So, lets talk about mini-games. Let talk about hacking, and mining. Lets talk about how we can make it better.
The hacking mini-game came in with Odyssey, to a lukewarm reception. Odyssey gave some very good and interesting tools for exploration. The core mechanic in these being the ‘hacking’ mini-game that comes up when you use you data or relic analyser module.
This game is terrible. And by terrible I mean it is not based on any sort of skill on the behalf of the pilot, but instead on luck. It is boring and lacks any finesse on the part of the player.
Sure, there are ways for the aspiring pilot to mitigate the luck as much as they can, ways to minimise hitting the bad nodes. Nodes that can be ignored or attacked depending on setup. But it doesn’t need any bad clicks. Just sheer luck can make the game unwinnable.
From a game design perspective I can see what they were influenced by, and I want to go over that, and then cover changes, small changes, that I think would add to the hacking mini-game, but also make it more of a game, than a random chance.
The Influence: Deus Ex Human Revolution
There is no doubt in my mind that the successful hacking mini-game in Deus Ex provides some small inspiration for what was created in Eve.
The hacking game gives the player a target node to capture, a set of links (both one way and multi way), as well as node that have special effects on the game grid. The player has their own hacking skill and other abilities to affect the grid, a set of viruses with different effect, and the element of chance. Each node must be captured to allow you progress. Capturing anode can alert the security system at any time. Once alerted it begins to “backtrace” the player. So at that point the hacking becomes a race against time.
The myriad ways of playing the game , as well as the possibility for finesse on the part of the player, really makes this an exceptional part of the Deus Ex game. I know of players who would forgo actually opening a door with a key in order to enjoy the hacking mini-game. That’s the true test of any skill gateway: Does the player get bored with it?
Why it works
It works because it is a mix of strategic and tactical. The player has time to map out their strategy at the start, choosing nodes to capture in order to progress. The initial phase is stealth, doing the least amount of activity to avoid alerting the security system. The use of viruses to help this is key. But this strategic moment, the fact the play space is known, and that the player is in control of their destiny, is what really kicks things off.
When the system is alerted, it becomes fast twitch game. Multiple captures can be chained, as well as node reinforcement, all to give additional time to the hack to get victory. Finesse is out the window as brute force is used to achieve the aims.
Why it can’t work in an MMO
And here is where we have to acknowledge the inherent issues facing an MMO. MMO’s have a ‘tick’: A processing cycle that executes any player actions/commands and returns the results. For eve, this server tick is 1 second. And 1 second per action means any twitch games are impossible if they are run through the server.
Let us not forget the possibility of Lag.
The alternative is to allow the Client to run the game, and simply send the result of the game. But the first thing I learned when writing MMO’s  was that you CANNOT trust the client. Clients can be hacked, memory manipulated and the response can be forged. You cannot allow the client to be in charge of anything that has an affect on the game.
Some MMO’s manage some twitch like mechanics, or make it seem like twitch, but this issue is one that is important in eve. So knowing this, the fact the eve hacking mini-game has no twitch elements makes perfect sense. but it does mean any game must have no twitch elements.
Improving the Hacking Minigame
So, we want to have some skill based elements. We want it to reward skill on behalf of the player, but also be simple enough for players to learn to achieve success quickly. We want players to be fully in control of their destiny, to limit luck.
I used to play a board game called Advanced Squad Leader (don’t judge me). Anyway, in that we had stacks of units, but they were covered by a counter that had a (?) on it. The ? counter let you know there was a possibility of something there, but you didn’t know what it was. In some cases that ? might have nothing there. But it gave you some idea of where to go and what to do. It aided your planning.
In the Eve mini-game I would highlight all nodes. Have them displayed at all times on the game grid. I would not reveal what those nodes where (be they good or bad), except for perhaps a hint colour for nodes that may be the goal node. Thus when the game grid is loaded up, the player can see the challenge presented, and can plan their moves accordingly. Which nodes do they go for. Which nodes seem most dangerous. Which would prevent progress. The use of choke points in the game grid to have some nodes that must be traversed , but with multiple options might also help. Do you risk Route A or Route B?
I would add in an additional node type: The Bonus node. The Loot gained from the mini-game is good, but if we added some nodes that are optional, but deliver enhanced rewards if captured, we give the skilled player the chance to increase their profitability. It also add an additional risk for the hack, all for the possibility for enhanced rewards. Do you explore the hidden nodes, in the hope there is some extra loot there?
In the current set up you can pick up utilities as you traverse the game grid. These utilities have a positive effect on the player’s progress. I think CCP missed a beat in not allowing the modules to have utilities loaded at startup. I would add in a set of scripts that can be leaded into your module. These scripts would modify your stats/initial utilities at the start of the game. Perhaps a script would increase your Virus Strength, or increase your Virus Coherence. Or perhaps it would give an initial load-out of utilities. Players could then shape their style of play by suing these scripts. And the multitude of options for those scripts (Mixing each attribute and loadout) would mean they could be hoarded, collected, sold. And if we made these scripts limited use then it adds a small ISK sink to the process as well, and allows the player to make a trade-off.
All of these changes places the power back in the hands of the player, and removes chances as an element, replacing it with skill, and encourages players to “Shoot for the moon” with increase rewards, with the added Risk of failing the hack.
That’s just my thoughts an ideas on the hacking mini-game. I’m not sure if this is the best place to put them, I think ill try to pop them on the CSM forum as well, see how that works.
 : My previous job was Content Developer for Jagex. I have worked on RuneScape as well as Transformers Universe. I did a few mini-games in my time (not very good ones, ill have you know), but mostly Systems programming. Feel free to ask about it if you like.