A discussion on the differences between the “roguelike” and “roguelite” subgenres
The roguelike genre has come a long way in the last decade, thanks to developers of all sizes. Building on the success of games like Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac, a wide range of related sub-genres have popped up. Everything from roguelikes, soulslikes, roguelites — and possibly even more variations — have appeared. The roguelike/roguelite subgenre has become immensely popular with indie developers who are all trying to create the next big thing. But it’s also led to a pertinent question: what’s the difference between a roguelike and a roguelite?
Although this conversation can sometimes be misleading in various ways, there is a legitimate design discussion to be had here. Let’s break it down.
Where did these subgenres come from?
It makes sense to start with a brief history. The roguelike genre gets its name from the game Rogue, released in 1980. It was the first game to popularize the key mechanics that would go on to define the genre itself (despite there actually being some older examples of these mechanics). In Rogue, players had to explore a dungeon in order to find a magical amulet. Dungeon layouts, monster placements, and even the treasure location was randomly generated. If the player dies, their progress is completely wiped out and they must restart from the beginning.
Rogue would then go on to inspire the game Hack, which in turn was re-released and updated as Nethack in 1987. Nethack is considered one of the finest roguelikes ever made and it’s still being updated to this day.
Throughout the ’90s, we saw more titles on the PC that were based on Nethack as well as console titles with their own designs (such as the Shiren the Wanderer series). There were even games that weren’t actually RPGs, but that did exhibit elements of roguelike design (Toejam & Earl is a good example).
The roguelike genre had a dedicated fanbase for more than 20 years, but it wasn’t until the last decade that we saw it burst onto the mainstream.
If you were to sit down with a modern fan of roguelikes today and ask them what game got them into the subgenre, chances are they’d namedrop one of the following: The Binding of Isaac, FTL: Faster Than Light, or Spelunky. All three of these games embody the basic ideas of the classical roguelike: procedurally-generated game spaces, permadeath difficulty, and variances between runs.
The big difference between these modern titles and older roguelikes is that none of them would be considered RPGs. Each game leverages the roguelike formula, but applies this to different genres (thus the idea of roguelikes as a subgenre rather than a genre unto itself). I could easily spend an entire article discussing each game at length (and, in fact, I’ve written about both Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac in my first book, entitled 20 Essential Games to Study). It’s likely that I’ll continue discussing these games in future books, too.
I mention this “split” between older and newer roguelikes because this represents the point at which the term “roguelike” starts to loosen from a game development point of view. Perhaps for this reason, too, the general discussion about this subgenre has become more difficult to navigate. It’s also easy to simply designate that a title is a “roguelike” or a “roguelite” without really considering what this means — many developers have also purposely tagged or defined their games in this way, too, in order to get people interested in them.
So, in the spirit of courting controversy (which tends to happen the moment we try to explicitly define any genre or subgenre), let’s try to form an official definition for these terms.
What’s a roguelike?
My definition of a roguelike is a game that features randomly or procedurally-generated game spaces, which also provides for great variance between runs (that is to say, the experience can be quite different each time you play). It’s also often the case that roguelikes contain some kind of hardcore or semi-hardcore difficulty. So far, this may seem uncontroversial; I think most fans would agree at this stage. But there’s one other critical factor missing from this definition — that is the game’s focus/emphasis on the runs rather than reaching the end.
Obviously, every roguelike (and of course every game) has some sort of endpoint for the player to reach. But roguelikes are not explicitly about reaching some end goal per se; they’re all about seeing what happens from one run to the next. This is why roguelikes typically supply players with a score at the end of a run, so that they have something to build upon and compare in the next run.
The very best roguelikes are designed around variance. For this reason, persistent elements are typically not the focus of a roguelike. The only persistent element, if you could call it that, relates to additional layers added to the procedural framework for subsequent runs. An example would be the addition of new ships in FTL. In practice, the player is always focused on the run at hand — there isn’t an explicit carryover from one run to the next.
What’s a roguelite?
Just as with roguelikes, roguelites are typically designed around random or procedurally-generated spaces with that same emphasis on hardcore or semi-hardcore difficulty. The key difference, though, is that the overall focus is on reaching the end rather than each individual run.
This difference is facilitated by a heavy focus on persistence and carryover between runs. For this reason, it’s usually unlikely that you’ll beat a roguelite on one of your early runs — although this requires some further clarification. Of course, you’re not likely to beat a roguelike on early runs necessarily. But the difference is that in a roguelike, it’s always possible to beat a run based purely on the skill of the player. However, in a roguelite, the persistent elements act as progress gates — they physically prevent the player from winning until those gates are cleared/knocked down.
In addition, roguelites have a finite end for the player to reach and there’s usually not enough variance between runs to keep a player invested after reaching that end point. Despite the presence of procedurally-generated environments, the basic run through in a roguelite doesn’t change or provide variance upon repeated plays. When playing a game like FTL, for example, new ships unlock as you play, but you’re still always starting at zero with each new run; every game is different, of course, but generally speaking a player will lose certain common items between runs but they’ll keep some sort of currency or other persistent element.
One problem with replaying roguelites, then, is that over time the persistent systems will overtake any sense of challenge — well, given enough time, anyway. Case in point: when playing Hades in its current version, I could beat the game starting at zero in about four runs thanks to both my knowledge of the game and its persistent systems.
What does this mean for developers?
The key reason this conversation matters is because it will actually guide design decisions for developers, depending on the style of game they intend to create.
For example, if you’re trying to build a roguelike, then you’ll want to invest heavily into the procedural aspect of your game and design elements that give rise to significant variation between runs. In practice that means providing more options for the player (for instance, varying the enemies encountered, or varying the events that can change the path of a run). If the player is having the very same experience from one run to another, then you haven’t designed a roguelike.
For roguelites, you’ll need to think about the progression curve that is carrying the player through from one run to the next. A key difference here is that you want the player to feel that each run is moving the needle forward in some broader progression — whether it’s by inches or miles.
Both subgenres have tremendous potential in terms of their gameplay loops, and the proof of that is clear if you consider the number of games released across both styles. Perhaps next time I should really add fuel to the fire and talk specifically about soulslikes as a subgenre.
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