You can tell at a glance the people who don’t know what SpyParty is about. The ones who do eagerly rush to get in line to play, or else stand at a distance feverishly narrating the action to their friends. But then there are the ones who have never seen this before, or perhaps who have heard the name “SpyParty” vaguely associated with something cool, but have no other knowledge.
My favorite part of working SpyParty’s PAX booth is talking to these people. I walk casually up to them with a slight grin on my face, feeling every bit like a lion stalking its unsuspecting prey on the savannah, or maybe a drug pusher with something extremely addictive to sell. I just need to get them to TASTE this game. My partner tells me that she thinks I am unrivaled as a persuader and/or salesman if I’m talking about something that I love or care about, and I love and care about SpyParty.
“Hi, how’s it going, enjoying your PAX?” is how I typically start. Usually I get some kind of half-response, like “Yeah….” as they don’t look at me, their eyes straining to understand what is happening at the cocktail party they’re watching on the screen. Maybe this is some kind of sniper game, like Silent Scope, they are perhaps thinking. That’s when it’s important to intrude on their train of thought.
“Do you have any questions, want to play……want to know what the game is about?” I ask, confident that this last inquiry will produce a positive response, and indeed it usually does. Usually something along the lines of “Yeah, I have no idea what’s going on here.” (PAX congoers are generally very forthright people, I find).
“Ok, well come on down, and I’ll show you,” I say, waving them into the back of SpyParty’s little booth conspiratorially. They look confused for a moment, then step in- in other booths, it would be weird to be invited back to watch other players play in an area normally occupied by the people working the booth. I take advantage of this and try to make them feel like I’m giving them special treatment by bringing them in close to watch from where I watch (of course, we do this for everyone).
“All right, so here we have a fancy cocktail party.” They nod. They’re with me so far. “Everyone in this party is computer-controlled, an AI, except for this one here with the green arrow over their head. That person is being controlled by the player here. Now, this character is a spy, and they’re at the party to do nefarious spy things, like secretly stealing papers, or planting listening devices, things like that.” At this point, some people smile knowingly and nod, thinking they’ve figured it out, and perhaps starting to lose interest as they figure that there’s not much to this game; probably just stealth game #1,402 at PAX. So I break in on their train of thought again.
“Now, as the spy goes about their business, they have to be very discreet, and pretend to be an AI, because the OTHER player in this 1v1 game,” I say, moving them around to the other screen where the sniper is sitting, “is the sniper. The sniper was not invited to this party and they are kind of upset about it. Now, they know that someone in this party is the human player sitting at the other station, but they do not know who.” This is the moment, right here. I keep explaining things for a while, about how the sniper is trying to use behavioral cues/mission tells to find the spy, but right here is where the realization hits. You can see it on their faces. Typically they smile wide, take a deep breath, and involuntarily exclaim something like “Whoa!” or “That’s so cool!” One guy immediately withdrew a $20 from his wallet and marched exaggeratedly over to where we were selling the game.
This moment, when people realize what the premise of SpyParty is, is my favorite part of working SpyParty’s booth. Whether I’m persuasive or not doesn’t really matter, because this premise is so strong it sells itself. I’m the one who’s really an addict – I’m addicted to the little moment of joy people get when they realize they’ve found a hidden treasure in this little unassuming indie booth.
This little moment is why SpyParty belongs at PAX. From just looking at the booth setup, you certainly wouldn’t think it belonged there. SpyParty’s most immediate neighbors in PAX this year are two wonderful companies- The Behemoth (makers of Castle Crashers, Battleblock Theater, etc.), and Telltale Games (the company that single-handedly revived the point-and-click adventure with games like the revitalized Sam and Max series, The Walking Dead series, and so on). Neither Telltale nor Behemoth are AAA developers, far from it. Their games sell for about the same amount as SpyParty does. But nevertheless, they have both brought impressive booths to PAX this year. Behemoth has a circular display about 12 feet in diameter, ringed with beautiful art from their new game and with awesome custom control systems for demoing it. Their staff can walk into the center interior part of this display (hidden with a curtain) to access various things they have in storage or to fix the consoles. Above this display, hanging from the ceiling, is a spinning ring that features art from all their games and announces loudly “The Behemoth,” visible from practically anywhere in the expo hall. Next to their game display are glass cases with merchandise in them, and a long counter with a few point-of-sale systems next to that for selling this merchandise. Behind that is a large tent-like structure which I can only assume holds extra merchandise, as their salespeople occasionally duck into it and return holding merchandise. Above this sales desk are six or so giant monitors which display the available merchandise dynamically – one screen has a list and highlights this or that piece of merchandise, the screen next to it displays a close-up of that item. Occasionally, the Behemoth’s mascot, a giant chicken, fills up all six monitors and emits an impressive laser-beam, then retires. Quite an impressive spectacle.
Telltale’s booth is even more impressive. They are making a point-and-click adventure in the Borderlands universe this year, and their booth is a spectacular audiovisual display. It looks, in every respect, like a building on Pandora, in the Borderlands universe. A big neon sign announces its presence. It’s about 60 square feet (not counting their nearby sales area, similar to Behemoth’s). It constantly emits dialog from Borderlands characters talking to the people who are ringed around the building, waiting to get in. The whole experience reminds me of being in line for a ride at Disneyland. I can only imagine what actually happens once you get INSIDE the building. I couldn’t tell you myself, since I completely ignored everything else in the expo hall this PAX, preferring to stand in the SpyParty booth.
The cosmetic part of SpyParty’s booth is a black curtain, an obviously-handmade cardboard sign that says “SpyParty,” a couple print shop posters with the game’s pricing, and four 7′ stands with characters from the game on it. The white wall of the convention center, and the emergency fire hose, is easily visible behind them. Next to all this, six monitors are paired up on folding black TV-tray-like tables, facing each other with seats in front of them for the players, borrowed from the convention center and just plopped down loosely on the ground. You just sit and stand on the convention carpet. There is no enclosure, wall, or even queue pole to indicate where the boundaries of the booth are. There is nothing for sale but the game (a new feature this year; in previous years, you were just told to go to SpyParty.com to buy it if you wanted). To buy it, you go up to the game’s artist John Cimino or his girlfriend Alice, who are just standing off to one side wearing their street clothes. There is rarely a spare chair for them to sit down, let alone any counter to stand behind, and they sell you the game using their iphones with little credit card reader attachments. The rest of the people working the booth consist of lone developer Chris Hecker, and then maybe four or five (at best) of the game’s beta players, who are there working for free because they love the game. Some of them, like me, were given exhibitor badges to get into PAX and help; others got their own PAX badges and nevertheless are using them to show off the game instead of enjoying the rest of PAX. There are not enough chairs for everyone to sit down. The booth in its entirety can be set up or torn down in a couple hours by a half dozen or fewer people, and it all fits in the back of a pickup truck.
All in all, it would represent a serviceable effort by a high school ASB trying to set up something for prom on short notice, but in the middle of PAX, where the video game industry’s best and brightest pay thousands on booths to impress gamers, it looks hopelessly outgunned. But it’s not, because its unique gameplay idea outclasses most (or all?) video games that are made these days. It doesn’t matter how impressive your booth for a racing game or first-person-shooter is, it’s still just a racing game or first-person-shooter. (Neither Behemoth nor Telltale were making a boring, predictable genre game this year, just to be clear. Their games actually looked really cool, and I’m excited to get my hands on them). The people queued up to take in the average “booth experience” probably know exactly what your game is about going in, and have played a roughly-similar (or very similar) game before.
But no one is expecting SpyParty. Some people seem to be drawn to us just by the somewhat underwhelming aesthetic of our tiny booth. What could this game have that would allow it to be at PAX with such a booth, they wonder. And shortly after that, as I approach them with that predatory gleam in my eye, they find out – a lot.
Chris Hecker, the game’s developer (although I always want to refer to him as the “inventor”), rarely does anything to intervene in his volunteers’ process for running the booth. He gave us directions on how to do it at the start of the convention, and after that he lets us go to work. He is a very easy person to work with, and a very good “boss,” if that’s the right word – he is exceptionally clear and specific about directions and expectations, and doesn’t bother you or micromanage if you’re doing things in the rough way he wanted (which, with our volunteers, is the same as saying he never bothered you). Sometimes he will pitch in and help when we don’t have enough people staffing the booth, or he’ll occasionally explain the game to an enthusiastic group, but for the most part he is either sitting in the corner working on something (this year, probably trying to get the on-site sales to work, or printing up more copies of the little cards with game codes on them), or else he’s out and about in the con. At first I didn’t know where he was.
But then I realized that he was probably out chatting with people he knows in the industry, asking about their games, talking about the progress on his- networking. It’s not something I personally am very good at and this deficiency holds me back in my career, so I tried to observe someone who WAS good at it at work. And it was clear to me that he was good at it. Throughout the convention, other exhibitors came up to the booth looking for him. Some of them were old EA/Maxis colleagues of his, but a surprising number just seemed to be random people in the industry. Indie developers in particular seem to seek him out. On the last morning of the convention, two such folks came looking for him. One of them (who I believe after a bit of research was Allen Pestaluky) was working on an awesome-sounding game where one person has a bomb in front of them, with no idea how to defuse it, and the other person has the manual, resulting in much frenetic interchange (sadly, it currently requires an Oculus Rift to play). Chris Hecker seems to be very well-known among people like this, and he seems to know at least someone from almost any video game company you care to imagine.
What impressed me most, though, is the way he deals with people. Being a lawyer, I know a lot of people who are good at networking, even if I am not. But a lot of those people seem to have classifications for the people they network with. Such-and-such a person needs to be treated in a particular way, or have only so much time allocated to them, to avoid giving the impression that you’re of some kind of lesser status on some hierarchy. But Chris (more or less everyone calls him Chris, or “Checker,” his username) deals with everyone in the same personable, friendly, matter-of-fact way (he has an “informal style,” as we would say in lawyer parlance), and he is as happy to spend hours talking with a random PAX-goer cosplaying as a 6’2″ male Princess Peach about SpyParty and what inspired him to make it as he is to talk shop with someone from 2K Games. While the developers of most important games would release their patch notes videos on their game’s website with heavy production added, Chris has been known to do his patch notes live on one his experienced player’s Twitch streams, and then just link to the VOD. It’s part of the reason his game has such a devoted following.
Over 500 people bought SpyParty during this year’s PAX (which incidentally was enough to cover the costs of the humble SpyParty booth’s con fee). Of those people, most will stick around with the game long enough to discover another hidden benefit that makes SpyParty unlike other games – the community. They will notice that experienced players hang around in the game’s lobby just to teach people, answer questions, and generally be friendly. They will notice that, even in matches between new players, the end of a game is not marked by whining, name-calling, and anger, but rather by a constructive attempt by both players to figure out what happened in the game and improve. The game has a culture which promotes cooperation, friendliness, and inclusivity. Players develop strong friendships through the game, and the whole community of people who play SpyParty is very tight-knit. Every night the community assembles to watch Twitch streams of the game and to play. It’s a bit like being in a big extended family.
Somewhere out there, in that group of people who bought the game at PAX, are a group of them who will be come a serious and long-term part of this community. They will learn the game, play it thousands of times, and become well-known to their compatriots. They will bring new things to the game, changing the way it is played. They’ll make tons of friends and have an amazing amount of fun, and they’ll have a community to be a part of indefinitely. All because they heard the sentence “and so the sniper is trying to figure out who the human player is, in this party full of AIs.”