Impressions, Part 2: Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine

By Alec Meer on March 8th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.

Right then. Now I’ve had a little catharsis by revealing how home invasion-themed MMO The Castle Doctrine made me feel, I want to talk a little more about its mechanics.

There are two major ‘game’ aspects to it. One is building your home and its defences – though the two are part and parcel – and the other is trying to make your way around rival players’ DIY fortresses. I appreciate that some people have taken issue with the concept of the game essentially requiring you to be a thief as well as a victim. There’s something in that, even despite an option to vote with your feet and simply try to construct the best defences you can. At the same time, I don’t see a lot of worry that Planetside 2 or League of Legends requires each team to murder each other, or protest that World of Warcraft contains PvP. But of course, as in the case of the similarly discomfort-inciting Prison Architect, The Castle Doctrine uses real world (or something very close to it) themes rather than fantastical ones.

So I can see the dilemma, but speaking personally I do see Castle Doctrine as an overtly game-like setup rather than a believable one. As such, I’d rather concentrate on the systems within it.
Money is the game’s key, and arguably only (depending on what we want to categorise family members as) resource. It’s needed both to construct your house and the deadly Home Alone contraptions within it, and to buy the tools – saws, wire cutters, guns – you’ll need in the event you decide to steal into someone else’s house. Money itself is obtained only by robbing others, or alternatively you can sell the tools dropped in your home by anyone who’s killed in the process of trying to rob it.

(With, as I observed yesterday, this closed, early version of the game’s player base being so small, I’m necessarily talking more conceptually than from experience here. But I can totally see, from hands-on experience of the game’s mechanics and economy, how it would work – this isn’t just a line I’ve been sold.)

In terms of house design, we’re looking at a large, open rectangle into which you may place around a dozen different types of object – walls, doors, windows, pits, dogs (and cats!) and, ultimately most importantly, assorted wiring and switches. It’s a minimalist interface, just a small grid of tiles to choose from which are then simply click’n’placed in the house, and it takes no time at all to build rooms and basic traps. I must admit that, as a helplessly left-brain sort of human, the electronics side of things hasn’t come entirely naturally to me despite hardly being rocket science. I can set up a floor-mounted pressure switch which, when walked over, activates or deactivates a powered trapdoor, but that’s about it.

Still, I was quite proud – any invader would have to follow a circuitous route around the perimeter of my house, taking a gamble on which door-shielded corridors held guard dogs behind them, in search of the one passage which held the switch. They’d then need to walk over that and re-trace their steps back to the entrance in order that they might cross the now-closed trapdoor right by the front door. Caution would realistically be enough to survive this setup – walk one tile at a time, so even though you can’t see more than a few feet around you, you should have enough time to steer away from an electric floor or even flee from a ravenous hound. If someone was as lazy and impatient as I tended to be in others’ houses though, they wouldn’t last seconds.

Or they could just stock up on saws and make their own route through my cheap wooden walls. Bah.

More money buys better walls, which require welders or explosives to pass through, but that doesn’t mean well-guarded, rich houses are off-limits to new or poor players. The great leveller in the Castle Doctrine, and probably its smartest idea, is that every addition or change to your defences requires that you yourself prove the deadly house-maze can be ‘solved’ without the aid of any tools before it will go live to the server. Should you fail to do this, not only will you be denied the sinister pleasure of seeing endless rivals shed their blood on your floor, but you will be dead. Everything you owned and built will be lost, forever.

This creates a remarkable, intrinsic risk-reward dilemma. Sure, you can build something overwhelmingly fiendish, but you’re risking everything if you do. My advice – take careful notes, draw maps, take screenshots, test and test before you commit. The setup I described earlier, with the pressure switch? After adding an extra hound-holding corridor, bought with the spoils of a successful robbery, I became complacent, convinced I knew my own design inside out. En route to the switch, I turned one door too soon. Man’s best friend? Don’t make me laugh. Because I can’t. Because I don’t have a throat to laugh from anymore.

That risk reward concept obviously spreads to the PvP aspect of the game (not that you’ll ever directly encounter other players – robberies can only happen while you’re offline, as far as I can tell), wherein you pick a target from a scoreboard of player worth. Hitting the house whose vault holds the most cash promises a big payday, but chances are the reason it’s got so much money is that everyone else who’s tried to rob it was killed in the process. Are you the God Of Burglary? Better hope so. I suspect the best thieves will have a sort of Matrix-vision which enables them to deduct layouts and maze-navigation without the aid of any tools, but mere humans will likely employ a few aids.

Wire cutters are potentially the most useful, as they can be used to snip the cables between power supplies and electric floors, pressure switches and the like, but this can also lead to logic-sustaining backfires. The apparently bugged, impassable house I mentioned encountering yesterday? Not the case. Well, it was indeed impassable, having as it did an open trapdoor between the front door and the rest of the house, but it wasn’t bugged. In fact, it was Rohrer’s own house, it transpired. The canny blighter, eh? This also means he must have had a giggle or two at my expense, when he returned to the game and watched the Security Tapes (i.e. replays) of my multiple failed attempts to cross or deactivate that trapdoor, each time resulting either my in grumpily giving up and going home or simply striding into the pit and hoping for a miracle. The shame of it all.

But if it this house design was truly impassable, how was he able to set it live in the game? Let me share his explanation with you. “It is possible for a house to become impassable after someone else robs it once. Pitbulls move around, switches get tripped, wires get cut. Thus, it is possible to so design your house that it can only be robbed once, if you’re really clever.”

In this case, “Someone cut the wires to my first trap door when they robbed my house. Thus, by the time you approached it, it was indeed impassable.” This sounds as though the game is rigged, that the smartest players will get richer and richer, immune to robbery. Again, not so. “I can’t visit and leave my own house without again fixing it up and proving that it’s passable. It only remains impassable forever if I stay away from the game forever.”

Game, set, match. With no winner. Fascinating.

Thus, all moral and socio-political issues around the game aside, what it’s going to live and die on is the use and abuse of its trap systems, a constant arms race to devise strategies and counter-strategies to stay alive forever in a world which will kill you in a heartbeat. Who can discover the secret to eternal life in this game about death?

The Castle Doctrine will be out soon.

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29 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    Dimonte says:

    Maybe I am a philistine, but looking at Rohrer’s games I can’t shake the feeling that he just needs to be clever every single time he makes a game. And I don’t mean clever in a good way. The games are solid, I guess, though I never been able to really get into any of them, but this bit of clever is always there somewhere, not adding much to the game itself, but getting publicity. I don’t know why it irks me so much, but it just does.

    • nicolekidmanq says:

      If you think Arthur`s story is flabbergasting,, 5 weeks ago my mum’s boy friend also recieved a check for $6227 just sitting there fifteen hours a week at home and they’re neighbor’s step-sister`s neighbour has done this for nine months and got a cheque for over $6227 in their spare time on- line. apply the steps from this address http://www.Fly38.COm/

    • KDR_11k says:

      The one Rohrer game I got was Inside A Star-Filled Sky, that seems entirely about being a game. Some of the risk-reward schemes weren’t very balanced (diving into an enemy is a lot of effort just to potentially neuter a single enemy) when I last played it but it was a pretty fun game.

    • Todd_Bailey says:

      what Vincent responded I am amazed that anybody able to make $9167 in four weeks on the internet. did you look at this site… http://zapit.nu/2zm

  2. Strangerator says:

    Wow. Some really brilliant design ideas, especially the bit about proving your layout to be passable. I guess in theory, if you got good enough at creating the ultimate deathtrap of a house, you could get rich by collecting the bounty from all the dead burglars.

    As to being able to “lock down” your house after certain triggers, maybe this is intentional to prevent your entire life’s savings from being wiped out if you are away from the game for several weeks of real time?

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    elderman says:

    The theme of this game makes me very uncomfortable. It might be the first game from Jason Rohrer that I don’t get (aside from Diamond Trust, which was for a platform I don’t own). However, I have to say the mechanics do sound really interesting: deep, and challenging. Definitely the kind of thing I’d like to play around with.

  4. drakkheim says:

    This game is extremely habit forming.

    the need to get another 200 bucks for another set of steel doors so you go rob another player or two so you can finish your masterpiece only to return with your spoils to be met with “Your house is being robbed. You cannot edit it now.”

    And then wait nervously to see if you managed to get the intruder or if he kills your wife and shorts out your electrified floors and runs off with your cash..

    And the instant perma-death when you open a door in someone’s house without looking carefully if there’s an angry dog behind it.

  5. johnnyr says:

    Can we get an actual timeframe for release?

    • Jason Rohrer says:

      For a game that involves a large group of players interacting like this, a lot of live testing, with a larger group, is necessary. The economy will need tweaking, and so on.

      The current plan is to open a public alpha at a reduced price.

      The current plan is soon, very soon.

      • johnnyr says:

        Sweet! Thank Jason. I was one of the testers for Sleep Is Death, I’m a big fan of your games. Sorry I couldn’t help you test this one…Can’t wait to buy it.

      • Dharoum says:

        Great! Can’t wait. I was checking your twitter for every day few weeks, and then I checked it Sunday morning, nothing yet and thought ah it’s weekend probably not today, next day I see…!!! And filled ofc..

        But hopefully I can get in soon now.

  6. Dog Pants says:

    I’m getting a great Spy Vs Spy vibe from this game.

  7. mutopia says:

    Wow;

    “A Castle Doctrine (also known as a Castle Law or a Defense of Habitation Law) is an American legal doctrine that designates a person’s abode (or, in some states, any place legally occupied, such as a car or place of work) as a place in which the person has certain protections and immunities and may in certain circumstances use force, up to and including deadly force, to defend against an intruder without becoming liable to prosecution.[1] Typically deadly force is considered justified, and a defense of justifiable homicide applicable, in cases “when the actor reasonably fears imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm to himself or another”.[1] The doctrine is not a defined law that can be invoked, but a set of principles which is incorporated in some form in the law of most states.”

    No wonder there are so many gun deaths in the US :| Aside from due to all the guns, that is. Really trying not to be snooty (insofar the RPS comment template allows me) about it as Rohrer thinks us Euro-types like to be about everything, I’m just sort of bewildered that there’s a game coming which is like a mixture of top-down minecraft cum bizarro-hotline miami and it’s sort of unsure whether to comment on violence or comment on violence as solution.

    I wonder if anyone’s ever made a realistic twine game or something about home invasion? Like one where the it becomes clear that keeping guns even as defense against burglars, will only massively increase the certainty with which you’ll be stone dead or hurt and traumatised and/or the burglar will be dead or hurt and traumatised and no one is any happier, in the end.

    And the same goes for Rohrer’s example of not liking police and military being the only ones to carry guns from the previous interview; Let’s say hypothetically you were living in such a dystopia where systemic abuse and police brutality were everyday occurrences; doesn’t owning a gun only decrease your and your loved ones’ chances of surviving such an unfortunate encounter? Would those dystopian cops/soldiers appreciate you pointing a gun at them or something? What am I missing in this train of thought? Or do we carry this over into the absurd and imagine that like the hypothetical gun is at some hypothetical future moment the only hypothetical way to hypothetically stop the hypothetical future soldier from hypothetically raping your wife? Because if so I have a much better alternative: stop said hypothetical future dystopia from occurring in the first place, preferably without the use of guns. You see guns and violence have a way of making most of anything worse, this includes society and its people even. It’s the testosterone-driven way of resolving conflicts, and it tends to eat away at our ability to even think about resolving conflict otherwise. It’s self-inflicted terror that creates a society of fear.

    I’m really okay with games being whatever they want to be and as political (or not) as they want (which includes stuff I don’t find agreeable of course) but isn’t there ultimately a bit of responsibility with their name on it, at least when they’re being political about real-world stuff, to explain or explore the issue more thoroughly? Either make it a game about home invasion that works as a comment on violence or make it a game about home invasion, but please don’t make it a game about home invasion with only a very half assed comment on violence (ie the Second Amendment). I’m not sure if you know but the US has been exporting the Second Amendment around the world (Columbia, El Salvador, Chile, etc. all the way to Iraq and Afghanistan) and it has basically devastated those places, yet so many people maintain it to be an inalienable universal right, despite its original meaning and intentions having lost all relevance in today’s America (atfer all, I would hope most Americans wouldn’t much like the idea of armed paramilitary groups operating where they live, and so the Second Amendment now just basically guarantees the rights of weapons manufacturers to flood the US, Mexico and the rest of the world with a gazillion guns).

    I look forward to playing it. I think.

    • AngoraFish says:

      If owning and using guns is such a successful way of protecting yourself and your family, one might think that both Gregory G. Rodriguez (host of TV show “A Rifleman’s Journal” ) and Chris Kyle (one of America’s deadliest military snipers, author of “American Sniper”) might still be alive today. As it is, both of them were murdered by gun violence in the last month. What chance is your average Joe family-man going to have if these guys can’t stop a bullet?

    • Reapy says:

      300 million of wildly different cultural backgrounds spread out over a huge landmass, far enough away to have very distinct value sets depending where in the us you grew up, further shaken up by what your family culture is on top of your regional culture vs 60 million people of reasonably similar descent, pretty hard to compare. Lot of different people round here and wealth disparity. Don’t think much would change whether it was a gun or a knife a rock or a car doing the killing.

      • Premium User Badge

        Llewyn says:

        60 million people of reasonably similar descent

        What does Italy have to do with this?

    • frosty216 says:

      Wat?

    • CantankerousDave says:

      Here in America, this needs an asterisk with a followup saying, “Doctrine does not apply if black.”

  8. zal says:

    The more I read about this the more it seems like one of those games that argues in favor of larger control. Like hey this is what people resort to if there are no other controls… look at what “every man for himself by himself defending himself and taking what he wants” gets you.

    It also makes me wonder if it would be different if the game were suddenly patched to allow other players to “police” someones house from other intruders. or even just work together directly to rob them, or kill them or even kill players while they sleep. I imagine it would become a horror game of a very different nature, starting very different arguments in these threads.

    Still not sure I’ll end up playing it, but it could be entertaining. one thing I thought of.. is there a way to prevent dual-boxing, and players rolling up martyrs to line their pockets? or similar silliness?

    or even worse, clone cash handoff’s where you use a 2nd character to rob the first of half his money, tripping it in the process… then go rob someone with that guy, come back, reset the house and rob the other one again… and make a 3rd character to trip both.. essentially creating a 2 house cash laundering operation?

    • LozTaylor says:

      Despite Jason’s views on gun control, it’s interesting that his game’s only role for guns is for robbing other people.

  9. Premium User Badge

    svendelmaus says:

    Presumably you could cheat a bit with two accounts — make a house that’s impassible once a wire is cut, and then log in with the other account and cut the wire. Let the money from failed attempts accumulate, then pop in with the first account, mess about, and then close up the house with the second account again…

  10. Jason Rohrer says:

    Cheating is a real concern, for sure.

    My solution:

    1) Everyone is anonymous. You’re assigned a random name from the 1993 US Social Security database, but you never see your own name (you only see the names of other players). You don’t know your friend’s name, and they don’t know yours. You don’t know the name on a second account, if you have one.

    2) Balances are rounded off in the list view, so you can’t recognize your house based on its balance. Your $1865 house will be lumped in with dozens of houses in the $1800 block.

    3) Every time you die, you start over with a new character and a new name. So, even if you manage to locate a second account once by name, that won’t last long, and you’ll have to search all over again.

    4) Everything is recorded. Rise to the top by cheating, attract attention to yourself, have your data trail examined, and get caught.

    5) Accounts cost money, so most people won’t have multiple accounts, and people won’t want to risk losing their paid account by cheating.

    (Note that the game includes full source code for both the client and server, allowing people to run their own servers with their own policies, including free accounts if they want—the paid accounts that I’m talking about are on the main server that I’m running).

    • cytokindness says:

      Including sourcecode? Are you going to license it to allow mods too?

      • Jason Rohrer says:

        Everything I do is placed in the public domain. No restrictions, no need to license anything. Do what you want with it (including making mods or whatever).

  11. Muzman says:

    This needs to be out before the hackers at Defcon or something.
    They do systems design challenges all the time, where things are built and then attacked to find the weaknesses. You want out of the box thinking, that’s the place.

    I like the ability to walk through as a barrier to success. Like Schneier says, designing impregnable security is easy. The trick is making it actually useful in its core function(s) at the same time.

    I was thinking, given the protect-the-family personalised fear mechanic, another test could be to have a system where the house burns down and your family must successfully escape (which is either way too complex to implement or exactly the same. Even a cosmetic version would be cool, just for acknowledging one of the real life risks of excess security.)

  12. janet476 says:

    It’s definitely the most-financially rewarding I’ve ever done. Make money with Google. $85 an hour! I work two shifts, 2 hours in the day and 2 in the evening…And what’s awesome is I’m working from home so I get more time with my kids, I follow this great link,,
    http://www.Google.fab17.com
    (Goto site & open Home for details)

  13. sushi_cw says:

    You know, I had imagined and designed in my head almost exactly the same game a couple of weeks ago, including the “you must navigate your own castle to prove it is solvable” mechanic. :)

    Part of me is glad to find someone else beat me to it (I don’t have time for moonlighting game dev anyway). Part of me is slightly annoyed. All of me is very interested in trying it out.

  14. KDR_11k says:

    How do your family members handle the deathtraps in your house? Do they automatically know how to avoid danger or do they accidentally get killed?

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    Toupee says:

    Yo Rohrer! This is rad.

    Is there any kind of tutorial on how to use the traps, though, or are we left alone to our own… heheh… devices to figure them out?