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Road to the Student IGF: Jake Muehle on Cyber Heist

This asymmetrical co-op heist to erase all student debt is like two games in one, where one player engages in first-person stealth action as a thief, and the other solves puzzles and manages resources as a hacker.

John Polson

March 7, 2014

8 Min Read

Independent Games Festival Student finalist Cyber Heist takes two very different gameplay styles to create an experience where cooperation and co-depedency are not just rewarded nor encouraged; they're necessary. During the heist to hack the United States Department of Education's student debt database, pairs of players assume one of two roles: as the top-down 2D Hacker, they ferret out information and secret access points. As the first-person 3D Thief, they stealth-infiltrate to avoid detection, recover passwords, and dupe security. Each person gains something during the heist the other needs in order to complete the mission. The University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering (EAE) program team Hack’N’Hide has released a free, in-development build of Cyber Heist. As part of our ongoing Road to the IGF series, lead designer Jake Muehle discusses the game's LAN-based roots, its trouble with team-based tutorials, and some Deus Ex: Human Revolution-inspired concepts that didn't make the final cut. How did you come up with the concept? Cyber Heist was originally pitched by Andrew Witts, a game design student who went on to work for Ubisoft after a promising summer of interning as a creative lead in their Montreal Branch. Andrew writes: "Cyber Heist was based on an idea I had for a game that would develop trust between two people. My basic gameplay pitch was one player would be playing an incredibly hard first person stealth game while another was playing a world-building puzzle game that had some pieces that were deactivated. In order to win, both players had to help one another. A few weeks later, I was on a plane from Boston to Salt Lake, and I saw a couple sitting next to each other -one with a PC and one with a tablet. That's when the light bulb went on - this game required two drastically different platforms. I pitched the idea to Zac Truscott and he immediately saw the game that I wanted to make. Together we came up with the exact player stories we wanted people to have when playing this game. Before long, this beautiful group of talented stud muffins came together and Cyber Heist was truly born." Is your game LAN-only? Do you feel this is something similar to forced couch co-op? An excellent question. Couch co-op was a central part of the original pitch by Andrew, and we’ve really run with that. As a student team, we have quite a few limitations with both time and resources, and early on we decided to deliver the best possible multiplayer experience and not worry about a single-player version. This has received hefty criticism from many people, but we feel that we made the right choice in really focusing on the two-player aspect exclusively. This comes with quite a few challenges, as well. For instance, the tutorial is also multiplayer, and we’ve really struggled with figuring out a way to teach two players how to play separate games simultaneously without the other person getting bored or exasperated. We find that people have the most fun while playing immediately next to each other, and Cyber Heist quickly becomes a loud, riotous game about yelling at your accomplice to "open the door!!" or "the drone is chasing you!!." While it can be played over the internet, the experience that we intended is to be played right next to each other. What were some of the earlier design concepts and why didn't those work? Cyber Heist was tricky to design for in two areas: balancing the asymmetry between two players and designing the Hacker gameplay. Earlier versions of the Hacker gameplay were heavily based on minigames from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where you would have a discrete chain of nodes to capture and control while working against a mobile security system, who had a better chance of detecting you the more nodes you captured. This limited the gameplay of the Hacker player much more than we intended, and we shifted to a more open-field approach where the Hacker could place links of different shapes on a hexagonal board to connect to different nodes. This gameplay was the right direction, but had two drawbacks: the hacker was spending most of his time picking the right link to simply move from one area to the other, and the reliance between the two players was lost. After a lot of iteration, we developed the system where the Hacker could draw individual links by simply dragging, which got him into the fun of the game way faster. To encourage the cooperative aspect, the Hacker couldn’t draw farther than the Thief player had already “uncovered” by placing power pods in the 3D world. What development tools did you use? Cyber Heist was developed in Unity, and a lot of the things that we do simply wouldn’t have been possible without it. Unity can occasionally get a bad rep for being overly simple, but our engineers have pulled out some amazing things from it, and we now have a game far better than anything we could have possibly come up with while building our own engine. The most important part of our game was to have it be truly awesome for the end-user, and Unity made that possible. One of the things our team struggled with was severely unbalanced talent: 3 producers, 9 engineers, and only one artist. While Damean Lyon is an unbelievably talented artist, we knew early on that we would need to develop additional tools to get his art into the game in the smoothest way possible. Chris Rawson developed a level editor using Adobe Illustrator, and with the help of Vaibhav Bhalerao developed an automatic level creator that would draw all the walls and objects from the Illustrator file in Unity. From a fully-designed level in Illustrator, we can be playing the level in approximately 3 minutes. Without the level editor Cyber Heist might have had three levels, and we’ve been able to choose the best 30 out of about 70 fully built levels for release. How long did you work on your game, and why did you choose your target platforms? From concept to publish, the game will have been in development for about 16 months. We started working on Cyber Heist in January of 2013, and we’re really happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish in that time. Andrew’s initial concept for the game was to have the game be played across a tablet and a PC, and thats something that we’ve stuck with ever since. A secondary goal of the team has been to utilize awesome technology to deliver a compelling game experience, and we feel we’ve done just that. During development, we also decided that a PC to PC build was equally fun, and we plan on releasing for both PC-tablet and PC-PC. How many people were on your team, and what lessons did you learn in working as a team? Our team consists of three producers, nine engineers, one artist, and additional support from Andrew in Montreal and Sam Hooper, our music composer in Texas. 13 people is a very tricky number to work with, as its just too big to make any word-of-mouth changes in the game, and too small to run without having dedicated management. Most of the things we learned involved communication and process. Creating a game with 9 engineers had to be done carefully to make sure that everyone knew about the systems they were engineering, and how they related to the work everyone else was doing. What indie games have you played in the past 12 months that impressed you and why? I’ve played many of the more popular indie titles, including Fez, Braid, Guacamelee, Super Meat Boy, Bastion, and FTL. They’ve all impressed me in different ways, but I think that Super Meat Boy has come into play most while designing levels. Game difficulty is a very tricky thing to get right, and Cyber Heist also relies on the players dying over and over again before they beat the level. My thoughts frequently turn to my experience with Super Meat Boy in the way that it made death enjoyable, and how you knew exactly what you could have done to win the level every time you die. If we could hit that same sense of addicting "try, try again" that Super Meat Boy totally nailed, I would consider our game a fantastic success. How do you feel your school prepares students for independent game development? The EAE program here at the University of Utah isn’t really aimed to push us towards either indie or AAA development, but still gives us the flexibility to learn in whatever direction we plan to go with. Our production director, Roger Altizer, frequently encourages us to make games that are scoped correctly and take advantage of our status as students, which tends to lean towards indie-style development while we’re here in the program. However, EAE really works on polishing students to be great teammates first and great game devs second, so we are well-prepared to make excellent games in any environment. While some of our graduates have gone on to make independent studios, the majority of us have gone on to work in AAA studios such as EA, Disney, and Ubisoft.

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