The Making Of: Rogue
"Hello Edge, Welcome to the Dungeons of Doom”. To anyone familiar with a game that was to go on to have an almost disproportionate historic significance, and that is still enjoyed by countless gamers today, these innocuous and almost unreasonably cheerful words have an almost mythic resonance. They signalled the beginning of a legendary quest to recover the fabled Amulet of Yendor from a monster-ridden dungeon. Back in 1980, when the original version of Rogue was included in the 4.2 version of BSD UNIX, arcades were home to the likes of Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Asteroids, while the university computers on which the game was created were capable only of games such as Boggle, Quiz, or the influential text-based Adventure.
Against this background, it was an ASCII graphical breakthrough that was ultimately responsible for the genesis of Rogue, but if it wasn’t for its hypnotically beguiling gameplay the title is unlikely to have had quite such an impact. “Two things made me think that this game could be a commercial success,” notes Jon Lane, who coded the PC version of the game in 1984. “The first was that when I was running a network-wide analysis of system usage we found that Rogue was burning more CPU cycles than anything else. The second was that Dennis Richie, of UNIX fame, was quoted as saying that Rogue wasted more CPU time than anything in history.” Certainly the legacy of the game is immense. Diablo clones are little more than graphical updates, and ASCII RPGs are still popular, with Nethack in particular currently being championed by the open-source community.
The origins of Rogue start with Glenn Wichman and Michael Toy. “Glenn and I were pounding away at keyboards on the UNIX timesharing system at UC Santa Cruz,” remembers Toy. “This was around 1980, and Rogue ran in something like 128K of memory, which was an order of magnitude more than any personal computer had. We were theoretically supposed to be attending classes and earning a degree, but instead we spent most of our programming for fun.” Wichman agrees: “Michael and I were 19 when we designed Rogue, so we hadn’t done much in life yet. I was meandering through university, trying to decide what to major in. I had never used a computer before arriving at university.”
Around this time, the development of a library of routines that allowed ‘cursor addressing’ by Berkeley student Ken Arnold made it possible to use text characters and symbols to create rudimentary graphics. Which is exactly what Wichman and Toy did. “We were both big fans of Adventure,” recalls Wichman, “and we were musing about whether we could do a graphic Adventure-like game. I didn’t think it would be possible, but then Michael came up with the overhead map view idea, and it all started to fall into place.” Eventually, Toy was to transfer to Berkeley, where he met up with Arnold, and they completed the initial version of Rogue.
Apart from Adventure, the other obvious source of inspiration was Dungeons & Dragons. “In the very first version, the monsters and their strengths and abilities were very closely modelled on Dungeons & Dragons,” explains Wichman, “but we quickly changed this to avoid getting in trouble with Gygax and Arneson.” The game itself involves exploring dungeons, which were depicted via ASCII graphics from an overhead view, with your character, represented by an ‘@’ symbol, fighting monsters, shown as capital letters, and ultimately retrieving the Amulet of Yendor. “The Amulet of Yendor is simply Rodney spelled backwards and I guess that seemed funny even though Rodney was no one in particular,” reveals Lane.