Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
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To celebrate the release of the decent-but-not-great Meet The Scout short, I’m finally getting round to putting up a story about that class that I wrote ages ago. Well, kind of about the Scout, kind of about the primal psychology of competitive multiplayer gaming. Non-TF2 players: I’m currently writing a post that isn’t about TF2. Then three more that are.
I’d been trying to go cold turkey on Team Fortress 2 for a while, since I’d started to really care about winning and losing. That’s dangerous.
At one point I was coming up on an Engineer who was officially Dominating me, inches from his unguarded back (I was a Spy). He crossed the train tracks, while the “Train Incoming!” alarm was going off.
And I’d got to this mindset where there was just no fucking way I was stopping, there was no fucking way he was getting away from me this time. And so, of course, I was hit in the face by a train and he got away.
When you can’t see the funny side of something like that, you have to worry. I could not. It was about as funny as cancer. So, I decided, no more TF2 – at least until the next update.
But then in the course of researching a really fun piece for our Culture section next issue (now this issue! On sale now! Buy buy buy!), I kept running into Scout tips videos, Scout quotes and Scout ownage clips.
There’s a kind of philosophy to the Scout: there are many situations he simply can’t even begin to tackle, so he has to know his limits and pwn within them. I never got the hang of that – I have a hard time with the idea that I can’t take on the entire enemy team single-handedly in every conceivable circumstance – but I felt I could get it.
So tonight I went Scout. We got owned.
There’s a very particular feeling to getting owned. It’s unique to computer games – it doesn’t feel this way to lose at a sport, or chess. It has to be something violent – and not rugby violent. Gun, knife, fire, blunt force trauma violent.
It’s such a horrible, galling feeling of violation and misery that most gamers have come to refer to it as “getting raped”. I’m actually on a quiet and not very effective campaign to persuade them to stop using that word, because it suggests a pretty disgusting disregard for the weight of its real meaning, but the fact that otherwise sane people use it gives you some idea of how unpleasant the sensation is.
They’re everywhere, they’re in your face, and no matter what you do you get repeatedly and violently humiliated. TF2 rubs it in by proclaiming to everyone when you’re being “DOMINATED” by someone – they’ve killed you four times since you last killed them.
Non-gamers probably wonder why we wouldn’t just stop playing at this point, but that’s the worst thing you can do. If you do that, the feeling lingers, taints everything you do after. The only cure is reciprocation: winning isn’t enough now, however unlikely it may be – you have to own them.
This was proving hard. Scout is my lowest-scoring class – I’ve never once had a really good round with him – and even so I was by far the strongest player on my team. I virtually was my team.
I was responsible for more than half the kills, despite not being a combat class. I was our only defense – all our Engies pessimistically retreated to our last capture point, leaving the ones that were actually in play completely unguarded. And I was solely responsible for every single capture we made: five of them in a row, every time lost as soon as I died.
This is the slightly depressing thing about team-games: sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re going to lose, hard. Most losing teams finish a game hating each other far more than they hate the enemy. In fact, several attempt to join the other team at the start of the next round.
You can’t shake the illusion, though, that it must be possible to make a difference. It must be possible – just theoretically, not necessarily for me – to be good enough to transcend your team.
It was getting exasperating. I could kill everyone who came for our last cap before they got there, I could re-capture our next control point again and again, but no-one was there to hold it when I inevitably succumbed to their three Soldiers, three Heavies and two Pyros. And even the Engineers weren’t able to stop Scouts from getting to our final capture point when I wasn’t there.
I wasn’t even playing well: in most one-on-ones, I’d lose. The rest of my team were just significantly worse than that. At one point I gave in to the pointless urge to chide them: “Is anyone actually going to do anything about that Sentry?” I asked pointedly, being the only class who truly didn’t stand a chance against it.
“i was going to pretend it wasn’t there” said one.
Eventually I gave up trying to hold out against six stronger offensive classes while all our heavy firepower pussyfooted around in the corridors behind me, neither defending reliably nor daring to attack. I just ran past everything, including the Sentry.
This is a weird experience. Almost no-one can stop you, even if they’re good. And so you pass whole squads of enemies marching out to the front lines, and they all see you, and they all fire, but by the time the Heavies’ barrels have spun up you’re gone, and suddenly you’ve got a lot of people thinking about your psychology.
“What’s he doing?” they’ve got to wonder. “He’s heading for a capture point he can’t take, because his team haven’t got the two before it yet. So do we care? Only if he’s going to curve round and come up behind us. But we can’t wait here forever to see if he does that.”
So most people just carry on, glancing behind them a lot. I expected one to head back to look for me, but none did. So I hung out at their spawn, watching Pyros leave their supply room, waiting until they were far enough away that they couldn’t get back to it quickly, then striking from behind.
I had to abort a lot of these strikes – Scouts don’t have much health and don’t do their damage very quickly – but I stayed alive and caused a lot of confusion, irritation and death.
I ended up in the middle of the map, having just taken out a Soldier and a Heavy’s Medic at no small cost to my health, and I suddenly noticed it was unlocked.
My team! My team had actually done something! They took the capture point directly outside their base without my help! Well, cutting off the enemy reinforcements probably didn’t hurt, but still! One of the kill messages showed that the enemy Sentry in our base was down.
“like i said,” the same guy commented, “it’s not there.”
I had 16 health and a Pyro was coming towards me shotgun blazing, so I had to abort my capture to snatch a medkit. But soon he was dead and it was capped, and I was on my way to the next one.
This time I was heading to a point I could cap, but the stream of enemies pouring out of their base ignored me again: they were that sure they could re-take the middle point. They couldn’t possibly lose the upper hand. They were owning.
I nearly died taking their next one. They already had two people on the middle point to re-take it, but Scouts count double and the middle cap is the slowest to take. An enemy Scout had spotted me and doubled back to make sure I wouldn’t get it. I hid in a very obvious corner of the capture zone, and miraculously it took him a fatal second to figure out which one, during which I nailed him.
Suddenly we had four of the map’s five points, and I knew the last one would be unguarded. Only losers set up defenses on the last cap before it’s in play – that’s us, not them.
I immediately ran into a Heavy coming from their base, hastily doubled back and took the other route in before he could fire. This time he probably didn’t have to think long about my psychology: he knew I was going for their final point, he knew it was undefended, and he knew there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. He was the strongest class and I was the weakest, his team were winning and my team were losing; but he was slowest class and I was the fastest, and he was already heading the wrong way. I know exactly what that feels like. It feels like getting owned.
There’s a glass wall between the final capture point and the supply room that respawning players come out of to defend it. So I saw them: a Pyro, a Heavy, the Engineer who was dominating me, all pour out of that gate just as I was coming up to the capture point. I had 28 health.
I put my gun away, jumped onto the cap, and hit the taunt key: the key that leaves you unable to attack, fixed to the spot and helpless for the next few seconds, all for the sake of spreading your arms, surveying all before you and nodding cockily, baseball bat in hand.
My mental calculation was right: they could easily reach me before my taunt finished, but not before I captured the point. And since it was the last point, that meant winning the game. Which renders all enemies unable to attack, and triples the damage of your every blow.
It was obscene. The match was won just as three guys closed in on me, and I already had my steel baseball bat in hand. None of my team-mates were around, of course, so the spoils were all mine. Critical hits don’t just do triple damage, they make a cracking, booming sound like lightning, and when they kill they send the victim flying.
I pounded my way through their entire team, smashing each of their faces in with a furious series of thunderous bangs, ending, at last, with a Dominating Engineer. TF2 has two little jingles: one for getting Dominated, one for getting Revenge. The latter has never sounded so good.
I had to be in a bad mood to truly enjoy this – if it had all been harmless fun, I couldn’t have relished being so cruel. I had to still be stuck in the grimly competitive mindset that made me want to stop playing TF2, I had to spend the first half of the match having a thoroughly miserable time, and I had to have useless – or near-useless – team-mates.
I probably made twelve people feel really, really annoyed about that match – they lost to a cheap, nasty tactic, to one man on a team they could easily beat, and then they got smacked repeatedly in the face by a magic baseball bat while completely defenceless. And this game has made me enough of a dick to find that really, really satisfying.
More Team Fortress 2
Yeah, I love the scout. I'm still pretty crap, but at least with the scout I can have fun being crap.
Gazin: Yum yum, gotta love those post-win crits.
Dan: Ah, now you are a true gamer. Not because you actually care about winning, oh no, it's because when you do win you have to brag about it. :-P
You know you're in too deep when you take a screenshot of your score as proof of how much you owned.
Tom Francis: Man, I have the game set up to do that automatically at the end of every round. Then I delete all the ones where I'm not top, because really, why would I want those? According to my screenshots folder, I am the best player ever to have lived.
Tom: Got to agree with the feeling of playing with a bad team: being above the curve on TF2 is a /curse/. I had my first truly enjoyable match in months last night (Pentadact joined, in a bizarre coincidence - I was Theory), and it was an all-too-rare reminder of how much fun the game /can/ be with decent players.
Tom Francis: Hey, it's Theory. Yeah, that match was awesome. I like to think some of the enemy team were actually in tears.
That was the match when I first noticed that somewhere inside the Medic's healing ray, there's a tiny factory that makes points.
Lack_26: The scout is probably my favourite class, I'm really bad most of the time but it makes the enemies really pissed when you 'own' them utterly. It's even easier to do in games of about 4-6 player (2 or 3 on each side I mean).
In fact, when I think of how vindictive I can get as scout Valve nailed that video perfectly.
grey_painter: As a mainly demoman player the scout is my most despised class to play against. He annoys me on almost every level, and is a credit to valve that they've managed that.
Rob: Great post. I haven't played TF2 much since last year, it's definitely fun but it's not much of a shooter (it feels 'soft' and arcadey), which is my particular niche. Solid multiplayer game though.
I agree it's got reams of psychological subtext. That's the main thing that good players do that normal players don't: they learn to read what other people are doing. And since this is computer games we're talking about, and the ability for the player character's to emote is limited, it's certainly a skill to be able to look at someone's avatar and check his speed and his heading and ask what he's thinking considering the lay of the game at that point.
The best thing about TF2 is that it can be relatively tactically complex, even though it's not a hardcore tactical multiplayer game in the strictest sense - like CounterStrike. The trouble is that it relies on you playing with good players who actually have some level of awareness - otherwise it's like playing Poker with people who've never played it before, they're just blank slates and you get a load of false reads off them. The good thing is that you can still have a lot of fun (as long as you're not just totally trouncing the opposition). In terms of multiplayer gaming, I think that's quite a rare facet to have - most games are dull if you're much worse or better than the other players.
To be honest, I think that if all journalism was as passionate and in depth as your posts about TF2, we'd be much further along. As it is, I think (in fact, having played with loads of them, I know) that many games journos aren't playing games at that high a level, and yet they're still expected to review them. To really give a good review of a game you have to get into its guts and care about it. You can't really do that if you're not great at a game. The trouble is, as I guess it always has been, the scheduling of print and electronic journalism means that critical reviews only have a limited window of opportunity, and so you can only spend SO much time with a game. Gamers who play it for weeks and months and years later will ultimately have an entirely different perception of the game.
I like how Gamer largely instigated taking a second look at games months or years later - but there's not enough of this.
I imagine you have a different appreciation of how good TF2 is (or what it does 'right and wrong') after all this time?
Tom Francis: Yeah, certainly of what it does right and wrong. My opinion of its quality has only changed very slightly, and that's in response to the actual game and its player-base changing. The game itself has got significantly better: Sudden Death and stalemates are almost extinct, I think Badlands is probably the best symmetrical control-point map of the lot, and some of the custom maps out there are now good enough to play seriously.
The players have got better too, but that's a bad thing. A lot of cheap tactics that were really fun are no longer viable, which is fair enough, but the net effect is that the game is more predictable than it was at first. Winning teams keep winning, inter-class fights go the way you expect them to, and I'm just spitting out my figurative beverage in hysterical surprise much less often.
I think the improvements to the game itself outweigh that. I think the dynamic nature of it, the lunatic community and the constant prospect of really interesting new stuff counter-acts that predictability element, and just makes it a really exciting and sociable thing to be a part of. Even when I have reservations about the changes, like the Jackass Achievements, I can't wait to take them for a spin and see how everything changes. If I were re-reviewing it today, I'd up TF2's score by one percent.
Interesting what you say about reading people. I don't think I'm that good, versus straight combat classes, but I can read Spies like Roald Dahl. It's not in how they move or where they are, it's all in what they look at.
Mike: The reason you got that buzz is because you're a Spy player above all alse. Most classes are about guns and counterguns - you set stuff on fire, you bounce stuff off walls. The Spy is psychological games first, damage second. And once you get to that realisation about the Scout - that he can be the same thing too, perhaps even was meant to be - then the fun begins.
Because the Scout is a Spy without disguises and with his running pants on. He's small, he's irritating as shit, and people are faced with two choices - ignore him and get worn down, or waste a lot of time taking him on.
There's also that lovely moment of decision that every non-Scout class has to make - will I make an ass of myself trying to kill you? Because moreso than any other class, The Scout makes moments of being outwitted even more likely. If you peel away from a winning attack, only to dance around like a corpse on a trampoline and then get scattergunned in the face, you feel very silly indeed. Even that can be a repellent.
Enjoyed reading it. Cheers. :)
Jason L: This wasn't close enough to topic to post, and then you guys skewed the topic for me; thanks!
Please note the irony: The biggest, tied-for-least-teamworky asshole in the game is also the most trustworthy guy (i.e. not a Spy, provided you've seen him move).
Tim E: The team-mate thing is exactly the reason I stopped playing TF2. I find playing that game crazy stressful, blistered veins in your cheek, stressful. I like it a lot. I just can't appreciate the game when other people are playing with me.
I really need to talk to you about SupCom. I have embarrassed myself in an awesome way.
Sam: Another thing I've discovered about the scout. If I play as him, it's the only time when I actually really ENJOY the game. It's probably because I'm not as good as playing other classes, but there's something really awesome about taking the most acrobatic route around the map, JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN. Or batting a heavy to death, and then saying "Eat it, fatty!" just because you can. Or even a low level sentry. Except then you say "I broke your stupid crap, moron" and then shoot the engineer in the face and then taunt all over him and then run off to be a dick to everyone else as well.
Nighthood: I love the scout too, and he really is completely different to all the other classes. You reallyneed to judge things as your playing as him, such as do you kill the heavy, or run to get health first? One will get you a point, but you may die afterwards anyway, but if you get the health you dont get the point, but live to fight another day. And weirdly, scout is the only class in which dying is just something that happens, and doesn't annoy you at all...
Lukasa: Strangely, I find it as entertaining to kill scouts as scouts find it to kill me. There is no better feeling than to see a scout run round the corner straight into my heavy heal-target, especially if his barrel is already spinning. =D
Dagda: I've had an interesting time figuring out how to play the scout effectively. For me the appeal of the class is that adrenaline thrill of rely on your wits, reflexes and sheer speed to come out on top. Charging across the top of the bridge on 2fort with two snipers taking aim at you, continually leaping sideways off the roof and then double-jumping back onto it, killing one with the scattergun, dropping down to run up behind a heavy-medic team and take the medic down with scattergun and then bat, then leaping over the heavy's head as he turns to chew you to pieces with his weapon and rushing back to the health dispenser. . .nine times out of ten it doesn't go nearly that well, but I'm improving. It's very much moment-to-moment improvisation and figuring out the right approaches to avoid those seemingly arbitrary, unavoidable deaths.
Lukasa: It just occured to me to add in a little something. Playing against good players (really good players) is always infuriating. But there's nothing as infuriating as playing against a really good scout. It's not just that the character himself is an arse. It's not just that every class but the sniper and medic should have a reasonable expectation of beating the little guy to a pulp. It's about the type of person who gets really, REALLY good at scout. They tend to talk fast, loud and often, and even more so, they tend to be cocky little sods (mentioning no names Lofty and Mr. Peckerston of Javaserver fame).
Tom Francis: Yeah, I'm never playing against Lofty again.
roburky: "It's not just that every class but the sniper and medic should have a reasonable expectation of beating the little guy to a pulp."
That's just not true. The medic is the natural predator of the scout, most medics just haven't been informed yet.
Tom Francis: I'm inclined to agree: the Syringe Gun's rate of fire is great for just filling the air with death. I took Valve's inclusion of a killing-lots-of-Scouts Achievement to be an acknowledgement of that.
As a flipside to that though, when Lofty and Peckerston end up on my time I'm secretly very, very happy. Even if they are jerks...
Alpha: Ah ha ha ha. I love playing as Scout as Defense on Dustbowl. There's nothing more satisfying on that map than taking an alternate route, coming up behind the enemy team, and batting a thousand.