As Hecker worked on the challenges of animating for drinks, determining a probability for who would and wouldn't have drinks from the start of a mission, and how many sips it would take to finish a drink, he realized there was a layer of gameplay emerged from the simple act of drinking. Drinks added a special tension because if you are holding a drink there are certain objectives that you cannot perform until you finish your drink and set it down. Suddenly a mundane action became a dramatic one with competitive context.
"If you see as the sniper someone slamming a drink at the beginning of the party that's a piece of evidence that that person might be suspicious," Hecker said. "The partygoers don't actually need to get rid of their drinks, they're not trying to get rid of them so they can do their missions."
"Likewise, it behooves you to take a drink from the waiter after you've finished the missions you can't do with a drink in your hand, because now anyone with a drink is less suspect.
"There's gameplay lying all over the floor in these human interactions. Not even getting the mission in, but just having drinks in the world, makes for interesting gameplay at the human behavioral scale."
Underpinning all of these gameplay possibilities is Hecker's choice to make SpyParty a competitive experience much closer to the pass/fail construct than many other behavior games. Hecker sometimes describes the game as The Sims crossed with Counter-Strike (a game he described as one of his favorites). SpyParty is not about expressive joy but expressive tension.
"In some senses you're frustrated when there's too much flourish [in SpyParty]," Hecker said. "Right now pulling the microfilm from the book [a spy objective in another mission] used to be really subtle but the sniper could almost never see it. I had to give it more flourish. In some sense you're a dumb spy because of that, you look over shoulder and then do this thing and shove it in your pocket. But I had to make it that bold because the sniper would have never had a chance."
This is nearly opposite to what a game like The Sims or Nintendogs, where a lavish animation is a visual reward. In SpyParty detailed animations are almost a form of punishment, a great competitive weakness that requires some significant tactical planning to compensate for. When the game is at its most visually rewarding, it's also at its riskiest.
What's the difference between Borderlands and Cow Clicker? Or Heavy Rain and Sally's Salon? The distinction between hardcore and casual -- a widely unchallenged standard -- can't tell us anything about these games or the people who play them. For too long journalists, developers, and enthusiasts have supported this hollow distinction as a kind of last gasp against the influx of heretics from the outlands -- the stereotypical soccer moms, granny gamers, and tweens ignorant of the poetry in StarCraft's build orders and Counter-Strike's sight lines.
A more honest and coherent way of thinking about the video game industry is along a spectrum, defined at one extreme by pure competition and by pure expression at the other. In this way, The Sims can both be a casual diversion and a hardcore, 200-hour obsession. The most interesting challenges in the coming years will have nothing to do with reconciling the indefinable non-entities of hardcore and casual, but instead learning how to join purely emotion-driven play with pass/fail gaming.
The early decades of the video game were necessarily rule-focused in the same way that cinema's first decades were fixated on plot, peaking in the iterative studio days of the 1930s and 40s. Those hard and fast genres gave way to accommodate a new wave of creators who joined pure expressionism with linear narrative to create the standards of cinematic pacing and symbolism that are still with us today.
In the same way, rule sets are slowly beginning to accommodate emotional expressionism, with many of the most interesting games finding ways to meld these seeming opposites.
The real challenge facing game designers now -- just as it faced filmmakers, writers, painters, and actors -- is how to make action emotional. The future is not in building up the wall that separates FarmVille from StarCraft II, but in tearing it down. We're moving into an era of behavior and expressivity, of playing to feel instead of playing to win. Those who've embraced the challenges of designing playful behavior are already further down that road, one that many still won't even acknowledge.