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

The Martian (The Book)

No spoilers

The other day I really wanted something to do that would give my eyes a break from focusing on things right in front of them. So I looked for audiobooks, and remembered that I’d been planning to read The Martian – mostly because of this comic and its hover-text:

Particularly interesting because that’s XKCD, by Randall Munroe, who used to work at NASA.

Anyway, it’s great. Can’t think of another book that has hooked me so utterly in one, brief opening chapter. Not through any unconventional literary trick, it’s just a quick summary of the narrator’s predicament: stuck on Mars, presumed dead, probably will be.

The Martian does three things I really, really like:

  • Get to the fucking point: I don’t need to know what Mark Watney looks like, I don’t need a scene-setting prologue of what his daily life was like before this, I don’t need to be shown how much he loves his wife and kids in order to see him as human. If this book is about an interesting situation, get to the interesting situation. The Martian starts there.

  • Explain the mechanics: if this is a problem, why is it a problem? If the obvious solution won’t work, why won’t it work? If Watney thinks X is the best plan, why is it the best? What’s wrong with Y? Could X go wrong? What’s his plan if it does? The Martian goes into rigorous detail on all of this – figures, equations, scientific principles – probably too much for some people, but it’s catnip for me.

    One of the reasons I love games more than other media is that the best ones have consistent rules, so extraordinary feats or miraculous triumphs actually mean something. Watney’s solutions to his endless problems feel clever because the problems are presented within a set of rules we understand, and the solution is one we didn’t see. I have no idea if they’re realistic, but all I need is that they’re understandable and internally consistent.

  • Have a likeable character: The Martian’s not really about character – Watney is just smart and resourceful to ridiculous extremes, and the book is more interested in what he can do with that than in examining his flaws and complexities as a person. But Watney’s also the narrator, so it matters a lot that you like him. His tone is most of what sold me in that opening chapter: he describes his uniquely dire situation in brief, clear and relatable terms, then jokes about how dead he is. That’s more or less the tone throughout – occasionally he finds it a little harder to joke about, but not for long.

    In another predicament, this chipperness might undermine the stakes, but being stranded on Mars sort of takes care of that by itself. The utter isolation, the impossible distance, the brutal hostility of the planet, all come with a strong emotional payload. Whenever there was a twist in his fate, I found it surprisingly affecting just because of the dizzying magnitude of the problems involved. Jesus, imagine being that far from earth and losing your only source of X. I don’t need Watney to mope about it to feel the scale of the problem. The facts alone send a shiver down my spine.

The book does have a few problems:

  • A few times, Watney says something sexist or homophobic, usually in his jokey messages back home. Yes, it’s the character and not necessarily the author, but they’re usually in the context of jokes and there isn’t really any reason the author would want to put you off Watney, as above. It sticks out because he’s otherwise very decent – it reads more like adopted bad language that’s gone unquestioned. If he’d been stuck on Mars since 1950, it’d make a lot of sense.
  • The book doesn’t stick with Watney on Mars, and it’s a lot weaker when it cuts back to Earth. Sometimes it’s interesting to know the mechanics of what NASA is trying, but the characters there are mostly flimsy stereotypes.

The audiobook also has a lot of audiobook-specific problems – I’d advise going with the text version if you have the choice:

  • Narrator R C Bray has a good Watney voice, and a good narrator voice, but he also does accents for all the other characters, and a truly toe-curling ‘woman voice’ for all the female characters. It operates on the bizarre notion that all women sound breathy and meek, including a) the commander of the most expensive and advanced space expedition in history, b) a foul-mouthed bulldog of a press officer, and c) a primetime news show host.
  • Many sections of the book involve long series of characters and numbers that the eye would skim over on the page, and these are hilariously unsuited to being read aloud. This edition makes absolutely no concession to these – at one point he’s just reading out letters, symbols and numbers for about 5 minutes straight. It’s close to parody.
  • He mispronounces ‘sysop’ every time, even when it’s being said by the sysop, and this is agony without equal.

Apparently it’s £3 on Kindle? On the one hand, wow, I really profoundly got the wrong edition here, but on the other, it’s two days later and I’ve listened to the whole thing, because I could do it while I cook, cycle, exercise, shower or anything else. Audiobooks are great. People should definitely stop reading them like idiots.

William Russell: Well I just bought it on the basis of your description. Lots of people are going on about it at the moment, naturally, but I hadn't read anything that made it truly sound like a good read. Plus £3 is naff all so it can rot on my kindle and I won't have lost much.

Thanks for the rec.

LKM: I also listened to the audiobook version, and apart from the criticism you mentioned (particularly terrible performance of women's voices, though there aren't too many of them throughout the book, which, otoh, also ties in with your criticism of some of the book's odd sexism), I think it worked really well. I guess in part because the Mars parts are first-person present-tense POV narration, so the immediacy of the audiobook version makes it sound like somebody is really thinking through things right at that moment. As Watney, the narrator also does a fantastic job conveying emotion.

So personally, I'm glad I listened to the audiobook version. Of course, YMMV.

Adrian: Bollocks to the audiobook I'm afraid. The DRM on Audible means I can't use it on my chosen operating system, or on my mp3 player. There are MP3 CDs but they charge more for the privilege, and I'd have to wait for them to be delivered like some kind of primitive... ;-)

Frank: Tom, I think you'll love this interview :)

phuzz: I only read it a couple of months ago, and I don't know why I hadn't picked it up before because it's right up my street. I reaaaaaaallllllly enjoyed it, but I think even non-science/space/mars geeks will enjoy it.
I might even go see the film at the cinema, which is unusual for me.

NDgeek: Only tangentially related, but your "Get to the fucking point" statement made me think of a song...Tripod's King Kong:

Jabberwok: I agree on the cuts back to Earth, though I feel those might be partly responsible for the story's ability to work as a Hollywood flick. They are easily digestible because of their unoriginality, which is weaker in a literary sense, but perhaps easier to turn into a screenplay. Haven't watched the movie, though.

Personally, I took the occasional offensive comments as probably par for the course for the culture Mark came out of, so they didn't bother me. Maybe they ate outdated, but not being an astronaut, I have no idea.

PaleShakta: Sorry, I read *significantly* faster than it's possible to talk intelligbly. Audiobooks are for multitasking and/or other people. (Although you seem to like it because you multitask a ton, which is entirely reasonable. Try not to electrocute yourself while listening in the shower.)

Phil: The other unbearable things the audio book narrator does is pronounce ASCII as "A-S-C Two"

Tom Francis: Oh God, I probably heard that and didn't even realise what he was trying to say.

Question: Wondering why there are trees in the picture if on Mars?!? Otherwise a cracking film and a great book too.