July 26, 2016


Tags: A Gamedev Plays

This post is from the now defunct website “A GameDev Plays…”, copied here for posterity

On a suggestion, I recently dusted off an old copy of Omega laying dormant on my hard drive and started playing again. Never heard of this game? That is not surprising. Omega was first released in 1987 and is a text-based rogue-like. One of the wave of second-generation of rogue-likes (along with Nethack and Angband) that emerged in the 80’s, Omega never became quite as well known as its brethren. It has some nice improvements over its peers, but also adds some annoyances. Although most of its problems are endemic to rogue-likes from that era.

Seriously, 1987!

Old rogue-likes are text only computer RPG’s, where the player is represented by little ASCII symbol (usually an @) and moves around dungeons killing monsters and acquiring treasure (all also represented by different ASCII symbols). Each character has a set of standard of attributes (like strength and intelligence) and levels of ability in various class of adventurer (as a fighter, wizard, thief, etc). Most of these games have a basic experience system, the more you kill, the higher your level. The higher your level, the deeper you can descend into the dungeon, and so battle tougher monsters and gather better loot (sound familiar?). Controls are usually completely keyboard based (not many computer mice or controllers around in the 80’s). The WASD keys drive movement, ‘g’ for grab, ‘m’ for magic and so on. Fighting is usually just a matter of moving your symbol on top of an opposing monster and then a combat round ensures, damage is dealt and afterwards you can either attack again (if the monster is still alive) or perform another action (like run away or cast a spell). Once a player understands what all the symbols on the screen mean, the game itself is usually straight-forward.

A pleasant walk in the countryside

I first started playing Omega in my second year of university, and this may have some correlation with my poor academic results at the time (it was also the year I became old enough to drink alcohol legally - which may have had an impact too). I played most of the common rogue-likes around, and while most of my friends preferred Angband, my personal favourite was Omega. It was its scale that attracted me to the game. There is a sense that a whole world (or at least an island) exists around the dungeons that provide most of the usual action. There is a town to explore which has more happening than just being a place to restock. Outside the town is countryside to explore with villages, wild animals, and of course the occasional dungeon too. Omega is an early attempt at an open world. It largely succeeds given the limited technology available in the mid 80’s.

There is also more than just the standard classes. You can ask the local ruler to give you quests and become a member of the aristocracy (treated like a class). There is a gladiator class for fighting in the town arena. Many of these classes can be combined and most provide various quests forcing higher-level characters out of town. Another selling point of the game is that it is possible to play yourself. At the beginning of the game a player can elect to answer a set of questions, which if answered truthfully, will result in a less than heroically attributed starting character representing the player’s personal abilities. A nice touch to build a connection with the game, although this can backfire a bit considering the astronomical death rates of new characters.

In common with all its contemporaries, Omega is hard. Very hard, and often unfairly so (but such is the life of an adventurer). There is perma-death (even save-files are deleted on loading them) and the random number generator (RNG) reigns supreme in its procedurally generated dungeons. Frequently it can be near impossible to get started as the monsters in the early levels are just too hard to defeat. You just have to hope the RNG gods are on your side and provide a smooth ramp up in difficulty, but rarely is this the case. In the video below I just can’t get started as I continually run into strong monsters or instant death traps. In modern games these are rare, because it can become quite frustrating. The response is often to try farming early characters, running through the low levels carelessly fast until the infant death phase has passed.

Anecdotally, Omega suffers from RNG balance problems more than most. The early game seems particularly hard, and the late game much too easy. After a characters survives a few hours and reach level 10 or so, then they are able to cruise through nearly all challenges. This and the inventory system are perhaps the main reasons the game need became well-known. In a unique system (at least I haven’t seen it used before, or since) picking up an item does not mean you are carrying it. Instead it is “up in the air” and the game goes into inventory mode, where you put it in a particular slot: hand, feet, belt, pack etc. If there is already something already in that slot then it is swapped with the new item and now becomes the “up in the air” item. Leave an item “up in the air” when finished and it is dropped. It is supposed to simulate the fiddly process of organising all your items in real life. It succeeds, but I’m not sure that is a good thing for the game. Still, players quickly get used to it after a little practice, unfortunately most players do not persist and just bash monsters in Angband instead.

Exploring the sewers

These early rogue-likes are a hive of experimentation. They are the indie games of their time. So many ideas were thrown together by people trying to recreate their tabletop RPG sessions. For me, Omega succeeded more than it failed. It feels like there is a world continuing along regardless of the player actions. This isn’t true of course, but it is the impression that counts. This is evident by many of the games that come after Omega. They may not be inspired directly by it, but they are inspired by the same original sources as Omega. The basic motivation of the creators is the equivalent. Thus we now have expansive open worlds like Skyrim. Meanwhile the rogue-like genre itself has only become stronger over the last 30 years. I can recommend that game designers not old enough to have played these old rogue-likes when they were popular, give at least one of them a try now.

Omega can bee downloaded for free from here, the sourcecode is also available (along with some documentation, tips & spoilers) from here.