How to take SpyParty from a 1000-hour to a 5000-hour game

This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the difficult journeys they’ve taken to make their games. This time, SpyParty [official site].

If Chris Hecker was going to make a mistake with SpyParty, he wanted it to be the opposite mistake to the one Spore made. The way Hecker sees it, Spore’s problem was that it was all accessibility and no depth. And he’d know because he was a lead engineer and designer on Spore. So when he began to make his own game, SpyParty, which after eight years of development has finally hit Steam Early Access, he said to himself, “I’m going to go really hard on the depth.”

And so Hecker did, putting enough depth in this asymmetric two-player competitive game to satisfy 1000 hours of matches from its most dedicated players. But it’s not enough. He wants to push SpyParty to becoming 5000-hour game, and the way he plans to do it is by building his characters.

And why isn’t 1000 hours enough? ”I’m just fascinated by this depth thing,” Hecker tells me. “Go is my favourite game, with poker and chess, really deep games that can absorb a lifetime of study, and it’s not that I want someone to play my game 10 hours a day for 100 days. I want them to play half an hour a day for years. I want a lifetime study thing, to make a game worthy of someone who wants to do that.”

If you’re taking your first glance at SpyParty and you’re wondering how on Earth it could be talked about like this, it’s understandable. In fact, its basic premise is pretty simple. One player plays the spy, and the other plays the sniper. The spy is a guest at the ambassador’s party and must carry out a series of shadowy tasks like stealing guest lists and transferring microfilm while mingling with the AI-controlled characters. If they can carry out their list of tasks before the clock ticks down, the spy wins the game. The sniper, meanwhile, watches the party from afar through a pair of binoculars, attempting to read the behaviour of each party-goer in order to identify and shoot the single human one with their rifle. If they’re right, they win the game.

The depth comes from the layers of deception and subterfuge that bubble up from this setup. For beginner players, the spy has the advantage as the sniper gazes in, overwhelmed by the challenge of tracking the behaviour of multiple guests. But then, once the sniper realises that they can ‘camp’ one of the spy’s tasks, such as one in which they must exchange a statue for another, by exclusively watching them, the game becomes easy for snipers. Later, as players start to play the intermediate skill level, the game switches back towards the spy’s favour as their task list becomes a set from which they only have to perform a certain number and not all of them. Now it’s far too risky for the sniper to only camp a single task, because the spy might never attempt it.

At its highest skill levels, SpyParty’s depth is reflected in subtler strategies and concepts. If the spy has chosen to play as the gentleman with the cane, then the sniper knows that if he tries to plant a bug on the ambassador with his cane hand, the animation is almost impossible to see. Thus, if the sniper sees the gentleman with the cane passes the ambassador on the cane side, they’ll be suspicious. Similarly, the spy might choose to play as the dwarf character, Mr. S, on the Gallery level, which is a long corridor in which the guests tend to block the sniper’s view. Mr. S is short enough that he’s continually obscured if he stays at the end of the room, leading the sniper to immediately assume he’s the spy. On the other hand, perhaps the spy will therefore choose another character on the Gallery level to lead the sniper astray? For every play there’s a counter.

Several years ago, Hecker had a big idea for expanding SpyParty’s strategy. Each character would have a number of specific behavioural tics, so one character might take a drink every time the waiter passed while another would never take one, or perhaps another would spend a lot of time looking at pictures on the walls or staring out of the window, and spy players would have to emulate these behaviours to keep up the deception.

It seemed a great idea, because it was exactly how everyone who learned about SpyParty expected it to work. “I rejected the idea because it was too complicated,” says Hecker. He didn’t think anyone would want to learn every character’s traits. But then League of Legends and Dota appeared. “These incredibly deep games about incredibly complicated characters – there’s so much stuff to know,” he says. “They have a 120 characters [LoL currently has 140, while Dota has 115] and you’re supposed to know what they can do. There’s so much knowledge at the elite levels that people are willing to learn and it made me realise that there’s not really such a thing as too complicated for a competitive multiplayer game.”

Hecker realised that the real challenge was not complexity but making it accessible. “As long as you don’t have to read the book before you start, and as long as you’re motivated to read that book as you play more and more, then I think everything’s going to be OK.” And so one of SpyParty’s big new features will be traits, which will give each character three characteristics that will govern their responses to certain situations. Hecker’s still compiling the list, but perhaps there will be teetotallers and drinkers, characters who don’t like talking to others and those who can’t bear to be alone, and those who make NPCs tend to walk away when they join a conversation and those that attract them. And to help players remember who does what, they’ll be listed in the Dossier, which will pop over the game screen during a match, obscuring what’s happening but delivering important information.

On a fundamental level, the traits system will nerf spies because there’s little upside to having to perform their actions, while the sniper gets more potential clues to watch for. But there’s always room for subterfuge. If your character’s a drinker, for instance, they’ll often have a drink in one hand which will mean they can’t pick up statues or bug the ambassador while passing them on that side. “That makes it so you don’t want a drink as the spy. But it also makes you also want to take a drink as the spy because it makes you less suspicious. And if you’re near the ambassador and he’s on your right and you have a drink in your right hand, the sniper knows you can’t bug, and they’re maybe thinking that you won’t bother trying that.” So maybe you’ll try.

But why nerf spies? At the moment SpyParty’s elite players tend to play games with rules biased towards snipers around 60% of the time, while lower ranked players tend to play rules that favour snipers around 55% of the time. There’s some discussion in the community as to what’s causing this, but Hecker’s working theory is that it’s more fun to feel like the underdog if you’re the spy. You feel that your actions are instrumental to both winning and losing because you’re the active player. If you’re the sniper, though, you can feel helpless when things aren’t going your way.


So while traits are partly designed to add complexity to the game, they’re also designed to give the sniper more to work with, and the spy more to have to juggle. But to balance out their effects, Hecker’s also working on a second feature to add to the game. Recommendations are a mechanic by which the spy can get into a conversation with NPCs and tell them to go and look at statues or stare out of the window, adding a wave of noise to the sniper’s careful surveillance. If they’ve been noting which characters tend to look at statues, now a set of NPCs who wouldn’t normally look at them come along and muddy their data. On the other hand, if a group of characters all suddenly make a beeline for the statues apart from one, maybe the spy has just exposed themselves?

Hecker is also considering a third feature which he calls crazy, and he’s not sure it’s going to work at all. Here, the sniper gets a tool to directly affect the party by asking the security guard to interrogate a nominated character and ask them a set of questions, such as ‘What do you think about the statues,’ in return for putting an extra 30 seconds on the clock. If the spy gets interrogated, they’ll have to remember or bluff their way through the questions. “So you have to quickly think, have I been to statues? It might be another way for the sniper to poke in at the party and change how things are going.”

Hecker’s really not sure whether it’s a good idea. But he’s forcing himself to be brave with the game. He knows his hardcore players are generally behind what he wants to do: “They think it’s cool because it’s a big game design change and they think pretty much that recommendations are going to work, but some are nervous of the spy-nerf aspect of traits.”

But he’s also been nervously watching disputes blow up around other games when they’ve been updated, from PUBG to Darkest Dungeon. “But traits is such a cool idea and it plays so well with the recommendations so I’m going to do it, and if I end up having to yank it out, it’s like, oh well, that’s how game design works. I have some nerves of doing this kind of thing now that lots of Steam players are now playing, but I promised myself that I’m not going to hesitate to make big changes, because I want the game to be even deeper and better.”

SpyParty is in early access now and available direct from the developer or on Steam.


  1. April March says:

    It’s a personal thing, but I’d be against any change to a game that can be summed up as ‘make it more like a MOBA’.

    • Kyle700 says:

      Well, that’s not really a fair analysis. He said that he was thinking about the problem before Moba’s became popular (remember, spy party is pretty old at this point, it only recently came on steam and got popular!) and that players expected that characters already had traits. There IS no moba comparison here, except that maybe mobas are complicated and theres a lot to think about with each character.

    • Chris Hecker says:

      Yeah, I could have been more clear there…the takeaway from MOBAs was simply the idea that complexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing if done well. I had just come off Spore where we mostly viewed complexity as anathema, and so it took a while for me to realize there are good kinds that players like and that add depth to the game in ways that are compatible with my design aesthetic.

  2. Shinard says:

    I don’t think adding complexity is the way to make it a “lifetime study” game. Think about Go – very simple rules, but it takes a lifetime of study to master. I think if you want a lifetime study game, keeping Spy Party as is but giving the Spy some more tools, or friendlier Spy levels, would be the right way to do it. Easy to pick up, hard to master, that’s the ticket. And MOBAs might be hard to master, but I remember getting into Dota by climbing my way up a learning cliff. Not something to emulate.

    • Kitsunin says:

      I don’t think emulating Go or Chess is something you can do anymore (if your desire is to invent a game with extreme depth). There are so many games being made, and probably many of them have that same “simple depth”. But how would you choose one to be your new Go? And why, when there isn’t the same community around it?

      Perhaps unfortunately, I’m sure that even if someone designed a game which was just as good as Go or Chess, it wouldn’t have the same potential (in fact, I’m all but certain it has happened before and we all didn’t realize!). On the other hand, when the depth comes from complexity, it’s obvious that there’s more to learn even without a community telling you as much. Without that, the community won’t last long enough to develop the metagame enough to create the depth of Go.

      Actually, I would argue that Go and Chess are not so popular because of their minimalism. Their metagame is so incredibly complex that the games themselves cease to be minimalistic. They are popular because they’re well designed and they have history.

      Besides, everything being added to Spy Party could easily be ignored by new players. It merely raises the skill ceiling.

  3. something says:

    I see a couple of problems. Firstly, I’ve played online games with people who’ve run up four digit play times. Those games are impossible to get into because you know that even after a hundred hours of play you’ll still be losing most of the time. The communities become very insular – all hardcore obsessives, no casuals.

    The second problem is one of style. Chess and Go survive a lifetime of study because their minimalist nature means they never go out of fashion. I guess you could refresh the look of the game every five to ten years but that’s a lot more work than designing a new chess set.

    • Kitsunin says:

      Your first problem is literally the problem Chess and Go have. It’s not a bad problem to have, especially for a 1v1 online game it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone who hasn’t actually played hundreds or thousands of times as long as you. You only need one other new person! Spy Party also has better handicap options than most games, with maps and rulesets that favor one side over the other.

      • something says:

        Chess and Go get around that problem by being classics. People think it’s a skill worth taking the time to learn. They also benefit from being social experiences. I have tried playing chess online against randos. You play one game and then know with 100% certainty that whoever won that game will win every other game you play. It’s like playing against an AI that’s capable of feeling frustration. If you have a friend who plays, it’s much more satisfying to sit down for a game even though you know you’re in for yet another thrashing. Now, if the spy and sniper could chat to each other throughout the game…

        • parabolik says:

          But sniper and spy can chat throughout the game. In fact, in spyparty chatting with random opponents throughout the game happens almost everytime.

  4. poliovaccine says:

    I get the feeling that by the time this is truly “done” it will be a full fledged social gathering simulator, full stop. Plus a sniper and a spy.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      it will be a full fledged social gathering simulator

      Sounds like a horror game to me.

    • Robert The Rebuilder says:

      By the time this game is “done”, we won’t be using PCs anymore. We’ll need an emulator to play it in our ubiquitous quantum computing hive mind.

  5. Throwback says:

    The key to depth at least in discussions of chess & go, is the number of potential moves & thus potential decisions. So even though this is talking about putting more restrictions in game, I think it will add extra decisions to make. I will be interested to try it for sure.

    • Kitsunin says:

      This is what I should have said earlier. I think people point to simplicity as the reason chess and go work because they are simple. But that’s only because we’re working backwards and it seems obvious at a glance. I believe the simplicity was just necessary for them to be popular in their time, because otherwise they would’ve been inaccessible for most people to reproduce and play.

      Then the incredible decision space (viable decisions, that’s an important distinction) is what made them “lifestyle games”. There aren’t any nine men’s morris leagues.

  6. MajorLag says:

    On the one hand, games that expect me to invest that kind of time are generally not the kind of thing I enjoy, but on the other hand those games usually do that through grind or tedium. It sounds like Spy Party will be easy to pick up, and no one will have an advantage merely for having spent longer playing, the advantage will come from actually learning things. That’s something I wish more games would do.

    Echoing what another poster said, I feel like online play would be a waste of time though, you’d just get continually stomped by people who’ve invested a hell of a lot more time than you have, like all those 3rd graders that make online shooters so unpleasant these days. But playing only against people I know, people who like me don’t have 1000 free hours to invest in anything so unproductive, that could work. Here’s hoping for a LAN option.

  7. Fungaroo says:

    It’s interesting to see the Go comparison come back because Hecker has said he tries to think of the game as being like poker: a game of incomplete information where attention to detail will give one player the edge. From my own time playing, I know my own incomplete knowledge caused me to lose a round as the spy. One of the tasks you have to do at higher difficulty is inspect three statues. And there’s a very specific way the NPCs will do that. Well turns out the sniper I was up against knew that bit of information and I didn’t and I was dead shortly thereafter. (The NPCs will return the statues when they’re holding it down low. I had been in the middle of looking at it up high when I decided to put it back so that was an immediate tell)

    Another task that runs through all levels of difficulty is “seducing” a target. At the higher levels if you fail at this task, the target will walk away abruptly from you and the group you’re both standing in. Where I’m not sure how far he’s taken the depth in the game is I was watching individual character animations and noticed that one of the women, as part of their seduction animation, gives a “seductive” look in one direction. Is that a tell specific to that character or just a quirk in the animation? I don’t know lol.

    Right now, though, I wish Hecker would work on getting matchmaking smoothed out and figure out some kind of generalized match format.

    • Chris Hecker says:

      Right now, though, I wish Hecker would work on getting matchmaking smoothed out and figure out some kind of generalized match format.
      I have it on pretty good authority that matchmaking is what he’s working on right now! Well, right now he’s fixing bugs, but matchmaking is definitely coming in next.

  8. NotquiteSure says:

    it’s been a month since release and Chris Hecker is still incapable of allowing players to change their names from steam925249534639657567313 to something of their choice. I’m skeptical about his ability to implement anything mildly complex in the near future…

    • Chris Hecker says:

      Depends on how you define “near future”, now doesn’t it? The word “near” is so subjective…

      Anyway, Steam names are fixed locally and going in the next build after I fix a few more bugs. Then matchmaking, then maybe spawn copies, or maybe 1vN spy vs snipers mode, not sure, then this Dossiers stuff. Is the plan anyway. The game is pretty complicated and I’m slow, sorry!

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