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Road to the IGF: Tom Francis'  Gunpoint
Road to the IGF: Tom Francis' Gunpoint Exclusive
January 30, 2012 | By Mike Rose




It's always interesting to watch games journalists forging a path into the world of game development. You have to wonder whether their knowledge of what makes games entertaining and enjoyable can give them an edge over your average developer.

Tom Francis is one such developer -- a British journalist who currently writes for PC Gamer magazine, and is developing one of the most talked-about upcoming indie titles of 2011.

Gunpoint is "a stealth puzzle game", in which players are invited to break into various buildings by rewiring anything and everything to trick the NPC characters who are guarding the valuables.

The game has now been nominated for the Excellence In Design award at this year's Independent Games Festival. As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, Francis explains the concept behind Gunpoint and how his journalist background has helped mold the game's shape.

What is your background in making games?

I don't have one! As a journalist and an asshole, I'd sometimes catch myself wasting review space with ideas for how to improve a game, which isn't that much use to the reader. So I'd cut that out, but wonder if I was right or just, as I say, an asshole.

The smartest designers I've interviewed are also the humblest, so guys like Robin Walker at Valve are the first to tell you that you don't know anything about an idea until players have tried it. So I decided to try it.

What development tools are you using to develop Gunpoint?

I didn't actually start making a game until I discovered my favourite platformer ever, Spelunky, was made in Game Maker, which I'd heard was noob-friendly. It is, and in less than a month I had a movement prototype I could send to testers.

That feedback loop has been going ever since, and the public interest in it has been enough that I've been able to bring on some collaborators: John Roberts and Fabian van Dommelen to handle the art, and Ryan Ike, Francisco Cerda and John Robert Matz doing the music. I believe they're using paint brushes and bongos respectively.

How did you come up with the concept?

I feel like a lot of games are designed on the assumption that the player is stupid: a tester doesn't have the intended experience, so I guess we've gotta force him to look at that spaceship crash, lock him in the room until the enemies are dead.

I wanted to make a game with the idea that the player might be smarter than me. Let him think of solutions that never occurred to me in hours of playtesting, and give him the tools to be more creative than I was when I designed this level.

I don't think that testers are being stupid, I think they're being defiant. And they're defiant because the game isn't letting them be creative or smart or funny, it's trying to make them have a packaged experience.

So the Crosslink gadget, which lets you rewire any of the electrical things in a level, is my way of giving you some of the designer's power. It's almost like a level editor: I restrict some things to make sure it's a challenge to complete, then I let you design how you want the level to work to achieve your objective. You can be clever, efficient, complicated, funny or cruel.

You're developing Gunpoint in your spare time while writing full-time for PC Gamer magazine. Have you found that your background in games journalism has helped or hindered your ideas of what a game should be?

Definitely helped. But the really helpful stuff is stuff anyone could do. The job just forces you to, which saves you the trouble of having any common sense.

The big one is having an overview of what's out there, and what's notable amongst that. Keeping up to date with everything interesting that comes out, and having a few gaming friends who get you into stuff you might not have tried otherwise.

It's useful for judging whether your idea is unusual enough to be interesting. I didn't know if Gunpoint's main mechanic would work in practice, but I knew if it did, it would at least be unusual.

That's led to a lot of interest in it, which let me put out a call for artists, which made it look better, which led to more interest, which let me put out a call for musicians, and here we are.

The game has a very sandbox approach, in that you can wire any electrical item to any other electrical item. Has it been difficult balancing this with the stealth element, or do these go hand-in-hand?

I didn't think about it like that ahead of time, but they seem to be a natural fit. Stealth is just a cool word for 'maybe don't get shot in the face?' It means avoiding enemies and getting into position to ambush them, and rewiring stuff gives you a wide set of options to manipulate the environment to do that.

Since the guards also interact with the environment and move around it, the ability to change the way it works lets you set up traps for them. Often you don't even need to be in the same room to arrange their death, which is among the best ways to not get shot in the face.

What are the next steps in the development of the game? What is your vision of the final product?

I have a vision of all the awesome art John and Fabian have sent me being in the game, instead of in a series of zip files in my Downloads folder. There's more to be done on both the art and music sides, but at the moment I'm usually the bottleneck, because I'm doing so many things at once. That should be my job title: Bottleneck.

I'm writing the between-mission branching dialogue at the moment, which is really fun. There are also more levels to design, and I want to redesign a lot of the ones that are done to include the more interesting puzzles and possibilities the mechanics now allow.

Are there any elements that you've experimented with that just flat out haven't worked with your vision?

The last thing I cut was a gadget called the Cold Call, which let you spend some energy to remotely activate a device on any circuit you'd tapped into. It basically let you turn resources into trivial solutions to puzzles. I do want players to be able to spend a limited resource to bypass something they don't like or can't do, but I already have more interesting ways to do that, and the Cold Call was undermining them by being so straightforward.

If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently?

I wouldn't spend a fucking week on the elevators. For some reason I had it in my head that you needed to see an outline of the lift as you travel between floors, which changed it from a simple afternoon job to one of the most mammoth programming, bug fixing and polishing tasks in the game. I'm usually pretty good at stepping back from what I'm doing and making sure it's not a waste of time, but I always felt like I was on the cusp of finishing the goddamn elevators, and I really wasn't.

They're good elevators though.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you particularly enjoyed?

Yep, I've played everything in my category. Predictably, my favourite is Spelunky - though I'm also a big fan of Frozen Synapse.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

Those guys? Ugh, can't stand them. Some of those games don't even have unlockable concept art.


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