[Photo by Steve Skoll]

Chris Hecker is one of the most creative people working in games today. His background spans everything from early 3D graphics technology in Windows to a stint at Maxis working on Spore. He also spent a good deal of time writing technical articles for Game Developer magazine, many of which are now considered classic texts in the development community.

I recently had the chance to talk with Hecker about his upcoming project, SpyParty, a unique two-player multiplayer game. The concept is fascinating: One player is a spy, attempting to blend in with the assembled crowd of NPCs. The other player is a sniper, attempting to discern his target. Right now, Hecker is selling admission to the game’s paid beta (which will get you a copy of the finished game at the time of release).

Note: A shortened version of this interview ran in the current issue of Game Informer, but I had to cut many good answers to get it to fit on the page. Here is the unabridged version of our conversation.

Talk about working on Spore with Will Wright. What did you learn from that project?

A lot of the things I’m doing with SpyParty are reactions to some of the ways things worked on Spore. We tried to innovate in three different ways. One of them was the technology for doing the creatures and the planets and making them come alive. That worked great. The technology was amazing. The other was the user interface, making the creature editor accessible. I think we did great there; people that aren’t 3D modelers can make interesting creatures. The third way was gameplay, and I think we totally dropped the ball there. It was not as deep as the creature editor. If you play with the editor you think it’s pure magic. You play the game, and it’s not as the same level of depth as the editor. It doesn’t react to you.

During Spore, Rob Pardo of Blizzard gave a talk at GDC Austin about the “depth first, accessibility later” design model they use. The short version of it is: Make the game the hardest core game you can with an intensely deep, player skill, 100-hour gameplay loop at the core. Don’t worry about making it accessible at the beginning. Make sure you have it, because that’s the most important thing. Then, you can put the accessibility in later. Accessibility is hard, but it’s nowhere near as hard as getting that really deep gameplay.

This talk came out while we were working on Spore. I forwarded it around and said, “My god, we are totally doing this wrong.” But it was too late. There were a lot of cooks on Spore.

Were there pressures from EA?

They gave us a ton of leash. I was on Spore for six years – that’s a long development cycle with a lot of people. I would not pin the blame on EA; it was our fault for dropping the ball and not focusing on the game design enough. But after the Pardo talk, I tried to convince people, but it was hard to change direction. But I vowed, on SpyParty, that I would do that. So far, it’s been working really well.