But the question of "what is Vanilla Angband" hasn't been answered! The sense I got is that this is something the dev team still struggles with--- what is their job? Some of their changes were obvious: prune the ports (old platforms no longer testable), induce less RSI on things like targeting missile attacks, and support UTF-8. But Angband circa 2005 was undergoing a revolution in play style of rapidly diving to lower levels. This increased the danger to the player--- but also provided better rewards, and trained the player in avoidance techniques that were crucial to the endgame.
They decided to embrace this strategy and made some gameplay changes to support and encourage it it. One is "forced descent" to prevent the player from farming easy levels. Another is selling more staples in town, and removing selling of items. (They also removed Charisma and haggling, but that is more in the "obvious cleanup" category than a "rebalance the game" change.)
They briefly mentioned some simulations they did, but didn't go into detail--- this would be interesting to look into. They also said that it's hard to tell whether players are actually happier with the game, given that lots of players never post on the forums to complain. :) I wonder how many roguelike games would benefit from "phone-home" functionality that tells the dev team what players are actually spending their time on.
What didn't get fixed: documentation and testing, like any other open-source project. A google search still turns up a guide from 1996 as the top result.
"The Infinite Dungeon" (originally titled "Difficulty in Roguelike Games" in the program) by John Harris. This was one of the most thought-provoking talks to me. John asks why, in a golden age of roguelikes, does he have difficulty building enthusiasm for some of the new offerings?
He goes back to some of the first procedurally-generated content. TSR's Strategic Review, Volume 1, Issue 1, has an article on randomly generating dungeons in D&D. But this sort of generation is not really interesting. It's ultimately just a linear sequence of challenges. It's literally gambling--- stop now or go on? Because the structure of the environment you've seen so far has no bearing whatsoever to what comes next. (If you back up and try a branch you passed over before, the next room will be the same as if you stayed where you are.) Rogue does better at giving an actual sense of place.
Contrast those, however, with an early D&D adventure like "Village of Hommlet" that has layered depth and backstory (and surprises!) I sometimes think the temptation is always to add too much--- I always wanted everything to tie together in my Shadowrun campaigns, but the real world does have things that are more or less as they seem. But the point John made is that this backstory and design is something players can exploit. They could figure out that the monsters are likely to have a midden, and go look for it. How could we do the same in roguelike games?
He proposed a trichotomy: knowledge, logic, and wit. (Though he doesn't much like "wit" for the third category.)
1. There are things about a game you could look up in a FAQ or guide, that are able to be written down. Like, here are all the possible potions in Nethack.
2. There's inferences you can make from the knowledge: if I know X, then Y must be true too. If I've fought a tiger, the other room must have a lady. If there is only one unknown potion, it must be Z.
3. Then there are things that constitute "game playing ability" or the ability to discern intent behind a game. It's the application of common sense or intuition or pattern-finding abilities to things not yet encoded in guides.
How can we make games where we get to exercise our "wit"?
(Brian Walker, whose talk I'll cover in the next entry, had some thoughts about how story emerges from place/space/environment in Brogue. But each level in Brogue still feels random, in that there's no geological reason why there's a pool of water one place and not another--- or maybe I just haven't figured it out yet.)
Dwarf Fortress Design Inspirations by Zach and Tarn Adams. This was basically a love letter to their wasted childhoods. :) But more than that, it was a fascinating look at how they put the things they loved in games into their own game. Even their earliest games (text-only scrolling narratives) incorporated the elements that they knew how to do at the time, like remembering what killed you.
Permadeath in roguelikes is often coupled to a high score list. They view Dwarf Fortress's legends mode as an evolution of that same high score list--- recording what you did for later use or comparison. The Hack "bones file" was a revelation for them and is translated almost literally into their initial vision for Dwarf Fortress: build a fort, then explore its ruins.
They also talked about games they have not yet been able to incorporate. The game Ragnarok features climactic final battles among the gods. They'd like Dwarf Fortress to have the same sort of arc where great powers arise and ultimately shape the world in large-scale ways. This seems like something that might also edge into John Harris's "wit" --- if you know the shape of the story, you can exploit it.