Spy Party Hard: Hands On With Spy Party

By Kieron Gillen on July 29th, 2010 at 7:19 pm.

The checking the watch is a total complete tell which means you should shoot this dude.

Andy “Monaco” Schatz’s cat is being slowly broiled alive. It crawled behind the oven, which was in the process of cooking Macaroni & Cheese. It’s only later that Andy’s Delightful Wife is alerted by the frantic yelping of a distressed pussycat. We’re about to play SpyParty at my hotel room when the alert comes through, leading to a frantic cross-San Diego dash to try and rescue the pipping-hot cat from its furnace-crammed state. The Andy is trying to get his landlord on the phone, to see if there’s any reason why they can’t just pull the oven around. He’s failed. Meanwhile, Spy-Party-dev Chris Hecker is insisting that it’ll be fine, and we should just act immediately heft the cooker to release it. Let’s do this thing! We do this thing, and the cat runs free.

I’m not sure this is a metaphor about Chris’s position in the industry or SpyParty or how he’s a man capable of making hard decisions swiftly, but it was too good not to share. And I wanted something to separate this initial report of SpyParty from all the other pieces online, because I’m basically going to echo what they all said. This is looking like something genuinely startling.

The concept of SpyParty is simple. It’s a competitive two-player game. One person plays a spy, trying to perform a series of missions at a party. For example, bugging the ambassador, moving books around and similar. The other person plays a sniper, lurking outside the room, who is trying to shoot the spy. The problem being, the sniper’s only got a single bullet. Thus the game becomes one of deduction and stealth. The Spy has to merge convincingly in with the other AI members at the party. The Sniper has to look out for clues which reveal them AND THEN SHOOT THEM WITH MIGHTY GUN-BULLET. It’s a particularly clever solution to the issue of game AI. Rather than worrying too much about making real AI, it’s a game where the player has to copy the AI. It’s basically a reverse Turing test. Can you convince the other player that you’re not a human, but a machine.

Two humans, not machines.

Playing four games against the similar Spy-Party-virgin Andy Schatz, and I can confirm it’s a uniquely tense experience, which flips dramatically depends on whether you’re the Spy or the Sniper. Also, my time with it negates my main worry – that the idea is sharp enough that he’d be better doing it quickly rather than spending at least another year on it. I suspected its audience size is relatively marginal, so spending all that time wouldn’t actually pay off for him in cold commercial terms. The extra year to make it slick, accessible and graphically neat is overkill. The core thing is the core thing. Roll with that, and profit from the players willing to make the leap with you.

But I suspect SpyParty could get a surprisingly wide audience. It’s simultaneously a high-player-skill game where you’re able to strive towards excellence and – even in its current state – accessible even to players who’d struggle to wrestle with complicated controls. The sniper moves on a track around the level, zooming in and out. The player controls a single character, with all its interactions being contextual.

That it’s pleasures are pretty much unique’s just the cherry on top.

What’s most initially striking is how the asymmetrical nature of the game really makes each side its own experience. The Spy is a game with a mass of options, with you able to interact with all the objects in the game and able to mimic the actions of the other AI-controlled actors. Always, the question is “what should I do now?”. Your decisions are second by second, reading the situation as best you can. The Sniper is the more passive role. You can’t in the current game do anything to the world, with your interaction limited to moving around the room for a better angle, zooming in and generally watching for Spy-stuff. And watching stuff is the thing. The Spy at least always has a clue of what they’re doing. The Sniper is primarily a reactive role, trying to process the mass of information from all the people milling around the room. What is noise? What is signal? And is it a good enough signal to be shot through head?

I personally find the Sniper position by far the most stressful, though Hecker notes that it’s something which seems to basically depend on someone’s personality type. That you’re taking a lead as a Spy at least means you have agency. You know what you’re doing. The nagging noise in my head as I play Sniper is “What am I missing? What’s happening before me?”. And it strikes me a little like a penalty shoot-out, with the sniper as the player taking the shot and the Spy as the goalie. People expect the Spy to fail, because the task is enormous and you could give yourself away with a single mis-step. The Sniper has only one mistake to make… which ends the game. You mainly win the game by spotting that the Spy has made a mistake.

And as two new players, we make some glorious mistakes. In the final game, I give myself away to Andy by stopping a half-step before I reach the actual statue I’m trying to pick up and examine. I simply misjudged the distance, falling short and doing what an AI wouldn’t do. The bullet follows a second later.

This would be a bad time to be a man in plaid.

This is actually an interesting example of how the simple controls actually mean there’s room for high player skill to develop. It’s not a game where it’s going to be generous to you in that way and cover the gaps. It wants you to cover the gaps. Hecker wants to make sure the core game is deep enough to lead to the sort of serious competitive play that more traditional shooter games have – and that’s absolutely what he’s concentrating on now.

(And this is, for the record, what actually makes me think the extra year and change is ideal for the game. It’s going to have much more stuff than the high-concept idea, from mission types upwards. Training sequences where novice players are introduced a concept at a time should also ease people in – for example, something as simple as just finding the character with a red-rose on the lapel starts increasing your awareness of the whole level.)

He’s going to make a deep game and then work out how to make it more accessible later . As a veteran of the Spore team, he thinks that’s the mistake that team made was trying to do it the other way around. He doesn’t want to do that again. At the worst, he’s just going to make a totally different mistake.

It must be said, I don’t think he’s making a mistake.

One example of the skill-increasing elements he’s working on is a reapproproation of the Gears of War active-re-load system into the Spy’s interactions. So, when planting a bug on the ambassador, you’ll have the option of a golf-game-esque timing test. Nail it, and you’ll do an incredibly subtle bugging gesture. Screw it up, and it’ll be a hyper-obvious pratt-fall. And if you think the sniper isn’t watching, you can just not play the game and get a standard bug-planting.

He’s also working on other options for the Sniper. For example, there’s a security guard in the room who the Sniper can order to go and interrogate one of the guests, asking questions which they’ll answer. There’s a spanner in the works here too, as the Spy chooses who at the party they wish to play – and they can play the Security Guard, meaning they’ll be messaged orders from the Spy, which they then have to obey.

Then there’s the security camera watching the room. This can be set to either record or watch by the sniper. If it’s recording, it records what it sees. If it’s watching, the Sniper gets to examine it. However, the light on the camera will switch on and off depending on what task is going. That means that the Spy is able to know when the Sniper is examining the tapes, allowing them to make a daring move. And, of course, just because the Sniper’s set the camera to “watch” doesn’t mean that they’re actually watching it. It could all be a ruse. It’s that sort of game.

To be honest, all times are bad times to be a man in plaid.

The simple choice of which character the Spy select to be is a fine example of how SpyParty gets gameplay from the most basic of its elements. If someone played someone last time, surely they won’t pick that black guy with the awesome Saturday Night Fever suit again? Or will they? You can read people’s personality in their choices. For example, if I was playing Walker, I’d just shoot the sensitive girl character as soon as we start playing. Playing in the same room leads to all manner of out of game elements here too. I start mocking the character in plaid – who’s my main suspect. If I actually was looking at Andy, I suspect the fact I was right would be all over his face.

There’s also the hint of the future for Chris. Part of the game which is coming has to be AI characters who display these emotional states. This is the sort of technology which is pretty much limited to Maxis studios, meaning that SpyParty could be a stepping stone to the sort of emotion-centric games Chris thinks the industry should pursue. Chris has been playing in a debug mode when you have infinite bullets, and was amused to find that actually just playing it that way was a whole load of fun… but immediately backed away. He says that we already know that firing hundreds of bullets is fun. Let’s find out what else is. I can only agree, and await the finished version of SpyParty with unbecoming eagerness.

You can follow SpyParty’s development at its site.


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  1. Serenegoose says:

    I caught you! I seen you! SPY! YOU’RE A SPY! A real automated posting blogger-journalist investigato-man would never dare post such a long entry without a cut, and now one appears! but there wasn’t one before, so it’s a mangled edit job to hide your traces. So onto you.

  2. Freud says:

    This is an awesome idea for a game and anyone disagreeing is clearly deranged.

  3. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    I have been facinated by this since i first heard.
    I do object to a person polishing a game too much. Dwarf fortress, im looking at you. Let go of your baby.

    Of course, im just saying this so i get to play the game.
    Id prefer a sort of beta that gets improved, rather than wait another year for this brilliant sounding experiance.

  4. Ian says:

    Foot-to-ball analogies? On MY RPS?

    • Hidden_7 says:

      Being Canadian I immediately read that as a hockey analogy. I was confused because it didn’t really seem to work, before I put on my analyzing hat and realized that obviously he was talking about soccer.

    • radomaj says:

      @Ian: It’s more likely than you think.

  5. Jimbo says:

    Isn’t he a little concerned that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is going to totally steal his thunder? On the other hand, that game will certainly be massive enough that it could potentially create a significant new audience that is more open to this style of game.

    He will definitely need to put more meat on the bones though. This one neat trick isn’t going to carry much weight after one of the biggest games of the holiday season uses pretty much the exact same trick.

    And not to be too much of a Debbie Downer here, but there’s also a game called ‘Totally Spies! Totally Party’, which makes his own title seem a little half-assed. I recommend changing it to ‘SpyBANG!’.

    • Hidden_7 says:

      Isn’t AC:B just basically The Ship mechanic? As in, everyone has a different person to murder? It’s basically just a parlour game turned into an electronic video game. Spyparty is unique in this respect because you’re acting, trying to pass yourself off as AI, while the sniper is looking for tells. In Brotherhood you know who you’re trying to get, the only acting you’re doing is trying to pretend you aren’t trying to get them. So, basically the Spy from TF2.

    • Chris Hecker says:

      > AC:Brotherhood

      I went to E3 this year to check out and play AC:B and some other games that have some similar mechanics, and I wrote about that on the SpyParty blog recently (http://spyparty.com/2010/07/14/spyparty-e3-competitive-analysis/). They’re very different games. Like I say in the post, I don’t thing games are really “competitive” for the most part, so I actually wish AC:B was more similar, because as you say, anything that introduces people to the idea that subtle deception and performance are interesting mechanics, and gets them to slow down a bit from unlimited ammo FPS multiplayer is good for SpyParty. Sadly, as I also say in that post, AC:B multiplayer isn’t very subtle right now. You basically end up “playing the radar” as we say in game design. If they removed the radar and had more crowds and smaller maps it would get way more interesting, so I hope they do that stuff before they ship! But I just saw it again at ComicCon and it was the same, and they’re shipping soon, so I’m assuming they don’t have time to change. I’ll be really interested to see how the multiplayer feels when they’ve released it into the wild.

    • Jimbo says:

      I haven’t played AC:B so I shall defer to Mr. Hecker, but I assume that the ability to pass yourself off as AI will eventually play a big part in deciding the outcome of that game. If the radar leads unerringly and exactly to the target, then yeah I could see that rendering the acting part moot. It’s hard to say whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing – I guess it will always come down to how interesting the AI is that you’re having to mimic.

    • CMaster says:

      Thing is, unless it’s changed a lot from the old mod days, a big part of The Ship was pretending to be an AI.

    • Bob Bobson says:

      @CMaster, in most of my The Ship experiences it’s been levels with only players, with static security guards as the only NPCs so no AI imitation.

    • CMaster says:

      Obviously they have changed it since my days of playing then. Back when I played, there were no visible guards (you just got teleported to jail when you broke the rules) and the guests were a mix of NPCs and PCs. I forget how it worked, but for at least one gametype, a good stratergy was to pretend to be an NPC most of the while.

  6. Taillefer says:

    It’s a great idea. It’s how I play Hitman, even though I know the game isn’t smart enough to know I’m not acting like an AI.

    It could also be interesting where both players are able to wander around the location. One as the spy and maybe one as a guard (the spy will know who the other PC is). Then the guard could act deranged, pushing random furniture in the paths of guests, jumping on tables, or just staring at the character they suspect to see if they fold. It would be tense to pass by the guard in a narrow corridor and compare how the tension differs from being observed by unseen eyes.

  7. stahlwerk says:

    Because someone has to point it out, it might as well be me: The cat behind the oven was obviously both alive and broiled at the same time until you measured it.

  8. Urthman says:

    I like the thinking behind that last paragraph, but I hope he’d be open to other game modes. This sounds awesome, but I also like the idea of giving the Sniper infinite bullets and playing so the object of the game is to find the Spy using the fewest number of bullets. I love the idea of the Spy with people dying one by one all around him, wondering how long he can keep fooling the Sniper.

    Or maybe give the Sniper two bullets (or five or something), but make all the characters react if someone gets shot, ending the party and creating a moment where the Spy can do something in the pandemonium that’s normally not possible, and the Sniper has one or a few more chances to stop him.

    But that’s just random brainstorming. He’s got a really great, original, fun idea and it’s probably much better that he’s focusing on polishing that one idea than trying to run off in too many different directions. I’m really excited about this.

    • Chris Hecker says:

      Oh, don’t worry, there are definitely going to be lots of game modes, including single player, I’m just concentrating on the two-player asymmetric one first and going deep exploring that, because it gets to the core of the various mechanics. As Kieron mentions, I’m doing that Blizzard-style “Depth First” development model, which I write about a bit here: http://spyparty.com/2010/02/01/a-new-decade-an-old-development-philosophy/

      I haven’t done a post on all the various modes, but there is some talk on it spread around the comments on the blog. They include “multiple spies at the party that know about each other, with coop missions”, “multiple spies that don’t know about each other” (I’m actually going to playtest drop-in/drop-out without notifying the existing players for maximal hilarity), “spy/sniper teams”, “multiple snipers”, etc. But, I want to make sure I nail all the various mechanics before going wide on all the modes.

  9. Berzee says:

    This looks pleasing.

    Because I am a fanboy, I want tf2 skins and the ability to sap things. =P

  10. EthZee says:

    I find myself laughing uncontrollably as I read this preview. This game sounds like tremendous fun.

    I do hope he’s planning to put an online mode in. Do you have any idea whether that is his plan, KG?

    • Chris Hecker says:

      I’m not KG, but if by “online mode” you mean “plays over the internet”, then yes. I haven’t done “NAT traversal/punchthrough” yet, which is a fancy name for “works through firewalls”, but it’s on the list for later this year. Once I’m ready for testing online on the raw and scary internet, I’ll ask for volunteers on the blog (http://spyparty.com) or twitter (@spyparty), etc.

    • EthZee says:

      Ooh! Thank you for responding.

      Also, I’m almost afraid to ask, but what are your plans for system specs? Is it going to be very system-intensive? I ask only because this laptop is fairly old, and I do have a slightly more powerful tower but it would be nice if I could play it on this. What are you currently running it on?

    • Chris Hecker says:

      I do 99% of my development on a Thinkpad T500, but it runs fine on slower laptops right now as well. However, I haven’t hit it with the aesthetics stick yet, as you can probably tell from the screenshots. I think it’s too early to know, but I obviously want it to run on as many machines as possible. I also have a personal programming philosophy of always developing on slow machines because it keeps you honest. :)

    • EthZee says:

      Neato. Mine’s a single-core with integrated graphics, so I won’t be shocked and appalled if it doesn’t run on here, but that’s good to know anyways.

    • stahlwerk says:

      Chris, I know RPS is not the place to ask this question, but have you thought about porting to handheld consoles or smartphones?

      Going by the article, this game seems to thrive in personal settings and with the ad-hoc matchmaking via WiFi these devices have, I could really see myself playing this on my (hypothetical) 3DS against my (hypothetical) significant other during a (hypothetical) train ride.

  11. Turin Turambar says:

    Sounds right in to my alley! My type of game.

    “It’s a particularly clever solution to the issue of game AI. Rather than worrying too much about making real AI, it’s a game where the player has to copy the AI. It’s basically a reverse Turing test. Can you convince the other player that you’re not a human, but a machine.”

    BTW, i did this in a adversarial Arma 2 mission called crooks. Not new for me :P

  12. Shazbut says:

    This sounds bloody marvelous

  13. UsF says:

    I’d like to
    1. play this now
    2. give feedback for the game

    Can I buy an early access for me and maybe a friend? :)

  14. Soontam says:

    Bloody marvelous indeed, I don’t understand though why developers keep diverting resource to single player? is, if you don’t have a real story to tell? Multiplayer is where this game will shine imo, so except for tutorials I really don’t get single player.

    • P7uen says:

      I agree with Vinraith. He didn’t post yet, but I still do.

    • Vinraith says:


      In the case of a game like this I’m not sure I disagree with him. Some concepts just don’t work in SP very well, and anything that’s intrigue-driven is invariably going to be much more interesting with other human beings. Granted, I generally don’t buy games like that, but the point stands.

    • P7uen says:

      I still agree, huzzah!

    • Chris Hecker says:

      Well, at the very least, single player needs to be a tutorial for how to play the game, and so you can practice. That’s the lowest level, and I have to do that at least. But, I have a hunch there’s an interesting single player game as well, but I haven’t figured it out yet. I’m going to prototype some single player designs later this year. If they don’t come together, it’ll just be tutorial and practice for the multiplayer, and that’s okay. But, it’s worth exploring a bit to see if there’s more there.

  15. JB says:

    Looking forward to this immensely, looks like it will be as much fun as it is tense. Keep up the good work!

  16. Chris Hecker says:

    > the ability to pass yourself off as AI will eventually play a big part

    Yeah, I’m hoping that as well, but in my plays so far, and watching others play it, sadly it devolves into running around on rooftops, playing the radar, and using your chosen super powers. I really hope it changes before they ship it. I think some relatively small mechanical changes could make big differences in the dynamics.

    > The Ship

    Like Hidden_7 says, and I talk about in that post, AC:B is mostly a game of Assassin, like The Ship. There is some “play it cool”, but not a lot of performance. They’re also symmetric, so everybody is playing the same game, which is another difference. As I also mention in the e3 post, I was hoping to get to see Bloody Good Time, which is a kind of sequel to The Ship, but it wasn’t there that I could find, and the articles about it so far make it sound like it’s doubling down on the weapons aspect of the The Ship, rather than the subtle behavior part. I haven’t seen it myself yet, though.

  17. Matthew says:

    Bonnnnnneeeeessssssss! Or whatever that cat’s current name is. Thank God he’s OK.

    (And Spy Party sounds as awesome as ever)

  18. Owen says:

    I am SO looking forward to this one. Great to see some replies from Chris too.

  19. The Innocent says:

    Huh, this is fascinating. I’ll definitely be following it. This is the sort of game I’m most interested in.

  20. H says:

    Yeah yeah but how is the cat now??

  21. H says:

    Bonza! Ta Kier.

  22. Psychopomp says:

    Do want

  23. KillahMate says:

    I’ve been wanting this for a while now, no change there.

  24. KillahMate says:

    Also, for Mr. Hecker if he’s still around, the question every indie developer is bound to get sooner or later, so we might as well get it over with: do you have any plans for Steamworks integration? Might at least help with firewalls and such…

  25. Mojo says:

    My biggest doubt was the (amazing!) core idea leading to a one-trick-pony game that relies too much on a single game mechanic. But the statement of “doing it the other way round”, making a complex game first, then worrying about accessibility is the kind of bold indie game approach that could fix this. Some of the advanced ideas sound incredibly promising. I hope there will be a lot of gameplay beyond the one-bullet/one-bug mechanics. There’s a lot of potential here.

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