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TOM FRANCIS
REGRETS THIS ALREADY

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.

Theme

By me. Uses Adaptive Images by Matt Wilcox.

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

A Leftfield Solution To An XCOM Disaster

This story starts exactly like the last great mission I had in an XCOM game: I kinda took on two missions at once. And everyone got tired from the first one, so we had to send our B-team on the other: to rescue a VIP. Continued

Heat Signature Release Date And Launch Celebrations

Heat Signature will be out on Steam 21st of September 2017! At time of writing, that’s Thursday of next week. It’s for Windows PCs, other platforms will depend on how this one goes.

We don’t do pre-order bonuses because I don’t want to pressure you to buy before reviews are out. But I am super grateful to those who buy at launch, because our whole future depends on how we do that first week. So we’re doing a few special things to celebrate it and thank those of you who are joining us:

Unique Shipment: The Everything Gun

For the first two weeks, there’s a ship carrying a unique weapon passing through the galaxy. It’s called the Everything Gun, and if you steal it, you’ll also unlock it as a random drop in this and all your future games. More info below.

Be One Of Our Trading Cards

Heat Signature is all about the stories that emerge from what you get up to in game, not our pre-written lore. So for Steam Trading Cards, we want them to be about your stories. We want to see GIFs or short videos of crazy situations you’ve got into or clever tricks you’ve discovered, and we’ll turn the best into trading cards with your name on! You’ll have the strange sensation of being traded, sold, and perhaps broken down to make a badge. More info below.

Unique Shipment FAQ

How do I find the shipment?
You’ll come across it randomly (about every 30 secs) as you fly around, quite frequently, and you’ll know it by a big golden light flashing on it, like in the video.

Does this mean I have to be online to play?
Haha, God no. It’s a single player game and we’re not assholes. This is just a bit of fun.

What happens if I board the ship but fail?
That’s fine! The ship will still be flying around until the date it’s due to leave, so you’ve got as many chances as you like, with whatever characters you like.

What if I buy the game after the date the shipment leaves?
Same, you won’t get the Everything Gun, and it won’t drop randomly for you.

If miss out, will it ever return?
Yes, though we haven’t planned when exactly.

Is the ship hard?
Nope! See the video.

Be On A Trading Card FAQ

What kind of clips are you looking for?

– Clever or ridiculous: my favourite are ‘I was in this impossible situation and here’s the mad thing I tried to solve it’
– Less than 1 minute in length, preferably less than 30 secs.
– GIF, GFY or very short YouTube clip. You can also link to a particular timestamp in a longer YouTube or Twitch vid if you like
– Cut, or link, straight to the good bit, or at most a few seconds before. No lead-in – if it needs that it’s probably not what we’re after.
– Tell us in the Tweet what is happening, as best you can in the character limit.

How do I submit one?

On Twitter! But!

– Do it as a normal tweet, not a reply to us – we’d like people who don’t already follow us to see it. That means don’t start your tweet with @HeatSig.
– Instead, mention @HeatSig at the end! You can say something like “I just did X in @HeatSig [link]” – that way we’ll see it.
– Upload or link your clip, obviously. GIFs uploaded direct to Twitter are the coolest, but I know they’re more hassle to make and if they’re more than a few seconds they won’t fit in Twitter’s 7Mb, so links are fine.

Example:
I just used a Glitchtrap to teleport a body into space and then Swapped with it to escape the ship in @HeatSig https://youtu.be/zGRddCgdKPQ

What’s the deadline?
We’ll start looking at entries September 28th, but we’ll keep accepting them until we have enough that we love!

How will I know if I’m picked?
We’ll reply to you on Twitter.

How will I be credited on the Trading Card?

We’d like to make the title of the card your name, but!
– If you prefer an alias we can do that (caveat below).
– If you’d rather we used the name of the character you were playing at the time we’re very happy do that (we can still credit your real name in the description or not, your choice).
– If we’re using your name or an alias it’ll be subject to our approval: we don’t want anything that is or sounds like a joke name or something that’ll clash with the fiction.
– We can discuss this if you’re picked.

The description on the card will probably be our summary of your cool moment.

How do I capture videos or GIFs?

If your PC has an nVidia card I like nVidia ShadowPlay. It’s included in the GeForce Experience (unfortunately you have to make an nVidia account) and you can set it up to always be recording, then hit a key to have it save the last 5 minutes. Amazingly it seems to have almost no performance impact. That’s what I do.

Otherwise, OBS is your best bet. You’ll want to go to Settings > Broadcast Settings > Mode > File Output Only to make it save to disk instead of streaming live. I think it can do a similar always-recording thing but I haven’t used it for that myself.

For editing, I like Avidemux.

For sharing, I suggest YouTube. In theory it’s possible to upload videos straight to Twitter but it’s never worked for gameplay videos for me.

To make GIFs, first make a video as above, then I recommend GIFCam for capturing the bit you want.

You just watch your video back and put GIFcam on top of it and hit Record. I’d say 16 fps is good enough for this, and you’ll need the file size to be under 7MB to upload it on Twitter, which is the best way.

Failing that, you can upload small videos to GFYCat and it’ll both GIF them and GFY them – GFYs are better quality equivalent of GIFs, but they don’t embed natively in Twitter.

 

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What Works And Why: Prey’s Intro

The start of Prey is one of very few narrative-based game intros that really worked for me. And it comes not that long after one in the same genre that especially didn’t: Mankind Divided. So I thought it might be interesting to replay both and compare what works and what doesn’t. Not to pick on Mankind Divided – I loved the game after the stumbling start – but just because you can be more specific with praise if you have something to contrast it against.

I talked through my thoughts on both intros as I replayed them in the videos here, and I’ll summarise and add some conclusions through the magic of text. Obviously both parts of this post spoil the intros to these games. Continued

 

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Morphblade Is Out!

This is the game I started last year, when I needed a break from Heat Signature, and I’ve continued to tinker with it on the odd weekend or evening. It’s crystallised into something I really enjoy playing, so I asked testers what they thought it was worth. The average answer was $5, so $5 it is! It’s out now on Steam, for Windows.

Morphblade was heavily inspired by Imbroglio, so I asked Michael Brough’s permission before developing and selling it, and he was kind enough to give his blessing. The core idea that your location determines your weapon is straight from Imbroglio, but along the way I changed pretty much everything else.

So you move around a hexagonal grid slicing, smashing and bursting waves of nasty red bugs. Each hex you move to turns you into a different weapon: on a Blades hex you can kill things to your sides, on an Arrow you can fire yourself through two enemies in a row. And between waves, you choose how to build out the grid to your own design.

If you’re subscribed to the Humble Monthly Bundle (on 3/3/2017), you already have it. If not, grab it from Steam for $5.

Here’s a video that explains it better!

 

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Games Successfully Developed At Stugan 2016 So Far

I’m in a cabin in the woods in Sweden for seven weeks, with 20ish other game developers, all working on our own games. This is Stugan. None of us have finished yet, but we have successfully developed the following non-digital games along the way, and I release them to you now: Continued

 

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Rewarding Creative Play Styles In Hitman

They’re releasing the new Hitman game bit by bit: one mission a month, set in a new and sprawling location. Good Hitman missions have always been replayable, but this time the whole game is built around it: a Challenges list tells you of the dozens of different ways to take out the target, an Opportunities system highlights little tricks they’ve designed to let you get the target alone, and a Contracts system lets players challenge each other to take out other targets in particular ways.

And it’s great. It takes a bit of getting used to: the levels are much higher security than Blood Money’s, so you pretty much have to use the Opportunities provided to get your targets alone, but there’s still lots of scope to mix that in to your own evil plans, and the levels are so much bigger, richer, and more complex.

But each of the big systems I mentioned does have some shortcomings, and their strengths suggest an even better way to embrace what makes replaying Hitman missions so enduringly fun. So first off, here’s where I think they fall a little short: Continued

 

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The Witness

The Witness is a very pretty island with hundreds of puzzles on iPad things. Some of those puzzles are brilliant, most are decent, many are repetitious or boring, some are aggressively irritating. Luckily none of the good ones are locked off by bad ones. That’s my review, I’m mostly making this post to put up all the best screenshots I took. These are pretty spoiler-free, they only reveal that “There is a place that looks like this”, although a couple have solved puzzle panels in them so don’t look too closely if you have a photographic memory.

After the pretty shots, and a warning, I’m also gonna dump the scrawled-over shots I used to solve some of the trickier puzzles, in case that’s interesting. One of the game’s stranger quirks, to me, is that despite having 523 draw-a-line-on-an-iPad puzzles, its interface for doing this is not as good as a standard paint program, so I often fell back on one of those. Continued

 

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Solving XCOM’s Snowball Problem

What’s snowballing? In XCOM, if your troops survive the mission, they get stronger, tougher and get more abilities, which makes them more likely to survive future missions and get tougher still. If they die, they’re replaced by vulnerable, weak rookies, who are likely to die and be replaced by vulnerable, weak rookies.

If you’re finding the game easy, it gets easier. If you’re finding the game hard, it gets harder.

That’s bad. And it’s not just theory-crafting, that’s exactly how my XCOM 2 campaign played out: early on we got crushed repeatedly, then a few lucky missions got us off the ground, and after that my people became almost unstoppable for 35 missions straight – even after I upped the game difficulty.

Any game with persistent resources will have some snowbally tendencies: success has to get you something, or failure has to cost you something, otherwise it’s not really persistent. And some parts of XCOM’s snowballing are too good to lose: unlocking cool abilities for my favourite troops is why I play XCOM.

So you can’t scrap that, but what could you do? Here are some ideas. Continued

 

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Kill Zone And Bladestorm

I took on a ‘Very Difficult’ mission in XCOM 2 earlier, to protect some device from attacking aliens. I was determined to do it because the reward was a Scientist, and they’ve been impossibly rare in my campaign so far. We immediately ran into two groups of very tough enemies, and though we had good position and lots of explosives, some unseen, extremely powerful enemy was attacking the objective every turn while we fought. Once they were mopped up, we had no time to be cautious: my two rangers had to sprint to the petrol station housing the objective just to distract the aliens there, with no moves left to fight them off. Continued

 

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An Idea For More Flexible Indie Game Awards

I just read Zach Gage’s post proposing some changes to the IGF. My summary of his problems with the current system would be:

  • For ‘best audio’, it’s not clear whether jurors should a) prioritise audio alone, or b) take into account the quality of the rest of the game and how important audio is to it.
  • Currently jurors usually go with b), which “leads to games that are very well designed making it into multiple categories”, reducing the number of distinct games recognised.
  • Medium-length single player games also get disproportionately recognised because they’re easier to judge than huge or multiplayer games, and feel more significant than tiny mobile games.

Generally I think b) is fine, but I do agree that over-celebrating single games is needless, and I think the categories themselves are a pretty rigid and inadequate way of capturing what’s worth celebrating in games.

Zach’s suggestion is to change the categories to reflect game length/type, and have developers choose one category to submit for. I’m not wild about this because a) the categories are still rigid and don’t capture gaming’s diversity of form, and b) a developer could screw themselves by miscategorising their game, which is not the skill we are trying to evaluate or award.

As it happens I’ve been thinking about a different kind of award ceremony I’d like to see ever since the BAFTAs in 2013, and I think it would address a lot of this. Continued

 

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A Tale Of Arabian Nights

I just played my first full game of Tales of Arabian Nights, with my friends Chris and Pip. It’s a board game that’s very story driven: each turn you have an ‘encounter’, and choose a vague verb for how to deal with it: aid, pray, rob, follow, avoid, etc. Then another player looks up and reads out a more detailed account of what happened, and how it affects you. These chain together into a journey, and you win by accumulating Story points and Destiny ones. This was my character’s story: Continued

 

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Thoughts On Fallout 4 And Invisible Inc’s Contingency Plan

On the latest two Crate and Crowbar podcasts I talk about what I’ve been up to in these two games, and what I think of them. Here are the bits where I do that, Fallout first! Continued

 

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Teaching Heat Signature’s Ship Generator To Think In Sectors

I haven’t talked about the way I randomly generate spaceships in Heat Signature since this post – before it even had actual art. That’s partly because I’ve barely touched it since then. I showed the game to developer friends and the press in LA and SF a few weeks ago, and got lots of great input and ideas, but the main thing I came away thinking was: the on-board game needs to be more interesting. And I think better ship interiors are the foundation of that. Continued

 

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What Works And Why: Multiple Routes In Deus Ex

Deus Ex’s appeal is often boiled down to ‘lots of options’, but obviously that doesn’t quite cover it. Right now I’m looking to redesign the ‘sneaking inside spaceships’ part of Heat Signature, so I need more than a vague line about what’s cool about Deus Ex – I need a practical understanding of specifically why it works, and why similar games don’t. So I’m replaying Deus Ex 1 and 3, to figure out what it is I want to steal. And I think it is options, but it’s not just number. They have to fill a certain set of requirements, and this is my attempt to nail down what those are.

I’ve been mostly playing Human Revolution so far, but I’ll also use some examples for DX1 since there’s so much overlap. Continued

 

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Doing Your Job In Metal Gear Solid V

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

A lot of the time, MGS V is just a very good stealth game. You have lots of tools to distract, evade or take down your enemies, and they’re all very satisfying to use – just like Deus Ex 3. Its levels are encampments dotted seamlessly around a huge open world – just like Far Cries 2-4. Its layered systems turn failures into new challenges rather than end points – just like Invisible Inc. But none of those things are new, and MGS V sometimes feels like something that is.

Those times, for me, are not during some particularly great mission, or when some unexpected chain of events creates a cool story. They’re after: when the guards lie sleeping or dead, the cargo containers are ballooning skyward, I’m scampering out with the target (too weak to be similarly ballooned) slung over my shoulders. Continued

 

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