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Hiding Secrets
by E McNeill on 08/11/14 03:47:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

“The purpose of gameplay is to hide secrets.” 
I started hearing that phrase thrown around last year, after it was posted on the Arcane Kids manifesto. It seemed like an overstatement at first, but it grew on me once I started to interpret the idea of "secrets" more broadly. Figuring out a winning strategy feels, to me, like discovering hidden knowledge. Viewed that way, rich gameplay is just a big pile of secrets, and uncovering them is a delight. I’ve taken this idea to heart when designing Darknet, and it’s proven useful so far. Almost the entire game can be viewed through this lens:
Unthinkable Complexity
The surface layer of Darknet is meant to look extremely complex. The levels and puzzles are enormous webs of hundreds of objects that are all interacting with each other. The player often has to choose between dozens or hundreds of options. It’s meant to convey the “unthinkable complexity” of William Gibson’s original description of cyberspace.
This breaks a lot of rules of usability, but I think it works well for a cyberpunk hacking game. When I think about what makes hacking so cool (at least the Hollywood idea of hacking), I always land on the fact that the hacker can understand complexity. Movies depict hackers being bombarded by endless streams of data, which looks impossibly complex to any normal person, but somehow the hackers can read it all and use it toward their own ends. They wield a power that baffles everyone else.
Complexity fits the theme, but I don’t actually want to design a game that’s mechanically complex. This is the first “secret” of Darknet: underneath the complicated surface, the rules of the game are downright simple. It looks like a lot is going on, but it’s actually pretty easy to learn and to start playing effectively (and unlike in the movies, the graphics actually mean something). Even newbies will be able to see through the veneer of complexity, act intelligently on what they see, and look like a wizard in the eyes of those who have never played.
I want Darknet’s gameplay to be accessible, but I also want it to have a lot of depth, so simple rules are only half of the recipe. The other ingredient is the rich dynamics that emerge from the mechanics.
As I said above, the “secret” that’s hidden in most strategy games is an understanding of the systems and the potential winning strategies, and Darknet is no exception. It's a weird sort of sandwich structure: the simplicity of the mechanics is masked by the complexity of the visuals, but if you go one layer deeper, you find that the simple mechanics are themselves masking the complexity of the dynamics. A newer player, freshly armed with the ability to read the game's intimidating graphics, might assume that they’ve figured it all out, but it isn’t long before the game starts ramping up the challenge to impossible levels. It takes an exceptional understanding of the dynamics to progress further, and the process of delving into the systems and discovering how to win is a unique joy of games.
This isn’t a new concept; it’s essentially just a high skill ceiling, and you can find that in plenty of great games. For example, I’m a decent Spelunky player, but I’m nothing compared to the famous Spelunker Bananasaurus Rex. He knows things that I don’t, and I can only marvel when he does something incredible. I get the same feeling when I watch professional Dota or Starcraft, and I want my players to feel the same way when they see a master Darknet player. An average player might look like a wizard to a newbie, but an expert looks like a wizard to almost everyone. I think that’s the mark of a deep game, and I hope to evoke that feeling in Darknet.
Esoteric Mechanics
Beyond the mechanics, and beyond the strategy, there are even deeper secrets embedded in Darknet. Unlike the broadly-defined “secrets” I describe above, these aren’t things that dedicated players are expected to discover over the course of the game. These are more like riddles that are posed to the entire community of players.
For example, you might see an isolated UI panel that asks for a password, with no indication of how to find the proper sequence of numbers of letters. Or you might see a crazy data visualization with no apparent meaning. Perhaps it’s just decoration, in some cases. But I’ve spent a fair amount of time implementing hidden mechanics that will give an advantage to the players that are dedicated enough to figure them out. (Or, more likely, the players who bother to go read about them online after the first few players write a walkthrough.) 
These hidden mechanics serve two purposes. First, they add yet another layer of secrets, raising the game’s skill ceiling and adding to the renown of truly expert players. Second, they add an aura of mystery to the game. I plan to be very careful about how much I reveal about these buried treasures. Even though I’ve put a lot of work into these features, I’d be totally happy if some of them were never discovered at all. I want players to feel that maybe, just maybe, there might be something they haven’t discovered yet. 
Maybe the rabbit hole goes even deeper? Half the fun, I think, is never knowing the answer to that question.

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Robert Crouch
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Hiding Secrets is a cool way to put it. I've always thought of the goal of gameplay is to let the player learn. But it has to be learning that the player is intrinsically motivated to do, and it doesn't have to be profound learning. Games that try and force you to learn, like many education titles, aren't always fun.

Hiding secrets is good because when you hide that (instead of, say forcing the player to do something) then you are letting the player learn, but you're letting them do it because they want to to do it, not because you told them to. At least not directly.

The misdirection is important. If you tell the player to defeat the enemy in a Starcraft scenario you are encouraging them to learn the steps necessary to do so. If you instead tell them "A wave of zerglings is approaching, build hellions from your factory because they are strong against them. Now a wave of roaches are coming, build marauders from your barracks because they are the solution." they might learn the same concepts, but the latter will be less satisfying, and less fun.

I think fun is learning. But it's the whole process that makes it fun. Game designers often want to make sure players don't fail, so they take away an important part of the process. But it's important that the player first wants to find a solution, considers a solution, implements the solution and then sees an improvement over what she did originally.

Hidden secrets is a nice term. But I think they should be hidden like you hide easter eggs. Just enough out of sight so they are fun to discover, but not so well that Easter comes and goes and you never know there were eggs to find in the first place.

One thing that I liked about games from 20 years ago was there were often features that were planned either got cut or left unfinished by release. Rewards were not always well distributed. So there were funny things.

I remember Final Fantasy 7, there were a few things like that. Every character had an ultimate weapon, Aeris's weapon was very tricky to find, and you could only use it for like 1 encounter before you lost access to her. There was the Fort Condor event which was likely intended to be a minigame that you had to return to at various points in the game in order to protect the condor from Shin-ra in order to get the huge materia, but on release it was streamlined to only require the player to win the last battle, but all of the previous battles still were there and took some fancy work to get to. There was a house that cost 300,000 gil that you could purchase in Costa Del Sol, which essentially did nothing for you. There were various other hints that lead to nothing.

These things didn't make the game. They weren't the fun parts of the game. If anything, most of them were a bit disappointing. But the thing is, unless you loved the game and played it numerous times and were a completionist, you didn't do those things. Instead, what you got was a bunch of leads to things that went nowhere. You get this hint that there's something more. You don't go looking for it, but you feel like you could, and if you found it, it would be awesome.

It's ultimately the same thing that made me love Ultima 5 and 6, and to an extent Everquest. In those games the way you interacted with NPCs was to type your speech to them. Keywords would trigger them to say other things to you. In a traditional dialog tree game it's pretty obvious when you've exhausted all the things that an NPC is going to say to you. In Ultima 5 and 6 there was always this potential that there was some way to ask a question or state something that could give you some secret piece of information if you just knew how to ask it. You didn't know all the options. That made the world seem way larger and more in depth than nearly any other game I've played. Lord British's new Shroud of the Avatar is in development right now, and I played in one of the tests and spent a good 10 minutes talking to guards in full on conversations. Sure, some of the responses were robotic, but every once in a while they would surprise me with an unexpected response or piece of info.

So I think that along with hiding secrets, it's valuable to hint at the possibility of secrets, even if they're never going to be discoverable. To hint about the misty mountains, even if you never go there, and let the player's imagination work. It's how you get the playground lore on how to save Aeris in FF7 or get Mew under the truck in Pokemon.