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TOM FRANCIS
REGRETS THIS ALREADY

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.

Theme

By me. Uses Adaptive Images by Matt Wilcox.

Rewarding Creative Play Styles In Hitman

Postcards From Far Cry Primal

Solving XCOM’s Snowball Problem

Kill Zone And Bladestorm

An Idea For More Flexible Indie Game Awards

Teaching Heat Signature’s Ship Generator To Think In Sectors

What Works And Why: Multiple Routes In Deus Ex

Natural Numbers In Game Design

Naming Drugs Honestly In Big Pharma

Writing vs Programming

Let Me Show You How To Make A Game

New Heat Signature Video: Galaxies, Suction And Wrench-Throwing

What Works And Why: Nonlinear Storytelling In Her Story

My Idea For An ‘Unconventional Weapon’ Game

From Gunpoint To Heat Signature: A Narrative Journey

The Cost Of Simplifying Conversations In Videogames

What Works And Why: Invisible Inc

Our Super Game Jam Episode Is Out

What Works And Why: Sauron’s Army

Showing Heat Signature At Fantastic Arcade And EGX

What I’m Working On And What I’ve Done

The Formula For An Episode Of Murder, She Wrote

Heat Signature Needs An Artist And A Composer

Improving Heat Signature’s Randomly Generated Ships, Inside And Out

Gunpoint Patch: New Engine, Steam Workshop, And More

Distance: A Visual Short Story For The Space Cowboy Game Jam

Raising An Army Of Flying Dogs In The Magic Circle

Floating Point Is Out! And Free! On Steam! Watch A Trailer!

Drawing With Gravity In Floating Point

What’s Your Fault?

The Randomised Tactical Elegance Of Hoplite

Here I Am Being Interviewed By Steve Gaynor For Tone Control

Heat Signature: A Game About Sneaking Aboard Randomly Generated Spaceships

The Grappling Hook Game, Dev Log 6: The Accomplice

A Story Of Heroism In Alien Swarm

One Desperate Battle In FTL

To Hell And Back In Spelunky

Games Vs Story 2

Gunpoint Development Breakdown

Five Things I Learned About Game Criticism In Nine Years At PC Gamer

My Short Story For The Second Machine Of Death Collection

Not Being An Asshole In An Argument

Playing Skyrim With Nothing But Illusion

How Mainstream Games Butchered Themselves, And Why It’s My Fault

A Short Script For An Animated 60s Heist Movie

The Magical Logic Of Dark Messiah’s Boot

Arguing On The Internet

Shopstorm, A Spelunky Story

Why Are Stealth Games Cool?

E3’s Violence Overload, Versus Gaming’s Usual Violence Overload

The Suspicious Developments manifesto

GDC Talk: How To Explain Your Game To An Asshole

Listening To Your Sound Effects For Gunpoint

Understanding Your Brain

What Makes Games Good

A Story Of Plane Seats And Class

Deckard: Blade Runner, Moron

Avoiding Suspicion At The US Embassy

An Idea For A Better Open World Game

A Different Way To Level Up

How I Would Have Ended BioShock

My Script For A Team Fortress 2 Short About The Spy

Team Fortress 2 Unlockable Weapon Ideas

Don’t Make Me Play Football Manager

EVE’s Assassins And The Kill That Shocked A Galaxy

My Galactic Civilizations 2 War Diary

I Played Through Episode Two Holding A Goddamn Gnome

My Short Story For The Machine Of Death Collection

Blood Money And Sex

A Woman’s Life In Search Queries

First Night, Second Life

SWAT 4: The Movie Script

Making Nuclear War More Interesting In SupCom 2

The notable thing about Supreme Commander was that it let you march a thousand robots around a 640,000 sq km battlefield – more like a county, actually. Supreme Commander 2 doesn’t let you do that, so the initial reaction is ‘Oh.’ But it’s still leagues ahead of every comparable strategy game in scale, control, and stompiness of robots.

SupremeCommander2 2010-02-06 15-16-25-39

The upside of all the scalebacks is primarily speed. It doesn’t really matter whether you pay for the stuff you build gradually (SupCom) or upfront (SupCom2). SupCom2 cuts out the interminable upgrading process to spectacularly accelerate how quickly you can build something vast, gleaming and capable of a war crime. It’s a less remarkable game, but a much more playable one. And even though its matches unfold eight times faster, I’ve already sunk more hours into it than the first.

A few things stop it from completely replacing the first game, most prominently the scale. A few things stop it from being the perfect evolution of the real-time strategy; a few signs of timidity in the Research options. And a few things stop me from really wanting to play it online with strangers – it appeals more than any other RTS in that way, but I still have to customise it a little to be happy with the playing field. So I wrote a few posts about how to fix all these things.

SupremeCommander2 2010-02-06 14-42-33-32

Basics

Some of the basic stuff probably isn’t controversial: it needs more eight player maps, two or three ten player ones, more sea maps, and more sea in the sea maps. AI that doesn’t build more transports than it can fill, and a ‘Very Hard’ AI that builds Experimentals with near-perfect efficiency. And a visible build queue, so that things don’t have to be paid for until they start construction, you can see what’s going to drain your resources, tasks can be reordered, and repeat-building factories can start churning out units again when nothing else is sapping your resources.

SupremeCommander2 2010-02-03 14-00-02-31

Upgrades

The Research tree of upgrades you can unlock is a wonderful improvement over the usual nonsense, but they’ve needlessly lost that concept of truly elite units. Experimentals are a different kind of “Fuck you” to the classic “Fuck you, one of my tanks can kill ten of yours.”

Upgrades should be more specific, more significant and more visible. The five incremental ‘Training’ upgrades should be cut to two very expensive ones that each double the units’ effectiveness, and make them physically bigger. It has to be immediately obvious “Shit, that’s an upgraded tank” or “Holy shit, that’s a maxed-out tank”. It should also be different for each race: UEF’s should upgrade health more than damage, Cybran damage more than health, Illuminate damage, health and range.

And scrap all generic ‘damage’, ‘health’ or ‘rate of fire’ upgrades – that’s what Training’s for. They should be replaced by unit-specific upgrades that change their form, size and function more dramatically. So instead of “+30% damage to all turrets” you’d have “Anti-air turrets upgraded to surface-to-air missile launchers, increasing their range and damage and letting them lock on to fast aircraft.”

Every upgrade needs to make a visual difference that’s obvious from any zoom level where you can see the model. Training increases size, a new weapon type changes the shape of the unit and adds an effect, regen causes them to spark colourfully when healing, etc.

SupremeCommander2 2010-02-07 16-05-30-20

Nuclear War

This has been a huge problem for me in both games. Because it’s nuclear war, but it’s boring. Either side can build a nuclear missile, but either side can also build an anti-nuclear missile for half the price. The only reason not to is that half the price of a nuke is still significant. So an actual nuclear war is just a contest of who can be bothered to click their button the most, and since the defender has an economic advantage, it’s almost always him. The only time nukes actually get used is when your opponent is too new, stupid or artificial to know to build anti-nukes. Top marks for matching reality, zero marks for fun.

The only good moments we’ve had with them have been when, in co-op, a stupid AI has built their only nuke defense on the fringe of their base. One player readies a nuke, the others send in a combined strike team to take out the defense silo, and the moment they’re successful, you launch. Awesome. But in normal play, a strike force capable of taking down a massively tough nuke defense silo in the middle of the enemy base is also a strike force capable of taking down the base itself. Here’s my proposal:

Nuke Defense

All factions should be able to build a basic Nuke Defense silo without having to research or unlock it. It has unlimited anti-nukes, but it can only fire one at a time, and they don’t neutralise the nuke: they detonate it. So to avoid just blowing yourself up in a slightly different way, you have to build it well outside your base, and defend it with stuff you can afford to lose or move. The silo itself is nuke-proof – it’s basically a bunker – so you don’t have to rebuild it each time.

The idea is to turn nuclear war into a fight, rather than who can be bothered to click more times. It’s easy to defend against nukes, but only if you can defend a forward position in regular combat. Accordingly, it’s harder to nuke someone if all you do is sit back and nuke, but it’s easier to take out nuke defense if you build a good strike force and use it well.

It also gets you thinking about which directions nukes can come from, and which directions you could launch yours from.

SupremeCommander2 2010-02-03 10-50-53-06

Experimental Nukes

Not strictly necessary, but it’d also be nice if each race had a unique second way of delivering a nuke. Each would bypass nuke defense, but be counterable by conventional units: again, more of a fight than a discrete “I clicked more times” system.

UEF build a Nuclear Bomber that must get close to its target intact to drop its payload. Anti-air can take it out quickly, and the nuke won’t detonate, so advance forces need to take out most AA defenses.

Cybran have a Walking Nuke experimental: a huge, tough block on legs with no weaponry, but which explodes with nuclear force on death. You’ll want to escort it in to give it enough protection to survive, then abandon it so your own units aren’t caught in the blast.

The Illuminate can unlock an upgrade for the Space Temple that lets them fire a nuke into it to hit the teleport destination. But the marker has to be in place for thirty seconds, and the enemy can destroy it in that time if they have the firepower. It’s a test of their base’s defenses, so if you strike while their army’s on their way to you, you’ve got a better chance of delivery.

SupremeCommander2 2010-02-02 13-53-04-07

Let Slip The Fogs Of War

This has always been a personal crusade of mine – I hate fog of war. It doesn’t meaningfully represent any real element of war, since regular line of sight would cover the whole battlefield on almost any map, and in any game set in modern times or later, dozens of other intel methods would give a clear picture of the scenario. But more importantly, it hurts the game in so many ways. Its crimes:

  • Making the whole game look dingy and claustrophobic
  • Wasting years of work on beautiful unit models by replacing them with grey squares
  • Mandating endless, arduous scouting with air units – all the less welcome in a game where Air is supposed to be one of many options rather than a mandatory tool
  • Robbing you of the satisfation of seeing artillery smash an enemy base. It doesn’t even compensate you with the luxury of an icon vanishing if you don’t have realtime radar coverage.

The argument in favour, as I understand it, is to let you surprise the enemy by building something he doesn’t know is coming. If that works, it reduces the game to scissor/paper/stone – complete luck. If you can see what’s being built, you have time to adapt your strategy to include a counter, and so does the enemy. To me, that’s where strategy gets interesting.

SupremeCommander2 2010-02-03 11-00-27-89

I think the tricky element can be achieved in a more explicit and localised way: each faction should have their own method of deception.

UEF can unlock a decoy engineer: everything he builds is a cheap fake that looks real to the enemy. It fits their defensive nature by making them look bigger than they are, and leads to feints like building masses of real point defense, then letting the enemy catch you building a fake one to tempt him into a doomed rush.

Cybrans have a very high-tier Land upgrade to turn the Adaptor mobile shield opaque to the enemy, so they can cluster these to conceal land units. Stealth is broken when it takes just a few hits, though, and doesn’t regenerate when the shield does.

Illuminate can Research an upgrade that makes all their experimentals appear to the enemy as regular units of a similar type, only revealing their true form and power when attacked. They already have a deceptive edge in that their Experimental factory is the same for all types of Experimental, so you can’t tell what they’re planning to build.

SupremeCommander2 2010-02-03 23-33-38-15

I also had some ideas for how a high-level campaign map could work for the single-player, and a redesign of the Illuminate to make them feel less toothless. But those are probably separate posts.

More ,

Jaz: Very interested in this, specifically. I'm always doing this sort of thing to games, but you're much more familiar with strategy than I am, so it's cool to see what really makes SupCom2 fun for you.

Nick: Here, here! The preview trailers were all about how upgrades would change the look of your troops, when the final thing came it was limited to a couple of troops in fairly generic ways. What about either/or upgrades? You can give your tanks an extra gun or an anti-air missile, the adaptors can have a stealth field or a direct fire weapon.

Haven't played online, but currently the nuke thing does sounds a bit rubbish. I really like the Cybran walking nuke thing, it's a real two-finger salute.

Mostly I've played the campaign mostly it's traditional boring tutorial stuff, but there're some nice ones in there. The stand-out for me is the second Cybran one, it's a really unique encounter.

Flowerpot Wang: Skirmishing with friends against AI seems to be the most fun I've had with this game so far (not even touched the campaign - the demo put me off), and your reasons make sense for why this would be a fun game to be doing this. (defending a base against Cheating AIs until you can build nukes, for instance, since the AI seem to be terrible at building anti-nukes). However, I can't help but feel that these tactics will not work against real human players, which makes me feel like I'm taking advantage of an AI flaw instead of being actually tactical. Not played any proper games against human opponents as of yet, but I can imagine the annoyances such as nukes/anti nukes and the fog of war really becoming an annoyance here.

Ludo: Fog of war is used well in hardcore sims like Combat Mission and Theatre of War where different units have different scouting abilities and casing the battlefield is a game in itself. In the context of games set in modern or future times it's clearly ridiculous and indeed irritating. I really like the proposed alternatives, in fact they remind me a lot of Ruse with decoy factories for the UEF and Cybran Adapters acting as camo nets.

I've found that the reduction in the battlefield size has had a significant impact on the level of strategy in the game. You lose some of the awesome sense of scale, but the maps are also too small to give you room outmaneuver your opponent. I find myself playing 2-4 player scraps on Seton's Clutch to get some breathing space.

Skusey: Nuclear war is a bit boring this time, I haven't found anybody to play against yet but from what I've played against the AI, I'd rather that nuclear missiles were so expensive and devastating that if anybody could actually afford them without being eradicated they'd be able to win easily by fighting with robots. I'd quite like them to be akin to the taunt kills in TF2, hard to do but delightfully embarrassing for the victim.

Ludo: Hi Skusey, me and Flowepot Wang and a few others are skirmishing pretty regularly. Here's my steam ID if you fancy joining us http://steamcommunit... ...d/caradrel

Jason L: I assume you've played Moonbase Commander, Tom, since about two-thirds of these mechanics are in it. (If you haven't, Tom or anyone, you really, all-caps REALLY should; these shoot-shield-walk mechanics are sufficient on their own to create a perfect game. Yes, I said it and I meant it.)

Convenient launcher and guide from main community guy. Not posting shady abandonware stuff on James by default, use your favourite venue.

Skusey: That's kind of you Ludo, I'm looking forward to it.

1stGear: RUSE has a decent solution for the fog of war issue. You can see the general type of all of your enemies' units and will learn the location of their bases at a pretty respectable distance. The game then genuinely becomes about outmanuvering your opponents, as well as subverting their intelligence.

That said, that's intentionally a significant part of RUSE, hence the name, and might not work as well in SupCom2

Mr Bubbles: I haven't played SupCom2 but maybe with the fog of war issue it could work like the omni (?) sensors and normal radar - your radar has a massive radar distance, but in a smaller, but still large, radius it can see all units in nice shiny detail.

Cpt.Average: Just a thought on Fog of War. Would it be an interesting idea to let players have 3-4 permanent vision spots, ala the american spy drones from C&C Generals? Ones you could tech up to reposition / attach to mobile forces / combine into a larger static area. With all players able to see outside their own base from the outset, rush tactics become less feasible but not impossible - and if anything it would allow greater interaction at the start of the game.
I'll admit this is a compromise, but it
a) is easily implemented
b) allows for a decent amount of deception & second-guessing
c) still rewards skilled players without hosing the casual crowd.

Good idea yes/no?

Jason L: Sounds good to me - allow scouting, but remove the UI load on buttons, tech trees and build queues. Could be very nice.

Anonymous: Just listened to PCGPC 50. Power generators are also explodey barrels in MBC, wink wink.

Tom Francis: It's probably something obvious but I'm drawing a blank - MBC?

Jason L: No, not really, sorry. Me, up-page. Moon'B'ase Commander.

Tom Francis: Aha. I did play it in the end, on my netbook on a plane journey. I didn't bring a guide with me, though, and had a hard time learning what all the weapons did.

Jason L: The last in this wave of logorrhea - while I'm talking about Podcast 50, I was a little surprised nobody brought up Brink as a potential highlight of 2011, and you in particular. I'm well aware that I'm biased - I'm simply buzzing with anticipation, more excited than I've been about a shooter since Half-Life 2 - but having read James 1.0, Brink is a small-teams objective deathmatcher emphasising strategic positioning and action-movie environmental mobility, in which there is a silent running perk whose icon is a pair of slippers; sound familiar?

Jason L: I have a comment on this post hung up in moderation, the largest component of that 'wave of logorrhea'. (Excessive links filter, I'm sure). I figured you were busy and would get around to it on a periodic spam sweep, but it's been over a week and I've tipped to thinking it would be less incourteous to let you know.

Tom Francis: Doh. Sooner the better with any missing comments - I've had 1,068 'spams' since then and the search function doesn't work. There's nothing pending moderation, I'm afraid, so Akismet has evidently condemned you as certain spam. Spam Karma was much better at this stuff back when it was still being maintained. Apart from anything, Akismet doesn't think it's a false positive if you tell it something in your spam folder isn't spam, so proudly boasts a 0% false positive track record. Yes, Akismet, discounting your fatal errors you are perfect.

Might be able to dig it out if you know the date and time? Was it the same as the 'last in this wave' comment?

Jason L: No problem just retyping it, thanks.

I'm sad to hear that Moonbase Commander didn't click for you, but thanks very much for taking the time to try it. I am ever mindful that in this dawning of the age of ETEWAF, recommending content is increasingly a form of assault; I did not push it on you lightly. Moonbase Commander is one of only two games ever to keep me up until dawn, and I think I'll remember particulars of one half-hour make-or-break knife-fight until the day I die.

For what it's worth, though I have fond memories of Challenge mode (really a tutorial campaign) and skirmish/coop, I was spurred to talk about MBC because the post was about wanting systems that would still be fun with an opposing human mind behind them. I was intending it as a candidate for adversarial lunchtimes. Like many others who flock to our new coop overlords, in adversarial games I quite often feel for one reason or another like I'm wasting my opponent's time; I have never felt that way in MBC.

While writing the first incarnation of this comment, I checked some fact that got cut and accidentally discovered that MBC is officially un-abandonwared! Infogrames/Atari is selling it digitally for USD10 (provided you remember to turn off their default 'download insurance' charge). In addition to my ! reaction, I stated my intent to buy it again on principle. Having done so and getting a second shot at this blather, I can report that it has the most hilariously protracted, makeshift installation process I've seen in years - nearly decades. Here's what happens when you buy Moonbase Commander from Atari:
1. You get a link from the payment receipt page.
2. Download and run the small Atari downloader application.
3. Downloader downloads the game data in a literal .rar file or two.
4. Extractor dialog asks you where to extract temporary installation files from the .rars. Why?
5. Because they literally just packed up all the files from the original CD, including autorun.exe from which you could call the installer or play the game in situ without installing if you wished.
6. I think the extractor does automatically launch setup.exe, which asks you for a location to actually install and proceeds as standard for an installer wizard.

In closing, if any future reader is actually convinced to try this based on my ranting, one tip in addition to Zauron's guide and utilities is important. Tucked away in the README ('Back in my day...') is the way - the only way - to change between windowed and fullscreen modes: Shift-F5. I mean, obviously, but still. Figured I should tack that on.

Jason L: OK, retyped it and it got obliterated again with only one link. Shoot! It should be within a minute previous to this.

Tom Francis: Cheers - despammed. It had indeed gone straight in the trash. It's either the proper HTML link (pasting URLs works), or the word selling in proximity to it. Either way Akismet is dumb, it knows it's from the same IP as a bunch of approved comments.

Jason L: It's frankly a bit of a stretch, lacking some portion of a dimension and virtually all conventional warfare, but not many games explore this type of RTS ecology. Because it does, I'm quite excited about Cannon Brawl, which crosses a SC*-style resource extraction model with a...SC* style resource distribution model, then pins them into an avatar action shield/artillery RTS.

Gunpoint problem?

Don't post them here, I'm a useless idiot! E-mail tech support with as much detail about your system and the problem as possible, and they can actually do something.

Question?

There's a page about the games I've worked on, what I use to make them, and what platforms they're coming to.

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URLs get turned into links automatically. You can use <i>HTML</i> but not [b]forum[/b] code.

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