Interview: SpyParty's Chris Hecker Talks Innovation

by Matt Helgeson on Jun 08, 2011 at 02:01 AM

[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.

Do you feel that the big publisher, big developer, triple-A game development model is doing a good job of pushing the art form?

From a design perspective, you can play any game and find something interesting about it – some more than others, obviously. Even in the triple-A, mainstream space there are interesting things in most games that are trying hard. The problem is that it’s a small, tiny thing because the investors want their money back. So, you can push in little ways, but a lot of times people are constrained because they have to have a return on investment. There is tons of interesting stuff in mainstream games, but it’s diluted by the fact that you have to make these 30-hours of gameplay, genre-based games with tons of pixel shaders that sell five million copies. I think triple-A games have to keep pushing. Indie games can’t do it by themselves, but indie games are more agile. It’s more fertile ground for experimentation.

I try to talk often about interesting, innovative things in mainstream games. I talk about Ico a lot, with the hand-holding mechanic. Looking at Ico as a whole, it’s a generic puzzle/platforming game. But the handholding and calling the princess mechanic and helping her – that is just pure magic. That small, human-scale interaction is rarely seen in games. But even something more “normal,” like Gears of War. In SpyParty I recently did a clone of the Gears of War active reload mechanic and I talked to Cliff about it and how I was going to change it and what his goals were with it. That was an interesting, innovative mechanic, so I took it and extended it with SpyParty.

How healthy do you think the independent game scene is right now?

I think it’s great. This is the golden age of indie games right now; I hope it lasts until I ship SpyParty. [Laughs] A combination of things have made it a better place to make games than the mainstream with giant budgets. The most amazing thing about indie games right now, and hopefully this is sustainable, is that there is a really close correlation between quality and sales. That’s not true of any other place in art and entertainment. If you make a good, triple-A indie game that you’ve poured a lot of love into and really polished, you will sell enough to make another one. It’s hard to express how strange that is to have that linear relationship between sales and quality. I hope it lasts. In the mainstream industry, you can make a big triple-A game that will not sell – even if it’s really interesting and you got most of the [design] stuff right. It’s so hit driven. The indie scene is hit driven as well, but your costs are so much lower and the digital distribution things like XBLA, PSN, and Steam – or just selling it via PayPal on the Internet like Minecraft – this ability to make enough money to make your next game and be sustainable creatively.... Hopefully, that will keep going.

SpyParty is based on the Turing test. Explain what the Turing test is and how it relates to the game.

There was this guy Alan Turing, a World War II-era computer scientist. Even back then, they started considering how computers could reason or become intelligent. He came up with this thought problem. The easiest way to explain it is to imagine you are sitting there with an instant messaging client, chatting onscreen with another person. If you can’t tell whether it’s a human or a computer, then that computer has passed the Turing test for intelligence. We’re 50 or 100 years away from a computer passing that test. If you’ve ever used a chat-bot, they’re pathetic. But I thought about the inverse Turing test. Have a person pretend to be an NPC, because people are totally flexible. By inverting the Turing test, it takes an unsolveable problem and turns it into gameplay. That’s the Turing test and how it relates with SpyParty. It turns out that it’s compelling on both sides, the person pretending to act like an NPC and for the sniper trying to figure out which person it is.

SpyParty’s website says it’s a “game about subtle behavior.” If there’s one thing games have really struggled to convey, it’s subtle behavior. That seems like a large challenge. L.A. Noire does pretty well with its facial expressions, but I’m assuming you don’t have that type of budget. How can you convey subtlety in a medium that’s failed to do so in the past?

That’s a great question. I’m going to go back to Ico as an example to show that it doesn’t actually require a huge budget. The thing I’m calling “human-scale behavior” – you call the Princess over and she comes and holds your hand – those kinds of mechanics and actions and reactions don’t require that much technology. Ico shows it doesn’t. It was a PS2 game. I don’t have an L.A. Noire budget, but I don’t need it. In fact, in my opinion, L.A. Noire is still pretty deep in the uncanny valley. They are not warm, realistic faces you want to be friends with. It’s better than Heavy Rain, but it’s still deeply flawed. That shows that an infinite amount of money cannot solve the problem, so why even try? You can get away with a lot. I’ve found, even with my crappy characters and jerky animations, the subtlety [doesn’t come] from the look. It’s subtle because the players are playing it in a subtle way, not because I’ve got the right amount of specular lighting on the nose shader.

When I first saw SpyParty, I was reminded of a mission in an old Hitman game where you were a sniper getting information through a headset about your target at a party. Things like, “He’s left handed, he smokes,” and eventually you had to decide whom to shoot.

I played some Hitman, but I haven’t played that mission. There’s another mission in an old Hitman where you dress as a waiter and walk through a party and try to be inconspicuous. Clue is the perfect example of that deductive gameplay. You eliminate targets. By saying, “He’s left handed,” you eliminate everyone that’s not left-handed. In Clue, it’s like “I know it’s not the candlestick but it’s in the bedroom.” I have some of that deductive stuff, but I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t completely solvable. I don’t want you to figure it out completely. One of the themes of the game is making consequential decisions with partial information – that’s a very modern thing in the world. I wanted the game to explore that. When a spy completes some missions, they will eliminate some suspects. But, they’ll never get it all the way down – the sniper will have to make a leap of intuition.

It looks like the response to your paid beta program is going well. Did you have concerns that people wouldn’t be willing to pay to be a part of the beta.

Well, first thing is they haven’t paid yet. But I did say, “Please don’t sign up if you’re not going to pay” because I need to predict what the response is going to be. So, hopefully it will be a high percentage as soon as I get the infrastructure. It’s not Minecraft yet, it will be great if I can both get the testing I need to get done accomplished and also fund the game through this and not have to take any investment. This new opportunity for “crowd funding” games is great because it means no compromises. If you take money from an investor, your interests are not totally aligned. The investor wants you to make a good game, but they also want a return on their investment. So, there’s pressure. The players just want the coolest game you can make, that’s what they are paying their money for. Your interests are completely aligned.

What kind of graphical fidelity are you shooting for? You’ve said the graphics are placeholder right now.

I haven’t picked the style yet, but the most obvious thing is a ‘60s, Casino Royale type style. I’m purposely not picking the style until I have the gameplay totally there. But you could easily imagine a sort of Team Fortress 2 type look, or the movie The Incredibles. It’s timeless, retro yet futuristic. I want to have it polished but stylized. I don’t have 400 artists and a motion capture studio. I want to set my sights like how Braid or Castle Crashers worked – pick an aesthetic that you can hit 100 percent, not do 75 percent of an aesthetic that was out of your reach.

Do you have a target for when the game will be finished?

My guess is a couple years. Like I said, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. The beta will have a huge influence on it. The version of the game in my head and the version of the game you can play right now are very different. I’m glad the beta thing will let off some of the steam. This will allow people to play it but allow me to work on it. Whereas, if I rushed to ship it early so people could play it, I wouldn’t be happy with it. They can play it in progress, and help support it at the same time. That’s one of the great things about indie games; I can take the time.