6 min read
SpyParty's vicious (and entertaining) cycle of stress and relief
SpyParty creator Chris Hecker has found himself observing human behavior, watching people wander and coalesce at parties and in crowds.
Independent game developer Chris Hecker has been spying on people at parties. His goal isn't to be creepy: Hecker's been observing human behavior and interaction in crowds as he develops his multiplayer espionage game SpyParty. His observations have led him to make notable changes to how the game feels. Hecker has been working on SpyParty for a few years now. The game has one player attempting to complete a number of objectives in a room packed with AI characters, while the other player -- a sniper -- observes the party from outside, and uses a single bullet to take out who they believe is the opposing player. Talking to Gamasutra as part of a video interview (below), Hecker explained that observing human behavior has led him to a game design decision that is different from what he originally had assumed would work best from a behavioral standpoint. Hecker originally wanted to get rid of the obvious character animations that would reveal who the spy was. "I used to think the goal of the game was to get [behavior and animation] as smooth and subtle as possible," he told me. "By that I mean, I used to think removing 'hard tells' was the goal of the game. I thought everything should be soft and behavioral tells." But through observation and experimentation, the designer realized that if a player managed to get away with one of these animations that would , such as swapping a statue or bugging the ambassador, they would feel a great sense of relief. "That's really important," says Hecker. "That sort of relief cycle in game design is really important for the player to feel. Jonathan Blow [Braid] described this game as 'Chewing nails.' It's very stressful to play this game, so it's important to have the hard tells in there, to get that feeling of 'I made it! I got away with it.' It feels very spy-like. A little bit of tension release and that feeling of empowerment of pulling one over on the other person is super important."But it wasn't just empowering the player that led Hecker to leave the hard tells in the game. While he was aiming to make the game as realistic as possible, with smooth animations and perfect AI pathing, he stumbled across another problem with going down this road. "Frank Lantz [Drop7] called the game 'a clockwork party,'" notes Hecker. "It took a while for that to sink in, but it's true. What he means by that is that it's this exposed system where the mechanistic aspect to it is really important for both players to be able to predict what's happening, and make a model of how it works." If the game was full of smooth animations and simulations, as opposed to set situations like "now this person is going to be at the bookshelf for two cycles," Hecker believes the game would be noticeably worse, as players wouldn't have "edges" to hold onto. "When you see a game like Facade or Prom Week that are about human behavior, and are trying to do more of a continuous thing, it feels like they are lacking," he says. "It feels like you don't have things to grab onto." "So in SpyParty, the clockwork party aspect of it I realized is part of what works about the game, not something that needs filing down," he continues. "You want those edges to hold onto. You want a certain level of predictability, and you want the NPCs to create a space that both players feel is a playing field they can understand."