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Hacked Off

Sep 192011

So, how do we tend to feel about hacking minigames, everyone? I suppose generally I’m against them – the two main problems being they’re rarely genuinely fun in their own right, and that they really grate after a while.

That said, it’s nice to feel that you’re in some way involved in the hack, even if it is absurdly extrapolated and interpreted as some preposterous minigame. At the moment, The Swindle’s hacking amounts to pressing a button and watching the player character getting on with it all. I’m aware that it all just feels a little flat.

The nature of the game means I could quite easily drop the minigame once it’s run its course; you’ll be using the cash you steal to upgrade your whizzy techno-gloves throughout the game. So with a quick upgrade it could all then be handled automatically, if the game’s annoying you sufficiently.

If everyone gives hacking minigames an overwhelming no-no vibe from the off, I suppose it can just wind up being a progress bar… but what are your thoughts? Have any games done hacking or minigames really well in your eyes?

Let me know, either here or on Twitter: twitter.com/danthat

27 Comments

  1. Sep 192011
    dan,

    For my part: I thought Deus Ex:HR’s didn’t really work. There were all sorts of tactics and stuff involved presumably, but it boiled down to a race, quick clicking, and clever use of those Stop Worms. I felt like I was hacking, but it became a right chore I was hoping I’d be able to override with an aug upgrade.

    The only other thing that sticks out a bit was Just Cause 2 – you basically had to input a sequence of buttons before the timer ran out. Simple and eventually also boring, but again it felt like I was doing something connected to the game, rather than suddenly playing PipeMania for some reason.

    If anyone has any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

  2. Sep 192011
    Billzilla,

    I generally like Star Trek Online and Mass Effect’s. I generally don’t like Bioshock’s. The key is quick.

  3. Sep 192011
    Nicholas Lovell,

    If I said that you could make a minigame for hacking but allow those people who don’t relish that challenge to buy an upgrade to bypass all hacks (a bit like the docking computer in Elite, but with real money), would you punch me on the nose?

  4. Sep 192011
    toblix,

    While I think DXHR’s system is the best hacking minigame I’ve seen (since it does have an element of tactics and depth), it too gets stale after a while. Instead of being a cool thing to get to do, it’s annoying when you hack your way into an apartment and then – ugh, they have a safe – and you have to do it again. The only disadvantage with just having a progress bar is the initial reaction that some people will have when they find that a game has come out after Bioshock without a hacking minigame. If there’s some fun stuff to do in the game other than hacking, you should probably just drop it. The advantage of an upgrade would then be that it is goes faster, which I’m assuming, potentially wrongly, will have some value in the game.

  5. Sep 192011
    Gusj,

    Depends on the mini-game of course. Personally I love the lockpicking games in Oblivion and Fallout 3, but the hacking in games like F3, Bioshock, and Deus Ex 3 feels like a chore and are annoying.

    Maybe an option to do auto-hacking instead where the result is percentage-based? Think auto-resolving battles in Total War.

  6. Sep 192011
    Abby,

    I, personally, have never played a hacking minigame or puzzle that I enjoyed. I’ve always felt that they slow down the pace of a game too considerably, even when they’re easy – it feels like the game is making me stop to tie my character’s shoe.

  7. Sep 192011
    JohnArr,

    Batman AA has one of the best minigames: finding the frequency of the wotsit. It was fast, analog, stayed thematic & in-game (rather than some abstracted pipemania game) and had nice feedback.

    Fallout 3’s lockpicking was great for the same reasons.

  8. Sep 192011
    Matt Glanville,

    Warning: thoughtguff begins here.

    I’m wondering whether you could focus not on the actual act of hacking itself but the dangerous situation it places you in.

    When you start hacking, you know that it will take a certain amount of time to complete, but you also know that the guards will be back soon, and that creates tension. It’s that tension which I find interesting and exciting. It’s also that tension which makes it much easier to mess up the hacking, so you risk falling into a downward spiral.

    Maybe the hacking *could* be automatic (progress bar slowly filling up), but the speed it fills up depends on how much attention you are paying. You might be able to look around to keep an eye out for guards at the same time, and this would be the safer option but would slow down your progress or increase the likelihood of mistakes.

    Could still be turd, but I think something like this could help to keep the focus on your character’s situation and avoid becoming a weird, arbitrary little self-contained game.

  9. Sep 192011
    Ben Nizan,

    I suppose the key thing is that minigames, in their nature, are seperate from the main gameplay mechanics and that disparity can be annoying if they’re mandatory. Optional minigames go down well, I guess because, well, they’re optional.

    I think its when they become mandatory, if the gameplay of the main and mini game are too different – or require a different type of skill – then it can annoy people. For example, if you’ve got a game that relies on hand-eye co-ordination and quick reactions, and then you’re thrown into a heavily-logic based puzzle – it’s not only jarring, but if you’re not very good at logic puzzles, it’s downright frustrating. Especially if you’re not very good at the skills required for the minigame. (Sort of like if, half way through baking a cake, or some kind of delicious lemon pastry, you were asked to defuse a bomb.) I’m alright personally, because I’m good at everything. (maybealie).

    All of that said, a loading bar would be a bit of a letdown. It’s nice to be involved. I don’t know enough about the other gameplay in The Swindle but is there anyway of abstracting out the hacking game so that it uses the same (or simmilar) mechanics to the main game?

    So, if the main gameplay is jumpy-mario-platformer-style: have the hacking game be like a ‘bonus round’ type ordeal – but instead of the main character in his world, you play a… hacking…bot…thing, inside steampunk cyberspace? Or simmilar. Put nazi dinosaurs in it or something if you like. Or, more sensibly, have it be a bonus-round with a time limit, or something. Either “you have 30 seconds to suceed at hacking” or, “you have 30 seconds to get as much cash as you can!”, or however you intend it to work.

    That way you avoid just having a loading bar, but also avoid having a mandatory minigame which has nothing to do with the rest of the gameplay. Same requirements of the player, just a new lick of paint I guess.

    Just a thought, hope that makes sense of some kind.
    Hope you figure it out :)

  10. Sep 192011
    Daniel Pryce,

    Continuing from what Dan said, Just Cause 2’s hacking minigame was cool because it made you use the actual numpad you have on your keyboard right next to you – it felt tactile. If you want something simple, you can do a lot worse than that.

    Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a hacking mini-game that’s ever stood out (apart from BioShock, which was just Pipemania. Fuck it, bung Cruxade in there and call it a night).

  11. Sep 192011
    The V Man,

    I think it comes down to how ‘literal’ you want the hacking experience to be. Do you want to emulate a real hack, or do you want to make a gigantic parody of it?

    If you want to do it literally, then give the user a mock-file system and pretend command prompt, litter the system with clues about how to crack in and proivde the commands to do so slowly through progression. You could do things like user password guessing, social engineering, specific devices as points to attack and so on. This approach does mean you need to do some reading on intrustion detection and hacking in general to get enough of it to make it ‘believable’ – at least in a steam punk computer sense anyway.

    The other way to approach it is to make a mini-game – say like pac-man but with data bits – and just theme it around the commonly visualized internals of a program (matric green on black, mix in some of the old orange characters, etc). This approach tends to draw me into the idea of multiple mini-games to repesent different systems, or a mini-game that evolves with each new hack-challenge. I think DX:HR tried to evolve it’s hacking as it went along by introducing new variables, but in the end it just never felt like anything more than clicking faster than the computer. Which brings things to a head…

    Hacking games should not be time-based. They should centre on your skill (or building thereof) at being undetected and ferriting out a way into the system, and finding what you want. There are many layers to computers and I think a successful mini-game should involve them all – but not the same way each time. Each component should have a new twist or trick.

    I think the issue with hacking mini-games is that they’re often either an after-thought that remains undeveloped, or they just aren’t given the resources to really become engaging. They get used as overly complicated ways to stop you from doing something, or delay you unnecessarily.

    I suppose another consideration is how often you intend people to be hacking. If it’s often then the games need to be short – and in this case I think a progress bar and/or amusing character animation is perfectly acceptible. However if there will only be 1 or 2 hacks per mission, a longer and more engaging experience is required.

  12. Sep 192011
    FakeAlGore,

    I liked the walkthrough mini-game in Machinarium. It almost felt like a right-and-proper hacking mini-game based on the lock-and-key mechanic. Perhaps something similar to it?

  13. Sep 192011
    TomH,

    Dan.

    I felt the same about the Deus Ex hacking initially, but when I got the analyse aug and a couple of upgrades, it changed completely.

    Once I was confident that I wouldn’t always be detected, I could carefully snake through the system, going after low priority nodes, dropping in the occasional fortify and basically setting everything up so that I would be in a strong position to defend myself if I ever was detected.

    Once I had all the augs, I could hack devices without ever being detected, and quick clicking never came into it.

    I just think it was a little too hard from the off, otherwise it worked fine.

  14. Sep 192011
    gnome,

    Well, despite agreeing that hacking mini-games tend to be pretty dull and pointless, I’ve always felt they added something to the whole atmosphere of a game; that’s why I’d like to see one implemented.

    Now, my suggestion would be to come up with an incredibly simplified version of Uplink. It would probably work brilliantly. No, really.

  15. Sep 192011
    Octaeder,

    I think DX:HR’s hacking minigame falls flat for two reasons:

    1) The moment the system detects you is determined by chance.
    2) The moment you’ve actually broken into the system, you’re safe from detection.

    For point one, compare the game to something like Uplink (which admittedly isn’t a minigame.) The point a system detects you is consistant. As such setting up your tools before you actually start is part of the game. The planning is part of the fun of it, as are the tools you can later buy which give you extra layers of protection.

    Point two is perhaps more important. To my mind, even the first Deus Ex had a much tenser hacking system, even though it was just a progress bar. That’s because when you broke into the system the detection timer carried on, leaving you to read all the emails and turn off cameras/turrets while still under threat. In DX:HR, if you fail you retry and once you’re in you can take as long as you want (assuming a guard doesn’t physically see you.)

    Again, Uplink is a good example of this – most of its hacking tools are simple progress bars, but you can manually assign RAM to each program. Then, once you’re in you’ve got to complete the mission with the same trace running in the background.

  16. Sep 192011
    Hermit,

    The problem with a DX style minigame is that if you have to use it every two minutes to do something, it gets dull quickly. And in DX’s case upgrading the hacking stealth all but removed the challenge anyway; you just had to click several nodes to unlock something instead of a single “Hack” button.

    A progress bar isn’t necessarily a bad thing, assuming you add challenge into hacking some other way. Hacking could be mostly automatic – set a hack going and a program takes care of the rest, leaving the player to distract or deal with anyone in the vicinity who might be adverse to your tinkerings. At this point I’m imagining a slightly confused IT technician turning up, wondering why the laser grid is turning itself off.

    For a somewhat different take on it, I’d also point towards Dystopia. Hacking objectives wasn’t a particularly in-depth minigame, but was about choosing the right tools in the right order. Broadly speaking a node was protected by a password or encryption, and a security system of some kind. The player simply had to pick the right program to disable that particular security or encryption, and then run the components of that in the correct order. What was especially neat was that as this became second nature you naturally improved at the game’s hacking, without the need for artificial difficulty settings – Speed was often the difference between completing an objective and being kicked out of Cyberspace by an approaching defender.

  17. Sep 192011
    Skizomeuh,

    For the examples, best use I know was Paradroid 90 (fun, quick, timed, scalable difficulty), System Shock 1 (2 games, no hack at every corner, realtime), GTA:Chinatown (fun & gestures)

    For me hacking mini-games must be challenging, fun, with a scalable difficulty for the replay value, non-systematic, fitting the universe it’s in and quick enough so it don’t kill the pace. A way to avoid it may help in the long term.

    You’ll have the dilemma between realtime and paused world too.

    The more I think, the more I’m fond of Paradroid minigame : having an AI defying you puts scalability, replay value.

  18. Sep 192011
    James P,

    My thought is that if you’ve invented a puzzle game that is enjoyable in its own right – why isn’t it a game in its own right? If it’s not that good, what is it doing in your game at all?

    I quite liike Deus Ex’s for the record, but it’s a bit random. I don’t like Bioshock’s, because it’s a poor man’s pipemania.

  19. Sep 192011
    Tom W,

    I liked Bioshock’s, because it was a poor man’s Pipemania.

    Deus Ex’s is fucking shit, because it’s all random percentages. Doesn’t matter how good at it you are if the first 10% chance of detection in a complex layout triggers the alarm.

    Make me figure something out, maybe under pressure = good.

    Make me do something over and over again because the random number generator is being a tart = I will stab you.

  20. Sep 192011
    Dean,

    DX3’s was good, but hugely over-used. That’s a big question to ask really: how often will a user be hacking?

    3-5 times a level and the answer to ‘what makes a good minigame’ is very different to if it’s DX3-like 30 times a level.

  21. Sep 192011
    unless,

    If you have a good minigame for it, put it in. But don’t make me play it every damn time. Make me play it enough to understand the game, and then use it to your advantage as a designer by placing it very occasionally in my way.

    If Bioshock had let me skip the minigame 90% of the time, but then the rest of the time had given me the hover option “Hack (by playing Pipe Dream on hard!)” I would have freaked the hell out instead of just finding it tedious.

    Minigames aren’t the problem, mindless repetition is the problem.

  22. Sep 192011
    Noyb,

    My vote is for progress bar + procedurally generated technobabble as the player character or his hacker friend explains what he or she is doing to breach the system.

  23. Sep 192011
    Matt Glanville,

    I think Ben N hit the nail on the head really. It shouldn’t be a mini-game at all but rather an extension of the core mechanics.

    Dan, you are not Square-Enix (a fact I’m sure you’re fully aware of) and I suspect this means you cannot afford to divert your time and resources among such drastically different aspects of the game. Or maybe you can, but I think you could better spend that time by keeping the mechanics more tightly interlinked and multi-tasking assets wherever possible.

    Hacking should be one of many facets of your game, not ANOTHER game shoehorned into it. Still not sure why most games seem to go down that route to be honest. Keep it tight and elegant.

  24. Sep 192011
    Delve,

    I like the way Daniel Pryce thinks. Slap Cruxade in with some random goal based on the lock ‘difficulty’ and get on with it.

  25. Sep 202011
    Dan,

    So many amazing thoughts and opinions on this, thank you everyone. There’s a lot to digest here, but the key thing that’s coming through is what I thought: that pressing a button and watching him get on with it makes you feel a little too removed from the process, and some degree of interaction is welcome.

    There’s a lot of time for a fiddle and a play – I’m hoping whatever I do where hacking’s concerned comes out organically… we’ll have to see.

    Thanks again, everyone. :)

  26. Sep 202011
    Tom Francis,

    If hacking minigames are good for making you feel involved, but bad because you get sick of them, perhaps you could have some kind of tiered upgrade to skip them.

    So you have to hack the first few things you encounter, but you can buy a cheap upgrade to hack these level 1 devices automatically. Then you start to encounter a few level 2 devices amongst them, and have to hack those manually until you get the level 2 upgrade. It’d mean the player is never made to play too much of it unless they really want to.

  27. Sep 212011
    Josh,

    It isn’t really a mini-game but have you ever played uplink by introversion software? Best approximation of film style hacking and great fun!

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