E. McNeill

Ciess is a virtual reality cyberpunk hacking fantasy that won the creator $10,000

Ciess is a virtual reality cyberpunk hacking fantasy that won the creator $10,000

It’s hard to tell where I am, exactly. I look around and see balls of light, connected by thick tubes, with dots of information moving between them. I find a connection with low security, and fly inside. Then it’s just a matter of attacking the floating security systems, taking over, and inserting a virus to grab money from the surrounding nodes. The next sphere is blue however, and it’s shielding a good amount of the grid from my attacks.

This is going to be harder.

I just dumped a chunk of long term memory

Ciess is an interesting game, and the fact that you play inside the Oculus Rift is a large part of the appeal. You get to look around inside the network, and the “hacking” minigames and mechanics are more Johnny Mnemonic than reality. It’s a simulator of what it would be like to become a Hollywood hacker, bumming around with Acid Burn, stealing discs, doing all the fun things with none of the pesky complexities of real-world computer systems.

The game took first place in the open call division of Oculus’ VRJam, giving creator E. Mcneill a $10,000 prize, a trip to Indiecade to demo the game, and the chance to visit Oculus HQ.

The idea of a virtual reality game jam fit perfectly with McNeill’s attraction to developing for new hardware. “My projects usually take shape around external constraints and opportunities, especially when there's special hardware involved,” he explained.

“In this case, I knew I was dealing with low resolution, enhanced immersion, 3D visuals, head-look controls, the nausea factor, etc. Then I had to consider my own personal constraints, since I only had 3 weeks to make the game, working solo,” he continued. “Considering all these limitations, a cyberspace setting was perfect. I could use simple abstract graphics, avoid any expectations of realism, focus on the strengths of the Rift, and tap into the cyberpunk ‘Hollywood hacker’ fantasy.”

It’s a game where the medium itself is part of the message. You feel like you’re inside a computer network, and you’ll be flying in and out of nodes and looking for weak spots with ease once you get a feel for the simple controls. The cursor is controlled by your head movements, and it only takes a few buttons to do everything else. That simplicity makes an immediate impression, and you’ll get the thrill of “hacking” very quickly, but it may not be the best thing for a full release.

The game was originally a little slower and more cerebral, but the playtests convinced McNeill that focusing on the sense of place, the feeling of being a hacker, and strong 3D elements would make a better impression in the time he had to create the game. “So, I pulled out some of the old mechanics and added stuff like firewalls, viruses, etc,” he explained. “It made the experience feel more like you're identifying vulnerabilities and exploiting them in spectacular fashion, rather than systematically plodding through a puzzle.”

“Unfortunately, the game lost some of its depth in this process, and I want to bring that depth back,” he said. “Ciess is already fun, but I'm not satisfied with making a game that's just a power fantasy. I want it to be deep, rich, and genuinely rewarding to play. That's the challenge I'm focusing on now.”

Creating a game expressly for virtual reality also brings challenges. You can look around the world, but the nodes wrap all the way around the player, and sometimes you have to rotate the camera with the keyboard to turn around. At the beginning of development, this could lead to the player feeling sick.

“The rotation is still sort of a problem, but I found a counterintuitive solution by making the camera rotate really, really fast instead,” McNeill said. “Beyond a certain speed, your brain can't even process how quickly things are moving, and so you don't get nearly so dizzy. It makes the rotation controls feel a little jerky and oversensitive, but nobody has complained about it so far.”

It’s interesting to hear him say that he finds the controls oversensitive; in practice they work well, and Ciess offers a very comfortable, non-challenging environment in VR. The effect of moving between networks, and zooming in and out of each node, is enough to give the player a playful feeling in their stomach without making them sick.

Development is going to continue, and McNeill plans on offering a fuller, more fleshed-out version of the game to launch along with the retail version of the Oculus Rift.

“The dirty truth is that Ciess isn't (yet) a great game at a mechanical level. It's good, but I know it could be truly amazing, and I'd like to deliver on that potential by the time the Oculus Rift launches,” he told the Report.

“The game has a lot of room to grow. I'm thrilled that this little 3-week demo has gotten such an incredible reaction, but I know that there's a ton of potential that went untapped. From now until the Rift is launched, I'm going to focus on making this game as great as it can be.”

So many Rift games focus on trying to recreate a realistic world, but Ciess strips the idea of hacking down to a few abstract interactions, and pairs those with a strong sense of movement, excitement, and a low barrier of entry. It proves the power of virtual reality itself, even if the game is taking a playful swipe at the odd ways movies and pop culture visualize hacking and computer networks in general.

It's going to take a bit of work to make the game deeper, and more attractive for longer play sessions, but the core experience is already enjoyable. You can, in fact, go play it now.