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Darknet: Turning Weaknesses into Strengths

A rumination on creative constraints.
 
"What would you make if someone gave you a million dollars?"
- Alexander Bruce (creator of the wonderful Antichamber)
 
Every creative project has constraints: limited time, budget, skills, platforms, etc. That might sound like a bad thing, but it's not. In fact, most advice says that constraints are a necessity, a solution to the problem of a blank canvas, a lens that can focus your creativity into a finished product. That's always been true in my own experience, but with that said, I don't believe that this helpful effect is something automatic. Instead, it requires a conscious choice to work with your constraints instead of fighting them.
 
This is most evident whenever a new platform emerges. Think, for example, about all the crappy mobile ports of traditional games; they had new constraints (small form factor, touch controls, a different context for playing) and generally tried to ignore them or fight through them. Result: not so good. On the other hand, the games that accepted and integrated these constraints became great; see Super Hexagon, Bit Pilot, Flappy Bird, Ridiculous Fishing, etc. I'm cherry-picking, of course, but the exceptions seem few and far between.
 
In my own work, I've always tried to imitate the success stories, thinking about the constraints early in the project and choosing to turn weaknesses into strengths. Auralux was built around my limited working hours as a full-time student, Bombball was designed around the new constraints and affordances of the Ouya, and Ciess was shaped by a 3-week deadline and the new context of VR.
 
So what are my constraints on Darknet?
 
Well, I'll start with a confession: I'm not a great programmer. I also don't have a ton of time to build the game. So, like Ciess before it, Darknet was architected from the start to be easy-to-program. I also lack the big game dev skills outside of programming and design: I don't have much of a visual mind, so I got external help figuring out the game's art style, and I can't make my own music, so I'm recruiting composers as well.
 
Of course, the biggest creative constraints come from working with the Oculus Rift.
 
Certain types of movement can cause motion sickness. In fact, most models of regular human locomotion seem to cause nausea. Considering that, I'm not very optimistic about the games that try to plainly simulate a person walking around an environment. I'm sure that a few of those games will turn out all right, but they're still fighting the constraints of the platform, trying to force conventional first-person mechanics into a new and unfriendly context. I worry that they're making the same mistake that all those doomed mobile ports once made.
 
Oculus has announced that they're targeting a seated experience with a gamepad, at least at the start. That's not their end goal, but it's the current reality that we have to work with, and games that are designed for full locomotion or more advanced motion-controlled input modes are trying to fight against these constraints. With Darknet, I'm trying to accept the constraints openly. The player is a piece of software in Darknet, not a human being, so there's no need for realistic locomotion or input. It's a game context that fits the platform, and it's abstract enough that I can make the experience comfortable without worrying about any sense of realism. No compromise necessary!
 
I'm confident in this strategy, and I think that the most successful games in VR will be the ones that adjust their input and motion schemes to be more platform-friendly. Cockpit-based games like Lunar Flight or EVE: Valkyrie might be one promising solution, but I believe there's a lot of room for other compelling experiences in VR that fit the Rift's constraints. Demos like Iceland, Shiny, or Don't Let Go! strike me as promising, and I hope to see more like them as the Rift nears release.

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