HUD Hacking

May 19, 2017

In my upcoming computer game Robyn HUD players take on the role of the hacker HUD, teaming with the cat burglar Robyn, to pull off various heists through the game. Being a hacker naturally implies that the player will be able to hack different computers, surveillance systems, and other electronic gear in the game. The trick is, how to present this in an interesting and hopefully fun way.

Real hacking/computer programming tends not to be interesting to watch. A person sitting at a computer typing away on a keyboard is a pretty boring visual. That’s why Hollywood tends to quickly skip over any actual hacking bits in movies or else makes it really rock and roll with Australian actors dancing and whooping and hollering (yep, I’m looking at you Swordfish. I knew I wanted to steer clear of both those approaches, but I also knew that the hacking in Robyn HUD was only going to be one aspect of the overall game. That meant that the basic hacking concept had to be something that players could quickly grasp without a lot of technical programming background.

By its very nature computer programming is all about problem solving. You have some challenge that you have to figure out how to overcome by using a computer. This naturally suggested that the hacking system in Robyn HUD should be some sort of puzzle solving system. In thinking of puzzle games I’d played in the past one of the classic’s that came to mind was Lemmings, where you try to guide a hoard of small creatures safely from the start of a level to that level’s end. This is done in an indirect way where you assign specific skills to a small number of the lemmings, but the overall hoard, in general, is just sort of milling around walking left and right until they bump into things that turn them around or else walk into traps that eliminate them.

I didn’t want to deal with a huge hoard of creatures wandering around; however, I did like the concept of sending out small agents into cyberspace that needed to navigate around or find a way through different obstacles to reach the computer system you were trying to hack. Once I started thinking along those lines, I was reminded of another puzzle game Star Wars: Pit Droids. Here you have a hoard of little robots that wander across a grid of tiles. Some tiles are empty, some tiles are walls, some tiles are traps, and so on. In addition to the tiles that are already placed in the level, the player has other tiles that they can place to help direct the flow of the wandering droids.

Taking concepts from both Lemmings and Pit Droids and adding in a number of ideas of my own, I quickly threw together a hacking prototype. With it just being a prototype I wasn’t too concerned over its appearance. I just wanted to make sure the system would work and that it was fun to play. Here’s a quick shot of the prototype in action:

[Guiding the triangle hack bots from Start to End in the hacking prototype.]
Guiding the triangle hack bots from Start to End in the hacking prototype.

When you start a “hack” using the prototype, little “hack bots” are released on the tile that says “Start”. The hack bots then move in a straight line in the direction of the arrow on the start tile. The hack bots then proceed across white tiles in their direction of movement until they hit the edge or the map or something that blocks them like the red or green walls, or the blue locked tile. At that point they reverse direction and go the other way.

The player has to try to get the hack bots from the start tile to the end tile. To do this, they have a small inventory of directional tiles at the bottom of the screen that can be selected and placed on any empty white tile. By manipulating the direction the hack bots move in, the player can give those bots different abilities like specific colours or tools for drilling through walls. All the while, the player must also direct the hack bots so they avoid traps (currently represented by the “skull” tile).

It’s not much to look at visually right now, but the important thing is that it does indeed play well. I’ve shown the prototype to a few people and got some good feedback to incorporate to make it even better. Given the nature of the system, it’s also easy to make puzzles of varying degrees of difficulty. It’s also relatively easy to make puzzles very quickly, always a boon when producing a computer game.