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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

Prototype Revised

prototypef 2009-07-04 22-21-56-56

Prototype’s a game about having absurd powers – here I am surfing a man’s corpse – and you earn a steady stream of new ones until the end of the game. Those powers are what makes it fun. But the sheer number you have access to by the end of the game turns the controls into a finger-breakingly awkward mess of accidental stunts misfiring while you desperately will your hoodied twat to do what that combination of buttons used to or should do.

There’s also a redundant level of redundant redundancy: there are about seven powers that deal damage to everyone around you, and no reason to use any but the one that deals the most. The best powers are good against both large infected like Hunters and armoured vehicles like Tanks, and the only other type of enemy, crowds of zombies or soldiers, are never a threat. You fall into a pattern of using the most powerful for every situation, and your brain disengages.

prototypef 2009-07-02 22-35-37-78

I’d trim the powers dramatically and give each set a narrower range of uses, so there’s a reason to switch between them. I’d also make each upgradable three times, so that you still have loads of options for what to spend your experience on.

I’d also want dangerous enemies among the crowds: military deathsquads with guns customised to seriously hurt you, and proto-zombies with claws like yours that really sting if they reach you in one piece. It’d give power sets one more thing to be good or bad at, and coupled with stronger differentiation could require that you actually think about which to use and upgrade. Here’s how it’d work:

prototypef 2009-07-06 17-54-08-89

This power doesn’t let you do anything new, just increases the damage of all your basic combat moves. There’s no point in using it until you upgrade it to be more damaging than your proper powers, when it becomes so powerful that there’s no point in using anything else. In both cases, it poses no interesting decisions. I’d scrap it completely.

prototypef 2009-07-02 13-52-04-51

Primary attack: slash while running. Lets you plough through crowds hardly breaking pace, is okay against Hunters, bad against tanks. Upgrades increase the speed you move while attacking, up to full sprint.
Secondary attack: digs one hand into the ground to stop dead and swing the round in a wide arc, doing damage proportional to your speed when used. Decent against everything.
Jumping attack: lunges claws-first at a target, skewering fleshy ones or latching onto vehicles for a hijack. Upgades increase how far you can lunge.

Currently, since claws are less damaging and no faster than other powers, they’re just flat out worse. I’d make this the only mode in which you can pick up and throw large objects. Picking up the wrong thing is the number 2 cause of death among prototypes, a recent study revealed, so assigning one mode to be the chuck-stuff mode means you’re never going to grab a taxi instead of an army sergeant in any other mode. In a similar vein, you should be able to pick up weapons in any power mode, only when you’re a normal human.

The previous Claws secondary attack was cool but had little to do with claws – I’d keep it as a Devastator move instead.

prototypef 2009-07-01 22-55-59-51

Primary attack: pounds slowly directly ahead, no splash damage. Slow against crowds, okay against Hunters, great against tanks.
Secondary attack: flings yourself at targeted enemy rocky fist first, as in the Hammertoss. Upgrades increase damage and range.
Jumping attack: elbow drop, as current, damage increases with height.

The idea is that this mode should be all about flinging your enormous weight about, dropping on stuff and knocking choppers out of the air. Right now this is an anti-tank mode that’s not as good against tanks as Blade or Musclemass, and its star move is an elbow drop that’s not as good as the Musclemass Bullet Dive, so it’s utterly redundant.

prototypef 2009-07-05 13-01-38-03

Primary attack: Whips ahead, killing things in a long but narrow cone. Meek against everything, but potentially hits more stuff at once. Upgrades increase length of whip and hence size of cone.
Secondary attack: pulls a single target towards you and puts your fist through them. Upgrades increase pulling force: down a chopper or skewer a Hunter at level 3.
Jumping attack: swings your whip arm down beneath you like a giant deadly skipping rope, batting everything beneath away. Upgrades increase the area it covers.

This mode would still be for when you’re concentrating on a specific target, whether to hijack it, eliminate it quickly or keep damaging it while staying away from it.

prototypef 2009-07-01 07-19-04-50

Primary attack: slashes and moves forwards at a decent rate. Okay for crowds, great for Hunters, not great for tanks. Upgrades increase speed.
Secondary attack: dashes forwards with blade vertical, splitting anyone in your way. Upgrades increase how far this dash takes you.
Jumping attack: as current.

The only trouble with Blade as it stands is that it’s great against tanks too, which makes everything else except Musclemass obsolete. And Musclemass makes Blade obsolete.

Human Mode
prototypef 2009-06-29 00-48-27-58

All moves scrapped except punch, kick, flying kick and bodysurf. Anything that doesn’t require a specific keypress can stay in as an automatic flourish. And as mentioned, this is now the only mode in which you can pick up and use weapons.

Vision Modes

Useless, all scrapped for simplicity.

Defense Modes
prototypef 2009-06-26 23-17-14-46

Shield: as current, but upgradable to increase the amount of damage it can take before breaking.
Dodge: new mode – automatically dashes you out of the way of incoming projectiles and blows. Upgrades increase how soon after dashing the power is ready to save you again.
Armour: as current, but upgradable to decrease the damage taken while wearing it.

prototypef 2009-07-02 22-33-06-26

I like the current ones, but I’d like even more the ability to specialise, find cool combos of Defense and Offense powers, then upgrade the bejesus out of them.

prototypef 2009-06-28 23-08-01-25

Free running is already fun, but it’s reliant on using this very artificial airdash that shoots you forwards in a not very physically convincing way. It also really hurts my fingers to do it a lot. I’d like it if, once you were airbourne, there was only one control:

Glide: press jump while airborne to toggle. All your velocity, downward and otherwise, is translated into forward velocity, letting you get enormous speeds by jumping from a great height and activating it at the last minute. Once gliding, you can angle it up to gain height and lose a bit of speed, or down to lose height and gain speed. The idea is to combine it with wall-runs along skyscrapers to gain height without losing speed, then spend that height on an extra boost by diving.

prototypef 2009-07-07 21-56-28-44

Currently, Prototype has over fifty distinct powers that require different button combinations. This would be a little over twenty, all told; none that require simultaneous button presses and none with overlapping controls. But the hope is that it’d make it a more complex game, because the fifty powers it currently has don’t have even twenty meaningfully diffrent uses – they have about six.


iFail: When I played Prototype, the biggest gripe I had was when they stole my powers. The game is all about using those powers, and then they take them away and tell you to get into massive brawls with Hunters, tanks, and helocopters.

nine: You think musclemass is overpowered. Zero Punctuation thinks whipfist was overpowered. I personally spent the entire game using no abilities and shield.

I guess that says something good about the balancing doesn't it?

PS, your comment repetition blocker just blocked me, after my last post... 24hrs ago?

Primar: Although I enjoyed Prototype thoroughly, the flaws in it couldn't help but niggle me while I was playing. Obvious stuff aside (like dire story/repetitive side "missions"), the main problem I had was that while there was so much choice as to the various moves and attacks, many of them were superfluous to requirements, or simply too complicated to pull off without intentional planning.

I mean, sure, the various combo-attack things (kick flip, body surf et al) might be cool - but by the point I think "oh, I might want to use that", it's far too late since the target's already dead. And even if it wasn't, it'd be easier just to punch them anyway.

And once you get the Blade's air-attack thing, every other attack in the game (Whipfist and Devastators excepted) is instantly rendered worthless. Why bother switching to anything else, when a fully charged Air Blade strike will one-shot pretty much anything, while making you near-impossible to hit at the same time.

Other things I never "got": vision modes (were they ever useful, ever?), Armor (surely not being able to dodge is crippling?), Musclemass/Hammerfist (didn't see the point in the first; the second was soooooo slooooowwwwww). Perhaps I just wasn't using them the right way?

The_B: I have to agree that I pretty much stuck with Whipfist for about 70-85% of the entire game. And once I could hijack choppers, taking down bases just literally became a case of stealing one and bombing it into bits.

But aside from that I did quite enjoy it. Not sure if I can really see myself going back to finish all the side tasks though - or indeed the New Game + - heck, at first I thought I was going to go back for the last Web of Intrigue stuff I had to do but so far I've not really felt compelled enough to do that over newer games.

The_B: (Incidentally, interesting what you said about the Airdash - are you using a 360 controller?)

EGTF: I swear gliding made my hand cramp up nearly. Why can't you grow wings you picky bastard Alex? What do you mean it doesn't match the ensemble?

I don't know why they didn't get around to programming it so as soon as you activated a power your gun was tossed aside or at least put on your back. As it is, you're just left wondering how he pulls the trigger with blob/hammerfists enabled.

The thing that makes me sad about Prototype is that with a few more developer decisions like you've suggested made ("Stu, I know you like Predator and his fancy vision modes, but can you please tell me how the fuck they fit in with this game?") to cut back on wasting time on superfluous elements, tweaking could've been applied elsewhere. It could've been absolutely superb that way.

I'm happy with flawed but good fun though. I do wonder if they'll patch it up in a big way, tweaking with the damage dealing of each power could help even.

Alex-chan!: I've been pondering wether to get prototype recently, but from pretty much all i've read it appears to be very fustrating. I might play it in a few years when i can get it for a tenner

Ludo: The claws are underpowered it's true, which is a shame as they're pretty cool, but if you were going to strip things down completely then it might be worth scrapping the claws as well.

The whipfist would provide low damage crowd control attacks with wide radius and the ability to grab faraway objects. The hammerfist: heavily localised high damage attacks which are good against vehicles. The blade: quick and devastating in a straight line, and particularly effective against hunters. It's a typical rock paper scissors setup which is nothing new, but players would instantly grasp which weapons were right for different situations. A wealth of great combo upgrades like the ones mentioned would inject the variety and interest into the formula.

As mentioned in the post, narrowing the effectiveness of the weapon modes encourages players to use their whole arsenal in the course of a fight. Weapon switching would be made quicker and easier. The slo-mo wheel thing would be scrapped in favour of a toggle button, which is unwieldy with 5+ powers, but manageable with 3, or a button for each power 1,2,3 or D-pad directions.

Structurally I'd make a lot more of the dynamically changing city territories which, in the game's current state, don't have much real impact on the experience but is an idea with a lot of potential. The overlaps in military and infected control already are pretty well implemented war zones, but there's no reason at all to visit these areas. The lame side missions would be scrapped and replaced with the ability for Alex to actually push back either the military or infected influence. Favouring one side over the other would lead to different power unlocks, armour and disguise skills from the military and mutation upgrades from the infected. This could even have main story ramifications which would suit Alex's amoral stance. As an inhuman monster, he might not necessarily be averse to an infected city as his playground.

Alternatively, and favourably, I'd revamp Alex so that he's not a twat.

Johnny Bulwharks: I got distracted and started thinking about Left 4 Dead when you started talking about hunters and tanks.

spuzman00: All I have to say is that I love the picture for shield mode.

ZomBuster: I was annoyed by the supersoldiers. It is like they needed a difficult enemy and thought "to hell with this, let's just make it a walking QTE"

webrunner: Reading about people playing, and playing myself, I've come to the following conclusions:
- Blade, Whipfist, and Musclemass have their own uses (whipfist's area attack is ridiculously powerful and it has good utility, blade does the most damage when attacking things, and musclemass is best for throwing - I found even fully upgraded it was nowhere near as good at attacking tanks as Blade)
- Which one of these three powers is the "primary" power when going into an average situation is entirely a player-style thing, which is good an exactly how it should be. Yahtzee used the Whipfist, I tended to use the Blade, and you use the Musclemass.
- Claw and Hammerfist, however, are both broken in the same way: Blade is strictly better than both of them at everything ever.
- Some of the upgrades are ridiculously useless. There is no situation where being faster at stealth consume will make you play better, it just makes it less annoying. Curb Stomp only works on *already defeated enemies*, which by any metric is a complete waste of time.

Tom Francis: Ooh, lots of good thoughts.

iFail ("they stole my powers"): Yeah, I love the way they time it to come just as you're getting used to the cool powers you've finally earned back.

nine ("ZP thinks whipfist was overpowered"): Heh. Whipfist is the one power that's already meaningfully different, so even though it's wildly out-damaged by other powers, it's still handy as a hijacking tool. I want more of that "X is handy for Y" thinking.

The_B ("Airdash - are you using a 360 controller?"): No, but I will do next time. It's a more comfortable layout, but I'll miss being able to aim for shit - the targeting system is so bad I had to do most precision attacks untargeted.

EGTF ("fancy vision modes"): These really seem like design-doc hangovers. Something that sounded good on paper, perhaps when night was going to be dark or smoke was going to be a factor, and was implimented before it became clear there was no need for it. I expect at some stage it was going to be more work to remove than to leave in.

Ludo ("scrapping the claws"): Considered that, but they are a lot of fun. If crowds were worth attacking, and you could move while attacking, they'd be one of my favourites.
("changing city territories"): Yes! I'm half-planning a second post about what they should have done instead of the linear plot spliced with fairground challenges, and this is part of it. I'd wanna avoid a situation where Mercer can just take and retake a block for each faction to grind his powers, though.

webrunner ("a player-style thing"): Even once I found Musclemass out-damaged my prefered powers, I rarely used it. I actually persevered with Whipfist even in situations it was ill-suited to, just because it's fun.

Dagda: I rather like the idea of a whipfist steadily dragging a helicoper down towards you (with all the normal interrupts being possible, such as you being hit or the tendril colliding with a building). Maybe once you've grabbed a copter repeated clicks would drag it in while holding the mouse button would let you charge up to whiplash-spike it towards the ground.

However, if there's one vital change you've not yet touched on, it's this: When you fall at high speeds, and then touch the side of a building while pressing the keys upwards, you should not immediately begin doing so. We all know deep in our souls that the proper thing to happen would be for us to first carve a 5-meter gouge down the building's side, and only then launch ourselves back upwards.

Very much looking forwards to hearing your thoughts on the game's overall layout and structure.

Also, I don't have you pegged as the comics type, but you might find Abara interesting. It's a one-volume Sci-Fi tale that may well have inspired Radical Entertainment, particularly with regards to Alex's armor. The best description I can give is: take a Prototype, put him in a dystopian future designed by Team Ico, and give both him and the monsters the ability to move at bullet-time speeds.

It can be read online at http://www.onemanga....; the first chapter offers a nicely-contained piece of action.

Zaphid: I'm afraid the cutting down on the number of abilities and narrowing their use could have the side effect of: "I can't do mission X without Y power," which was thankfully avoided and that is in my opinion the most important point.

EGTF: @Zaphid There were missions in the game that you weren't allowed to play till you had purchased an irrevelant power already.

TheFool: I thought that the plot was actually nowhere near as dire as most people think; its problem is that the main story's dialogue is horrible, the main characters are all business (which isn't necessarily bad considering the whole apocalypse thing but lessens any attachment to the characters) and the mandatory mission sequences don't give the explanation for why Alex is a complete dick either fully (the web of intrigue node in which a psychiatrist says, “Subject exhibits a classic flat-affect personality. A psychopathic disregard for others, narcissistic world-view punctuated by self-obsessive disorders,” is completely optional and thus may not ever be found, or found late in the game) or revealed very late (SPOILER: "Alex" actually being the first body the virus consumed, presumably after his brain got blown to pieces by the plainclothes team that shot him, explaining his foggy memory and even further explaining why he's not a very warm or empathetic human), thus leading most of us to hate him as a complete dick and never care about him, a key component for liking a story.

My other criticism of the story is that the web of intrigue is maddeningly elliptical and poorly organized. I love the concept, I just wish it was more easily searched (a list of nodes organized by topic or faction of the person consumed in addition to the web), had a bit more detective work involved (the other nodes revealed by consuming someone don't just give the name of the target but also a brief description of how the person you consumed knows them and where they last saw them).

Still, I must applaud the web of intrigue for being an elegant way to get around skill-learning and backstory-discovering issues.

Ludo: I just did a Prototype comic strip for another site and thought I'd throw a link in here as some of y'all might like it :)

Feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

Tom Francis: Ha! Awesome. I award it maximum spang.

Are you spademan? I got confused because the victim looks like your MVH avatar.

PS Your TAG link needs a http://

Ludo: Ooh cheers, link fixed!

Spademan is indeed myself, though I'm now slightly disturbed that I seem to have unconsciously killed off my MVH avatar.

Actually I hadn't realised until I drew this how many clothes Mercer wears. A shirt, a hoodie, an armless leather jacket AND a cold aura of dispassion. I guess being a heartless human/virus hybrid is pretty chilly work.

Also I think I'm going to start awarding more things 'maximum spang' as a verdict.

Ludo: Big Prototype rehash thing, a bit long for this thread: I wish I knew how to mod things.

Jonathan Morin: I am not done with Prototype but I recently post a comment on the avatar movement which I thought was quite weak. The post use prototype as an intro more then anything but someone commented and suggested I check your post on the game.

The thing I feel right now about the game is that it has no soul. The basic movement lack flow, basic attacks don't t give me this feeling of power and even when I blow a tank up Idon'tt feel that powerfull.

Basically, I would like less mechanics with better overall realization. Not only powers are redundant as you point out, but they lack orthogonality...

For me it is almost like they were trying to have as much stuff as possible without even making sure they would tackle something as basic as a convincing jump.

I think the game have some fun stuff, but my first impression was quite bad because I thougt it felt unsatisfying to control that avatar. These are not the comment I did on my blog so feel free to go see what is there, I would be curious to have your thoughts on that... (it is the most recent post here: http://www.designcav...

Sorry for any bad typo, I am getting use to my iphone.


Dan: honestly i thought you were a bit exaggerated about prototype, since i found myself worrying that it would be way too complicated for me to even play when i got it, but it wasn't so bad. either way your suggestions are definitely pretty good.

Fat Zombie: Claws? Redundant?

Granted, they're not much cop in combat with anything bigger than standard infected, but man are they entertaining. SLICEY SLASH

I'm pretty early on in the game though, haven't unlocked the Blade ability yet. That might possibly best claws.

Lyon: Honestly, when I was almost endgame and hankering for some EP, I found Infected Vision a little bit useful for grinding.

1. Go to area near a hive
2. Turn on Infected Vision when on a rooftop
3. Look for infected water towers since it's easier from afar
4. Destroy for ~10k EP + genetic material bonus
5. Repeat

I regarded it as a pretty quick way to obtain upgrades, personally.