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SpyParty And The Indie Ethos: Chris Hecker Speaks

Outspoken indie developer Chris Hecker talks about what drives him creatively, the future he sees for the indie movement, and what he hopes to achieve -- "baby steps" in realistic human interaction -- beyond simply shipping SpyParty.

Christian Nutt

September 9, 2011

29 Min Read

[Outspoken indie developer Chris Hecker talks about what drives him creatively, the future he sees for the indie movement, and what he hopes to achieve -- "baby steps" in realistic human interaction -- beyond simply shipping SpyParty.]

Leaving -- or being forced to leave -- a studio job to strike out as an indie is becoming a more and more a common story. Chris Hecker worked on Spore at Maxis, but was laid off from the company and embarked on the development of a new game -- an idea that had been with him for some time: SpyParty, a tense, competitive multiplayer title.

Beyond that, though, he hopes to push the medium forward, and SpyParty is just the first step. "It allows me to get to these human behavioral things in a way that doesn't immediately make you go, "Oh, that's not plausible!" ... this allows me to research some of that stuff, without it being basically totally unsolvable," Hecker tells Gamasutra.

He recently opened up signups for an early-access beta, though the game has yet to be released to those players. Hecker continues to toil on the game, but took out some time from his busy schedule of development (and promotion -- he recently attended PAX Prime) to speak to Gamasutra about what drives him creatively, the future he sees for the indie movement, and what he hopes to achieve beyond simply shipping SpyParty.

You're at the beginning of the movement that's taken shape over the past few years, of people making the kind of game you're making, or trying to make the kind of game you're making, which is both independent and aimed at an audience.

CH: Right. I have this Venn diagram that I draw sometimes. There's the stuff that is interesting to work on and there's the stuff that will sell. And those two things overlap, so why not work on something in the intersection of those, you know?

It's not like the stuff that's interesting to work on part of the Venn diagram gets less interesting the closer you get to the stuff that will sell. Let's say you can draw a line around all the stuff you're interested in that you want to work on, period, whether you get paid or not. There are various peaks and valleys in there, of what is more and less interesting. But decide, "these are things I would work on."

And then you draw the Venn diagram of things that will sell. Why not just work on the ones in between, that are both? I mean, there's no downside to it, because definitionally you started with what you want to work on, and it just seems like a healthy thing.

Not only because hey, it's nice to be able to eat, but also nice because having people, players in the loop -- like having a customer -- it keeps you honest, sort of. When people sit down to play your game, you can't fool yourself.

If you're working alone and thinking, "Oh, my work is so amazing", then someone sits down and plays your game and thinks it sucks and you can't figure out how to fix it... Like, hey, does your game suck? I don't know. That's a pretty objective metric for whether or not you're doing something interesting.

Obviously, you want to have a very strong internal compass, right? You don't want to shift in the winds. That's why I think focus groups are not just a waste of time, but are actually detrimental, because having a bunch of people tell you what to do, creatively speaking, is a way to get a game with all of last year's bullet points. But if you have that strong internal compass, taking feedback from both players who don't know they're giving you feedback, by watching them, and by just talking to other developers, it's huge.

I know a lot of people -- and I, in fact, used to be this way -- who don't take feedback for shit. And it's just like, why would you not take feedback? People are giving you free ideas. That's awesome! You can listen to them. If you think they suck, it's still fine to listen to them. Worst case is, you took five minutes out of your day, and heard an idea that you didn't like. And you can think, "Yeah, okay." But best case is you get some totally awesome idea. A ton of really great ideas in SpyParty are from other people talking, telling me. Whether players are having ideas, whether it's developers.


When you actually came up with this idea, did you have a very strong sense of exactly what you wanted to do? And then did you end up deviating? How did this start?

CH: There's this thing, there's this anecdote I like to tell about John Carmack from back in the day, back in the '90s. We used to talk more than we do now, and he was really interesting because he... I'm very doubtful all the time of all the things I'm thinking about. For example, I was working on the Spore animation system, and I'm not sure this is going to work. I don't know if this is the right way to do this. I learn some more math, hedge this over there and I managed to end up with something cool and that's great. You know, it was me and this other group of people.

But Carmack had this magical ability to always think whatever he was working on at the time was exactly the way to do it, and anything else was totally idiotic. Now, that by itself would make him a psychopath. But he also could evaluate when it was not working, and just instantly switch directions. So now that thing sucks, and this new thing I'm doing is obviously totally the right way to do it, and anything else is totally idiotic.

So the combination of those two things, the ability to self-regulate, basically judge, critique your own ideas really harshly, and the ability to just have it be with total and utter confidence in what you're doing is great, because that allows you to just power ahead, no self-doubt. But to switch gears instantly -- I don't have that, so SpyParty meanders around.

It still is the core thing that I was thinking of back in the day -- this idea of a behavioral game. The spy fiction. Basically a game that's about a bunch of things, but it's way more refined and way more clear. It's a difference between saying, "I've got this idea for this game where one person's a spy and one person's a sniper," and the game you could play right now. And two notebooks filled with ideas. Those years make for total clarity. There's a bunch of stuff that's different, but the core high concept is the same.

But there's very little value in just the high concept itself. The execution and the details of, the way the action test active reload thing works, and the way that makes the sniper start playing more of a behavior game as opposed to looking for tells. Things like that. Those things are where the magic comes out, and a lot of those are just serendipity.

You know, it's funny because the way you describe the game is if you watch a spy movie, it's all the other stuff from the spy movie that we never concentrate on in games. SpyParty, it's a weird spot, where it seems quite congruent with what we expect from a game in terms of theming and stuff -- so it's not off in left field, it's not Flower or something, right?

CH: Right, literally in a field.

But at the same time it does seem like it's sort of off in left field, because it's the part of that theme we don't ever touch on. It's funny that that really does illustrate how things can be more limited then we think they are, sometimes.

CH: Yeah. I mean a lot of people, I often hear -- you know, I'll say some big thing in a rant, or a philosophical thing at GDC, or something about how games need to change and be about people and blah blah -- and then someone will kind of do a "gotcha" thing, and be like, "Well, your game is about spies! And blah, blah -- how is that not just a gamey thing?"

And, yeah, that's partially true. What I would say there, though, is that -- and I'm going to use an analogy -- I think that Call of Duty, where you shoot normal people in 2011, is a step forward from a game where you shoot space aliens. So even though they're very similar mechanically, just the theme of having people -- regular people -- as opposed to tentacled aliens with jet packs on, is a step in the right direction. Now it's a small step, but it's still a step.

And likewise I think spy fiction is, in some sense, about normal people. It's hyperreal, it's caricatured, but spy fiction for me is a really useful armature to hang all of this research off of, because it's got normal people with normal clothes, without jetpacks, and without all the stuff that separates you from people.

They're holding hands, or having drinks, or telling jokes, or smoking a cigarette. It's got all that stuff that allows you to get to this human stuff, but it's not like an episode of Friends where they're actually supposed to act like normal people. We don't know how to do that yet, so I can caricature. Spy fiction allows me to caricature.

In some sense the bar is lower because it's a spy movie, so it allows me to get to these human behavioral things in a way that doesn't immediately make you go, "Oh, that's not plausible!" Whereas if it really was three of your friends sitting at dinner talking around your table, the bar is so high there for actual behavioral interaction. So, baby steps.

Hopefully we'll eventually be able to do the Seinfeld game, and the Friends game, and games that talk about human behavior without having someone poisoning your drink at the same time. But this allows me to research some of that stuff, without it being basically totally unsolvable.

You've talked about, for example, if you offended me, that's a high level of nuance. You'd be looking in my eyes, you'd be trying to figure out my mood -- trying to guess and gauge from my reaction.

CH: And I'd be trying to [think] "Oh, what did I do wrong?" I'd have to discover that I even did something wrong, and it's so subtle.

And you've talked about with SpyParty, having to make everything more obvious so the sniper can actually stand a chance.

CH: Right. The obviousness is a dial, right? It's a tuning knob all of a sudden. But there's a truism in game design which is -- and I think, what's the false version of a truism? I think it's not a hundred percent true, I guess it's an aphorism -- it's that you can never make it too obvious. You can never make too obvious how to pull the trigger in a shooting game, and you can never make it hard to open the door. You don't want them to have to search around; you just run into the door nowadays.

This is part of what [Braid developer] Jonathan Blow talks about when he talks about how adventure games sort of curled into a ball and killed themselves and ate themselves. They were predicated on making things non-obvious, whereas the trend in game design has been really making the stuff that doesn't need to be obfuscated transparent.

So that's why you just run, and Doom and Quake were kind of a watershed at some point where you just hit the spacebar to open the door. You don't have to like find the doorknob or do anything, you just run up to it and bump into it and go, you know? Because hey, that was not an important part of the affordances they were offering the player, right?

You want to make the stuff that doesn't need to be obfuscated completely obvious and transparent, right? "Obvious" is even the wrong word. Obvious means you're actually recognizing it. You want it to just be transparent. It just shouldn't even be there, right?

Whereas in SpyParty, it's a mechanic about what's obvious versus not, and I'm constantly having to tune, for example, "How obvious is that animation? How much of a tell is there?" And that's one of the ways I plan on handicapping. It's a highly player skill-oriented game, so I need a handicap when I matchmake between two people who are of uneven skill levels.

One way is to make the tells more obvious. More people is harder for the sniper, right? Things like that.

It's interesting, that gets back to the other question about spy fiction as a thing. The game is a hardcore gamer game. I'm not making any apologies for that. Again, I'm using it as a platform for doing research about how to make games about human behavior, but this game in particular is a gamer game, right?

It is a game where two people sit down, and it is completely player skill, and one person will kick the shit out of the other person and go up in the ranking and whatever. It's not trying to be a social game or a game that's really accessible, accessible is the wrong word, that's really casual or anything like that even though it's about people. I want to make a Counter-Strike-level player skill game, but about things that there have never been a Counter-Strike level player skill game about: human behavior, namely.

Based on some comments I've heard recently, in particular from [Thatgamecompany's] Kellee Santiago, it seems like there's maybe an arising tension between goal and theme.

CH: I think that that's definitely true. I love the fact that Thatgamecompany explores some of those other areas. There are so many directions we need to explore, so more power to them. I love Flower; I want people to explore all of these things.

For me, personally, I'm interested in exploring what player skill about human behavior means, but that doesn't mean that having Journey not have a single goal, or no player skill component, whatsoever, -- whether it does or not, I haven't played it yet -- but I'm totally fine with games that don't.

There are so many things that we need to explore, because we don't have any idea how to make games yet, in my opinion, that are meaningful in a deep way. More power to them.

Frank Lantz talks about a thing often, where there's what the back of the box says the game's about, and then there's what the game's actually about. There's kind of those fictional layers that happen, and then you start playing the game game, and I think that the game part of the game can't hide for that long.

You can only have so many cutscenes and so many moments before the actual interactive mechanics reveal themselves to you if you're exploring the system.

And so the best games are the ones where those are consonant within the theme, right? So that you don't have this realization: "Oh right, I'm just playing Tetris, whereas I thought I was saving the world," or whatever. Games where you're playing Tetris and then you discover you're playing Tetris, awesome. Games where you're saving the world and then somehow you're saving the world in the game, that's great too.

But where you've got this -- and that's kind of what adventure games became in some sense -- we keep talking about The Witness. Adventure games at their high/low point were ostensibly about one thing, because that's what the fiction said, but were actually about trying to make the cat hair mustache, right? Like, "Guess what the designer thought!"


Is that actually an example from a real game?

CH: Old Man Murray -- may it rest in peace! God, I hope everyone reading this knows what Old Man Murray is. But if you didn't, Old Man Murray was the best game blog... What would you call it? Criticism site? I don't even know. It was humor/criticism, they did the "start to crate" rating. They did all of this stuff.

And anyway, they talked about adventure games. And Jon [Blow] uses this quote from them all the time, which is that people are like "Aw, adventure games died because companies were too greedy!" or "Aw, adventure games died because people got addicted to 3D graphics!" Blah blah blah.

And Old Man Murray talks about this one puzzle in Gabriel Knight where you had to use, I can't remember what it was, like honey plus some cat hair you found to make a mustache --something absurd like that that you would just never do.

Old Man Murray said "Who killed Adventure Games? I think it should be pretty clear at this point that Adventure Games committed suicide." Because they just curled in on themselves. And it's funny, because both Chet [Faliszek] and Erik [Wolpaw] -- who were the two guys behind Old Man Murray -- both work at Valve.

So I just think that having consonance between the theme and the gameplay is key, and then you don't have that moment where you realize that. So in that sense, I believe in a bottom-up approach to this stuff -- not top-down. I don't think you start with theme and then try and layer some gameplay into it; you don't start with a movie and then try and make it interactive, because you'll never get there. What you do is you start with an interaction that you want, and then layer consonant themes on top of it.

I want to talk about the experimental gameplay ethos. It seems that what's important is taking an idea and exploring it to its logical conclusion, as Braid did with rewinding.

CH: Yeah. There were plenty of time manipulation games before Braid, it's just Braid actually took it all the way, or at least all the way until it felt like a conclusion. There are probably other time manipulation games you could make.

So do you see that as the goal? And do you see that as happening? And now that it's been happening more, do you see that it's valuable?

CH: Yeah, I think more people are doing it now, and I think that's great, and I think that is the more valuable thing. It's kind of like that old aphorism -- ideas are a dime a dozen, it's execution that matters. And that's true and false. You need to have cool ideas, but then you need to actually do something with them.

And so nothing frustrates me more than when somebody has a cool idea, does it in a Game Jam or some kind of thing, then kind of pees on the territory, and then just throws it out there and does not explore it. Because there's a penalty for taking another idea, someone else's idea -- and a penalty meaning people are thinking, "Oh, you cloned that game!"

But Minecraft took it way farther than Infiniminer did, right? And so that's worth a ton. And I don't mean "worth it" meaning the 20 million dollars they've made, I just mean that's worth it to society and, the art form, right?

Well, there's nothing new in art, anyway.

CH: Yeah I know, exactly! Right -- take it and go, and let's not dis' people who do! I hope that more people take it. [Indie developer Steve] Swink is a perfect example. They're taking Shadow Physics all the way now. That'll be great. It's a game design idea -- Shadow Physics. Hey, guess what. There's a light source in the room, and the shadow that the stuff in the room makes on the wall becomes a platform level. And so you get this weird 2D/3D projection thing going on, and space is nonlinear, and there's all kinds of ramifications, right? Boom.

You could easily imagine the four day version of that game, but you could also imagine the two year version of that game, and I would much rather play the two year version of that game. I want to see someone really take it deep, and so every time I hear about somebody doing that, I think it's the right thing for the industry.

Now, not every design idea deserves to be taken that far. Some design ideas are four day ideas and that's fine, but if you're doing a jam and you come across an idea that really feels like it's got that thread-pulling aspect to it, pull the freaking thread!

And the greatest thing about the industry, I kind of call what we're in right now kind of "the golden age of indie," and hopefully it will last until I ship at least. Hopefully it will last forever, but that never tends to happen.

Nothing lasts forever.

CH: Exactly. But we're really in a golden age now, that started back around the Braid, Castle Crashers time frame…

Long, long ago, in 2008.

CH: Yeah, exactly. Well, I don't know. How long do golden ages last? The indie segment is, I think, in some ways healthier than triple-A or casual, because there's almost a direct correlation between quality and sales in indie right now. You can put your game up on Steam, you can get on XBLA maybe, you can get on PSN, just put it up for download somewhere and if your game is good, you will sell copies of your game, and if it's not you won't, and that's that.

There's no marketing cost associated with it; you have to be smart about the way you talk about it, and things like that, but the majority of the thing is make an awesome experience for people, and you will be able to make enough money to make another one. And so that's great, and it means that you can actually keep pulling the thread now.

It used to be, "Oh, well, I don't have any savings, so I can't make a two year game out of this, because I'm screwed," but now if you can just afford to eat long enough to pull the thread until it comes out, then you can do it because you'll make the money back. I mean I'm not actually personally guaranteeing all possible indie games here in this article, but…


Are you even guaranteeing SpyParty?

CH: No, but I'm pretty confident because I'm clearly risking it for SpyParty. I'm confident enough just because I see this really healthy indie golden age thing happening right now. And by "golden age", I don't mean it's the gold rush like it was on Facebook a year ago. Or I don't mean it's like, "get in there quick and cash out!"

It just feels really healthy to me. There are multiple “competing platforms,” and I don't mean competing meaning they are hurting each other, they're actually helping each other. Steam, XBLA, PSN, WiiWare, DSiWare, the 3DS eShop, plain old PC download.

People forget Minecraft -- and it's slightly disingenuous to use Minecraft as an example because it's kind of like using Doom as an example in 1996, because it was so huge. But there are lots of games. Magicka is a great example. Magicka came out on Steam, very little marketing, some smart funny stuff, and good gameplay, and sold 200,000 copies in a month, right?

Boom. There's enough money to make the game, finish making the game, make the next game, maybe even have some savings left over, pay some people. That's really healthy. That's great. It just feels really healthy right now and I hope it lasts like this. Contrast that with triple-A, in which, "I gotta spend $50 million, I don't know whether I'll make it back."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but your goal is to make a living wage out of making inventive games. The goal for a big triple-A game is to make a shitload of money and create dividends on shares.

CH: Exactly. There's a huge discussion we could have about publicly traded entertainment companies, which just seems like a disaster to me, given the way the market works and everything. But ignoring that for a second, yes, my goal, I think "living wage" is a great way of saying it.

I would like to have, well, I call it the "midrange band" thing, somebody like They Might Be Giants or Béla Fleck are examples I use all the time, where -- and there's a ton of these bands where these guys aren't making U2 money.

I just saw a thing that said Jon Bon Jovi makes a $149 million a year touring. None of these guys are making that much money. But they have a healthy living and they have total creative freedom. That's what I want.

They have a career they can devote entirely to their music, also. They don't work in a convenience store on the side, or whatever.

CH: Yes, exactly. Right. So this living wage. The way I say it is, I want to make a game that sells well enough so that I can make another game. And that's great. And if can put a little money away, because I have a daughter, that would be awesome too. But that's the goal. I want to be able to have complete creative freedom. And it seems right now that that's possible with indie games, and that's awesome because that did not used to be possible.

But it can be tough to find success. Dejobaan was around for a long time before AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAaAAAA!!! became popular, right? Some people do hit. But a lot of developers are thinking "I'm going to make a game and it'll be cool." Is there a lack of understanding there of what it really takes?

CH: That's a start. That's the very first start you should have. There's a long row to hoe between "I'm going to make a game and it's going to be cool" to "people just paid me 15 dollars for my game," right? And so yeah, that's totally the first step.

The delta between that and getting a game done is narrower than it has ever been, yet it is still vast. People don't understand how hard it is to make a game. Specifically, there are the external reasons why it's hard to make a game. Games are computer code, so they have to execute, so you have to have a certain level of technical expertise -- unlike a painting where it doesn't actually have to do anything except for stay on the canvas for long enough to show to some people.

I think the barrier to entry into games is higher than any other art and entertainment form. If you were going to sort the art and entertainment forms in increasing barrier to entry, first would be writing, right? You can write the Great American Novel on a napkin with a pencil.

Next up from that is visual arts: painting, sculpting. You've gotta buy some paints, you know, cost you 50 bucks, whatever. Next up from that is probably music, where nowadays for five grand you can record an album that no one can tell the difference was from a professional two million dollar studio album from 10 years ago, right?

Next up is film. Fifty, 100 grand to do a completely awesome quality movie that they could project in a movie theater-quality film. Games are higher, and I don't even necessarily mean just money-wise, but the barrier to entry -- like being able to program is a challenge, right?

There's no easy way to program. You have to be able to, if you want to do something new and interesting you've got to be able to code, sorry, or find someone who can and describe your idea systemically enough that they can do it.

So the barrier to entry is still high, yet there are all these business opportunities we've talked about for actually getting it out there once you've actually finished it. But just finishing it is easier than ever, like all of these Flash libraries, all of these 3D engines, all of this code out there. Just the fact that 3D hardware is there, and is so easy.

I could not have made SpyParty 10 years ago, because you just can't render that many characters 10 years ago without being a super rendering expert, and spending all of your time on rendering. Now I just like throw 30 characters at a laptop, and it doesn't even blink, right? So that's great.

All of these things: CPUs are fast, there's lots of memory and hard disk space, and bandwidth is fast and cheap, all of these things are great. However, you still have to be able to get something executing, and that's hard.

We're still not anywhere near the "everybody can make a game" thing, and that's okay. Everybody can't make a movie; everybody can't even write a book, even though the tools are there.

You talked about having confidence earlier. How did you get confident in this idea enough to pursue it? Because there's always time pressure, right? There's a point where you had to make a decision and say, "This is the game I'm making."

CH: Well, I got helped by getting the boot to the ass at Maxis when I got laid off. I was vacillating back and forth. Like you got a cushy job, fun job. It's not like I was just sitting there taking a paycheck. I was doing interesting work, and the stuff I was doing on Spore, I really got a lot of fulfillment out of that, the animation and the texturing and stuff like that was just a blast to work on, I learned a ton of math and that kind of thing.

And so it became, "Huh, getting a salary. I work eight blocks from my house." It was really nice, but I really want to do this game SpyParty. I've been thinking about it for years. It's been stewing in the back of my head, and so I thought, "Okay, I'm going to leave in January to do this." Was I really going to leave in January? I don't know. Well, I got laid off in September, so that made it a little easier.

But I think that confidence is a huge thing, and I would not say I have the deep confidence of a Zen master by any stretch. I'm totally self-doubting, and I'm totally insecure, just like almost everybody else but yeah, I had confidence enough to get it where I could... The very first thing I did with SpyParty is, it was top-down, looking at just a roomful of people, and I recorded a Fraps video of me just walking around.

There were no missions, there were no drinks, there were no conversations, there was no nothing, basically. It was just people milling around, and maybe there were some people who would gather around occasionally, or something like that.

There were no bookcases, there were no windows, there was nothing: just a bunch of dudes in a room, and I controlled one of them, and walked around and I recorded a video of that, and I sent it to three friends, saying, "Can you tell which one I am?"

And one of them was said, "This is kind of cool. This is kind of interesting, to try and figure out." And in fact, when I first told the idea to Will [Wright] at lunch one day, I said, "Here's my Indie Game Jam idea. What do you think of this?" Because Will helped us get the Sims assets for Indie Game Jam 4.

He said, "Oh, that will never work. It'll be too easy to tell who it is." And so when I finally got to the point where I could actually test it, and people said, "This is impossible to tell who the person is," I thougght, "Yes. This is going to work. Will's wrong."

Because if it had been totally easy to tell, then you're screwed -- because it's hard to make something harder to tell without it just feeling obfuscated on purpose. But it's easy to give the sniper hints; make the tells more obvious. There's a lot of tuning knobs to go in the other direction. So once I realized you can make it too hard for the sniper, I knew that I had something.

But yeah, just having the confidence to just take it to that point where I could actually test it a little bit -- so it's just very playtest-centric in some sense, is a very short answer. It's like when you have people tell you that your game is cool, it gives you confidence.

And it was not cool for a very long time. It got fun February of 2010, and it was just an iterative thing, where I added a timer based on some advice from friends, and this gets back to taking advice from other people.

I added a timer, and one more thing I can't remember -- I'd have to go look in my notebook for exactly what it was -- but the game was not fun that afternoon when they playtested it. And I took it to their house that night, and it was fun, and they wouldn't stop playing... That's how it happens. In art and entertainment, there's a magical spark, and you just have to get it going, and have confidence enough to at least keep trying until you find that.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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