Moving from a linear puzzle game with a limited amount of levels and a modest scope to a procedurally generated, potentially endless action roguelike is a pretty ambitious shift, and one that Tom Francis seems to have taken in stride.
But ambition isn’t the only shift he’s made between his first commercial game, Gunpoint, and his second, Heat Signature; he’s also shifted from working in his free time to investing all of his working hours into development.
This success of Gunpoint gave him the freedom to work full-time on Heat Signature, a free-roaming space rogue-like that has you infiltrate and board vast spaceships to sabotage them from the inside. It also allowed him to hire his collaborator from Gunpoint, John Roberts, to work as an artist on Heat Signature.
“I don’t think it’s affecting our working relationship much,” Francis tells me. “He did quit his job at the same time as I did, so we’re both full time-ish, but he’s free to work on other projects and I don’t think Heat Signature takes up all of his time. It’s very nice that I’m able to pay him as we go, and I feel very good about that.
"Previously, we were both in the situation where we had full-time jobs, and we were both working in our free time, so we were happy to work for a revenue share. In fact, we were both happy to work for nothing, as [Gunpoint] was originally going to be a free game, which was when we both committed to it. So it’s definitely been nice.”
Gunpoint took nearly three years to develop, with work squeezed into weekends and the occasional holiday. Heat Signature has been in development for about a year and a half. This gives Francis enough time with the latter to compare the two different development experiences.
“It doesn’t feel like I’m blistering through the work at lightning pace.” He tells me. “With Gunpoint, if I took a week off to work on it solidly, I would get so much more done. It was amazingly satisfying. But I think I’ve picked a proportionally harder concept, so working on this full time is about as slow as working on Gunpoint part time was.”
I posit that maybe having a five-day break between spurts of development might have allowed his subconscious mind more time to chew over problems?
“The design side of it goes at the same rate regardless of whether you’re working on it full time or part time, as that mostly goes on in the background,” he offers. “Your brain just crunches on the problems as you do things. But with coding, it just takes a lot of hours. Getting it right is a very time-intensive thing, and it does help a lot if you’re free to spend a long time on a problem, or stick with it until it’s done, or at least take a break and then come straight back to it.”
“The problem with Gunpoint was that if I didn’t fix a problem that weekend, I couldn’t come back to it the next day; I had to wait until next weekend, and by that point I had forgotten completely what the problem was, and would have to figure out what it was and why it was happening and all that stuff. Taking a break can be useful, but it doesn’t need to be five days long.”
With Gunpoint, Francis was learning the coding as he went along, using Gamemaker to create his espionage puzzle game about sneaking around, rewiring buildings, and punching guards a few too many times in the face. Heat Signature uses Gamemaker too, but the scope is much larger, with far more systemic elements.
I ask if Heat Signature been easier to develop now that he has some more coding experience?
“I definitely think Gunpoint was a much easier game to make, but I think both games have frustrated me on the coding side of things, because I’m not really cut out for coding,” Francis explains. “It requires an extraordinary amount of patience, and it also requires you to never get too confident, and the way my brain is wired is that when I start something I have no confidence at all and am happy to learn and happy to sit there and figure things out, for a while. As I have a few successes, I get more confident, and then I expect things to work more and more. I’m at the point now where if something doesn’t work, I’m just livid. I can’t believe it, it’s astonishing to me that it hasn’t worked. I just expect to be good at programming now, but I’m not, and probably no one is.”
After our conversation, it’s obvious to me that Francis has managed to pick a game concept that's well-suited to his current level of expertise. The level of ambition and complexity means that it's going to be just as difficult to develop as his first game Gunpoint was when he had no previous experience. Hopefully, the process of making Heat Signature will be just as exciting as his maiden effort was, and the result will be just as successful.