Tom Francis is the creator of a beautiful stealth puzzle game called Gunpoint. But there’s more. He writes compelling short stories. He is on an amazing weekly gaming podcast. And he continues making games, that’s a given. Now he answers our questions!
1. How long have you been making games?
Gunpoint is my first, and I started it around April 2010, just as a hobby project. I’d dabbled with level design and some very basic mod-making before that, but Gunpoint was the first time I really set out to make a game of my own.
2. Where do you find ideas for your games? Tell us something about your creative process.
The kind of game ideas that excite me usually start with something that already exists: maybe one aspect of a game that’s already out there, one moment in a film that I’d like to experience for myself, or part of a story that I think could be turned into systems. And they only excite me as a game idea if I can see, in my mind, how all the systems would work to simulate this amazing ability, or interesting situation, or creative playground.
So the core idea is usually something quite simple, that could be applied in lots of different situations, and would produce interestingly different results depending on how you played with it. The Crosslink is a simple idea – link anything to anything; which applies in lots of situations – any building with electronic security; and has different results depending on how you play – trapping guards, tricking them, knocking them out, setting up elaborate self-perpetuating machines, etc.
3. Gunpoint is a “2D stealth game about rewiring things and punching people”. Where does this rewiring idea come from?
I already knew I wanted to make a game about infiltrating offices, so I was trying to think of a hacking system. I wanted something that would let you make bits of the environment work for you, so I just tried to think of the simplest, most universal way I could do that. I thought back to how I wired up buttons to doors when designing levels for other games, and thought it might be fun to give the player the ability to mess with that themselves.
4. As a player, there is a lot of creative freedom in Gunpoint (mostly because of its rewiring mechanics). Do you remember any crazy stuff someone has pulled off to solve a puzzle?
I watched one player die again and again, because they were luring a guard over to open a door and getting shot by him as soon as he did. They kept trying to pounce on the guard the moment the door opened, but couldn’t get the timing right. There were dozens of simpler ways to do it – not least just hiding until he turns around – but they clearly had this idea in their head and were determined to pull it off. Finally they got it just right – the second the guard opened the door to investigate a noise, the player came flying through it fists first and pinned him to the ground before he could react. It was kind of brilliant once they managed it. They punched him a *lot* of times.
Tough question! I’m very excited about both, but in different ways. I think if I make them both perfectly, the grappling hook game will probably be more immediately fun to play, more satisfying in a tactile way. And if I made it perfectly, it would also be multiplayer, which adds a different kind of fun.
But Heat Signature is richer in terms of systems and big ideas. And the biggest difference between them is that the grappling hook game is in Unity, which is new to me, so progress has been much slower. Game Maker is already an easier tool to work with, and I have three years of experience with it, so the rate at which I can add stuff to Heat Signature is just exhilarating. Right this moment, for that reason, Heat Signature’s probably more exciting.
Good to hear! I’m always interested in writing more short stories and short scripts, but I tend to do it when an opportunity comes along – something that justifies taking a little the time away from game development. I wrote a very short script for a heist movie when I came across some concept art for one that hadn’t been used.
My all-time favourite is probably Douglas Adams – Hitch Hiker’s and Dirk Gently are what got me interested in writing in the first place. Wry, absurdist humour running through everything really works for me.
7. You are on a weekly gaming podcast called The Crate & Crowbar (we’ve just subscribed!) Any favourite episode of the show you remember? And what about the weirdest?
8. If you have to choose three and only three game developers to follow their work closely, which ones would you choose and why?
Tricky, because there are so many amazing developers but so few with a really long track record of consistently awesome stuff. Introversion spring to mind right away. Valve, naturally. And then… I’d love to pick another indie, but the truth is, if Bethesda make a new Elder Scrolls game and I can’t have it, my life is over. So Bethesda.
9. Are you a heavy gamer? What games are you playing now?
I am, although the way I play has changed since I started making games. Now that I know how much I can achieve in my free time, I have a very low tolerance for games that waste my time, or require hours of investment before they get good.
Relevantly, the game I’m playing most at the moment is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Most AC games have so much scripted bullshit at the start that I can just never get through it to the open-world stuff. Black Flag still has more than I’d like, but it’s less than the previous games, and the open world itself is twice as exciting. I love sneaking around plantations without setting off alarms – it’s almost as good as the outposts in Far Cry 3.
10. One last random question (ok, not that random this time!). If you could turn any human activity into a stealth game, which one would it be and why?
I think turning human activities into stealth games is my profession now, but if I have to pick something more everyday than heists and spaceships… avoiding someone you vaguely know but don’t really want to say hi to. That’s the one time I’d really like to have a visibility meter, and some AI barks to let me know if I’ve been spotted yet.