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The Autoexplore Rot

June 12th, 2012

There’s been some interesting discussion on rgrd about designing for non-roguelikers. Lots of polite disagreement, which is always good for throwing up some interesting ideas :)

In the thread I talked a little about the “rot” of autoexplore, and I’d like to espouse my views a little more. DCSS introduced “autoexplore” a while back – press a hotkey and the game will explore the dungeon for you until something interesting pops up (an item, a monster in sight, different terrain, a trap, etc). This was in response to Crawl’s large and fairly empty levels. The interesting content was so lightly packed that it became boring scouring the dungeon for monsters. The autoexplore function they implemented is in a way a quick hack, but in actual fact the procedure they use is insanely complex. Yet it’s still a hack – it’s sweeping the real problem under the carpet, and automating what should be interesting gameplay.

Your movement and position is of vital importance in a roguelike. How you approach a door in ADOM determines what sorts of trap might be set off. How you you enter a room can decide whether you’re leaving yourself too open to archery, or if you’re giving yourself enough view to use your own ranged attacks. To have the game decide these things for you automatically removes a level of tactical choice and depth from play. And furthermore it takes the whole tension out of exploration, meaning you no longer worry what might be behind the next corner or just beyond your field of view. That tension of the unknown that makes roguelikes so compelling disappears. Instead you end up playing as if in a one way corridor, bashing enemy after enemy without thinking as much about the tactical space or your positioning. The exploration becomes the equivalent of progression through Golden Axe.

Quicktime events are a good comparison for this. They were introduced into mainstream games after people complained that long cutscenes weren’t interactive enough and they didn’t feel like they were playing the game. So companies starting throwing in a basic interaction element to patch things over, without addressing the real issue that cutscenes in games are so out of place – a boring cinematic when we could be having a fun interactive experience! The sad thing is gamers have come to accept this as standard, and to expect it even. The real problem will now never be addressed.

It’s equally saddening when I see certain Crawl players demanding auto-explore in other games, or proclaiming that they can’t enjoy another roguelike because it doesn’t have auto-explore (yes, this really does happen a horrible amount). Their mindless exploration tool has become a crutch they cannot play without. The effort of thinking where to move each turn is suddenly far too overwhelming! ToME4 has now implemented auto-explore as well, instead of focusing on the real problem of the levels being too large without enough density of content. I’m worried that this will become a bad trend.

BORING GAMEPLAY SHOULD NOT BE REPLACED WITH AUTOMATION! I’m not sure if that can be emphasised enough. Tedious gameplay needs addressed at the root. Otherwise why have a game at all? Why not just play a slot machine like Diablo? If there’s an element of the game that the players don’t enjoy then find ways to prune it or change it to make it more interesting.

Some fixes for the auto-explore problem:
– Smaller levels, so there’s less backtracking
– Looping levels with many connections between nodes
– Densely packed monsters
– More varied rooms, dungeon features, vaults
– Linear levels, such as a 80×10 map requiring you to move from the very left to the very right; you still have a procedural environment, but it essentially removes the exploration component instead of automating it
– More variety between levels so dungeons don’t feel samey or predictable
– Higher rate of monster regeneration so you always feel pressured
– Effective food clock or similar “push” to make every turn matter
– Interesting rooms, full of traps or themed monsters or special floor tile effects, so every time you open a door there’s a wealth of possibilities lurking behind
– No maze levels. Seriously, who the hell likes maze levels?!

These are just a few ideas, I’m sure others can think of more. And give some thought to those few poor Crawl players who can’t live without auto-explore any more – they are doomed to never enjoy games again!

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  1. me
    December 4th, 2012 at 18:24 | #1

    It would seem prudent to alternate between making autoexplore better and adding more interesting choices so the players never use autoexplore. Autoexplore will highlight the places where no interesting decisions are being made so you can then improve them.

  2. July 5th, 2012 at 05:09 | #2

    @Roguelike Guy
    Eh, really? I’m not sure if you’re addressing me, but there is nowhere the use of the term “stupid” or “troll” on this page. And it’s my blog, of course it’s my opinion! I’m not going to start every single sentence with “I think that…” I do however start the article with the phrase “I’d like to espouse my views a little more”. In the context it should be clear that the whole article is my opinion on good/bad design.

  3. Roguelike Guy
    July 5th, 2012 at 03:57 | #3

    I think your argument style is your big crutch to changing opinions, you have a very (usual for “nerdy types”) way of stating opinions as facts and that people that disagree are either stupid or trolls.

  4. Kraflab
    June 20th, 2012 at 17:08 | #4

    @Darren Grey
    Chess like anything else can be mastered. Perhaps the learning curve to reach this point is much steeper, but obviously it is solvable like anything else. I think the real good thing about chess is the human element. You can be surprised and interested continuously when there is a human opponent you are facing. This is something that multiplayer fps’s can get quite easily, but creating a similar situation in a roguelike is challenging I think.

    I certainly concur with your sentiment that position should matter more. This really shines in the necro-mode in epilogue, where choosing where you stand while fighting is specifically what the game is about. Every time you kill an enemy all corpses within view revive, unless someone is standing on the corpse. Figuring out the order to take down enemies and how to move to get enemies on top of enemies (or to pull an enemy out of view) is quite interesting. It also forces you to try to fight in new locations, while staying idle is almost definite suicide.

    Sorry I keep inevitably bringing up my own game, but it is the one i know the best :P

  5. June 20th, 2012 at 16:45 | #5

    @Kraflab
    My counter-example would be Chess. Even the opening moves are tense, because you know each move matters. I’d like to see more roguelikes with this sort of feel. I’d also like to see games with more movement based tactics. Otherwise is it just a game of bump and watch the numbers go down? Positioning should be important in battle.

  6. Kraflab
    June 20th, 2012 at 16:05 | #6

    @Darren Grey
    You can’t ever create a system where people always feel tension. You can always get used to and learn something to the point where it’s boring for you. This isn’t a question of bad design, it’s just an inevitable fact.

    In terms of skipping content, I’ve never really felt a desire to skip the early levels, only that I don’t need to pay as much attention. There certainly ARE moments where I have to pay attention here, but I don’t need to focus on movement. Movement and strategy are totally different things and you shouldn’t couple them so (dependent on the game certainly).

    Also, for the players that find it too boring there are much harder modes as well as a more puzzly mode, wherein the early levels are a much more challenging experience, so I think all the bases are covered regardless.

  7. June 20th, 2012 at 05:04 | #7

    @Zeno Rogue
    You are advocating auto-explore as a backtracking tool, but I’m mostly complaining about it’s use as an exploration tool. Which it is used for far too much. For back-tracking I prefer mouse-control so I can choose exactly where I want to auto-path too.

    @Kraflab
    Play fast rather than careful is a bad thing in my opinion. If the early levels are too easy then put the player directly into the hard levels from the start instead of forcing them through boring content they’d rather skip through. That tension is the fun part of the game and it should be there from the get-go. Again, this is a problem of bad design. If players are deliberately using a skip button then you should look at removing or changing what’s being skipped.

  8. June 17th, 2012 at 13:04 | #8

    I have to disagree. Autoexplore to me doesn’t remove any tension of strategy. Perhaps it removes the *illusion* of these things, but they were never there to begin with. It just speeds up the trip from point a to b. You don’t have to keep your eyes on a minimap and look for the nook you missed because you just press a button and it takes you there.

    In epilogue, autoexplore is there for people who play fast rather than careful, or who know what they are doing. I use it constantly on the early levels because I’ve seen it all before, but when I get deeper I absolutely have to move turn by turn, because the tension is actually there. It’s *dangerous* to let someone else control your movements late in the game.

  9. June 16th, 2012 at 04:49 | #9

    And I don’t agree.

    As far as I see it, auto-explore is not aptly named: its point is not auto-exploration itself, but the fact that you can press a single key to return to an interesting location after completely exploring some area. Maybe there are some auto-explore addicts who actually use it for exploration, but I think that people who ask for it are bored with having to occassionally go back through the area which was already completely explored.

    When thinking about roguelikes I know, it is hard for me to find one that would not benefit from auto-explore (although the benefit is often marginal). The few counterexamples (HyperRogue, Spelunky, Zaga-33) seem to be caused by a radically different design, not by a conscious attempt to make going through the same areas again interesting.

    Overall, it is simpler to add auto-explore than to add features which makes auto-explore irrelevant. And you can spend the time saved on working on other interesting features :)

    > Densely packed monsters
    > More varied rooms, dungeon features, vaults
    > More variety between levels so dungeons don’t feel samey or predictable
    > Interesting rooms, full of traps or themed monsters or special floor tile effects, so every time you open a door there’s a wealth of possibilities lurking behind

    It is always good to make exploration interesting. But as I mentioned above, you miss the point of auto-explore. These features make going through the room interesting for the first time only.

    > Effective food clock or similar “push” to make every turn matter

    When there are several routes to the stairs, and every turn matters, then I would rather use auto-explore than calculate the lengths of all paths myself.

    > Higher rate of monster regeneration so you always feel pressured

    I don’t like how monster regeneration is usually done in roguelikes. It seems that monsters appear from nowhere (why does it never happen in a location that I am watching?…). Besides, I think that it is positive when a game give you some rest from time to time.

    > Smaller levels, so there’s less backtracking
    > Looping levels with many connections between nodes
    > No maze levels. Seriously, who the hell likes maze levels?!

    These are good design principles in general. But even when they are satisfied, auto-explore is still marginally useful.

    > Linear levels, such as a 80×10 map requiring you to move from the very left to the very right; you still have a procedural environment, but it essentially removes the exploration component instead of automating it

    I would like to see a roguelike with a seamless linear dungeon, a bit like in shoot’em ups: for example, height is 20 (still keeping the element of exploration), and the whole game is one wide level. Would eliminate the problems with stairs.

  10. June 13th, 2012 at 10:05 | #10

    @Victor I said *some* players used to auto-explore struggle with games without it. I see these complaints all the time on reddit and some forums. It’s pretty sad, but true.

    And yeah, repetitive and simple gameplay that involves spamming the same abilities is a big problem in Crawl and many other games.

  11. Victor
    June 13th, 2012 at 07:12 | #11

    I agree. Although when you state players who are used to auto-explore can’t enjoy games without auto-explore is untrue imo. I believe the problem with those games is simply the same as with Crawl: areas that are boring, too large, etc.

    Another problem with Crawl in particular that is part of the auto-explore issue might be that there *often* actually are little interesting choices in combat; you usually spam the same spells or melee attack, retreat, rest, buff, etc. But making each battle interesting would mean a full game would have to have a lot less battles than it has now, so it might feel less epic or something…

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