Recently, TSA were lucky enough to visit the office of Dark Energy Digital. Whilst lots of Hydrophobia Prophecy was played, we were also given extremely generous access to some amazing behind-the-scenes technology.
It’s safe to say that the team at Dark Energy where blown away by the community support for Hydrophobia Pure. You may remember, at the time the game launched a ‘listening post’ was also set up for players to leave feedback, and they did so in droves.
All in all, a touch over 6000 people left feedback, which was then analysed and used in the development of Hydrophobia Prophecy for Steam and the PS3. Whilst the team got a lot of things right, with over 2100 votes under the ‘good’ category, there were also 649 votes of ‘very poor’. As well as being all-round clever clogs, the team at Dark Energy are also extremely passionate about providing a quality product, and so they took this feedback and set to work on something.
This something, as it turns out, is the studio’s latest creation, ‘Darknet’. The idea behind Darknet is stunningly simple, but something that really hasn’t been adopted in games design – “why should the refining of a game stop once it has been shipped?” It’s an interesting idea, because at one point or another we’ve all come across a point in a game that is mind-bendingly frustrating and is in clear need of tweaking.
Darknet allows you to stop at any point in Hydrophobia Prophecy, access an option called ‘Dev Feedback’ and rate the area you are in. Dark Energy’s Rob Hewson was kind enough to give us a demonstration of this, and there is a wealth of options to choose; from graphics to audio, or even if you found the room frustrating. Every time you rate up or down one of the options it gets uploaded to the Darknet server for the teams to look at.
Rather than just stop there, Dark Energy has combined Darknet with an amazing bespoke game engine and game creation tool called ‘Infinite Worlds’. Once again we were lucky enough to see this in action, and even with my knowledge of 3D design software my mind was blown. Infinite Worlds shows every room in the game on screen, either top down or in 3D. Every piece of Darknet feedback shows up in Infinite Worlds as a different coloured dot, which varies depending on the feedback. Using a Data Tracker the team can then see a timeline of what the player did up until the point they left feedback.
This means that if a player reports a room as ‘frustrating’, they can see what was done up until that point which would perhaps make for a less than stellar experience. The timeline has varying colours, so it can be deduced as to whether the character was running, swimming, had their gun drawn etc. This allows for a level of fine tuning that I’ve not seen before as if 1000 people flag up the same issue, then it’s clear something has gone wrong.
Another beautiful thing about Infinite Worlds is that when things have gone wrong it allows designers to change everything in real time and play back the resulting changes in the game world on the target platform. The speed at which this can be achieved is amazing, to the point where I saw a bug flagged up during my visit, and within five minutes it had been tracked, remedied, and the change uploaded to the central data server.
Because the central data server allows multiple people to work on the same room, level design can also be done at a cracking pace, with entire functioning rooms with enemy AI, linked CCTV cameras, water, ammo crates being built in the time it took me to drink a cup of tea and complain about my train journey to the office.
I left the Dark Energy office feeling impressed and buoyant about the future of digital downloads. Using the tools they have created, the team can create a game on a par with a £40 retail product, that only has a data footprint of 2-3GB, and can be quickly and continuously refined based on your feedback.
In terms of what happens next, Dark Energy are already working actively with the community via forums and via Darknet to improve the game experience for all and to help influence the future direction of the franchise. If you’ve got an opinion then let them know!