Hacknet is one of the most successful indies ever made in Australia, and to this day probably the best game ever made about hacking. But having spent so many years in the text-heavy world of Hacknet and its expansion, Adelaide creator Matt Trobbiani wants a change. So for his next game, Trobbiani is changing tack completely — to sports.
The idea to go from an intricate hacking game to sports started in 2017, after Trobbiana shipped the last major expansion for Hacknet, Extensions. "The game had been a pretty all-consuming thing in my life for a good 6+ years at that point, including support for it, and I just didn't feel like I could make a follow up to it right after," the Adelaide-based developer explained to Kotaku Australia over email.
"It felt like I was way too close to it - that if I did make something new in that space, it wouldn't be really pushing the boundaries and taking it anywhere fun, because it felt like that exact game was the only one I was good at making."
Compounding the problem was the experience of the Hacknet modding community. Trobbiani hosted a modding competition for Hacknet and, as part of the process, he played every mod submitted. As he was judging, he discovered something uncomfortable: he didn't really like the mechanics of Hacknet at all, even though he still loved his own game and the systems he designed.
"I left that game to work on something new, feeling really burnt out on it, and feeling that if I did return to it, it'd need to be something mechanically better than I'd done before, and a lot of its foundations would need to change completely."
Australian Game Developers Matt Trobbiani and Chris Johnson are best friends. They do everything together. They grew up in Adelaide together. They did a Computer Science degree together. They made video games together, released video games together. But when Matt released Hacknet and Chris Johnson released Expand, everything changed. One game made its creator rich, the other sent its creator broke. Both have to live with the consequences.
While he was dealing with his own burnout, Trobbiani also found the time to finish a game from some friends he knew. That game was Hollow Knight, made by Team Cherry in Adelaide, and it wasn't until he finished the 2D platformer that he realised how structurally clever the game was.
"They could release a new Hollow Knight every few years for the rest of their lives with new content in the same style and minor mechanical changes, and it'd keep being amazing," Trobbiani said. "It made it pretty clear to me that I still had a long way to go. I couldn't do that with Hacknet — the mods people had made (while many were totally amazing) made that very clear."
Trobbiani knew that he needed to grow as a creator and a designer. He looked at Hacknet, and having decided that he didn't like the mechanics, he set out to make a game that, first and foremost, was mechanically fun to play.
That game, announced today, is Wrestledunk Sports. Unlike Hacknet, there's no narrative. It's all about 2 to 8 person multiplayer, and it's all about a series of precise, real-time mechanical inputs over a series of mini sports games.
Part of the inspiration, Trobbiani explained, came from Samurai Gunn's tight controls and interactions. But he also wanted something commercially successful, something he saw a lot of indies and exhibitors at PAX struggle with.
"Walking around conventions, I'd see lots of games that were great, but that I think would have a really hard time getting see in a commercial market because they were too small," he said. "Games that are small and tightly designed like that are really fun! It's just that I don't think people want to go through the hassle of buying something (even if it's cheap) if it looks like a small experience. From those parts, I settled on the 'pack of small interlinked games' setup."
Wrestledunk Sports will ship with four mini sports games, all of which can be played in 1v1, 2v2, 4v4 and asymmetrical options like 1v7. The games include fencing, which is inspired by Nidhogg; wrestling, which is mechanically akin to DiveKick while having platformer-esque controls and snappier movement; a side-on version of volleyball; and Smashball, a spin on a Japanese arcade game called Sanrio World Smash Ball. "It's hyper-speed pong in space, but also kind of tennis," Trobbiani said.
The sports are designed around other party games Trobbiani had seen at game jams, games that were too small or not fleshed out enough to warrant a full commercial release of their own. Every game uses only two buttons, plus movement and the ability to jump. It makes the game relatively easy to pickup and play, but each game has its own set of advanced movements that allow for deeper interactions. Two players on the same team can work together, for instance, to spike the ball at the same time to increase its speed.
But to make Wrestledunk successful in today's market, Trobbiani knew he had to have a robust online netcode and lobby system to make it all work. So he wrote his own system called "peer-to-peer full determinism backwards reconciliation".
As you're playing the game, everything runs in what Trobbiani calls "deterministic space" at a rate of 240fps. Deterministic space is a custom design that means everything is written around integers (whole numbers) rather than decimal points, which is designed to eliminate the inaccuracies you get from the minute processing errors that pop up with fractional amounts.
"Every frame, you send your inputs across the network directly to the partner's machine. Whenever you inputs from your partner in, I roll the entire game simulation back in time to when that button was actually pressed, add in all the inputs, then re-simulate back up the the present," Trobbiani said. "The effect of this is that locally, it shouldn't seem like you're online at all - all inputs go in exactly when you press them."
"It also means that if you're in a really close game, and you do press the right button first, you will win — there's no race to see who's packet gets to a server first or anything, it's based on what buttons are pressed in the real world, and when, and the simulation just goes back in time to when it actually happens every frame and works out what the real result is."
The actual networking design isn't wholly new, and Trobbiani explained that Street Fighter has a similar networking model. But Trobbiani's implementation is wholly custom made, since he had to build all the collisions, movement and physics from scratch.
In every way possible, Wrestledunk is as far away from Hacknet as the Aussie designer could have gone. And that's an enormous risk to take, considering how wildly successful Hacknet was. It was one of the first indies post-Antichamber to really establish itself on the world stage, and Trobbiani is now following that up with a game in one of the most congested genres possible.
There's no official release date for Wrestledunk Sports yet, although it'll be coming to PC and the Switch first before launching later on consoles. It'll be playable on the PAX Australia show floor as well.
"I hope that it'll find it's own place with it's own audience," Trobbiani said. "I just worry that it wont overlap with the Hacknet community, that's been so excellent to me. I'm not beholden to them to make anything of course, but it is pretty scary going immediately in the opposite direction from what you've found success with before, and still trying to do well."