Hacking game piques educators’ interest

Australian-developed Hacknet could teach students information security concepts, the game’s developer says

In the future, Australian-developed game Hacknet could be helping students learn to love the command line and understand information security if its creator’s plans come to fruition.

The title, developed by Matt Trobbiani (Team Fractal Alligator) and published by Surprise Attack Games, sees the player penetrating computer systems in order to unravel the truth about the death of a hacker dubbed ‘Bit’.

By any measure the title has been wildly successful for an Australian indie game, grossing more than $650,000 in the first 10 weeks after its release.

“The sales have been really amazing,” Trobbiani says.

“I didn’t expect it to do hugely well at launch because I do feel like it’s really niche. I knew there were a lot of people out there that wanted a game like this, but I don’t think I really appreciated at all how many.”

The game had its genesis in a 48-hour game jam in 2011 that Trobbiani participated in. A UI engine that Trobbiani had been playing with provided the initial building block for the title.

“I had this idea that I was going to make a hacking game,” Trobbiani says, noting that he was a big fan of 2001’s Uplink.

“I didn’t expect to go that far but I thought I’d experiment and see what the space is like.”

The work at the game jam provided the kernel, figuratively speaking, of Hacknet.

“When I decided to keep working on it, I decided to stick to this idea that I wanted to make a hacking game and that the number one priority should be to make you feel like a hacker and everything else, including having the game be fun, was secondary to that,” he says.

“So when I was solving design problems, it was all about which approach would solve that first goal the best, and nothing else really matters,” Trobbiani adds.

The primary interface for Hacknet is a Unix-esque command line, with the player using it to navigate through computers and networks. The player has access to some 30 commands from their terminal, and additional executable programs can be found throughout the game and employed to penetrate systems.

The player can copy files using scp or move them using mv, list and end processes using ps and kill, scan for connected systems, and analyze firewalls.

“The gameplay is mostly just driven through the terminal or interacting with programs that are on other computers,” Trobbiani says.

“But it doesn’t do it much justice to explain it like that — because that’s not really what the player is doing. It’s sort of like saying that when you’re playing Call of Duty what you’re doing is clicking on the screen. It doesn’t really represent what it is or what it feels like.

“The actual gameplay is more like — you’ll be breaking into systems and analysing security, investigating networks, trying to find out what the network is, who works there, how you can find a way in if it’s really secure.”

Trobbiani notes that although he’s put a priority on immersion and giving a sense of actually compromising a networked system, he’s also put enough abstraction in there so that people won’t need a computer science degree to play.

Among the plaudits that game has won, his favourite has been from a DEF CON hacker and three-time winner of that conference’s coveted black badge.

“He offered me one of his Black Badges, so the professional response has been pretty amazing,” Trobbiani says.

The emphasis on realism and the educational potential of the game saw it earlier this year take out the SimTecT Australia Serious Games Challenge, and as a result Trobbiani was flown to I/ITSEC in Florida

It is also what’s led to interest in using the game as a tool for computer science education.

Trobbiani says he was aware the game’s potential fit for the education sector but before he had a chance to approach any schools, several approached him. The developer is now working on a special education build of the game, designed for use in schools and universities.

Trobbiani is seeking opportunities to test the title in an educational setting to help him understand what works and what doesn’t.

“I’m in contact with a couple of schools now about getting them some early licences, maybe even of just the game as it is now, and getting some response from the teachers about how that works and how they prefer the structure of these educational games to be,” he says.

“I feel like that’s a knowledge base that’s not really there, so it’s something I’m trying to build up.”

The success of Hacknet has meant that Trobbiani is now working full-time on supporting the title. Localisation and porting the game from PC to OS X and Linux have been major focuses (the game launched on the latter twoplatforms earlier this month)

Trobbiani has also been working on tracking down any remaining bugs and looking at potentially adding features to the game.

“We’re looking into multiplayer,” he says. “I’ve actually done a lot of experiments with it already and I’m playing around with what I want to do for this version of the game.”

Read more: Shining a light on breach disclosure

An expansion for the game is also possible.

“At some point I’d love to do a sequel and I almost definitely will,” Trobbiani says. However, that is likely to be a few titles down the track.

“I don’t want to get tunnel vision,” the developer explains. “I want to mess around with some other projects first; I have some other ideas.”

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