Monday, September 26, 2011

Hacking minigames

A well executed mini-game is a great way to break up the gameplay patterns and introduce variety into a game for a player.  If done well, it can add to the player's immersion and offer an additional small set of mechanics or strategies to master to complement the overall game.  However, a mini-game that stylistically and aesthetically matches the overall tone of the game and the theme of the mini-game itself is excellent.

To that end, let's quickly analyse a few "hacking" minigames across different titles.  While hacking by necessity limits itself to titles involving technology, there is still a wide variety of games and mechanics that have been implemented by developers.  In a break from my normal tradition on analysing game design, I'm going to grade each out of 5 on three elements:
Style - How much it matches the "theme" of hacking. Do the aesthetics and gameplay make it feel like the player is "hacking"?
Theme - How well does it match the overall theme and aesthetics of the game? Does it feel like a coherent part of the overall game?
Gameplay - How do the mechanics of the minigame play out? Does it provide the player the opportunity to break up regular gameplay and master a (set of) game mechanic(s)?

Some of the numbers I provide might be a little controversial, but I'm including them as my personal subjective measure of the success of various components.

Here is a mini-game that demonstrates an superb connection with the overall aesthetics and style of the game.  The pipemania style mini-game to connect the start node to the end node matches the water themes of the game with commendable skill, and provides an enjoyable (and arguably proven) game mechanic to keep people interested. Player upgrades to increase the skill with hacking augment the connectivity with the overall game without hindering the core gameplay of the minigame.

Its main weakness is that this immediately recognisable mechanic does little to ingratiate itself with the idea that the player is "hacking" a machine. The player is quite clearly playing a "connect the pipes" game rather than anything that has a clear connection with the idea of hacking a device.  The other weakness in the gameplay of the minigame is because of how repetitious and tedious it eventually becomes.  However, this is technically not a failing of the minigame itself, but a failing of the game for the number of times it makes you perform the hacking minigame.

Style: 1/5
Theme: 5/5
Gameplay: 5/5

Fallout 3
Fallout 3 gave us "mastermind" as a hacking game.  If given a group of words, pick the correct password over a series of guesses, where the player is told the number of letters they have in the correct position after each guess.

Initially, this seemed like an excellent mechanic, but it did not take long for it to break down. While the presentation was quite good and help impart the feel of a broken civilisation with broken computer terminals, the construction of the minigame itself was shallow and quickly predictable. Players quickly learned how to approach the fairly simple problem and could almost guarantee success every single time. It had all the repetitiveness of BioShock's pipemania without the associated skill requirement or time limit.

Style: 2/5
Theme: 3/5
Gameplay: 1/5

Mass Effect 2
Mini-games are one of the weak aspects of the Mass Effect series, and ME2's hacking mini-game doesn't really do much to buck this trend. It's simple symbol matching exercise on a scrolling grid, with a time limit and "danger squares" that can hinder the player's progress.

Aesthetically and stylistically it matches the overall feel of Mass Effect 2 quite, and potentially gives the player a vague "hacking" feel. However, it's a fairly lacklustre mechanic on the whole. There is a small degree of skill in its execution, but nothing that feels terribly taxing or engaging. Admittedly it's better than the bypass mechanic or (yuck) planet scanning, but those really don't offer a lot of competition.

Style: 2/5
Theme: 3/5
Gameplay: 2/5

Alpha Protocol
Alpha Protocol presents the player with a large "find-a-word" where they must locate and "lock in" two sequences of characters within a large character grid within a time limit. The trick is that all the characters on the grid periodically change except for the two sequences within the grid. However, should the player take too long, these sequences can "relocate" once during the hack. The difficulty can be surprisingly deceptive, but it can be good challenge.

On a console, each thumbsticks controls the location of one of the two sequences; move the left thumbstick to move the left sequence, move the right thumbstick to move the right sequence. However, if you play on a PC, prepare to be infuriated by a poor control system using the keyboard and mouse, as the reaction of the controls is sluggish and can frequently result in an "incorrect lock-in", which results in a time penalty. This is one case where the PC is vastly inferior in its controls, and I'd deduct 1 (possibly 2) marks from the gameplay score because of this problem.  Apart from this issue, this minigame matches both the overall tone of the game and imparts a good "hacking" motif.

Style: 3/5
Theme: 3/5
Gameplay: 4/5

Deus Ex

The aesthetics of the hacking in Deus Ex are superb, as it gives you what effectively appears to be a network layout.  It is up to the player to analyse the best options to reach a target node (or multiple target nodes) in order to succeed at the hack.  The unfortunate weakness of the system is the arbitrary nature of the gameplay due to the chance element of "detection".  Every action within the minigame brings a risk of "detection" by the computer's security system, which immediately imposes a timelimit on the player's actions before they are detected and fail the hack. Nodes can be optionally captured that will assist the hack or provide external benefits to the player, forcing them to weigh up the pros and cons of risking "detection" against rewards like additional money or experience.

The problem with the detection mechanics is that it introduces the problem that there is no (or very little) player skill involved in the success or failure of the hack. Once the player is detected, the minigame degenerates into a click sequence that inevitably plays out exactly the same way each time. A hack can result in guaranteed failure if the player is detected upon their first action, whereas a retry could result in a straightforward success if the percentage chance of detection happens to go in the player's favour. There is an attempt to address this problem through the introduction of "stop worms" (which momentarily stall the detection countdown and hence player failure) or "nuke viruses" (which automatically capture a network node with chance of detection), not to mention player upgrades that increase the character's abilities which are necessary to hack "more secure" systems. Despite this integration that reinforce the concept of having to balance resources that runs through the entire game, these are still band-aid solutions that don't really solve the problem of an arbitrary difficulty.

Style: 5/5
Theme: 4/5
Gameplay: 2/5

While the appraisal of these different hacking mechanics might be an interesting enough topic in and of itself, I'm going to use it as a pre-cursor to a discussion about mini-game mechanics in general. That, however, will have to wait until another blog post...

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