Maj’eyal and Cogmind with disdain, though in earnest both sides could learn a lot from the other. Where Josh saw a necessity for the traditional Roguelike to modernize and make concessions to the player, he did so with care. Being careful not to harm the excellently complicated charm of Cogminds robot part-swapping design while ensuring that the game is easy to actually understand is something probably all roguelikes could stand to do. Similarly, some of the more approachable and arcadey ‘lites.’ could definitely benefit from pushing the boat out in terms of intriguing world-building rather than coasting by on great pixel art and popcorn thrills and spills. At some point, a game or developer will come along and bridge the gap between these opposing schools of thought but until that time there will always be special developers like Josh who are willing to push the boundaries in any way they can and that can never be a bad thing.

By professionally appreciating great things Graham hopes to be a flag bearer for creativity in game design. Loves immersive sims and character driven stories but is also a demon fuelled only by caffeine

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