So I’m at work, doing work and listening to my synthwave playlist when I get an idea for a new game.
Now, I don’t have any intention of trying to do this. My amateur game developer days are behind me and are getting smaller in the rear-view mirror, but someone out there might be as interested in this idea as I am.
I grew up in the 80’s during what is inarguably the heyday of cyberpunk. I was raised on Neuromancer and Cyberpunk 2020 and Max Headroom and the like. One aspect that these classic cyberpunk properties share is the idea of cyberspace. As a hacker — netrunner, decker, whatever — enters this virtual reality, she’s experiencing network topography as a series of paths, gates, and locations. Moving through these elements, the hacker encounters programs that are put in place specifically to stop exactly what is going on. These countermeasures — intrusion countermeasures electronics, or ICE — are often described as taking forms provided by their programs, such as sword-wielding samurai or multi-headed hydra. The hacker has to employ her own programs to fight these protective apps in order to progress or to rifle through data stores. The hacker’s own programs also have virtual representations themselves. The whole scene, then, is one of intense iconography that can span the field from high fantasy, historical allegory, or far-flung sci-fi all in a single experience.
So here’s the idea at a low level:
A player is both a hacker and a defender. Each player starts with a set amount of money and a very basic network consisting of a base deck, firewall, and router. The base deck is the player’s workstation. Here they can access the hacker message board and marketplace, but is also where they do their personal management: profile and banking. The deck is what a hacker uses to hack, but is also what the hacker has to defend.
Each player is a node within the game. These nodes are interconnected through various ISP mega-nodes and minor point-of-service nodes. Finding another hacker’s node is both difficult — there’s a lot of them out there — but also difficult — no one can tell exactly where a specific node is because the nature of the system is that they’re just IP addresses. Finding larger targets, however, is easier as corporations and shops in meatspace show up as larger presences on the cyberspace map. These are NPC nodes and have more difficult ICE — but also larger payouts.
Each hacker has the opportunity to use a built in pseudo-language to build his or her own ICE as well as hacking tools. This would be a simple analogue because it needs to be accessible to everyone. If whomever runs with this idea wants to use an existing language parser, then power to em. The goal isn’t to “geek out” over the design of a programming language, but to ensure that players can grasp the concepts and syntax in order to be effective for their own enjoyment.
Naturally, as players write these apps they can sell them on the hacker marketplace. I know that in such an environment here in 2019 the logical approach would be for some neckbeard to run in shouting “make them open source!” but that’s kind of bullshit in the cyberpunk point of view. Everything is about trying to eke out a living, so no one is going just give away their chance to make a few bucks. This would also drive players to either up their skills or collaborate. Working together, though, brings with it the knowledge that someone else knows exactly how your defenses work, and when you’re not looking maybe they built in a back-door to shut down your ICE, which is totally a cyberpunk thing to do to trusting citizens.
With money made, players could upgrade their home base by purchasing decks with more RAM and better processors, upgrade their firewall, and add ancillary devices to their network like honey pot servers. Each device added to the network would show up as a new location on a hacker’s map, and each device would have it’s own design. A firewall would be the first line of defense, and would be represented by — wait for it — a wall. Ports would be gates or doors. The size of the ICE installed on any device would depend on the strength of the device, or of the central cyberdeck itself. To get stronger, players would have to upgrade and expand, which would increase their footprint on the world map, and would make them a higher-profile target. Hackers would also be limited on the number of apps they can take on their run by the memory load of their hacking deck, and could increase this capacity through upgrades.
While we are living at a time when commercial VR is a totally viable way to present the 100% authentic netrunning experience, and as cool as that would be, we’d need to make this accessible to a large audience. That could mean that the game is presented in a cold map-like presentation, or could be a first person perspective. I remember the old Shadowrun game for the Sega Genesis had netrunning, and it was presented from a third person perspective, and that worked really well. Each app deployed against ICE would have a time-to-run and using the custom programming language could actually be applied against ICE software in ways we might expect it to. A lot of concept work would have to be done at this level so that players can write apps that behaved differently (i.e. didn’t just devolve into a SP/HP Pokemon battle, although now that I wrote that it doesn’t seem too horrible).
At the end of the day I’d envision the game being worldwide, with each player acting as a hackable node with many NPC targets being out there as pillageable sites. International corporations could act as raids, for instance. Players would spend a lot of time either writing apps to attack or defend, or buying them from the marketplace. They could communicate with their fellow hackers, and even offer jobs to one another to acquire data from high profile targets, or even as revenge targets for previous hacks. Banding together into collectives through VPNs could be an option for mutual protection and resource sharing, but at the end of the day it’s every hacker for him or herself. Ultimately no one could be knocked out of the game because “starting over” just means starting back at the bottom of the ladder and re-building an empire.