Ken George develops The Technician, “a VR action puzzle game about hacking your way through security systems”, wherein the player must rewire logic circuits and, if the wrong wire is tripped, defend against hostile armed guards. After a brilliantly fun demo, with live developer commentary to boot, we sat down with Ken to discuss the game and its development.
REBIND: What inspires and influences you in the work that you do; film, games, anything like that?
Ken: For books, maybe the obvious inspiration for the setting is that I’m way into cyberpunk; lots of William Gibson, George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Falls. I’m all over the place on games. I’ll play just about anything, with the common exceptions, I guess; I don’t do a lot of sports games, I don’t do a lot of racing games, but, you know, some of those are all right too. I really do like the smaller indies; obviously, part of the inspiration for “hey, maybe I can make a game too” were a lot of these very small, sometimes single-person studios. We talked about Lucas Pope earlier; Papers Please was very good… If someone asks me what my favorite game of all time is, which is always a loaded question, Undertale is my general go-to, which is an odd, recent choice. I don’t know if I have a good movie answer to that question. Nothing comes to mind.
REBIND: So you’d say that most of your interests and influences come from literature and interactive media?
Ken: Yeah, definitely. My interest in cyberpunk and sci-fi comes largely from literature. I have played games essentially my whole life. They’ve been a part of my life forever, so they’re one of the only topics I will talk about nonstop.
REBIND: Let’s talk about how you got into developing in the first place; what inspired you to both get into computer science, but also, what pushed you in the direction of games in particular? Obviously, you mentioned Lode Runner…
Ken: Yeah, that may be the earliest game I can remember. It’s probably tied to memories of the Atari games I played; games were definitely responsible for getting me into computer science. My parents owned an office supply store when I was really young, so I had access to a lot of computers. I think that led me naturally from high school to “I would like to continue doing computer things, because computers are where the video games are at”, and yeah, that’s kind of come full circle; games went into computer science, and computer science has gone back into games.
REBIND: So, clearly you were working as a computer scientist beforel what convinced you to leave your job and embark on this?
Ken: I have an issue with, I think, two major things. Probably the more significant one is that I have an issue with boredom, which is, I get bored of things, and then I suddenly need a new thing. It doesn’t matter how much I like the first thing, it’s just that variety is… good. So, I had a number of professional software jobs since before I graduated college, and the vast majority of them were all terrible. Amazon was a good move, there was much to be said about Amazon, I enjoyed the challenge, but eventually I still got kinda bored of it, then, again, one day, I just decided that I want to try this VR thing. It was time for my computer to get an upgrade, so I figures I might as well just go all the way and get a VR-ready computer and a headset, and jumped into some VR titles like Job Simulator. Then, I jumped into Unity, since Valve had made that Steam plugin, and it was immediately like the best lego set I’d ever played with; I could code a thing, and then to test it, I could pick it up and move it around and see what it did. It was a confluence of that, and the fact that I was kinda bored, like, there’s only so many web services I can spin up, so I’m just gonna quit my job. Amazon pays well enough that I’m like, I can take time off, and yeah, I kinda just decided to do it. I should’ve, in retrospect, probably given it more thought? I didn’t, and now here I am.
REBIND: What was the genesis of The Technician; where did the idea come from for this game where you’re bending circuitry and hacking your way through stuff?
Ken: It’s the scene in all the movies where some hacker is opening the door while all the bad guys are coming in and someone’s fending them off, you know, “buy me a few more minutes and I almost got it!”. That’s a neat trope of a scene, and I thought that would make a neat game. I like computers, as it turns out, even though I’m not a hardware guy, being at a lower hardware level, it’s fun to have such small building blocks that you can build into literally anything. One of my test boards back home is just a CPU. You can just build a CPU out of these little tiny things.
I had a very short email exchange with one of the places I was looking at maybe working with, Zachtronics; their particular brand of puzzle is “here’s a very low-level system”. Their most recent one involves write assembly code, and contains such a low-level, simple system, that is then layered on top of itself into a really complex application. So, the AND gates and everything we were playing with earlier, and the registers, put enough of them together, and now you have a thing that can do anything, right? So, that macro concept of computers, of building something very large out of some very small, easy-to-understand bits. Like, my horrible secret is that I’m not very smart [laughs], so like, the smaller more simple things that I can understand and work with, the better, and I think a lot of computer components fall into that. So that was definitely a part of wanting to play with hacking stuff. Hacking things in a pure software sense? Not great for VR. I was looking at VR and thought, well, hardware hacking’s kind of neat, and also you have this idea where you’re under pressure now, you got bullets whizzing over your head while you’re trying to do it.
REBIND: Since you’ve entered a new industry, what have your experiences been with coming out of your prior work and connecting with the larger indie development community? That is, what’s been beneficial and challenging for you, and what resources have been useful to you?
Ken: What’s definitely been useful has been getting the early access release, even just the Steam forum for the game; getting feedback from people I can actually verify are players has been really helpful. There were lots of things that were obviously broken that I was surely aware of at some point; it’s been great having someone go, “hey, this thing is very inconvenient”, then realizing I’d just been working around that for the past two years because I didn’t fix it. So, having actual player feedback, super important.
REBIND: Anything else you want to add on that?
Ken: Well, feedback is the primary thing. I still haven’t done too much networking outside of that so I don’t know if I have too much else to add. The main goal of getting to early access was having someone other the 7 or 8 friends that have already played this a ton.
REBIND: Was there anything that surprised you during development?
Ken: The headjack was an odd, super-late addition. Not even in terms of design; there wasn’t much to speak of in terms of design, but it is something I came up, in the grand scheme of things, not all that long ago. I thought, “how did I not think of having you pull something out of your head in VR”, and the initial reactions to were very good. So, that was a surprise; it went from a literal thought that came to me in bed one night to one of my favorite things in the game. No design or anything. Sometimes you just have an idea.
REBIND: You had mentioned earlier that you began development with a level editor. Did that at all inform your process, and perhaps the creative liberties you could take with level design?
Ken: It did, for sure. For example, and who knows if this was good or bad, there were certainly things I wanted to add to the game that, in the process of adding them, I knew how to, but not necessarily from within my editor. I now don’t have a way to add things without using the editor. I did at some point, but certainly not anymore. So, a lot of considerations with this or that subtle thing, “how do I put this edge case into this very generic editor” and so on. I remember what came up often was the wireless. The wireless components from the circuits in the level ended up being generic level editor parts that also worked as a workaround. The button that sends up the elevator, and the cabinet locks, are just wireless parts on different channels, using a different model. If you’re in the editor, you can only change the wireless in the circuit, but they’re using the same system I was using to have things interact outside of the puzzles proper. So, yes, there’s definitely a lot of influence that starting with the level editor had.
Another thing is the progression. When you unlock things on the tool bench, it’s usually done by unscrewing a certain thing from the room, feeding into your kit. Sometimes that causes things to spawn that aren’t actually part of the level, and are never in the editor.
REBIND: Have you thought about integrating an “education mode” for teaching circuit design?
Ken: I go back and forth on how much I lean toward a pure, non-combat game. There aren’t very many options in the game right now, at least that I’ve surfaced yet, but one of them is just a difficulty slider that goes from zero to a hundred, and if you turn that all the way down, alarms will still go, but no one will show up. In addition to being able to just turn off the combat, the idea of “here’s a circuit that you want to get to do a certain thing, you have two AND gates, one of these things, and two of these other things; figure it out”, and that sort of approach to learning how to get better at building circuits is definitely part of this, and something I’ve toyed around with. The way the toolkit is meant to work is to emulate that, sort of? It’s meant to be a reconfigurable computer.
REBIND: At this point, the elements that revolve less around moving wires about, and more around flipping switches and plugging codes in… almost feel like cryptanalysis, or fuzzing.
Ken: [laughs] I forget what I called it internally, the brute-forcing tool that would cycle through all available inputs, but a tester of mine who wrote me really good feedback once called it the fuzzer.
REBIND: A bit ago, you mentioned that there were few options in the game that you had actually surfaced. Are there any other sliders you’re looking into surfacing?
Ken: So, the editor in the main menu is a scratch editor. You can’t explicitly save anything, but it just automatically saves as you edit it. Mine at home is… most of a CPU, but I have to cheat a little to get it to work. So, circuits have a clock signal to control when they update. The way I have it done right now is just a method call to have components register themselves to an event. That’s the setting I had to cheat on. I have a clock that essentially determines the refresh rate of the circuit, but I have to have another clock that actually controls the refresh rate of the whole simulation. I have to have something that also simulates voltage; I think, at the moment, I’ve done this at a step size of four. A circuit, as it sends a signal, will have travelled 4 steps, 4 being… obviously, not enough for a CPU. It’s not currently off-threaded, so the circuits all run at about 24 hertz. That’s a slider I’d like to be able to adjust dynamically either with player input or with in-depth testing to figure out what the editor needs in order to control the tick rate.
REBIND: I feel like we’ve gone pretty well into the weeds and gotten some grasp of just how deep the rabbit hole goes on the technical end of things.
Ken: Yeah, I think so.
REBIND: Well, we’ll probably wrap this up. Thank you for taking the time separate from the demo to do this.
Ken: Of course, and thanks too. Obviously, if you have any questions, you can send them to me.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice