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SpyParty And The Indie Ethos: Chris Hecker Speaks
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SpyParty And The Indie Ethos: Chris Hecker Speaks

September 9, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[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.

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raigan burns
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Awesome interview!

Just two criticisms:

1) how can any self-respecting games journalist not immediately know what the phrase "cat hair mustache" refers to?!

2) "it's kind of like using Doom as an example in 1996"... I think Chris meant either Quake or 1993 ;)

sean lindskog
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I like reading what Chris Hecker has to say. It's generally interesting and thought provoking.

But this annoys the crap out of me.


"I think that Call of Duty, where you shoot normal people in 2011, is a step forward from a game where you shoot space aliens. So even though they're very similar mechanically, just the theme of having people -- regular people -- as opposed to tentacled aliens with jet packs on, is a step in the right direction. Now it's a small step, but it's still a step."

Full disclosure, I'm making a game where you shoot aliens. Some even have tentacles. ;)

I see this with a lot of designers, good designers, who happen to be doing something cool and innovative, like Chris is. This leads them to somehow conclude that what they're doing is way cooler and more important than what everyone else is doing. I don't know if it's arrogance, or overcompensating for a lack of confidence.

There are a thousand different ways a game can innovate. Hecker seems set on realism and social interaction. That's cool. But is it more cool than innovating on strategy, puzzle solving, or even combat gameplay? Why does he think it is?

I have lots of friends. If I want social interaction, I can go talk to them. I happen to enjoy tentacled aliens in a game, they're harder to find in real life than ordinary people. ;) My point - not everyone wants to design or play the kind of game Chris likes.

"Innovative" is just one of many good traits that can be associated with a game. But a game doesn't even have to be innovative to be great. Many of my favorite games rely on traditional game design to create an awesome gaming experience.

Should we consider classical painting somehow worth less than impressionism, surrealism, or pop art? Must all modern painters innovate a new style for their art to be interesting? I don't think so.

So you game designers out there - do cool stuff with your games! Innovate, if you want. But please, avoid the superiority complex. The world is full of cool games, and yours ain't that special.

Jason Bakker
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It's just a matter of opinion. Personally I'd agree with Chris - I'd prefer to play something new and innovative than something polished and derivative.

I think it's possible to for a game in which you shoot tentacled aliens to be innovative and interesting, but it would be the exception to the rule for the vast majority of games that are out there.

It just depends on how much you care about innovation in your games. I don't play Starcraft II, Modern Warfare or Halo, not because I don't think they're polished, enjoyable games, but because I like to play games that try to bring something new to the table, even if they're quite a bit less polished.

Chris Hecker
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To be clear, in that part we were talking there about themes, and the kind of stuff that isn't usually addressed in games but that I think should be: namely, normal people interacting. I totally agree that there are lots of different ways to innovate in game design, some of which are not (as) related to theme. However, I do think the focus on orcs and space aliens is holding us back in some important ways, not only because most "normal people" think orcs and space aliens are pretty dorky, but also because having themes that include orcs and space aliens make it harder to explore human social interactions. I mean, sure, you could try to make a game about the orc who falls in love with the space alien, but why? I talk about this a bit with respect to Serling, Dick, and Roddenberry in this rant:

I am not an orc and space alien hater, really I'm not. However, as I've said many times before, I do think games risk comic-book-style ghettoization if we're not careful here. We need to explore emotions beyond power-fantasy, and our fascination with orcs and space aliens is standing in the way of that in some sense. If most games were about people hanging out, flirting, arguing, and having relationships, then hey, bring in the space aliens! But, we're currently all summer movie themes, and none of that subtler stuff, so I think we need to push there.

It's not a superiority complex, and it's not even about fetishizing innovation, it's a desire to see more games that deal with subtle human behavior and emotions.

sean lindskog
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If I were to play the devil's advocate, I'd say the people looking for human social interaction through a game rather than real life are the dorky ones. ;) But that's not the point I'm trying to make here.

I fully respect Jason's and Chris' enjoyment of non-mainstream, innovative games. I like those too. It's the suggestion that mainstream games are intrinsically less valuable that I take objection to. It reminds me of some of the punk or metal dudes I knew in high school, who loved a band until the instant they achieved any sort of success, after which they considered them worthless sellouts. You know, because uncool people liked them. Because they were _popular_.

Chris, if all you were expressing was a desire to see vids explore more kinds of themes. I would agree. And hats off to you for doing so. But that doesn't make the existing popular themes bad. And people who want to make or play popular game themes certainly aren't holding us back from anything. Other than perhaps the creation of more of the particular kind of game you happen to be interested in. But hey, that gives you a niche to work in.

As game designers, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Without the pioneers and masters who created the current mainstream, we wouldn't have the technology, designs, or audience to draw on for our modern games. Building on the traditional themes of these masters is paying respect to the great work that has come before us, and is a worthwhile pursuit.

Ultimately, people look for different experiences and different fantasies through their gaming. If my fantasy is to be a heroic warrior in a fantasy world, that is no less valuable than your desire to explore social interactions. It's just different.

So, more themes? Sure, definitely. Criticizing the value of traditional themes? No.

sean lindskog
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