Tom Francis, formerly an editor for PC Gamer, has crossed the Rubicon into game development. His first project, Gunpoint, was remarkably successful, and that's giving him plenty of time to work on his next game, called Heat Signature. Polygon sat down with him at GDC to take a test drive of his latest effort, still in early alpha.
In Heat Signature players take on the role of a solitary saboteur in possession of both a massive pipe wrench and a remarkable one-man assault spacecraft. That ship is capable of fantastic speed and maneuverability, but also near-silent flight. The gameplay mixes the physics based, top-down space combat of the classic Star Control with the top-down brawler combat of Hotline Miami. The result is a roguelike with lots of promise.
My demo began with my saboteur and his ship floating in space. Francis encouraged me to step on the gas, which meant pointing my cursor in the direction of a nearby radar contact and hitting the left mouse button.
Before long I was travelling at a speed that can best be described as entirely too fast. A long, yellow-red tail behind my tiny spacecraft stretched the length of the screen and, when I finally closed in on my target — a homely purple freighter — I overshot it by a country mile.
But on my way by, I also happened to slam directly into the field of view of its short-range optical sensor, prompting it to launch a volley of missiles as it turned to follow me.
The jig was up.
But not all was lost, Francis told me. If I could just shake the missiles off my tail, there was a chance that I could loop back and try to board the ship again.
I kept my current course, and before long I had run outside of the ship's long-range radar. The missiles lost their lock and began to spiral out of control.
The next step was to manage my heat. The cooler my ship was, Francis told me, the easier it would be to avoid detection next time — hence the name of the game, Heat Signature. The freighter would chase after me along my previous course, but if my own ship was cool enough by the time it passed by I might be able to dodge its sensors and sneak in alongside.
I lowered my mouse cursor, which turned my ship slightly, and hit the gas again. The maneuver skidded me away from from my prior vector at an oblique angle. Then I pulled a 180 degree turn, pulsed my engines slightly to stop myself, and waited.
Sure enough, the freighter passed above me, searching the inky gas cloud for where it thought I should be. That's part of the game's fiction, Francis told me. These gas clouds are rich in resources, but very difficult to police. That mean's there's a lot of merchant and industrial traffic, and consequently lots of pirates like me looking to make an easy buck.
Before long the purple freighter charged into view. I gently eased alongside it, matching its velocity and, spinning my ship gingerly to line up my docking hatch, silently latched onto the airlock.
Easy peasy. I was in.
But the mission was far from over. Armed with nothing but that pipe wrench, I would spend the next few minutes playing a cat-and-mouse game with the patrolling crew. That involved my WASD keys, a la Hotline Miami, as well as a considerable amount of blunt force trauma to the head.
After a few minutes, I had done the grisly work and the ship was mine. But, Francis said, that's not the only way I could have accomplished my goal.
Every ship is a puzzle, both inside and out.
Each ship is composed of a series of sections, like Lego blocks. One block for a passageway, another for a missile battery, one for a fuel tank and so on. If I had taken over the section of the ship that controls the bulkheads, for instance, I could have easily locked each armed member of the crew into their own section of the ship. Then, with the crew tucked safely away, I could have casually made my way to the bridge to bludgeon the captain to death in my own time.
Or, I could have used those same bulkhead controls to lock myself into a section of the ship, and used remotely triggered explosives to breach the hull and flush the atmosphere — and the entire crew — out into space.
The next step in development, he said, was to make the other ships in the game world more diverse. He showed me some concept art that diverged wildly from the purple freighter I'd been chasing for the last 20 minutes; solid-looking, gray floating slabs; long, thin ships that resembled a row of teeth; weird, spindly things that looked like a bad level from Pipe Dream. Each ship will be its own puzzle to solve, both inside and out, and each will have its own reason for capturing it.
The possibilities, to hear Francis tell it, are endless. The trouble now is planning for the overworld of the game, like the galactic map and the factions that players will one day be able to work for. Soon, he says, the game will open up to a wider set of closed beta testers. You can sign up here.
But when will you be able to play a demo? He's genuinely not got a clue. For now he's just floating along, holding onto his indie success for dear life, and trying to make his way in the universe.