[Outspoken indie developer Chris Hecker talks about what drives him creatively, the future he sees for the indie movement, and what he hopes to achieve -- "baby steps" in realistic human interaction -- beyond simply shipping SpyParty.]
Leaving -- or being forced to leave -- a studio job to strike out as an indie is becoming a more and more a common story. Chris Hecker worked on Spore at Maxis, but was laid off from the company and embarked on the development of a new game -- an idea that had been with him for some time: SpyParty, a tense, competitive multiplayer title.
Beyond that, though, he hopes to push the medium forward, and SpyParty is just the first step. "It allows me to get to these human behavioral things in a way that doesn't immediately make you go, "Oh, that's not plausible!" ... this allows me to research some of that stuff, without it being basically totally unsolvable," Hecker tells Gamasutra.
He recently opened up signups for an early-access beta, though the game has yet to be released to those players. Hecker continues to toil on the game, but took out some time from his busy schedule of development (and promotion -- he recently attended PAX Prime) to speak to Gamasutra about what drives him creatively, the future he sees for the indie movement, and what he hopes to achieve beyond simply shipping SpyParty.
You're at the beginning of the movement that's taken shape over the past few years, of people making the kind of game you're making, or trying to make the kind of game you're making, which is both independent and aimed at an audience.
CH: Right. I have this Venn diagram that I draw sometimes. There's the stuff that is interesting to work on and there's the stuff that will sell. And those two things overlap, so why not work on something in the intersection of those, you know?
It's not like the stuff that's interesting to work on part of the Venn diagram gets less interesting the closer you get to the stuff that will sell. Let's say you can draw a line around all the stuff you're interested in that you want to work on, period, whether you get paid or not. There are various peaks and valleys in there, of what is more and less interesting. But decide, "these are things I would work on."
And then you draw the Venn diagram of things that will sell. Why not just work on the ones in between, that are both? I mean, there's no downside to it, because definitionally you started with what you want to work on, and it just seems like a healthy thing.
Not only because hey, it's nice to be able to eat, but also nice because having people, players in the loop -- like having a customer -- it keeps you honest, sort of. When people sit down to play your game, you can't fool yourself.
If you're working alone and thinking, "Oh, my work is so amazing", then someone sits down and plays your game and thinks it sucks and you can't figure out how to fix it... Like, hey, does your game suck? I don't know. That's a pretty objective metric for whether or not you're doing something interesting.
Obviously, you want to have a very strong internal compass, right? You don't want to shift in the winds. That's why I think focus groups are not just a waste of time, but are actually detrimental, because having a bunch of people tell you what to do, creatively speaking, is a way to get a game with all of last year's bullet points. But if you have that strong internal compass, taking feedback from both players who don't know they're giving you feedback, by watching them, and by just talking to other developers, it's huge.
I know a lot of people -- and I, in fact, used to be this way -- who don't take feedback for shit. And it's just like, why would you not take feedback? People are giving you free ideas. That's awesome! You can listen to them. If you think they suck, it's still fine to listen to them. Worst case is, you took five minutes out of your day, and heard an idea that you didn't like. And you can think, "Yeah, okay." But best case is you get some totally awesome idea. A ton of really great ideas in SpyParty are from other people talking, telling me. Whether players are having ideas, whether it's developers.
When you actually came up with this idea, did you have a very strong sense of exactly what you wanted to do? And then did you end up deviating? How did this start?
CH: There's this thing, there's this anecdote I like to tell about John Carmack from back in the day, back in the '90s. We used to talk more than we do now, and he was really interesting because he... I'm very doubtful all the time of all the things I'm thinking about. For example, I was working on the Spore animation system, and I'm not sure this is going to work. I don't know if this is the right way to do this. I learn some more math, hedge this over there and I managed to end up with something cool and that's great. You know, it was me and this other group of people.
But Carmack had this magical ability to always think whatever he was working on at the time was exactly the way to do it, and anything else was totally idiotic. Now, that by itself would make him a psychopath. But he also could evaluate when it was not working, and just instantly switch directions. So now that thing sucks, and this new thing I'm doing is obviously totally the right way to do it, and anything else is totally idiotic.
So the combination of those two things, the ability to self-regulate, basically judge, critique your own ideas really harshly, and the ability to just have it be with total and utter confidence in what you're doing is great, because that allows you to just power ahead, no self-doubt. But to switch gears instantly -- I don't have that, so SpyParty meanders around.
It still is the core thing that I was thinking of back in the day -- this idea of a behavioral game. The spy fiction. Basically a game that's about a bunch of things, but it's way more refined and way more clear. It's a difference between saying, "I've got this idea for this game where one person's a spy and one person's a sniper," and the game you could play right now. And two notebooks filled with ideas. Those years make for total clarity. There's a bunch of stuff that's different, but the core high concept is the same.
But there's very little value in just the high concept itself. The execution and the details of, the way the action test active reload thing works, and the way that makes the sniper start playing more of a behavior game as opposed to looking for tells. Things like that. Those things are where the magic comes out, and a lot of those are just serendipity.