The spy and the sniper are the worst classes to be killed by in Team Fortress 2. Both strike without warning: the spy stabs you in the back and the sniper pegs you from across the map. Either way, you never see it coming. SpyParty is a multiplayer game about one sniper facing off against one spy, and though it’s unrelated to Team Fortress 2 it feels like it’s setting those two specific jerks against each other. I hate both, so it’s a reverse Alien Vs. Predator situation—whoever loses, I win.
The spy enjoys a cocktail party while covertly performing several changing missions, perhaps bugging an ambassador and swapping two small statues, pretending to be a computer-controlled NPC the whole time. Meanwhile, the red lasersight of the sniper’s rifle passes over the guests, trying to spot the tells that give away a human-controlled spy. The spy has a time limit. The sniper has one bullet. They share rising tension.
SpyParty is currently in paid beta. Designer Chris Hecker and artist John Cimino are still tinkering with the game, and they’ve just announced the addition of five new characters for the spy to choose from: twin doctors differentiated only by their jewelry, a Mexican billionaire in a cowboy hat, a rocker in leather and leopard print modeled on Hecker’s girlfriend, a Sikh in a tuxedo, and a lady socialite in green. The gorgeous designs of these characters, color-coded and with distinct silhouettes like suspects in Clue, makes me want to like them. But I know better. Any one of them could be a spy in a flimsy mask, ready to plunge a knife in my back.
When you’re dreaming up characters are you thinking, ‘Who would it be fun to murder?’ Do you see people in the street and go ‘I’m putting you into my game so you get shot’?
Chris Hecker: Actually, the death part is such a minor part of the game in terms of the actual time spent doing it, compared to staring at them walking around and talking, it’s more like ‘who would look really cool at this high society party?’ We try to make the death animations funny and absurd, since they’re the release of all the tension in the game, but mostly when choosing people we want to make a really cool-looking diverse cast, with lots of types of people you don’t normally see in video games. We’re lucky because SpyParty’s game design allows you to play an elderly woman or a guy in a wheelchair without it feeling forced, it’s just totally natural that person could be at a fancy cocktail party, so it just works, and their various characteristics, like walk speed, height, and whatnot make them better and worse at some of the actions, which integrates really well with the meta... ‘the Spy would never pick the slow walking older lady because she can’t get around well enough’ becomes, ‘wait, or would he, because he thinks I think he wouldn’t...?’
With the look of these new characters, is there an era of spy fiction you’re aiming to evoke? Would they be playing baccarat with a specific James Bond, or are they timeless?
CH: We’re always going for timeless. We want there to be aspects of different eras living in the same space simultaneously, so one person uses a pocket watch while another person uses a mobile phone, but I never want it to feel like the game is in a specific time or place.
If the spy is Mr. K, the Sikh, will it be possible for them to accept an alcoholic drink from the waiter and give themselves away?
CH: Does he look like he’d make a newbie tradecraft mistake like that? Seriously though, the new characters all have their own specific drink shape so their animations will line up. Eventually you’ll be able to bring people drinks, and so I’ll have to figure out how to handle that... I’ll probably make it so you can’t bring somebody the wrong drink, but it could be interesting if you could and they’d have to reject it...
Does your girlfriend know Ms. L is based on her, and if so how does she feel about it?
CH: Yes, and her comment was, ‘I would never wear that shirt.’ From that, I judge that John did a good job with the likeness.
There’s something very ‘board game’ about the characters—like characters in Clue or Guess Who they all have visual hooks that make them instantly recognizable. Were board games part of your inspiration?
CH: Certainly Clue was an inspiration, at least some of the years. They’ve gone through a ton of different art styles on that game through the decades, but the ‘illustrative’ style we went with was definitely influenced by an old Clue box I have that looks like it was done by the classic Saturday Evening Post illustrators, like Leyendecker. More on that style is here.
A lot of people play Mortal Kombat as Scorpion for reasons I'll never understand. Has anyone in SpyParty stood out as the most popular pick so far?
CH: I haven’t run the numbers recently, but it’s a huge disadvantage for the Spy to be predictable like this, so there’s a lot if incentive to use the randomizer to pick. That’s going to change when I get the characteristics in, because then one character might like to drink more than average, and another really likes statues, and so there’ll be pressure to pick some characters based on your chosen missions. Of course, then the Sniper will know that, and down the yomi rabbit hole we go again.
Do you plan to join Steam’s Early Access program at some point?
CH: Yeah, probably some time this year. I keep putting it off because I am worried about growing the community too fast. SpyParty has the best and friendliest multiplayer competitive community I’ve ever seen: elite players mentor newbies, everybody chats between games and offers tips, etc. I worry about vastly increasing the playerbase fast, especially when the game has such a harsh skill ramp right now. So, I want to add some stuff for newer players, prepare the existing community to be ambassadors, and pray a lot, maybe sacrifice some chickens, I dunno. Then I’ll still not be ready, but I’ll do it and hope for the best.
Do you have a rough idea when SpyParty will be finished?
CH: Well, finished is such a final word, you know? It’s available at http://spyparty.com as an Early-Access Paid Beta right now for $15, and I’ll probably put it on Steam Early-Access later this year sometime. But, it’s going to be a while before it's done. We still have seven more new art characters to make, and these latest five haven’t been animated yet, so we have to do that, plus we have to convert all the old art maps to new art, and I have a bunch of design stuff I still want to put in there to make the game even deeper than it already is, which is already pretty deep given that our top players have hundreds of hours in the game. So it’s going to be more than a year until it’s finished, probably a year and a half at least.
This week's argument-starter is paid mods on Steam. Would you ever allow people to charge for SpyParty mods?
CH: I actually didn’t pay that much attention to the latest drama about that. I definitely want to support mods, for sure. In decreasing ease-of-making-mods-work for the game, it goes something like ‘maps,’ ‘outfits,’ ‘game modes,’ ‘characters,’ and then ‘missions.’ The last one, missions, is basically a ton of code, so probably not going to ever happen. Characters are hard because they’ve got so many animations with so much markup. By ‘game modes’ I mean things like exploring different win conditions (the community experiments with these ‘house rules’ sometimes, like ‘missions equals points’ and whatnot). Maps are relatively easy for me to support, though, so I’m certainly going to do that. New outfits for the characters, maybe.
I don’t see anything inherently wrong with people charging for those, but I haven’t thought it through that much. The big problem with any kind of downloadable addons like mods or ‘official DLC’ is dealing with some players having it and others not, and making things paid makes that more challenging. I’m going to start simple and old-school, where if you want a modded level, you download a zip and put it in a directory. After that’s working, we’ll see.