The new improved Dystopia

I just realized this week that the team for Half-Life 2 mod Dystopia has released version 1, the first full release of the mod (as opposed to the earlier “demo” releases). With it comes over twice the number of official maps, a new weapon for each class, and some very interesting improvements to cyberspace hacking. There’s one change in particular that struck me as a great example of good game design that I’d like to look at, but I’ll explain my way there first.

For those who don’t know, Dystopia is a team-based assault-style multiplayer mod. What this basically means is that you have two sides, and on every map there will be an attacking team and a defending team. Each side has specific goals they must either assault or defend, such as capturing a spawn point, breaking past specific defenses, or destroying a final target. The mod is set in a cyberpunk-themed future where the Punks face off against the Corp, and players choose not only a primary weapon from a given set, but also the loadout of implants that their character will have. These implants give special abilities such as boosted jumping, thermal vision, stealth, healing, or the “cyberdeck”.

The cyberdeck implant enables the player to jack into computer systems. Jacking in takes you to a very Tron-like cyberspace, where you fly through network links and take down electronic defenses to gain control of computer-controlled resources. These resources can turn the tide of the match in the physical (or “meatspace”) part of the game, capturing turrets, unlocking or opening doors, or in some cases a main objective itself lies in cyberspace. The changes made in cyberspace game mechanics from demo release to v1 really caught my game design eye.

In the demo release individual control points (or “nodes”) in cyberspace could have two layers of defenses placed on them. The button itself could be covered by either a password protection, or by encryption. Then, the small square room holding the button could have its entrance blocked off by “ICE”, which in classic cyberpunk stands for something or other but essentially is a digital wall. To break past these defenses, an attacking hacker runs up to it and activates a program to disable them. This program is represented as a square image that’s slapped on top of the defenses and has a timer which counts down; when the timer finishes, the program has done its job and the attacker can go inside or activate the switch. (The timer was displayed on the user’s heads-up display as well as on the in-world image.)

Cyberspace in v1 still has the same basic elements, but has added an additional feature which can help attackers get in faster. Instead of a static image with a timer, the hacking program’s picture now has a number of buttons on it which form a sort of minigame. Each button is a stage of the program’s progress, and as the program runs it displays the name of the next step. If the user clicks the buttons as their names appear, they can help the program finish more quickly.

At first glance this seems like a nice reward for the advanced user to speed up the game a little and nothing more. But what’s most interesting about this to me is that it actually creates more tension and balance in the tactical decisions a player makes in cyberspace.

You see, programs don’t require you to hang around for them to finish their job. And opposing players will be in the same cyberspace as you, attacking you with digital weapons that drain your energy pool and eventually boot you out of the system. So in the demo it was never to your advantage to simply stand there with your face pressed against the ICE wall waiting for it to open – if you weren’t paying attention you’d get shot in the back. Instead you could drop a slow-running program into place and then find somewhere nearby to ambush any potential attacker, until the split-second before the timer finished when you’d zip back in to continue your hack.

Playing v1, I was so intent on learning the new button-sequence tricks to speed up my hacks that I found myself getting caught off guard and zapped from behind repeatedly. I think I had to get booted out of the system a few times before it clicked – this isn’t just something to speed up the game, this is giving players a new layer of meaningful choice. Do I try to rush the hack at the expense of my awareness of what’s going on around me? Or do I run my attacks patiently while keeping alert for any incoming enemies?

There are other significant changes they made to the cyberspace portion of the game that really improved the feel and play of it, but this change struck me as a great example of changing the flow of game play by giving the user more control rather than trying to railroad them out of their previous tactics. While it can’t fix every game design problem, in this case it effectively rewards what often used to be just a newbie’s tactical mistake. The advanced player can choose between the two tactics, adding another decision making element to the game. Excellent!

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