When SpyParty creator Chris Hecker says he wants his tense, psychological espionage simulation to be the most diverse game ever, he's talking triple-decker diversity.
It's not just the races, genders or sexual orientations of the playable characters that he wants to differentiate. He’s also talking about the varying skill levels players will be bringing into the game, as well as the diversity of the people who'll be playing it. It's a game about human behavior and how to fake it. About how we think others think we're thinking when we know that they're thinking about how we think.
First, let's review what we know about SpyParty: it's a game where one person playing as a spy essentially tries to imitate the computer-driven characters at a fancy cocktail party while completing specific espionage goals within a time limit. Meanwhile, another person playing a sniper on a nearby rooftop tries to shoot the person that they believe to be the spy.
It's got a swanky new art style coming.
It's in open beta now.
That last part is important, because the influx of new players that has been coming into the beta has helped sharpen Hecker's sense of what he wants to achieve with the game. After the open beta began in June, Hecker says SpyParty saw a 50% uptick in users. With all that new activity came a few mean and unseemly comments about female players and the game's bigger-bodied characters. Stuff like that gets written off as par for the course in other online communities, part of the unspoken price of entry players pay for the privilege of facing against each other in heated conflicts.
But one vocal SpyParty player going by the handle 'noche' didn't want her little section of online multiplayer acreage to be like those other communities. Noche spoke up soon after she started hearing offensive speech while playing and sparked a forum thread that gets at the heart of what SpyParty is trying to be and why Hecker believes having a plethora of diverse characters—people who look like they could pass by you in the street on any given day—will make his game better.
Hecker: "When you start to make a game about people, you really want to double-down on all the things that make people interesting. Diversity is a huge part of that."
"I have such a perfect community right now that I’m hoping we have a really slow, steady growth. I don’t want a big giant influx of people to swamp the community," Hecker told me when we spoke over Skype last week. "Because this game is so weird and different and hardcore but in such a different way from most games, that I really want that kind of inclusive community and the diversity of community in addition to setting the example in the game."
I asked Hecker why diverse character inclusion would even matter to SpyParty. The core experience is a psychological game of cat and mouse and he could conceivably just stick any old avatars in there and it would be the same experience, right? Why pursue this as a goal at all?
"I think that’s true in the sense that you could make the game with squares, different colored squares, and parts of it would work," he began. "You could make the argument that SpyParty—and all games—are purely mechanical at their heart, in the sense that you could make the game with a bunch of different-colored blocks or [different]-shaped blocks. That’s partially true but not completely true."
"While you could get to some of the psychology stuff [with that approach], it is so much more powerful and so much more interesting when the game is full of men and women at a cocktail party. There are so many more subtle effects on how you feel while you’re playing. When a waiter comes over and offers you a drink, that does not operate [the same way] as [when] another square comes over to you and delays your time for a second. Or anything like that."
"It really is like, 'Oh, I should take a drink. He’s offering me a drink. That’s nice.' As crazy as that sounds, that stuff matters once you’ve decided to make a game about people, which is my goal. There’s tons of Sims [games] but there’s basically no [other] games about normal people. Sims and SpyParty, basically. That’s starting to change."
"There are some smaller indie games that are about people nowadays, which is great," he continued. Hecker's right about that. Games like CartLife, Gone Home and The Novelist all deal with more down-to-earth concerns than most big, commercial video games. "But when I started, there was basically almost nothing. I think it’s awesome. I think we need more of that. When you start to make a game about people, you really want to double-down on all the things that make people interesting. Diversity is a huge part of that.
"The game industry needs more diverse representation in games. That’s obvious. And I guess there’s another aspect to the layers of diversity [that can be possible], which is the diversity of the developer. That’s something that Anna Anthropy and those guys talk about all the time. Making the idea of making a game more accessible.
"But within the games themselves, there’s so little diversity [that adding some] just seems like all positives," Hecker observed. "Not only positives, because 'hey, it’s the right thing to do from a social justice/societal standpoint.' But, [also] from the standpoint that my game is so compatible with exploring in that direction that it would be a crime to not actually explore it, because it increases the level of subtlety. It causes you to think about cognitive biases. My game is all about playing with cognitive biases.
"One of the aesthetic goals of my game is to explore consequential decisions with partial information. Things like racism, sexism, homophobia, all of these add tiny little biases that people might not even realize. All of that kind of stuff comes up in the milieu of the game when you’ve got all of these different diverse characters.
"People can choose their sex, their race. There’s sexuality. That's actually a gameplay mechanic in my game because there’s a 'Seduce Target' mission and it doesn’t constrain you on who your target is. You just pick which target it is. Let’s say you were homophobic and decided if you were a male spy you would never pick a male seduction target.
"Let’s say you didn’t know this consciously; it’s just something that came naturally. That’s a bias the sniper could exploit. If they figured that out about you—that you always picked the opposite gender as the seduction target—then, boom! Half the [decoys in the] party eliminated right off the bat."
"I don’t want to be heavy handed about this," Hecker warned. "It’s not me saying, 'You must pick all different genders in order to play the game correctly.' It’s a natural outflow of the way information travels around in the game. I think that kind of thing is great.
"It’s awesome to have a game where—instead of it being diversity in a cut scene, where you have a shallow kind of diversity, like, 'I’ve got a menu choice about who I have sex with in some giant RPG that’s not really about people at all'—every three minutes you’re making these tiny little subtle choices that can’t help but elucidate biases and maybe make people think about it. If not, at least make the game a more interesting experience overall."
Hecker: "We’re going to have a custom skeleton per character, which means custom animations for every character... As far as I know, there’s no game that’s done that..."
I've experienced this aspect of SpyParty firsthand. The few times I played the game as the spy, I thought, 'Well, it will be really obvious if I pick the black guy, so I’m not going to pick the black guy.' But if somebody knows I’m playing and thinks, "Oh, it’s Evan, so he’s not going to pick the black guy," then I can go ahead and pick a black guy. There’s an interesting layer that you wouldn’t necessarily get in a game that’s structured differently. And, with Hecker's determination to have a cast of characters with wide-ranging looks, there might even be SpyParty cocktail parties with–gasp!–more than one black guy. Or older white women. Or handicapped secret agents.
"That’s so different than if they were squares," Hecker asserted. "You bring in an entire lifetime of biases both conscious and unconscious to these decisions of what character you pick and who you pick for your other guys." (Note: You're also able to pick the avatars for key characters that you'll need to interact with in SpyParty, like an ambassador, for example.)
Hecker says that he and the other creators working on SpyParty won't just be skinning characters in different looks. They're trying to make it so that each character animates in uniquely specific ways, with no repetition or re-use of virtual skeletons. "When we started doing the new art style it was totally with an eye towards diversity. The way most games work, what happens is the animation is done on the skeleton and then the skeleton moves the polygons around. A whole bunch of the characters share a skeleton because the animations take a lot of time. What you want to do is use the animations on as many characters as you possibly can, because production costs are insane. Well, being idiots, we’re not doing that.
Hecker: "Am I worried I will sell less copies because I tell people not to call people faggots? ... That would be sad to sell less copies. But if I do, that’s not the kind of person I want in the beta, anyway, playing the game." ..."
"We’re going to have a custom skeleton per character, which means custom animations for every character. Now, the cost of that is huge in terms of time and effort and technology and all this stuff. People with limps. People in wheelchairs. Different body mass sizes like larger people versus small people, and they'll actually walk different. As far as I know, there’s no game that’s done that, [in terms of] a custom rig per character. We’re going to have this incredibly bespoke feeling where every character has custom animations.
"It’s costing us way more money and effort but I think it’s going to be totally worth it because the game is going to look and feel like something completely different. When you’re doing that, why would you not do diversity? You’re already paying for it. You’ve got this awesome opportunity."
As Hecker discussed these opportunities afforded by bespoke skeletons and a commitment to populating SpyParty with folks from different backgrounds, I asked him about the possible loss of another kind of opportunity. Was he afraid of losing buzz or cashflow if players from other communities came to SpyParty and found that they couldn't talk trash the way they do elsewhere? Did he think that 'play nice while you're in my house' ethos could affect the way the game disseminates? The game's open beta costs $15 to join, after all. And, if too few people open their wallets, Hecker's grand experimental game about subtle human behavior won't find an audience big enough to help it thrive. (Note: players who pay up now will have a lifetime license for the game, meaning that they won't ever have to pay for incremental updates or the shiniest version of the game when it finally heads to store shelves.) What if SpyParty gets tagged as 'snooty' or 'overly PC'?
“Am I worried I will sell less copies because I tell people not to call people faggots?” Hecker replied. "I hope I don’t. That would be sad to sell less copies. But if I do, that’s not the kind of person I want in the beta, anyway, playing the game."
The San Francisco-based developer sees a matrix of interlocking diversity as crucial to the future of SpyParty. One element comes from the representations of the in-game characters, bespoke animations and all. Another form of difference is the difference in ability. "There’s diversity of player skill," Hecker said. "Handicapping games is really important. I have all kind of modes to try and handicap skill gaps." But it's yet another kind of diversity that might be the most important: the people who'll be playing SpyParty.
"I would much rather have a healthy, supportive and interesting community that includes both newbies and people who are incredibly good at the game than I would an extra $15 from somebody who can’t act nice once they’re over at my place," he elaborated.
"A lot of times on the internet, there’s this idea that, if you’re asking someone to change their language, that you’re violating their right to free speech," Hecker explained. "I don’t buy that. There is no word worth hurting somebody’s feelings for."