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What is SpyParty?

SpyParty is a spy game about human behavior, performance, perception, and deception. While most espionage games have you spend your time shooting stuff, blowing stuff up, and driving fast, SpyParty has you hide in plain sight, deceive your opponent, and detect subtle behavioral tells to achieve your objectives.

PAX Diary: Krazycaley

Note: this is a day-by-day diary of Krazycaley’s trip to PAX Prime to help man the SpyParty booth. It is being reproduced here with permission of the author. Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 27th, 11:00pm

Wodar is arriving early. He previously warned me that he might do so, so by 11 I’ve ensured that my law practice is in order for the next week, my things are packed, and my partner Jess and my dog William have both been properly wished farewell. Wodar finds a street not too far from where I live to park his car for the next few days, so I come and pick him up. He wishes, upon my picking him up, that I had opened the door and said “get in, there’s no time to explain.” We roll off down the 605 toward Drawnonward, who apparently plans to stream with us present.

Thursday, August 28th, 12:00am

Arriving at Drawn’s place, I can immediately tell which building is his because I recognize his characteristic blinds. Drawn lets us in, though he is attacked by a spider on the way out to greet us. He asks us not to make a big deal of the mess in his room. I go in there, and while there is indeed a mess (mostly unsorted Magic cards), I’ve seen far worse. Wodar, because he is Wodar, almost immediately comments to Drawn’s stream about the profound number of Magic cards lying haphazardly around the room. Drawn’s room is impressive – he has a large variety of stuff relating not only a wide variety of games, but also a large number of pieces of art and replica artifacts from ancient cultures, especially ancient Egypt. It’s pretty cool.

Thursday, August 28th, 11:30am

We are somewhere north of Sacramento; having driven for 10 hours or so. After an initial flurry of conversation and discussion of the upcoming Magic: the Gathering set, Wodar and Drawn fall asleep and I have driven for some distance on my own. At around 9am, I got tired and required a 90 minute nap to keep my eyes from going dangerously fuzzy on the road. By 11:30, we are hungry. Drawn sends out a tweet to the corporate Denny’s account, saying that we are hungry and we’d very much like a Denny’s. The instant he hits send, one appears around the bend, and we indulge in fish and chips. Creepy, but delicious.

Thursday, August 28th, 4:30pm

The drive is becoming somewhat wearisome. I’ve been on long road trips before; I once drove my car from my home in San Diego to college in Lexington, Virginia, by way of Atlanta, Georgia. This trip looks somewhat feeble by comparison, but still, it’s long. Oregon is beautiful, though. Jess used to live in Oregon. I had really wanted her to come with us on this trip, but she would not be able to get into PAX, she would have had to bring our dog since there’s no one to watch him, and she wouldn’t have had much to do during the day while I worked the booth, so she’s staying home. I already miss her a lot.

Thursday, August 28th, 9:15pm

We finally arrive in Seattle (after passing by Mt. St. Helens, which looks quite impressive). We drop off Wodar at a hotel a few blocks from the convention center, which he is sharing with Canadianbacon and a few random strangers. I envy him, because the plan for Drawn and myself is a bit slapdash. We are, the both of us, too poor to even afford a hotel, so our plan for the week is to park the car where we can at night and sleep in it. Hopefully we can bum showers off of Bacon and Wodar and their unknown roommates in the morning (a point of particular concern for me; I’m used to being clean and groomed when dealing with the public, and not being so makes me anxious). I am tired and beginning to think that perhaps coming here was a bad decision after we first get a bit lost on one of Seattle’s subsidiary islands, then discover that the Wal-Mart we had planned to park at overnight does not allow overnight parking. We are extremely tired, so we find a nearby suburban residential area, find a promising-looking spot in a cul-de-sac, and go to sleep hoping that we’ll be up in the morning before one of the cul-de-sac’s inhabitants comes out and discovers strange men sleeping in a car outside their house. I am feeling pretty negative about the whole trip at this point. Perhaps it was a mistake to come here while being so poor, leaving Jess for so long. Also, I tend to require a certain amount of solitude. While I am fairly sociable and like spending time with friends and loved ones, I also like to be left alone and have time to myself for a good long while each day. My plan for living in Seattle over the next few days does require me to spend a large amount of time, even sleeping, next to someone I’ve never met in person before, even though it’s as good a friend as Drawn. Despite these misgivings, I am so tired that I fall asleep pretty easily.

Friday, August 29th, 5:45am

Luckily, we seem to awaken before any of the street’s inhabitants. They are none the wiser that a couple of nerds slept on their street as we drive off to the convention center. Our plan for the morning is to park somewhere downtown that’s reasonable, and then walk to the hotel for our mooched showers, which Bacon has kindly let us take. Driving around, we notice that the convention center itself actually has reasonable daily rates and allows overnight parking. It’ll total over $100 for parking for the week, but hey, still less than a hotel, and at least we won’t have to worry about parking. We park the car there and march to Wodar and Bacon’s hotel, stealthily taking showers while trying to avoid disturbing the other inhabitants. Once we’re done, it’s off to the convention.

Friday, August 29th, 8:00am

I have never been to PAX before, and I’m not really sure what to expect. I have plenty of experience with my hometown convention, the famous San Diego ComicCon, and I’ve had Penny Arcade (a well-deserved champion of online video gaming media) saved in my browser’s favorites since 2003, but in terms of what it will be like to be at this convention, I have only the faintest clues. Walking in, I note that the atmosphere seems more relaxed than outside of ComicCon. I am able to walk in the front door without having to stand in a huge line or be pressed through a tight crowd. We take an elevator up to the floor with the expo hall, and Drawn and I sit down near a restroom while we wait for Bacon, who already has his badge, to get our badges from Checker, who isn’t here yet. On the floor outside the Expo Hall are a few exhibits free to the public, even without a badge. There’s a stand where you can play the latest Geometry Wars game; it’s about 50 feet long and has a bunch of monitors; about 10 people staffing it. There’s also a Borderlands-themed oxygen bar, which is apparently free(!), and a stand from the people who make State of Decay, which features information on some new expansion for that game, plus ads that you’ll be able to come by and say hi to the voice actors.

Right next to us are webcartoonists’ future stations. There are winners and runners-up from Strip Search, Penny Arcade’s webcomics reality show, and people such as Amy Falcone and Katie Rice will eventually be sitting here signing and selling things. Scott Kurtz, of PvP, has his little enclave here as well.

Eventually, Bacon and Wodar come back with our proud Exhibitor badges (and bring me a Coke, blessedly), and in we go. Checker is there, busily setting up the last few things the booth needs. Immediately I am struck with the modesty of the SpyParty booth relative to everything else. I had SEEN what the booth looked like previously (in pictures from last year’s PAX), but in context, it’s blown way out of the water by the surrounding games. But, of course, SpyParty has something those games don’t. Even the Behemoth’s game, which has an INCREDIBLE booth right next to SpyParty’s (their booth also featured arcade-game versions of their past games, like Alien Hominid and Battleblock Theater), is just a turn-based, hex-based strategy game. Not that that’s bad, of course, I love turn-based, hex-based strategy games. But it’s not SpyParty.

Friday, August 29th, 8:40am

Checker is a kind man. He is full of energy, smiling, seemingly excited and happy to be here. He has a warm greeting for me and the other volunteers. He quickly briefs us (mostly me, since I’m the only one who’s never done this before) on how he’d like us to run the booth – one station for completely new players, one station for repeat players, and the infinity station, where people who have played before can play indefinitely, so long as they can camp the station long enough to get on it in the first place. Checker asks us to indicate that the game is for sale at the end of a training session (he’s selling 1 copy for the usual $15, 2 copies for $20, and 10 copies for $80), but not to push for a sale (a wise policy, as I see it).

Also present are John Cimino and his girlfriend Alice. Though they are quiet and largely keep off to the side (since they are the ones who do most of the selling), they seem very nice. I wonder if they are a bit removed from the situation because they’d rather keep their own company rather than the company of a bunch of mostly random, mostly quite young nerds brimming with enthusiasm and silliness (and who could blame them), but I never doubt that they’re wonderful people. John can be summoned in a pinch to train a congoer if there aren’t enough volunteers, and he gets us sandwiches every day around lunchtime. Thus, even aside from the fact that he has created the game’s art, John Cimino is a key player for the booth.

The new art level, incidentally, looks absolutely gorgeous, as do the new characters. The feel of its gameplay with the new art is most impressive, though. The new art just seems to WORK in this new setting in a way that it does not on the Modern map, which feels unbalanced and a bit silly, gameplay-wise (although it, too, is pretty).

Friday, August 29th, 4:00pm

The volunteers at the booth have two main tasks to manage. One is to teach people how to play the game and run them through their paces on the game stations. The other is to manage the crowd of people looking at the game at any given time, inquire whether they want to play/would like to know about the game, give them manuals, and organize them into at least the semblance of a line. I spend most of my time sitting next to the ultra-newbie station, teaching people who have never played the game before what to do. We bring them up in pairs. Each person gets a tutor. First, we run them through a practice round of Spy, which if you get me as your tutor, consists of learning how to bug (“so, you have to be REALLY close; the purple circle under the ambassador will fill in solid when you’re close enough”), contact double agent (which you should always get them to do first thing any time the DA is in a conversation, otherwise the DA might be mean to you and you could waste a lot of time for the people standing in line), swap (the easy one), time add, and transfer microfilm (the not easy one). Then we run them through practice sniper mode, which only takes about 30 seconds – how to move the camera, how to highlight and lowlight, and how to shoot. Then we let them play an actual live match of two games against each other, and then it’s time for the next group to come up.

While the people are playing their live games, I get up and manage the line. I especially like talking to people who have never heard of this game before and don’t know what’s going on. More than once, I reel in someone who looks like they’re about to leave with “so, do you know what this game’s about?” Almost everyone says yes to this question, which is great, because once they say yes, I bring them in close, past the lines, which makes them feel special, and explain the premise to them. THEN they’re hooked, and most people choose to stand in the line at that point (or sometimes, they just buy the game outright).

Doing this is great fun.

In addition to myself, Drawn, Bacon, and Wodar (who have exhibitor badges from Checker), the booth this year is manned by Cleetose, Slappydavis, and Theoselk, who have their own PAX passes and nevertheless spend most of their time at the SpyParty booth helping people, and Lthummus, who is eliminated from this year’s Omegathon early and unavoidably in a silly luck-based game. Hummus, Slappy, Theoselk, and Cleetose both put in long hours at the booth even though they’re perfectly free to be elsewhere.

Friday, August 29th, 6:00pm

When the expo hall closes for the day, I think I really SHOULD be tired, or at least sick of explaining the basics for the literally 100th time. But I’m not. I love this game, and I love teaching it to people. As we close down the booth for the day, talk turns to what we’re going to do next. Chris and John and Alice are off to do their own things, leaving the volunteers to make their own plans. It is decided that we should go do “console freeplay.” I eventually learn that this is a room where they will give you any console from this or the last generation, nearly any game FOR said consoles, and a bunch of controllers, and you can go play it. For free. I eventually learn that there is also such a system for CLASSIC consoles (one guy always seemed to be playing Duck Hunt in that room). There is also a room full of board games you can check out and take anywhere, so long as you bring them back by midnight (and they checked out a whole FLOOR of a nearby hotel for people to play these games in, complete with tables and chairs). AND, there’s a room full of dozens and dozens of old arcade machines like Galaga, Sinistar, the old vector graphics Star Wars game, a bunch of pinball machines, etc, all set to freeplay modes.

After wandering around the con for a while, after learning what the con offers, and after a day of interacting with congoers, I begin to realize that PAX is not ComicCon – it is better. It is really for gamers. There’s a lot of talk recently about what a “gamer” is, and whether that means a particular demographic or culture of people, but for me it just means people who like games. If you like games, you will like PAX. It is clear that everything about the convention is not only designed FOR people who like games, it is designed BY people who like games, and almost every presenter and exhibitor at the convention is ALSO someone who likes games. In a room on the floor below the expo hall, Fantasy Flight Games has a room with a bunch of their designers, and people who will run you through a session of Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, etc. (even their yet-to-be-released X-Com board game). For me, this was impressive. There were games in that room that I and my friends have played for countless hours, and the people who design and make those games are right there, not only to demo the games to people who’ve never played them before, but also to just PLAY them there with you. ComicCon feels more like a big, BIG, very impressive trade show. To be sure, there’s lots of amazing stuff at ComicCon, and a lot of the people who exhibit at PAX also exhibit there, but ComicCon these days feels more like it’s just a show aimed at a target market. PAX is just for if you like games, and that makes it a much more positive experience, for me, than any ComicCon ever was, even though I love ComicCon.

Eventually me, Bacon, Drawn, and Wodar get to the console freeplay room, play a bit of Warioware for the Wii U, then head out to grab some pizza (for which I barely have the money). Drawn and I need to get back to the parking garage before midnight, though (that’s when it closes), so we leave early.

Saturday, August 30th, 1:30am

Drawn and I are trying to sleep in the parking garage. It is HOT, though, much hotter than I anticipated for Seattle in late summer/early fall. Probably the fact that we’re in an underground parking garage doesn’t help. What is especially not helpful, though, is the fact that we have both just been awakened by the footsteps of someone walking through the parking garage, with the occasional squawk of a walkie-talkie audible with him. It must be a security guy. Now, while the convention’s signs do explicitly allow overnight parking, they were vague on whether the cars could be SLEPT in overnight by their occupants, and as a good defense attorney, I have chosen to interpret this ambiguity using the rule of lenity by sleeping in the car overnight. But perhaps walkie-talkie guy isn’t familiar with the normal canons of statutory construction. He approaches dangerously close, but our seats are leaned all the way back, and we’re under blankets/clothes, so we’re hard to see. At one point, the walkie-talkie squawks directly behind us, but then the footsteps move on, and we’re eventually able to get back to sleep.

Saturday, August 30th, 8:40am

I am usually the first person at the booth. Other folks use the lull before the expo floor opens to check out other places in the expo hall and talk to other exhibitors, but I came for SpyParty. Usually I visit the “exhibitor lounge” a couple floors above first. This is a room run by Epic Games which just provides a ton of free food, and more importantly soda, to anyone with an exhibitor badge, even if that person has no idea how to write a “Hello, World” program in C++ and is secretly just an attorney and nerd who just played a particular game that’s exhibiting here way, way too much.

With my breakfast of a muffin or two, plus a coke or two, in hand, I proceed to the booth, where I set up what I can (essentially just taking the chairs out and putting them in their proper places, and putting the controllers out. Other than that, daily setup consists of actually getting the game to run on the jury-rigged LAN, which is Checker’s province, and setting up the poster stands with the new art characters, which I was warned off of attempting by Checker on the first day, as they are fragile and setting them up is complicated).

Saturday, August 30th, 8:50am

An Enforcer (a member of the PAX volunteer staff) comes by and warns us that, due to the fire marshal being concerned about the number of people congregating in the queue outside, the con is going to open early. Checker has not arrived yet, so I text him, and he arrives just as the first few people trickle in and look curiously at our blank screens. We are able to talk to them long enough to keep them there while Checker gets the game working quickly.

Saturday, August 30th, 1:45pm

A man comes up with two children, a son who looks about 12, and a daughter who looks about 7. The man and his son are a pair, but the little girl volunteers to be a single rider, and she comes up to my station to learn. The person on the other side is a random congoer; he looks about my age and is a big, powerful looking guy. I run the little girl through the same stuff as everyone else and turn her loose. She spies first, and, unlike most people playing for the first time, she goes right for the throat with a fast rush. Unfortunately for her, rushing requires very good laser awareness, and someone who is playing their first game has not had much time to develop laser awareness. She gets shot. From the other side of the table comes a loud “yeaaaaahhh!” from her opponent. This is a typical reaction when you win your first game of SpyParty, but we all look at the guy awkwardly, because, you know, his opponent is a seven-year old girl. He does not know this, but glances around the screen, realizes what everyone’s weirded out about, and then awkwardly/embarrassedly goes back to setting up the next game. The little girl, though, is out for vengeance. As sniper, she notices a pathing error almost immediately, then proceeds to (without me telling her ANYTHING) bait a hard tell by putting the laser away from her suspect. She turns to me and asks “how do you shoot again?” I tell her. She shoots the guy. 1-1. It is some of the best play I have seen at the con from someone playing for their first time. I kind of want to tell her dad that he should be proud of her, but that might be weird.

Saturday, August 30th, 9:30pm

Drawn, Wodar, and I, are screaming at the top of our lungs “BACON HYYYYPE!” PAX runs a number of tournaments for various games, and one of them is Divekick. I entered but am eliminated 2-1 in a close fight in the first round by a guy who goes on to the quarterfinals. Bacon, though, is really good at Divekick. Like really good. He makes completely short work of everyone he faces on through the finals, with me, Drawn, and Wodar making an absurd and actually kind of rude amount of noise to back him up.

In the finals, he takes an early 2-0 game lead in the match, which is best of 7. But then he gets cocky and switches to lower-tier characters. His opponent beats him fairly easily and gains confidence. Bacon goes back to better characters, but by then it’s too late, and Bacon loses the finals 4-2. I remain confident that he would have won had he kept his foot on his opponent’s throat. The Enforcer running the tournament comes by and congratulates Bacon for putting on a hell of a show, which is well-deserved praise; Bacon’s a natural at creating fighting game hype.

Sunday, August 31, 1:30am

Always at 1:30am for walkie-talkie guy, it seems. Today he doesn’t pass so close by us. It’s lucky that we’re able to remain here; I have no idea where I’d park if not here, or where we’d stay. I am living mostly off of a bunch of tuna and crackers I brought with me for budget calories, and the sandwiches that John brings us every lunch help me get in something a bit fresher. Still, my sleep today is not so great. It seems to be bad every other day. One day I’m too stressed about walkie-talkie guy, and too uncomfortable from sleeping in the car, to sleep much, and then the next day I’m so tired from not sleeping the previous day that I actually can fall asleep easily.

Sunday, August 31, 11am

Checker has lost about 100 copies of the game somewhere. This is a problem, because the game has been selling like hotcakes. He printed the “copies of the game” that he is selling out on little cards with QR codes and actual number-letter redemption codes on them, and he lost a bunch of copies somewhere. I worry at first that this will mean we have to put a big sold out sign on the booth, but Checker quickly enables some more codes and prints them out on slips of papers at the FedEx Office/Kinko’s/whatever downstairs, allowing sales to continue, though some people have to wait a few minutes during a brief interlude where we have no more of the prepared copies to sell, and Checker is still downstairs fetching the new copies.

I am excited that the game is selling so well. Checker tells us that it is likely he will be able to pay, or certainly at least nearly pay, for the PAX booth with the on-site sales. My biggest fears about SpyParty are that it will never be “big,” and that it will eventually be forgotten. Of course, a lot of BIG games, even great 10.0 score triple A video games, get forgotten after time. But SpyParty not only deserves to be big (or at least a big indie game) and have a lot of people playing it, it deserves not to be forgotten. SpyParty is the kind of game, I think, that will require years and years (decades and decades? centuries?) of play and study by thousands of people for us to really understand what “good at SpyParty” means, and I think it would be a great shame for the game (as well as the community, of course), if SpyParty never “makes it.” So far, it hasn’t quite made it. But the game’s breakneck sales at PAX make me hopeful.

Sunday, August 31, 8:00pm

Today, after working the booth, we decide to play board games. I am a hardcore boardgaming enthusiast. After perusing the (extensive) collection of board games on offer at the boardgame freeplay rental room, I decide that I can do better for our group with the games in the trunk of my car, of which there are several dozen, essentially filling the entire interior space OF that trunk. We take with us several games to the hotel floor which PAX rents out solely for board game play. We bring Straw, a simple-but-addictive card game that only requires basic arithmetic and two minutes to learn (which we never play), Eldritch Horror, a world-spanning horror/adventure game, the latest Lovecraftian entry from Fantasy Flight Games (which we end up not having time for), Avalon, aka The Resistance, a game we sometimes play on my stream, a game of social deduction and deception (and which Bacon is quite good at) Red Dragon Inn, a backstabbing, political game in a setting about drinking and carousing in the inn subsequent to a typical fantasy RPG campaign, and most important, Article 27, which is perhaps best described as a United Nations Security Council simulation board game. It is also backstabbing and political, and perfect for this group. I win the first game of Article 27, being previously familiar with its dynamics, but Slappydavis is a quick study and wins game 2. After a few games, it’s almost midnight, so Drawn and I have to hurry back and be in bed(?) before walkie-talkie guy makes his rounds.

Seattle is a very wonderful city. I am certainly a San Diego elitist, and I don’t think I’ll ever see a place I love more than San Diego, but Seattle is close. It’s up there with San Francisco and Washington, D.C., in places I like to be that aren’t San Diego. The only downside to this beautiful city is that its downtown area is on a hill, and its streets are practically terraced, which plays hell with my chronically injured knee, especially when carrying board games. Still, my overall impression is hugely positive.

Monday, September 1, 9:45am

Checker has a well-deserved reputation for being well-connected in the video game industry. A LOT of people come to see him pretty regularly through the convention, and everyone seems to know who he is. Even random congoers ask “is Chris Hecker here?” This morning, a particularly large number of indie developers have come to talk with him, including Allen Pestaluky, who is working on a game called Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a co-op game where one player can see a bomb, but has no idea how to disarm it, and the other player (or players) have the manual on how to disarm the bomb, but no idea what the bomb looks like. It sounds awesome, and makes me sad that you need an Oculus Rift to play it. While I love games that delve deeper into somewhat-known territory in gaming productively (like the XCom remake headed by Jake Solomon), I especially love games with really good NEW ideas that no one has tried before, like Pestaluky’s game. Or, of course, SpyParty.

Checker also proves throughout the con that he is quite a nice man. He’s always insisting that I should take a seat, let him buy me some food, take a break, etc., and bemoaning my reluctance to heed his advice. He has no real particular reason to do so other than being nice and caring for the people who play his game; while he thanks us profusely for helping him at the booth, he’s doing US a favor by letting us be there as far as I’m concerned.

Monday, September 1, 12:30pm

The booth is slammed today. Some of the booth volunteers are not available today, so at some points we are forced to have one volunteer simultaneously tutor two congoers; a difficult arrangement. Still, we manage this way for a few hours until reinforcements arrive. Eventually I’m able to take a break and settle down to watch some guys on the unlimited station play for a while. They’re getting pretty good for having only played about 20-30 games. They have switched to a more balanced gametype, and seek my advice on how a sniper can possibly cover all this. (Any 4 of 6 seems impossibly hard when you’re coming from Known 4). I talk to them about behavioralism and camping, and efficient attention allocation, and after a couple games, they seem to be sniping much more efficiently. I hope they keep playing after the con.

Monday, September 1, 6:00pm

Tearing down the booth is a bit of work, but nothing really serious or difficult, and in an hour it’s all taken down. Checker indicates that he may have sold over 500 copies of the game, an impressive figure (and more than he came to the con with, if I remember correctly). Assuming that more or less everyone did the 2 for $20 deal (and most people did), that’s over $5,000, which would pay for the booth. A few people DID purchase the amazing 10 copies for $80 deal (a wise investment if you have the money; it’s basically buy five or so, get five or so free), but somewhat more just bought the normal single copy for $15, so it probably evens out.

We march through the convention center’s industrial-looking interior, the whole booth packed in a few bags, and head down to the parking garage. After putting the booth’s guts in a pickup truck, Drawn, Wodar, and I say goodbye to everyone else. I thank Checker for letting us come help, and for making the game, and just like that, the con is over and it’s time to go home. My plan is to drive all the way home immediately and stop when I feel sleepy.

Tuesday, September 2, 11:00am

I required about five hours of sleep somewhere in Oregon earlier this morning, but we’re now making good time. Drawn and Wodar are tired (I think they stayed awake while I was asleep), and Drawn seems to have blown his throat out by talking for four days straight; he can barely speak. We pass the time by playing a version of 20 questions that, of course, involves Magic: the Gathering cards.

Tuesday, September 2, 9:50pm

Drawn has been dropped off, Wodar (who also started to feel a bit weak and tired by the end of the grueling trip) has been left at his car (he has one more hour to drive before he gets home), and as I walk through the door to greet Jess and William (and eventually our regal cat, Louis), I renounce any trace of the sentiment I had on the first night, that this was a bad idea. On the contrary, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time, especially with so many new friends and faces, and with so much happiness and positivity shared with complete strangers. I already loved SpyParty, and the PAX experience was even more reason to love it.

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