It’s your first job of the day. A mid-sized corporation lost a million bucks to a cyber thief, and their bank isn’t providing any information on where the money went. They’re willing to offer you a 10% commission to track down their money, and an additional 5% if you’re able to identify the person responsible. You begin to list your “hops,” familiar terminals you ritually log into before a big hack, designed to slow down automated trace programs, so if the unthinkable happens and you screw up, the authorities won’t be banging on your door.
You break your way into the bank’s security using a mix of brute force crackers, decrypters and an engineered version of the system administrator’s voice. As you poke through the access logs, looking for records of transactions that add up to one million, you notice something in the way the paper trail unfolds: You’ve seen this hacking style before. A few quick steps around the network and you’re sure of it; you’ve worked with this hacker in the past.
A trace-detection program chirps to alert you; the bank’s system is now trying to figure out exactly who you are. You fire up your IM program and toss a message to your buddy, Spectre.
“Hey man, did you hit up a corporation for a million bucks earlier this week?” you ask, cautiously mindful that the tracing program is getting caught up on a network where you’re logged in as the administrator.
“Maybe,” Spectre replies. “Why?” Chirp.
“Oh, no reason. It’s just that I, well, you know, logged into First Bank on behalf of a Large Corporation, and your fingerprints are all over their money.”
“You can’t prove anything.” Defiant, cocky. Chirp.
You beam over the access logs you’ve uncovered.
“I have you by the balls, Spectre. Give me 60%, and maybe I’ll tell my contact I couldn’t find any information. ‘The hacker was just too smart to leave a trail.'” Chirp, chirp.
A long pause, then: “What’s your account number?”
Uplink really was an amazing game. A cyberpunk thriller created by British developer Introversion, the game dropped you into a fictional hacking circuit responsible for much of the cyber crime, and cyber crime detection, in the world. As a player, you climbed through set ranks of skill, unlocking missions with higher payouts and higher risk. Eventually, you come into contact with a computer version of a pandemic plague, and you have to decide to destroy it or sell it to a high bidder. The interface is clean, functional and just feels how hacking should feel, giving nods to movies like Hackers and the old Shadowrun Genesis game. You dip and dive through a “virtual virtual world,” covering your tracks as you rob banks and destroy other hackers’ reputations and lives. But there was something missing. The hackers you sent to prison weren’t real. You were alone in an infinite universe.
Hacking is largely a solo sport, but very few net runners have existed exclusively in a bubble. When you’re traipsing over the internet with bravado, much of the incentive to hack – beyond the normal “we only want information” mantra – is being able to brag to other hackers that you’ve been somewhere, climbed the Everest of hacks, established a new high watermark for script kiddies across the globe. Groups will collaborate to bring down massive networks (a few years ago, Yahoo was brought down by a group who managed to use thousands of computers to run “denial of service” attacks on their servers), but Uplink focused on one-hacker runs because it was a single player game.
Imagine a massive version of Uplink. Hundreds or thousands of hackers moving around a virtual cyberspace, working with and against each other to steal money from banks, engineer viruses and anti-virus programs, or create an organized crime syndicate. Everyone works together to remain just a few steps ahead of the law enforcement capable of killing your online persona with a search warrant. Players could communicate via a souped-up version of IRC and instant messaging programs while they worked. “Younger” hackers could organize diversions while their mentors run through a large network. Currency moves around at light speed, but all that really matters is your credibility.
But that’s not what would make a massive version of Uplink so engaging. Uplink‘s nuance was in the details. There were “shadows” of other hackers everywhere. You had to chase fictional enemies around the internet, follow logs or locate a guy’s house. With hundreds of people online, that latticework just explodes with activity. You’re chasing someone who’s chasing your buddy who’s chasing someone who’s chasing you. On top of that, your epic Hack of Hacks could be completely ruined by some newbie dinking around in a network three hops behind you. One log file edited incorrectly by a guy you’ve never met may result in your untimely incarceration.
And that’s where an online Uplink could pave all kinds of new ground. Players, through direct competition, could shape the world in any number of ways, while the world remains completely cogent. It has the potential to be the holy grail of game design: Players will have the keys to the car, but they won’t be able to crash it into a tree five miles out of the garage, because the mayhem still occurs on the rails of the game’s design.
Introversion are the type of guys with the vision to pull it off, too. Now, they just need the investors, which have to this point eluded them. And that’s why Uplink was single player. It was a garage band effort that managed to be the best game of 2001, and even their second release, Darwinia (which has yet to secure a publisher), pushes more envelopes than you can count. But until investors feel comfortable enough to take risks again, chasing holy grails is going to have to take a back seat to cost-benefit analyses and cold, hard cash.
Uplink is a platinum mine while everyone is still panning for gold. It’s only a matter of time before someone realizes what Introversion is sitting on, and that’s when you and I can team up to hack the Gibson – as long as you give me my 60%.
Joe Blancato is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist Magazine, in addition to being the Founder of waterthread.org.