Giant Bomb News

157 Comments

Why Dark Energy Digital Won't Just Give Up on Hydrophobia

The developers explain the endless iteration of a game many people didn't care for.

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. And again. And again. Where do you draw the line?

That's the story--so far--of Dark Energy Digital's Hydrophobia, an aquatic action game that first generated headlines for its water physics. After releasing on Xbox Live Arcade, the game courted controversy as the developers accusing reviewers of not finishing the game. Reviewers were critical of Hydrophobia, and in retrospect, Dark Energy Digital wishes it'd gone differently.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?" said senior creative designer Rob Hewson in an email. "Without a shadow of a doubt there are big things we would have done differently, but that’s the paradox of life. Sometimes you only learn the right things to do by royally cocking up (as bankers will no doubt tell you). The only thing to do is to look forwards, take what you’ve learned and do a better job next time. That more than anything is what Hydrophobia Prophecy is all about."

You'd be right to wonder why I'm talking to Dark Energy Digital about Hydrophobia, but the studio's dedication, which has sometimes involved them stepping over the line in the eyes of some, is rather remarkable. Hydrophobia Prophecy marks the original game's third release, after Hydrophobia in September and a free update dubbed Hydrophobia Pure again in December. Hydrophobia Prophecy was released earlier this month on PC through Steam, and came bundled with a crazy new feature called Darknet, which allows players to provide real-time feedback.

Before we continue, watch this video explaining what Darknet is.

Interesting, but it doesn't adequately answer why Dark Energy Digital is so committed to making Hydrophobia work. Why not move onto the next project? Haven't gamers made up their mind?

== TEASER ==

"I don’t necessarily agree that most gamers have made their mind up on Hydrophobia because most gamers haven’t played Hydrophobia," said Hewson. "A lot [of players] may have formed an impression of the game, but given the extreme polarisation of opinion the original game seemed to provoke, that impression will probably vary wildly depending on where they read about it."

It could have been the end of the road after Hydrophobia Pure, a 4MB update that launched alongside Listening Post, a community-focused website designed to collect feedback--good, bad and ugly. The response was so encouraging, however, that Dark Energy Digital figured more deeply incorporating feedback was worth another look. Plus, they didn't want to move on yet.

"When you work so hard for so long and you come so close to making a good game, it seems like such a waste to just drop it and move on," he said. "Having fixed the majority of major flaws with Pure, we now had a solid game with a positive critical response, but we also had all this feedback from the community."

If you didn't like this section of the game, Darknet would let you drop a note for the developers.

Darknet already existed in some form internally at Dark Energy Digital for playtesting, allowing developers to track, record and categorize everything a tester does. It didn't look quite as slick as Darknet but the foundation was laid. It's one thing to play through a game and tell your friends what you think about a game on a message board, Facebook or Twitter, it's quite another to stop in the middle of gameplay and specifically flag it.

"We really weren’t expecting a big uptake at all initially," said Hewson. "We thought most people might not even notice the feature existed. However, the day after launch we switched Darknet on and the map lit up with thousands of unique pieces of feedback. The majority of feedback was actually positive. We thought people would only bother to give feedback when they were frustrated and therefore it would be mostly negative. What we’ve found is that people are more frequently saying what they love, so rather than just addressing things people dislike we’re now also focusing on making more of what they do."

It's basically effortless for the developer to add simple tweaks to the game, if we're talking about additional checkpoints, altering the locations of railings or adding more grip points for a character to grab onto. Some problems, such as preference over changed character designs, can't be as easily altered, and larger issues with the design are filed way for future games in development.

In addition to these changes improving the PC version, the feedback from Darknet will inform the PlayStation 3 version coming down the line. It's unclear whether the PS3 version will also include a form of Darknet or whether Darknet could be patched into the existing Xbox Live Arcade versions.

"We've had conversations and are continuing to have conversations," said an understandably cryptic Hewson, "but we can’t really comment on them until those conversations are complete."

It's admirable Dark Energy Digital is so committed. Are you as committed as they are?

I wondered whether some players took issue with even being asked to provide feedback. That's what testers are for. There could be a perception Darknet's inclusion allows incomplete games, asking the community to help push towards the finish line. It's one thing when Minecraft or SpyParty position themselves as open betas with a price tag. That's not the case here, and it's a notion Hewson pushed back on hard when asked. Instead, he views this as a natural evolution.

"We still do all the same testing and pre-release focus groups and usability studies," he said. "In fact, we actually do a lot more because [our] Data Tracker and Darknet allow us to do more pre-release anyway. All we’re saying is why does it have to stop there? Why cut and run after release? Why not let players get involved and shape the future direction of each game or series? This is the 21st century, we’re all connected, so why wouldn’t you do this? If you play a game on Facebook you can bet your behaviour and profile information is being used to improve the game and help the developer make better games in the future--why on earth would we not do the same?"

Patrick Klepek on Google+
157 Comments
  • 157 results
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
Posted by patrickklepek

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. And again. And again. Where do you draw the line?

That's the story--so far--of Dark Energy Digital's Hydrophobia, an aquatic action game that first generated headlines for its water physics. After releasing on Xbox Live Arcade, the game courted controversy as the developers accusing reviewers of not finishing the game. Reviewers were critical of Hydrophobia, and in retrospect, Dark Energy Digital wishes it'd gone differently.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?" said senior creative designer Rob Hewson in an email. "Without a shadow of a doubt there are big things we would have done differently, but that’s the paradox of life. Sometimes you only learn the right things to do by royally cocking up (as bankers will no doubt tell you). The only thing to do is to look forwards, take what you’ve learned and do a better job next time. That more than anything is what Hydrophobia Prophecy is all about."

You'd be right to wonder why I'm talking to Dark Energy Digital about Hydrophobia, but the studio's dedication, which has sometimes involved them stepping over the line in the eyes of some, is rather remarkable. Hydrophobia Prophecy marks the original game's third release, after Hydrophobia in September and a free update dubbed Hydrophobia Pure again in December. Hydrophobia Prophecy was released earlier this month on PC through Steam, and came bundled with a crazy new feature called Darknet, which allows players to provide real-time feedback.

Before we continue, watch this video explaining what Darknet is.

Interesting, but it doesn't adequately answer why Dark Energy Digital is so committed to making Hydrophobia work. Why not move onto the next project? Haven't gamers made up their mind?

== TEASER ==

"I don’t necessarily agree that most gamers have made their mind up on Hydrophobia because most gamers haven’t played Hydrophobia," said Hewson. "A lot [of players] may have formed an impression of the game, but given the extreme polarisation of opinion the original game seemed to provoke, that impression will probably vary wildly depending on where they read about it."

It could have been the end of the road after Hydrophobia Pure, a 4MB update that launched alongside Listening Post, a community-focused website designed to collect feedback--good, bad and ugly. The response was so encouraging, however, that Dark Energy Digital figured more deeply incorporating feedback was worth another look. Plus, they didn't want to move on yet.

"When you work so hard for so long and you come so close to making a good game, it seems like such a waste to just drop it and move on," he said. "Having fixed the majority of major flaws with Pure, we now had a solid game with a positive critical response, but we also had all this feedback from the community."

If you didn't like this section of the game, Darknet would let you drop a note for the developers.

Darknet already existed in some form internally at Dark Energy Digital for playtesting, allowing developers to track, record and categorize everything a tester does. It didn't look quite as slick as Darknet but the foundation was laid. It's one thing to play through a game and tell your friends what you think about a game on a message board, Facebook or Twitter, it's quite another to stop in the middle of gameplay and specifically flag it.

"We really weren’t expecting a big uptake at all initially," said Hewson. "We thought most people might not even notice the feature existed. However, the day after launch we switched Darknet on and the map lit up with thousands of unique pieces of feedback. The majority of feedback was actually positive. We thought people would only bother to give feedback when they were frustrated and therefore it would be mostly negative. What we’ve found is that people are more frequently saying what they love, so rather than just addressing things people dislike we’re now also focusing on making more of what they do."

It's basically effortless for the developer to add simple tweaks to the game, if we're talking about additional checkpoints, altering the locations of railings or adding more grip points for a character to grab onto. Some problems, such as preference over changed character designs, can't be as easily altered, and larger issues with the design are filed way for future games in development.

In addition to these changes improving the PC version, the feedback from Darknet will inform the PlayStation 3 version coming down the line. It's unclear whether the PS3 version will also include a form of Darknet or whether Darknet could be patched into the existing Xbox Live Arcade versions.

"We've had conversations and are continuing to have conversations," said an understandably cryptic Hewson, "but we can’t really comment on them until those conversations are complete."

It's admirable Dark Energy Digital is so committed. Are you as committed as they are?

I wondered whether some players took issue with even being asked to provide feedback. That's what testers are for. There could be a perception Darknet's inclusion allows incomplete games, asking the community to help push towards the finish line. It's one thing when Minecraft or SpyParty position themselves as open betas with a price tag. That's not the case here, and it's a notion Hewson pushed back on hard when asked. Instead, he views this as a natural evolution.

"We still do all the same testing and pre-release focus groups and usability studies," he said. "In fact, we actually do a lot more because [our] Data Tracker and Darknet allow us to do more pre-release anyway. All we’re saying is why does it have to stop there? Why cut and run after release? Why not let players get involved and shape the future direction of each game or series? This is the 21st century, we’re all connected, so why wouldn’t you do this? If you play a game on Facebook you can bet your behaviour and profile information is being used to improve the game and help the developer make better games in the future--why on earth would we not do the same?"

Edited by Cabbage_TheMan

great story

Posted by Vitor

And yet it still got a 4 from Eurogamer in their review earlier today. 
 
It seems like there are a lot of interesting ideas at work in this game. And the developer's clearly passionate.  
 
Sort of wish they would just move on and try something new. 

Edited by Gordy

This game isn't awful; it honestly feels like an original Xbox game with updated tech but outdated controls.

Posted by talideon

I personally admire their efforts to improve the game on an ongoing basis. I just wish MS would allow Hydrophobia Prophecy as a (preferably free) upgrade on XBLA.

Posted by StriderNo9

Good read Patrick, interesting.

Posted by GunslingerPanda

From what I've seen of this game, it looks pretty good. I don't understand why there's so much hate for it, though TotalBiscuit's horrific video is one indicator.

Posted by metalsnakezero

They need to move on instead of sticking around with a old game that just didn't do well. 

Posted by ZeForgotten

I played Hydrophobia on the 360 when it came out there and I like the game. I don't see why so many people (who's never even touched the game) say it's bad. 
 
What's that? oh, because it's cool to be all negative and edgy? 
I see

Posted by JamesKond

Investigated reporting! Keep up the good work Patrick :)

Posted by Klei

I think it's great for a team to give themselves entirely to their game even post-launch. if only most companies would do this, they'd be able to correct most good-but-very-flawed games we have out there.

Edited by phish09

Thanks for the info Patrick.  I was one of those people wondering "Why don't they just give up on Hydrophobia and move on"?  I was also one of those people wondering "Why don't they (GB) cover more indie games"...two birds, one stone.  After reading this, I'm almost tempted to buy this game.  ALMOST.  I'll probably pick it up next time it's on sale on XBLA.   I still wish I understood a bit better what this game actually is though. 

Posted by BraveToaster

"Come on guys. You'll like it, we promise."

Posted by StriderNo9
@talideon said:
I personally admire their efforts to improve the game on an ongoing basis. I just wish MS would allow Hydrophobia Prophecy as a (preferably free) upgrade on XBLA.
Agreed.
Posted by Brodehouse

Hydrophobia before the Pure update was a Goddamn mess.
 
After the update, it was close to being something special but still a little screwy.
 
Most of what needs fixing is kind of esoteric.  The camera simply needs to be 'better'.  Hard to explain why, but it's the truth.  The movement feels a little too fast when you're running, and a little too slow when you're climbing or doing animation heavy things.  Assassin's Creed is the gold standard for animation heavy climbing, the slower your game moves doing the same thing, the more the gap appears to be.
 
Lastly, the combat.  They established the game as a kind of puzzle shooter, where you looked for environmental objects to kill dudes with.  It's sad, but they should consider genericizing it to a regular (and competent) third person shooter.  Most of the time, when under fire, I couldn't spend time thinking about physics interactions and pushing exploding barrels towards the enemies... I just wanted to put reticul on head and shoot.  If they could maintain a bit of the puzzly elements while still having the option to simply cap fools, I think the game would be the better for it.

Posted by Brendan

It's an interesting route for a dev to take, and I'm interested to see where it ends up even if I've never played the game.

Posted by pow1149

This is insane! But at the same time, I'm not complaining. Being a huge fan of the continued support that Valve gives their games, so I do like that other people are doing the same. 
 
Now, if we could just have a few of the prophecy improvements filtered into the 360 version... than I'd be a happy guy.

Posted by AtomicEdge

I'm tempted to get this game just to support the fantastic aftermarket job they are doing. It's true that rushing a release is bad form, but the way they have turned it around is really quite staggering. Most studios would have just left their broken game in the dirt and moved on.

Edited by bybeach

You know, if I were them...I would make the PS3 version sound like the Third coming, Rapture, and a 3 day ecstasy festival binge all together at once, and be DONE with it. Run away in fact, Run far away, hide and do something called 'new'.

Edited by Cypher

" This is the 21st century, we’re all connected, so why wouldn’t you do this?" 
 
Because in order for me to give you money, I demand a product that is already of a high quality, not an unfinished product that I'm paying to help beta test. You're publishing a game on the Xbox Live marketplace, not Kickstarter.com.
Posted by andriv

I have no interest in playing this game but after reading this article it just sounds like an excuse for releasing a flawed game.

Posted by boylie

With that "darknet" video released the other day, I began wondering the same thing: why the hell aren't they learning their lessons and putting their energy into something new? Though I still don't see why they are continuing on (I imagine most gamers made their minds up about this game long ago), I can respect the amount of love they clearly have for this game, and their desire to make it awesome. Great read Patrick!

Posted by kyrieee

Eh, I don't like this approach.
Other studios manage to make great games without asking their audience about every single detail. This just seems like a lack of ability and vision.

Posted by Little_Socrates

This is the first compelling reason I've heard to pick up this game. 
 
However, it's also an incredibly compelling reason not to pick up any of their other games at launch.

Posted by Make_Me_Mad

This is a pretty awesome idea.  I love what they're doing with this thing.

Posted by CarpetRemnant

They're clearly very passionate about this project but so is every game developer. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move on.

Posted by Getz

I played this game for maybe 2 hours and completely lost interest. It's certainly a unique beast, but not a "fun" kind of unique. I haven't played since the Pure update, so I guess maybe they made the combat better? I dunno, I just stopped caring a long time ago.

Posted by Twisted_Scot

Meh didn't hate the demo just wasn't that into it. While they probably should start on something new I am impressed at the level they try to listen and improve. If only some developers would do half as good a job with the feedback given.

Posted by tgammet

Good article. I like games like this a lot, so I was hoping for Hydrophobia. Maybe with this new version I will check it out.  
 
Do they have demo plans? They should probably consider making a super polished demo to encourage people to give the game another chance.

Posted by louiedog
@Cypher said:

" This is the 21st century, we’re all connected, so why wouldn’t you do this?" 
 
Because in order for me to give you money, I demand a product that is already of a high quality, not an unfinished product that I'm paying to help beta test. You're publishing a game on the Xbox Live marketplace, not Kickstarter.com.
They tried to do it right the first time and failed. Rather than scrap it, they're attempting to fix it. If their first release of the product had this built in, I would agree with you. This is not that, this is them attempting to right a wrong. Plenty of companies try and fail but never fix it. If you bought into one of their games, you're SOL. 
 
I have a crapton of XBLA games. Many are junk.  Wits & Wagers, Star Raiders, Blade Kitten, and a bunch of others were games I played anywhere from 20-120 minutes, but will likely never touch again. The only one that went from junk to become playable after an update is Hydrophobia, which I finished.. I would have preferred a great product from the beginning, but it didn't work out that way. By putting all of this effort into fixing the game I'm much more likely the give part 2 a shot. If they'd never put out the Hydrophobia Pure update, there's absolutely no way I'd have even tried the demo for the next one. There's nothing wrong with them trying to fix a mistake. They didn't set out to make a bad game.
Posted by JohngPR

I think it's good when developers do this.  You don't want to completely cater to gamers to the point that you sacrifice creativity, but if there's a section of your game that is universally hated, why not be able to fix that.?

Posted by Olivaw
@kyrieee said:
Eh, I don't like this approach. Other studios manage to make great games without asking their audience about every single detail. This just seems like a lack of ability and vision.
Not every studio is a BioWare, though.
 
Besides, can you think of a single great game that didn't have a few issues you wish you could tell the developer about? "Oh, this part is bullshit, there's no checkpoint within ten minutes of here," or "hey, this entire sequence just isn't fun, why is this here?"
 
Sure, you could send an email, but come on. You know it won't reach the eyes of someone who could do something about it.
 
Their dedication towards having a dialogue with people who play their game, their single-player game, is remarkable and they should be applauded for it.
Edited by Vorbis

It's admirable that they are trying to improve their game, but I feel they've done it on the wrong game to start with. Sometimes it's better to just move on and vow to learn from the mistakes you made in the previous game.

Posted by MormonWarrior

I mentioned this before in another article, and I stand by it: a little company named Chair published a game called Undertow a few years ago and it kinda sucked. Then a bit later they made a game called Shadow Complex which is the best game on XBLA. They didn't spend forever tweaking Undertow to finally make it a decent game; instead they used what they had learned and went on to make a better game. 
 
As nice as it is that Dark Energy Digital is supporting and trying to improve their lackluster product, it would be better if they stopped wasting their time and moved on to a better project. I dunno, it makes sense to me. This just strikes me as somebody who can never admit they just aren't very good at what they do and keeps banging their head against the wall until they get something palatable.

Posted by Grumbel

For those wondering why they don't just move on: Hydrophobia is an episodic game, so naturally most of the improvements on the first episode will also benefit the later ones. Also the game started out as Xbox360 game and all the improvements on the Xbox360 version in turn have improved the PC port, which was just released. A PS3 version is also planed, so all improvements they make now will benefit that as well.
 
All that aside: I can really recomment the game, it is essentially a Tomb Raider'y game with much improved WaveRace'y water physics. First 3D game I have ever seen water can actually flow around instead of just wobble in place.

Posted by Pinworm45

I can't tell if I admire or pity them.

Posted by kyrieee
@Olivaw said:
@kyrieee said:
Eh, I don't like this approach. Other studios manage to make great games without asking their audience about every single detail. This just seems like a lack of ability and vision.
Not every studio is a BioWare, though.
 
Besides, can you think of a single great game that didn't have a few issues you wish you could tell the developer about? "Oh, this part is bullshit, there's no checkpoint within ten minutes of here," or "hey, this entire sequence just isn't fun, why is this here?"
 
Sure, you could send an email, but come on. You know it won't reach the eyes of someone who could do something about it.
 
Their dedication towards having a dialogue with people who play their game, their single-player game, is remarkable and they should be applauded for it.
I guess I don't like the idea of a constantly evolving game.
I'd rather they take the feedback and incorporate that into something brand new.
Posted by Gahathat

I'm skeptical about this user feedback system. I think it encourages developers to release games before they're ready and justify it by using this feedback system as a crutch.  

Posted by benjaebe

Thanks for writing this article, because I've been wondering this same thing for such a long time.

Posted by jakonovski

Why do all these critiques of Hydrophobia's reiterations start from the weird premiss that there's only one successful way to make a game?  
 
Posted by Chris2KLee

I have give them credit, those are some cool tools. But I definitely think they need to move on, learn from what happened on Hydrophobia and apply it to a new game. There definitely seems to be some talented and dedicated people at Dark Energy Digital. I'd just hate to see them get passed by because they couldn't let go of an obvious labor of love that just didn't work out.

Posted by Jaxley

I'm sure I read last year that Hydrophobia was going to be a series of episodic releases. So the first one has come out three times now, technically. Are they actually still planning on the next chapters?

Posted by Blood_for_the_blood_God
@kyrieee: then I take it your not a fan of MMO's cus thats basically the definition of a "constantly evolving game".
Posted by lumberingjackal
Posted by shinluis

Looking forward to the PS3 version. I actually got really curious about this game and its multiple, dramatic patching story and find the care and determination the developers still have in making it work very endearing.

Posted by EpicSteve

It sounds like they're living in the past. Even if Hydrophobia was an amazing game, it's difficult to get players reengaged with a singleplayer experience they have already played. 

Posted by Murdouken

I played Hydrophobia Prophecy start to finish on PC, and honestly, I didn't find it as bad as many people did. It was clearly not a good game, but I still enjoyed it more than I probably should have.
 
That being said, this Darknet thing sounds pretty incredible. Let's just hope they act on this information.

Posted by BaconGames

The issue is that no matter how much they fine tune and nail on the execution, the game has to be conceptually worthwhile in order for it to hold up when it's "finished".  As a metagame I can see this active developer feedback thing being very interesting but in service of just making another iteration of this game, I'm not interested.  No matter what you do, the basic concept and art assets don't change and unless I'm crazy those are partly why people were kind of cold toward that game.  Execution didn't help but design is as important as anything in gaming.

Posted by Wadawoodo

They are like an ex who keeps asking "where did we go wrong!"
  • 157 results
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4