Next in our series of chats with this year's impressive roster of Independent Games Festival finalists is Tom Francis, lead brain behind future-noir stealth game Gunpoint, which is up for the Excellence In Design gong. Here, he's quizzed about what, why, when, who and the most important question of all.
Important conflict of interest disclosure: I used to play badminton with Tom.
RPS: Firstly, a brief introduction for those who may not know you. Who are you? What’s your background? Why get into games? Why get into indie games?
Tom: I'm Tom Francis, I'm doing all the nerdiest bits of Gunpoint like coding and design. I've also roped in John Roberts and Fabian van Dommelen to handle the game's art, and Ryan Ike, Francisco Cerda and John Robert Matz to give it music.
I'm a games writer by day, working full time for PC Gamer [a UK magazine staffed by people who eat live babies - Rival Publications Information Ed], and I'm making Gunpoint in my spare time. I decided to make a game when I discovered that Spelunky, the best platformer I've ever played, was made with the beginner-friendly tool Game Maker. So I started using it too, around April 2010.
RPS: Tell us about your game. What were its origins? What are you trying to do with it? What are you most pleased about it? What would you change if you could?
Tom: Gunpoint is a sort of near-future-noir stealth game about rewiring security systems to trick people. You're a little spy with a bunch of upgradable gadgets and a cool hat.
Most of my favourite games let you hack things like turrets to turn them to your side. So I tried to come up with the most universal version of that I could: I let you rewire anything electronic to anything else. So you can wire an alarm panel to a trapdoor, and a guard will fall to his death when he tries to activate it.
The rewiring has been the thing that's worked out best, so I've made it the core of the game.
The thing I'd change, and probably will, is that it currently has no level editor. I don't want to delay the game itself for that, but I'll see if I can put one together after release, because I'm pretty sure players are going to be better than me at doing cool things with all these systems.
The game will be done this year, but probably later than May.
RPS: What are your feelings on the IGF this year? Pleased to be nominated? Impressed by the other finalists? Anything you worry has been overlooked?
Tom: I was genuinely stunned and absolutely thrilled to see my game on that list when it came out. I keep having to check.
Gunpoint started as a quick first try at game making that I was going to knock out in six months, and I frequently feel dumb for taking nearly two years on it. If you told me then that the thing I was making in my spare time would eventually be up against the game that got me into development, I'd have told you to fuck off. It's ridiculous.
Lots of great stuff isn't among the finalists, but if I could grab one game by the GUI and shove it in there, it would definitely be FTL. I would have voted for that over my own game.
You manage a spaceship and her crew through a randomised galaxy, doing all the geekiest stuff you've dreamed of: opening airlocks to suffocate enemy boarding parties, beaming aboard enemy ships to sabotage their drone control bay. Completely different every time you play, and designed with a beautiful efficiency and intelligence.
That's due out in the middle of this year too.
RPS: Which game (other than your own) would you like to see take the Grand Prize this year?
Tom: I hope Spelunky or Frozen Synapse will win both my category and the grand prize.
If I had to vote, I'd probably have to go for Spelunky. The original is one of my favourite games of all time, and this is a new version with multiplayer. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard or screamed so girlishly than when playing that in co-op with Graham [Smith, also of PC Gamer - Rival Publications Information Ed]. If this one doesn't come to PC, I will steal all the Xboxen in the world until it does. It probably won't be necessary, but I'm ready.
RPS: How do you feel about the indie scene of late? What would you like to see from it in the near-future?
Tom: The bigger and better and more diverse it gets, the more I learn about what I really admire and enjoy in game design. All three games I've mentioned, and Minecraft, are strongly defined by randomised and procedurally generated elements.
That's what I want to see more of, and it's also what I want to try next: games that use complex algorithms and smart design to generate interestingly new experiences every time you play.
RPS: And how does the future look for you, both in terms of this game and other projects?
Tom: I'm really looking forward to taking a massive punch in the face when I release Gunpoint and find out the million things wrong with it I didn't catch in testing. That's going to be a huge learning experience, and I hope I can roll with it and keep reacting to that feedback in a way that people like. After that, I want to add to it with things like the level editor I mentioned. I'm also really interested in bringing it to Mac, which I can do myself, and iPad, which I can't.
Once I can safely step back from it without it falling over, I'll move onto the next thing - I have an idea for a strategy game.
RPS: If you could talk to the monsters in Doom, what would you ask them?
Tom: Yes, shotgun zombie, you were hit by a fireball. But have you thought about WHY you were hit by a fireball? Was your imp friend really trying to hurt you? Or was he aiming for me, the player, in a well-meaning but inaccurate attempt to help you? He should have been more careful, of course, but do you have to kill him on the spot? What if you could talk to the imp?
RPS: Thanks for your time.