Zero’s Notebook #1: Your Brain, Your Opponent

Playing SpyParty is hard work. If you come to the booth at a convention, you have to read the manual before you can play for the first time. If you play online, you are highly encouraged to read the manual, watch the tutorial video, and play around in practice mode.  Finally, you start to play other humans and learn the plethora of ways the Spy can die and the madness of trying to sift through a party as a Sniper. These first moments of everyone’s SpyParty career can be tough. Luckily, we have an awesome community that’s always willing to help mentor new players and answer their questions. 

So, you ask for and receive some mentoring and you feel like you’re starting to get everything down. You know the missions and you know the tells associated with them. You now feel ready to face off against more experienced opponents. The thing is, when you play SpyParty, you are playing against more than just your opponent. You will also be fighting off your own brain and the mischievous AI. This first episode of Zero’s Notebook takes us through some of the odder things that you may encounter, including Chronostasis, and shooting the Spy even though you misremembered the statues.

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Welcoming Zero & This Week in SpyParty, Week 1: Spy on the Hill

Hi there, Chris Hecker here, sneaking in at the top of this, the first post by the newest member of the SpyParty team, Keith Millot, more commonly known as zerotka in the lobby! Keith has been a SpyParty beta tester since there were SpyParty beta testers…he was in the first batch of community invites oh so long ago—he even made an awesome video about his first year of beta testing—and he’s been an active member of the community since the beginning. He wrote the amazing Into the Mind of an AI series in the beta forums, analyzing the NPC behavior; it is required reading for anybody who wants to get good at the game (and I hope to make it public at some point soon). He’s been a great resource for ideas about the game, and as a big fan of streaming he’s helped me numerous times with advice on how to do that better. He helped out at PAX this year, although he tried to avoid my all-seeing camera. At some point, it just became clear he should join the team and start doing more frequent public writing and video editing for fans and beta testers. So, please join me in welcoming Keith, and you and I can look forward to more of these kinds of posts in the near future!

Hello! My name is Keith, or zerotka in game, and I will be bringing you weekly updates for what’s going on in the world of SpyParty. This will allow you to keep tabs on all the interesting discussions on the forums and stay abreast of all the wonderful things happening in the SpyParty community. Speaking of wonderful things happening in the community, let’s talk about Spy on the Hill!

Spy on the Hill's sweet logo

Spy on the Hill’s sweet logo

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! 

krazycaley keeps his throne after another battle in Spy on the Hill. This will mark the 7th week in a row that KrazyCaley is king! 

Spy on the Hill is a weekly competition where a challenger dukes it out with the current king for the throne. The catch is the challenger dictates what custom SpyParty game rules they will be playing. These rules can range from slightly unbalanced game types to completely wacky ideas, as you’ll see below! 

Strictly speaking, being king just grants you the title of being King of SpyPartia, the fictional country where all the Spy on the Hill events take place. You don’t get any prizes, badges, or special powers. However, this does not stop the community from taking it a little further and having fun with it. Every week the king issues humorous decrees and he has even appointed a royal advisor. Some people chime in with “Long live the king!”, while others say “Someone end this tyrannical reign!” It provides a little competition and it’s all in good fun. 

Every game is casted live by toboshi and warningtrack over on the SpyParty twitch channel, and overseen by the Spy on the Hill creator and mastermind wodar. Here’s a quick summary of the last five matches, and links to the videos (each of which is around an hour):

  • Week 1, Drawnonward vs. KrazyCaley 
    H-O-R-S-E Style. Each players pick a map and mission type. This is mostly balanced game types between two high level players. You can check out a highlights reel from this match here:
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  • Week 2, KrazyCaley vs. KCMmmmm
    Full Random Mode. Each player will randomly pick a map and mission type. Being completely random can heavily favor the Spy or the Sniper. Having to do known mission types tend to favor the Sniper but doing any 3 of 7 favors the Spy.

  • Week 3, KrazyCaley vs. MikeChilds
    Spies must wait 30-60 seconds between each mission. This mode puts more cognitive load on the Spy because they have to keep track of when they completed the missions and plan accordingly.

  • Week 4, KrazyCaley vs. Varanas
    Snipers must say who they lowlight and neutral light. Spies can’t use their forward key. Spies now have knowledge of when they get lowlight and can get away with lots more because of this. However, not being able to use the forward key can cause some funky pathing.

  • Week 5, KrazyCaley vs. SlappyDavis 
    Players win by either playing Snaps McGee (the photographer) and finishing their missions or by getting the Sniper to shoot poor Snaps. This element adds more mind games to the mix.

  • Week 6, KrazyCaley vs. WarningTrack
    The Sniper must name a state in the USA whenever he or she lowlights, highlights, or shoots. States must be in alphabetical order. Snipers must know their states or be stringent with their highlights and lowlights.

  • Week 7, KrazyCaly vs. Virifaux
    Each mission the Spy completes is counted as a point. Whoever has most points at the end wins. You don’t need to survive after you complete the missions, you just need to do them. This gives interesting opportunities to the Spy.

Any SpyParty beta tester can sign up to be a challenger to the throne. It’s great if you can stream, but it isn’t a requirement. So, if you are interested in ruling over SpyPartia, feel free to sign up in the beta forums and come up with your own crazy custom rules!

Will KrazyCaley remain the king for next week and issue new decrees, or will this week’s challenger come up with a clever game modification that ends KrazyCaley’s winning spree? Find out later this week! Spy on the Hill usually streams on Friday evenings around 7pm, US Pacific time on the SpyParty twitch channel.

Why is This Important?

Now, for a little editorial from my point-of-view as both a long-time SpyParty beta tester and a big fan of competitive games and streams…

In my opinion, competition brings a lot to any game. It helps build the community and allows onlookers to admire some of the best players out there, but more importantly, it helps create stories that people can relate to.

If someone new is watching the game, they probably don’t know too much about it. Sure, they can get the gist of things, but they might be missing some aspects that will make it interesting for them. Why would they watch a game if it’s mainly just gibberish to them? Stories are something that everyone can relate to, and they make the game better for both new players and for people who are well-versed in the game. One classic story that often emerges is “the underdog”. Research has shown time and time again that we love to root for underdogs. This is something we can all get behind, regardless of our knowledge of the game.

Another good example is the story of “the comeback”. In this story the current champion gets beaten and after some time passes they get a shot at being the champion once again. Everyone knows that they are capable of being a champion but are they able to do it again? 

With Spy on the Hill, we get a glimpse of the future of competitive play in the game. Also, you may recall this isn’t the first competition SpyParty beta testers have held. Previously we’ve had other player-organized tournaments, including the “New Years Cup” and the team-based ”Pre-Open Beta Tournament”. I am sure there will be many more to come, especially when spectation and replays make it into the game. What better way to test a feature than to use it?

The community has done some pretty amazing things and will continue to do so. Spy on the Hill is just another thing to add to the list.

SpyParty at Day of the Devs

Yesterday we did a fun thing in San Francisco: DoubleFine and iam8bit were kind enough to invite us to set up SpyParty at their Day of the Devs party, along with a bunch of other indie friends, including Supergiant and Capy. We shared a room with Hohokum and Destructomundo, and everybody had a great time! Some press came by to chat, so we may see some general coverage showing up this week, too.


This time slappydavis (in the hat) came over to help out with training newbies, and ardonite stopped by for a bit and they did a few exhibition games. Of course, I look a bunch of pictures, and here are some:


Next SpyParty Masterclass Episode, Wednesday, 4pm Pacific!

The next episode of the SpyParty Masterclass will be streamed tomorrow, Wednesday, October 30th, at 4pm Pacific time!

As you will recall from the pilot episode writeup featuring r7stuart,  the SpyParty Masterclass is the streaming show where I get the elite players to mentor me in-game and on-stream, so I can learn to suck a little less at the video game I’m making.  

When you’re trying to design a deep player-skill competitive game, you have to be able to make tuning and balancing decisions, and to do that you have to have a clue about the way the game plays at elite levels.  It’s a great feeling when players beat you at your own game (literally), but I felt like I was falling too far behind, so I decided to get some lessons from the top of the leaderboard, and to stream it and then upload it to the SpyParty YouTube channel afterwards so the whole community can learn from the lessons too!

This next episode will feature kcmmmmm, the player at the tippy top of the leaderboard, who you may remember lost me a bet with Seth Killian at Evo.  

There are a few different things about this episode:

  • I’m going to stream my side live on Raptr’s twitch channel,, and kcmmmmm is going to stream his side to the SpyParty channel at  I recommend watching the dual-stream view so you can see both sides at the same time!  I will edit them together before posting the final episode, like last time.
  • We’re on Raptr’s channel because they’re working with extra life to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network and they invited me to stream, so I thought this would be a cool way to help out a good cause.  You can join the Raptr extra life team here
  • We are going to keep it to one hour!  The last one was almost four hours long, which is too long to watch and too long to edit!  I’ll probably do some Q&A in the twitch chat on Raptr’s channel for a bit afterwards if folks are interested.

If you missed the last episode and have a spare 4 hours to go deep on SpyParty, here you go:

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The New SpyParty Environment Art Style

I am incredibly excited to introduce the new SpyParty environment art style! Okay, okay, so we officially revealed the new environment art style back in August, right before PAX, but I never actually posted here on the blog about it. Heck, it’s even running in the game now, so if you want to see it for yourself, sign up for the beta!


Anyway, to make up for my tardiness, in addition to talking about the environment art style, inspirations, and design goals, I’m going to post a bunch of behind-the-scenes shots of the levels and how they look to John in Maya and Photoshop, so you can see how they’re made. Nothing says behind-the-scenes like a screenshot with wireframed polygons in it, right?

We got some great press coverage when we revealed the new environments, here’s a good sample:

The articles and interviews listed above introduce a bunch of the important aspects of the new environment art style, and I’ll go into more detail on each here!

The Style

Finally, we have a place to stand!

Finally, we have a place to stand!

The first requirement for the SpyParty environment art style was that it complement the new character art style. Since the game is fundamentally about people and their behaviors, John and I spent a long time coming up with the character art style first, and then applied those lessons to the environment art style. If you want the full background on the overall artistic goals, you should read that post as well, but briefly, we designed the art style to be timeless and illustrative. Timeless means it doesn’t look retro or futuristic, or from any specific time period, it could be taking place at any and all times. By illustrative, we mean we aren’t shooting for photorealism nor cartoons, but for a style that looks like it is the 3D version of the sophisticated illustration work from the early 20th century.

Applying the timeless and illustrative aesthetics to the environments meant we wanted to support a wide variety of architectural styles, and so for the reveal we decided to show examples of the aesthetic applied to both a traditional mansion and a modern one. We needed to test out the aesthetic, and make sure it had the dynamic range necessary to render any kind of architecture we could throw at it.

paletteBecause the characters are the stars of SpyParty, we want the environments to fade into the background, but still be beautiful stages on which the parties can unfold. The key to this was to settle on a bi-chromatic palette, with a clear warm/cool separation between the world of the Spy and the world of the Sniper. Our friend, Ocean Quigley,2 helped us push it even further, by pointing out an old artist trick of increasing the color saturation in shadows, rather than decreasing it as would happen if you just rendered normally in most computer graphics tools like Maya, so shadows go to saturated colors instead of black. As you can see in the images of the new environments, the levels are warm hues wherever the Spy can move and interact, but they are cool outside this area. This will hopefully provide subtle but useful visual feedback to both players about what the gameplay bounds of the level are, and where they need to focus their attentions. There’s actually a third and fourth level of background in the environments, where the 3D modeled trees and the 2D silhouette trees spend their time, fading farther and farther back.

In keeping with our illustrative aesthetic, the shapes, surfaces, and edges should have more of an architectural sketch look, rather than a photographic look. This means very little texture on the surfaces, big, simple shapes, and clean lines.


Frank Lloyd Wright sketch of Falling Water

We’re still developing the aesthetic for the active objects themselves, but the current plan is to use brighter more saturated colors and completely artificial stage lighting to make things like statues and bookshelves pop visually, denoting them as belonging to the foreground instead of the background. I think of old cartoons like Scooby-Doo, where you could always tell when a character was going to pick up a telephone before they actually did so, because the phone was drawn on a cel instead of painted into the background.


If you take these statues a giant boulder comes down the hallway.

Inspiration and Reference

Since we’re going for a naturalistic illustrative style, we want both our environments and characters to be loosely based on reference. We treat real-world reference like Goldilocks treats the temperature of her porridge: we want just the right amount, not too much, not too little. It’s really quite difficult to imagine all the subtleties of an actual physical object—whether a house or a person—if you’re not referring to reference while you’re creating. This sense of authenticity is very hard to achieve and a lot of games don’t seem to even strive for it.3 At the same time, you need to know when to simplify, and what structures are important for solidity and naturalism, and which are superfluous detail.

The two reference buildings for the environments revealed here are the incredible James C. Flood Mansion in San Francisco:

Flood Mansion by Mike Hofmann Someday this will all be playable!  How many Spies and Snipers is that?!

 …and SAOTA’s amazing Cove 6 house in South Africa:

The amazing SAOTA designed Cove 6 house in Knysna, South Africa SpyParty-Modern-SniperCam_03


As promised, here’s a small gallery of the environments in Maya and Photoshop. A few highlights:

  • You can see how many layers there are in the concept render shot in Photoshop. The finished concept renders don’t actually exist anywhere in 3D, they’re composed of multiple renders and a lot of touchups and post-production to get the look we wanted. This is why the current realtime level doesn’t look as good yet, not only is it not raytraced, but it also doesn’t have the full lighting models and shaders on it that will emulate what John did in post. The concept renders are the visual targets, though, so we hope to get pretty close.
  • If you look closely, you can see the triangle-count difference between the concept and realtime Modern map: about 10x. The concept model doesn’t even really have textures on it, it’s all done with surface shaders, while the realtime does to bake in the lighting for performance.
  • In the closeups of the bar and fireplace, you can see how John saved polygons when reducing the level, using transparent textures instead of modeling leaves, simplifying shapes, etc.
  • Let’s not even talk about the water.

Galleries and Wallpapers

Here are the full galleries for the new environments! The first image in both galleries is a high resolution 16:9 2560×1440 image, suitable for use as wallpaper. The rest are 1280×720. One cool thing is each gallery has a series of images from the Sniper’s point of view, and you can use the lightbox that pops up as a way to preview how the level might look with a rifle in your hands.

First, modern:

Next, traditional:

Finally, here’s the trailer we released last week with the new artwork running in the game:

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If you have any questions about the new environments, leave them below!

Never forget!

Never forget!

  1. by way of Craig Pearson []
  2. former Art Director of Spore, now making indie games at Jellygrade! []
  3. By contrast, Jonathan Blow has gone as far as to hire architects to consult on the Witness structures! []