time limit in a roguelite’s run (reactor feature)

I do really like roguelikes and roguelites. It actually doesn’t matter if it is a classic turn-based rougelike, a 2D platformer, a top-down dungeon crawler, a space shooter, a real-time tactic/strategy or anything else. I just like the idea behind them. Failing, learning and repeating. In quite short runs.

Some of the games have a persistence layer that makes each run count. You gain not only experience and knowledge but also you are allowed to keep items, improve stats or unlock new things. Over time, that idea evolved into being a part of the story. Each run is no longer something separate. Although places you explore are different (being procedurally generated), you may encounter the same characters, some of which may think you are the very same person and some may be aware that you die and are reborn.

Persistence layer was introduced to deal with two problems. One is boredom. After a while, when you don’t get new things introduced to the game, you will get bored. The unlocking mechanism, items, zones when you do something or after a certain amount of tries/time, deals with that problem. The other issue is frustration. With persistence layer, each run adds something (unless you really mess up). So when you die, you no longer think that it is now over and you have to start again and maybe you won’t be able to get so far. Especially when you start to think that you hit a wall, that you can’t improve your skill anymore. Unlocking stuff gives you hope that you will build up your hero to the level you will be able to deal with problems.

There is one more thing that the persistence layer changes. Length of the whole game. Most likely, you won’t be able to finish it within a few first runs as your stats are low, you don’t have items that help you or even you don’t have all required items or quests done. In some cases you could still do it, but you would have to be an exceptionally good player who learns mechanics on sight and maybe even knows how to abuse it. But sometimes, when the story depends on a repeat after repeat, you might be required to die a certain number of times to push the story forward. Think of “Edge of Tomorrow” in which Cage was just dying not knowing what to do, then he had one purpose and another and so on. A very similar thing can be done with roguelites.

Personally, I sometimes feel anxiety when I live for too long, I am afraid of dying out of a simple mistake. Or when I don’t know how long I am going to stay alive. For me, it would be probably easier if I could plan that, use that knowledge.

But that’s not a reason I started to think about limiting playtime.

It all started with balancing. Enemies leave a certain amount of energy. It was matched to not exceed the amount of energy you have to use to kill them. This solution only leads to problems. If you add too much energy, good players will find no challenge and will have a lot of energy that they cannot use because there’s nothing to spend that energy on. And at the same time, worse players may struggle with ammo. If you lower the rewards, it only gets worse for them. And good players still are fine.

Another problem I had was that I wanted to have hand-to-hand fighting. Or laser swords or plasma cutters or anything like that. Without energy expense, this could lead to getting lots of energy almost for free (with a slight risk of getting damaged).

Then I thought that if I could add some kind of a sink that energy goes to, it could help with that. Constant energy drain would not solve the problem as good players could still stay above the line. While I am all for “good players live longer”, they should not have an endless playtime possible. That’s why the energy drain gets bigger and bigger over time.

I simply called that thing a reactor.

It was obvious that you should be able to spend energy to extend your playtime. Otherwise, there could be just plain energy limit, right? But how about spending precious time you’ve got to get some energy? It gets quickly to using the reactor as a sort of a saving account. With growing price, you may put your energy into the reactor and after a few minutes you can take out more. You only have to deal with less energy for a time.

With extension modules coming, you could change how the price of the time is changing, is there is always a bonus energy being fed into the reactor and so on. This adds another strategic layer – choosing modules, weapons etc, that will allow you to quickly gather energy within the first minutes to put it into the reactor or to have something that you will benefit on a longer period of time by keeping the price lower to buy more time after a while. Or having expendables that you can use to stop price getting higher for some time.

The balancing of that will be fun. I tried it for a few runs and although it is currently completely off, it gave me that mid-term goal. I am a fan of having various things in a game you can focus on. You should have your long-term goal, saving a planet, your loved one, getting rich, getting your revenge etc. You should have a short-term goal, getting through a maze, fighting enemies on the way. But you should also have a mid-term goal, something you can pursue, plan, that is longer than single encounters. It can be related to the story or to mechanics. It can be getting a specific build, getting some quest done etc. If it’s just a quest, you most likely will not think about it much. Because it is just something you’re going to do eventually. It’s not that much engaging. Especially if a game does not allow you to fail it (because either you can reload last save or try again). But if there is something that is not required, but you can benefit from it, you should get more engaged.

Another thing that I like, is that with having an open world, you don’t have to get the difficulty curve running up. In many roguelites, each level is harder and harder. What is pretty bad in my opinion, is that at some point you may find starting levels too easy and later levels too hard. You will be bored in the starting ones and discouraged or frustrated by the harder.

And there is more of stuff I like about this idea. For example, it makes the whole resource management clean. You basically have just two resources which are interchangeable. Some roguelites have a few or sometimes dozens of them. Then you have lots of one stuff, almost nothing of another and you can’t build anything useful etc. With just energy+time you have more control and you can experiment more with various approaches and builds. While random encounters will still make you deal with unexpected, you should not be just a leaf on the wind. To be clear, I still want to add some other various objects, weapon modules etc. that you can find. You should be able to buy them too or buy parts to build them. But that’s a bit different thing. You should still have a way to do stuff and not just waste resources because you can’t do anything with them.

With an external limit and an open world, you can go wherever you want. If you feel like tackling more difficulty enemies, go ahead. If you just want to grind, go for easier ones. What I want to have, is to keep basic enemies able to kill you if you don’t pay attention, so they are always a challenge and you have to be careful.

That’s why I consider it one of the most important things in the game. It sounds simple – extendable time limit with a price that grows over time. But there is a lot of things that are now possible and a lot of stuff that might be affected and that may affect that feature. Which means more planning and thinking, more resource management.

What’s important to remember is that I want to allow customising the experience – you will be able to disable that time limit. You say that this will break the game? And allowing a player to be invulnerable won’t? It’s up to people how they want to experience the game, what is fun to them.

And in the end, simplifying it, it is just another set of decisions you can make.

Of course, it may turn out that I will have to change it, drop it or maybe add something more. But for time being, it looks promising and fun. Try it out. Especially in a few weeks when I balance it a bit (but I don’t want to spend too much time on that until I get all systems in and enough variety of devices, parts, modules).