Conducted By Adam Ames
Tom Francis, PC gaming journalist turned PC game developer, spoke to TPG about his first title, Gunpoint. Tom give this thoughts on where Gunpoint came from, the success and failures of development, DRM, piracy and more. Here is a clip:
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Sometimes I slump so low in my chair that I can’t reach my coffee any more, and those times, I am sad.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Gunpoint.
I’m Tom Francis, I write about games for a living, and in my spare time I’m the designer, writer and programmer of Gunpoint. John Roberts and Fabian van Dommelen are doing the art, while Ryan Ike, John Robert Matz and Francisco Cerda are doing the music.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I always wanted to try it, because I thought a lot of the things I enjoyed in games aren’t the things that take 5 years and 400 people to do. They’re interesting systems, basically, and those aren’t that hard to come up with. So I downloaded Game Maker, did a few basic tutorials and have muddled my way from there.
Where did the idea for Gunpoint come from?
It changed quite alot early on: at first you were a robot in space, then a robot pretending to be a private eye on Earth, and then you actually were a private eye on Earth, and then I changed that to ‘freelance spy’, and tried to come up with a hacking system that would feel espionagey and give the player a lot of freedom. That led to the Crosslink: the ability to connect any two electrical things in a level to make one trigger the other.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Gunpoint?
One of the most surprising successes has been the publicity I’ve got from long, badly made videos with me awkwardly talking over them. I thought that was the only way to properly explain the game, but I figured it would come at the cost of those videos ever being popular. Instead they got loads of attention, so I’ve learned that some people aren’t as superficial or impatient as conventional wisdom takes them to be.
As for failures, I think I’ve learned never to get too specific about story early on. I kept writing scripts and planning out scenes, and every line was restricting what I could do with the levels. So I scrapped it all and just made the game work first, then planned out a new plot and thought very hard about whether and where things need to happen during the action itself. Things do, a few times, but the story doesn’t restrict the game anymore.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Gunpoint and if you faced a similar challenge.
Since the moment I got basic movement working, I’ve been sending regular builds of Gunpoint out to groups of between 20 and 500 testers to make sure I spot any problems like that. Right now quite a few of them are specifically commenting that the difficulty progression is just right, but others are finding it too easy.
But I think the notion of getting the level of difficulty ‘right’ is just outdated – there is no particular level at which everyone will find a game fun. Easy and Hard modes don’t cut it – you never really know what those mean in a particular game, and people often refuse to change down out of pride.
My feeling is that anyone who wants to should be able to complete Gunpoint. There’s no reason the resolution of the story or the best bits of content should be reserved for the players with the most skill or free time. So the question I’ve been working on is not “How do I make Gunpoint harder?” but “What can I give the most skilled and inventive players to sink their teeth into?”
I have some ideas for that, mostly revolving around optional objectives and giving players ways to excel at what they particularly like doing.
Will Gunpoint be available on Mac or Linux upon release?
Just Windows at first, but I hope to port to both those platforms eventually. A Linux version of Game Maker has been teased but has no release date yet, so I’m stuck until that comes out. A Mac one is already out, but it’ll take some converting. If Game Maker Studio is out by the time I finish the game, I’ll likely use that for the Mac version.
How did you go about funding Gunpoint and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
So far, Gunpoint has cost me $25 for a copy of Game Maker, $5 for a domain registration, and $100 to enter the IGF. I’m still doing my day job, so it hasn’t been too hard to swallow those costs.
At some point, I’m not sure when, it got really easy to make a 2D game on PC. That’s been important for me, because I’m doing this for fun. The response has been great, but I’m still not banking on it making a significant amount of money.
You also don’t really need an investor for this kind of game, and that’s important for me too. I want to try everything my own way, so that I at least learn something if it fails. If someone else has a say in what you do with your game, and it doesn’t go well, all you really learn is “Well, I shouldn’t have done it the way I already thought it shouldn’t be done.”
My mum and dad are both very much in favour of it – they particularly like the part where I haven’t left my job or spent anything. My dad enjoyed my blog post on what programming feels like since he does some software development too. My mum thinks the game would sell better with a cat in it. I don’t disagree, but I haven’t scheduled for a cat.
Being a PC gaming journalist yourself, has the development of Gunpoint changed the way you view professional reviewers?
Anyone who covers Gunpoint is instantly my best friend. No-one’s reviewed it yet, since it’s not finished, but reading previews is really fun. The vast majority of feedback I read is from testers, who I’ve specifically asked to tell me what’s wrong with the game. It’s easy – and healthy, I think – to get wrapped up in that criticism, let it put you in your place, and keep working hard to fix every bad experience you have the time and skills to fix.
A games journalist, on the other hand, is trying to give their readers an honest appraisal of the game’s quality, so their articles are sometimes the first thing I’ve read in ages that isn’t intentionally focusing on flaws. By comparison, they all seem enormously generous and flattering, and I’m delighted.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Big companies move slowly, particularly public ones who keep having to point to the past to justify their strategy. To anyone who’s been paying attention, it’s been obvious for a long time that the customer isn’t just king anymore – he’s God. He can do whatever the hell he likes. No-one has the technology to stop him from taking whatever he wants.
Developers that are quick to adapt have focused on making the player want to support them, rather than pissing him off with increasingly intrusive attempts to restrict his access. Slower companies are still trying to get back to a time when people were forced to pay for software, and however safe that might seem, plans that involve angering a God usually aren’t sustainable.
With SOPA and PIPA in the news, how do you feel about individuals posting gameplay videos of Gunpoint outside of official sources?
Right now the only people who have the game are testers, and I’ve asked them not to post footage from it simply because the art is not there for most of the levels yet. I don’t want people to see my ugly placeholder stuff and think that my artists, John and Fabian, are doing a lousy job.
But it’s just a request. Some people have already ignored it, and even if the law empowered me to, I wouldn’t destroy YouTube in a tantrum over it. Apart from being crazy, dangerous and stupid, it’s just sort of childish.
Gaming broadcasters, on YouTube and everywhere else, are exemplars of the best of games culture: passionate, funny people exploring new worlds just for the pleasure of bringing everyone else along for the ride. Plenty of them have mailed me to express an interest in featuring Gunpoint, and I’m now actively working on developing a separate build for them, one that looks good enough to do John and Fabian’s work justice. -End
We would like to thank Tom for his amusing and informative answers. We wish all the best in the continuing development of Gunpoint. You can read more about Gunpoint on the official site.
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