Good, hard game-design problems sometimes take what I call wall-clock time to solve,” Hecker says while hunched over his ThinkPad. In the case of
SpyParty, that tally has climbed to nearly eight years, through which time Hecker has paid an artist, his former Maxis colleague John Cimino, for 5.5 years of work as its art director. Other than a one-year contract hire for additional art, that’s it. Hecker has otherwise run the entire show by himself—as director, lead programmer, game designer, network coder, animation designer, sound designer, UI lead, and even PR lackey.
That amount of time—to iron out, fine-tune, and perhaps even hoist the game with his own petard—has come at a significant cost. When pressed, Hecker breathlessly chronicles his financial books in a way you rarely hear in the game-publishing world. “A few hundred thousand dollars” saved during his 1990s days as a Microsoft engineer: “That’s all gone.” Another hundreds-of-thousands in savings from his five years working at EA and Maxis on the character generation system in the uneven
Spore (possibly the game’s best feature): “That’s all gone.” He then confirms the near-exact beta sales figures so far for SpyParty, sold through a credit-card acceptance system he coded by hand: 24,000 copies for $15 each. “That’s all gone.”
He laughs while confirming other intangibles: He has borrowed from his mother, and he tells me the exact low figure he pays for his mortgage in the Bay Area. (“My ex-wife is a real estate genius,” he says.) After saying he “refuses” to count the exact figure, he then immediately estimates an eight-year burn between $600,000 and $1 million.
I can go for a while,” he adds, “but now, hey, it’s time to go on Steam Early Access. I could borrow more money from friends. I used to work at Microsoft. I have a lot of rich friends who’d loan me money. But I really like Early Access.”
After hearing him talk so deeply about the game’s design, it’s easy to believe him when he says that the game’s April 12 Steam Early Access launch is more about making a better, stronger 1v1 experience than about cashing out. He offers a thoughtful explanation of what does and doesn’t work on Early Access. “Sports” and “procedurally generated” games are a better proposition for making shared games better by letting interested players bang their in-progress systems out. He also points out genres that he doesn’t like as much on Steam Early Access, including firmer narrative and puzzle experiences. And while
SpyParty has been available to purchase from his own site for a few years, he knows Steam Early Access will widen the net, and he acknowledges that some gamers don’t want to submit credit card information through his own specific payment interface.
But the version Hecker has been selling has, up until now, been better described as Too-Early Access. Its wholly functional online modes have been pockmarked with simple arenas, an ancient matchmaking system, and other missing features. The game’s latest update, which Hecker says will go live Monday, counts as a significant, Steam-worthy milestone, complete with a new, lengthy tutorial and the first complete roll-out of Cimino’s art-design ecosystem.
SpyParty‘s full map reveal is striking for two reasons. First, because it exposes interesting level design stuff (read the interview for more context), and second…
…because up until this week, the game has revolved around older graybox shell designs. It’s really a whole new experience from a perspective and eye-direction level now.
Here’s a peek at the 10 arenas shipping in the Steam Early Access version. In this room, frames and perspective block the otherwise open view, as the sniper must spin around this level in 360 degrees.
The same 360-degree spin is required for snipers here, but a giant statue (of Alan Turing, natch) changes strategy for both sides.
A closer zoom at this Courtyard arena, to reveal detailed art on the Turing statue mount and the detailed characters. Studying their animations is absolutely key to winning as a sniper.
Snipers swivel around the exterior semicircle in search of spy activity.
The sniper can focus attention through a single window here, but must deal with specific object and character obfuscation.
Some minor blockage and a reduced amount of swivel.
Snipers sit in the middle and can rotate like a turret to keep tabs on the whole scene.
Another look at the Library arena. Those statues may very well play into one of the spy’s missions, and thus, this shot of four possible characters lurking near them can look quite stressful for a sniper player.
A little more complicated from a view and angle perspective.
This open corner includes a peek into one crucial interior scene.
The level defaults to this open-yet-limited party space…
…but Hecker laughingly hinted to designs on a larger “many snipers, many spies” mode that would expand across this larger field of geometry.