Chris Hecker has long promised to update the look of SpyParty, his two-player battle of wits and psychological study between spy and sniper.
Chris Hecker's SpyParty is currently a game not lacking in substance, but style.
The critically-praised, asymmetric multiplayer espionage game plays like a reverse Turing test, with one player - the spy - doing his or her best to believably mingle with a crowd of computer-controlled partygoers, all while stealthily, subtly performing a series of tasks.
Watching the spy from a distance is the other player, a sniper who attempts to identify human behavior amongst artificial intelligently-controlled behavior. The sniper must watch carefully for player tells: a tap on a shoulder, the movement of an object, a murmured audio cue. It's a game of quiet perception and study, with just one chance - one bullet - to either take out a target or murder an innocent civilian.
Hecker has been working on SpyParty for more than three years. His laser focus has been on crafting the multiplayer espionage game's tuning and balance. With hundreds of players currently beta testing SpyParty and thousands in a queue waiting to play, the game's creator turns his attention to what his game is currently lacking: beauty, fashion, and a sense of style.
Say goodbye to SpyParty's out-of-fashion, ad hoc visual style and welcome its dashing new successor.
SpyParty originally borrowed its visual assets from The Sims, Maxis and Electronic Arts' life simulation game. Hecker began developing SpyParty in his free time, while he was working - and getting "kind of creatively frustrated" - on Spore at Electronic Arts. He had permission from EA to develop personal game projects in his downtime, a stipulation of his employment agreement. With some help from game designer Will Wright, he got clearance from EA to use character models from The Sims in his game, which he planned to show at an indie game jam.
Then Hecker hit a snag. The iPhone and the iTunes App Store happened. Developers toiling away at huge publishers like EA started flocking to independent and mobile development.
"When I was going to show it at GDC at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop one year, everything was fine," Hecker recalls. "I had permission, but that was the year that everyone quit and made iPhone games. EA freaked about people [moonlighting]. I was talking to Rod Humble, who at the time was a VP at EA, and he said 'Everything was cool last week, but now people are freaking out, so I wouldn't show it if I were you.'"
Hecker wanted to show off SpyParty. But due to the "political climate" at EA, he was forced to strip The Sims from his game and replace them with his own lo-fi assets.
"It was three weeks before GDC," Hecker recalls, "so a friend of mine and I made all these characters and animations and textures - we only made four base models - and shoved it all in there thinking, 'Oh, I'll replace this soon.' That was three years ago."
Now that SpyParty is in a closed beta, with 1,600 players engaged in spy versus sniper competition, Hecker feels that it's time to address the game's graphical shortcomings.
"There's still plenty of game design left to do," he says, "but I'm feeling confident enough about the core mechanics that it was time to start increasing the aesthetic polish."
"IF I COULD FIGURE OUT A CHEAP WAY TO KEEP THE OLD ART IN THE GAME AS FAN SERVICE, I WOULD DO IT, BUT I DON’T THINK THAT'S GOING TO BE POSSIBLE."
The search for style
In Hecker's words, SpyParty's current graphics are "terrible." It's certainly not the caliber of social gathering - stylistically, at least - where jet-setting ambassadors, socialites, international spies, and double agents might find themselves. With its bright plaid jackets and funky, lo-fi, monochrome suits, the vibe is more fondue party than high society soiree. Hecker's long promised to change that.
"The game has always been kind of an homage to spy and mystery fiction, in terms of its style, but the biggest aesthetic influence were classical illustrators," Hecker says of his fashionable revamp. He name-checks J.C. Leyendecker, Harry Beckhoff, Herbert Paus, and Robert McGinnis, illustrators from the early and middle 20th century, as sources of visual inspiration for his game's new illustrative style. He wants SpyParty to avoid attempts at photorealism, to steer clear of the "uncanny valley" that creeps into video games with normal-looking humans, but without being overly stylized. Ideally, he says he wants a "subtle, naturalistic style that really reinforces the subtlety of the game design."
"EVERY TIME I TALK TO THE PEOPLE WHO PLAY THE GAME NOW, THERE WILL BE SOME CONTINGENT THAT SAYS 'I LOVE THE [CURRENT] ART.' AND I THINK 'ARE YOU CRAZY?!'"
The goal is for SpyParty's visual design to appear timeless, Hecker says, so players aren't exactly sure when the game takes place. "I don't want it to be an Austin Powers '60s spy movie or [set in the] '20s or super modern," he explains. "You're not really sure when it's happening and therefore it doesn't age."
"The Incredibles did a great job with their art direction," he says of Pixar's slick superhero film, which draws heavily on mid-century modern architecture and design. "It's just not clear [when it takes place] because it's a complete pastiche of different time periods."
Pages torn from copies of modern fashion magazines, like Esquire and Vogue, clutter Hecker's office. They're another source of inspiration. If he likes a particular dress or a photograph that captures the SpyParty mood - this Annie Leibovitz photo of designer Marc Jacobs, for example, or this Mario Sorrenti portrait of actor Christopher Plummer from W Magazine - he rips them out and passes them on to his artist, currently the only other member of the SpyParty development team.
To render SpyParty's chic new look, Hecker turned to former coworker John Cimino. Cimino studied traditional, hand-drawn animation at the Savannah College of Art and Design prior to an eight-year stint at EA, where he worked with Hecker on Sporebringing the game's player-created creatures to life.
From top left, the work of Herbert Paus, Robert McGinnis, J.C. Leyendecker and Harry Beckhoff, some of the artists who influenced SpyParty's new look.
"NONE OF THIS STUFF IS IN THE GAME RIGHT NOW... THEY'RE NOT GOING TO BE IN THE GAME FOR AWHILE."
"John happened to be the guy who was working on all that creature stuff alongside me," Hecker says. "So he ended up using all my crazy broken technology - because everything on Spore was completely broken and crazy because it was so experimental. After six years of the two of us working together, it was pretty obvious that whatever I threw at him he could deal with. My animation system was so weird, to make it work on nine-legged and four-legged creatures and no-legged creatures, so we just developed a good working relationship.
"I'm kind of a little difficult to work with and it was clear he could put up with it. Then the fact that he's just got this amazing level of talent - he can concept, model, texture, animate - he can basically do everything."
"After years of working on a game that was all about aliens and sci-fi, working on a game about humans and subtle behavior greatly appealed to me," Cimino tells Polygon.SpyParty is an opportunity to stretch his skills as an artist, Cimino says, and, thanks to the development team's tiny size, "have a huge influence on every aesthetic aspect of the game."
"What drew me to SpyParty was the work itself," Cimino says. "Designing and animating 20 to 25 unique human characters of the type we're making in SpyParty is an extremely rare opportunity in games."
Cimino's job over the next year or so will be to concept, model, animate, and iterate on the two dozen or so character models Hecker has planned, combing through reference material from fashion magazines, hairstyle websites, and films. SpyParty's cast will need to animate in ways that make players comfortable and reflect Hecker's subtle game design, all while not upsetting the game's careful balance. Because with greater detail on characters and their movements could come an advantage for the sniper. More detailed, better-animated characters might make it easier for the shooter to spot a human trying to masquerade as a computer program. Or that increased graphical fidelity may create more visual dissonance for the sniper, favoring the spy.
Hecker doesn't know; not until he's thoroughly tested the game.
He's conscious of the impact SpyParty's artistic changes may have on current players and game balance. Depth of gameplay and an even playing field for both the spy and sniper prevail. If SpyParty's makeover interferes with the delicately balanced, psychologically driven competitive play of this one-on-one game, Hecker says he'll gut the art again and ship it with its current artwork.
"The key thing is I want to keep it super competitive, but where the competitive skills are these behavioral psychology and people skills."
"There's going to be a backlash - kind of a silly backlash, because the art is so terrible right now - but it's going to happen," Hecker predicts. "I want to be sensitive of that, because these are the hardest core fans who are invested in the game." (Hecker's referring to the fans who paid to play the beta, committed fans who are already writing SpyPartyfan fiction and poetry.)
"I hope most people will think 'Whoa! That's amazing!' and switch over. Gameplay to me is the absolute most important thing so I will ship the current art if it turns out that I can't change it without screwing the game up. But I don't think that's actually going to be the case. I think it can be a beautiful game that's also really deep and interesting."
"I'M JUST HOPING THAT THE PREVIOUS ART IS THOUGHT OF AS BEING BAD ENOUGH THAT PEOPLE ARE HAPPY — AND KNOWING THAT THEY'RE IN GOOD HANDS AND THAT I’M NOT GOING TO SCREW THE GAME UP."
Hecker estimates he has at least a year of additional play-testing and development before SpyParty can be released. He wants his game to be "perfect," to achieve a level of balance and depth that makes it as fiercely competitive as a Street Fighter, a StarCraft, or a Counter-Strike, and as deeply studied as Go or Poker. He was invited to showcase SpyParty at this year's EVO fighting game championship, where it received a warm reception from players, he says.
"It's just a different kind of game that still has that level of competition, but you're exercising a completely different set of skills," he says. "A lot of competitive multiplayer games are psychological once you're past the micro level, it's just thatSpyParty taps into it earlier. There are little bits of physical skill in the game, like learning to walk correctly and learning to hit the action tests correctly, but it's very soon that you're into the psychological realm. I think it's totally possible to build a competitive game at the level of those others around SpyParty, but it remains to be seen if that will work out. It takes years for those games to develop."
While Hecker says he's not building eSports-like features intoSpyParty, he's keenly focused on its evolving its competitive aspects. Future versions of SpyParty will feature spectator modes, round-robin tournament options, and downloadable replays, so others can study the spying and sniping skills of top-tier players.Hecker also hopes to add a ranked mentoring system toSpyParty, encouraging experienced players to tutor new players. The current player community has been "super helpful," he says, in welcoming new players.
"I WANT THE COMMUNITY TO FEEL LIKE HELPING OTHER PEOPLE, AS OPPOSED TO A LOT OF ONLINE MULTIPLAYER COMPETITIVE GAMES WHERE THE COMMUNITY IS... SLIGHTLY QUESTIONABLE."
"A lot of people who talk about changing games as an art form and us reaching our potential as an artistic medium talk about how games have to be more about story, more emotionally compelling," he says. "And I agree about the emotionally compelling aspect, but I think the competition aspect of games is part of the emotionally compelling aspect of games, so having a game about human behavior and psychological subtlety, but having that intense competitiveness to it doubles down on the true promise of games."
Hecker doesn't seem particularly anxious to release his game when I ask him how close he's getting. When I ask him how much time left it will take to re-style his game and crunch the numbers of SpyParty's forthcoming open beta, he says:
"A couple years, maybe? The problem is I was saying 'a couple years' a couple years ago. I just want it to be perfect. That's the thing."
Hecker will bring a playable SpyParty - with its old, less fashionable art style - to PAX Prime later this week.