Jeff Lait is one of the longest standing figures in the roguelike development universe, for years he has been contributing useful ideas and information to r.g.r.d and developing his own game, POWDER, which has recently become pretty popular. — Slash, for Temple of The Roguelike
Jeff: Connection live
S: Good evening Mr. Lait!
J: Good evening, Mr. Zapata.
S: Mr. Lait, what was your first exposure to roguelikes?
J: I encountered Nethack. I do not recall what year, but I do know it was quite a few versions ago. I did not remain very impressed.
I quickly discovered the ability to enter Explore mode. I then answered “no” to all the Do You Want to Die prompts. These prompts soon became so frequent I couldn’t move forward any more. I concluded it was a silly game and abandoned it.
It was not until many years later, likely mid-90s, that I re-encountered Nethack and tried playing it properly. I also encountered spoilers for Nethack, which I think helped me get over the hump of figuring out how to play. At that time, I was on USENET so naturally made my way to rec.games.roguelike.nethack. From there, I encountered ADOM at a relatively early stage of development. I followed it with a lot of interest until one of the 0.9.9gammas – the one where your firebolt spells destroyed the spellbooks you needed as loot.
After this there was a long hiatus from roguelikes. I had ascended in Nethack, come very close to winning in ADOM (back when people were still arguing about what/if there were special endings) and I remained relatively ignorant of rogue that inspired it or the entire ‘band branch.
I had some brief resurgences over the years when long compile times or slow processes would motivate me to restart Nethack.
What brought me back to the roguelike fold was the availability of homebrew for the Nintendo Gameboy Advance. The GBA was the first handheld I had purchased – I was always in the PC gamer side of the fence. The GBA had just been released at the time. I got a Gameboy Colour version of Zelda so I could start playing right away. Having a GBA, I started getting some games for it. Advance Wars, and various Japanese style RPGs.
The latter, however, while good at taking time, frustrated me with their linearity – almost a rail-shooter rather than a FPS. It must have been a few years later (please do not hold me to a timeline here :>) I stumbled across HAMlib, a development kit for the Gameboy Advance.
Having cut my programming teeth on the Atari 400, the prospect of 256k of memory was not the least bit daunting, so I tried out the package with an emulator to see what could be done. My first thought was to port Nethack to the GBA. This I realized would encounter two probles. The first is that Nethack is already over 256k. The second, more important, problem is that the entire UI for Nethack is based around a character terminal.
My experience playing Nethack with graphics has always been poor precisely because one looses the full screen view. Things like blindfolds change entirely if you don’t see the entire screen when they are equipped.
I thus decided to make my own roguelike, cut very much from Nethack’s cloth, but built around the interface of the GBA. This was POWDER.
After a few months I realized it wasn’t just a passing fad, so created a website and started becoming consistent about posting releases. I then started lurking in rec.games.roguelike.development again, and then posting. There, I discovered that Crawl had been created in my absence, which if I had played prior to starting POWDER, would likely have formed a stronger inspiration than Nethack.
S: That is a bit of a big first exposure! :D
J: Me, stray from the question at hand? Never.
S: What do you like about the genre, why did you become a roguedev?
J: I like the replayability. The fact it is about little vignettes – difficult situations that you escape by the skin of your teeth. My playstyle thus tends to focus to creating those exciting moments rather than long term survivability.
I became a roguedev as a roguelike seemed an obvious choice of game to try out on the GBA hardware. I then had to remain one to service my own desire to keep playing POWDER.
S: How good of a roguelike player do you consider yourself?
J: Well, I have ascended in Nethack and almost won ADOM, so obviously not incompetent. I’m definitely not a superior player, however.
Those successes are often the game throwing the odds in my favour more than skill on my part – I’m a far way from being able to boast any % ascension rate.
S: Since when have you been around rgrd, and what ancient things/people do you miss?
J: Well, Google tells me my first post was in Nov ’98, but I was no doubt lurking before that. So I guess it has almost been 10 years.
There was a very lengthy absence inbetween, however… my recent presence has only been since starting work on POWDER, so I guess July 2003 or so
As for nostalgic people of the past? I’d throw out Amy Wang as an example – I would be somewhat curious what she makes of the 7DRLs. They have been, I think, the sort of departure from rote hack&slash that she was driving for.
S: Why would one ever use a kinesis keyboard?
J: Which key do you hit most often? Backspace.
Which is the smallest finger on your hand? The pinky.
So why do we assign the pinky this important job?
The clever people at Kinesis have placed common keys like backspace on the thumb, allowing this giant finger to do its fair share of lifting.
Traditional typing even claims one thumb should remain entirely stagnant! We did not evolve opposable thumbs to let them wither away in this manner.
J: I am very proud and gratified to see the interest in POWDER. It is very exciting to see the community solve problems and examine the world of POWDER, and unveil things that I hadn’t thought of.
The downside, if I may call it such, is that the sense of obligation to the players increases correspondingly. Development of POWDER is a hobby, so it is important I never let that obligation (as real and valid as it is) result in work on it becoming a job. That is the best way to burn out and become dispirited.
S: Why name your game POWDER
J: Roguelike is often mispelled Rougelike. Rouge is a type of powder. I then made it all caps to make it look like some form of acronym. Attempts on my part to find out what it stands for have failed so far.
S: Can you tell us a bit more about POWDER’s first days?
J: The first days are still accessible – all the way back to release 001 are online to download if you have a GBA emulator.
The game looked pretty much the same (other than the graphic overhaul by Akoi Meex around version 100) and the basic controls stayed pretty much the same. The effort has been on the polish, the depth, of the gameplay. Making for a wider branching possibility tree.
So, in the beginning, there were no spells and no win condition, merely diving intot he dungeon until you ran out of RAM.
But, one can always define your own goals at that point.
S: Do you think being handheld has given POWDER a better chance to become popular?
It means it competes in a niche that was relatively unpopulated by roguelikes.
On the other hand, its traditional handheld niche also worked against it – the hardware to play homebrew on handhelds is not very widespread.
One interesting consequence of the GBA version is that POWDER is actually playable on almost every platform as a result. A lot of hardworking people have made faithful GBA emulators for all the other handhelds in the world, allowing POWDER to piggy-back on and set up shop in a wide range of systems. The GBA is almost a universal tile-based programming environment.
S: How would you describe the evolution of the roguelike development universe through the years?
J: Evolution is a tough word for roguelikes that, unlike mammals, do not have a clear line of ascendency.
Computer programs are closer to bacteria – happily swapping code and ideas
across genres and games.
That said, I really see a big bifurcation between Hack and Moria.
Moria attacks mudflation by creating a treadmill of more and more powerful items and creatures. Hack instead looks for early diversity in items with a very low powercurve [and] a large variety of fancy interelationships between items and identification minigames to mark the characters advancment.
These are not, of course, clear lines. Things like ADOM can be seen to straddle both – the whole hierarchy of metals is in ADOMs swords but it also has dipping rings in potions of exchange.
S: What about the recent rise of the 7DRLs and the challenges?
J: The traditional roguelike has ballooned in peoples minds to the giant behemoths of Nethack, Angband, or ADOM. People do not remember, even with the ADOM tech history present, that it once was a single humble dungeon.
7DRLs are a chance for develolpers to escape from that grid-lock of ever ending games and actually experiment with basic variants of roguelikes without committing the next 5 years of their life to it.
Challenges like the 1krl are interesting, outside of the programming context, for what they do to the definition of a roguelike. Just like a 7DRL uses a time window to force the author to focus on some key aspect, the short code size of a 1krl forces the author to focus on how they will differentiate this game.
S: What is your player class in real life?
S: How has this helped your roguedev career, what kind of things do you program?
J: Well, having experience in programming certainly makes the task of converting ideas to code a lot easier. Of course, there is the occupational hazard of programming – narrow mindedness – that I need to be careful of.
I work peripherally with the Visual Effects Industry on a 3d animation package called Houdini.
S: Why did you make fatherhood?
J: I wanted to break away from the traditional teenage power fantasy that characterizes roguelikes. Start with weakling and turn it into a demi-god.
While wondering what I could do instead (narrow mindedness can be hard to overcome :>), it occurred to me that it would be very cool to make a game that somehow encompassed the idea of “fatherhood”. Being a father myself, I’ve had a small taste of this unique experience, so set it as my challenge.
S: Tell us a bit about your upcoming IRDC2008 submission
J: Can’t say much, still working on it. I hope to have it done by presentation time :>
S: Finally, what are your plans for the future?
J: I still enjoy playing POWDER, so I plan on still working on it. Likewise, I look forward to trying the 7DRL challenge again.
When asked this question in Grade 3, I gave what I think was the best answer. “To survive.” I think I’ll stick with that.
S: Thank you for your time Mr. Lait!
J: Thank you for the questions, well formed. Have a nice night!
- Santiago Zapata, 17/09/2008
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