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The Joystiq Indie Pitch: Hidden in Plain Sight


Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We at Joystiq believe no one deserves to starve, and many indie developers are entitled to a fridge full of tasty, fulfilling media coverage, right here. This week, Adam Spragg attempts to revive local multiplayer with an XBLIG game about looking like you're not playing a game at all, Hidden in Plain Sight.

What's your game called and what's it about?

The game is called Hidden in Plain Sight. It's a set of multiplayer game modes that share a common theme: trying to accomplish goals without drawing attention to yourself.

In each game mode, players control characters in the midst of a large group of NPCs. Players are given a task, but also the means to eliminate each other from the game. So the goal is to try to blend in with the NPCs, but still do what you're supposed to do without getting killed.

For example, one of the simplest game modes is called "Death Race." Players and NPCs are racing to be the first to cross a finish line. The naïve approach would be to simply run quickly to the finish line. However, each player has a gun with one bullet, and can eliminate one person from the race. So players want to win the race, but run the risk of being eliminated if they look like they're trying to win. (Of course, you could try a double-bluff by running way out in front, because no one would be that obvious, right?)

Other game modes create similar tension by putting players in a conflicted position of wanting to accomplish a goal, but risking elimination by doing so.

What inspired you to make Hidden in Plain Sight?

About a year ago, I read about SpyParty, a game in development by Chris Hecker. I was fascinated by the idea of "inverse Turing test" games, where players try to blend in with NPC characters. This is my own entry into that genre. I actually emailed Chris recently and let him know I was making this game. I wasn't really apologizing or asking for his permission, but I also respect his work and felt compelled to at least touch base to get a sense if I was crossing some line in the sand. He was very cool about it, and said that he was fine with derivative games "as long as they moved the design ball forward." I believe I'm doing that.

Another big point of inspiration was Han telling Chewie: "Keep your distance, but don't look like you're trying to keep your distance. I don't know. Fly casual!"

This will be your third title on XBLIG -- how has it been working with Microsoft and its Indie Games department?

I really don't feel like I've worked with Microsoft at all, actually. From my perspective, they created a self-governing ecosystem and then vanished. Developers create the games, and are responsible for peer-reviewing, marketing, and publishing them ourselves. The Community Managers are fantastic -- and extremely patient! -- but they only have so much power to affect change when technical issues or conflicts arise. Emails to the official Microsoft address go unanswered. Some popular devs are finding much better support and success through other indie channels, and are abandoning XBLIG as a result. That's unfortunate.

All that said, I come to this from a hobbyist perspective. I'm just a guy with a day job who likes making games in my spare time. Having the opportunity to publish a game to millions of potential players for $0.99 is really a dream come true.

In the end, XBLIG is a great hobbyist platform, but seems to me like a terrible way to try to scrape together a living. So I suppose you get what you pay for.

How does your development aesthetic compare to that of major developers?

Simply put, I'm not profit-driven. This is a hobby, so my personal mantra in these projects is: "If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong." I also maintain a strict budget of $0, so there is no pressure to sell a certain number of copies or recoup losses. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to go viral and get rich, but that's incidental to the joy I get from simply publishing a game that I think is fun, and watching others enjoy it too. And this gives me a bit more freedom to be experimental, and simply create for my own pleasure rather than to try to turn a profit.

What's the coolest aspect of Hidden in Plain Sight?

The tension created by putting the player in a state of conflict. In one game mode, you play a Thief trying to steal coins under the watchful eye of the Sniper, who is trying to kill you. You want to take coins, but every time you do so, you are potentially giving yourself away.

This game is also local-multiplayer only. I really feel like this is a game that needs to be played shoulder-to-shoulder with your buddies, all staring at the same screen. This was a design decision that will certainly cost me sales, but I'm ok with that.

So not only is the game delightfully nerve wracking, but your opponent is sitting right next to you (which happily lends to all sorts of meta-gameplay).

Sell Hidden in Plain Sight in one sentence:

Try to win, but don't look like you're trying to win, or you'll lose.

What's next?

Hopefully playing Diablo 3 until my eyeballs bleed. Then I've got some other game ideas I'd like to explore.

Hidden in Plain Sight is available now on XBLIG. Gather some trusted friends and see how sneaky they really are.

If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.

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