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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In the trailer I put up last night I said I’m open to suggestions for music for Gunpoint, then claimed there’d be a version of that trailer without my voice here on the site. There wasn’t! There is now!
So if you’re interested in doing music for it, I’d love it if you could add what you think is appropriate to this version of the trailer.
I’m mostly open-minded about what the music should be like, but here are a few thoughts I have on it:
Mission: leaping around a building, looking for a way in, avoiding detection.
Mission: Pouncing on a guard or two – sudden bursts of violence that’ll usually be contained and go back to quiet sneaking.
Mission: reaching your objective, getting what you want.
Mission: escaping – not usually to a time limit, but there’s generally a quick way out.
Dialogue: debrief with a client, they react to your missions, you choose dialogue options.
Menus: buying new gadgets, upgrading gadgets, reading briefings and choosing your next mission.
Dialogue: briefing with a client, you choose dialogue options, ask questions.
Then back to a mission.
If Gunpoint ends up being free, I can’t pay you anything. Sweet deal, I know! If we do end up charging for it, and you end up doing the music, you will get a share of it. I should warn, though, that it’ll be a very small share – I have to prioritise the stuff the game wouldn’t work without. Basically, for God’s sake don’t do this for the money.
Regular commenter lack_26 “got a bit bored and ended up making the UCD-Pepper-spray Cop, so of course I eventually ended up putting it into a gunpoint screenshot”. It is amazing!
Luckily, Conway’s Teflon Hyperface renders him immune to lachrymatory agents.
With a comical inevitability, I have to admit I can’t see Gunpoint being ready for Christmas. Lots of elements I think of as ‘done’ aren’t really ready, and finishing each of those seems to take about as long as coding them in the first place. Then there’s level design.
I’ve been mentally filing levels under ‘content’, stuff I already know how to produce and which just needs a little grunt work to churn it out. I’m now discovering that it’s really more like the game systems: something that shapes the experience so fundamentally that you need to get it in early and keep tweaking and revising it as you go along.
I’ve also learnt a lot about the difference between a puzzle game and something more open ended like Deus Ex, and some of it really surprised me.
In the first prototype that included the Crosslink device, you could literally link any device to any other. It was fun to mess around with, but there was no game there really – as I think all testers noticed, you could stand by one light switch and just wire it to everything else you wanted to change.
It was never going to stay that way, I knew how to shape it: I put some devices on different coloured circuits, ones you can’t rewire until you reach the right circuit box and tap into it. That let me design puzzles: proper obstacles to your progress that you have to think your way around, tapping into the right circuit and finding ways to get to the next one.
I guess I just assumed that was level design, because when I sent out the last build I realised I’d pretty much ended up with a straight puzzle game. Sometimes it works, other times it feels like it’s just keeping you busy: you have to get to this circuit box to progress, and there’s really only one way to do it. If figuring out that method isn’t interesting, the only fun is in the basic interactions: pouncing, punching, executing chain reactions, knocking people off rooftops and through windows.
I should probably be happy with that. I asked testers what they’d give the game if they were reviewing it, and the overwhelming majority said 8/10. Even accounting for a large positive bias in the selection process, that’s way better than I was hoping for.
But I still want it to be more than a puzzle game with punching. The point of the Crosslink mechanic is to let the player be creative, and I feel like I must be able to do a better job of that.
So I tried designing a new level with a completely different philosophy: make a building, not a level. Just make sure there are at least two routes to every objective and sub-objective.
It was terrible. It might be the worst level I’ve ever made. It felt like the game was just broken – you keep asking yourself “What’s this room for? Why would I want to go there? Wait, I’ve completed it? Did I cheat?” It wasn’t easier than the other levels, it just felt like most of it was misleading or irrelevant.
I tried it a few other ways and kept running into the same problem:
So, you just do that one. Even if you notice the others, they add nothing: it feels pointless to take a longer or harder route, even if it involves some interesting tricks.
This really surprised me. I’ve always thought the opposite: that alternate routes are always valuable, even if you don’t take them, because you appreciate having options. Nope! Sometimes alternate routes are just noise. Sometimes having a lot of options just makes it feel like there isn’t really an obstacle at all, so getting past it feels more like a commute than a challenge.
So why do I enjoy taking alternate routes in Deus Ex? Why don’t I always go for the first or easiest one?
Honestly: because it sucks. In Deus Ex the shooting is intentionally bad, and even in Human Revolution, the cover shooting is nothing like as cool as the stealth. Deus Ex doesn’t offer you choice by presenting you with door A and door B. It presents you with a really difficult and awkward door A, then says “Oh no! I can’t believe you found a vent!”
Choice, I think, needs to be a fuck-you from the player to the designer.
You have to see and understand what you’re expected to do, and make a personal decision to reject it. Either because you just don’t like it, or because it doesn’t fit with the play style you’ve chosen.
In Gunpoint, that means I actually do want one clear solution to each puzzle. I just need to give you the power to override it and do things your own way if you want to.
I haven’t finished figuring out my full solution to that yet, but here’s what’s working well so far:
All my favourites are old ones that I’ve changed bit by bit, adding sneakier possibilities as they occur to me, and encouraging fun situations I found myself in when testing. Pretty much by accident, these have one clear solution and a bunch of ways to bypass it.
I’d already planned for clients to have optional requests – “There’s an extra $200 in it for you if you don’t hurt anyone.” Now that I’ve put these in, they add complex, tricky and ever-changing routes through the levels that I don’t even have to design. Avoiding guards is almost always possible just because you’re so mobile, but it’s much harder than taking them out. It’s not a fuck-you to the client, but it’s a fuck-you to the conventional design of the level.
I’ve added some tools you can buy which can let you shortcut certain types of puzzles, and set up more elaborate chain reactions and traps. The Transfuser, for example, lets you connect two things that are on different circuits, with a pretty blended wire that shades between their different colours.
These gadgets have charges, and your total carries over to future missions. So sometimes the shorter route has a cost associated with it, and it’s up to you when you think it’s worth it.
You can upgrade lots of different aspects of your kit to suit different playstyles. If you go for one heavily, you can sometimes get past obstacles with the method they’re designed to stop. The Deathfluke, for example, repels a percentage of the least accurate shots fired at you. Upgrade that and your jumping speed enough and enemies have a hard time hitting you, letting you get past them in some situations you’re not meant to.
So that’s partly why it’s taking longer. I’ve got five or six levels that need designing from the ground up, and six or seven more that need a few more iterations to make them more flexible and fun. Then there’s the little stuff, like creating a scripting engine for story events and writing the entire game.
Truthfully, I have no idea how long that stuff will take me. Lyingly, let’s say March and I’ll let you know when that seems impossible too. If you’ve mailed me about testing, I should have a version for you in December.
I asked if people wanted to make the sound effect for when you switch into Crosslink mode in Gunpoint, the view from which you can rewire how everything works. People did! Thanks, those people! I’ve made a video of me listening to some of your sounds, and reacting with a mixture of delight, horror and confusion. Continued
Competition / unpaid labour time! In Gunpoint, you break into buildings by rewiring things to each other. You switch to Crosslink mode, the blue outline view below, and drag connections from one device to another to link them.
I want a really satisfying, fun, excitingly electronic noise for when you switch into this mode. There’s a great web app called BFXR by Dr Petter and the incomparable increpare, for doing stuff like that. You just hit the randomise button a lot, drag some sliders around, and you can ‘Copy link’ to send it to someone as a URL. Here’s a weird one I just made.
Since that’s how I was gonna make the Crosslink noise anyway, and it’s easy to do, I thought it might be fun to see if you wanna come up with something yourself. Have a play around with BFXR, then when you’re happy with it, click Copy Link and send the URL to me – either via e-mail, or as an @GunpointGame reply on Twitter.
The only prize is making Gunpoint slightly better, getting your name in the credits, and sorta feeling like you did something today, if you don’t already. To be totally clear: don’t send me a link to your sound unless you’re happy for me to use it. That would be weird.
Programming is not what I’m naturally best at, and while it’s generally been easier than expected on Gunpoint, there is some friction. Some things are hard, and if you hit a hard thing after successfully coding lots of easy things, it seems maddeningly unfair.
You slip into a mindset where you expect things to work, which makes you angry rather than confused when they don’t. I’ve had to start spotting this mindset when it crops up, and taking a long, relaxing break before I go any further.
When I come back, I have to change gear. And the most useful way I’ve found to think of it is this:
It is a mental patient. It has completely lost its mind, and to make it behave in any kind of reasonable way, you have to be expecting every sensible instruction to be met with screaming, preposterous bullshit.
Programmer: Hello Game, how are you feeling? I’d like to make this object stop when it hits a wall, if that’s OK with you.
Game: GRAVITY NO LONGER EXISTS!
Game: Every lightswitch in the world will fire a single red laser at one man’s head, and that man is… HIM!
Progammer: OK – I’m not sure how that’s related, but I’ll look into-
Game: I DON’T KNOW WHAT SPACE IS!
Programmer: The key, or…
Game: SPACE! SPACE! HORIZONTAL CO-ORDINATES! I have over five thousand references to ‘x’ and I’ve NEVER HEARD OF X.
Programmer: That’s… that’s how far right things are, Game. It’s the first thing we learned.
Game: NO! It’s a room! A room with a box, and a photocopier, and a lighting error, off the corner of Baker and 45th.
Game: X IS A ROOM!
Programmer: Ohh, I actually did change the name of an old test level to that for a moment, I guess that’s what’s getting you confused – I’ll fix it.
Game: PRANKSPASM IS UNDEFINED!
Programmer: That one I’ll give you.
Gunpoint got lots of wonderful write-ups when I put up the first batch of shots two weeks back. In fact, the reaction took me by surprise a bit, and I’ve been struggling to keep up with all the interesting e-mails that have come in since.
I wasn’t expecting anyone to cover this, so I didn’t really talk to anyone beforehand. If you work for a site or mag and are interested in covering Gunpoint, just drop me a mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m always happy to sort you out with a recent build so you can have a play, and answer any questions. I managed to do this with Ars Technica, so their piece is a preview. Here are some quotes from that, and some of the other lovely words people wrote about Gunpoint.
“Guns actually introduce tension into the game, which is a rare thing in modern action titles… In minutes I felt like a capable killer, and began skulking around each level like a pro. The full release can’t come soon enough.”
“In between murdering trees and optimising for search engines, Tom’s drafted in some artists to dramatically overhaul the game’s look, which results in the rather eye-catching, Flashback-y aesthetic…”
“From plumbers and farmers to … Noids, video games have a long tradition of elevating blue collar jobs to rockstar status. Now, after eying these new Gunpoint screens, it looks like we’ll be adding “electrician” to that list when Tom Francis’ secret agent game arrives this Christmas.”
“It looks wonderful, in a “Deus Ex meets Canabalt” kind of way. It also helps the game has photocopiers. I love games with photocopiers.”
“Gunpoint looks absolutely glorious.”
Got three levels done and the bare bones of the environment art for this setting in. It’s pretty far off the lovely mock-up right now, but already it feels awesome to be working with stuff that looks good. I’ve never built anything that didn’t look like a programmer’s prototype before.
Edit: This isn’t new, just separating it out from this so it can live on the new Gunpoint site.
Gunpoint’s at a really exciting stage now – character animation for the player and the basic guard type is done, so the game has a lot of its final ‘feel’. And John’s just passed over the first set of environment art, along with a mockup showing all of it crammed into one showcase level – a real one would be less busy. And check it the hell out (click):
It looks way too good. Now I feel like I’ve got to make a proper game or something. The background is obviously just a stretched version of Fabian’s original at the moment, but the rest just looks done. Which means I’m way behind on the coding side of things.
So by the end of this weekend, I want to have all of Gunpoint’s Act One working: that’s the first for or five levels, which mostly use this tile set. It’s sort of about escape anyway, come to think of it. By the end of them, the player should understand all the basic mechanics and have played around with crosslinking a bit – enough to see the point of it.
It’ll also kick off the plot, and resolve the most immediate part of it, but how much of that will work at this stage I don’t know. I’ll certainly get the actual dialogue in there – so far, writing has been the easy bit.
If you jump at them hard enough. I forgot the guards would need a falling animation for this, so it wasn’t on John’s list. It’s cool though, I’ve got it covered.
Update: John’s proposal to fix this:
Update: What we actually ended up with.
Game release dates should probably be phrased as “I don’t yet know why the game won’t be ready in July.” I’m changing this for Gunpoint to “I don’t yet know why the game won’t be ready by Christmas.”
It’s going well now, actually. But here are the two things I didn’t know when I predicted July:
2 means I can’t make much progress on the game’s levels while John is still working on the character art, because you can’t make what you can’t play. He’s burning through it super fast, though, and it’s starting to look awesome in-game. The player character, Conway, has just the right mix of super-spy suave and silliness. Here’s one of my favourite animations for him so far:
All the basic movements are already done for the player character, so all I really need is for one guard type to be jumpable-on and punchable-in-the-face. That’ll be enough to make actual levels that work, even if a lot of the poses and sprites are placeholder. As before, I really have no clue how long that part will take.
Meanwhile Fabian has been creating a gorgeous logo concept – one that combines an elegantly simple icon I can’t believe I didn’t think of, but in the context of a sumptuous image that gets across the rainy city atmosphere. I’m not quite ready to show that yet.
80% of development takes 10% of the time you think it will, and 20% takes 800%. It’s much easier and nicer working without fixed deadlines, so I’m not worried about how long it takes. There’s no feature-creep: my idea of what the finished game will be has been fixed for a long time now, and we’re getting significantly closer to it all the time.
So let’s say Christmas, and I’ll tell you why it isn’t Christmas this Christmas. Sorry it’s been a while, by the way – follow @GunpointGame on Twitter for more regular updates and face-palming.
Sounds like I’m going to preach at you, but actually I want your opinion: which games have good stories, and why do they work?
I’m asking because I’m in the early stages of writing stuff for Gunpoint, but I’m also interested in general. I’m incredibly impatient with stories that don’t engage me right away: Dragon Age 2 is dead to me, just because it introduced too many people I didn’t care about and didn’t make them do anything interesting in the first hour or so. The other eighty hours of the game might as well not exist.
Mass Effect, on the other hand, is my gold standard: I saw Saren’s betrayal in the first mission (even though my character didn’t), and it was genuinely maddening that he got away with it.
The rest of the game isn’t even that well written – I didn’t really understand why I needed the Thorian or Benezia or Liara or the vision or what the Conduit was until I read the wiki afterwards, but it didn’t matter because the Saren thread hooked me so early.
What’s yours? I’m interested in games that hooked you quickly, immediately made you want to know what happens next, and why you think they worked. I’m also interested in characters you immediately liked, hated or just cared about on any level.
Most games can do that if you’re willing to read or listen to 3,000 words of dialogue, so really I’m interested in the ones that didn’t take ten hours of investment to make you give a shit. CoughJadeEmpire.
If the answer’s Portal 2, by the way, it would be nice if you could avoid spoilers. Cheers!
A million things to say about Gunpoint, but most importantly: please welcome John Roberts aboard as the game’s main artist, and Fabian van Dommelen (Beldak in the comments here) as captain backgrounds and probably additional environment art.
This means the people in Gunpoint are going to look a bit like this:
We’re going to have a chat about it, try some things out, and tweak all this until it fits together nicely, looks clear and readable, and makes you really want to play it. At that point I’ll try to pull it all together into a first proper screenshot so you guys can see what the game’s going to look like.
I’m not kicking into proper “Woo, look at my game!” mode yet, but I have set up a Twitter account: @GunpointGame, to talk about the development, make programming jokes, link other indie dudes I think are cool, and ask you guys for opinions on how some things should work. I’ll also be putting out future calls for testers on there – not sure when the next prototype will be yet.
As you’ll see from the first tweet there, I’ve now got every feature I want in Gunpoint working. This is the fundamental stuff, like:
It doesn’t mean I have the pause menu done or anything looking good, but the full skeleton of the game is there now. The plan for those elements has stayed steady for a long time, but it feels a lot more concrete now I know they all work.
Once we know what we’re doing for the art, my next job is making all the levels. Which means knowing what the missions are about, which means knowing the objectives, which means knowing the clients, which means knowing the key players and their conflicts and characters, which means basically coming up with the story. I’ll put up another post about that probably tomorrow, because I’d like your advice on how to make it not suck.
As mentioned there, Gunpoint now has a proper URL if you want to link it anywhere: gunpointgame.com. It currently just shows you all the posts here tagged with Gunpoint, but I’ll eventually make it a bespoke site. Incidentally, if anyone knows how to make only posts in the Gunpoint category appear at http://www.pentadact.com/gunpoint with WordPress, I’m having a hard time figuring it out.