Hands On: Spy Party

By Craig Pearson on June 21st, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Does anyone have any ibuprofen? I've got a cracking headache...
If Spy Party developer Chris Hecker were to look back over the game’s connection logs from the past year, he might notice some strange behaviour. He’d see me arriving, spending a minute in the lobby, then disconnecting. This pattern would be repeated a few times. It wasn’t a technical problem, Chris. Don’t go bug-hunting. Those cold digits spilling over your screen as you search for a flaw wouldn’t have registered the truth of the situation: I am a coward. It was the panic I was feeling over becoming a Spy Party player that was causing me to leave.

Though it’s ostensibly about sniping and spying, it’s not really about those. It’s about recognising the humanity in someone desperately attempting to hide it. I’m comfortable with learning game mechanics, but putting my understanding of humanity out there left me feeling uneasy. What if I never won a match? What would that say about me as a human being? This was a strange thing to bump up against, and I dealt with it by fleeing away from the established little community that the game had built up. But the recent paid-for open beta made me reconsider. New people? We’d be in a similar situation of fumbling about in Spy Party’s psychologically driven multiplayer. We’d be equals! So I took the plunge.

It’s a 1v1 asymmetrical multiplayer game where the sniper watches a party through his scope. He has one bullet to kill the spy, so has to be sure. The spy, meanwhile, is having a wonderful time: chatting to partygoers, cadging drinks, and admiring the decor. But he’s also seducing people, moving bugs, and contacting double agents. His job is to blend into the gathering that the sniper is peering at, while secretly performing the tasks. Most of those have tells, like an animation being played or a sound file activating, though some are invisible and rely on pure deduction to uncover.

My hat is the best hat.

At first I found playing the spy unfathomably tense. The same odd, social panic I get at arriving at a party that’s already in full swing (I don’t know why, but I just shivered at the thought) settled over me as I watched my character wander the room. The game begins with the player’s character under the computer’s control, so it immediately presents you with a decision: when to take over? In the scheme of things it’s one of the easier choices, but when I first did I felt like the clutzy and obvious human that I am. I couldn’t imagine someone staring at the boxy level of the ballroom and not spotting the switchover. Anytime the sniper’s laser beam played over me, I was sure the bullet would land and I’d be unmasked. And when it wasn’t there, I was sure I was being toyed with before a shot took me out. But it didn’t happen, and I’ll get to why in a few paragraphs.

Spy Party is a clunky game by design. The spy has to blend into the Brownian motion of party, moving with the same stodgy movement to mimic the AI. Just acting like an NPC requires determination: the best method is to make the decision of where you want to go before you move, either to a task area or to just talk to other partygoers, and then move with authority. Fiddling with your position when you get there is a big tell. Don’t aspire to perfection, as it’s a dead giveaway. I’ve died a few times because I fiddled with my position. The AI will mess up where they stand, but won’t worry about fixing it.

The statues can be swapped.

The more telling tells happen during the missions. At the start of the game, the spy selects a number of tasks to perform: I’m partial to the statue swap, but I hate bugging the ambassador; statue inspection can be done with no apparent tells, but it also takes time to do. Each mission can be performed with varying levels of competence via action tests, which require a steady mouse finger to stop a slider. Flub it while you’re attempting swap a statue and the statue will flicker through a number of choices before fixing on one. Get the sweeping slider in the white zone and the spy will instantly swap the statue. Now you’re probably imagining yourself as the sniper, camping out over the statues and waiting for one to swap. But if you manage to nail the green swap, stopping the slider in the tiny band of green pixels, the spy won’t even swap the statue. An NPC will. A cunning ruse, and one that will seriously mess up most snipers, though smarter players might notice that the statue was swapped instantly by the NPC. Even the tells have tells.

When you remember you’re playing with human intuition, there are things you can do to manipulate it. My finest attempt came when I noticed the sniper’s laser beam was fixated on a particular NPC. For whatever reason he wasn’t being subtle about his choice. While the spy can see the sniper’s laser beam moving across the level, the sniper has a wide-angle view of the entire room. It’s conceivable that the laser sight could be on one part of the room while the sniper is watching another part of it, but in this instance I was fairly confident he’d made a selection.

From the sniper’s view, he could see a pair of suspected double agents milling about. The audible “Banana Bread” is spoken when contact is made, but it’s also spoken as a decoy. I got lucky in the NPC’s wanderings: he stood in one of the room’s designated chat areas with a double agent. I was across the room in another conversation and tried the decoy. Two seconds later the NPC’s head jerked back and a winner was me. Hooray for me! That said, I can’t even take credit for the move. It’s already a known tactic.

I felt well clever, though it was mostly due to the other player’s lack of playtime than any particular skill on my part. However I wasn’t about to feel smug, because I found sniping terrifying. The spy only really has a few defining decisions to make, but the sniper has to parse the movement of a player out of a sea of movement. If I haven’t made some sense of what’s going on after 20 seconds, I start to worry. It already feels like I’ve lost. The first few seconds playing as the sniper is just utter confusion, and it’s laughable that I was worried about being instantly outed.

There are things you can do to help: high and low-lighting (with the left and right mouse buttons) will let you darken or lighten characters. It’s a handy power to have, and I use it to low-light (darken) all the obvious NPCs (the suspected double agents, the ambassador). It’s a calming ritual, taking the first few seconds to make a quick round of the NPCs and the statues. I do it to make them easily identifiable, but I also need to do it so I can relax and begin hunting the human.

That hunting is often instinctual, though I’d imagine eventually becomes something more of a skill with time. I’m not there, yet. I’ll see a character move a certain way that my brain doesn’t like, but it’s a struggle to tell you exactly what it was they did. A sudden jerk that just feels wrong. Gut instinct is a pretty powerful tool for a beginner sniper, and it’s worth going with it. Though the first time you take the safety off the gun and shoot the wrong NPC, you’ll realise you need to back it up with some serious deduction.

The wide view. Take in the whole party.

Because you are being fucked with. Constantly. Always. By the game, by the other players, and by your brain. The way I play Spy Party is to assume that everyone is amazing, and that I need to be vigilant at all times. That way I’m unlikely to miss an obvious error, like the player coughing when he messes up contacting the Double Agent, or I might be lucky to catch a subtle tell from a good player. Even if my view is pulled out all the way back, it’s possible to spot a statue flicker and change from Indiana Jones’s golden idol to the Maltese Falcon.

A lot goes into the sniper’s single bullet. This is how I remember one round taking place: Why is he going there… was that a flinch… pull back, look at the whole room… right, the statues are all arranged from big to little on that side, and they’re all the same on the other side… someone’s at the bookca- ah, it’s the ambassador… WHO SAID “BANANA BREAD” I WILL SHOOT YOU IN… damnit, a statue has been swapped… okay, keep an eye on the books, but low-light anyone at the statues from now on… that lady at the bookcase was the one who flinched earlier, I’ll highlight her… the man with the hat checked his watch at the window but the time didn’t change, so I’ll low-light him… another “Banana Bread”, and the high-lighted lady is in a circle with a double agent… I’ll keep her in the corner of my view and float the laser beam over to the other side of the room… that guy in the checked suit has spent a while at the book-case, but he’s also low-lighted… I’ll follow him while keeping her in- AHA THAT WAS A TELL, SHE TOTALLY MOVED HER HEAD… am you sure, Craig… I’m sure, me… take the shot… take the shot… take it…

I took the shot.

At that point there’s another realisation. This is a game that’s entirely uninterested in the mechanics of sniping. It’s just a framework for the end of the decision-making process. You don’t need to be a good shot. Just an observant human being, capable of recognising patterns that matter while discarding others. It’s scary, but a positive result is oddly affirming.

Just as I was finishing writing this up, I popped into take a few screenshots and found myself in a match with a player with hundreds more games than I’ve played. He took a minute to suss me out, killed me, then he explained in detail how he did it. I discovered it was because my mission choice let him know that I had to swap the statues. All he needed to do was camp them. There are tells everywhere.

Chatting is a big part of Spy Party’s charm. The lobby encourages people to hang out, so it’s a place for general game chat as well as a game picker. Everyone’s win-loss record is displayed, so you know just what you’re getting into when someone with a higher number of games plays you. But it’s something that helps, because this is a game of depth, and better players need good players to keep it interesting. They’ll often mentor newbies. It’s through the small community that I started to learn a few non-obvious tells, which is funny given how much they scared me to begin with.

But more than that, it’s also nice to hear just how tense the game is for other players. Everyone seems to collapse into a babbling heap at the end of a match, willing to spill out all their anxieties and failings about how they played. So far I’ve not had a single passive-aggressive “GG”, or a rage-quitter. We just talk about the rights and wrongs, and often with a sense of relief. For that reason alone it’s a remarkable thing.

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44 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge

    AlwaysRight says:

    On paper this should be my favourite thing ever. A deep psychological multiplayer about human behaviour not twitch reflexes. I loved the tension of Assassins Creeds multiplayer, but this game, this game, It reduces me to a nervous wreck.

    Ive had the beta for over a year and managed about 5-10 games maybe and I just can’t cope with it.

    • Leb says:

      is it that intense? o.0

      • Premium User Badge

        AlwaysRight says:

        If you let it be. The variables and systems involved are so deep that there is always something else to learn. Youre constantly trying to think learn and adapt, worrying how much your opponent knows. For example some of the high end spy players can not only keep a track of what they are doing, but mentally track what the other guests are doing and time their movements and tells to make the AI character look more human than they are *brain explodes!*

        http://www.spyparty.com/2012/11/19/a-perfect-game-of-spyparty/

    • Chris Hecker says:

      Have you tried playing on Balcony? You don’t have time to get stressed out, it’s over before it starts. :)

      I actually will do some stuff to leaven the stress as time goes on. I’m going to keep making the game deeper, but some people who are interested in it bounce off because it’s like chewing nails right now. So, keep an eye on the blog, it’ll get more accessible some day!

    • haideestom28 says:

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  2. Viroso says:

    Take this, turn into a 1984 MMO. What, a 1984 game? Nonsense you say.

    Every player is automatically a thought criminal, just for being a human player. Players coexist with NPCs. If you act in an unusual way, other players will notice, they may snitch on you. You may climb the party ladder by exposing thought criminals, or you can try to find like minded players who want to find a way out. A way out or a way to win the game would be constantly teased but impossible to achieve. When you start, you are randomly given a rank and a job, some players will be given good positions without having earned it, others will be stuck with awful jobs.

  3. MarcP says:

    You make this sound like the best competitive multiplayer game ever.

    And it probably is. I’m afraid to try it or even watch game footage for fear of getting addicted.

  4. airtekh says:

    Bought this recently but haven’t had a chance to play it yet. I’m a bit of a fan of this ‘Guess the NPC’ style gameplay in the vein of The Ship and Assassin’s Creed multiplayer

    Still not liking the visuals though. Perhaps the graphics are being kept lo-fi while the gameplay is still being tweaked? It might be more difficult for the sniper with more colours to contend with.

  5. kwyjibo says:

    “What if I never won a match?”

    What if you always won a match, but only as a spy, even when you were trying to get caught?

  6. Totally heterosexual says:

    Oh gawd I want this. Sound exactly like my thing.

  7. grechzoo says:

    Sounds great, bought the beta when it was closed, loved the idea and wanted to support Mr Hecker.

    But Craig can you address something?

    The guy who beat you by camping the statues. surely if you memorise the statues in the beginning. and keep you eyes on them 100%, and do NOTHING else, you can always spot the spy as soon as you see one change.

    Just hoping there is something I’m missing. cause honestly, that seemed like the hardest mission by such a long way to pull off in a small level.

    • kwyjibo says:

      From reading the story, if you get time the action just right – an NPC makes the swap.

    • Premium User Badge

      Crimsoneer says:

      Also, if you “green” the swap – get your second click with perfect timing, like the active reload from Gear of Wars, Space Marine, etc. – the statue swaps, but doesn’t appear to have swapped until next person comes to the statue. I think. THat;’s how a guy with 200 games explained it to me.

    • Chris Hecker says:

      Once you start winning as Sniper by camping a mission (which is harder than it sounds due to the information density), congratulations you’ve graduated out of the beginner leagues and are ready to play the “subset modes”, which are “pick” and “any”. In those, the Spy picks a certain number of missions, say, 4, and then only has to do a subset of them, like 3 of them. In “pick”, the Spy chooses which 3 to do ahead of time, and in “any” all 4 are enabled and the Spy can do any 3 opportunistically. It makes camping a huge risk for the Sniper, and all about the yomi. If you want to camp, you have to take a gamble that you picked the right mission to camp. If the Spy thinks you might pick that mission to camp…down the rabbit hole.

      • Premium User Badge

        Harlander says:

        For a second there I thought you’d put “all about the yoni“, which could have changed my image of this game significantly

      • grechzoo says:

        Thanks for the info Chris (and others).

        Yeah I was hoping you didn’t have to do all the missions, as banking on a green swap is like a 20% chance. (less for me as I dont have great timing on those little slider mini-games).

        I am still worried it is one of the most obvious missions from a sniper’s point of view if you have even half decent memory, but i’ll still give it a shot and see if there are any more sneaky ways to execute it without relying on the green swap.

  8. R_Yell says:

    I won’t hide Spy Party is the main reason I crafted this little experiment into Fistful of Frags >>> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzS_klzJOFo Let’s say, a first person version where everybody is prey and hunter at same time.

    • Chris Hecker says:

      Awesome, I’ll add it to the SpyParty FAQ, where I list some other similar games and mods!

    • Wedge says:

      Wow, FoF is still going? And with a neat mode like that? I should go check it out again sometime.

  9. iucounu says:

    So I had exactly the same experience as Craig. I played against someone else in the beta who had hundreds more hours than me, and was horribly owned in both modes. This isn’t a pick-up-and-play game; it’s almost a sport, and it’s somewhere between extremely and completely unforgiving of error. I’m still not sure it’s for me, because I rarely have the focus to get really good at a game these days, but it’s very interesting nonetheless.

    • Chris Hecker says:

      You should give it another shot. My nightmare is when I see two strangers start to play with no chatting at all. If you chat to introduce yourselves, and establish a rapport, it usuaully goes a lot more like Craig says in the article, where both players (regardless of skill differential) talk about what happened and teach each other stuff. Sometimes it doesn’t happen like that, but usually it does. Also, asking a highly ranked player for a mentor match works great too.

      • iucounu says:

        I certainly will, and I very much appreciate the advice. I was, in fact, given good pointers by a very friendly veteran – the Spy Party community seems like it’s full of people who are keen on passing on their expertise – I guess it’s more down to me not being quite motivated enough to learn the nuances of the game as yet. The same sort of thing applies to, say, DOTA etc, which I have also bounced off – the mechanics are simple to grasp, but the strategy feels like it will require a lot of hours to master.

        • Chris Hecker says:

          Yep, no worries, we’ll be here when you feel like trying it again! It’ll get more accessible in the long term, too, so waiting might also make it more appealing to you based on that. Thanks for your support!

      • Abricalio says:

        This looks like an incredibly interesting and quality psychological game. If this game becomes massively popular (which I hope it does, it deserves it), then perhaps you’d consider implementing a system such as the ELO match-making system used in Dota 2. It’s not perfect but would allow for a smaller skill gap between a given spy/sniper pair.

        • HothMonster says:

          When in the lobby you can see everyone’s games played and games won as sniper and as spy. So it isn’t hard to get a general idea of how good someone is and find someone in your skill range. Or at least know when you are about to get schooled.

  10. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    A great summary of an even greater game – this beta is the surprise hit of 2013 for me.

    Each match lasts just 4 or 5 minutes, but it’s so intense and so involving – you cannot get bored or lose focus because you are sucked in.

    • Chris Hecker says:

      Thanks for the kind words, so glad you like it!

      (also, testing a comments issue for Rossignol, but really,thanks! :)

  11. Caiman says:

    That petrifying horror while sitting in multiplayer lobbies is exactly why I find it hard to play competitive multiplayer games. I blame school, it scarred me.

  12. Kynrael says:

    I’ll always remember my first successful game as a Spy completing all the missions. At the end, I was literally shaking from the stress !

    Awesome game :)

  13. LennyLeonardo says:

    Hey Chris, I was umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether to get into Spy Party, but this article, and your friendly advice in the comments has tipped me over the edge. You seem like a jolly nice chap.

    • Chris Hecker says:

      Thanks, hope you like it!

      • Mr.Snowy says:

        Also grabbed this yesterday on the strength of this article and having been keeping an eye on the game from the sidelines for a while.

        Read the manual, did a spot of training, then had a handful of games. Didn’t suffer a nervous breakdown, did fail as both spy and sniper, but killed a spy with 30+ victories as each while I was at 0-0, so a nice start :)

        Looking forward to more when I get home.

  14. Dizzard says:

    It looks like a really interesting game….but I don’t think it would be for me.

    I get freaked out by the confrontations and mistrust whenever I play epic mafia. This game wouldn’t be good for my nerves.

  15. JimDiGritz says:

    This game is utterly brilliant!

    Just had some of the most tense fun in a game for.. probably since my first play of DayZ…

    Needs polishing but it is well worth a tenner.

  16. Premium User Badge

    mineshaft says:

    I enjoy this game very much.

    For all of you who are worried about skill disparity, you can do what I did: invite 6 of your friends to buy the game and learn with you. Start playing the game in pairs with each other, then switch off. You make your own mini league. After a few nights you will probably be on par with other new players.

    If you can’t find six, find a buddy.

    There’s a video of a party with just the AI running around and doing what they do (a sticky thread in the SpyParty forum). It taught me a lot about looking normal.

    Just hanging out in the lobby will eventually get you a game if you are a little introverted.

    See you on the slopes!

  17. JudyCrews37 says:

    til I looked at the check four $9870, I didn’t believe that…my… friend was like they say trully receiving money part-time at there computar.. there uncles cousin started doing this 4 less than 17 months and by now paid for the dept on their mini mansion and bourt a brand new volvo. read more at, EXIT35.COM