Spy Party, Nidhogg, EVO and making a Competitive Game

I don’t think there is something nearly as different and challenging as creating a good competitive game. The process is different from most others — it is far more strange and unpredictable. While a bug in a single player game will effect only a hand full of players, it effects everything in a competitive game. Every little nuance can turn a game on it’s head.

When I see competitive indie games, I get naturally suspicious. Most seem to approach things artfully rather than from a deep, mechanical standpoint. Most haven’t played enough competitive games well enough to have the foresight to see how changes would turn out. And even if you have all these traits, making a competitive game is an uphill battle that requires a lot of luck and tons of testing by the right people.

So Spy Party and Nidhogg are going to be at EVO so I should probably talk about them.

I wrote about Nidhogg over a year ago and was sort of surprised at all the exploits that were in the game. It was fun, for sure, but it seemed to me that the game was never put under enough intense scrutiny. Some of the bugs and tricks were fine and even fun, but the game seemed painfully unaware of them. What testing did it get? Small tournaments here and there with people who only just touched the game, never giving anyone time to really get deep into the game. In a way, it almost felt like ‘protecting’ the game. Game’s like this don’t need protection — they need to be exposed. You need to see how the game breaks apart so you can see what changes would make it more interesting. I think Nidhogg will remain fun, but depending on what Messof has changed recently, the way the game is ultimately played may be surprising.

Spy Party is another beast and is a work in progress so while I can make comments, they have to be taken with a grain of salt. But lemme start off with some quotes.

Chris Hecker:

“It all started with Seth Killian,” Hecker said. “Seth and I have talked about my goals for SpyParty to be a game that can eventually be counted among the most intensely competitive player-skill games we have, games like Counter-Strike, Starcraft, LoL, Dota and Street Fighter, and he’s been really supportive of that goal.

Seth Killian:

“Obviously your game isn’t a fighter, but what’s interesting about these guys is that they aren’t just good at fighters–they’re good at games, and breaking down systems, period. They like games that involve psychology, competition, or are just insanely difficult.”

(emphasis mine)

And the game’s tagline…

SpyParty is an asymmetric multiplayer espionage game, dealing with the subtlety of human behavior, character, personality, and social mores, instead of the usual spy game explosions and car chases.

Before I go on, lemme say, Chris has made a cool game that I think can do nothing but succeed — but I think his goals are a bit high. I think the game’s tagline reflects more of a casual interpretation of this game. What is the game when it is stripped to the bone? As far as I can tell, it is a game of knowledge and memorization and awareness. Interaction is minimal. Choices do not have long lasting consequences and besides for time, the spy can’t be put in a particularly good or bad position yet. There is clearly a lot to the game on just these principles: Learning to emulate the AI, learning tells, learning patterns, whatever, but when do the types of interaction that defines a competitive game comes in. You either need a complex rulebase (Starcraft) or a simple foundation that leads crazy emergent gameplay (Go). I don’t think Spy Party quite has the “go” thing going on. And the psychology? A game like this seems a game where a lot of the psychology almost reduces it’s self as the players improve — emulating the AI, being cold and cool and being careful. It’s hard to make a real ‘bold play’ in this kind of system without it being a move of desperation. So again, where does the competitive level of gameplay come from?

One of the strange things about making a competitive game, I think, is that you don’t know what your game is going to be “about” until you make it and test it. I also think properties like deception and psychology come in ways people don ‘t suspect. An RTS called “R.U.S.E” came out, aiming to add “bluffing and deception” to the RTS genre. Even Wikipedia went with it in awhile, acting like those were properties that didn’t exist in other games (sadly I can’t find the old version of the article that had that). From what I understand, the “ruse” mechanics just became a piece of basic strategy just like any other, used for them mechanics strengths more than anything else. RTS’s have ALWAYS had these things. The issue is, while they had these properties on a deep level, they lacked them on a superficial level. Spy Party seems the same way. Superficially it seems like a deep, psychological battle. In practice it is probably a game with minimal interaction or room for interesting strategies. In fact, it seems to only have on strategy: Pass the Anti-Turing Test. Even Rock Paper Scissors can be a game of psychology but that doesn’t make it super interesting. So the question is “Where does the depth come from?” In Nidhogg’s case, it has enough to be fun for a bit, and Spy Party lacks a lot of it, but makes up for it in style and novelty (and also has the potential to address my concerns due to it’s active development)… and both are fine. They’re cool, fun games that people should enjoy when they’re released…. but I think they were made from a strange place, with the creators expecting them to be more. I don’t mean to deride either creator for their work either. They’re great.

But neither of them made Divekick.

Divekick is amazing. It wasn’t made by “indie game designers”, but by guys who know competitive games and when they’re fun and deep. They made a system that encourages careful positioning, creates good and bad situations, leads to mindgames and fakeouts and all that. With two fucking buttons. Dive Kick is like the fighting game version of Go. They system is simple but leads to many different possible situations, while something like Nidhogg is played the same in almost every situation. You play in a real, 3 dimensional shape and you control and threaten space in a very temporary, but scary way. It’s really amazing what the game manages to accomplish with so little.

Anyways, Nidhogg and Spyparty, when they’re released, are going to do great no matter what I say and if they’d do any worse due to me saying something, I wouldn’t say anything at all… but if you’re an indie guy looking to make a competitive game, think about this a bit and realize the approach is fundamentally different, far more chaotic and far harder to control. Don’t get discouraged — just don’t get your heart set on what your game actually is. Once players get their hands on it, they’ll tell you what your game is actually about.