The development lessons behind Heat Signature

Gunpoint, an indie side-scrolling stealth game, was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2013. It radiated a suave, neo-noir style that contrasted strongly with its comedic tone. Designer Tom Francis’ cheeky, British sense of humor shone throughout. Nobody could wait to see what he did next.

Heat Signature, Francis’ next game, took nearly four years to arrive. If you shell out a few extra bucks for the Supporter's Edition of the new title, you get nine developer commentary videos explaining exactly why that long wait happened and how the game evolved from its original concept to its finished state.

Try. Fail. Try Again.

Heat Signature blasts off from the rainy noir streets of Earth into a galaxy full of spaceships just waiting to get hijacked. You play a space pirate/freedom fighter looking to liberate the galaxy by taking on daring missions to rescue/assassinate VIPs and steal space ships. Complete enough missions and a space station will convert to your cause, giving you a new safe place to buy stuff and take on missions.

In the behind-the-scenes videos, Francis describes the gameplay of Heat Signature as “make a plan, the plan fails, make a new plan”. That sequence could be used to describe the development process of the game itself. Francis iterated again and again on his design. He wasn’t afraid to make mistakes, and approached each challenge with gusto. In one of the later videos, he mentions a game convention where he observed convention attendees playing a beta, asked them about the experience, immediately alteedr the game to incorporate their feedback, and then presented the game to someone else.

Being a solo developer means never having to pass your ideas and revisions through a committee before presenting them to the gaming public, and Francis made the most of it.

Merging Genre Conventions

Francis describes Heat Signature as “a roguelike but in a persistent world… like Hotline Miami but it’s not about skill.” The action revolves around a “real time with pause” system similar to classic isometric American RPGs. You can pause at any time to issue commands, swap inventory, and use items, which include grenades, teleporters, wrenches, and guns.

This is a great system. It’s very easy to fail the stealth sequences because, under time pressure, you accidentally zigged when you meant to zag. Knowing what needs to be done is complicated by being able to execute the command with only a split second to think. Francis mentions that while he developed this feature, he was playing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The game has so many options that he found himself struggling to do what he wanted.

As a result, he reimagined Heat Signature’s inventory screen, transforming it into the pause screen you see in the final game. This transformed the game from a reflex- and skill-based game into a zany story generator. It’s not hard to use a swapper to switch places with a guard, pause, shoot his friend in the face, pause, fling a wrench at the final guard, pause, and stab the ship’s captain to disable the security alarm. If you fail at that, a guard might knock you unconscious and flush you out an airlock. You can then pause, take remote control of your own ship, use it to rescue yourself, fly back to the hostile ship, and have another go, utilizing what you’ve learned.

Kill Your Darlings

Francis spent a great deal of time on the structure of the galaxy and how you can alter the allegiance of space stations, as well as the in-game reasons for doing so. He discusses implementing mechanics that involve hijacking a certain number of ships, hijacking a certain kind of ship, pillaging trade routes, or completing particular kinds of missions. In the end, he simply decided to abstract the entire station liberation mechanic. Completing missions give you “liberation juice” as he calls it, and when you get enough you unlock a new station that provides you with a new home base and new tech.

In the development videos it’s fascinating to see how Francis resists this abstraction for years and eventually settles on the exact opposite of what he initially wanted to do, but in the final version, it works well.

It’s also fascinating to see Francis work out mission selection. You wouldn’t think that would require so much iteration and fine tuning, but he worked on it for years. Early betas involved wandering around the galaxy looking for ships to invade, whereas in the final version, you simply select missions from a menu at your home base. While being a roaming space pirate seems like fun gameplay, you end up having little understanding of what awaits you aboard the ship and you have no way to prepare.

Choosing between five scenarios in your home base allows you to prep your gear loadout and think about your approach. It lets you do so fast, getting you to the core gameplay quickly. Actions that will be repeated often need to be accomplished as easily as possible. Most players don’t even think about mission selection while playing Heat Signature, and much time and effort went into ensuring that fact.

In releasing these videos, Francis shows you how the sausage gets made and how he had to occasionally leap into the vat and pull out the rotten bits. This level of self-reflection takes an enormous amount of discipline; it’s necessary to say so because Francis makes it look effortless. It’s not easy to kill your darlings. By the end of it all, Francis has a Doom-trooper-sized pile of dead ideas at his feet. The final game is well-done and even managed to exceed Gunpoint’s sales.

This (probably unintentional) master class in indie game design is definitely worth checking out. Pick up the Supporter's Edition of Heat Signature on Steam or the Humble store to see it for yourself.