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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.



All posts by drawnonward

How Chris Hecker Changed My Life: A Multi-PAX Story

When I first started playing SpyParty, I never thought any game (much less an indie game) could have such an impact on my life. For years I’ve considered Mother 3 to be my favorite game. I didn’t expect much to come of my SpyParty career, in the game or outside of it. But that all changed at an event called the Penny Arcade Expo, and I believe that change has altered the direction of my life.

Before PAX 2013

Prior to PAX Prime (now PAX West) in 2013, I hadn’t been doing much with my life. I didn’t have a job, I was living at home, and although this article made me want to become a game designer, I wasn’t doing anything to reach that goal. I had an active social life and was enjoying myself playing video games (and learning about board games), but I wasn’t progressing.

One thing I was doing was streaming this fun little indie game called SpyParty. I’d started in October of 2012, and had a small (but loyal) audience. I wasn’t very good at the game, but the other people playing were welcoming and nice, and the creator tweeted out a link to my stream anyway, which meant the world to me.

I played nearly every day, and eventually reached the point where I felt comfortable talking to other community members. I started playing players with huge game totals (over 3,000 games played!). I remember Chris, on Twitter, referring to me as the “LNS” (Late Night Streamer), because I would always stream at midnight PDT.

For my 100th stream, I started using a webcam and added an overlay, which changed how I interacted with the people in my chat. The audience was still small, but also still loyal.

After streaming for awhile and interacting with the rest of the community, I found my own style and voice. Posting to the forums wasn’t so stressful any more, and talking with Chris was more like talking to a friend than an authority figure. So as PAX 2013 approached, I posted this:
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What’d I Miss?

It’s been over a year since I posted this message and took a leave of absence from the SpyParty community. Now, I find myself drawn back to both the game and its still-welcoming community. Some things are different. Some things aren’t.

I think I’m in a unique position to comment on the evolution of the community, for a few reasons. Without trying to sound pretentious (as if I need to try to sound pretentious), I started playing around the same time as many great, highly influential players: virifaux, KCMmmmm, zeroTKA, and slappydavis to name a few. And the community was small enough that I was streaming earlier and more often than anyone, which gave me more influence on the game and the community than I had expected (KrazyCaley first found the game watching my streams, and lthummus was introduced to higher level strategy through them). I was privileged to host many players regularly who are now among the best in the world, like bloom and canadianbacon. All of this was by accident: I thought streaming would be fun, and no one was doing it, so I did it.

These are the kinds of things I find myself thinking about more after taking some time off. I find myself asking: what’s different? What isn’t? What’d I miss?

What’s New

The most significant change is probably the introduction of the SCL (SpyParty Competitive League). It’s the most sustained and successful attempt thus far at formalizing competitive play. The increase of activity in the lobby is noticeable, and anecdotally it seems like new players are climbing the skill curve faster than ever. It remains under-promoted in formal channels, however, and it’s fair to say the streams, while greatly improved over season one, are still finding their footing.

We’ve had a large influx of players, which has been fantastic. Seeing all these newer players getting really into the game, being driven with such a sense of competition and community has been glorious to watch. Even in the short time that I’ve been back and interacted with these people, they remind me of why I enjoy our community so much, as well as being people I am looking at to be the next big ambassadors of the game – Sure, we have our virifauxs and zeroTKAs who’ve been here forever, but we can’t rely on a handful of passionate players; we need an army of passionate players to spread the word, or else we’re leaving the future of our beloved game to chance. The role the speedrunning community has played (a few prominent speedrunners have found the game through KrazyCaley) as of late cannot be overstated.

The way people talk about the game is different, thanks to the SCL. When I took a break a year ago, many players were commenting that there wasn’t a lot to do after reaching a certain point in the skill curve. The positive side effect of this was that most of the games were casual and fun. The downside is that there weren’t as many being played. Today, it’s the opposite: we’re missing those fun, casual games, but we have lots of more serious matches. Trying to have both may be impossible, but at minimum we can look at the upsides and downsides of both. The upside of the SCL, in addition to the increased activity mentioned earlier, is a corresponding uptick in high-level strategy discussion and analysis. It’s also led to a highly encouraging increase in the number of third-party tools, from lthummus’ SpyParty Draft Tool, to sgnurf’s SCL match database. SpyParty‘s community has always been filled with independent, self-starting, technically-inclined people, so none of this comes as a surprise, but even so, this group has risen to the occasions to fill these needs.

The downsides, apart from pulling the game into a more competitive, high-stress format, is that it standardizes certain game modes through its mere existence. This is probably inevitable, and probably worth it, but it’s part of the trade off.

What’s the Same

The game still isn’t on Steam, still doesn’t have a new UI, and we still don’t have dossiers or recommendations. The first item might be more understandable than the last, because it’s a one-time event from which there’s no going back. And obviously, the new UI has to precede the Steam launch. For better or worse, the state of the game and the community when it launches on Steam is going to have an outsized impact on how it’s perceived going forward. If it seems like I’m being pedantic in talking about the lack of casual games, that’s why: this is one of the biggest inflection points for the mood and tenor of the community.

While we’ve definitely seen a swelling in ranks, the number of regular posts on the forums seems to have not changed at all. I know what you want to say: “What about the Competitions Subforum, Drawn?” It’s true, the SCL itself has led to a lot of forum activity, but it’s segregated: the Competitions subforum feels much like the old Zendo thread that got to over 100 pages; it’s interesting to people involved and mostly ignored by everyone else. Either you’re interacting with it, or you’re not: there is no middle ground. There’s a big, glowing line between those who participate in the SCL, and those who don’t.

Streamers

I think this is an area where the community has been, unfortunately, pretty stagnant. KrazyCaley and elvisnake are the only regular streamers that come to mind. Beyond them, they happen here and there. I had hoped that, when I stopped streaming regularly, someone (or even several people) would fill that gap, but I’ll be the first to admit it’s difficult to find a stable time to stream day in and day out. It’s even harder when you’re playing what’s still a niche game.

Where Are We

Overall, I’m still happy with the state of the SpyParty house. It is, after all, still standing, and most of the rooms look better than when I left it. The structure is still pretty much the same, and that’s largely a good thing. But it’s just about time to hold the big Open House that is Steam. It’s time to show the rest of the world what this game is about.

If you have any comments, whether regarding how poor my writing style is, or perhaps on why you agree with me so much ( ), feel free to post a comment here, hit me up on twitter, or even shoot me a PM on the SpyParty forums.

Thanks for reading,
-Drawn

Depth First, Accessibility Never?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of SpyParty, as both a game and as a community. I obviously want it to be successful: to stand on its own and make a real mark Chris Hecker can be proud of. A game that will be played for a long time. However, I’m increasingly worried about a few converging factors that I think could put our game in a bad position.

“Steam Early Access will happen this year, not sure when this year (before-PAX and after-PAX are the two epochs for me, not sure where it’ll fall).”
– Chris Hecker

On Steam, SpyParty would be available to potentially any one, and Steam access was our #1 request at PAX last year. I’m excited about the huge increase in players this may bring. Steam connects a lot of players, and having access to that will be instrumental to the growth of SpyParty, financially and communally. And although I am worried about the integrity of the community as much as anyone else, that’s not the source of my worry.

As things are, the game is sorely lacking in several ways. Without a tutorial, a real way to practice on your own, a matchmaking system, a redesigned UI, and other issues that are too numerous to name specifically, it is scary to imagine people buying the game when it releases on Steam, and then just dropping it because it lacks several features many people consider basic. It is for this reason I want to focus on community based ways to alleviate this problem as best we can. Chris is working hard on the game, it’s his baby and he wants it to be great even more than I do, but if it does go on Steam this year I worry people will just pass it up.

When I stream, and a new player hops in the chat and starts asking questions, one of the first things I do is invoke a command I’ve setup to explain the game:

Thinking on this, having a command with such a wordy explanation is probably a bad idea. It has potentially driven people away due to its length and resulting intimidation factor, which is definitely not something to be proud of. However, explaining the game with any amount of brevity is not an easy task, and to compound onto that factor is the fact that it’s easier than ever to ignore in-game instructions and just hop into any given game at a moment’s notice.

I worry about our ability to gain and retain new players as they learn about the game. Whether it is someone who has played 200 games, or someone who sees the game on Twitch for the first time and decides to watch some tournament games being cast, I feel it is of the upmost importance to figure out how we, as a community, can teach and grow new players to ensure that SpyParty can compete with the big hitters out there. Games like CS:GO, League of Legends, and even StarCraft 2 are generally more grokkable than most SpyParty games, which can end instantly (and seemingly randomly, to someone not paying full attention to what’s going on).

These are some ideas I believe tournament organizers might want to look into to help player retention during their events:

More Casters

I’ve said recently that the most important resource to getting people interested in the game is our casters, as they are our first line of contact with many new players. If they do a good job (read: showing people the game is deeper than some weird 3D Guess Who? variant), our chances of creating a new player go way up. I think we need more casters, to diversify, and to help prepare for a potential surge of interest in the game.

We need more people casting, because Toboshi and WarningTrack can’t do it all on their own. Having competition, even just when it’s friendly, spurs people to improve, not to mention develop and discover new casting technology, and sharing that to make all casts better. It will also give viewers a choice on who to watch so they can develop favorites, and even watch as different casting styles evolve over time.

Player Profiles and Histories

Giving people a reason to care about the contestants in a tournament is a huge deal. Sports networks love to follow along as people go through dramatic comeback stories, or generally enjoy making their players seem human so we can relate to them. I believe that a similar lesson is to be had here, in the humanizing our players can give the average viewer a reason to care past the basic gameplay they might learn from tournament games. It can make rivalries come alive, and help people understand why it’s so shocking that Virifaux and KrazyCaley might both agree on some sniping principle.

Player Interviews

On the same train of thought as the above point, letting viewers into the head of these players is very helpful to let them know they are real people, with goals, who get excited and nervous like anyone else. This also allows for smack-talk, and discussion of strategies the player might use during the match, which can give the audience a real sense of excitement, as they will be expecting a specific play to happen. Lastly, in this format people can sense just how much this means to the players, and it gives it a level of seriousness that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Cut the Downtime

Every moment wasted, every second that is silent or not important to the tournament should be used to help people grasp what is going on in the games. In a game this deep, we need all the time we can get. This can go into a lot of different areas, but my first idea was cute animated clips of how the missions work, and maybe how each role wins or loses.

Prizes

Viewers love seeing large prizes being offered for gaming events. Seeing a player or team’s reaction to winning a new car, or an all-expense paid trip to somewhere exotic, is exciting, and let’s the audience get excited for that player or team, and potentially proud to support them. This makes people want to see the cast through to the end, which also gives us a sense of wrapping up, a feeling of closure if you will, and a feeling there will be a next time that people shouldn’t want to miss.

Teams & Clans

This is kind of a tag-a-long on the Player Profiles and Interviews portion, in that people often pick a team or group to root for. It doesn’t always take much research, or any, but it gives them some familiarity with the community, and gives them a reason to watch these big events. I don’t know much, if anything, of real value about the CS:GO crowd, but I have a favorite team because I’ve watched a few large events, and I liked how they played or how their players acted during the tournament. The primary purpose of this part is to give any given viewer a sense of identity, something they can get excited about while they are super interested in the game, and something they can hold onto and come back if they decide to leave for a period of time.

My reasoning for focusing on high level matches of SpyParty are for several reasons. They will be cast if they are for a serious event or tournament, which means it’ll be much easier for random people who stop by the stream to grasp what’s going on. With an event, you can work on things like production values, and make things look nice, not to mention setup interviews and profile overviews that can garner interest in the audience by talking about who these people are and why this matters to them. Tournaments get people interested with something on the line; reputation, prize money, large singular prizes – they all let the audience get excited when the winner is announced.


Right now, SpyParty is hard to get into. The tools that makes games inviting aren’t implemented yet, and even our casters admit that the game doesn’t lend itself well it traditional casting methods because it isn’t “generally visually interesting… [or] easy to follow”. This puts us on a precarious path, with Steam access sometime this year, the new art remains unfinished, and the most recent update as of this writing will not (to my understanding) aid in any of these endeavors in a serious, tangible way.

To put it bluntly, with the combination of little to no tools to help teach new players in a practical manner, and the possibility of a large influx of people, I feel like our best shot of keeping people interested lays in community-based efforts until we get features like tutorials fully implemented.

Do you feel like I’m making a big deal out of nothing? Or perhaps that these solutions are misguided, and a different approach is needed? Please feel free to leave any feedback on this particular piece by commenting below, tossing me a line on Twitter, or by PMing me in the beta forums.

-Drawn

The Average Game of Balcony

Balcony is one of the most common maps to see at high levels of play. Some players love it, some hate it. I am not here to write about how much I like or dislike Balcony, but rather to discuss some core strategy regarding the map that I have been using a lot lately, and feel like other high-level players are using as well.

Maps-balcony

I’ve begun to, after about five thousand games of Balcony (link accessible for SpyParty beta users only), form what I call The Average Game of Balcony. I say “form” because this is, at the moment, a theory. And before I continue, I want to note that this will not win you every game of Balcony; it’ll only work a certain amount of the time, and there are plenty of counters to it. But, on average, this should work more often than not. And when it works, it should work quite convincingly once you have the core ideas well formed and are ready to look out for them. It is also assumed that the game-mode is Any 2/3, with Purloin the Guest List and Fingerprint Ambassador turned off, as that is by far the most commonly played game-mode for Balcony.

First lets get a few things out of the way: Many players don’t want to play a fancy game of SpyParty, they aren’t interested in getting a lowlight for their sweet pathing, they just want to win that specific game and move on to the next one. This theory preys on that mindset, and can be particularly brutal if they keep at it. Most players will switch it up if you keep winning on a given map, so this will not work 100% of the time, but if it does keep working I’d suggest you send them here.

That said, there are four major steps in The Average Game of Balcony that will always take place. They are, in no specific order:

  1. Flirt
  2. Contacting the Double Agent
  3. Flirt
  4. Flirt

“Drawn,” you might be asking yourself, “that’s really obvious! How can that help anyone get better at sniping on Balcony?” Well the basic answer is that there are telltale signs of characters who only do these specific actions, and people who do not. Let’s start by looking at common actions of the Spies who play The Average Game of Balcony. I can’t tell you exactly how I would take advantage of any of this knowledge, as I want you to learn, adapt, and play however you want to. All I want to do is give a gentle nudge in what I believe to be the proper direction and see where it takes other players.

Spies only talk when they absolutely have to

Spies will ignore their turn to talk in Conversation Circles quite commonly, and they especially do not talk constantly unless they need to (which is basically never). They do need to talk, however, to flirt, and to Contact the Double Agent on a White Action Test, which averages to every 45 or so seconds. How you deal with this is entirely up to you, but in The Average Game of Balcony this is very easy for Spies to do, but there are definitely ways to punish more relaxed players who don’t bother with watching when they need to talk (although be careful for false-positives with no talks in the Conversation Circle).

Spies do not like to move

Spies tend to stay in the same spot for as long as they possibly can, rarely, if ever, moving. They also don’t like to attempt hard or interesting pathing choices, although this probably already nets most people reading this some Lowlights. Although there is no clear-cut way to watch for people not moving, there are ways to deal with those who consistently hang about in the Conversation Circle and never walk around the actual map. One example of this is to simply Lowlight people who briefcase during chaotic times, although do remember that players with adequate experience can emulate this, which then makes it an Un-Average Game of Balcony so the advice here becomes obsolete.

Spies are impatient

Spies do not wait when they have the win in reach, with rare exception. Many fear their Seduction Target or Double Agent leaving the Conversation Circle so they do their Action Test as soon as possible. You can watch for flirts at certain timings (first 15 seconds, around 1:10-0:55 mark, and 0:20-0:00 respectively), especially if no real movement happens, and eventually catch the Spy flirting at the proper time.  Characters who do not talk ~45 seconds after their previous one are unlikely to be our Spy, and if they are the Spy odds are that you are not playing The Average Game of Balcony. I would also like to remind our Sniper friends to use Overtime to their advantage when possible, because that can 100% confirm a shot or let the Spy lose due to Timeout, something a shot at 0:05 can’t do.

I would say these are the defining characteristics of Spies that play The Average Game of Balcony. But I want to stress that I am not making fun of or belittling Spies who play this way. In fact, this whole theory works on the premise that most games of Balcony function in a very similar, almost mechanical, manner. So don’t feel bad if you win using The Average Game of Balcony while Spying: It’s a solid game plan, and because it’s a solid game plan it’s used often, which is why I can devise an entire theory (this one, that you’re currently reading!) to deal with it.

Before moving onto the Spy side of things, I want to address the one mission I have barely touched on this entire article: Bug the Ambassador. Watching for Bugs is a huge deal on Balcony, and if you can’t guard Bug you may want to be careful using The Average Game of Balcony as a strategy guide, because when you lose to a Bug it feels pretty awful. My best advice on watching for Bugs is fairly simple, watch for the arm and the lean. You can find more info in this video.

Onto how to counter Sniper’s using The Average Game of Balcony as a guideline for Sniping on the map: Throw curveballs at them. Make their Lights useless by acting useless, talk a ton, move around a lot, or attempt Bugs while they are trying to watch the party. It actually isn’t that hard, although watch out for Snipers who can watch for The Average Game of Balcony and the other, weirder games of Balcony all at once, as those Snipers are way scarier than anyone just using this as a guide.

As a final note, I want to remind players that this is not the only way to look at Balcony. Don’t feel like you need to bother changing your playstyle if it has worked perfectly fine for you in the past. Do not forget that this is a rough guideline for what to look for and how to play against and with The Average Game of Balcony. I left a few things out of how I would do things with this information intentionally, hoping other players will learn the vital information and come to their own conclusions as opposed to copying and pasting a “How to Win at Balcony” strategy guide, if anything of the sort could even exist.

That should be about all I need to cover for this particular topic, but if you feel I missed something, or maybe you disagree with the article, feel free to let me know via twitter, a PM in the forums, ask about it on my ask.fm, mention it while I am streaming, or in the comments section down below. Thanks for reading!

-Drawn

The Ladder: Climbing Up and Onward?

The SpyParty Ladder, administrated by KrazyCaley, has really influenced how SpyParty has grown and developed recently. I understand that as a smaller community, it makes sense that a centralized, continuous tournament of sorts can be a large draw to many players, especially higher level players who primarily want to test their skills against similarly skilled opponents. That is exactly why I joined the ladder initially, or more accurately the tournament that would seed the initial placings into what would become the Ladder.

For a time I was really content with the Ladder, just happy with how it worked and what it was doing for the community. I mean, look at all of this new activity and excitement! All these sweet replays, and suddenly a real competitive amphitheater to legitimately put ourselves to the test! And I would like to note that, for this exact reason, the Ladder is very good at its intended purpose, which I would define as ~ To provide a stable and reliable competitively minded place with which to test one’s skill at the game of SpyParty. 

Now the specifics of why I decided to step down from the Ladder are unimportant for this piece of writing, but what is important is the things I’ve started to notice that are seemingly a result of the Ladder.

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Does SpyParty Have What It Takes?

This feels a little out of place, but the thought crossed my mind, and once the dominoes start falling it’s hard to get them to stop.

I was thinking about where SpyParty, as a game, and to some degree as a community, will eventually land after (or perhaps during) it’s beta phase in regards to eSports, serious competition, and things in that vein.

Games like SC2, CS:GO, and DoTA2 are special games that seem to either gotten lucky, or were hand-crafted to be serious, eSports kinds of games. I know Chris Hecker’s goal for SpyParty, on some level, was to allow for this amount of play, and to even encourage it, but I guess what I am asking is – Does SpyParty have what it takes to be a real contender in the world of MLGs and Dreamhacks?

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