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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

Valve Steal Sixth James Weapon Idea, Sell It

You can now buy stuff for real money in Team Fortress 2. First thoughts:

  • The world has ended. No further world can be built.
  • Oh wait, you can still get everything for free.
  • This is fine, so long as they don’t make the free route slower.
  • Hey, they made the free route slower!
  • Man, now they won’t even want to make a drop system that doesn’t suck – one that lets me work towards what I want, or ever gives me a hat.
  • I’m glad crafting the new stuff is pretty easy, though.
  • Wait a minute: finding a load of stuff I don’t want, plus easy crafting and trading, wavy-equals working towards what I want?
  • Yes – very, very slowly, and with no hope of getting a hat.

So it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been. But I think it’s been mishandled: if the point really is to channel money to community contributors, only sell community items. Add your own when players demand it. And if you don’t want to make non-purchasers feel left out, launch with a few Valve-made weapons unlockable with achievements, and make them the focus.

Because that’s how I feel, as someone who doesn’t want to burn through a lot of cash on this. TF2 isn’t a game for me anymore – the only people who get to play it all are the ones prepared to pay. It’s nice that there’s a lot to unlock, but in practise, even the much lower crafting requirements are way too high for someone like me. It takes seven items I don’t want to make one that I do, and that’s more than I find in a month.

Black Box 2

Even after months of play, I won’t have the +25 health that Scouts who pay do. The chances of finding all the items required for a set bonus, particularly the hat, are negligible.

I do really like the Black Box, though – a vampiric rocket launcher with a smaller clip. It limits your aggressive capacity, but suits the calculating way I play Soldier: safe distance, medkit near, Equaliser ready, Buff Banner steadily charging.

The item that’s closest to one of my suggestions, the knife that rapidly steals your victim’s identity, is a total bust. The ability itself is a satisfyingly stylish flourish, but they’ve paired it with a wildly disproportionate drawback: the inability to disguise at will.

That’s such a massive, constant pain in the arse for an advantage that’s really only useful when facing exactly two people, both of whom are looking the wrong way, and even then only if the second of them looks round less than a second but more than half a second after your kill. And doesn’t spy check.

They should have actually stolen my idea, rather than independently coming up with their own that has just enough in common for me to make false accusations about it on my blog. My knife had some trivial drawback that would rarely hinder anyone – it’d sell even better.

Valve Steal Most Of Tom’s Evening

Engineer night was horrific. I haven’t seen this many stalemates since Hydro. Everyone’s desperate for the new unlocks, but the achievements that unlock them either require the unlocks, or are based around Engineering in the context of a normal game. Stuff like supporting a Heavy while he mows people down. When your friends and opponents are all just static installations of angry metal gun, there’s not a lot of scope for that.

Dead Engy

For the lucky few who got them, the new unlocks looked amazing. You can Wrangle a Gunslung Combat Sentry, so your damage boost negates its reduced damage output, your shield negates its level 1 hitpoints, and your beam gives it seemingly infinite range. It’s as ridiculous as that collection of words.

Wrangled Combat Sentry

In the end, none of the individual unlocks matched the specs of any of my suggestions closely enough to justify my mock accusations of plagiarism. But the set of abilities these give you – deploy small sentries quickly, move them, shield instead of repair, and direct their fire manually – is just what I wanted from mine. If I ever actually earn the damn things, I’ll be extremely happy.

Sniper Bow

Valve Steal Fifth James Weapon Idea

Engy: Portable Sentry

Valve Steal Third And Fourth James Weapon Ideas

Not really, of course: the newly announced Wrangler is a more intricate beast than my Laser Pointer or Shield Spanner suggestions. It sounds ridiculous: not only do you get to direct your Sentry’s fire, but it’s also nigh-impervious to harm and twice as powerful. But of course, if you’re using the Wrangler, you’re not using your Wrench. So your Sentry isn’t getting healed, and it has to shut down for three seconds if you whip out your spanner.

I won’t pretend to know how this will play out, but I actually think this is how Sentries should always have been. There should be no auto mode. Having the AI spot and shoot human players robs the Engy of the satisfaction of doing it himself, and the victim the knowledge that they were caught out by a real opponent. Instead, a computer has all the fun, and the players it kills don’t learn much: the computer simply out-damaged them. Most of the time I die to a Sentry, my only other option was to hang back and do nothing.

So I’m glad the Wrangler sounds crazy powerful, because I’d like everyone to use it, all the time. I’d rather have a tougher but fallible opponent, and one that doesn’t rapidly self-heal, than the alternative.

I’m taking some time off at the moment (which will hopefully translate to some progress with Private Dick), but Jaz and the guys have been running an amazingly good days-long liveblog of every snippet of information that’s come out about the Engineer update.

Team Fortress 2 Updates In Perspective

There’s only one class left for Valve to update in Team Fortress 2, the Engineer. One by one, Valve have given each of the other eight characters a set of alternative weapons, and with each release there’s been a batch of new maps, game modes and features to play with. The amount of free stuff we’ve had since I wrote up the first details of the unlocks system at the start of 2008 is obscene.

hl2 2009-12-18 13-54-54-79 sniper

When the inventory system went down briefly before the latest update, we were temporarily stuck with TF2 much as it was in 2007. The feeling was, “Where did the game go?” Compare that to something like Halo 3, released around the same time, which has functionally barely changed and charged a total of £20 ($30) for its new maps.

One thing that hasn’t changed since that article (funny to read in light of how much has) is the spirit of the updates, framed there: “The unlockables aren’t just beefed up versions of the weapons, they balance major advantages and disadvantages to fundamentally alter the role of that class.” While Steam forumites have turned that ethos into an imperative law to be screechingly enforced by the limp fist of internet tantrums, the gist is basically universal: the unlocks are supposed to change the way the class plays in a meaningful way. How successful have they been?

revo is looking good!
Medic (April 08): decent – the Kritzkrieg is a nice idea but badly needed the large charge-rate boost it later got. The Ubersaw set the standard for awesome new melee weapon ideas with negligible drawbacks that would continue to enrage weird forumites for twenty more months without ever actually making the game less fun.

mann [cp] is looking good!
Pyro (June 08): great – the Backburner turns the Pyro into the ambush class he was always meant to be, but they also added the airblast ability to the standard flamethrower to make the trade-off more interesting. To this day there are two distinct breeds of Pyro playing properly different roles. Also, the Axtinguisher is the second best idea Valve ever stole from me (and somehow implimented in 19 days).

mr doudou  [-mini] is looking good!
Heavy (August 08): weak – the Heavy was one of the least played classes at the time, today he’s dead last. It’s not because he’s underpowered; he’s the second highest scoring class and the most deadly by a head. It’s just a very rocky experience getting those kills, because everyone seems to have an easy way of doing something horrible to you, and you don’t seem to have a way of avoiding any of it. He needed unlocks that would give him some flexibility, some get-outs or workarounds. Instead he got a gun that’s good against Scouts (rarely a problem in my experience), the admittedly neat Sandvich and some fun but impractical gloves. Needs a revisit.

necromancer is looking good!
Scout (Feb 09): mixed – the Force-A-Nature and Sandman get changed, patched and bitched about so much that I have to assume they haven’t been totally successful yet, but I can’t get a handle on them myself. People can do things with the Force that I don’t even understand – suck me towards them or one-shot me – and yet it’s utterly useless in my hands. Bonk tackles the main problem with the class, survivability against Sentries, but it’s still not useful enough that I ever want to play the class once turrets crop up.

mibeshu is looking good!
Sniper (May 09): superb – the Huntsman transformed him from a stay-at-home trouncing twat to a roaming predator, powerful but vulnerable. Its viability at medium and near range leads to so many breathsnatching life-or-death snap shot moments against guys who’d kill him in a second if they didn’t have an arrow in their face. Jarate lets him help friends take care of threats he’s not suited to, or just insult his killer before an inevitable death. I don’t really see the point of the Razorback in a world where Spies can headshot, but whatever.

Raven185 is looking good!_0001
Spy (May 09): superb – the Dead Ringer creates an Action Spy subclass the likes of which we’ve never seen, and the Cloak and Dagger lets him be the methodical, oppourtunistic infiltrator his abilities always hinted at. Some clever thought about which kind of cloaks should recharge from ammo makes the choice a tough one, and better still, situational. Now that people have cottoned onto it the Dead Ringer noise is a little too loud – it might be fun if he masked it by calling out a random line of the class he’s dressed as: suspicious, but not conclusive. The Ambassador is effective but, if you ask me, too much of an overlap with the Sniper and pretty horrible-sounding.

suce la rape is looking good! soldier
Soldier (Dec 09): great – the Direct Hit finally makes rocket combat feel like a mindgame rather than a spamgame, and the Equaliser is way better than my idea: it’s the speed increase at low health that really makes it. It’s the one weapon I love to hear people complain about, because having been that Soldier who one-shotted them, I know how terrifyingly close to death he was. Bugle: indifferent.

hl2 2009-12-22 07-50-54-70 demoman
Demoman (Dec 09): good – the sword and shield don’t make a new subclass of Demoman, they make the tenth class. His massive resilience to explosions demands proper restrategising, and I love the way the Heads mechanic makes him one of the few classes with something to lose. The more lives you take, the faster and tougher you are, so the more you want to preserve your advantage and therefore life. Charging is hilarious. I do think the sound and feel of melee combat in TF2 isn’t quite up to doing a big sword justice, though: it feels wrong for its blows to be met with a quiet crunch, for its swings to connect in much the same way as a bottle’s, and to be able to whack a Pyro three times without killing him. I also think it’s a crime not to have provided a Grenade Launcher alternative: is sucks for all the reasons regular grenades suck.

It’s an excellent track record. The mis-steps haven’t made those classes worse, just failed to improve them – a failure that’s default in other games. The way these unlocks are earned has also changed, but strangely. For the sake of the scrollbar, I’ll save what’s wrong with that and how to fix it for another post.

hl2 2009-12-18 19-54-08-38

Team Fortress 2 Unlockable Weapon Ideas

Update: This post was written in May 2008, when only the Medic had new weapons. Since then, some weapons have been added that have similar concepts to these. Valve even gave me a special sparkly Equalizer (similar to the Last Ditch Digger here) and a lovely shoutout in the Solider update.

Obviously we’ve all thought about this a bit at one point or another. I thought the most interesting way of doing it would be to think up just one alternative to every weapon, device and ability in the game. Then I realised there are 29 of them, and did it anyway. I hadn’t originally planned on illustrating them – for reasons I hope will be obvious once you see my illustrations – that just kind of happened. Sorry. Continued