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IndieCade 2011: Desktop Dungeons' inspiration, past, and future


If you enjoy PC games, especially action RPGs like Diablo, but you've never once played Nethack, you probably should. No, seriously -- go, right now, download it, and check it out. Sure, it's hard, not very accessible (there are no graphics, only ASCII symbols to represent the player, items, and monsters), and enormously complicated. But it's also essentially the root of the "roguelike" genre (named after a game called Rogue), featuring random dungeons with dozens of levels, exciting turn-based combat, and plenty of unpredictable magic.

Desktop Dungeons is a game that continues in that tradition, though with one important twist: While Nethack, Rogue, and all of the other roguelikes take place over huge dungeons with multiple levels and lots of complexity, Desktop Dungeons champions simplicity. It takes place on basically one screen, in one grid, and that dungeon will cause you to level up from start to finish in just about ten minutes. It's the roguelike genre, boiled down into its most essential ingredients.

And it's glorious.

Like many of the finalists shown off this past weekend at IndieCade 2011, Desktop Dungeons is already playable by the public, though not in its final form. A freeware alpha version was released a few years ago, and playing through that will show you just how the game works. You play by moving your character out through a fog of war, and as you explore, you find monsters, which each have a level number from 1 to 10.

Unlike most other games, the monsters never actually move around the dungeon. The player, instead, is tasked with taking on combat, so Desktop Dungeons really turns the RPG genre into a set of decisions about whether you should enter into battle or not. Taking on monsters below your level earns you no experience, so your goal is essentially to attack monsters at or slightly above your level and trying to stay alive while doing so. With movement out of the equation, the game really gets at the core of roguelike combat: With each hit, you want to do as much damage as possible, until you eventually are able to slay whatever monster you're fighting with some of your own health left over.

Things get more complicated from there. You can find stores as you play, which offer items for in-game gold. There are even altars to find (another tradition carried on from Nethack), which offer you gods to worship, each with their own opinions on your actions. Some gods don't like you using magic glyph spells, while others prefer that you take as much damage as possible. As you play through the game, you can even unlock quite a few different classes to play as, which each have their own strengths and weaknesses, requiring some strong playstyle choices to each side.

The alpha itself is playable and free, but the team at QCF Design (a three-man group based in South Africa) is also working on a release version of the game, with updated graphics, and some extra polish and content. The team isn't abandoning the laser-sharp focus of the original title (and it's still there in the new version, as evidenced by a dungeon run with the latest beta), but as QCF's Marc Luck says, they want to put a little extra flavor in for the big release. "If we want people to pay for the game," says Luck, "we have to kick it up a notch."

That includes shinier graphics, but not just for the sake of looking nice. "The original was started in Game Maker," says Luck, "and the resolution was 640x480, so in order to get in 20x20 frames, the tiles had to be 20 pixels high and 20 pixels wide. If we'd stretched the 20 by 20 art, it would have just looked terrible." There is a little extra splash, though -- spell effects are shinier than the alpha, and the art in general is a little less pixelated, and a little more expressive.

There are other changes. "We've got an inventory system now," says Luck. "Previously, you just had a couple of glyph slots, and now you have a whole inventory system, so you have to manage that on top of everything else." The inventory system also changes according to your class. "So for instance," describes Luck, "the class that's heavily magical will have more magic slots than inventory slots, so they can't equip as many swords or shields, but they can equip more spells."

The final game will have a few extra classes, but the really big set of new content comes in the form of the dungeons, according to Luck. "A lot of the dungeons actually have extra scripting on top of them now, so they are a little more interesting to play than a normal dungeon. Above that, we also have a lot of new monster types." The dungeons are also a little more complex -- every once in a while, you'll find a ladder that leads down to subdungeon, either with more rewards or more danger.

But for fans of the original alpha version, the good news is that all of these additions are truly additive. That core game, the one that honors Nethack, and really boils it down to the core elements that make this genre so interesting, is still there and a lot of fun. Go play Nethack, and then once you're familiar with where these games started, you can pre-order Desktop Dungeons and start playing the beta right now. QCF says it's aiming for a release on the PC sometime next year, with plans to come to iOS and other platforms sometime after that.

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