Gunpoint and Heat Signature developer Tom Francis on going from critic to creator

Matthew Jarvis
Gunpoint and Heat Signature developer Tom Francis on going from critic to creator

Everybody's a critic,” goes the old adage and, in the age of the YouTube comment and customer review, rarely has it seemed more veracious.

Examine the Steam or Amazon page for any title and you'll find hundreds – if not thousands – of players offering their helpful insight into how the game can be improved, from pithy two-word fixes – ‘looks bad' – to the sprawling multi-tiered analyses of semi-professional (or plainly passionate) pundits.

In reviews, it's not hard to say what you think of a game, and it's not hard to describe what a game is; the tricky part is saying why it's good and why it's bad,” observes developer Tom Francis.

I would rather write a review that accurately got to the point of why a game was good or bad, but fail to entertain a reader, than vice-versa.”

Francis knows what he's talking about; for nine years, he was one of PC Gamer's foremost writers and critics, known for his rigorous approach to games analysis. This scrutiny, and his lifelong obsession with the way games are – and should be – made, manifested into his own creations.

Once I started making games, I had the accumulated weight of all of the opinions that had built up over the years – ‘quicktime events are bullshit', ‘I hate unskippable cutscenes', ‘I hate losing progress', ‘I hate having to repeat myself' – all these frustrations and gripes that I wanted to solve or do differently in a game of my own.”

That game was 2013's Gunpoint, a noir-inflected stealth title featuring electrical rewiring mechanics inspired by BioShock, Deus Ex and System Shock.

It was a critical success, widely praised for the very gameplay elements Francis set out to revolutionise. Chief among them was a saving system that captured a snapshot of players' progress every five seconds, meaning one of Francis' admitted ‘chief bugbears' – losing progress – was completely eliminated.

I basically just felt very validated,” Francis recalls. For years I had been working on this game thinking 'this seems like this is a really cool idea, it seems like people should like it'. Then when it came out, people did like it – to a vastly bigger extent than I could've possibly have dreamed.”

Gunpoint flourished, leading Francis to depart PC Gamer a mere 10 days after the game's launch on PC. He had made it – so what was next for the newly independent developer?

There were a lot of people asking me to do Gunpoint 2,” he says. Funnily enough, its success sort of encouraged me to not do sequels.

"If I was struggling, then I would probably want to cash in on Gunpoint as much as possible and I would be porting it to every platform under the sun and making DLC and then making a sequel and just trying to milk all the money I could out of it so that I could survive. I haven't had to bleed it dry, thankfully.”

Instead, the title was ported to PC siblings Mac and Linux, before Francis began work on his next project – Heat Signature.

The idea for Heat Signature existed before Gunpoint, albeit in a very different form.

In contrast to the title's eventual stealth-on-spaceships gameplay and 2D visuals, the initial concept for the title was a sort of 'Minecraft-in-space' (before Mojang's behemoth laid its first block, Francis adds) that would see a player-controlled astronaut human cannonball their way into randomly-generated interstellar craft. It was, perhaps, a little too ambitious for a first game.

It was only after Gunpoint, and I had learnt to use Game Maker to make 2D games, that my friend mentioned this to me again and I suddenly thought: 'Actually, now that I know how to make 2D games, I can see how to make that in 2D, and I don't think it would be that hard',” Francis recalls. All of the things that were totally blue sky about it, that were wild extremes and totally impractical, were all to do with it being in a 3D engine.”

In Heat Signature, players are set loose in an infinite galaxy, piloting an assault craft with the sole intention of breaking into larger ships and taking control – both violence and wiliness serve as equally efficient methods.

As with Gunpoint, Heat Signature boasts a number of distinctive gameplay mechanics, as well as echoes of recent indie darlings such as FTL, Spelunky and Hotline Miami. But its sci-fi environment could also see it compete with bigger fry, including expansive titles Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen, the latter of which has more than $84 million of crowdfunding cash propelling it.

It's a bit scary,” Francis admits of the competition. There are loads of space games. I've seen a couple that overlap quite heavily with what Heat Signature is doing. But they also do everything else in the universe as well. That's intimidating at first, but then I realised that the fact that they are doing everything means that it's not actually that worrying, because their game isn't about boarding spaceships – that's not what you do in that game, it's just a natural consequence of the things that they've simulated. So they don't scratch the same itch.

Because they're not as focused, it's harder to know what their game is even about – what are you meant to do in this game? What's it really about? What's the cool thing about it? They all seem vaguely exciting, but then there's lots of them, so they're all kind of interchangeable.”

"I don't care if your game took you 15 years to make – you're still asking 30 for it, and if it's shit, then I'm going to say it's shit."

Tom Francis

It's now been two years since Francis was able to transition to full-time game development. Now working on the other side of the fence, does he feel differently about his time as a critic?

I did have a newfound appreciation for what things are difficult and what things are easy, but I didn't change my assessment of a game because of that,” he says with certitude. I don't think a developer gets extra credit for a game being hard to make; I don't care if it took you 15 years, you're still asking 30 for it, and if it's shit, then I'm going to say it's shit.”

Gunpoint proved Francis could walk the walk, and many would have sympathised with him if he had cashed in on the game's success. But, instead, it's the desire to have his say on the games industry that continues to push him.

I don't think Heat Signature is going to be an obscure art piece that no one understands,” he says.

I have no reason to believe it has less commercial potential than Gunpoint, but that just didn't enter into my mind when I was coming up with ideas. It was purely just: I'm excited by this, so I'm going to make it.”