Devious Solutions To A Spy Party’s Problems

Chris Hecker, who strikes me as not the kind of man who enjoys going to parties, spends a lot of time thinking about parties and the devious things spies might do at them.

He does this for a video game he is creating. He ponders the number of inconvenient sips it takes to chug a drink, the grace it requires to bug an ambassador and the mathematics that define seduction.

Hecker has been putting himself in the mind of a James Bond for a couple of year, trying to concoct the perfect virtual experience of being a smooth spy at a fancy party while under the pressure of a sniper’s scope. He’s not a very Bond kind of guy, though. As I described him a year ago when I first wrote about his very smart unfinished game Spy Party, Hecker, tall, skinny, shirt sleeves rolled up and frequently cackling about some clever idea he’s had, comes off less as a debonair agent and more as the kind of mirthful mastermind who might hang you over a shark tank.

Many a game developer is like a Bond villain, making plans and setting traps to impede some hero — us — as we play their game we’ll eventually win. That’s Hecker, to an extent, though he’s the architect of a two-player game, one that turns strangers or friends into rivals, while he lurks in the background, perhaps stone-faced but, having spent enough time with him lately, surely smirking inside. And just when I thought he’d tuned this thing, made his game of suave spy vs single-bullet, can’t-miss sharpshooter into a game of perfectly balanced wits, I’ve discovered that he’s got so many new wrinkles to add.

His game already has a lot of wrinkles, though at first it seems so simple. One person chooses a character to control at a cocktail party. They will be working a single room – for now – needing to move some microfilm from one bookcase to another, surreptitiously swapping a statue on a pedestal, bugging an ambassador, stealing a briefcase and so on. They have a few tense minutes to do these things, while the sniper player, observing the action in the room from virtually across the street can watch for telltale stumbles, awkward motions, or just see those spy actions being carried out and then – a ha! – fire one bullet that will not miss. If it kills the spy, they win; if it kills an innocent, the spy wins.

The spy also wins if they accomplish all their missions in time, before the sniper spots them and pulls the trigger. That’s how I beat Hecker a year ago, as he cackled about figuring out who I was spying as, while I flipped the table on him and cleared the mission before he could shoot. I’d changed a parameter without him noticing, reducing the number of spy objectives I had to complete before he won. Hecker had written my trick in one of the many notebooks he’s scratched notes into for this game and then changed his game to block that manoeuvre.

A year later, when I saw him again in Boston at the big PAX East game show where he was squished into a sliver of a booth promoting the game Slam Bolt Scrappers, he was into two pages of notes after just one day of the event. By the time I ran into him, he was spinning my head about a great idea he had: people might start leaving the party.

The problem, Hecker told me, was that there was another way for the game to end. The sniper might never pull the trigger. The spy might not finish his or her goals. The timer would simply run out and what fun is that? Hecker had a devilish solution to discourage players from letting that happen.

He’d just have the computer-controlled characters start leaving the party.

It’s a brain-buzzing idea. Imagine the tension as the photographer leaves, then the lady in the polka-dot dress, then the man in the top hat. Imagine the growing confidence of the sniper and the horror of the spy.

I chatted about that idea with Hecker in Boston, but one topic collides into another. Before I knew that we were done talking about the ends of parties, we were talking about martinis.

There’s this drinks thing, which Hecker recently added to the game. The cocktails at this cocktail party can be drunk in three sips. Not bad, but while the drink is in their hand, the spy only has one hand free to, say, bug that ambassador. The drink is a bother. Three sips and they’ll be done with that drink, but if they chug, won’t they be too conspicuous?

Recently, Hecker discovered a problem with the drinks thing. Every character at the party cant have a drink, but sometimes, when the party starts, the spy player has to randomly have a drink in hand. This troubled some of Hecker’s friends (read: play-testers), who would find themselves uncomfortably slowed when starting the game with a drink in hand. They’d either have to chug or be radically slowed from completing any of the game’s two-handed spy missions. So Hecker decided that any drinks that appear in hands when the game starts will take only one gulp to finish. A solution, but it left me puzzled: “Why do you even have drinks in the game?” I asked him. “It sounds like all they do is make it harder for the spy.”

“It’s elephants all the way down,” he likes to say of Spy Party.

Hecker responded with one of his mastermind giggles that I’ve gotten used to: “Because why would the spy ever have a drink?”

I hadn’t considered that layer of trickery, but Hecker had. “It’s elephants all the way down,” he likes to say of Spy Party, riffing off the Hindu and Stephen Hawking variations of the myth metaphor that what holds the earth aloft is an elephant, and what supports it is another elephant, a third elephant below that and so forth.

Hecker has plans for an absent-minded scientist who will leave his briefcase in random places in the party, and he has plans for some of his partygoers to be more popular than others, to attract a cluster of people into a tight ring for some good jokes or chitchat. He still hasn’t gotten to adding the piano event, a moment when one partygoer will attract others to hang out and sing near the piano, leaving the spy the opportunity to skulk away, if the game’s map is big enough to hid that kind of thing from the sniper.

He’s been toying with seduction, refining a mission that requires a player to perfectly flirt with a selected person at the party twice. Perfect flirting involves a couple of well-timed button presses, using a system similar to the way an Xbox gamer reloads a gun in Gears of War or how a golf gamer might stroke the perfect swing. Originally Hecker wanted the player to have to flirt up to four times, which would be two perfect times, though he’s reduced that to three. He’s noted, on his blog, that it’s hard to flirt with another character four times in a match, that required some change in math and, if you will, some public airing of how Hecker thinks such problems through:

I think I’m also going to change it from an integer number of flirtations to a bar that fills up, and instead of having the progression of closeness that starts with just being in the same conversation (which is just a freebie for the Spy), I’m going to make it so the arc distance in the circle impacts how much you fill the bar each flirtation.  The closer you are, the more bar filling you get.  I’m going to tune it so it takes two very-close+good-result flirtations, and six not-close+normal-result flirtations. 

Hecker watches his players closely. At PAX East he was snapping photos of Spy Party gamers facing off head-to-head on a pair of computers with the wrinkled brows of chess rivals. He writes notes down and pulls data. Preferably, as he did on the first night of PAX East, he skips parties to head home and update his game code. He tweaks stuff and learns from the trove of information the game reveals, some of that data about how his game functions, and some of that data about how we function.

“No one ever picks the James Bond guy,” Hecker gleefully told me in Boston. The spy players greatly prefer choosing to get through their missions as the guy in the gaudy, plaid blazer. Hecker believes his players think the James Bond character would look to conspicuous. He chuckles at that, of course and he brags to me that his game is going to be the most diverse game of all time. “It’ll be just as fun to play the crippled, old black lady as it is to play as the studly white guy,” he said, though, if his data gets out there, maybe playing as that white guy will better confound the expectations of sniper players who read articles like this one. Or will they expect that? Elephant upon elephant.

“No one ever picks the James Bond guy.”

Hecker loves the flirting stuff because there’s no giveaway that it’s happening other than the fact that two people seem to be spending a lot of time with each other in his game. You can fumble the microfilm transfer or get the button-timing wrong and bug the ambassador so awkwardly that you’ll swiftly receive an elite sniper’s bullet, but the flirting is more conspicuous only in the natural way it is at any real party when two people seem to be spending quite a lot of time with each other.

He likes subtle things like virtual flirting and sees too few of them in video games . But if you want to talk about subtle in Spy Party, the best example in the game so far involves watches. While a game of Spy Party is programmed to end in just a few minutes, some time in the last year, Hecker allowed the spy to go to the window, look at his or her watch and, by doing so, add 30 seconds to the match. Hecker loved this because it required brazen behaviour by the spy and, if the sniper didn’t notice the spy doing it, would allow the spy to taunt the sniper without giving him or herself away. After all, once the sniper noticed that time was added, they’d realised they’d been fooled. (In case you’re wondering how the spy can even hope to pull this off, the sniper’s scope emits a red laser, so the spy can always see where the sniper is looking…. then again, the best sniper player points the gun one place and looks elsewhere. More elephants.)

The Gears of War button-timing trick allowed Hecker an extra devious twist. For those spy players who did the watch thing perfectly, no 30 seconds would be added to the mission timer. Instead, the clock on the sniper player’s computer would just tick down more slowly. They’d have to count the seconds out loud to notice they weren’t following the right rate. I can imagine Hecker chortling when he thought of that one.

As tricky as Hecker is making Spy Party he does have sympathy for his players. He’s been clear from the get-go that he’s intentionally designing the game for elite players now and will then allow for simpler beginner-level play when he gets further in development, a technique he’s borrowing from the great game creators at Blizzard. On top of that, he wants to implement a mentoring system. He is convinced that there is pleasure to be had in teaching a bad player how to be better. “Owning noobs is fun, but it can be even more satisfying to teach someone else how to own noobs and then see them do it,” he told me. “At least that’s my theory.”

Like the elephants, it seems like the development of Spy Party could go on forever. The new ideas are abundant, as are the riffs on the social dynamics of parties and spying and the brainstorms of a mastermind game developer choosing how he’ll manipulate his two players — his cat and his mouse.

A year ago, Hecker was confident he needed two years more on the game. Now, he’s less committal about how long it’s going to take. He’s added new party rooms, one that is uncomfortably empty of many guests and another that is a tremendous hall. He’s added drinks and flirtation and dilating time. It’s all quite devious and wonderful and still visually roughly sketched.

There’s a master plan here, and it just keeps becoming more marvelously complex.

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