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Invite Only: Chris Hecker On SpyParty's Six New Guests

SpyParty [official site] - that 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 - has now unveiled its third group of characters. Amongst the group are 40-something rocker Ms L, Sikh gentleman Mr K and a pair of doctorate-holding identical twins. We nabbed some time with developer Chris Hecker over email to discuss the latest additions. Read on for hair triangles, why you should never wear an ugly sports coat to a party and the limits of geometric nepotism:

Hi Chris, I know you've spoken before about character diversity and why representing different races, genders, disabilities, ages and so on are important, but has that changed over the years you've worked on SpyParty?

Well, my goals for diversity for SpyParty specifically and my goals for games in general haven't really changed, which are that I want games to get more diverse, both in terms of people playing them and in terms of the people represented in them. I think things like this tend to improve over time, and have been improving over the long haul, and I want to help do my part as a developer. The more people playing games and represented in games, the better, in my opinion.

One of the many awesome things about working on SpyParty is that it's a perfect place to put these goals into practice, to put my money (all my money, yikes) where my mouth is, because the game really thrives on the diverse cast, both visually and in the gameplay. Visually, it's just really cool to look at this party full of unique and interesting people hanging out; it has that "spy-fiction" feel because of all these exaggerated archetypal characters. In terms of the gameplay, SpyParty is a really difficult and hard-core competitive game, and the more uniquely identifiable each person is, the more it helps the players learn their behaviors, animations, and spot them in the crowd.

One big pillar of SpyParty's challenge is what I call "attention as a resource", which means you are spending your energy parsing the scene, deciding where to focus, and trying to figure out what's going on and filter through a ton of noise to find the Spy (or to frame another guest or be aware of the Sniper's suspects on the flip side), and so the more different the characters are along all sorts of different axes, the better. So, it's really a great game for pushing hard on diversity, because the design really wants the guests to be diverse, so it doesn't feel forced or artificial or anything, it's simply the path to the coolest possible looking and playing game.

The new class

From left to right: Ms O, Mr P, Drs M and N, Mr K and Ms L

You've spoken about using spy story archetypes in character creation - how do you tread the line between archetype and stereotype?

Yeah, it's a fine line. We just try to be respectful of the different types of people we're representing, while still making them cool and striking, and try to think "how would this type of person represent themselves in this (crazy, fictional, stylized) environment?" We decide to purposefully embrace and enhance some characteristics, while flipping others on their head. It's really a case-by-case basis. An example might be Ms. H. We pushed the fabulousness of her hair to 11 (spending double the number of triangles on just her hair than we do on other entire characters, so it has a real cost to the game's rendering budget), but we gave her a pretty normal middle aged female body morphology. She's sexy and stylish, but not completely out of proportion body-wise, but her hair is clearly her visually defining feature.

Ms H's hair triangles

Some of the characters are inspired by real people - Ms L is based on your girlfriend. Is that purely a visual inspiration or will it extend to personality as well?

It's mostly going to be visual, with maybe a bit of inspired attitude in the animations. The personality system (called "dossiers") that will eventually go in (hopefully this year) will give each character specific behavioral proclivities, and that will do more towards giving them actually personality traits, like "drinks too much", "is a loudmouth", "is shy of crowds", and those will be doled out to the guests for gameplay tuning. I might try to capture some of my girlfriend's and John's girlfriends characteristics, but it's not going to be like John and I are playing The Sims and we make our families and then we torture them with a sniper bullet. The resemblances are more of a fun easter egg visual reference for those in the know, but the gameplay ramifications of the characters come first.

Does basing a character on a real person help with the diversity you're after?

In these two specific cases, we decided we wanted a certain kind of character (in John's girlfriend's case, a twenty-something asian female, in my girlfriend's case, a forty-something rocker woman) and we just so happened to have good models for those handy. Well, okay, maybe we decided we wanted those because we had them handy, who knows how art is created, you know? Certainly if we just made all our friends and put them in the game the cast wouldn't be as wacky as we want it to be, so the geometric nepotism probably stops here. But who knows? I know of at least one other person who swears they are in the existing cast already... name withheld to protect the guilty!

One of the new characters is also a Sikh - is religion an aspect you're exploring an any other characters?

We originally weren't going to go near religion just because it's both fraught with peril to do respectfully and it is often more of an internal trait than an external visual trait, but we wanted somebody in a turban because it's just such a great and iconic silhouette, and I'd just seen Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel, and he likes to use this actor and model and fashion designer Waris Ahluwalia, who always looks like he just stepped out of a Bond film, so he seemed like a great inspiration. We mashed him up with a few other Sikhs we found, stirred, and out came Mr. K, our best-dressed guest.

Getting along famously

I'm hoping we don't screw it up. He's unshaven and wearing the turban to cover his hair, and he'll be drinking water. If people notice other stuff we should do or should not do to make it more correct, I'm definitely interested to hear. I was getting a bit nervous as the character reveal approached, because I want to do this right, but I found this hilarious video and it made me feel much better. I'm totally sending this guy a copy of SpyParty.

This new batch of characters makes use of far stronger colours when it comes to clothing and accessories. Will you go back and rework some of the older characters to bring their colouring in line with the newcomers?

I don't think we're going to need to, but we'll see after everybody's done and together. I think once we've got all 20 (21!) together, we can do a global color balance pass and it'll be better than messing with it before we know what the levels and the other guests look like. It's not that we don't want anybody in grey/blue/brown or non-saturated colors, just that we don't want everybody in them either.

Of course, alternate outfit sets are totally going to be a thing. Some day.

Will you also need to make any tweaks for colourblind characters or is this where the distinctive silhouettes and individualised animations/skeletons come in?

Yeah, I'm hoping for the characters the other visual characteristics will be enough, and that's why we really try to push them apart from each other. For UI elements and stuff we have colorblind modes already (they're crappy and need work, but they're in there already), but hopefully the characters have enough dimensions of difference that we don't have to do palette swaps for them too.

New friends. Except for the fact one might be a spy and might end up dead at a party.

You've spoken about how players can use each other's biases like sexism and racism to gain a tactical advantage - can you give some examples in relation to this batch of characters?

Well the examples I always use are really pretty simplistic and fake (like somebody avoiding playing a race or gender) and probably don't exist in the beta community, at least for long, because the game punishes this kind of bias pretty harshly where it counts: your win rate. The real interesting thing is whether I'll be able to detect more subtle trends by analyzing the metrics over time. I gather a ton of stats on all the games played, but I never have time to analyze them, so I eventually hope to put the data up via a web API and then fans with web development experience can grind on it and find the cool stuff. I remember one funny tidbit from the last time I did metrics processing years ago, which is that people liked to shoot the guy with the plaid jacket in the old art [style] the most, so I guess people are biased against ugly sport coats. Shame on them.

You mentioned potentially adding a pick and ban phase where the sniper and spy set up the guest list - can you tell me a bit more about how and why you see that working?

I don't really know yet, it's just a suggestion and thread in the forum right now, not even a design. You could imagine pick/banning various things, like characters, missions, maps, and whatnot. I think it'll be worth some experiments once all the main design pieces are in place.

Tell me about how you think the twins will impact play. You're using the same character model for both so will it be better for a spy to pick one of the twins when the other is absent so there's no "comparison" option for behaviour?

My guess is it'll be best for the Spy if both of them are guests at the party, so the Sniper has to spend some cognitive load sorting them out, but I don't know. Right now, the only way for the Spy to ensure they're both at the party as non-cast guests (meaning not Suspected Double Agents, who can't be the Spy, etc.) is to pick one as the Spy and the other as the Seduction Target, which is, uh, a bit weird, but hey, who am I to judge?

Eventually I'll give the players more control over all the guests, and that's maybe where the pick/ban thing comes in. However, in a deep game like this where the elite players have hundreds of hours in it, you basically have no idea what's going to happen when features like this land. You hope you don't mess the whole game up, but you kind of playtest it a bit, and then let it loose, and then watch and listen carefully to the people who are actually good at your game. Then sometimes you ignore what they say because everybody loves to complain about everything, but more often than not you get good feedback and tune it.

Drs M and N (no word on what their doctorates are actual in)

You also mentioned wanting to broach class and income diversity if possible - is that something you think could be done via the people working at the party rather than attending it (butlers, waiting staff, the security guard...)

Yeah, I've thought about that a little bit, but I think that kind of exploration is for another game, at least in more depth. There is staff at the party, and they'll have a more active role in the future, but I wouldn't call it a first class exploration of those axes of diversity, the way the guests are.

Given the different characters involve different limitations and strengths (the elderly lady moving slower and thus needing better time management, for example) do you or the community think of them as being in different class groups? I mean, SpyParty won't have tank/assassin/support but hopefully you get the basic idea!

Experienced players tend to think of them as having strengths and weaknesses, some of which tie into certain missions. So, the slow lady (Ms. E) is actually really good at bugging the Ambassador because she moves slow enough that you don't have to bleed off any speed during the drive-by, which you do with the other characters. But, she's terrible at rushing, or getting somewhere late in the game, like if you have to chase your Seduction Target. As I add more characteristics to the guest, I think this kind of thing will explode and we'll get some really great emergent stuff. The stuff about Ms. E being good at walking bugs wasn't something we designed in, somebody discovered it, which is awesome. You know you're doing something right when the game starts generating its own gameplay.

You've mentioned that the individualisation of your cast of characters is obviously more expensive and time-consuming than reusing assets or animations - is that something you can talk a little more about? Obviously it's something you are more than happy to do but I'm trying to get a feel for how feasible the undertaking is for a studio or a team given the extra effort required is sometimes given as an excuse not to do it.

Well, I don't know about "more than happy to do", it's pretty painful! But yeah, the uniqueness really pays off in small ways. For example, when I released the new Pub level, I added a bar as a gameplay thing, so instead of the waiter going around to each guest, guests had to go to the bar to get a drink. Well, at the bar they have to order a drink, and so I made them all order the drinks differently, some are timid, some pound on the bar, some are snots about it, the works. Sharing animations would make it so we wouldn't be forced to run into these opportunities as much. That said, yikes, it's expensive.

What has the response been like to the diversity of the characters so far?

Great, people seem really into it, which is nice. I can't wait to have all of them done and we'll just have this insane menagerie of guests, just seeing the current 16 together is really wonderful.

There are five more to go - any teasers for who we might find there?

We're trying not to think too much about it yet, since John's got to do all the animations on these folks first and then we have to put them in the game (by PAX Prime). I've been thinking I might run a contest for people to nominate different people for the final batch, but we'll see where we stand after we've lived with the current group for a bit. If you have ideas, I'm all ears!

Thank you for your time.

SpyParty is currently in open beta with a charge of $15, which is just over a tenner in coin of Britainland.

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