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SpyParty's vicious (and entertaining) cycle of stress and relief Exclusive

 SpyParty 's vicious (and entertaining) cycle of stress and relief
October 29, 2013 | By Mike Rose

October 29, 2013 | By Mike Rose
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More: Console/PC, Design, Exclusive

Independent game developer Chris Hecker has been spying on people at parties.

His goal isn't to be creepy: Hecker's been observing human behavior and interaction in crowds as he develops his multiplayer espionage game SpyParty. His observations have led him to make notable changes to how the game feels.

Hecker has been working on SpyParty for a few years now. The game has one player attempting to complete a number of objectives in a room packed with AI characters, while the other player -- a sniper -- observes the party from outside, and uses a single bullet to take out who they believe is the opposing player.

Talking to Gamasutra as part of a video interview (below), Hecker explained that observing human behavior has led him to a game design decision that is different from what he originally had assumed would work best from a behavioral standpoint.

Hecker originally wanted to get rid of the obvious character animations that would reveal who the spy was. "I used to think the goal of the game was to get [behavior and animation] as smooth and subtle as possible," he told me. "By that I mean, I used to think removing 'hard tells' was the goal of the game. I thought everything should be soft and behavioral tells."

But through observation and experimentation, the designer realized that if a player managed to get away with one of these animations that would , such as swapping a statue or bugging the ambassador, they would feel a great sense of relief.

"That's really important," says Hecker. "That sort of relief cycle in game design is really important for the player to feel. Jonathan Blow [Braid] described this game as 'Chewing nails.' It's very stressful to play this game, so it's important to have the hard tells in there, to get that feeling of 'I made it! I got away with it.' It feels very spy-like. A little bit of tension release and that feeling of empowerment of pulling one over on the other person is super important."

But it wasn't just empowering the player that led Hecker to leave the hard tells in the game. While he was aiming to make the game as realistic as possible, with smooth animations and perfect AI pathing, he stumbled across another problem with going down this road.

"Frank Lantz [Drop7] called the game 'a clockwork party,'" notes Hecker. "It took a while for that to sink in, but it's true. What he means by that is that it's this exposed system where the mechanistic aspect to it is really important for both players to be able to predict what's happening, and make a model of how it works."

If the game was full of smooth animations and simulations, as opposed to set situations like "now this person is going to be at the bookshelf for two cycles," Hecker believes the game would be noticeably worse, as players wouldn't have "edges" to hold onto.

"When you see a game like Facade or Prom Week that are about human behavior, and are trying to do more of a continuous thing, it feels like they are lacking," he says. "It feels like you don't have things to grab onto."

"So in SpyParty, the clockwork party aspect of it I realized is part of what works about the game, not something that needs filing down," he continues. "You want those edges to hold onto. You want a certain level of predictability, and you want the NPCs to create a space that both players feel is a playing field they can understand."

Under pressure

When it comes to human behavior as observed directly through SpyParty itself, Hecker notes that players are forced to tackle his game in a rather different way to regular multiplayer titles.

"It's interesting to see how people behave under pressure," he says. "In most video games, you're constantly fidgeting because it doesn't really matter, right? You're expressing your nervousness, and your energy by moving around."

"In SpyParty, you have to breathe through it. Let's say you walk up to a conversation, and miss the conversation circle - which happens to everybody. The best thing to do in SpyParty is just stand outside the conversation. The sniper doesn't know exactly where the conversation circles are - the lines that you see on your screen aren't on the sniper's screen - and so they won't know immediately that you're outside the conversation. However, if you dodge into the circle, or immediately bail because you're nervous, they'll see that fast."

This means that SpyParty players have to just roll with the punches a bit more -- "be a little bit zen with it," as Hecker puts it.

spyparty.jpg"This gets to what I imagine a real-life spy situation would be like, where it's not going perfectly, but you just have to deal with it as it is, and just keep playing in character," he notes.

What Hecker has been aiming for is to inject a little bit of Alfred Hitchcock into SpyParty -- at least, on the spy side of play. He gives the example of a Hitchcock scene, where a husband is cheating on his wife, and his wife gets home moments after the mistress has left.

"The man notices that there's a wine glass with lipstick on it on the mantel that got left over," explains Hecker. "The way Hitchcock would film that, is that every shot of the man and his wife would have the wine glass in it. It'd be in the corner, and then the camera would switch views and it would be over there."

Of course, the man can't just pick up the wine glass and get rid of it, as that would give the situation away to his wife -- so he must keep her from spotting it.

"You can imagine that sort of Hitchcockian treatment of that, and I'm trying to go for that a little bit on the spy side," says Hecker. "You need to not draw attention to yourself. If you do an imperfect path, you have to kind of just roll with it, breathe through it and go with confidence."

"You can't just do it over like in most games," he adds. "It's a very different feeling than you get with most games, where you have all these micro-adjustments that you can do that are just part of expressing yourself in the game. But here you have to stay in character. It forces you to make decisions that are very different."

The entire video interview can be found on Gamasutra.

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