Going Rogue: A Brief History of the Computerized Dungeon Crawl

Going Rogue: A Brief History of the Computerized Dungeon Crawl

BY Nathan Brewer Posted: 7 Jul 2016

Possibly more than any other gaming system, Dungeons and Dragons’ influence on the development of video games has been incredibly profound. The first edition was released in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and was wildly successful. A pen and paper game, the world is controlled by a human player called the dungeon master who narrates the action and story of the game to the other human players, who role-play a character that interacts with the world. Combat is determined by mathematical tables for various statistics and dice to simulate random number generation, and the nature of the game is extremely open ended, which allowed for incredible degree of flexibility. Players could purchase countless commercial expansion packs and rulebooks, as well as write their own.

Certain aspects of Dungeons and Dragons quickly manifested themselves in video games. Adventure (1976), initially developed by Will Crowther, created a textually described world in rich detail that allowed the player to interact with the world in a number of ways. Adventure spawned the interactive fiction genre, which was typically focused on puzzle solving and story development. Other aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons experience, like combat and character advancement (leveling up), took on a different form in the dungeon crawl game.

The PLATO System

The earliest known dungeon crawl computer games appeared on the PLATO System. Launched in 1960 at the University of Illinois and initially running on the ILLIAC I computer, PLATO was the first generalized computer assisted instruction system. By the 1971, PLATO ran on CDC mainframes, which were considered super computers at the time. PLATO was accessible from 150 remote terminals by 1975. Its TUTOR authoring programming language allowed anyone to create new lessons, which ranged widely in academic subject and scope.

PLATO was a shared system and access and resources were limited. The earliest surviving role-playing game on the PLATO is pedit5, alternately called The Dungeon, written in 1975 by Rusty Rutherford. Rutherford worked for the Population and Energy Group at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and his group was assigned pedit1 through pedit5. Pedit1 through pedit3 were programs for the Population and Energy Group, which left two surplus spots for additional usage. The game was frequently deleted, as the system administrators determined that gameplay was an inappropriate use of this space. An earlier game, m199h, appears in some PLATO lesson lists, but descriptions of this program sound more like text-based Adventure type game than a dungeon crawl. Pedit5 allows the player to generate a character with Dungeons and Dragons-inspired statistics: strength, dexterity, hit points, etc., and through a top-down perspective, the player can explore a fixed dungeon and encounter randomly generated monsters.

Monster encounter in pedit5

Southern Illinois University students Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood played pedit5 and created their own game by improving and expanding pedit5’s concepts. In early 1976, they released dnd, which retained pedit5’s graphical interface, but expanded the interaction level with the dungeon. The combat and spell system was complex, more items were present, and despite the fact that the game used fixed levels, it was significantly larger. Frequently played by PLATO users, dnd and pedit5 both inspired many other similar games on the PLATO system, including orthanc (1978) and the first-person multiplayer-based games avatar (1977) and moria (1978), which both still have active online communities.

Procedural Generation and Rogue

For its time, PLATO had advanced graphical capabilities that exceeded its many of its contemporaries. The 1977 launch of the Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore PET personal computers introduced computing capabilities to millions of consumers, and by the early 1980s, newer models of PCs and their games exceeded the PLATO dungeon crawls in terms of graphics and complexity. One of the earliest PC dungeon crawl games was Beneath Apple Manor, initially written for the low-resolution Apple II in 1978 by Don Worth. The game was re-released with high-resolution graphics in 1982 and 1983 through various platforms including MS-DOS and Atari. Beneath Apple Manor’s top-down interface is similar to the PLATO system games. However, using pseudorandom number generators, Beneath Apple Manor’s procedurally generated dungeon levels, which meant that the player faced a different dungeon every time he played the game.

Beneath Apple Manor’s initial graphics were limited by the capabilities of the Apple II low-res system. Personal computers of the late 1970s were unable to emulate PLATO’s graphical capabilities, so another approach to game representation was developed through the UNIX system. The curses library for UNIX systems was developed by Ken Arnold and released through the BSD (Berkley Software Distribution) UNIX variant. curses enabled the development of text user interface applications, by allowing programs to use cursor addressing, the placing of a character on a specific location on the screen. One of its earliest applications was gaming, and Rogue (1980), developed by Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman at UC Santa Cruz, was one of the first games to use the curses library. Directly inspired by Dungeons and Dragons and Adventure, Rogue has the player explore the Dungeons of Doom to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor. The ASCII tileset was used to represent monsters, items, and dungeon walls, as the use of ASCII was far less processor intensive than drawn graphics. After the initial launch, Ken Arnold later expanded the game and contributed to its development.

Rogue on a UNIX system

Both Rogue and Beneath Apple Manor’s developers were unaware of the others’ work, but both relied on procedural generation to generate randomized levels. Rogue took randomization one step further to the appearance of items; for example a tin wand in one game might function totally different than a tin wand in another game. This level of randomization enhanced the game’s replay value and added a layer of difficulty, forcing players to think more strategically about their item usage.

Procedural generation of levels in Rogue version 5.2

Rogue was extremely popular on UNIX systems, as it was packaged with BSD installs starting with version 4.2 in 1983. Extremely popular with universities, BSD 4.2 had issued more than 1000 site licenses within eighteen months of release. By 1984, Rogue had been ported to DOS and Macintosh operating systems, and by the end of the decade to many more systems, including the Amiga, Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit. BSD’s widespread distribution allowed any user with access to a terminal to play Rogue for free, and it was widely played beyond its commercial PC ports.

Roguelikes and Roguelites

Rogue’s popularity in the UNIX community quickly led to the development of derivatives. After attending the 1982 USENIX conference, Jay Fenlason, with assistance from Kenny Woodland, Mike Thome and Jon Payne, developed a game called Hack, which was published on a 1984 USENIX software distribution tape. The game was also popular within the UNIX community, and in 1984 Andries Brouwer vastly expanded the game, publicly releasing Hack 1.0’s source code to Usenet in December. Hack went through several modifications, and in 1987, Mike Stephenson published an expanded and revised version called NetHack to Usenet’s newsgroup comp.sources.games.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a dedicated development team began regular updates of NetHack, which included MIT professor of philosophy Izchak Miller. The game was developed throughout the 1990s, and version 3.4.3 was released in 2003. Progress on the game then halted for twelve years until the release of 3.6.0 in December of 2015.

Being a direct descendant of Hack, which in turn was a direct descendant of Rogue, NetHack incorporates much of Rogue’s interface, language, tileset, descriptions, and systems, but it contains a much richer world, rife with pop culture and science fiction references. Its complexity allows for far greater replay value than Rogue, and still has an incredibly active community today. The largest public NetHack server, nethack.alt.org, has registered 3.5 million games played to date, many of which are recorded for playback. NetHack itself has also spawned several variants including UnNetHack and SLASH’EM (Super Lotsa Added Stuff Hack – Extended Magic).

NetHack on the nethack.alt.org server

While NetHack is a direct descendant of Rogue, many other games were developed in the 1980s that were similar to Rogue’s interface and procedural generation methods, but were not direct descendants of the original game in the same way that the Hack line of games were. Games similar enough to Rogue, including its direct descendants, are considered “roguelike” games. Moria, not to be confused with the lower-case titled PLATO game of the same name, was initially developed for VMS systems in 1983, is one of these games. Like Rogue, also spawned derivative descendants, including Umoria (1988) and Angband (1990). As the processing power of personal computers increased, later roguelikes sometimes replaced the ASCII tileset with a graphical tileset, such as Castle of the Winds (1989), released for Microsoft Windows systems or Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon (1993) for the Super Nintendo.

In an attempt to define the parameters of the genre, the International Roguelike Development Conference held in 2008 in Berlin offered a definition which includes many factors, such as randomized procedural generation of rooms and items; permadeath (no save points – when your character dies, you must start over); turn-based movement; focus on combat rather than story or plot; resource management; high level of interactivity with the world; and single player gameplay. While preference is given to ASCII-based games, many modern roguelikes such as DoomRL (2002) offer the option of playing with a graphical or ASCII tileset.

DoomRL using graphical tileset

One element common to the genre not covered by the Berlin Interpretation is the high learning curve and difficulty level. It is not uncommon for someone to play NetHack for years without approaching the end of the game. With the expanding PC game market in the 1990s and 2000s, game developers marketed some of Rogue’s ideas to a broader audience by removing some of the features that made it difficult for new gamers. DreamForge’s Dungeon Hack (1993) offered a randomized dungeon, but with first-person graphics and savepoints, and Blizzard’s Diablo (1996) and has a “hardcore” game mode to enable permadeath. Games that feature certain elements of roguelikes, but presented in a more user-friendly fashion, are colloquially known as “roguelites.” Some recent and critically acclaimed roguelites include The Binding of Isaac (2011) and FTL: Faster than Light (2012).

NetHack’s release of version 3.6.0 in 2015 makes it one of the oldest video games in development. July marks its 29th anniversary, and while its complexity far exceeds that of Rogue, Hack, or even the early versions of NetHack, it can easily be seen as the spiritual successor to the original. Rogue’s influence goes far beyond its own genre and has been instrumental in shaping the development of computerized role-playing games as a whole. Though many modern games incorporate sophisticated graphics and voice acting to bridge the gap between interactive fiction storytelling and dungeon crawl elements, the roguelike remains a popular avenue for independent game developers to create vastly expansive and replayable worlds.

References and Further Reading

Bartle, Richard. MMOs from the Inside Out: The History, Design, Fun, and Art of Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, Apress, 2016

Barton, Matt. Fun with PLATO, http://armchairarcade.com/neo/node/1396

Bolingbroke, Chester. The Earliest CRPGs, http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2011/12/earliest-cprgs.html

Carreker, Dan. The Game Developer's Dictionary: A Multidisciplinary Lexicon for Professionals and Students, Cengage, 2012

DiBona, Chris, Ockman, Sam. Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution, O'Reilley, 1999

Edge Magazine. The Making Of: Rogue, http://www.edge-online.com/features/making-rogue

Martell, Carey. Interview with the creators of dnd (PLATO), http://www.rpgfanatic.net/advanced_game_wiki_database.html?p=news&nrid=5049&game=dnd

Olivetti, Justin. The Game Archaeologist: The PLATO MMOs, part 1, https://www.engadget.com/2013/08/03/the-game-archaeologist-the-plato-mmos-part-1/

Pellett, Dirk. Gary Whisenhunt, Ray Wood, Dirk Pellett, and Flint Pellett's DND, http://www.armory.com/~dlp/dnd1.html

Rutherford, Rusty. The Creation of PEDIT5, http://armchairarcade.com/neo/node/1948

Smith, Gillian. An Analog History of Procedural Content Generation, http://sokath.com/main/files/1/smith-fdg15.pdf

Smith, JT. On the train of life with Nethack's papa, https://www.linux.com/news/train-life-nethacks-papa

Watkins, Ryan. Procedural Content Generation for Unity Game Development, Packt Publishing, 2016

Wichman, Glenn. A Brief History of "Rogue", https://web.archive.org/web/20050205155632/http://www.wichman.org/roguehistory.html

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Nathan Brewer is digital content manager at the IEEE History Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Visit the IEEE History Center's Web page at: http://www.ieee.org/about/history_center/index.html.

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