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SpyParty preview: Turing, eat your heart out

These days, multiplayer games are all about letting the player play the way that they want to. Shooters let you customize your loadouts, racers give you a selecton of cars. If it's online, it's all about standing back and letting players determine their experience. And Spy Party creator Chris Hecker couldn't care less.

Spy Party, his multiplayer espionage game, demands that you play by its rules. It doesn't bend the rules, even in the slightest. Either you learn its complexities, or you lose. Every time. Guaranteed.

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

We've already covered the basics pretty thoroughly, but here's the idea: One player is a spy completing a series of objectives while blending as best they can amidst a literal party of NPC's. The other player scans this "Spy Party" through the scope of his sniper rifle, waiting for his opponent to act human.

Pretty simple, right? I mean, how complex could it get without skill trees? Why can't we customize our rifle scope? Experience points? New skills? Maybe improve the effectiveness of his microfilm transfers? Nope. None of that here.

Spy Party's greatest strength is its simplicity. Hecker makes the players do the heavy lifting. Like Go or chess - games Hecker, ambitiously, hopes to match the complexity of - Spy Party is more about players exploring the confines of the game and bringing their own skill set to them. Simply by demanding that you play by its rules, player skill becomes the most important aspect of the game.

That focus is also what makes Spy Party so engrossing. With each loss comes the desire to figure out what you did wrong, the need to talk to your opponent to find out exactly what they were thinking. It's not often that a game with a brutal learning curve manages to ride the line between difficult to learn and crazy frustrating, but Spy Party seems to do it perfectly.

The learning curve may be super steep, but it's amazing how quickly players can get competent. Hecker is careful to make sure players have played a roughly equal number of games before setting them against each other, as games between players with even a couple of rounds of experience separating them can end up being wildly one-sided. According to Hecker, that's totally intentional.

For a game that hasn't even reached the public beta stage, Spy Party is pretty remarkably balanced. Over the course of three maps, the PAX demo showed how much tiny modifications can vastly change the game. The default room is a small room with windows covering two walls for the sniper to peek in, which ends up seeming fairly evenly balanced, but change the locale to a smaller room with more windows or a balcony with more cover, one side will gain a huge advantage. Give the spy one more objective to complete, and they've got one more opportunity to blow their cover. It's a great way to handicap the game for those who may not be the most skillful, or to challenge those who are.

With each new challenge, each new modification, I wanted to learn how best to deal with the variation. The more time you're willing to spend learning how the game operates, the more satisfying your experience will be. It's a rare thing for a game to have the bravery to essentially tell players "No, I won't bend to your every whim. Or, hell, any of them. Learn my rules or perish." Spy Party does. And that's what makes it great.

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