[Featurama] Interview with Hidden in Plain Sight’s Adam Spragg

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Hidden in Plain Sight was one of the most surprising Xbox Live Indie Games of last year.  It is a couch multiplayer only title that seems to get better and better with more friends gathered around. The game was easily in my Top 10 XBLIG of 2011 and I was curious to find out more about the game.

I reached out to Adam Spragg, the sole developer of Hidden in Plain Sight, to talk about his game and a few of the other titles he’s created.

How would you describe a game like Hidden in Plain Sight?

From a player’s point of view, Hidden in Plain Sight is a fun party game.  It is a local multiplayer game with multiple game modes.  The modes each have different rules, but generally speaking players try to blend in with computer controlled characters and try to accomplish goals without revealing themselves.  At the same time, they are also trying to figure out which of the other characters on the screen are player-controlled characters and eliminate them.  Games are played in rounds which are short and lively, and frequently end in shouting and laughter.

From a design perspective, the game centers around tension.  Tension is created by placing the player in a state of conflict.  Players want to win the game, but they know that doing whatever action is taken to win the game will also put them at a greater risk of being eliminated.  So there is a constant push-and-pull of wanting to win without looking like they’re trying to win.  The constant buildup and release of this tension is what makes the game so enjoyable, in my opinion.

How long did Hidden in Plain Sight take for you to complete?

Only a few weeks of nights and weekends.  My last game (Battle for Venga Islands) used the same character sprites moving around and living and dying in the same kind of way.  So the only real work was coding up the game rules, and doing all the glue (menus, scoring, etc) that hold the game together.  It really isn’t too complicated a game, coding-wise, and the bulk of the code was reusable.

My personal favorite mode was Death Race which seems like a unique departure from the others. What inspired it?

Death Race is indeed a fan favorite.  I wish I could say I had some event or specific moment of inspiration, but nothing so exciting.  I do most of my game design during my commute, and just thought of various situations where players want to do one thing without LOOKING like they are trying to do that thing.  Somehow, running a race popped into my mind.  I thought of it during my drive home, and within an hour or two after getting home I had added it to the game.

Fun fact:  Death Race was never playtested before the game was released.  It was all just kind of theoretical in my head.

The multiplayer only aspect seems like it would be pretty difficult to work on as a one man developer. How did you manage the testing and was it hard to get immediate feedback during development?

Most of the testing was me sitting alone in a room with multiple controllers in front of me and making educated guesses about how the gameplay would actually unfold.  I did rope my wife into playing a few test rounds, and when she threw down the controller saying “Argh, this is too stressful!” I knew I was on the right track.  I got some feedback from other Xbox Indie developers, as well as from my friends.  But you’re right, it was difficult to get people together to play it early on.

When I first started Hidden In Plain Sight, I asked myself “Why no single player?” Upon playing the game I realized that this would not have been possible. What kind of handicap do you think a lack of single player puts on the game?

I realized early on that I was heading towards making a local-multiplayer only game, and that sales would certainly take a hit because of this.  I tried to think of a way to fold in single-player gameplay, but really couldn’t come up with anything.

At its core, the game is about human interaction.  Trying to create an AI player that acted like a human who is trying to act like an NPC is simply beyond my skill set.  I did think of some other ways to make a single player mode, but it never really felt right.

This seems like a game that could breed a lot of great ideas in the beginning of development. Did you have any that just couldn’t work out?

No.  Any idea that I seriously considered or thought might work is in the game.  During playtesting, I wanted to know what people liked and didn’t like, and kept getting different answers from different people.  I figured as long as there wasn’t a consensus that any one mode was terrible, I’d leave them all in.

I did make a substantial design change to Ninja Party late in the game, which was the addition of statues and an alternate path to winning.  In the original version of the game there were just ninjas, and the last one alive would win.  The problem with this is that there was no motivation for players to do anything besides walk around like the other ninjas.  Doing anything else would make them stand out and become a target.  This would happen until someone would get bored and start going on a rampage and the game would just degenerate into a twitchy fighting game from there.  By giving an alternate path to win, it created the push-pull tension that I was going for, and really made the game much better.

It also gave cool hiding spots to gank other players.

Online multiplayer seems like an easy request to make, but I can only really think of ways it would detract from the gameplay. What do you have to say to all those that wish for an online component to the game?

As opposed to single-player, Online play makes a little more sense for a game like this.  However, creating an online game is really difficult.  There’s all kinds of design and technical challenges to overcome.

When I anticipated how many copies my game may sell on the Xbox Indie platform, it just didn’t seem worth it.  If my game sells a few hundred copies or a thousand copies, what are the chances that any two of those people are online at the same time looking for opponents?  What about a week later?  Two weeks?  A month?  There’s certainly an argument to be made that adding multiplayer would have increased sales, but at the time, it just didn’t feel worth my time.

In addition, I really felt strongly that this is a game that needs to be played in the same room with your friends.  At least half the fun of the game is knowing that the person you’re hunting (or is hunting you) is sitting *right over there*.

I was playing one night with my wife and initially our games were pretty even. I was winning, but not by much. Then all at once she went on a winning streak that actually frustrated and amazed me. I like to think developers are the best players of their games, however with a game all about reading your opponent, that can’t always be the case. Is there anyone that can take you down at your own game?

It’s only now that I realize I actually haven’t played the game that much since its release.  I took it to a friend’s house recently and we played after a party.  I played a few rounds of Ninja Party to show them the ropes, and it was clear as day to me who the other players were.  I knew that NPC ninjas only walk in straight lines, so when I saw someone weaving around, it was a simple matter of picking them off.  After a round or two, the light bulb went off and the games became much more even.

Given a choice, though, I’d much rather watch others play the game and observe their reactions than play it myself.

Spy Party was a big inspiration for Hidden in Plain Sight. What games are inspiring you now and what would a dream project be for you to create?

Spy Party was the first game I’d heard of in this “hidden role” genre and the main inspiration.  Since my game was released, I’ve become familiar with a few other games like The Ship, Assassins Creed Brotherhood multiplayer, and a couple little Flash web games.

Right now, I’m kicking around a lot of ideas, but the one I keep coming back to is doing a presidential election game.  I know it sounds totally boring and dull and dry, but I can’t shake the idea.  So I’m going to explore that a bit and see if it bears any fruit.

This has to be said, that title screen art is great. That alone sold me on the game before I even started playing.

Ha!  Thanks.  I have a very talented artist friend who did the title art for me.  He really wanted to know the back-story and setting of the game.  Who were all these people?  Why were they all in the same room?  And there’s snipers?  And ninjas?  I didn’t have any answers to his questions, and basically said “Just draw something cool!”  So if the cover art is a little eclectic, for better or worse it’s probably due to my lack of details about the game.  At least it’s original and stands out a bit.

You have referred to yourself as a hobbyist that develops games. What are some of the biggest opportunities that this affords you over the day job developers?

Well, I have never been a professional game developer, so I can only speak to my own experience.  I’m a gamer and a coder at heart.  For me, the act of designing and actually coding up a game is my hobby.  The fact that I can release it for other people to play as well as make a couple bucks is nice icing on the cake.

My mantra for these projects is “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.”  I’m free to choose ideas that excite or challenge me, regardless of how successful they may be on the market.  I try not to spend any money in development, so if I decide I’m going down the wrong path, I have no qualms about simply dropping the project and starting something else.  Or if I get sucked into playing, oh, say, Skyrim for a month, I don’t feel any guilt that I’m not working.

It’s all very liberating and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Above: Screenshot of Battle for Venga Islands

Since you brought up Battle for Venga Islands earlier, I’m going to have to ask about it.  It is one of the only games that I know of that was pulled from the indie marketplace by the actual developer.  Can you explain what Battle for Venga Islands was and what ultimately made you decide to pull it?

Battle for Venga Islands was a bit of an experiment in creating a virtual, online persistent world.  The idea of the game was that there was a world map with thousands of regions.  Players would be assigned to the Red or Blue team, and could choose a region to try to conquer.  They would then play a little twin-stick shooter game to defeat all the enemies in that region.  If they were successful, then they would claim the region for their kingdom and mark it on the map.

The clever bit was that it used background network connections to share map data with other players while you were playing the game.  This is a modification from how games do shared global high score lists, only rather than sharing high scores, it was sharing world data.  And it worked fantastically well.  I’m extremely proud of the concept.  You could literally watch the map change in front of your very eyes as your Xbox connected with others and the data was shared.  Literally hundreds of people were contributing and affecting a shared environment, albeit asynchronously.  It was great.

The problem, and the reason why I eventually pulled the game, was that in order to get this advertised online experience, you had to buy the game.  Trial games aren’t allowed to make network connections.  So after a month or two had passed, and fewer and fewer people were actively playing, I didn’t think it was fair to new players.  They were buying the game with the promise of a vast online experience, but not having any peers to connect to.  It felt like a bait and switch.  So I pulled the game when it reached 1,000 sales and considered the experiment a success.

So when I say I’m hesitant about adding online multiplayer into a game, I have at least a little data and experience to back up those claims.

There have been a few developers voicing complaints about the Indie Games market and Microsoft’s handling of it. As a hobbyist, this platform would seem to be ideal for pushing out games. How do you feel about the marketplace now that you have created a few games for it?

I think the Xbox Indie platform is a hobbyists dream come true.  For $99 (the cost of a developers account), I can create a game and publish it to millions of Xbox gamers.  Games only need to meet very basic quality standards (no swastikas or boobies, basically) and they can get published.  How cool is that?

As a result of this extremely low barrier of entry, you get a wide range of quality on the market.  There are “professional” quality games, and there is a ton of crap.  It’s not surprising to me that the Indie Games market has the reputation that it does.

So, when developers cry that the market isn’t visible enough, or that Microsoft isn’t doing enough to promote Indie games, I think to myself, “Why should they?”  They can’t be making much money off it.  I really have no idea why it exists in the first place.  I think we’re lucky that it does.

I do think they could improve the service, though.  It would be nice to have better filtering mechanisms that would make the hidden gems easier to find.  That would give the channel a bit more appeal, maybe give it a better reputation, and maybe make it worth promoting.

Above: Screenshot of Bad Golf

What was it like to learn that Bad Golf, a game you created, was in Famitsu?

I did a random web search for “Bad Golf xbox” one day and saw a tweet with a scanned image from the magazine.  I was thrilled.  It was my first published game, and there it was in print with a bunch of Japanese text next to it.  Coolest ever.  I was able to order a copy of the magazine online and have it as a memento.

Another fun fact:  The same issue of Famitsu with Bad Golf also featured SoulCaster II by MagicalTimeBean.  A year later, Ian Stocker (MagicalTimeBean) released Escape Goat in the same month as Hidden in Plain Sight, and both have shared spots of various “Xbox Indie Game of the Year” lists.

Any advice for people that want to develop games, but don’t have an idea of where to start?

Absolutely:  start small.  Learn how to draw an image on the screen.  Learn how to capture player input and move the image around.  Make a “breakout” clone.  The biggest downfall of beginning developers are big ideas.  Understand that coming up with game ideas is easy, and implementing those ideas is very hard.

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About Author

(Senior Writer)

I have been gaming for 20 years and have seen this industry go from one geared towards children, to one that has grown to accept all demographics. I've grown up side by side with video games and I've seen it turn into this phenomenon. Of course I also enjoy entertainment in all mediums whether it be film, book or sports. I'm just a huge nerd that loves writing about his hobbies.

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