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Hecker Visits UC Berkeley To Talk  SpyParty , Future Of Emotion In Games

Hecker Visits UC Berkeley To Talk SpyParty, Future Of Emotion In Games

March 24, 2011 | By Tom Curtis

In a Gamasutra-attended lecture at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Information this Wednesday, industry veteran and independent developer Chris Hecker outlined the design philosophy behind his indie project SpyParty, as well as the current state of the industry as it grows to fulfill its artistic potential.

Hecker began his lecture with a demo of the work-in-progress SpyParty, a two-player game that tasks one player with infiltrating a cocktail party as a spy, while the other views the party through a sniper's scope as they try to detect the undercover player as he or she goes about various mission objectives.

He noted that unlike most modern blockbusters, which emphasize heavy gunplay and violence, SpyParty instead emphasizes a human-to-human relationship that hinges on the mere threat of violence. The deception and behavior analysis that comes before the violence becomes the primary focus of the game.

"In other games it's all about blowing things up and car chases," explained Hecker as he outlined the premise of the game. "Very rarely do you interact with someone in any meaningful way."

In order to show off SpyParty in full, Hecker called two anonymous attendees to the stage to try their hand at the title.

"This game is hard!" exclaimed one player as he struggled to identify the spy's unique tells amidst a host of AI-controlled characters. "Yeah, the game is hard," admitted Hecker, "but it's hard on a different axis than most games."

In order to explain the challenges the game presents, Hecker outlined how SpyParty functions as an inverse of the classic Turing test--that is, rather than creating an AI that mimics a human, spy players aim to mimic an AI, so as to fit in with their surroundings and remain undetected. "When you force a human to act like a computer, you get a game - it's an interesting task," Hecker said.

Hecker then discussed three forms of playtesting he examined when fine-tuning the systems for SpyParty. The first and most-preferred method, known as depth-based testing, allowed Hecker to fine-tune the game for even the highest levels of play. Hecker gave nods to his two primary playtesters, Paul and Ian, who each specialize in one of the game's two roles to find design problems and maintain game balance even when both players are experts.

The remaining two methods included Kleenex testing, in which a number of subjects play the game once to identify bugs, and focus-testing, which Hecker believes only hinders the design process. "Please promise me you all will never do this," he pleaded jokingly.

The discussion then shifted toward the state of games as an artistic medium, as Hecker drew comparisons between the current state of games and the budding years of the film industry.
He argued that while games have moved past their infancy, they currently are analogous to the movies of 1905, when simplistic films like The Misadventure of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach and The Little Train Robbery dominated the silver screen.

"Instead of looking for our Casablanca or our Citizen Kane," Hecker argued, "we need to look for our Birth of a Nation." He explained that while Birth of a Nation did not break any new ground upon its release, it combined the most essential elements of filmmaking into a single, cohesive package.

As of now, most games fail to convey a real sense of human emotion, Hecker explained. Some games, like Ico, use mechanics like hand-holding to convey emotion through interactivity, though these games are just a stepping stone for where the medium needs to end up, he said.

With SpyParty, Hecker hopes to "chip away at that rock" and bring games closer to artistic maturity via a number of specific aesthetic goals. For instance, rather than limit a player's resources through ammunition or fuel, SpyParty uses the player's own attention as a resource--a sniper's ability to find his target relies solely on his own awareness.

Hecker also aims to emphasize the pressure of making uncertain decisions by ensuring that snipers in SpyParty don't know if they've successfully identified the spy until after they pull the trigger. "My goal would be that people come away from this game thinking of themselves and how they make decisions with partial information," Hecker said.

He also outlined a number of other aesthetic goals, including finding the balance between using deduction versus intuition, as well as focusing on the asymmetrical relationship between the spy and the sniper. Hecker hopes these elements can work in tandem to create a more emotionally gripping experience for both players.

As his lecture came to a close, Hecker discussed how most games attempt to create an emotional bond with the player, though more often than not games overlook an essential element of emotional bonds: human interaction.

Many modern games create emotional experiences by starting with a linear story and then adding layers on interactivity on top of it, leaving the player with no real agency over the events he takes part in. Hecker, however, called for a different approach to creating emotional experiences. "I think it's better to start with known and compelling interactions and find a way to make them mechanically deep," he said.

In the long term, Hecker hopes to see games that emulate the emotional breadth of the 1968 comedy The Party, in which the actors convey information to the audience through body language and facial expressions, not just through their dialogue and actions. "None of these things are that hard [to do in games], but I think this sort of subtlety is part of where games need to go," he concluded.

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