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Interview: Heckling the Future With Chris Hecker

Gamasutra speaks with the now-independent veteran game developer Chris Hecker (Spore) about his thoughts on the industry, indies, proceduralism, and his upcoming game SpyParty.

Patrick Dugan, Blogger

January 13, 2010

8 Min Read

From 2004 through most of last year, developer Chris Hecker worked at Will Wright's Maxis on the ambitious Spore. Now he's independent, and working on the multiplayer espionage-themed SpyParty. Hecker's involvement in the game industry goes back a long way, serving as a technical contributing editor to Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine for several years after its founding in 1994 and currently sitting on the Game Developers Conference advisory board. A long time independent game development advocate, he co-founded the Indie Game Jam and was honored for Community Contribution at the 2006 Game Developers Choice Awards. Recently, Hecker made the news with an impassioned address imploring the game development community to consider the "why" of game creation. Gamasutra caught up with Hecker to discuss his current activities, his predictions for the industry, and his thoughts on the indie scene. It seems like there's a trend in big name developers leaving their corporate employ and going indie. How has this transition welcomed you? Did you ever think, "Now that I'm no longer working for a game company, I can actually make games"? Chris Hecker: Well, to be fair, in my case it wasn't voluntary. I got laid off! However, I did have a plan to leave in January, so this really just moved up my timeframe, and also made sure I actually left. The big paycheck can be hard to give up when the time comes! For me, being indie basically converts all of the different problems one encounters while making games in an organization into one single problem: "Can I afford to feed myself long enough to make the game I want to make?" That, of course, is ignoring the deeper problem of, "Do I have the talent to make the game I want to make?" but it's best not to think about that one too much. What should be the role of formal game design theory, such as the Mechanics/Dynamics/Aesthetics framework (PDF link)? CH: I think theory has a place, and I indulge in it myself, but it's very early and we're a long way away from understanding how our medium works, even at a low level. I think analyzing and critiquing games we play is the most important thing right now -- with the exception of actually making more games -- moreso than constructing general theories about how they work. MDA is a nice framework for thinking about things, but it's too coarse to be much use as a tool you use daily when making games, I find. That said, I've often claimed in lectures that the biggest question for game design in the next 10 years is "How do games mean?" which can be seen as asking how mechanics eventually result in aesthetics, so it's definitely interesting to think about this stuff. It's easy to build castles in the sky, though, so we need to be making games. Also, I want research to be backed by data when possible. How do you think procedural content succeeded and failed in previous examples, from Spore to Spelunky, and what do you think is holding back its application to game design? CH: I think there are a lot of different definitions of "procedural content", but in general, I think it's interesting because it gets to questions of authorship in interactivity, and it tries to get us away from statically authored linear content. So, the more explorations in this direction, the better. Spore and Spelunky are very different in how they use proceduralism, of course. Spore uses it to empower the player to create things like creatures and buildings, while Spelunky uses it to create novel environments for the player to experience. Both are compelling uses, to me. I think that if something is holding it back, it's just that we don't know how to really work with interactivity very well. It's kind of the same thing that's holding back all game design. If you had a hundred bucks, and you bet it in any ratio on either web, the Wii, or traditional consoles being the biggest source of audience growth in the next several years, and assuming each pays out 3:1, how would you allocate that stake? CH: I think Facebook will crush them both, assuming the Facebook game developers can figure out how to make their games matter a bit more, as opposed to just designing machines to separate people from their wallets and friends lists. Some people have attributed decisions to make Spore less difficult and scientifically accurate to you. How do you feel about the way the game turned out? What would you change, if anything? CH: There are two parts to this question. First, did I somehow hypnotize Will Wright and make the game in my cute image? The answer to that is "no", as Will, executive producer Lucy Bradshaw, and I have all stated publicly. Sadly, those statements didn't get as much coverage as the inflammatory accusations. The second part is harder. What would I have changed? Personally, I wish there was more consequence from the player's choices in the editors. I think players could have explored various ecological niches by building different creatures, and gotten some firsthand experience at the idea of compromise and tradeoffs in a dynamic environment, and had a pretty compelling time doing that. You've said that there are things AAA studios can do, but won't. They theoretically have more artistic potential than indies, who are typically constrained to a smaller audience. Why do you think it is that so many companies stick to playing it safe? What are these companies losing by refusing to challenge people's comfort zones? CH: Well, one of the things I talk about in this series of lectures is how really weak we are in terms of audience reach compared to literature, film, and music. So, if we're going to ignore the art aspect, I think there's a lot of money being left on the table by only making games about orcs and space ships and commandos. We need to do the hard work of figuring out how to make games that speak to the human condition, and if we figure it out, I'm betting not only will we make a new respectable art form, but we'll also grow massively as an industry. There are almost seven billion people on this planet and almost half have some access to the internet. There are hundreds of millions of people who play consoles. What is going to happen when four billion people play games as regularly as they would watch television or listen to music? CH: Hopefully, to quote 2010, "something wonderful." I do think a huge part of the friction of games, and especially experimental games, is training the player. There is some of this in other forms, where a particularly difficult book, film, or piece of music will need to be experienced multiple times, but with games we need to teach people how to play them every time if they're even slightly novel. This is a huge impediment to accessibility. Hopefully, as more people become "interactively literate", this will be easier, however I think it's still going to be a long road, because controllers are changing all the time as technology progresses. It will be a long time before it's stable. Many new developers think that you can design a game on paper and then implement it. Can you speak to the utility of prototyping? What exercises can designers try to push themselves into experimental territory and hone in on important things? CH: I think everybody should learn to program, because code is how interactivity works; it is the underlying language of our form. I think it's possible to design systems without understanding programming, but I think it's harder. It's like learning how to draw the human form from life if you want to be a painter, or learning to play an instrument if you want to be a composer. It's not strictly required, but it helps, a lot. Can you speak about your current project and how it targets the standards you're setting in your writings and lectures? CH: With my new game SpyParty I'm trying to ask some questions about subtle social behavior. It remains to be seen how well that works out, of course! SpyParty is a multiplayer game. It's set at a fancy Bond-esque cocktail party, with all the usual spy-movie archetypes in attendance, including the suave James Bond guy, the ingenue, the mad scientist in the wheelchair, the general from the third world country, the old dowager, et cetera. All of these people are NPCs doing normal cocktail party things, like talking, having drinks, flirting, looking at art and books, and whatnot. One of the players, the spy, picks one of the partygoers and controls them, trying to perform as that character at the party while also trying to accomplish missions on the sly, like "bug the ambassador", or "poison the general's drink." The other player, the sniper, is looking in on the party, and trying to figure out which character is the spy and terminate him or her before it's too late. The game is asymmetric, meaning the players have completely different play experiences. The spy is about dramatic performance, staying in character, hiding in plain sight, and getting away with subtle antisocial behavior. The sniper is about pattern recognition, noticing social clues, and making a consequential judgment call based on your imperfect observations.

About the Author(s)

Patrick Dugan


Patrick Dugan believes games about characters and social dynamics are the future of the medium. He is currently prototyping a cutting edge, independent drama game about Irish pagans running up on English paladins. Before this he did QA and Level Design for Play With Fire, an innovative casual title released at the launch of Manifesto Games. He keeps a blog called King Lud IC, detailing the new school of game design.

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