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Network-Layer Strategy

I’ve written a lot about the core hacking gameplay in Darknet, i.e. the puzzles that represent the bottom layer of gameplay. Occasionally, I’ve mentioned that there’s a whole other layer of strategy above all that, but I’ve neglected to give any detail. Time to fix that!

Here’s an overview of the “network layer” mechanics in Darknet:

First, the absolute basics: There are a bunch of nodes, and you want to capture them in order to get money. Simple enough, right? You can capture any node by zooming inside of it and completing a hacking puzzle, and your overall goal is to capture the biggest node in the network within a time limit.

Some nodes are blue, which means they have a firewall. The firewall nodes have two effects: they add a ring and a shield around themselves and all connected nodes. (You can see all these elements in any old screenshot.) Rings and shields make the nodes harder to capture in different ways:

- The number of rings around a node indicates how hard the hacking puzzle inside will be. The difficulty scales up quickly, so three rings means that it’s practically impossible. However, every node you capture removes one ring from all nodes connected to it, so you can always weaken a node by capturing the ones surrounding it.

- The shield also protects the node by making them immune to Viruses.

A Virus one of the types of malware that you can purchase with the money you earn. You can install a Virus in any node that you’ve already captured, and it will propagate outward, multiplying and capturing every connected node that doesn’t have a shield. You can see an example of a virus in action in this video; note how the shields projected from the blue nodes create a sort of wall that contains the Virus’s spread.

Okay, that’s a lot of detail, so a quick recap: You want to capture nodes as fast as possible. You can capture nodes the hard way (through the hacking puzzle) or the easy way (with a Virus). Firewall nodes slow you down by making nearby nodes more difficult to hack and immune to Viruses.

So how do you get rid of a firewall node? Well, there are a couple of approaches you could take. First, you could always just capture it the hard way, by completing the hacking puzzle, but that can be tricky (and time-consuming, which you can’t afford when there’s a time limit ticking away). But there are two other types of malware you can purchase that can help get rid of the security: Cracks and Worms.

Cracks are simple. You buy a crack and shoot it at a firewall node, and the firewall goes away. The node turns from blue to yellow, and all the extra shields and rings it was creating just disappear, making the nearby nodes much more vulnerable.

Worms are a little more complex. You can only install worms in captured nodes, and they’ll travel through the network toward a target of their own volition. The worm moves up to three times, seeking out a bigger and more secure node with each step. Then, when it arrives, it corrupts the node from the inside: Instead of projecting extra security outward, the node acts like a captured node and actually reduces the security of the nodes surrounding it, removing a ring from each.

Cracks and Worms are extremely useful. Just a few shots of each can let you use a Virus to capture huge groups of nodes without having to hack any of them individually. However, the price of each type of malware doubles every time you buy one, so you can’t just spam them out indiscriminately. Still, they’re an important part of any good strategy.

The nodes only come in a few different sizes, and the blue nodes are the only ones that improve the security of the network, but there is one other defense that they can have: ICE. ICE is a staple of cyberpunk, and in Darknet it simply represents an extra level of fortification on a node. A node with ICE around it is completely invulnerable to hacking, Viruses, and Worms. The only thing that can remove ICE is a Crack.

These mechanics all affect the player’s strategy, and the particular arrangement of nodes in a network makes a big difference too. A network that looks mostly yellow with a few scattered blue nodes is a sitting duck, just waiting to be captured with a few carefully placed Cracks and a Virus. A network with clustered structures of firewall nodes (like this), on the other hand, is a fortress that needs to be approached carefully and either besieged or undermined.

These mechanics reflect my personal style of game design: they’re each relatively simple in isolation, but create a lot of strategic complexity together. I know they won’t all be easy to learn at once, so right now the plan is to wait a little while before introducing some of the non-essential mechanics (like Cracks, Worms, and ICE). Some mechanics will only appear at higher difficulties; other mechanics will need to be unlocked by the player.

The best thing about these mechanics is that they feel like hacking; you’re looking at a vast, complex, interlocking web of data, and if you’re clever enough to find a weak spot, you can take over the whole thing. My hope is that the network layer of strategy will be just as compelling as the core hacking puzzle in its own right, but I also hope that it provides a nice change of pace. The hacking puzzle feels good right now, but I worry that it might get old quickly if it’s all you do. The network-layer strategy is a refreshing interlude, where you’re thinking more about resource management and longer-term planning.

Of course, none of my carefully-designed mechanics are worth a damn if I don’t actually finish building the game, so it’s time to stop blogging and start coding again.

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