Scope Creep: A useful, treacherous tool, says Heat Signature dev

"Scope creep is a bad, dirty term, yet it’s also been my fundamental development technique," joked Tom Francis, developer behind the games Heat Signature and Gunpoint.

Scope creep, whereby a game’s development overextends its planned schedule, can be both a crucial benefit to a project, and a critical mistake.

So said Tom Francis, the British developer of indie hits Gunpoint and Heat Signature at a talk delivered at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this afternoon.

Both of Francis’ games, which were released in 2013 and 2017 respectively, were critical and commercial successes; both exceeded their planned development schedules by a significant margin.

“Scope creep is a bad, dirty term, yet it’s also been my fundamental development technique,” joked Francis. The truth is, he said, that “if it’d stuck to my original plan on those games, I wouldn’t be here today: I’d just be someone with a slightly boring, unfinished hobby projects.

"All of the good things in those games, came from ideas that I found along the way.”

“Until you make something you don’t know anything,” said Francis. “You have to make things by prototyping them, in order to know whether or not it works.”

He gave an example of this kind of beneficial scope creep that he encountered early into his career as a game developer. It was through prototyping on Gunpoint that Francis discovered what would become the heart of the game: the ability for players to hack into and rewire buildings in order to support their objectives.

When Francis tested an idea that allows players to rewire a light switch to control an automated door, he found the quiddity of the experience he as looking for. “I made a little bit of everything and then saw what shone,” he said. “That’s a pretty good rule when it works, but a pretty bad rule when it doesn't.”

It didn't work with Heat Signature, he explained, as the core of that game's experience did not reveal itself to him in the same way as it had done with his debut title. Francis said that he soon got lost in the weeds of prototyping his second game, which took two years longer to release than he initially intended. “To test the idea of Heat Signature, I had to pretty much make Heat Signature; there was no way to break it down into discrete chunks,” he explained.

In attempting to figure out how he might have avoided this issue in future, Francis said that he needed to ask better questions of his game, such as: "How much of the game do I need to make in order to know whether it will work?"

Francis further encouraged developers to ask the question: "Would it ruin the game if this bit was kinda bland?" The answer to this question, he said, will help a developer to focus in on the aspects of their game that are crucial to its success.

With an infinite amount of time and resources, every aspect of a game would be polished to the finest degree. But in reality, there are key aspects which need to be finessed in order to ensure the game's unique identity and integrity, and things around this core which can be more rudimentarily implemented, without significantly undermining the whole.

Francis concluded by laying down the four rules he has made for himself in order to distinguished between useful scope creep, and damaging scope creep:

  • Choose a game idea that’s quick to prototype
  • Prototype the important parts
  • Decide which should be the core
  • Creep as far as you like in that direction

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