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Game development








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.


By me. Uses Adaptive Images by Matt Wilcox.

Heat Signature’s Launch, And First Player Legend

A Leftfield Solution To An XCOM Disaster

Rewarding Creative Play Styles In Hitman

Postcards From Far Cry Primal

Solving XCOM’s Snowball Problem

Kill Zone And Bladestorm

An Idea For More Flexible Indie Game Awards

Teaching Heat Signature’s Ship Generator To Think In Sectors

What Works And Why: Multiple Routes In Deus Ex

Natural Numbers In Game Design

Naming Drugs Honestly In Big Pharma

Writing vs Programming

Let Me Show You How To Make A Game

New Heat Signature Video: Galaxies, Suction And Wrench-Throwing

What Works And Why: Nonlinear Storytelling In Her Story

My Idea For An ‘Unconventional Weapon’ Game

From Gunpoint To Heat Signature: A Narrative Journey

The Cost Of Simplifying Conversations In Videogames

What Works And Why: Invisible Inc

Our Super Game Jam Episode Is Out

What Works And Why: Sauron’s Army

Showing Heat Signature At Fantastic Arcade And EGX

What I’m Working On And What I’ve Done

The Formula For An Episode Of Murder, She Wrote

Heat Signature Needs An Artist And A Composer

Improving Heat Signature’s Randomly Generated Ships, Inside And Out

Gunpoint Patch: New Engine, Steam Workshop, And More

Distance: A Visual Short Story For The Space Cowboy Game Jam

Raising An Army Of Flying Dogs In The Magic Circle

Floating Point Is Out! And Free! On Steam! Watch A Trailer!

Drawing With Gravity In Floating Point

What’s Your Fault?

The Randomised Tactical Elegance Of Hoplite

Here I Am Being Interviewed By Steve Gaynor For Tone Control

Heat Signature: A Game About Sneaking Aboard Randomly Generated Spaceships

The Grappling Hook Game, Dev Log 6: The Accomplice

A Story Of Heroism In Alien Swarm

One Desperate Battle In FTL

To Hell And Back In Spelunky

Games Vs Story 2

Gunpoint Development Breakdown

Five Things I Learned About Game Criticism In Nine Years At PC Gamer

My Short Story For The Second Machine Of Death Collection

Not Being An Asshole In An Argument

Playing Skyrim With Nothing But Illusion

How Mainstream Games Butchered Themselves, And Why It’s My Fault

A Short Script For An Animated 60s Heist Movie

The Magical Logic Of Dark Messiah’s Boot

Arguing On The Internet

Shopstorm, A Spelunky Story

Why Are Stealth Games Cool?

E3’s Violence Overload, Versus Gaming’s Usual Violence Overload

The Suspicious Developments manifesto

GDC Talk: How To Explain Your Game To An Asshole

Listening To Your Sound Effects For Gunpoint

Understanding Your Brain

What Makes Games Good

A Story Of Plane Seats And Class

Deckard: Blade Runner, Moron

Avoiding Suspicion At The US Embassy

An Idea For A Better Open World Game

A Different Way To Level Up

How I Would Have Ended BioShock

My Script For A Team Fortress 2 Short About The Spy

Team Fortress 2 Unlockable Weapon Ideas

Don’t Make Me Play Football Manager

EVE’s Assassins And The Kill That Shocked A Galaxy

My Galactic Civilizations 2 War Diary

I Played Through Episode Two Holding A Goddamn Gnome

My Short Story For The Machine Of Death Collection

Blood Money And Sex

A Woman’s Life In Search Queries

First Night, Second Life

SWAT 4: The Movie Script

Non-Problems Of The Obscenely Over-Privileged

The planets have aligned and my sign is in the “You Need New Stuff” part of the sky this month, and I’ve ended up with three different things I feel like I desperately want, all costing roughly the same chunk of money.

I can definitely buy one. I can buy two if I want to flinch with guilt every time I think about either of them. Technically, I could buy all three, but even if I was prone to that kind of opulence, I just don’t have the time to play with three complex new toys. So, I need some advice. Which of these will genuinely be a life-improving joy, and which am I just being stupid for even considering?


1. New PC Bits: £250
I currently rock an ageing AMD FX-60, and last week my PC broke hard. It’s currently unusable, and I’m not sure how much of it is salvageable. I hate trying to fix PCs, and it was horribly outdated anyway, so the smart thing to do is buy a new heart and soul for the beast.

You know the E6850, the Core 2 Duo CPU that was, not long ago, indistinguishable in performance terms from the fastest gaming CPU commercially available, despite being a quarter of the price? Just lately, it halved in price. I don’t know if that price-slash wave has hit the UK listings I’m looking at here, but the upshot is that the fastest chip I could want costs less than I have ever paid for a new CPU: £120 ($240, but think of it as $160 because electronics always cost 50% more over here). With a motherboard, heatsink, RAM and possibly a new case, that runs into the £250-£300 range.

Voice of Sanity Says: Oh come on, you’re a geek. Even if you bought new bits, you’d have this PC fixed before they arrived. And the truth is that before it broke, there was nothing that PC couldn’t do – except not break in the near future. The only game in the world it couldn’t run perfectly well was Crysis, which you’ve had no desire to go back to since completing it. If you did, your office PC eats it for breakfast. And it’s not like anything else is going to be remotely that demanding in the foreseeable future. Even the very latest stuff with absurdly high minimum specs, like Assassin’s Creed, couldn’t have run better on your old rig. PC gaming’s hardware race stalled long ago, no-one told Crytek, and they fell flat on their faces. Don’t join them, point and laugh.

I should add, before it becomes a thing, that my voice of sanity is slightly creepy and more than a little insane.


2. An Xbox 360 with GTA IV: £200
I watched Rob Taylor playing this in the office for a bit earlier tonight. He’s the Xbox World reviewer who gave it- actually I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say what he gave it yet, but a higher score than our own magazine has awarded in its fourteen year history. The word is that GTA IV is good in a way that previous GTAs have not been, and this happens to coincide with it being set in the only place I care about, starring the first character I don’t hate since GTA3, and me having an absurdly big screen to play it on. If it’s as good as it sounds, it’ll be something of a momentous event in gaming, and I want in.

Watching Rob play, a few things struck me:

a) It looks really fun to drive. Car chassis bounce around on their wheels like the Halo Warthog, and more importantly, you just smash through stuff. Everything smaller than you smashes and splinters and splats in your path, and it makes chases dramatic.

b) Dying is hilarious. When you hit something bigger than you, hard enough, you go flying through your windshield. Each bump and knock your ragdoll takes after that knocks off a chunk of health proportional to the force of impact, so you don’t always die. But it’s always a brutal, flinch-worthy slow-mo spectacular. This is really important. Trials 2 and N are really very fiddly, frustrating games, but the fact that every death triggers a laugh or a gasp completely alters the emotional rollercoaster of the experience into something you can lose yourself in for hours.

c) It really does look like the screenshots. At least, it looks like the only one I care about:


The burning sunset ambience – I was worried it wouldn’t come up in the normal course of play. It does. I love New York, and all I really want from this is New York at sunset, New York in the rain, New York at night,

d) For the first time in the six GTA games I’ve played, they finally came up with a non-moronic way to lose heat. It’s just a really smart, logical system that rewards you for the kinds of breakneck chases you’ve previously been doing just for the fun of it.

Voice of Sanity Says: You’ve never owned a console in your life, you hate every console game you’ve played, 360 games are ludicrously expensive, you don’t get them free from work, and you’re considering spending 200 on the latest in a series that you don’t even especially like. We all know it’ll come out on PC in six to eight months, and if you really want to role-play a vegetative, neanderthal teenager, you can even play it on your big screen with a gamepad sitting on your futon then. This ‘gaming event’ you want to be ‘in on’ comprises a gaggle of slack-jawed bloated twats dribbling over gibbering message boards about laughable gameisms as if they were James fucking Joyce.


3. An EEE PC 900: £300
It’s absurd that I don’t have a laptop: the two most notable features of my job are PCs and traveling. And my only priorities in a laptop have always been portability, durability and price. As you move into smaller models, Ultraportables they’re called, the price rises exponentially until there’s nothing worth having for less than £700. Then the graph collapses and there’s the EEE: smaller than anything, cheaper than anything, and entirely solid-state.

The 900 has a two-inch bigger screen than the first model, and a 20GB drive instead of a 4GB one.

Voice of Sanity Says: Here, try using this Time Phone to call the you of three months ago. Ask him about his laptop priorities. I’ll give you a clue: there was one of them, and it wasn’t on your list. Battery life. The new EEE lasts two and a half hours, slightly more than those high-spec gaming laptops you wrote off as absurdly impractical, and slightly less than the six year-old broken hand-me-down Dell lying unloved behind the futon you’re typing this from. It’s also great if you like keyboards too small to type on, screens to small to watch anything on, drives too small to install anything on and specs too low to play anything on. That’ll be £300, moron.

Update: Thanks, internet! As per the prevailing gist of your suggestions, I have put all thoughts of the EEE from my mind and splashed recklessly on the other two.

My delivery estimate for the 360 and GTA is Tuesday, launch day, though even if it comes then I doubt everything will go smoothly setting it up. I’ve been playing San Andreas on a gamepad in anticipation, and learned four slightly contradictory facts: a) standard-def resolution actually looks fine on my large display, b) San Andreas is artistically the most drab, ugly, poorly-lit game ever made, c) I actually enjoy driving with a gamepad more than with a mouse and keyboard now, and d) the gamepad support in the PC version really sucks.

Early that same week, I’ll have a heap of things that will eventually become a Core 2 Duo E6850 with 4GB of RAM, a very fast 500GB hard drive, and a neat black case. I went with my own research for the processor, Komplett’s bundle for the mobo and RAM, PC Gamer’s recommendation for the hard drive, and customer reviews for the case. We, PC Gamer, recommend a chassis that has its power supply at the bottom rather than the top, and I, Tom Francis, fucking hate that configuration. So I went for the cheapest one that had five-star ratings and a few people raving about how easy it is to fit.

Richard Smith: I am in the rather the fruitful position of having just bought a new PC myself, already owning a 360 with GTA IV on pre-order, and already owning an EEE PC, albeit the previous model of that.

Speaking of which, don't buy an EEE PC. I have the previous model, the 7" version, and it's not good. The keyboard is far too small for any kind of prolonged use, unless you want hand cramps. The 7" screen gave me a headache, and I don't imagine 9" is going to make much difference, and the battery life is abysmal. And now the screen is bigger, so it's going to be even worse. Plus the batteries in the EEE PC 900 review units had longer life spans than those of the actual shipping units, which means 2 and a half hours actually equals about 2 hours, if you're lucky.

I'd go the new PC route.

Jason L: Hrrrm. None of them are that compelling, but I'd go with the 360 and whatever single part turns out to be broken in your machine. I'll eat one of my hats if PC GTA4 ships properly optimised, with proper controls and free of crippling bugs, and not all 360 games are so expensive - in fact most of the really interesting ones don't sell that well and wind up ridiculously discounted (thanks to aforementioned vegetative, neanderthal teenagers). The shorter/novelty ones can also - gasp - be rented, which is still a bit of a brain twist for those of us who have long had computers as primary platform.

That's surprising and interesting news about the battery life of the EEE. I suppose solid-state doesn't matter much when you have to light up X square cm of cathode light...I can't wait until HMDs take the next step up in resolution/down in price.

John Saflo: You've never owned a console? Really?

Lack_26: I'd go for the new PC parts, but then again I don't like consoles and I'm not that keen on laptops.

Jay: John - I've never owned a console - it's not that ludicrous.

If you're really stuck, I'd go for one that improves job performance, so the EEEpc would be my choice. You've said you travel a lot, but not having a laptop on hand would be a handicap. You can get a 360 + GTAIV at any time, and let's be honest, it'll fall in price in the future even if it doesn't come on PC

Zeno Cosini: I think sometimes it's hardest to see the solution that's right under your nose.

Bludgeon your Voice of Reason to death and pocket his Time Phone. Surely the most useful - and enjoyable - technological artefact of the bunch, and if you change your mind you can always take it down to Cash Converters and trade it in for one (or more) of the above.

Tom Francis: Actually I had a reverse-charge call this morning that just said, in what sounded a shaky version of my own voice, "Don't listen to Zeno, it... doesn't pan out." I thought I heard sirens.

Thanks for all the thoughts so far. If I get an EEE, it would be primarily for typing, so the keyboard size is a concern. If I get a 360, HD may be a problem: my display can do any res, but it isn't widescreen, so the horizontal letterboxing might be too high a price to pay for the extra definition. And it's looking like the PC components are going to run into the 300+ territory, since more of my PC is busted than I'd thought.

Richard, if you had a Time Phone and called the Richard Smith who was just about to buy an EEE, what laptop would you tell him to get instead?

Dan: My friend has one of those EEE laptops. I've tried it out and although it's lovely to have a tiny laptop, the keyboard is just ridiculous. Even if you have the hands of a small child you'll find yourself having problems typing.

Plus you'll find the fact it's a Linux PC slightly annoying if you've never used Linux before.

Currently though I've been thinking about the first two options myself. I keep telling myself I could use a few hundred quid for a holiday though and it would probably be better and healthier for me.

So go for number 4. A holiday to somewhere sunny and not-England.

Jason L: You sent me on a trajectory through the world of the EEE. People report real-world 3-hour usage extensions via this thing. Some have hacked together power tool packs and sport vehicle batteries into even more powerful ghetto packs, but this is turnkey, cheap and much less likely to precipitate cavity searches or burnination.

craigp: Voice of reason: we have an EEE in the office you can dry-run, you know loads of people with Xboxes and can easily give GTA a dry-run as well.

Having said all that, there's only one of the three possibilities that we know you'll like unequivocally. Upgrade, Tom. Upgrade.

SenatorPalpatine: I'm torn between the Xbox and PC stuff. Or buy a laptop that's not quite so... not a good laptop. That kind of thing is for children in 3rd world countries. I think you'd be much happier in the long run if you bumped up the price and got something bigger, with good battery life, that you can do more than word processing on.

So basically... any of the three except with a better laptop.

craigp: *waves upgrade kits under your nose*

http://www.komplett.... ...x?bn=10297

Tom Francis: Good call. I didn't realise they had a bunch of them - I thought the one you got was a one-off thing.

This one sounds insane: http://www.komplett.... ...sku=343668

250 for the E6850, 4GB RAM, mobo and cooler.

Chris Livingston: Get the X-Box. Since a lot of the PC Gaming you do is for work, you need a way to play games that you can just play and not have to review.

Chris Livingston: Also, what's the way GTA IV lets you shake the cops? Something better than finding a spray shop?

Tom Francis: Yes. That system never made a great deal of sense to me, since you lost no heat at all if you changed cars entirely when the cops weren't looking. But the same car, in a different colour - "Well, that can't be him. He was already in a Beast GT, why would he steal another one in Racing Green? He's nuts, but he's not that nuts."

The new system is that when you're seen doing crimes, a flashing radius appears on your mini-map around where it happened. If you drive out of that radius and the cops lose sight of you, they give up. The more Wanted you are, the huger the radius, and if you keep running people down or bashing police cars while you're escaping, the radius resets to be around those new crimes, meaning you have to escape further.

There might be more to it than that, I only saw it briefly.

craigp: The one I have is for the magazine, so you can just use it whenever you want.

Komplett's bundle's are maddeningly compelling: I grabbed a quad-core bundle, as did Tony. All the hard work was done for us. It's almost like having a personal shopper.

Iain “DDude” Dawson: I dont know much about the EEE, but can you plug in an external keyboard, and use that for typing? I know it may not be that portable, but there must be a good (passable) folding or travel keyboard somewhere. As for the screen, just dont loook at it while you type and then proof-read stuff later.

'Course, this may be a dumb point, but it makes sense to my feeble brain, as the other two choice seem to just be flights of fancy.

Then again, fancy is fun...

Tom Camfield: I think you should go for Dan's idea (the holiday) or indoor plants or something, the three tech options just seem like more of what you already have but shinier. That said, if the parts are cheaper than fixing your PC, may as well do that, and why not test out the xbox and the laptop as craigp suggests and magically receive all three wishes (ish) without the guilty feelings.

Tom Francis: No houseplants: anything living will die in my care, and this spree is partly in honour of finally having spare money again after spending so much on redoing my kitchen.

No holidays: press-trips scratch my travel itch, and I never find going abroad relaxing. They're kind of a sensory overload, I feel like I need a holiday at home to unwind after.

I've now obeyed the majority votes - post updated with details.

Ludo: Good choice on the upgrade, let us know how good Komplett are, those prices are mental.

PC Gamer also recommended quad-core processors recently, not tempted yourself?

Good luck assembling all that kit.

SenatorPalpatine: Perfect choice of stuff. That's a nice looking case.

craigp: You can play N+ now.

Jason L: Now my secret agenda can come into play. My secret agenda is composed of Crackdown, and Crimson Skies (BC) if you didn't catch it on PC. Actually, I suppose Crimson Skies hasn't vanished and you could still just play it on PC with your gamepad. They're essentially the two sides of Just Cause, each made complete. Well, about 80% complete in Crackdown's case.

Enjoy your guilt!

J-man: This latest GTA is the only one I'm considering buying. That is, if it ever comes out on PC. Does anyone know if and when it will come out for my vista rated 5.5 PC?

The_B: Join ussss....

And on another positive side, at least you'll be able to have a reason to buy Live time and not feel like you've wasted your money on GFW Live. And as Craig says, N+

And then all the retro-ness. And some of the other stuff that even I as a PC die hard will admit to being swayed slightly by some console orientated stuff. And maybe Rock Band. Although the price is stupid, and from what I hear, you could import the PS3 version for cheaper but not the 360.

And if you haven't already: sign up your gamertag before some phillistine nicks it, as I found out to my dissapointment and had to make do with a vague misspelling...

The_B: Looking at your Twittery thing up there, you say Alt-Universe Tom has your account. I noticed however, that Alt-Universe Tom has in fact got the exact same motto as you've set Cad Dashing to - coincidence, or is it under another email?

Pentadact: It's me, Microsoft have just sealed off the account. 'Incorrect password', okay then, reset my password. 'Sure, enter your new password' There you go. 'Come on now, your new password has to be different to your old one! Ha ha!'

That's with one e-mail address. With the other one, it's 'This e-mail address does not match any account.' Okay, register. 'Enter your e-mail address'. I will! 'That e-mail address is already in use by another account.'

Okay, now I have to walk up to people in the street and stab them again and again until they die screaming and sobbing in a convulsed heap on the filthy sidewalk.

Dave: Hey, am I supposed to feel stupid for not knowing who James Joyce is?

Tom Francis: No, but you should at least feel lazy for not looking him up on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.... ...ames_Joyce