If I could pick two catchphrases for popular games today it would be Roguelike and Permadeath. Rogue was an amazing game in 1980 and a pioneer of procedural generation. Each game was different and death was permanent. The object was to see how deep into the dungeon you could get and how much gold you could gather before dying. Rogue was infinitely replayable due to its random generation of maps, monsters, and loot; however, the randomness was exactly what turned me off at the time. The game was hard, but could be made easier or harder based on the items you could find before being annihilated. Death is GAME OVER, no saves to load or “Continue?” to continue playing your current game.
I have quite a few “Roguelike” games in my library which continually autosave and death is permanent, such as Darkest Dungeon and FTL. I have yet to win those two. Darkest Dungeon in particular is punishingly difficult and can lead to many rage quits if you are prone to such behavior. Though I really enjoy those games, there are two others that I would rather discuss based upon a player experience function that I hope becomes a trend.
Achievements have been a thing for a while, but other than personal pride, they amount to very little. Not so in the squad-level, turn-based, tactical RPG Mordheim: City of the Damned. In-game achievements called the Veteran System give the player experience points and skills that migrate across as many games as you wish to play. These small rewards make the game only slightly easier, but when stacked can make a huge difference. It also limits the rage quits because when your favorite Hero perishes horribly, it is easier to shrug off since you the player are earning experience points and in-game skills for the next game.
I played about 25 hours with my first warband on Mordhim. At the end, they looked horribly scarred, physically and mentally. I’d lost all my best warriors. My leader was crippled with several ailments which made her a liability, my remaining heavy hitter was struck with PTSD which immobilized her in battle, and my grunts were all suffering from amputations and other ailments. I played on though, because I continued to earn Veteran Points which I could apply to my next (and any subsequent) warband. I recently started my second warband and the difference is noticeable. The game is still very hard, but I am sticking with it because even when my warband collapses, it isn’t necessarily a final GAME OVER, but an excuse to start another warband and earn more achievements, Veteran Points, and skills.
Another very different game, but with a similar system is Thea: The Awakening. Thea is a turn-based survival strategy RPG game where you play a fallen, powerless god overseeing the rise of your people back to their former glory. Often though, especially in the beginning, your people perish in the harsh land of Thea. At the end of each game (win, lose, or quit), the god you are playing earns experience points and levels up to a maximum of fifth level. Each level gives new perks to your people that will help them survive in future games. So, even if your settlers die horrible deaths, the gods are still earning experience points.
I like this idea of achievements actually meaning something in-game and adding a little incentive to keep playing games despite their difficulty. I imagine it is hard for game designers to achieve a good balance – keeping the game challenging, but offering small perks to help the player long term. I’d be interested to see this as a trend and would like to know if there are other games out there like these.