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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.



The PAX Prime 2015 Diary

My wife and I arrive in Seattle on August 27th, the night before PAX begins. A handful of other players have arrived already, and a couple others will arrive a few hours after. It’s been a long day (travel is stressful, and flying is particularly so), but we’ve arrived safe and sound and we’ve magically gained an extra three hours for our trouble to spend on the town. We arrive at the hotel and before we get to the door, I get a call from virifaux, who has the single most games of any SpyParty player: “I just saw you walk by,” he says. Sixty seconds later, 56,000 games spread out over four people come walking out the front door to greet us.

We all say hello and talk so animatedly (and un-Spylike, it has to be said) in the hotel lobby that the manager asks us to keep it down, which is our cue to venture out into the city in search of food. After a lot of walking and talking for its own sake, we settle on the Hard Rock Cafe on Pike Street. We eat much, stay long, and talk loudly. That last thing will turn out to be a mistake.

Day 1

Chris Hecker is the sole developer of SpyParty, and he’s exactly what I expected. Our introduction is a perfect microcosm of everything I know about him: it’s friendly, familiar, and fast, and within a minute and a half of meeting him in front of the Washington State Convention Center, we’re already upstairs walking onto the exhibition floor as he waves a fistful of badges in front of a guard.

You learn a lot on your first day volunteering at the SpyParty booth, most of which seems obvious in retrospect. You learn that you’re further removed from your beginnings than you thought, and that you have to forget a lot of what you know in order to intelligibly explain how it works to new players. You also learn that cough drops are worth their weight in gold. Five or six hours into the first day, most of us sound like Kermit the Frog choking on a fly. I tell Hecker I feel dumb for not bringing any. “How do you think I feel?” he replies. “I didn’t think to bring any and I’ve been doing this four years.” Maybe this year’s volunteers are just more talkative.

Midway through the day, Hecker tells us about a SpyParty board game prototype being developed by Tim Fowers, which he’d like us to play test for him. We do, and it’s not only a good game, but it somehow manages to feel like SpyParty. It generates the same kinds of emotions and exercises the same neurons. We’re still throwing out suggestions and ideas as the game is being packed up.

Day 2

This time, Hecker brings a couple of bags of Halls (which will be supplemented by a bag of Ricola with FAMILY PACK emblazoned on it by the third day), and we go through them like M&Ms. Nearly every time somebody goes into the corner of the booth to grab one, they grab a few extras to stuff in their pockets and offer each of the volunteers one, just in case they’re running low. The cough drops accomplish their ostensible goal: our throats don’t hurt! Unfortunately, they can’t circumvent our physical limitations: by the end of the day, every twelfth word simply refuses to come out, making in-person conversations sound like a Skype call on a sketchy connection.

Just a few hours into the day my tutoring routine has improved considerably. The most common questions have been preemptively incorporated into the spiel, and only a few people have been confused by the notoriously complicated microfilm mission. But the mental grind is starting to catch up to the physical; most of us have our tutorial patter down cold, so the routine has become a little rote. We keep sane by sitting across from each other while our tutored players play, with the tutor on the Sniper side trying to see how quickly they can spot the new Spy. This has to be done in a way that won’t give the game away to the new Sniper, if they happen to see it. We end up resorting to veiled hand signals, which is probably not a coincidence given the state of our collective larynges.

kcmmmmm gets credit for both creating and perfecting this mini game. His greatest charade is miming a person holding up a banner to indicate Alice, the character based on game artist John Cimino’s girlfriend, who’s standing about 15 feet away doing exactly that. Here’s a picture of her cosplaying as the character, though whether you can cosplay as yourself creates a logical mobius strip beyond my ability to comprehend:

Day 3

Increasingly tired and having gotten caught in a torrential downpour the night before (Seattle apparently over correcting for the atypically clear 2.5 days we enjoyed after arriving), I nevertheless come in early to meet krazycaley for a chance to play Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes before the general public swarms the floor and snakes the line. It’s a tremendous game—like SpyParty, very high concept—and we do well, but we forget to put our names (and some reference to SpyParty) on the leaderboard, a mortal sin that Hecker will razz us about for the rest of the convention. Every little bit helps.

Everyone tells me that Saturday is the craziest day, and things will probably be a little slower. Everyone is wrong; things are roughly as busy as they were on Day 2. The line does have a nice natural equilibrium, though: when it’s longer, it wraps around the two open sides of the area and makes it harder for people to see when walking by. When it’s shorter, it’s easier to see, and in turn attracts more onlookers. The result is that the line never gets too huge, and rarely stays too small. And it just keeps coming.

The grind is made easier by little islands of amusement and encouragement. There’s a moment during each explanation of the game’s concept where you can see the genius of it register, and the look on people’s faces when it does is almost addictive. At one point I explain the game to a young woman, and just as I say “…and the Sniper has only one bullet,” her eyes go wide and her mouth drops open, and my brain releases enough dopamine to propel me through the next hour. Later, I tutor a young boy who picks the game up preternaturally. I wonder how long it might be before he’s mopping the floor of the online lobby with most of us. Right now, natural skill takes a backseat to experience and effort, but if the game grows enough in popularity, the top players will increasingly be people who possess an innate talent for it. Maybe the ones I taught will go easy on me.

Day 4

The last day is bittersweet: four days is just long enough to create that “I was just getting the hang of this!” feel right before it all ends. Everyone’s in good spirits, though: virtually all of us feel that the newbie play was much better than expected, which we decide to take as evidence of our explanatory skills.

Halfway through the day I bite down on one of the aforementioned cough drops—it’s hard not to do while talking—and either chip a part of my tooth or lose a filling (I’m still not entirely sure which). When I tell Hecker and Caley they seem alarmed, but thankfully it doesn’t hurt, which allows me to look tougher than I am by only missing a few minutes of tutoring time. Hecker tells me not to tongue at it, though this is as futile as me telling him not to Purloin.

When the final day ends, the convention’s “Enforcers” sweep through the hall and politely boot anyone without an Exhibitor badge. When they’re done, a voice comes over the loudspeaker: “PAX 2015 is now over!” A cry goes up from everyone on the floor. SpyParty‘s contribution to the sound is minimal, both because of our size and our shredded tracheas, but it’s there. We begin the process of packing up the booth’s materials, which Chris, John, and Alice do with learned efficiency. The whole thing folds up into just a few bags and half a dozen flat panel TV boxes. I think to myself that it’s an appropriate metaphor for the entire game that so much can come from so little.

We walk back to the hotel as a group (sans krazycaley, who had an early flight) and meet up with our non-Exhibitor-badged brethren. I remind everyone that zerotka, one of the first SpyParty players, requested that we take a group selfie. We squeeze 82,000 games, eight people, and three nationalities into one fuzzy photo. Wildly different people, drawn to the same place for a few days because we share this one thing in common.

The PAX Prime 2015 Diary: Pre-PAX

In 72 hours, I’ll be in Washington, D.C. I don’t know anyone there, and have no business there. I’m only going to Washington, D.C. to catch a plane to Washington, the state. Because that state is home to Seattle, Seattle is home to PAX Prime, and this year’s PAX Prime is home to the largest gathering of elite SpyParty players ever assembled.

This wasn’t explicitly planned; each year, developer Chris Hecker hands out exhibitor badges to a handful of dedicated fans who volunteer to work the game’s booth. In years past, the number of volunteers seems to have roughly matched the number of badges available, and contained a mix of experience levels. But the last couple of years, demand has outstripped supply. There is an unofficial calculus by which people are chosen, and this year it chose nearly all of the world’s top players, with the most notable exception (an incidental exception, I should note) raising money to go, anyway. The end result is that the top four players, and seven of the top ten (including myself), are all going to be in the same place at once.

This’ll be my first video game convention of any kind, and my first time meeting the people I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing against. People I’ve shot and been shot by, coughed and clanked at, talked to and tutored.

Rather than merely take in this experience and enjoy it to its fullest, I’ll be sullying it by taking lots of pictures and writing about what I see and hear, all for you to read and enjoy. And you probably won’t even appreciate it. Honestly, I don’t even know why I bother.

But bother I will. Whether or not it’ll be daily updates or one big retroactively-dated series will depend on just how much time is available inbetween managing the lines, answering questions, and getting up to whatever kind of quasi-trouble a bunch of game nerds can get up to in a place like Seattle (my money’s on something super cool like staying up really late). But for now, it’s all preparation: stuffing suitcases, printing itineraries, and, well, writing this.

More soon, so watch this space, and/or follow us on Twitter for updates.

Confirmed: New Art Ballroom is Next Map

Earlier today Chris Hecker confirmed that there are plans to release a new map by PAX Prime, in addition to the six new characters detailed in April. The two pieces of news are linked, because the new map is going to be a high resolution version of Ballroom, which has more party goers than there are (current) new art character models.

No word yet on how much this new map might resemble the existing Ballroom…

…as opposed to the ballroom concept art released in October of 2013:

SpyParty players have often expressed a desire for direct translations of old maps, as well as for more populous new art maps to allow for more high level competitive play within the new style. This exact topic was discussed at length on Drawnonward’s Talk Show in late March (relevant discussion starting at 3:05).

UPDATE: the new map will be a fresh recreation of the existing Ballroom map, and not a playable version of the early concept art.

Highlights From “Kotaku Asks: SpyParty Designer Chris Hecker”

Chris Hecker participated in a “Kotaku Asks” comment-based interview yesterday. You’ll wanna go and read the whole thing, though the system isn’t the most intuitive, so here are some of the answers you (if you’re visiting a site like this) are probably most interested in:

1. Hecker is “still really nervous” about making the game available on Steam, but plans to do it this year. However, it’ll probably be after PAX Prime (end of August).
2. On the possibility of the game’s price going up after release:

Chris Hecker: If it does, I’ll announce it way in advance so people have a chance to get in before the price goes up. I’m spending a lot more on the game than I originally thought (basically, I’m burning my savings to the ground, wheee!), but on the other hand, you want indie multiplayer games to be as accessible as possible. Plus, if $15 is good enough for Counter-Strike, maybe it should be good enough for SpyParty. 🙂 Basically, I don’t know. I want to have two-for-one discounts, spawn copies that’ll play their parent copy for free, and other stuff to help accessibility as well.

3. On increasing player retention:

Chris Hecker: Yeah, people bouncing off the game is the biggest problem right now. As I’ve said before, it’s still so early, and so harsh of a learning curve, and there are so few features to gently ease somebody into it that it’s not surprising. Plus, it stands to reason that as more people hear about the game, the percentage of superfans willing to go through all that to find the goodness will go down. So, my job is to fix all those impediments. But I also want to keep making the game deeper, so it’s hard. I think spectation will help, but single player is a huge thing the game needs to ease people in. That’s my lesson from Hearthstone.

4. Someone asked if he was “separated at birth” with Guy Pearce. You be the judge:
5. And finally, my favorite exchange:

Six More New Art Characters Revealed

In a stream earlier today, Chris Hecker revealed the latest batch of new art SpyParty characters. You can read more about the reveal on Rock Paper Shotgun, Destructoid, Kotaku, Polygon, PC Gamer, and Engadget.

For those who missed the accompany Q-and-A, here are some pertinent details:

  • The characters are expected to be playable by PAX Prime (which is in late August/early September).
  • The twins are separately playable characters, but they will—at least initially—have the same animations.
  • Though the twins share a profession (they’re both doctors), they have several slight differences in appearance, including a ring, earring, and tie clip.
  • The twins still only count as one in the context of the 20 planned new art characters. So even though this makes 16 total, the final batch will still consist of five.
  • The characters are deliberately more colorful than previous models, which may counteract the tendency that the more realistic models and environments have to blend together (see: The New Art Changes Everything).
  • The rocker in the leopard print shirt is based on Hecker’s girlfriend, the same way Ms. F is based on artist John Cimino’s.

SpyParty Talk Show: Pub and the State of the Game

The inimitable drawnonward hosted a panel of SpyParty players last night to discuss the new Pub map, as well as the state of the game and its general trajectory. Guests include myself (warningtrack), slappydavis, wodar, and canadianbacon, who was apparently holed up during a helicoptered mountie raid. In addition to serious talk, there was much amusement and general goofing off. Here’s the VOD, broken into two parts:

First Look at New “Pub” Map

The official SpyParty account just tweeted out this gorgeous preview of the new art level “Pub,” which is going to be released (assuming all goes well) in about 20 minutes on the official SpyParty Twitch stream:

A low-res version of the same map has been previewed and played on stream for weeks now, but this is our first look at the high-res version. It also differs from the release of the last new map, “High-rise,” in that only the high-res version is being included in the build, as opposed to the low-res version being released and tested beforehand.

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

New Art Tournament: Results and Replays

The New Art Tournament finished just minutes ago. For now, you can watch a video of the Live(ish) cast on Twitch, and on YouTube:

You can also read a brief rundown on the official SpyParty Dev Blog, and below you’ll find a listing of all the sets played, with links to download the replays:

Round 1

Round 2

Round 3

Loser’s Bracket

Semifinals

Finals

The New Art Changes Everything

Just over a year ago, SpyParty developer Chris Hecker revealed the first new character animations on the game’s development blog. The first reaction was “these are gorgeous!” The second was usually “what’s the game going to be like once these are implemented?”

One of the things any beta tester has to contend with is that most of their arcane knowledge of the game may (nay, will) be rendered useless by the game’s evolution. This is the price of getting to help shape the game’s direction, and it’s a pretty fair trade. It’s disconcerting to have to change the way you play after thousands of games or hundreds of hours, but most of the turmoil is temporary. There’s a short adjustment period, and then most players settle right back into the same skill tier they were in before.

The switch to new character models, however, feels fundamentally different. I said this a year ago when they were released, and my opinion was reinforced when I played a “mixed art” set with kcmmmmm (IE: new character models mixed in with old, on an old map) back in September.

There’s a distinct possibility that the new art, and its corresponding talking animations, cannot be adjusted to the way previous changes have been. They have the potential to fundamentally and permanently change the entire game.

The old art talking animations were identical from character to character. A skilled Sniper is capable of quickly glancing at a half-dozen old art characters in a conversation and processing who is and isn’t talking. The exaggerated, consistent movements could be noticed in the Sniper’s peripheral. With the new art, achieving the same result takes a precious second, especially given that there are not only unique talking animations for each character, but several per character.

These are the obvious ways in which it will be harder to identify actions, and they’ll be mitigated as dedicated Snipers memorize talking animations (though even holding them in your head figures to increase cognitive load substantially). But there’s a subtler consideration: color.

One of the reasons Snipers can see things they’re not entirely looking at with the old art, or notice things at a glance, is because most characters a) wear clothing that stands out against the untextured backgrounds, and b) wear bright colors that are highly distinct from one another. You have little to no chance of confusing the debonair fellow on the left with the thrift store enthusiast beside him:

Because the new art is striving for a level of realism, the clothing must reflect this. Yellow blazers and bright purple dresses are rarely seen in real life, and even less so at upper crust cocktail parties.

And on top of this, we add another layer: the environments, which are no longer gray, textureless slabs that create a clear contrast with the characters’ clothing. So we have darker, less distinguishable clothing, closer skin tones, and less contrast between the characters and the environments. The end result is that these two, despite their widely varying body types, become a brown blur:

Evidence on the effects remains anecdotal, but top players like krazycaley already feel it’s made their sniping more difficult. And amusingly, virifaux, his polar opposite in terms of play style, has talked openly about the need to make the talking animations more consistent and noticeable. The data so far is scant, and doesn’t show any significant shift, but this could simply be because SpyParty players are an adaptable bunch, and that the new art is changing the way they win, if not the frequency. This certainly jibes with my personal experience.

Whether or not these changes are good or bad in the long run remains to be seen. What’s already evident is that they change the way the game is played.