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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There’s only one class left for Valve to update in Team Fortress 2, the Engineer. One by one, Valve have given each of the other eight characters a set of alternative weapons, and with each release there’s been a batch of new maps, game modes and features to play with. The amount of free stuff we’ve had since I wrote up the first details of the unlocks system at the start of 2008 is obscene.
When the inventory system went down briefly before the latest update, we were temporarily stuck with TF2 much as it was in 2007. The feeling was, “Where did the game go?” Compare that to something like Halo 3, released around the same time, which has functionally barely changed and charged a total of £20 ($30) for its new maps.
One thing that hasn’t changed since that article (funny to read in light of how much has) is the spirit of the updates, framed there: “The unlockables aren’t just beefed up versions of the weapons, they balance major advantages and disadvantages to fundamentally alter the role of that class.” While Steam forumites have turned that ethos into an imperative law to be screechingly enforced by the limp fist of internet tantrums, the gist is basically universal: the unlocks are supposed to change the way the class plays in a meaningful way. How successful have they been?
Medic (April 08): decent – the Kritzkrieg is a nice idea but badly needed the large charge-rate boost it later got. The Ubersaw set the standard for awesome new melee weapon ideas with negligible drawbacks that would continue to enrage weird forumites for twenty more months without ever actually making the game less fun.
Pyro (June 08): great – the Backburner turns the Pyro into the ambush class he was always meant to be, but they also added the airblast ability to the standard flamethrower to make the trade-off more interesting. To this day there are two distinct breeds of Pyro playing properly different roles. Also, the Axtinguisher is the second best idea Valve ever stole from me (and somehow implimented in 19 days).
Heavy (August 08): weak – the Heavy was one of the least played classes at the time, today he’s dead last. It’s not because he’s underpowered; he’s the second highest scoring class and the most deadly by a head. It’s just a very rocky experience getting those kills, because everyone seems to have an easy way of doing something horrible to you, and you don’t seem to have a way of avoiding any of it. He needed unlocks that would give him some flexibility, some get-outs or workarounds. Instead he got a gun that’s good against Scouts (rarely a problem in my experience), the admittedly neat Sandvich and some fun but impractical gloves. Needs a revisit.
Scout (Feb 09): mixed – the Force-A-Nature and Sandman get changed, patched and bitched about so much that I have to assume they haven’t been totally successful yet, but I can’t get a handle on them myself. People can do things with the Force that I don’t even understand – suck me towards them or one-shot me – and yet it’s utterly useless in my hands. Bonk tackles the main problem with the class, survivability against Sentries, but it’s still not useful enough that I ever want to play the class once turrets crop up.
Sniper (May 09): superb – the Huntsman transformed him from a stay-at-home trouncing twat to a roaming predator, powerful but vulnerable. Its viability at medium and near range leads to so many breathsnatching life-or-death snap shot moments against guys who’d kill him in a second if they didn’t have an arrow in their face. Jarate lets him help friends take care of threats he’s not suited to, or just insult his killer before an inevitable death. I don’t really see the point of the Razorback in a world where Spies can headshot, but whatever.
Spy (May 09): superb – the Dead Ringer creates an Action Spy subclass the likes of which we’ve never seen, and the Cloak and Dagger lets him be the methodical, oppourtunistic infiltrator his abilities always hinted at. Some clever thought about which kind of cloaks should recharge from ammo makes the choice a tough one, and better still, situational. Now that people have cottoned onto it the Dead Ringer noise is a little too loud – it might be fun if he masked it by calling out a random line of the class he’s dressed as: suspicious, but not conclusive. The Ambassador is effective but, if you ask me, too much of an overlap with the Sniper and pretty horrible-sounding.
Soldier (Dec 09): great – the Direct Hit finally makes rocket combat feel like a mindgame rather than a spamgame, and the Equaliser is way better than my idea: it’s the speed increase at low health that really makes it. It’s the one weapon I love to hear people complain about, because having been that Soldier who one-shotted them, I know how terrifyingly close to death he was. Bugle: indifferent.
Demoman (Dec 09): good – the sword and shield don’t make a new subclass of Demoman, they make the tenth class. His massive resilience to explosions demands proper restrategising, and I love the way the Heads mechanic makes him one of the few classes with something to lose. The more lives you take, the faster and tougher you are, so the more you want to preserve your advantage and therefore life. Charging is hilarious. I do think the sound and feel of melee combat in TF2 isn’t quite up to doing a big sword justice, though: it feels wrong for its blows to be met with a quiet crunch, for its swings to connect in much the same way as a bottle’s, and to be able to whack a Pyro three times without killing him. I also think it’s a crime not to have provided a Grenade Launcher alternative: is sucks for all the reasons regular grenades suck.
It’s an excellent track record. The mis-steps haven’t made those classes worse, just failed to improve them – a failure that’s default in other games. The way these unlocks are earned has also changed, but strangely. For the sake of the scrollbar, I’ll save what’s wrong with that and how to fix it for another post.
Neal Kenneth: Mr. Francis,
I have been following your website for a long time. You produce quality material on a regular basis, I must say. Which is why I am finally contacting you.
Judging by the content of this latest article, I think a collaborative relationship between us would be extremely beneficial to the community as a whole.
Our backgrounds are polar opposites in regards to Team Fortress 2. I am a veteran of the stagnant, "traditional" Xbox version, while you partake in the ever-changing PC version.
I would highly value your viewpoint(and help) on my most recent proect. That being, re-writng The Art of War from the perspective of Saxton Hale. The primary goal of this book would be, yes, to entertain, but also to design the perfect Team Fortress 3.
I am able to do this alone, but not to its full potential. Please consider assiting me and my work.
Rasmus Widengård: Ah, the sweet pungent aroma of misplaced ambition.
Saxton Hale: Dear Mr. Kenneth,
Please stop writing sub-par literature and deeming it perfect enough to tell the public I wrote it. I won't promise to sue, but my fight prowess most certainly extends to court-room situations.
Love, Saxton Hale
Captane: @Neal Kenneth Being a vet of an outdated version of the game, surely that would make most of your thoughts and opinions on the game quite outdated as well?
Anywho, I think after seeing all the more recent updates I've grown slowly more disappointed with the medic update. It just seems a little too... subtle, I think. Plus very few people use the Kritzkrieg from what I've seen.
Neal Kenneth: I enjoyed the response from "Saxton Hale."
LaZodiac: Heres hoping they revist the other classes to make them as epic as the later updates.
Or make the Engineer update so ungodly awesome that we all cream ourselves.
x25killa: All hail the Ubersaw I say. Still my favorite unlock.
Dante: On the Scout update, I'd have to say it was a big success. Before the update the Scout was my flat out worst class by some way, after I got the Force O' Nature he now sits at the top of my kill charts (I also used the Sandman for a while, but since the health debuff I've fallen out of love with it).
The thing about the Force is that it suddenly made the Scout make sense to me, the idea of running in, firing off two quick and powerful shots and then either dodging long enough to reload or pegging it after someone else. It also makes you great at preying on those who were wounded or on fire.
MartinJ: Agreed with Dante. Before the Scout update I never played him, felt like an extremely shitty class to me. After the update he went up to my third most played class (after the Spy and the Engie) and it's pretty common for me to win a CTF round just by myself (record time was winning the map just under 5 minutes on ctf_doublecross) - as long as they don't build sentries.
Tom Francis: Cool, I think I'll have a bit more of a play around with his stuff.
Pod: MY OPINIONS ARE GREAT HERE LET ME SHARE THEM WITH YOU ALL
The Backburner is a bit rubbish. I play Pyro a lot, and the amount of times I flame from behind are quite low. (They're mostly from the side, which then turns into an angry front). However, the amount of times I use the brilliant compression blast to put out my teammates, baffet people off bridges, or fire back projectiles is all the bloody time. Losing the blowback in favour of the backburner is a ridiculous proposition to me. (and many others too!)
I hope they revisit the backburner somewhat.
Natascha (sp?) is lame, but at least it's useful against charging demos these days. I think more people would use it if they made it more accurate or possibly more lethal at long range. As it is it doesn't really change the way heavy plays. He stills stands around firing and things, only to get shot in the head or stabbed in the back >:(
Scout is my most played class. I think the stuff he has is good, but could do with a bit more. Sandman is quite good, but I rarely make the ball connect. Given that it's rarely useful in my poorly-aiming hands I've decided not to use it. The FAN is great, especially for jumping into places. (Very good on that new CTF map). Bonk? eesh. I use it all the time to annoy the opposition, cause an SG to kill it's own engineer, stop an uber etc etc, but other than that's its pretty useless. You can't even use it to evade, as the slowdown means even the heavy can catch you. (nb: I was pretty enraged that the chargin' targe didn't have ANY form of slow down?!)
Razorback? What's the point in it. I hope Valve replace it.
Demoman? The sword + shield really annoys me. It seems to make him invincible to everything, and he's so hard to hit at that speed. Also: a sandman bonk doesn't work on him, which is incredibly frustrating. I've seen one or two charging demomen absolutely chop up the opposition team because there's not much most classes can do against him. The only things that work are the FAN or Natascha -- and we both know how often the second one is used :(
I hate to say it, but I think the sword + shield combo is "OP".
Pod: Also, another thing I wish to say regarding the latest mega update: Turn on all that new, fancy HUD stuff. Nothing improves your game more than knowing how much damage you deal, especially based on range.
BrianDawg: Razerback is excellent in my opinion. I think a good spy doesn't use the ambassador, because getting headshots on moving targets is hard. It's so much easier to kill someone with the revolver. I'll go after a sniper even if he is in a group (Koth Nucleus for example) but will go for a different target if he has the razerback because I know it won't kill him and ambassador shooting requires me to stop, get a headshot, then a body shot. It's a huge deterrent.
If I'm using the huntsman, jarate all the way.
EGTF: I wish they would re-update the heavy, but it's unlikely to happen. On another note I think it's amazing the backstory and character they've managed to build with these updates, as now weirdly I'm as interested in seeing what the engie update will bring in terms of story as it will unlocks. To a multiplayer game.
Thanks for seeking me out and saying hi at the PCGLive event Tom, great to meet you in person though I think at the time I was a bit equally shocked and sleep deprived.
Tom Francis: Still haven't had the problems people report - even as a Soldier, the class the Targe seems a conscious counter to, I'm able to bounce them out of the way and Equalise them if they get too close. You do see impressive sprees, as you do with Heavies, Stickies and Spies.
Scouts - do you use Bonk? I've got the hang of the FAN now, and it's ridiculous, but Bonk's slowness seems to make it useless to me: everyone sees where I'm going and kills me when it wears off. Not crazy about the Sandman - the health is too high a price to pay.
1stGear: I'm interested in seeing what they do with the Engineer update. The class' only serious vulnerability is their encampment and its a fine line between improving that and turning it into an impenetrable gun fortress.
Tom Francis: Yeah. I think their main objective there has got to be to create a viable way to play the class that isn't boring. Sitting behind your sentry whacking it is about the least interesting experience TF2 has to offer, so I'm hoping for a more mobile combat-Engy.
MartinJ: I only use Bonk selectively in certain situations. On Dustbowl, in the last part, cap A for example, on Blue team. If Red build sentry or sentries on the right, (either at the stairs, or in the tunnel leading to their spawn where Engies often build teleports) I often choose Bonk in my loadout to get past the sentries and to the CP, capturing it without having to wait for my teammates to destroy the sentries.
However, I find it useless most of the other time. By the way, I use the sandman and except for soldier rockets (basic, not Direct Hit) - I don't have a problem with the HP trade-off.
Link roundup « rotational: [...] A short history of Team Fortress 2 updates – Smart Tom Francis looks at how Valve has built on its Team Fortress multiplayer shooter since release in 2007 with a raft of character abilities which have fundamentally changed the way the game plays (two of which Francis came up with himself, more or less). Similar posts: Final fantasies Mag+ tablet magazine prototype Going public [...]
Tom Francis: Sorry Neal, forgot to reply. Thanks for the offer, very flattering! I'm probably not your guy, though: too little time and not enough Hale fanaticism.
Neal Kenneth: Not a problem! Thank you for considering! Knowing your talent, it was well worth the try.
What’s Wrong With Team Fortress 2’s Unlocks, by Tom Francis: [...] cooed a little about the amount of free stuff Valve have added to TF2 since release, but it’s not [...]
Inferno: Had to comment just for the record of you saying the pyro unlocks were great. No, no they weren't.
The flare gun and the axetinguisher were both great but the update was ruined by a pathetic main weapon alternative. It offers NO change to the style of play you get from pyros, it was horribly overpowerd for the sole reason of adding a ton of health to the pyro when first out and is now woefully underpowered as can be seen by its useage.
Chris said it best when he pointed out that people have realised that they can't magically teleport behidn enemy lines as pyro and 90% of the time you WILL face people head on. for which you get utterly destroyed. It's mostly a luck based weapon for if the crits bug out on the other player. It does nothing to change the pyros playstyle and nothing to improve the major issues with him. In fact the best update the pyro got was the aiblast which has so many uses and helps him and teammates out against the powerful explosive classes but it's applied to his normal weapon.
The backburner is pretty much the laughing stock of the tf2 weapons, and that's even next to the razorback.
Verde Flash: I would have to say that I do use the Bonk!, but there is only one real situation in which I do. On 2Fort, I go scout with FAN and Bonk!. I used to use Sandman since I was getting good with the FAN jump, but since they cut the health it doesn't sit well, giving a bad taste in my mouth like potato chips mixed with gum. I double jump from the battlements to their battlements, and then quickly Bonk! and run past their hayroom sentry into the spiral staircase. The turning of the stairs makes it a lot easier to avoid attackers until I get back up to speed. If I get the intelligence, I come back the same way and quickly dive into the grate room and make my escape. If there's a dispenser in the way of the spiral stairs, I destroy it from the grate room and run in there.
I usually make a capture if that's the only sentry. The Bonk! is incredibly useful for that.
Tom Francis: I said the Pyro update was great, which refers to the Pyro with the added airblast, Backburner, Axtinquisher and Flare Gun versus the Pyro without. If your Pyro strategy is to run forwards, yes, most enemies are going to be facing you - but all good maps give you ways of getting behind attackers. Playing on defense, the Backburner's still my favourite way of incinerating 4 or 5 people in a few seconds flat - particularly on Payload maps.
Pattom: Bear with me on this one, because it's a long rambling account of my own thoughts on updates that affected my play-style.
The Scout update was a real boon to my experience with the game: I was stuck in a rut playing Medic near-constantly up until that point, but the decision to give Scout an honest try changed that completely. The Force-A-Nature has cemented it as my favorite class because it is stupidly fun and, as Dante said, it feels more natural in combat. I still don't have Bonk, and by the time I got the Sandman, it's drawback had been changed to -30 health. Definitely not interested, thanks.
That said, my favorite update has without a doubt been the Sniper's. I hated hated HATED that class up until the update, because I couldn't kill a single enemy with the rifle if my life depended on it, and they themselves seemed godlike in their powers to end my life without warning (again, Medic is my most-played class: I've a slight grudge against him AND the Spy). But the combination of Huntsman and Jarate has made it a completely different class for me. I'm actually able to contribute to fights, not engaging in pitched battle but picking off the weak and the cowardly (and sometimes even getting a lucky headshot when an arrow shoots wide past the intended target). Or I simply follow a rampaging Heavy, throwing jars and racking up kill assists. "Support class" is an accurate description of my better nature.
Speaking of which, I DO find the Razorback to be useful on occasion, but mostly by luck. It seems that some Spies have not yet learned what the Razorback is or what it does, because an enemy Spy honestly tried to backstab me on Badwater the other day and failed. He was so shocked that he decided to start shooting at an Engineer across the room from me, who appropriately (and predictably) flipped out. I put an end to that by introducing my kukri to the Spy's skull.
I actually feel the same way about Spy as I do about Sniper: his update did an incredible amount to make the class one I could actually play enjoyably. I do agree with what you once said about the Cloak and Dagger being essential to any defensive Spy: it's one of my favorite unlocks of any class. Unlike Sniper, though, I still can't play Spy productively, so I'm going to need a bit more practice before calling it an unabashed success.
As for the Soldier and Demoman unlocks, I can't comment as I have none. I will say that more than the Targe or Eyelander, though, I want to get my hands on the Scottish Resistance: that sort of back-lines Demoman is exactly the sort I do well at, and I'm enthralled by the idea of multiple traps that can be detonated exclusively.
Kowalski: To be perfectly honest I'd rather go back to the release day and play it. I don't like all the new maps, all the new weapons, all the new modes, all the new hats, all the bug and exploit fixes, etc. It ran much faster and was much much more fun back then. What I'd like to see even more than an Engineer update or something that adds 20 new community maps and jetpacks and shit is some balancing. The Medic's original update was the most balanced to me; he played the same role but in different situations and had a different combat style. The Heavy's update wasn't too damaging, the melee was the only thing particularly unbalanced. The rest have been, in my opinion, trash.
Verde Flash: I really would like to have some servers with the option of not allowing unlockables. I would play them and play them and play them forever.
Kowalski: This is another reason we need time travel. Knowing you you've worked it out already, eh, Tom?
Jazmeister: Verde: I agree that it should be possible, but I don't think I'd ever play them. How can you compete as a pyro without your axtinguisher?
Verde Flash: Hmmm... I really would like the pyro update. I enjoy the airblast, axtinguisher, flare gun, and backburner, in that order.
And I sure would use the time machine for this if it didn't take 81 gosh darn D Batteries per trip and return. Stupid eBay time machines.
Dante: "Scouts - do you use Bonk? I've got the hang of the FAN now, and it's ridiculous, but Bonk's slowness seems to make it useless to me: everyone sees where I'm going and kills me when it wears off. Not crazy about the Sandman - the health is too high a price to pay."
I don't, for exactly the reason you just mentioned, although the idea of using it to get at those quick capping endgame points mentioned above is a good one.
I used to love the Sandman when all I was losing was my double jump, so long as you could use The Force well you could still make it when it counted. But the health debuff is to big a price to pay. The Scout has very little health already, with it he might as well be made of paper.
Jazmeister: I feel the scout needs mobility more than health in order to be a good scout. I'll happily take the hit if it lets me escape a brush with a heavy or fuck over an engineer.
Discrider: The backburner is rubbish.
While there is generally a path around the enemy team that enables you to use the crits, this actually translates to choosing not to charge 10 enemies in the face to charge 2 enemies. And then when you get behind the enemy, the crits bug out and don't trigger even though you are burying the nozzle in the center of the guy's back.
This being said, it does work quite well on Badwater, since there are quite a few places where you can drop down onto people thus eliminating the need to get through the enemy lines before surprising them.
If the crits were more reliable and more maps had such vertical mobility, then it might be a balanced unlock. But at the moment airblast beats a situational crit that has worse registration than the Spy's backstab.
As for Bonk! I use it almost exclusively on 2fort. Assuming there is no sentry in their intel room, you can quite easily Bonk your way past the enemy Sentry guns in the courtyard and if no-one has seen you charge in, only the engineer will be chasing you during the slowdown period, since everyone else is too busy deathmatching to notice. You also don't need to run away. Once out of the Sentry's firing zone, merely duck around a corner and wait for the pursuing Engineer. When he appears, your scatter gets bonus damage due to the proximity of the target, and the Engineer gets dominated.
Once past the courtyard Sentries, you take the intel and try ducking out through the grate, since most Sentries on 2fort are unable to track you before you disappear through that opening.
And if all else fails, drop the intel, circle back down through the basement, Bonk! through the other entrance / courtyard, pick up the intel again since all the pursuers have headed for the basement looking for you, and complete the journey out of the base.
This being said, you almost no longer have to do this in 2fort, since you can just go Soldier/Demo, deal with the Sentries, get your speed boosts, and carry the intel out of there at Scout speed.