#91: E McNeill reflects on the VR gameplay design for Darknet

E McNeill is the developer for Darknet, which is a cyberpunk hacking game developed for the Gear VR. It was originally developed in three weeks as the game, which was the winner of the game jam that Oculus sponsored back in the summer of 2013.

CiessE-McNeillE’s intention is to create a VR experience that has more of a deeper gameplay mechanic and keeps people coming back to play more. He resisted calling it a puzzle strategy game, but he’s now resigned to describing it that way.

E reflects upon the design process creating the rules that form the basic gameplay for Darknet. It’s an iterative process that sometimes forces him to abandon gameplay that isn’t working. He went through the process of creating rules that were too hidden and random for players to figure out, and they’d have to resort to random guessing in order to progress through the game. He ended up shortening the feedback loop cycles and experimented with a variety of different gameplay mechanics so that a player could progress from being a novice to an elite hacker. He’s even embedded some more advanced optional features where you could gain an advantage if you’re willing to learn how to read the matrix.

Finally, he talks a bit about how Darknet worked more naturally as a mobile game, and some of the optimizations that he needed to do in order to get it ready to be a launch title for the Gear VR. He found that playing the game in a swivel chair provided the best experience, but he also added a VR comfort-like option for turning in his game in order to avoid feelings of simulator sickness.

Thinking about VR too far into the future is a bit too speculative for E, as he’s not sure if VR will be able to live up to the potential of everyone’s expectations. But for now, he’s just happy to think about VR in the short-term and help pioneer some of the gameplay mechanics that work really well within this medium.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.954] E McNeill: My name is E. McNeil. I'm an indie game developer in San Diego, and I'm working on a game called DarkNet, which is a cyberpunk hacking game for VR. It's going to be a Gear VR launch title, so right now I've just been keeping my head down, trying to finish that in time.

[00:00:25.596] Kent Bye: I see, and so this is something that originally came out with the VR Game Jam, and maybe you could talk about the evolution of CS from that point, and then sort of how it sort of evolved to this point to where you're at now, focusing exclusively on Gear VR.

[00:00:40.395] E McNeill: Sure. So yeah, as you said, it started with the VR Jam in summer of 2013. And that was a three-week project. And I had the idea for a good while, like a cyberpunk hacking game. I wanted to be Johnny Mnemonic, or like the characters in Neuromancer or something, where they're going inside the computer. And I also knew that would be a good fit for me in terms of production, because I can't do realistic art or anything like that myself. But I could do this nice, glowing, neon wireframe geometry that I felt was called for in this genre. So, I think that worked out pretty well. I was trying to make sort of a deeper gameplay oriented strategy game. And I think with CS it worked well enough, you know, that people played it and enjoyed it and, you know, it won the jam. So, it did pretty well considering all its constraints. But there were a lot of limitations and I don't think it really captured people for more than like one gameplay session You know people would play it for a good while but then they sort of understood it and they were done and ready to move on so the point of with Darknet was trying to Really get some depth in there into like the gameplay where you want to go back not just because it's like neato whiz-bang novelty VR environment but because there's like actual gameplay that's you know got its hooks in you that you want to delve deeper into and So a lot of the process, you know, I could talk about specifics, how it changed from iteration to iteration, but a lot was just trying to get that deeper strategy in there. And over the course of that, it became sort of more and more like a puzzle-oriented game, which I tried to fight for a long time, but now I just have to admit it, like, yeah, I'm saying puzzle strategy game now. But I think it's pretty successful at what it's set out to do. I don't know how many hours or whatever it's going to keep people's attention for, but at least several times longer than CS, and I'm happy with it.

[00:02:24.555] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's interesting because there was a bit of a strategy where you could just, you know, focus on just a few of the bugs in the same area and that one strategy could kind of lead you through most of the game. And so it's been interesting to kind of watch your development blog of the different strategy iterations that you've had and almost kind of like taking some ideas and throwing them out and starting over. Maybe you could just talk about that iterative process that you've had to go through and trying to find out what is this mechanic going to be.

[00:02:53.786] E McNeill: Yeah, I'm always thrilled and surprised to hear when anyone actually reads my dev blog because it feels a lot like I'm just sort of writing for myself and putting it out into the void. But it's helpful because it lets me do stuff like, as you say, like think through these different iterations and it also gives me sort of a journal for how it changed over time. So I have several dev blogs talking about like the core puzzle mechanic in Darknet and how that changed. So the one in CS was like a bunch of squares moving around and you'd shoot one with a virus that would like transform it or you know corrupt it and it would turn into like this spreading virus and all the other antivirus programs would try to converge on it and destroy it. So it didn't really work mechanically but thematically I thought it was great because you had this sense of like you're injecting a virus that's like a verb that I can borrow from the fiction. It's like spreading through this system And, you know, aggressively. The other things are not spreading. They're like trying to hunt it down a little more intelligently. But you sort of need to like sneak around them. Like, you know, you shouldn't need to be able to like brute force your way through. So you kind of could brute force your way through in CS, but it was not designed to be that way. So I kind of took the same inspirations when trying to make mechanic for Darknet. And even though it ended up being very different, I think you can see all the commonalities that like have stayed there. So the first iteration I did, the first big change was creating this network of nodes connected to each other, which describes every part of the game. There is this network of different vertices that create this sort of mesh. And there were antivirus programs positioned among them. You could shoot them with a limited number of viruses. your viruses would spread outward. And this time, instead of trying to just capture the whole thing, you were trying to spread into a particular point in the center that was like the core, some vulnerable weak spot. And that would capture the node. So the obstacles were the other antivirus programs, except instead of just trying to collide with your spreading viruses and destroy them, they had very simple artificial intelligence, where they would move much faster than your virus would spread, but they could only be in one place at a time. And so the idea was it would be a very simple AI that guided them, and you could learn the rules that controlled their behavior. And then if you were a sufficiently advanced player, you could see into the future. You could predict exactly how they would react and figure out how to spread a virus that would sneak beyond them and spread out into open space. And so there was a lot of shooting a couple viruses behind enemy lines to draw their attention of these antivirus programs and then attack closer to the weak spot, et cetera. So again, like that felt really cool. I kept with that for a while. I thought that was going to be what shipped in the final game. And then very slowly over time, I came to terms with the fact that it wasn't really working. And this was several months into development. And that's the version that actually the original flavor demo of Darknet shipped with. But the problem was that even though, you know, hypothetically you could see into the future and, you know, understand what the AI was going to do against you, you couldn't in practice. It was just too chaotic. There was too much going on. No one could see more than a couple steps, you know, forward. And so if you can't, like, understand the results of your actions, the game is reduced to trial and error at best. And otherwise you're just sort of, you know, shooting randomly and hoping that, you know, you have enough forces to succeed. I, as the creator of the game, could see a little deeper into the strategy because I knew all the rules in and out. New players had no hope, and for them it was just shooting randomly. It was kind of the opposite of the strategy I wanted. So I spent a long time wandering in the wilderness, trying out new mechanics and this and that. One of the things that I tried out was like a mine, like, you know, a proximity mine, where the idea was, amongst all these AI programs, there'd be a couple mines, and if you spread a virus into those, they would trigger and destroy a bunch of your spreading virus. And then I tried out a version where instead of just destroying a certain block of viruses, it would actually create like a counter virus that would like quickly eat up all of the viruses that you're spreading. A lot of this kind of requires an illustration. I'm sorry for anyone who's listening who can't picture this. And so then that actually worked out really well. And I, as I was testing, I tried out a version. I was like, what if it was only mines? And I tried that out. And that actually worked out perfectly, because these things were not constantly moving around chaotically. They were entirely predictable. As soon as you tripped one, it would spread at a constant speed and destroy all of your virus. And you could imagine exactly how it was going to happen. So now you could actually plan ahead. And I feel like I stumbled into this, like it was an accidental discovery. But there's all sorts of interesting strategic twists that you have to learn along the way with that system. where like if there's two antiviruses right next to each other you could attack one or the other and it would just spread a little bit and then trigger the other one but if you attack both at the same time then they'll both spread together because they're both corrupted at once so that's something that people sort of learn over the you know Puzzle games seem to be defined by like the internal lessons that you learn over the course of playing and there are a lot of those very tiny lessons that you learn over the course of Darknet and you can sort of trace your own improving skill from novice to hopefully like elite hacker. Like that's important to me that you really feel like this increase in skill. And then since then, since sort of I feel having the very solid core mechanic that I'm happy with, I've been trying to add just interesting twists to that. So now there are a couple different types of mines, different types of antiviruses, where one of them, rather than just destroying your virus, actually destroys entire parts of the puzzle mesh. And so you can use that sort of in your favor to try to just block out different parts of the mesh or create bottlenecks and things like that. Another one is like a shortcut, where it looks like this sort of circuit diagram line, and if you trigger any part of it, your virus spreads to the entire line. And sometimes that's a good thing because it lets you travel somewhere quickly like a shortcut. Sometimes it's a bad thing because now it's much easier to trigger lots of antiviruses that are nearby. Again, a lot of this is very abstract. The game has always been hard to talk about because I can use terms like virus and exploits and antivirus, firewalls. but those all mean different things in different depictions of cyberpunk of like what cyberspace should look like to a hacker and I have chosen one particular interpretation that works very well for these game mechanics But I think you have to play the game to really internalize all of it and to really see how it the possibilities are Unspooling before you so I'm looking forward to the day when you know, everyone can play this I really need to release a demo and then hopefully I can just sort of point people towards that

[00:09:30.312] Kent Bye: Yeah, just from looking at CS and then looking at the first iteration of the Dark Net, there was this sense of in CS you would fire your two viruses and then the gameplay would sort of unfold within a matter of maybe 10-20 seconds. You would kind of know And then some of the first iterations of Dark Knight, it seemed like you would make your actions and then you would almost have to wait for up to 30, 60 seconds. It was like a much more longer time. Is that something that, because it's such a long time, it sounded like you were saying that it was too difficult to kind of project what would happen over the course of that 20, 30, 40 seconds. Is there more of a quick turnaround from when your action is and to see what the final result is?

[00:10:12.665] E McNeill: There's definitely a quicker turnaround, probably not as quick as CS, because like the really long turns that you're talking about in the demo version of Darknet were accidental. Like that's a result of sort of the chaos problem I was talking about where, you know, most of the time you'd fire some viruses and the antivirus AIs would respond and shut it down and like, you know, recapture the territory, destroy the virus. Great. Some of the time your virus will just keep slipping by them a little bit and since it's constantly expanding like at this exponential rate It goes crazy again, but there's still a ton of antiviruses and then they go and like put out that fire But then it spreads a little bit more and this could happen over and over and over again and so yeah, you'd have turns where it's just going for like a minute or, you know, sometimes even longer. And then, like, the worst is when that happens and then it just happens to spread to the right spot and you capture the node. You win. And I get this weird reaction where people are like, you know, yay! How did I do that? You know, what just happened? But it's good. So, you know, people seem to have fun with it, which I think kind of steered me in the wrong direction for a while. But, you know, they weren't really engaging with the mechanics. And I, first and foremost, care about making, like, a mechanically strong game.

[00:11:23.779] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's sort of like when you're turning on the dials of a shower and there's a delay of, you know, whether or not it's hot or cold and you're kind of not really knowing that feedback loop and, you know, if there's too long of a period it just seems like there's not enough of a quick turnaround to be able to actually learn how to play the game is what it sounds like.

[00:11:41.751] E McNeill: Yeah, there was definitely that issue. You know, and also just like the rules were so opaque, where a lot of times if you encounter new mechanics, you just do some trial and error and you act like a scientist and say, you know, okay, if I try it the same way, but I just changed this one thing, how does the result change? You know, how does it look different? And you couldn't really do that with the AI thing, because even though they were kind of simple, were hidden. There was like this set of priorities for how an AI would choose its next destination. And unless I told you those rules, they'd be almost impossible to figure out. Now actually, there are a couple things in Darknet that still act like that, but they're sort of optional side things. So, like, you can turn on this kind of matrix-like data view that's sort of like the falling digital rain, green code that you see in the matrix, and it's just all these scrolling letters and numbers, and I do not explain anything about them. And so that can provide a marginal advantage to players who know how to read that system. but it's not at all required for the gameplay. And so that's actually, I'm trying to include that because I like that idea of like having the sense of mystery. It doesn't work for a core mechanic because not everyone wants to try to solve that riddle. But I love this idea that, you know, there's some secret knowledge that only the most elite hackers will ever know. that they can turn on the code and just read it and understand it. Like, that person just immediately seems cool to me. That's kind of the fantasy of the cyberpunk hacker. There's this unthinkable complexity and they know what it means.

[00:13:09.157] Kent Bye: So they're literally able to read the matrix.

[00:13:11.543] E McNeill: Yes. If you play Darknet and you really commit yourself, you will be able to read the matrix.

[00:13:17.444] Kent Bye: That's awesome. And so recently you wrote a pretty extensive dev blog about the process of developing for Gear VR. And I'm curious if you could kind of go through some of those big insights that you got in the process of converting Darknet from PC-based into more mobile.

[00:13:35.127] E McNeill: Mostly I was trying to write about what other people would, you know, want to know for, you know, the practical implications of Gear VR. And so the big ones are there's no positional tracking and there's performance limitations. And then aside from that, everything is pretty great, like asynchronous time where it makes things pretty smooth, the resolution is higher, you know, the screen is still great, low persistence and all of that. So, I actually think after that first initial day of talking about it, it kind of became clear that maybe Darknet was just naturally better suited for mobile than most games are. I kind of knew that from the beginning, but it's very abstract. It's like simple geometry. If there was a game that was made for mobile, then this is it. And I think other games might have a harder time of it. So I don't want to sound like too blasé about how easy it would be to port your game. But for Darknet, I feel lucky that it was actually very smooth. I had to do a lot of optimization to get it running at an acceptable clip. But aside from that, yeah, I mean, it's very straightforward.

[00:14:35.313] Kent Bye: In the original version of CS and potentially even Darknet, they have a full 360 degree view and then you could use the controller to turn, but that for some people when you start to turn it sort of throws off the vestibular reflexes and gives some simulator sickness. And so I'm curious if you've played with turning just over 90 degrees, but in reality you're turning 180 degrees within game so that you can get that sense of Being able to have a sit-down experience and sort of turn but sort of feel like you're having a full 360 experience

[00:15:05.827] E McNeill: So I haven't tried that myself. Oculus has pretty explicitly recommended against it. And so it's just not something I've experimented with. So far, the best Gear VR experience is playing in a swivel chair because you can never get tripped up by all your wires. You never get tangled up. And that's what I've been doing at home. But I know that turning is a problem. So actually, just in the latest build, I've implemented a new turning system where it's kind of sort of like comfort mode, like what they did in the gallery and some other games. But I do what darknet does in lots of different places and I blind the player during the movement so either you turn the joystick left or right or you swipe left or right on the gear VR touchpad and It fades the screen to sort of a dark blue color. It shows you a little hexagonal diagram that shows you how you're turning and and then tries to keep you oriented. But it's a little diagram that's turning in front of you, so you're not actually feeling like you're rotating. And then it fades back in. And this all happens in less than a second. And if you swipe a couple times in a row, you can do a full 180, no trouble. And so I've only done a little bit of testing with this. And it was actually remote testing, so I couldn't ask people about it right then. But it seemed that people took to it quite naturally. If you see the diagram, you immediately understand, oh, I'm turning. And, you know, it's still, it's not perfect. Like, it's not as nice as just, like, turning in a swivel chair. But I think that's what I'm going to go with, because it's a really, really high priority to not make people sick with my game. And I think that turning was, like, the one thing in the game that still really got people.

[00:16:37.958] Kent Bye: And so you mentioned that you're going to be a launch title for Gear VR. What does that mean for you?

[00:16:43.002] E McNeill: That means I'm available on day zero at launch. So for a long time I've been saying I'll be a launch title on the Oculus Rift. And my philosophy there was like, hey, it's not like they can stop me, right? I'll just release the game. There's no official aspect to that. With Gear VR, I don't think it's going to be open like that. I think you're going to need to get apps from a store. I think we're still waiting on Oculus to announce what their plans are for that. But I'm pretty confident that I'll be able to have DarkNet available, finished, and ready and up for download on day zero.

[00:17:14.843] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's sort of the interesting tension I've noticed in your process of development is that you'll be having a schedule and, you know, at a cadence and you're like, oh, I have this great idea, but, you know, I've got to keep sort of churning along to this path of finishing it. So how has that been for you to sort of like set out your schedule and agenda and then kind of power through, but yet sort of have to be constrained at the same time?

[00:17:36.970] E McNeill: Well, I'm lucky that when I started this project at the end of the VR jam, the best speculation was that maybe the consumer version of the Rift would be out around now, fall of 2014. So it's clear now that it's going to be a little while longer. But hey, Gear VR is going to be coming out fall of 2014, so perfect. I still needed to have the game finished by then. I feel like every game project is, you know, the schedule sort of goes through this process of slipping a little bit further behind and you have to, you know, come to terms with what features you really need and don't. So I cut a couple of big features and it was pretty painful, but I still feel like I have the core game. Like I know what I feel like needs to be in there and that's going to be in there. So I'm very happy with it. I feel like I'm going to be delivering a full-sized game on mobile. One nice thing though about sort of this weird staggered launch of, you know, first mobile and then PC is I'll have time to develop further. If it was PC first and then mobile, I probably wouldn't be able to include lots of new crazy features or anything like that. Because it's going from mobile to PC, I can sort of be like, hey, forget about performance. The game runs fast already. Let's see what we can do. Let's see how pretty we can make it and what new features are worth adding. So I'm thinking the PC version will be much expanded, even though the mobile version will already be a full game.

[00:18:56.162] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential for virtual reality?

[00:19:00.875] E McNeill: I think if we look far enough into the future, then that question is almost impossible to ask because virtual reality could be kind of the defining technology of humankind, like Palmer talks about. But at that point, we're talking about seriously science fictional, far future, singularity type stuff, where we start, if VR is so perfect, why do we ever have to leave VR? pump me full of your my nutrient slurry and leave me be. And you know, so at that point where it almost becomes like a philosophical question about whether that is the good life. I think it's much more interesting for me to think about it in the very short term. So like I don't even know whether this is going to catch on as like a really big entertainment medium. I feel like it's definitely going to have an eager audience in the initial release. I think it's going to stick around. It's not clear to me if VR is going to take over the world and really fulfill the vision that a lot of VR enthusiasts have for it. But I don't really care, because I'm making a game for the first generation of VR things, and I think it's going to be a great game. And I think it's going to play better in VR than it would in any other medium. And that's enough for me. That's what I set out to do, and I'm happy with it.

[00:20:12.855] Kent Bye: Great. Well, thank you so much.

[00:20:14.318] E McNeill: Thank you.

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