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Subtlety and deception

Chris Hecker talks to Steven Balbirnie about Spy Party; a tense multiplayer game based on perception and deception, and the rigours of the game’s beta testing process


Spy Party was first shown publicly in 2009 and has been in development ever since. The game is the brainchild of developer Chris Hecker, who previously worked on Spore. Spy Party takes the form of a two-player game across a variety of missions and settings in which one player is the spy while the other is the sniper.

The goal for the spy is to successfully complete a given mission objective while avoiding detection, whereas the sniper is tasked with identifying and eliminating the spy while avoiding civilian casualties. In practice, for the spy to succeed, they must be able to emulate the behaviour of the game’s non-playable characters to trick the sniper into believing that they are one of these computer-controlled individuals. This means the sniper is entirely reliant on the ability to perceive the subtle differences in behaviour that distinguish a human from a computer. The game’s premise is an intriguing and clever one given that it is essentially an inversion of the Turing Test, the Turing Test being a test of a computer’s ability to imitate a human; while Spy Party tests a human’s ability to imitate a computer.

The game has been going through an extensive development cycle, though, as Hecker explains: “Any deep player-skill game needs a really long beta period, with lots of people playing it, to be balanced and tuned correctly.” Hecker’s commitment to this balance has involved a substantial engagement with play testers through events such as PAX and EVO, and through the game’s closed beta; and Hecker’s approach to play testing has evolved in tandem with that of Spy Party’s development.

“It’s pretty different now than when I first started out,” says Hecker. “Early on, when I didn’t have many play testers, I’d take pages of notes on balance and design fixes at a show, but now that I’m in closed beta and have players with 50, 60, 70, even 150 hours of gameplay under their belts, I don’t learn much design-wise at shows where people are playing their first couple games. Well, that’s not totally true, because if I was focusing on accessibility I’d learn a ton from new players, but since I’m doing the ‘depth-first, accessibility-later’ design methodology, I’m almost exclusively looking for balance issues at the elite level, and it’s rare to see games at that level at shows.”

He goes on to explain that “development shows are more about introducing people to the game for the first time, rather than gathering playtest data. That will change when I start to do accessibility and tutorials and make it so you don’t have to read a manual to play the game, but that’s a ways away.”

Hecker has considered the possible inclusion of other modes that would involve extra players or additional features that would alter the game’s dynamic. However, when asked about these it is clear that they are secondary concerns and his primary focus is on perfecting Spy Party’s main mode before turning to other possibilities: “I think a lot more testing is needed on the core asymmetric mode until I’m satisfied with it. For these hardcore competitive multiplayer games, where you’re designing for hundreds or thousands of hours of gameplay, the tiniest stuff gets amplified until it’s game breaking, so you have to be really careful. I don’t know if the other modes will need as much testing, but I won’t ship something that isn’t working or living up to its potential, so if it feels like there’s something deep in one of the other modes that’s worth investigating, I’ll take the time to do it”.

Though he doesn’t rule out the inclusion of alternative modes at a future date: “If there are some additional modes that are fun and interesting and work but are not quite as deep, I’m fine with having them in there for variety. The game needs some breaks from the tension anyway.”

One of Hecker’s more immediate goals is the incorporation of new art work into the game, though the potential consequences of this change to the game are still uncertain; “the art will be in by next PAX, and I really don’t know what impact it will have, actually. I’m going to put it in side-by-side with the old art, so that the game is still playable even if it’s a disaster and takes forever to get working.”

Hecker also plans to open the beta to the wider public before the end of the year, with the hopes that it will broaden the Spy Party community, and generate funds through a paid beta. “I’m also hoping to fund the game to completion with the paid beta, so it needs to be open for that to be a possibility. And yeah, building awareness is key for indie games, so the beta needs to be open so people can decide to try it, tell their friends about it, post a video on YouTube or stream it on twitch, or write about it on their blog,” says Hecker.

While Spy Party looks set to go through another phase of intensive beta testing, Chris Hecker’s meticulous attention to detail could pay off with Spy Party’s depth and fine tuning leading to it becoming a hit on the elite competitive gaming scene. Only time will tell.