When games journalists outline the problems with a game, they're often met with a familiar retort, "Why don't you make one then, if you're so clever?” And of course, most of us aren't. But for Tom Francis, a former staff writer at PC Gamer for nine years, that's become a foolproof method of development.
"I think my process is to play a game, articulate what I wish was different, and make a game that does it that way,” he says. For Tactical Breach Wizards, the starting point was one of Francis' favourites: XCOM 2. "I love it, and I've played it for hundreds of hours, and yet I could talk forever about what's wrong with it... big, serious problems.”
Francis vented his frustrations in a design document. XCOM 2 battles could be much clearer, he argued, if they took place in simple, flat combat spaces. That way you could eliminate line of sight issues, and prevent extra groups of enemies showing up arbitrarily. What's more, by stripping out the metagame, you could prevent the unfairness of campaigns doomed by early mistakes, and counter any remaining problems with a free rewind button.
By the end, he had the makings of something new. But you can't release a game called Problems I Had With XCOM 2, and so Francis needed a theme. Then he remembered a ridiculous conversation the PC Gamer team once had about Call of Duty except with wizards: kevlar robes, silenced wands and self-serious military lingo. With the approval of former colleagues who, it has to be said, mostly didn't remember making the joke in the first place, Francis moved ahead with his vision for a SWAT team made up of spell-casting wizards.
Francis has always liked his magic the way he likes his tactics: consistent and rules-driven, "I love Magicka. It treats magic like a volatile, complicated science, where the most powerful effects are found by combining elements, but you're just as likely to electrocute yourself by forgetting your robe is wet when you try to mix lightning with steam.”
For Tactical Breach Wizards, though, a shared magical ruleset risked making abilities too samey. "Each character has their own brand of magic that works differently, so any universal logic that united them would probably just make them less distinct,” Francis says.
For the SWAT side, Francis drew on Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, a series highlight, as well as the bombast and jingoism of Call of Duty campaigns. "All of their seriousness becomes funny in our wizardy context, I think,” he says. Yet Tactical Breach Wizards is also anti-COD, wary of glamourising intervention as simple problem-solving. Its story concerns operatives who've become disillusioned with their masters, and are looking for clear actions to take in a messy world.
Like Gunpoint before it, the game is glued together by Francis' dialogue, which is daft, quick and true to its characters. It's a reflection of his principal writerly inspiration, Douglas Adams.
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy could go absolutely anywhere, because he was making it up based largely on whatever seemed funny,” Francis says. "That's definitely what I aspire to now: make the player laugh enough, early enough, that they start to trust that whatever comes next, they're in for a treat.”
Two years after Francis and his team started work on Tactical Breach Wizards, it suddenly became apparent they weren't the only ones determined to fix some of XCOM 2's problems. Firaxis announced Chimera Squad, a standalone XCOM game which ditched the global view in favour of simple levels and breach and clear tactics.
The similarities to Tactical Breach Wizards came as a shock. But, since Chimera Squad surprise launched just weeks after its announcement, it's served as even further inspiration for Francis. "It's so much in our wheelhouse that naturally we're looking at what worked and didn't in their approach, and where we might want to go bigger on some of the things that differentiate us,” Francis says.
After all: Chimera Squad certainly doesn't have free rewinds or a character-driven story. It certainly doesn't have riot-gear Gandalf. Put that in your pipe and blow a smoke-ship with it.