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Not A Hecker Heckler

This article is in efforts to clarify my ideas while challenging the statements made by Chris Hecker regarding his indie game in progress, Spy Party. I've mentioned the game already a few times on this blog here and here. There's a good buzz surrounding this game and for good reason. It has a fairly unique core concept. I won't bother explaining the game because Hecker does a fantastic job of energetically conveying his concept in this video interview. And it's the statements in this interview that I'll address. It's four minutes long, watch before continuing. 

So here are some quotes and my thoughts/responses. I'm giving Hecker a lot of leeway. I know how difficult it can be to talk about video games let alone in an interview situation while playing a video game. 


"I want it to be basically e-sports level player skill game right? And to do that you have to have that that that as I said  yomi layer thing... You need to have enough richness there that makes it possible to do that." 

I've written all about Sirlin's Yomi layers and expanded extensively on precisely defining skill, depth, complexity, strategy, etc. So when I heard that Hecker is aiming to design Spy Party so support high level competitive play, I wished him luck. Based on this interview Hecker has some really neat ideas for balance. I don't see a difference between an great e-spot quality game and a great competitive multiplayer game. So all I can say is that there are many ways to design a great multiplayer game. Generally speaking yomi isn't necessary for a great competitive game. 


"The game becomes about deception and performance and perception. It really gets to looking at human behavior."

What competitive multiplayer game isn't about deception (mixups), performance (dexterity, knowledge, timing, adaptation), and perception (reflex skills). Some games aren't so much about deception, but many are. Likewise, human players interacting within a system against each other inherently involves human behavior. Understanding how people think, react under pressure, and/or behave given certain conditions is how many gain an upper hand in competition. 


"...and it's a game of very high player skill. Like a game like counter strike. But instead of map navigation and shooting and jumping and those kinds of skills that are the normal player skills for a video game, it's about perception and intuition about human behavior and social pattern matching."

I'm giving Hecker some leeway here. Describing FPS gameplay as "normal player skills" reflects Hecker's possible FPS bias (he admits to loving/playing Counter Strike). And it's not just Hecker, every description of Spy Party I've listen to on various gaming podcast have all somewhat clumsily described the game the same way... ie it's a game that's not a "twitch" based "death match" FPS battle. Perhaps all of these commenters have played far to many shooters so that they think most types of multiplayer matches are twitchy shooters. I've played fighters, shooters, puzzle, racing, strategy, and sports games competitively at a high level. Map navigation, shooting, and jumping are not the norm. 

Still, here's one of the main problems I have with how people talk about Spy Party. From what I can tell based on descriptions, interviews, and videos, Spy Party is more like all other multiplayer games than it is some unique interactive system. Forget comparing Spy Part to games like Puji or Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Spy Party is just a game with goals like all games. And like many multiplayer games, you have methods of being covert or ostentatious. You have a wealth of complexities to learn that will give you advantages in competition. You have to adapt to a randomized situation. The game is asymetrical like Phantom Hourglass multiplayer or Pac-Man Vs. Sure, the forms in the game lend themselves naturally to role playing, but this doesn't make Spy Party any more about perception or human behavior than other games. Gamers role play all the time though generally not in the same way in multiplayer matches. 


People respond to people. Part of the reason the game industry is culturally ghettoized still is that ... at the end of the day they don't care that much about orcs and space marines... But people never get sick of people. The game industry almost has no experience working with that. 

I can't believe how narrow minded these statements are. Obviously Orcs and space marines don't make up the majority of video game experiences. I don't think they make a good example int his case. It's difficult to try and convince me that other people don't care about something when they clearly do. And as I already explained, people are the driving force behind all multiplayer. In fact, people are the driving force behind all art. Whether it's you that is moved (or not moved) by the art, or it's the creator(s) that created it. Yes, the world is fascinated with social networking (see the growth of facebook). But Spy Party isn't a game about social networking or social pattern making any more than Halo or Animal Crossing. 

To think that Spy Party is breaking some kind of mold or forging completely untapped territory is a view that's most likely limited by the range of games one considers and how one understands how these games work. If all you know and play are multiplayer shooters, then Spy Party would seem like a completely original game. 


"I added the drinks and there is all kinds of interesting gameplay around just having a drink in your hand. Whether you can do certain missions whether you slam the drink really fast in the beginning. Whether you don't. Does that give you away? I didn't expect that to happen."

Such is the power of emergence and the innate human ability to "play." Whether this means role playing or game-playing, play is absolutely expressive and personal. But this is due to what the player brings to the table. In the same way that having a drink in the hand fostered new kinds of play in Spy Party, the DUCK mechanic has emerged to express/mean...


"I think that a lot of times games developers are the people who enjoy the kind of adolescent power fantasies that we have."

If we begin to marginalize our medium like this we'll only dig our own grave. Regardless of how easy it may be to point at some of the most popular games that feature bald space marines shooting aliens, so be it. If the developers fantasised about being uber powerful dues, that's just one kind of idea with one vehicle of expression that's completely legitimate. It's all art. I never try to devalue the expression of others and those who appreciate it. Because if we really go to the level that Hecker has sort of pointed to, then all video games are pointless wastes of time because they're all fictional events that don't contribute to society (like much art). Just because you put a drink in the player's hand, you're still role playing a spy as a sniper tries to shoot you in a "barrel". Sounds like a "spy fantasy" to me. 

There's a lot to potentially consider about even the most derivative shooters. If you want more from you games than some shooters offer, then keep looking and/or be patient. The people who think that video games are capable of telling truly unique and amazing stories are fools. Video games already do this and have done this for a while. Likewise, video games have been evoking emotional responses and representing/commenting on complex social happenings.  


I don't mean to be a heckler. Being critical is what I do here. Hecker has a lot of heart and passion for Spy Party. It's a neat game that deserves the buzz it has accrued. Hecker is very articulate, and his words often reflect an impressive understanding of game design. So I can only wonder how he'll respond to this post. I admitedly speak from limited knowledge of Spy Party, but I'm more than confident in my understanding of game design in general. 

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Reader Comments (4)

Great post. I share your irritation at the trotting out of the old "orcs and space marines" trope. I'm not trying to single out Hecker at all, but here in 2010 this is so plainly false - and yet comes up so often from so many different devs - that I have to wonder if its actually less of a serious critique of the industry and more of a coded way to distance or elevate oneself from existing video game culture or developers.

Anyway, the rest of your article seems solid - of course Spy Party is just a game and, again, the subtitle to that image "... a groundbreaking indie game" probably has a lot more to do with positioning and marketing than any kind of serious analysis or consideration of the game itself. Especially since, obviously, the game is not available for players to actually realize and bring to life on the kind of scale that, well, determines if a multiplayer game actually breaks any ground!

December 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

@ Anonymous

Well put.

I don't mind the marketing angle that Spy Party picture presents either. In a sea of distractions, one has to stand out somehow.

I know for me, I play more puzzle video games than everyone I know. So when people say that games are just adolescent power fantasies with juvenile shooting/killing, I complete another brain bender on my DS and wonder what they're talking about.

I've rarely heard anyone comment on the gaming industry as a whole or about how games are art intelligently enough for my standards. Growing up in art/music/dance/fiction writing classes/clubs, I've studied and created art all my life. I think I have a well rounded perspective on what art is and how it works. It seems to me that the people who understand art the least can't make it or can only create one type of it. This possibly gives them a skewed perspective and they might elevate one medium unreasonably over another for odd reasons.

December 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Hi, thanks for writing up your questions. I'll try to respond to some of the points here. You really should just play the game, though, since discussing an interview about the game isn't very satisfying compared to discussing the actual game itself. I'll hopefully have a bunch of playtest opportunities this year.

"I don't see a difference between an great e-sport quality game and a great competitive multiplayer game."

Sure, I'm just using the term "e-sports level player skill" as shorthand for a bunch of characteristics you need to have for your game to be an intensely player-skill-focused competitive multiplayer game. I just find it easier to say that than to describe all the characteristics individually. Ignoring the dorky connotations, if you say "e-sports" you are clearly saying your game needs to hold up to thousands of hours of gameplay, clear and robust skill-based ranking, etc. I don't know if yomi is a strict requirement, I haven't thought about it enough, but I think it helps deepen the contest.

"What competitive multiplayer game isn't about deception, performance, and perception."

Sure, but I think they're happening at different levels in other games. SpyParty focuses on the "hiding in plain sight" mechanic, and so those characteristics are at the fore, where they might be more subtle or second order in a more action-oriented player-skill game like a shooter or a fighting game. I'm not making a claim that this makes SpyParty better or anything, just that it has a different emphasis. Most playtesters seem to agree that it does feel different. It's still (trying to be) a hardcore competitive player-skill video game, but it feels fairly different from most of the existing ones.

"Map navigation, shooting, and jumping are not the norm."

This is, again, a shorthand way of talking about this topic. In a lecture where I have room on a slide for more examples, I'll usually add RTS micro and macro and some others.

"SpyParty is more like all other multiplayer games than it is some unique interactive system."

Sure, like I said, I'm trying to make a hardcore competitive videogame, here, not some "unique interactive system", whatever that means. :) It has similarities to lots of games, including The Ship, AC:B, Hitman, The Sims, and Counter-Strike (hopefully :). I think it feels pretty different to play than any of those (I'm working on a blog post about this), but that's obviously something you'll have to decide for yourself when you finally play it. It's not the kind of thing you can really communicate effectively with words or even a video.

"If we begin to marginalize our medium like this we'll only dig our own grave."

I'm on record as saying I think we're already marginalized, and we have to work our way out of that. Obviously there are lots of valid takes on the current state of our industry and form, and intelligent people can disagree here, but I think we have a long way to go, and our focus on adolescent power fantasy is part of the problem. I love some of these games, but when most of our output is in this category (which is arguable, I think), then it's a problem.

"Sounds like a 'spy fantasy' to me."

Oh, totally, I'm not saying SpyParty isn't indulging in some adolescent power fantasy, it certainly is! You can't innovate on all fronts simultaneously. I'm using the spy milieu because it allows me to explore some of the more subtle behavior-oriented mechanics I'm interested in, and also because spies are cool, and I think most spy games don't capture that coolness at all. :) So, babysteps.

Thanks again for the writeup, and I hope that answers some of your points, and I'll be interested to hear what you think when you get to play!

@Anonymous - "the subtitle to that image "... a groundbreaking indie game" probably has a lot more to do with positioning and marketing than any kind of serious analysis or consideration of the game itself."

You'll notice I had them take that off the later versions of the poster, not sure where you found that original one. NYU put that on there, and it bothered me as well, I would never say that myself.


PS. I think your second "mention link" at the top is wrong, I think you mean this:

December 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris Hecker

@Chris Hecker

Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoroughly to the comments and points raised here. True, it would be much better if I played Spy Party. I’ll look for an opportunity this new year to play.

Your response in regards to the term e-sport is good. The short hand phrase really does work well in this case. As for yomi, I tend to think of it not as something you think about deliberately putting into a game. Rather it’s a way of describing the emergent gameplay possible when there is a double blind scenario (whether in a turn based game or via limited player views/options) and a closed interplay loop. I’m pretty sure Spy Part already has yomi layers though the interplay system may be harder to describe.

This distinction you make between fore/backgrounded elements (deception, performance, perception) is interesting. I don’t doubt that Spy Part feels different. I can tell as much from watching people play. I think we’re saying the same thing here, so I’ll try to explain it in a different way. With other games (we’ll stick with competitive fighters/shooters) you have many ways to overcome an opponent. Depending on the game, you can play to strategies that focus on having superior skills of any category/combination of DKART skills (dexterity, knowledge, adaptation, reflexes, timing). But because Spy Party de-emphasises dexterity, some kinds of reflexes, and some kinds of timing, players must create strategies around knowledge and adaptation. Slowly picking up information and keeping track of what your opponent might know is key, thus the deception/perception part of the gameplay is foregrounded. Naturally games that emphasis more categories of skill strike a balance that cuts into the knowledge/adaptation type strategies.

“This is, again, a shorthand way of talking about this topic. In a lecture where I have room on a slide for more examples, I'll usually add RTS micro and macro and some others.”

I take a step back here. Your short hand works in the interview. In general, I tend to describe skills using my more objective and universal DKART system. Doing so keeps me genre neutral.

“Sure, like I said, I'm trying to make a hardcore competitive videogame, here, not some "unique interactive system", whatever that means. :)”

Yes. The “unique interactive system” part was in direct response to what others have said in Spy Party conversations. I didn’t mean to imply that you’ve made such claims. I’m a bit particular about how people talk about games because I think the sort of vague, inaccurate descriptions that people give to unique games like Spy Party prevent the conversation from addressing what the games really are. I think that people use too many hyperboles and extreme opposites to describe subtle and small differences.

“I love some of these games, but when most of our output is in this category (which is arguable, I think), then it's a problem.”

I think think we can’t get much farther on these points without starting another conversation. Also, without specific data and hard numbers, it’s difficult to get around what range and scope of games we’re talking about. Thanks for clarifying your position even further.

“You can't innovate on all fronts simultaneously....So, babysteps.”

I agree with most of what you’re saying in your response. I understand where you’re coming from and what you’re saying. I greatly respect taking manageable, babysteps as opposed to letting ambition wreck the final product. You continue to have my support.

I’ll comb through more of your blog for more information about what you think of the industry at large. I get the impression that we could have really interesting conversations. I’ll let the future decide when and where those will occur.

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