Heat Signature [official site] is an action/stealth game in which you can go inside the spaceships, from the team behind Gunpoint. I played a recent build last week and spoke to its lead designer Tom Francis about how how it's grown into a game of factional war, if it can ever be finished, comedy wrench KOs and the awkwardness of journalists covering ex-journalists' games. By which I mean: disclaimer - I used to work at the same magazine company as Tom, and we socialised on occasion.
Heat Signature's pratfalls-in-space concepts were a giggle already, but the scope has expanded dramatically since the first time I saw it, less than a year ago. It's becoming Galactic Civilizations as well as this sort of high-speed, outer space heist game. Gunpoint's use of physics as both freeform puzzle and source of Three Stooges comedy ethos is very clearly in there, as is a shared determination to ensure the player is doing their own thing in any given second of the game, but as well as stealing procedurally-generated spaceships you now get to play galactic factions against each other in a persistent universe. This wasn't the original plan.
"At one point it was going to be no longer than a game of Spelunky," lead designer Tom Francis tells me as I play the game during the Develop conference last week. "It wouldn't make a lot of sense, you'd be playing again and again and it would be resetting the scenario, replaying that universe and I started to realise it's ridiculous. I'm making this huge galaxy, and it's really hard to make that happen, so I might as well make it into a proper place that has this sense of persistence. I particularly like the idea of the galaxy being persistent but your lives being disposable." Your little pilot can die - and will die often - but the changes you've made to the galaxy, as you took on quests, shut down enemy trade routes and pushed one faction or another into a position of relative dominance, will persist.
"There are about five factions that will have pre-written backstories and will have reasons to be there," Tom explains. "Each faction will basically see the others as the bad guys, and whichever one you work for will tell you conflicting stories about the others." You're a freelancer, able to take on contracts from anyone - even the guys you just dicked over, if you so wish. And are careful enough. "I'd like to have it so it allowed you to do that, but if you're ever spotted aboard an enemy ship that faction will never give you missions again. So if you want to play the sides against each other you would have to be ultra-stealthy."
Contracts currently involve either killing an enemy NPC or stealing something (with more variations to come), and in both cases involve docking your tiny pod with a procedurally-generated spaceship, after very carefully avoiding its detection systems and trying not to collide with it, else you'll be bombarded by missiles. Once you board, the game switches from high speed space travel in a vast nebula of dreamy colours to controlling a little guy on foot as he sneaks about the enemy ship's boxy interior.
Over time he can buy weapons and explosives, but noise will tend to bring guards running, so a trusty wrench is the mainstay. You can either creep up behind someone and clobber them, or you can hurl the tool from distance, Hotline Miami style. Only if you do it dead on and not too far away, it'll bounce right off the guard and knock you out for a spell too. "I don't think I'm going to fix that," Tom laughs.
Like Gunpoint before it, Heat Signature is as much a game about things going wrong as it is a game about figuring out how to get in and get out without losing your life. In a half hour or so with it, exclamations include "Holy shit, he hit you with a wrench like 19 times", ""We've been boarded! By... a corpse?" and "quick, throw yourself out of the airlock!" I'm sucked into space as a result of my own bomb, I manage to get my ship blown up whilst docking but stumbled through the airlock of the target ship microseconds before the explosion, leaving me all but stuck on board forever, and I knock myself out with my own wrench so very many times. It didn't stop being funny.
Ultimately though, Tom hopes to tweak ship design, guard behaviour and mission types enough that each time you board you're faced with a logic challenge. "I want it to have more a sense of when you enter a ship you look at it and think "hmm, how do I do this one? How will I get past this locked door, how do I get to the guy up there?' I think one solution will be having fixed patrol routes. Right now the guards all roam randomly, you can't really plan around that."
Tom's first game Gunpoint was an enormous success, at least in terms of an independent game. Days after its launch, Tom was able to leave his job on PC Gamer, and already had enough money that he wouldn't need to work for many years if he didn't want to. That might not have happened in 2014 or 2015, partly because Steam is so crowded now. "I always knew I got really lucky with Gunpoint, and over the last few years I keep re-realising that to new degrees. Hell, I got really, really lucky. Before it came out I had no real concept of what a successful game on Steam looked like. Even if you had told me it was going to be at this position in the charts for this amount of time, I had no idea how much money that would make or how viable it would make my career."
I ask Tom if he feels as weird about me interviewing him as I do. Given our history, my sticking a dictaphone in front of his face is something that I personally find awkward. Not so Tom. "At some point in Gunpoint's development, I switched from being someone who struggles for things to say in interviews to hitting some sort of critical mass, where now I have the total accumulated thoughts I've had about videogames and can talk almost indefinitely. I had an interview once where they asked me one question - and I talked for 45 minutes. I've become a gobshite, basically."
That's not quite what I meant, of course. I haven't seen or spoken to Tom in any context other than him showing me one of his games in at least half a decade, but even so, and even despite the disclaimers I run whenever I mention said games on this site, on this site, I'm very aware that we were once on the same side of the fence. Does that change the nature of the coverage, or how Tom works with journalists?
"I briefly wonder when I ask 'hey, do you want to see Heat Signature?', do you feel obligated to say yes?", Tom reveals. "I hope you don't and I wouldn't be at all offended if you didn't. If I show it to a journalist and then don't write about it, I take the hint. I believe that you wouldn't cover it if you didn't like it. If I showed you some boring shit you wouldn't be like,'I've got to write about it because it's Tom.'" He acknowledges, though, that "my unfair advantage is that I get a chance to get my game in front of you, but I don't think I get an unfair advantage in you deciding whether to cover it." He's right - Heat Signature has a little of the Elite fantasy to it, but the action is hugely accessible, entirely on your own terms and provokes a great deal of laughter.
With Heat Signature it's not quite the same dilemma as with Tom’s first game, when he was an unknown quantity as a designer. An awful lot of people turned out to really liked Gunpoint, RPS included, and thanks to that game, Tom is a proven developer rather than a curiosity. But, I wonder, would the risk of an ethics witch hunt, given his previous press assocations, also have meant a very different Gunpoint launch were it happening today? "I feel like I'm a white male making games with guns with in them, so I feel like people aren't looking for reasons to jump down my throat. It's not like they would never target me if I did do something unethical, but [journalists] did disclose it so... It might have been a terrible thing, but maybe not."
Though set in, without comment, a "post-discrimination society" in which "you might be playing as a character with a Norwegian first name and a Japanese surname, whose skin colour you don't associate with either, and in a role which might have once been considered unsuitable for a woman", Heat Signature is first and foremost a game about guns. Also spaceships, and bombs, and stealth, and wrenches you can throw at people. And a whole lot else. It might look relatively simple in screenshots, but there's a whole lot in there, with more still to come.
Every few minutes, Tom mentions something else he wants to put into a game which has already expanded enormously since its initial conception. Clearly this isn't going to be Star Citizen, but is there a risk, given that he doesn't need the money any time soon, that he might end up tinkering with the design endlessly? "I do have a lot of internal checks against that. I get bored easily. One of the reasons I didn't make Gunpoint 2 is that, by the time I finished Gunpoint, I was bored of Gunpoint. This, I'm not bored of yet.
There's part of my brain which says 'maybe you'll never get bored of it, this is just a game that you can be excited about forever.' Which previously I wouldn't have thought was possible, but Chris Delay on Prison Architect, I've asked if he's thinking of wrapping it up at some point and he replies, 'why does everyone keep asking me that? I'm not bored of it, I want to keep working on it indefinitely.' My instinct is that I'm probably not that guy, I think I will move on to a different idea, I have lots of ideas that I want to do. So that is the pressure, to get it to a certain point then release it."
It is clear, however, that he really enjoys watching people play his game, particularly when they die in ridiculous ways. It seems to me very clearly born of Tom's own interests - Hitman and Deus Ex and Spelunky. So how much of an auteur is he about it? Would he want to have his name in its title? "No, not at all. In fact I try and find every excuse I can to mention that this is by three people and Gunpoint was by six people. I know it's my fault because I'm always the person doing press for it, but it's surprising how many people say Gunpoint was just one guy. I'm sure I've never said that, but there isn't really a good way to keep saying 'there were five other people involved with this and here are their names.' But yeah, same artist from Gunpoint, John Roberts, and the composer is a Russian guy called Ivan Semidolin."
But he does talk about concerns that games can "die in obscurity" if they don't get enough attention; it's clear that he's concerned about something far more personal than money. "I certainly don't feel that it has to appeal to everyone who liked Gunpoint. That's one of the reasons I'm not doing a sequel, because people just expect sequels to be everything you like about the first one, plus this extra stuff, and that's not a design that really interests me. I don't want to just bolt new stuff onto an old design. I want to be able to scrap things and do totally new things."
Heat Signature is very clearly a Tom Francis (and friends) game, but it is also very much new things. I wouldn't put money on when we'll all eventually get to see it, but it's expanded and improved hugely over the last year and I get a strong sense now of how it will all pull together. Elite: Dangerous swaddles me in a dreamland of stars, but it's a job, whereas Heat Signature might just be a go-to for simply dicking around as a space cowboy.