Road to the IGF: Michael Brough's 868-HACK

We speak to designer/artist Michael Brough about the design process of 868-HACK and the value he finds in employing randomness to design games that can surprise anyone -- even the designer.
Michael Brough is a rising talent in the game development scene -- he's been profiled by a few notable outlets and was recently named one of Gamasutra's top game developers of 2013. Brough is prolific, and the lion's share of his games are complex, artfully designed challenge engines that reflect a singular focus on the part of their creator. One of his latest, 868-HACK, is nominated for the 2014 IGF Excellence in Design award with an honorable mention for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. It's an elegant, thoughful and brutally challenging iOS roguelike with a wicked hacker aesthetic. It's not the first game to earn him a nod in the IGF, either -- last year we profiled his work on the 2013 Nuovo Award-nominated VESPER.5, and now Brough is back to take another run at the IGF. To that end, we continue our Road to the IGF series of interviews with nominees by speaking to Brough about the design process of 868-HACK and the value he finds in employing randomness to design games that can surprise anyone -- even the designer.

What's your background as a designer?

No professional background, I've just been making things since I was born.

What tools did you use to build 868-HACK?

Unmodified sapiens neurostructures interfacing with fructosphere- and thoughtpad-branded cyberterminals via raw and possum-power-gloved biofingers. Stroustrupspeak jacked into open frameworks. Travel-dented fondleslab running custom pixel absorbers and propeller-driven Wobbler bass. X-prog machinebyte generator. Vocal-sampling electromagnetic detectors. WebbedSpace™ glossorhythms and expert stochastic verification systems.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

I started it in March last year for the 7-day roguelike challenge, and ended up putting in 6 months of fairly solid work on it. Since then I've been mostly doing other things but still doing bits and pieces - fixing bugs, tuning balance, porting -- so it's coming up to 10 months now.

How did you first come up with the concept?

One way I like to design is to take an existing game and isolate a few of its elements to focus on. Zaga-33, my 2012 7-day roguelike, focused on tactical movement, melee combat, single-use resources, and identification of random items, so for the next year I was thinking about which other classic roguelike elements to isolate. I wanted to do something with more long-term strategy (because in Zaga-33 you usually only needed to think about the immediate future), so I focused on advancement by gaining repeatable abilities. Roguelikes often do advancement through collecting random items: figuring out how to use the hand you've been dealt is interesting, but there generally isn't much choice in how to construct that hand - you just pick up everything you see. So for 868-HACK I limited how many abilities you can collect, you're choosing what to have from a larger (but still random) set - classic opportunity cost. The rest kind of followed naturally from there - it seemed like a good fit for a hacking theme, then from that came concepts for the enemies, it made sense to tie acquisition to enemy spawns, and then the forced ranged attack was an idea I'd had lying around for a while that worked well with the explicitly abstract spatial representation (where nobody can complain that it's not 'realistic'). The last major piece to fall into place was to not clear enemies between levels - this was necessary to make the economy work but also added to the feeling of aphysical space.

868-HACK is but one of many excellent contemporary games that draws inspiration from Rogue. What untapped potential remains in the field of roguelike design, if any?

Rogue tapped into something really fundamental about how to make videogames, so I don't think we're ever going to stop seeing people drawing inspiration from it or independently discovering it (worth noting: the first known "roguelike", Beneath Apple Manor, was made independently of Rogue two years earlier - so it seems like these were pretty natural ideas to try out as soon as people started making videogames). Sometimes you make a game for others, to entertain or communicate, but if you want to make something to play yourself you usually want to use some kind of randomness -- or other players -- to allow it to surprise you. And I think we're far from exhausting all the ways we can incorporate randomness into games!

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Honestly I've been so busy working on my own stuff these last couple of years that I haven't kept up with what everyone else is doing. Enjoyed a bit of Towerfall -- though platformers aren't really my thing -- and I've dabbled with Luxuria Superbia, Perfect Woman and SoundSelf at events but not spent much time on them.

How do you feel about the current state of the indie scene?

It's hard to say really. Things have been going well for me personally so it'd be easy to say "everything is great" but hey, that's a pretty biased viewpoint. Really, it's kind of paradoxical to talk about a scene defined by independence -- how someone's doing doesn't have much direct bearing on how anyone else is. Obviously we're not literally independent (and I don't think it's healthy to imagine that we are); we can and do support each other; but it's people in so many different situations making so many different things that it doesn't make much sense to me to discuss it as a whole. Some are doing well and some are struggling, some are making things that interest me and some aren't, business as usual? One positive trend seems to be more local events in places that aren't the usual hubs -- last weekend I went to "Tacos Bluegrass & Videogames" organised by Lucky Frame in Edinburgh and it was pretty great, and I've been hearing about a few other small events with indie multiplayer games around the place. Hopefully these will continue!

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