Embracing the bluff: how SpyParty’s long development changed the game

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Chris Hecker has been working on SpyParty for almost a decade now and I get the impression he’d be happy perfecting it for the rest of his career. Some developers want to move from one project to the next, an internal clock ticking down and reminding them how few ideas can be realised in a lifetime, while others are better suited to exploring one design from as many angles as possible, pushing every aspect to its limits.

“I love Go,” Hecker told me at GDC. “I wanted to make Go, but then I realised I was making a different kind of game. I realised part of the way through that SpyParty is more like Poker.” Embracing what the game is rather than what he originally wanted it to be has been key to the whole process.

If you don’t know what SpyParty is, you would be wise to read this early hands-on preview but Pip also summed it up rather splendidly: “[a] reverse Turing test of a game where you have to disappear into a party of AI characters, dodging suspicion as a fellow player armed with a single sniper bullet scans for tells”. Two players, then, one trying to carry out espionage missions at a crowded party, while the other tries to identify them by looking for behaviours that mark them as a devious human rather than an AI character.

The Go/Poker analogy isn’t perfect but it says a lot about Hecker’s approach to design, and why SpyParty has remained interesting to him for so long. And he certainly is interested – at several points during our conversation he sounds more like a fan describing a game that he’s discovered and fallen in love with than a person who’s spent years working on specific problems and recreating the game, visually and otherwise.

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Hecker loves this game, even if it isn’t necessarily the game he thought he was making when he began.

“The game that was in mind was Go. It’s one of those high-end competitive games, like Chess, and at the other end of the spectrum is something like hold ’em Poker. It’s also an amazing competitive game, beautifully designed, but it’s all messy and full of probabilities, whereas Go is this crystalline thing. It gives you everything you need to know and then challenges you to win.

“Poker knows you’ll lose some hands even if you’re the best player at the table. Integrating those win/loss probabilities and the way statistics work is part of the beauty of its design actually.

“When I realised that SpyParty is more like Poker than Go – as much as it’s like either of them – I had to come to terms with that because I’d thought I was making a clockwork game, but actually there’s a lot of messiness. The bluffing, the tells. Eventually I embraced that Poker terminology.”

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When Hecker says ‘eventually’ here, he’s talking about a relatively short-term realisation. In the grand scheme of SpyParty development, the Poker revelation came early. The landscape for indie games has shifted since then and I asked if he had any reservations about the time he has spent working on this one game. The simple answer is a ‘no’, but there’s a more complex answer as well and it’s about the danger of precedent.

I mentioned “the Herculean effort” made by the Cuphead team, and how their story of long hours, work-life balance sacrifices and remortgaged homes concerned me as a model for success. It’s a story with a happy ending, and I’m glad that’s the case, but we tend not to hear quite as much about the tales of indie development with grim endings.

“Some friends and I were talking about similar stories. Making games is scary, full stop. You can be a person who makes a game in three months for iPhone and still goes broke. Especially now. I think all of those articles need a disclaimer because there’s a huge difference between anecdote and data.

“Even ignoring return on investment in terms of the financial aspect, if you make a game in a shorter time you’re less likely to burn out and hurt yourself. One thing in my advantage is that I’m older – which is both good and bad, because it also means I have a mortgage and a kid (laughs) – but I’ve been around for a while. I worked on Spore for six years, so I knew where I stood with the sprint or marathon deal, and I know what works for me. For SpyParty it felt like it could keep more than I can give it.

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“Trying to do a networked multiplayer indie game with twenty animated characters is insane, but at least my job’s different every day! It is scary though. I’ve basically spent all of my money. I haven’t remortgaged my house, but I’ve spent all of my savings from EA and borrowed some money. I’m optimistic – or at least hopeful – but it’s sold 25k copies by itself and hopefully that indicates it’ll be a success. If not, I’ll be really proud of what I’ve made. It’s a beautiful thing, from a design and an aesthetic perspective.

“It would suck to get a job but I can program a computer. But at the same time, this is a huge piece of me and a huge chunk of my adult life.

“It’s so hard to tell people what to do at all. Don’t quit your day job until you’re sure what you’re doing. It’s higher risk managing your own personal mental health during these long projects, and managing your finances and making sure you’re not endangering yourself in that way.

“And playtest. With Spore I was mostly doing tech rather than design, but we weren’t playtesting that game for depth, we were testing it for accessibility. If I was going to make a mistake with SpyParty, I wanted to make the opposite mistake. Worry about the accessibility later once I knew I had the depth.

“With SpyParty, I lucked out. It just became fun one day. I remember exactly when it happened – I had friends over playing at lunch and they had some suggestions; a time limit, some other things. We played again that night at their house and it was fun. They couldn’t stop playing.

“If your game doesn’t have that ‘your friends won’t stop playing it’ thing, that’s a worry. And you know that long before you think about remortgaging your house!”

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When we first sat down to talk, Hecker was showing me the updated versions of existing maps, explaining the references that had been inserted alongside the new art style. That includes an Alan Turing memorial statue, alluding to the game’s conceptual description as a “reverse Turing test”, and new take on London’s Sherlock Holmes pub, now renamed for Irene Adler. More important than the new look as a purely aesthetic upgrade, however, is the way it has helped Hecker to tease out the importance of each map as a playable space.

They’re small spaces, SpyParty maps, and they all play with the game’s rules in a different way. In some games that might mean new hazards were introduced but here, in a game where the key verbs are really observe and perform rather than kill and evade, the maps are all about playing with perspective and visual noise.

The library, riffing on Foucault’s Panopticon, places the sniper in the centre of a rotunda, a position which should make it simple to observe all the guests as they go about their business. However, in a way that will bring sympathy from anyone who has ever sat in the cheap seats at certain theatres or football grounds, there are pillars obscuring the view of the room.

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In most SpyParty areas, the sniper is like a camera attached to a rail, panning around a scene like a killer director of photography and trying get a perfect shot. In the Panopticon library the sniper is rooted in place, however, given a commanding position with an elevated viewpoint but no freedom of movement. The most they can do is lean from side to side, trying to peer at hidden activities.

The Panopticon giveth and the Panopticon taketh away.

That’s true of the new art style as well, intentionally, as becomes clear when Hecker talks me through how the maps have changed over time. Terrace, the Greek island inspired replacement for the Double Modern map, is a perfect example. It’s beautiful, with the lights of villas shining in the background, scattered across a hillside. The terrace itself, where the guests are gathered, has multiple levels, though the game doesn’t use them.

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The exotic location and its opulence act as a distraction. SpyParty has introduced density without sacrificing legibility. You could play the game with coloured blocks to represent the characters, moving through minimalist boxes, but moving away from abstraction and toward a visual style that is so full of character, Hecker has discovered new aspects of the game. When he talks about the trait system, which gives guests’ behavioural tells – a lush will take a drink more often, not wanting to have an empty glass – it’s hard for me to imagine that working so well if the people weren’t identifiable as distinct individuals.

The pink oblong repeatedly taking a yellow square from the gray oblong might provide us with the same data as seeing the oil magnate guzzling flutes of champagne whenever a waiter passes by, but to most players it won’t have the same impact. SpyParty is a game about people, which is why it’s a game that works better with human diversity in its cast and with open acceptance of its own Poker-y nature.

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“A huge part of sticking with a design for this long involves listening to the game. It was originally called Sniper Party and I made it at a jam using Sims assets, where the theme was “do things that other people aren’t doing”. My feeling was there aren’t enough people games. We’re doing better now, but there are still more orc and space marine games.

“Sniper Party was based on an existing idea and I was telling Will [Wright] about that idea one time and he said it’d never work. That it’d be immediately obvious which character was the human player.

“So I made a box, with windows on two sides, and with Sims characters walking around who would occasionally pair up and talk. And I had control of one of them and I recorded some footage of that and showed it to people and it was impossible for them to figure out which one was me. So I knew it was going to work, the fundamental idea of the reverse Turing test.

“From then on, I had to listen to the game rather than have a set idea of what it might become. The fundamental idea worked, the rest was in an area that’s not very widely explored, so I let the game lead me in certain directions. That doesn’t mean you don’t need a strong internal compass, but that’s what it is – a compass rather than a roadmap.”

SpyParty arrives on Steam this week, on Thursday the 12th.

16 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    This reminds me of a spy game I can’t remember the name of, for the ouya. It’s you and however many players acting as NPCs to avoid being shot by a sniper, but it’s 2D and was ‘pay what you want’ on Ouya. Was it the same game?

    • SuddenSight says:

      There was Hidden in Plain Sight by Adam Spragg. The basic concept (blending in with CPUs) is similar, but the execution is quite different.

      Seeing as Spy Party was first showcased in 2009 while the Ouya didn’t drop until 2012, I am reasonably certain Spy Party came first. That said, the games seem different enough for both to exist happily.

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        Yep, that was the name. I had a lot of fun with it. Scooting around slowly like the NPCs, trying to see how long you could fake it, hopefully long enough for the sniper to blow their only shot on an incorrect guess.

        So, it was fun. Maybe this will be too.

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        • TeePee says:

          HIPS is on Steam, and for not very much, either. If you’re the sort that’s partial to couch multiplayer, it works equally well with gamer and non-gamer friends. Well worth a look.

  2. mike69 says:

    Picked it up recently (been on my wishlist forever but I noticed the price is going up on the 12th). It’s great! Much more difficult than I thought to identify the spy, there’s so much going on and so much to be looking for. But the execution of the concept is great. It really works.

  3. Jesrad says:

    Nice write-up on an interesting game. How long does each party last? A time limit is mentioned but no details.

    • mike69 says:

      You start with a few minutes on the clock and you can add time if needed (in exchange for giving a tell). You can accomplish your goals in the given time but everything needs to go well. So about 5 minutes?

    • Hypocee says:

      Three minutes thirty seconds last I knew, but one action available to the characters is to stand by a window and check their watch; if the Spy does it, it adds [quantity of time].

  4. JohnnyG says:

    Man, I just tried this and I really wanted to like it. However it pains me to say that I had zero fun. I found it clunky and confusing and I didn’t win a single game. Every other play on there seemed to be a pro. I suppose that I am too stupid to play effectively. I suspect that I may have just wasted £10. Oh well, c’est la vie…

    • artrexdenthur says:

      The nature of the game’s development and marketing (or, mostly, lack thereof) means you’re not far wrong when you say everyone seemed like a pro. It’s a problematic game to get in to for a new player; you basically have two options: 1) get your friends involved and play against each other mostly since you’ll all be new, or 2) talk to the forumites who’ve been playing for years before you play against unknown opponents, and ask someone to play a teaching game… They’re interested in new blood, and are well aware that it’s an impossible looking game when you jump in the deep end.
      So yeah, not a great system until actual matchmaking is implemented, but there are options. FWIW I got way more out of the game when I bought a second copy and just had two laptops set up with it at a game night :)

    • mike69 says:

      The game will get an injection of players in a couple days when it hits steam. But even now there is some variety in the player base – I’m new and haven’t struggled too much to find it!

      Stating the obvious but make sure to do the whole tutorial and a few practice games, especially in other party venues. The first time I was in a different room I was totally thrown off guard! But it’s a game that clearly gets easier the more you play; but the genius is that being good won’t help you against an opponent that’s also good. It’s a real back and forth tussle of a game.

  5. Hypocee says:

    I don’t think I’ve written about this outside emails to podcasts.

    I’ve been to three PAX/Prime/Wests, in ’09, ’11 and ’13. In ’11, I believe it was, in the primary indie area on floor 6, I saw a small booth with a banner encouraging me to ‘Support indie game development!’ and check them out. Well gosh, a bit content-free but I like doing that thing! That word was in the zeitgeist at the time, some may recall. And anyway, I’m here to eventually hit everything remotely interesting anyway, so what’s up?

    What’s up was a little studio whose bio placard declared them to be local boys – Seattle residents and graduates of the development program at some university. They’d obviously been hard at work, because they had prototypes of a whopping four titles to show off!

    The first one I saw was an amazing new engineering action sim, in which your goal was to put together different rocket fuel tanks, engines, parachutes and such, then try to fly the resulting craft into space while compensating for its somewhat floppy physics, while three little big-headed, bug-eyed humanoid alien faces in the lower right corner of the screen reacted. I don’t remember names of any of these; let’s call it Berble Base Bobram after something an Idle Thumb once said and because the little aliens if I recall correctly were purple. They were definitely, most emphatically not light green in any case.

    The second I don’t remember. It was probably a match-3. Things were like that.

    The third, also not super remarkable. Let’s call it Sandinista, or not because I have nothing more to say about it.

    The fourth, and of course the reason this is here, let’s call Agent Soiree. An asymmetric one-on-one 3D multiplayer game in which one player was a first-person…sharpshooter and the other was a third-person…agent trying to look like a bunch of AI characters while completing tasks at a…soiree.

    I may be wrong on the year, but this has stuck with me because I know for a fact that I physically saw Spy Party there at the same time, either in or right next to the Indie Megabooth. I worked out on the trip back across the continent that I could have walked from one booth to the other in 50, maybe 60 paces.

    Cloning was another part of the zeitgeist, from Chinese sweatshop fly-by-nights and from Das Kapital or indeed from one employed by t’other. Remember when it was possible to get het up about King.com or Zynga and Yeti Towers or Triple Town or whatever? Good times, good times.

    Spy Party’s long development led to an incident that stuck with me, leaving a tangle of thoughts ahead of the debates over what constitutes ‘release’ in an early access age, and what constitutes a clone when a developer’s USP is craft despite the originality of a design, among other lesser topics. Also, the sheer brass balls on those bros, you know? Not only to so badly misunderstand the economics of Klone Life – step one is to be desperate somewhere smoggy, not a pedegreed white guy seeking a living wage in a high-burn-rate technometropolis – but to forsake hiding behind a soundalike developer name on an app store and pay money to physically move your bodies into a building and show off your little monsters a couple hundred meters from one of their parasitic hosts. I think it may have been an act of Art.

  6. zeep says:

    Such a typical RPS article. Who writes like this? Endlessly going on about Go and Poker. New paragraph? Let’s go right back to Poker and Go. It’s like writers get paid more for long articles. Needlessly long.
    But i’m all about love for RPS though.

    • Hypocee says:

      Nobody, in point of fact, wrote like that. Somebody spoke like that; Chris Hecker, in two consecutive sentences in the conversation from which this was adapted. The quote marks around he quotes are clues that they’re quotes in which the writer has chosen to repeat something a person said verbatim.

      Speaking of saying the same thing three times when once would do…

  7. OpT1mUs says:

    I remember hearing about and reading about Spy Party yeeeaaarssss ago. I always loved the idea but completely forgot about the game, thinking it’s vaporware. Few days ago I went on Twitch and saw people streaming Spy Party. Maybe 30 min later I bought 2 keys (it’s a great couples game, believe it or not) and I’m having ton of fun. Game ended up better than I imagined it would be, and it has loads of potential to be expanded in variety of ways.
    In short, buy it.

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