All posts


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

Metal Gear Solid V’s Failure Spectrum

This post is part of a series. I mention abilities and tools but no story spoilers.

Being an outsider to the Metal Gear series, I was only cautiously optimistic about V. All I heard about the last one was that it had 90-minute cut-scenes. I watched enough of one of them on YouTube to determine that it was… not my cup of tea. Of V, I’d seen some fun stuff in videos, but I was half-assuming the story would barge in and ruin it.

Well, the story does barge in. But only for the intro and a few brief intrusions, spread out over the vast, ridiculous amount of time I’ve played the game for so far – at least thirty hours, I think. That’s a ridiculously tiny fraction, and the rest is extraordinarily good.

So many things about it are surprising or different or interesting and I want to write about all of them. So I think I’ll do that, one post at a time, starting with this:

Bloody Narrower

MGS V is extremely forgiving

Outside of those few scripted intrusions, I’ve only actually died a handful of times in those thirty hours. The game has an enormous failure spectrum – I mentioned these in respect to Invisible Inc, but here’s the gist:

When you can fail at something but still carry on playing, I call the range of states between perfect success and total failure a ‘failure spectrum’.

MGS V has most of the stealth genre’s most generous failsafes, plus an incredibly generous one of its own inserted at the crucial moment – Reflex Mode. The result is something like this:

  • If a guard sees you, you get an ‘awareness’ indicator showing you where they are. If you reduce your visibility, that goes away completely and the guard won’t even investigate.
  • If you stay in sight and/or make yourself more visible, the guard will very, very slowly come over to investigate. Even then, this alerts no-one else and doesn’t count against you in any score or performance metrics, and you don’t even have to move: going prone and using a ‘hide’ button makes you damn nearly invisible – I’ve had a guard stood 2 feet from me shining a torch directly on my body without spotting me in that mode.
  • If they DO definitively see you and recognise you as an intruder, Reflex Mode puts the world in slowmo and you get a huuuuuuuuge amount of time to do something about it. Your view is snapped to the person who saw you, the yelp of recognition they make seems to be inaudible to other guards, and if you shoot them in the head with a quiet weapon (you start with two) in this ample time, no alert is triggered.
  • If you fail to take them out in this time, or someone else sees them die, the surviving guard will yell. Others in earshot will be alerted, but no-one beyond that at this stage. Your default weapon is rapid fire, accurate and silenced, and if you can take out everyone who heard before they have a chance to radio, the alert is contained.
  • Even if you do give them time to radio, it will do nothing if you’ve already taken out their communications equipment.
  • Even if they manage to radio for reinforcements, it’s easy to run away and they won’t give chase.
  • Even if you don’t run away, it’s quite possible to kill everyone without taking a hit.
  • Even if you take a hit, your health regenerates for free.
  • Even if you get hit a LOT – even if you get hit by a mortar – you only go into a ‘wounded’ state that restricts your movement but still gives you a chance to take everyone out.
  • If you fuck that up, yeah, you’re dead.

Listing it like that makes it sound absurd, but I really think this is one of the main reasons I and so many people end up having such a great time. Moving to these messier states creates stories of panic and improvisation, instead of frustrating game-overs. It’s the same reason it works in Invisible Inc:

A big failure spectrum is good because a lot of the most emotional moments in a game happen on the cusp of failure. If you were this close to being seen, your escape is exhilarating. But if failure is a ‘game over’ screen, spending a lot of time on the cusp of failure means a lot of ‘game over’ screens. Each one interrupts your immersion and ends your investment in this current run. It pulls you out of the game, and you find yourself in a menu, then at a checkpoint or a savegame. Mentally acclimatising to how much of your story has been lost forces you to disengage from it, and you have to build up all that immersion again from scratch.

If failure isn’t game over, it’s still nail-biting when to come close to it. And when you do slip over the threshold, it’s just another development in the story you’re creating and living through.

More ,

Shaun Cheah: I wasn't going to buy this game before I watched your videos and read your write-ups, but I am now. The same thing happened with Black Flag.

I realize now that this is probably why people used to pay you to review games for their magazine. Good call.

Dan: I like the concept of a failure spectrum.

How do you think Gunpoints failure spectrum holds and up ? Do you think, if you were making it again now, there might something you'd do to try and widen the failure state? (Not that I thought it had a narrow failure state - if anything the opposite!)

serendipity: This is a common feature of all MGS games, that grew over time.

The versatility and improvisation that the predictable AI provides is unmatched in any other stealth game series.

This is just one of many reasons why MGS is so revered among so many people including myself :)

Glad to see that PC gamers are also getting to enjoy this great series again after missing a few games in a row (MGS3, MGS4, MGS Portable Ops, MGS Peace Walker).

Though the story and presentation leaves so much to be desired, it is also the best playing and most customizable MGS game ever made, for better or worse.

InHysterics: Just wanted to add in regards to the failure spectrum that a lot of players view simply having the guards alerted to you *at all* as a failure, and restart at the last checkpoint. It's very hard to die in MGSV, but it's not easy to complete the game in stealth either. It's easy to win, go through guns a blazing etc. At first I actually started to get bothered by the failure spectrum that you mentioned, because it felt like even a child could play the game ( And the probably could ) but then I changed my style of play up a bit, and stopped accepting having the guards alerted to my presence. I kill people for sure, but I evacuate most of my enemies and rarely ever get seen now. It's harder and can be frustrating at times but ya it's all about how you choose to play.

Designing Failure (2/2) | pretensions of wisdom: […] Tom Francis wrote a fantastic post about Metal Gear Solid V’s Failure Spectrum that you should absolutely read: http://www.pentadact... ...iler-free/ […]

Michael Schirmer: NO,
Metal gear Solid 5 is not too forgiving! Why?

Because you can decide by your own how easy you make your game!

Put reflex mode off, no quiet, no d-dog, no horse. Just a jeep to travel longer distances. AND use no strong weapons, use just no lethal wapons a.s.o.


Not the game!

Designing Failure: Making loss core to the game | pretensions of wisdom: […] Tom Francis wrote a fantastic post about Metal Gear Solid V’s Failure Spectrum that you should absolutely read: http://www.pentadact... ...iler-free/ […]