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'The Incompetent Perfectionist': Inside SpyParty dev Chris Hecker's process


"When you're trying to do that perfect jewel, there's a kind of bar you have to hit. People argue that Jon [Blow, developer of Braid] could've shipped with the programmer art -- I mean, it won the IGF design competition. And I don't think so. I think the game design was the most important part, but the whole package came together so well -- the way David [Hellman's] art looked with the thing, and the .... I think that there's a certain quality bar that is the expression of what you're trying to do, and you kind of have to hit that."

SpyParty developer Chris Hecker doesn't plan on releasing his ambitious one-on-one spy game until he feels that it's hit the "perfect jewel" point -- an indescribable essence, or rather, a point in development when the concept and execution gel. "I'm not that interested in shipping the earlier version of it," he told me at an NYU coffeeshop late last year. Hecker's bringing the game with him to next week's Game Developer's Conference where he'll also be giving a few short lectures. And yes, he'll be making the trek across the country in a few weeks to PAX East so that everyone can check it out.

Gallery: SpyParty (2/23/11) | 12 Photos

That said, he understands that the game needs to launch at some point. And he's not getting any younger, to boot. "If you spend three years with every game, you don't have that many games in you, right? As a developer. How long is your working life? You end up with six or 10 games you could ever make in your life. These iPhone guys, they do six times that many games, right? But I think that, for me, it's more important to have that 'perfect' thing." Not that Hecker thinks SpyParty will be "perfect," exactly. He relates an anecdote:
"I was at a therapist one time and I said that I feel like an incompetent perfectionist. And he said, 'There's no other kind.' [laughs] But, you know, as close as I can get to that, right? And so, it's just really important to me that it really crystallizes all these things that I want to do right now in game design, so yeah, it's gonna take awhile."
Though SpyParty is currently running on PC only, Hecker has plans to move the game to consoles when the time is right, which is to say, "at some point." At this point in development, however, he's more concerned with making the game as good as it can be. The transition to consoles is out of his hands. "It's the weather, right? You can't control the weather. There's nothing you can do. The best thing I can do is make the most awesome game I possibly can, and I just have to believe that it'll work out if I do that. And so that's what I'm trying to do," he explained.

He's got a long road ahead, as the entire single-player aspect of the game has yet to be worked out. He had just hashed out a bunch of ideas with a laundry list of all-star Bay Area indie game developers when we spoke -- Jonathan Blow (Braid), "people from Maxis," Doug Church (ex-Looking Glass), Marc ten Bosch (Miegakure), David Sirlin, Rod Humble (former exec. VP at EA and indie dev), and Edmund McMillen (Super Meat Boy/Team Meat), among others -- brainstorming 10 pages of barely readable notes.

The base they came up with: "At the very base, the kind of minimum bar I have to hit, is tutorial [for the single player]. The game is so weird and different that I have to have an awesome tutorial, right? So, I think I can make a compelling tutorial, that's fun to play as itself, but it also works as a tutorial." The perfectionist Hecker is, however, means that the concept of a base tutorial means something more complex -- dare I say, more interesting -- than you might expect.

"I don't wanna be Britney Spears or U2, but I would love to be that mid-range band." - Chris Hecker

"We were brainstorming about what the sniper missions would be, and my friend Alex Kerfoot was like, 'Oh, the first sniper mission should totally be "Find the guy with the blue lapel pin."' And that's interesting as a mission because it's immediately like, 'Oh, this game is very different,' because I have to slow down and and just look around."

He likened it to the StarCraft 2 model of single-player and multiplayer being separate beasts: "It's clearly related, but it's not the same thing. And I hope that I can do that." Hecker's also optioning a practice and campaign mode, as well as more nuanced mission training modes. "You could imagine later sniper tutorial missions to be like, 'Someone in the next minute is going to tell a joke that flops. Identify that person.'"

And as far as what platforms he's hoping SpyParty to end up on, Hecker's got big plans. "Best case, what I would love, who knows what's gonna happen, is shipment on all three of those platforms," referring to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. "If Wii HD comes out in time and can support 30 animated characters and the art style I want, I'm totally down," he added, continuing, "I have nothing against the Wii as a platform, and I think it's great that there's so many of them out there. I just don't think the current Wii would run my game -- there are too many animated characters."

The version he's bringing to GDC and PAX East will be the PC iteration, he told me, as the other versions were still just a plan for the future when we spoke. That said, he's got his sights set on digital platforms like XBLA, PSN, and Steam rather than a brick-and-mortar launch.

For now, Hecker's got enough savings to last for "at least two or three years" of development, though he admitted he's open to the idea of "small loans from friends and family" when he eventually wants an artist or needs outside help. The idea of a venture capitalist or angel investor isn't on the plate, however, though the Indie Fund or a full-on publisher contract are other options down the road.

"I would love to have a small team," Hecker said of his aspiration -- modeled after an inspiration.

"I really look up to and envy They Might Be Giants; or Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. They're not U2, by any stretch. U2 can make $100 million by going on tour, right? They Might Be Giants and Bela Fleck: they tour, and they make a salary -- all these mid-range bands," he reflected. "But they do exactly what they wanna do. They have enough of a fanbase, enough clout, and enough income that they can do whatever they want, and expect to make enough to support their families. I don't wanna be Britney Spears or U2, but I would love to be that mid-range band."

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