In most multiplayer video games, you’re on equal footing with your opponents. You’re on the same map, with the same moves and tools, and the more skilled player will theoretically win. That’s not the case with Spy Party, a two-player game where each player’s role couldn’t be more different.
Last week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Jason and I met up with Chris Hecker, the ex-Maxis designer who’s been working on the 1v1 competitive espionage game Spy Party for almost a decade. (For a good time, read this entertaining Stephen Totilo hands-on preview of the game from way back in 2010.)
Spy Party has of course been playable via Hecker’s website for a while now, and it’ll be on Steam early access soon, too. Jason and I had a great time playing, and just as much fun talking to the always enthusiastic Hecker about what it’s been like to work on the same game for so many years.
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Here’s a lightly edited transcript from part of our conversation where Jason and I recounted our time playing the game, then talked with Hecker a bit about asymmetric multiplayer games.
Kirk Hamilton: So can we stop for a second a describe our experience with [the game]?
Chris Hecker: Yeah, do it.
Kirk: Jason and I went to a hotel suite yesterday, sat down, two laptops across from one another. Spy Party is a game where one of you is a spy at a party that is populated with AIs. You’re pretending to be an AI, basically. You want to blend in as much as possible. The other person is sitting outside with a sniper rifle…
Hecker: …and one bullet.
Kirk: And one bullet. They have one shot and they’re following along. And so it’s this very tense experience of, can the spy pull off a couple things, you know, go talk to one person, or switch out a statue, plant the bug on the ambassador…
Hecker: Basically the missions are all tropes from spy and mystery fiction.
Kirk: And they’re all little things that have very subtle tells but generally, if you’re careful, you’re kind of blending in with everybody. And: can the sniper spot them? So Jason and I played this game yesterday, we had our share of wins and losses…
Hecker: You wouldn’t leave the hotel room, which is a good sign.
Kirk: Yes, we wanted to keep playing. Jason really wanted to get one last win since I beat him…
Jason Schreier: You beat me three to two, so I was very upset about that.
Kirk: This game is fun, though.
Jason: It’s really fun. Once you start getting into it, playing as a spy, you can find lots of clever ways to mimic the AI. There are a lot of misdirection tricks you can use to try to fool the sniper.
Kirk: And you know, I’ve played games like this before, and watching the game, getting ready to play the game, having Chris explain the game to us, there’s a lot going on. This is a very complicated game, there are a million mechanics and systems that we didn’t see.
Hecker: Yeah, the [full] tutorial takes almost 40 minutes to play.
Kirk: So, having played a game like Assassin’s Creed, the multiplayer in that, where you’re kinda pretending to be AI and blending in… there’s a level of specificity to [Spy Party] that I found. Where, just because it’s me versus you, we’re head to head, we’re at a table, and it’s this one moment that we’re building toward. It’s gonna be this shot. Jason’s probably gonna take the shot, and it’s either gonna work or it’s not. It really raises the stakes.
Hecker: And there’s more than that. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, and there’s an old game on Steam called The Ship, which are both games of Assassin. Which is that college campus game where there’s a hat, and all our names are in the hat, and you pick my name, and he picks your name, and then you’re chasing me and I’m chasing him.
Kirk: Right. It’s a more cyclical thing.
Hecker: Yeah, it’s asymmetric in the sense that [your target is] a different person than who’s chasing you, but it’s completely symmetric in the sense that everyone is chasing and being chased.
Kirk: And has a similar move-set, similar skills.
Hecker: Right. So I’ve thought about this a lot, about why Spy Party actually is different and deeper than those games. Because The Ship came out before Spy Party, obviously. And Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood came out after. And so you know, people are like, how is it different from this, or whatever. So I’ve thought about that a lot.
Kirk: It’s very different.
Hecker: It’s very different! First, when Assassin’s Creed multiplayer started coming out, it was Brotherhood, when it came out, I was like, oh shit. And then I was like, okay, they’re just doing Assassin, and I know how [Spy Party] is different from Assassin now.
And so what the difference is: Spy Party is 100% asymmetric. There is no way for the spy to get around behind the sniper and stab him in the back with a knife. The sniper doesn’t have to worry about watching their back at all. I can take 100% of the sniper’s brainpower and devote it towards the party, which means I can make the tells way more subtle. So the spy also knows they have to commit to the deception part of it. If you get what happens in Brotherhood multiplayer, is, you get someone who’s better at combat or whatever, or jumping around roofs, and then they’re like screw this hiding in plain sight thing, I’m just gonna wait for somebody to do it and then just do the pile-on thing.
Kirk: When you’re playing as the spy, there’s never a moment where you’re thinking, I have this other avenue to victory.
Hecker: Exactly. Like, “I’m gonna shoot back,” or anything like that. So you have to commit 100% to the deception thing or you’re toast. And I didn’t know this [off the bat], it’s not like I’m some super genius where I was like, “Oh, this is how it’s different” a priori before I even did it. It was more just like, oh, this is working, why aren’t those other games working at the same level? Oh, I see, it’s because each person is totally committed to their role.
People don’t make completely asymmetric games most of the time, because they’re really hard to balance. By diving into the completely asymmetric thing, it unlocks this thing that no one knew was there, just because you can’t get to it in that more locally asymmetric but globally symmetric game like Assassin. I mean those are cool games, those are fun to play, but they don’t seem to have… [Spy Party’s] top players have 20,000 games, over 1,000 hours at three minutes a pop. It’s way deeper than those games, right?
I have a list of clones and demakes, people who have made other similar games, and Assassin’s Creed and The Ship are on there, as like, other games that are similar. I have a list of those on the FAQ, [since people will ask] “aren’t you worry about getting cloned” or something like that? And I’m like no, I want more games in this area, it’s just such unexplored territory! You can just pick up game design off the ground as you’re walking around, because nobody does games about normal people.
Spy Party is en route to Steam early access, and I definitely recommend people check it out. It’s too bad there isn’t an easier way to play it locally, since it’s so much fun to be in the room with the person you’re playing against. (This would’ve been such a good Wii U game!) Even so, it’s still a fascinating and really fun game, and Jason and I only scratched the surface of what’s possible.
For more of Hecker’s thoughts on game design, listen to the full interview. As always, you can find Splitscreen on Apple Podcasts and Google Play. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions.