[Chris Hecker, the designer-programmer of the upcoming SpyParty delves into his creative ethos and how he sees the industry in this interview that takes in the game's design and the shape of today's indie and mainstream spaces.]
Video game industry veteran Chris Hecker describes SpyParty like this: "It's an espionage game, so, it's about spies." Which makes the former Maxis developer's new independent project sound very simple. It really isn't.
Taking to the stage at Nottingham's Game City event this fall, Hecker lays it out: "Think about your favorite spy movie and there are certainly explosions and gunfire and car chases and whatnot -- it's fine."
"But if you think about it, the majority of the film, the majority of the story, the experience you have, it's about watching the spy guys or spy girls be cool. They're sneaking around or they're acting cool and hiding in plain sight and whatnot.
"The games are almost all shooting and car chases. I wanted to make a game that was less of this..." Hecker pulls up a slide of Roger Moore on skis, leaping away from an explosion, stabbing at the air with his ski poles like some eager assassin of the sky. "...and more of this..." A slide of Sean Connery appears, all suited up and drinking brandy with a wry smirk, as if to say "Oh yes. Roger Moore. He's all right, I suppose."
"Because for me," Hecker continues, "this is the cool part about spy fiction. You know, Sean Connery acting cool with his snifter of Cognac or whatever."
Then it gets complicated. SpyParty is explained as a two-player game in which one person plays a spy at a cocktail party and the other plays a sniper looking through the window. The spy has to fulfil his mission criteria.
Plant a bug on an ambassador, retrieve microfilm from a book in a bookcase, swap a statue on a pedestal around and make contact with a double agent. It's the sniper's job to stop the spy from achieving all of those goals -- but his rifle only has one bullet.
And he has no idea which character is the spy. The other guests at the party all act according to the AI's whims. The trick the spy has to learn is how to act like a computer character to avoid getting caught, in a similar way to the multiplayer of Assassin's Creed Brotherhood.
Talking to Hecker after his presentation at the Game City Festival in Nottingham, he is keen to highlight the differences between how his game and how games like The Ship and AC: Brotherhood incorporate this inverse Turing Test into gameplay.
"They don't do the inverse Turing Test the same way," he says. "Those games are basically like games of Assassin, which is that college campus game, and they're actually, like, for the most part, a symmetric game. In other words, I'm hunting someone and someone else is hunting me. So everyone is playing the same role.
"What happens in those games, or at least the ones I played, [is that] because you have to watch your back all the time you can never really relax into that performance role, and you can never really relax into the perception role either right?"
At the time of interview, Brotherhood had still not been released. In the interest of fairness, the multiplayer's Manhunt mode is an asymmetric hide-and-seek game where players take it in turns to hunt and be hunted. This would probably please Hecker more than the regular mode. That said, it still has the radar, which he isn't keen on.
"When I played AC: Brotherhood multiplayer at E3, the one crowning thing they did that I wish they would fix -- they have a radar. It's right out. It's not about behavior when there's a radar. You run around the map looking for the guy, you get, you know, 5 meters away from him and then you, like, walk slowly so that you don't set off the radar beeper.
"Yeah, I think AC: Brotherhood would be awesome if they took the radar out and made it in the town square. Not the entire town. Because in the entire town what you end up doing is scaling the walls running across the rooftops until you get close to your target. And so it's like, 'There's dudes running on the rooftops!' And the kills in there are these big flourishy kills and none of the NPCs react at all. Like, someone isn't all 'Someone over there is getting killed!' It doesn't try and be a kind of naturalistic space.
"And so, for me, like, I think they're interesting [features] but it would be way more interesting if they pushed in the direction of -- remove the radar and have more character models so that blending in becomes something more behavioral as opposed to just all six of those models of the same monk guy. You don't know [who your target is] because it's confusing, not because you're blending. You're not blending behaviourally, you're just the same 3D model as those guys, you know what I mean?
"I would like AC: Brotherhood to be as behavioral as possible because I want people to expand this market. I want more people playing in this field."
But Chris Hecker is not Ubisoft. And while Brotherhood was developed with accessibility and ease of play at the forefront in order to appeal to the widest possible audience, SpyParty is deliberately developed from a "depth first, accessibility later" design perspective, Hecker says.
Before our playtest we were given a four page manual to introduce us to the controls, goals, characters and mechanics. Hecker clearly recognizes that the desire for depth over an easy introduction is something that a lot of people would need to get used to again. Which is probably why the manual begins with the half-jokey, half serious outburst: "WHAT?! I need to read something to play SpyParty?!"
"I mean, Spore kinda did the opposite and did accessibility first and never got to the depth," Hecker says. "I mean, parts of it are deep, like the creature creator is really deep and interesting but like, the gameplay we never quite got to. But it's very accessible.
"And so when Rob Pardo gave this talk in GDC Austin a while ago and started talking about this depth-first, accessibility-later development model it really rang true to me because I was in the middle of Spore and frustrated about that part at the time.
"So I don't know if it's the best way to develop games but it's certainly working well for me now -- knock on wood -- so I'm going to stick with it.
"To me if you want to make an e-sports level game something that's that deep like Counter-Strike, you know, you can't add that depth later. Whereas you can add a lot of tutorials and better UI and icons and modes that help you out and mentoring and all that kind of stuff.
"But there's a magic to that deep core gameplay loop that you have to find and if you don't find it, then you're toast. You can't add that in later."
With this in mind, Hecker is still working on that 'core gameplay loop' and trying to make it as much fun as possible. His presentation is full of speculations as to what he might do with the game in the future. Team-play is a big idea he wants to explore. The possibility of multiple spies and multiple snipers is a complete game-changer, especially if you put them all on the same voice channel.
"It's like Bridge. They'd have to figure out a way of communicating information to each other, knowing that the other people are listening. So, that's pretty fucking cool!
"And in fact, they don't even know who they are. Like, you don't know who your spy is. So you're trying to say 'Okay, go over to get a drink.' But you can't say that because then anybody who goes to get a drink -- the other Sniper's gonna shoot them. So how do you communicate things? Who knows?"
He's also toying with the idea of letting another spy drop-in or out of a game in progress, without notifying the other players. Which raises a bunch of questions about how things could pan out. Would the spies be able to interrupt each other, or --
"I don't know. Are they competing or co-op or now can they do a harder set of missions? Or maybe the spy gets notified but the sniper doesn't? I don't know. I don't know. All this is stuff to experiment with. Clearly there's no end-ideas in this space. I mean, we could just sit here and brainstorm all day long about crazy ideas for the multiplayer modes of this thing."
So all these interesting ideas are subject to change. But if even one of them gets through and evolves to the point where it is as deep as Hecker envisions it, it will turn out to be an indie hit. It doesn't look like much now (he reassures us that all the art and models are placeholder -- "The final game will be beautiful and stylish, naturally!") but the conceit is an excellent one. It results in something that feels strangely like Chess, Poker and Assassin. Something a specialist in Game Theory could probably analyze.
SpyParty blurs the boundary between software and the psyche. Human psychology effectively forms the game, the characters on the screen are essentially a conduit, something to enable the game to take place between minds.
Even the early demo we played offers what could be termed "true interaction" as opposed to the simple avatar control of most titles. It forces you to really think simultaneously about the computer's actions and your human opponent's actions. In the same way as Portal forced the player to really think about space, and Braid forces you to really think about time, SpyParty forces you to really think about human behavior.
The AI behavior is another avenue Hecker wants to delve into. The idea is that there will be a lot of thought invested in the characters of the party, with each person having their own quirks.
"Technically there's one AI system and all the characters are running it. And so eventually what I want to do is have different personalities for every one of those characters. Different animations and everything.
"The problem with that is two-fold. One -- that's a lot of work," he laughs. "So I haven't gotten to it yet. Two -- that's too hard for newbies. If everyone was acting differently and you had to know all the characters to know what you were supposed to be doing? That's going to have to be an advanced feature anyway.
"In other words, when you first start out -- even in the final game where everything looks beautiful -- there's probably going to be the same AI running on everyone at the beginning just so you can get used to walking around the party. You know how it was when you first played. It was like, 'What the hell is going on here? Aaagh! I'm running into walls!'
"So that's just to get people familiar with the controls and comfortable. And then as you start to get more advanced play it'll start blending in more of the individual personalities. So you need to know that if the Ingénue walks by the General he's going to walk after her and try and hit on her."
"And if you don't do that, you're acting out of character. So now the sniper needs to know that too, so when the sniper sees the Ingénue walk by and the General keeps focusing on the Ambassador -- 'Wait, what's going on?' -- So, eventually I want to do that but that's a way harder-core game than the currently really hardcore game I currently have."
Hecker seems to be one of a few independent developers with a distinctive concern for innovation. He sees the indie community as something that can provide that innovation. But many indies aren't without their own faults, he argues.
"The obvious thing is in a triple-A title, for the most part, people are very risk averse because that's someone's fifty million dollars. People don't tend to want to lose that.
"Because people want a return on investment in the mainstream industry it has a direct impact on design. Because you're not given a very long leash. For doing really creative things you need to be able to fail and meander aimlessly for a while, while you're finding it right?
"I don't actually differentiate. I don't cut indies more slack. Like, a shitty game is a shitty game and a great game is a great game. Like, I don't care whether you did it in flash in your bedroom or whether 400 people did it in Shanghai.
"But the main thing that indies bring is that you can make a game on five grand. As long as you can afford to, you know, eat for a few months you can make a game. That risk aversion is not as big a factor. Which makes it actually even more of a crime against nature that so many indies are content to do just another platformer or another shmup because it's like, 'Dude, you could do anything! You could push in any direction, you have no constraints -- and you chose to do another shmup!? Like, really?'
"Whereas at least you can kind of understand why the infinite stream of totally generic space marine FPS' happens in the mainstream industry -- because they want their money back. But I think that innovation has to happen in both.
"I should be careful with the word 'innovation' because there's innovation for innovation's sake and then there's pushing in the directions that I think are important.
"For me at least I think pushing towards more depth and emotional power, and by [saying] emotional power it's a really of course a way of saying 'things that matter.' You know, speak to the human condition. Things that matter to people. Your mom doesn't play games not because games are inherently stupid. Your mom doesn't play games because she doesn't give a shit about killing space marines. It's just stupid."
"It's, like, a stupid way to spend an afternoon. It's fun and when it's player skill and when it's really, like, a tight, really well-crafted game it's a compelling interactive experience. But content, fiction-wise, it's just creatively bankrupt. I just think that we want to push out into things that people care about. And we just don't know how to make game mechanics about that stuff yet."
The phrase 'speak to the human condition' is one that comes up increasingly often among high-profile independent developers, particularly within the art games movement. Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, is fond of the phrase. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising when he comes into the room and sits in on the interview, waiting for Hecker to finish up so they can go to the pub (for another interview, of course).
'Speak to the human condition' is an arty phrase. If it came from the mouth of a mainstream big-budget developer it would be shrugged off as PR-speak. But to hear it from people like Hecker and Blow, it feels genuine. The worst people could say is "they're being pretentious". For Hecker, this isn't really a problem.
"There are various friends and I that talk. Like, we would welcome more pretension in the game industry," he says, laughing. "Just because, like, that would at least be a change from 'Argh, I just want to go kill some more orcs!' You know? It would be great to have that pocket of people who thought they were elitist."
"That'd be awesome, that might make it fun! I mean, indie already has a culture to it. There's the Indie Game Summit, the GDC and things like that. And there's clearly a culture -- you go on the TIGsource forums and they all talk trash about the mainstream developers. And that's great, fine. Everybody likes to have an identity.
"At the end of the day though we need more interesting gameplay. And if it comes from an indie in a garage who's being really pretentious, that's great. If it comes from some like, line level designer 342 at Ubisoft Montreal, great too. I just want to see more games pushing in more directions.
"So, I'll criticize the radar in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood multiplayer as much, and then I'll criticize some random game on TIGsource forums. Like, 'Why did you do this? You didn't need to go the conservative route there.'
"The indie mentality right now is almost more of a business model thing than it is a creative thing. You've got an art game thing going on a little bit. People pushing in more directions but there are a lot of clones in the indie industry. So, indies can't talk trash about the mainstream that much because they do a lot of clones themselves.
"But yeah, it's mostly individuals who are doing interesting work and they tend to be indie because you can't actually get the long leash in the mainstream."
Like a lot of indies, SpyParty doesn't have a release date. It'll be done when it's done. Considering the possibilities open to him, and considering Hecker's enthusiasm for playing with these possibilities, it may be a very long wait. It makes sense that this the price you pay for depth, for something a little bit different. And that's the most important thing to Chris Hecker. He wants games to do something new.
"I mean AC: Brotherhood and things like that are getting to that. The Ship and things like that. That's playing in the same space. So the more games like this the better I think. Because people... I mean, we just don't need to kill any more orcs!"
He smiles and raises his arms.
"We've beaten the orcs!"