Tom Francis has been chronicling the development of his game Heat Signature in great detail on a frequently updated blog. The game has seen a major shift in focus over the course of development: it started out being about sneaking aorund in the vacuum of space, but gradually became more about sneaking around and engaging in combat inside of spaceships.
Initially the focus was on the titular heat-based stealth, as players would manage the Heat Signature of their vessel through thruster use, slipping under enemy sensors to dock and board them. Because the development process on Heat Signature is so transparent, there was an impetus to give the mechanic (and the game) a name at an early stage.
But as time went on, less and less emphasis has been put on this mechanic. Francis says that this is not necessarily because it’s weak, but because development has lead him in other directions. Now, managing your heat signature as you travel through space is just one element of many mechanics, and one that he’s actually having some difficulty communicating to the player.
"I’m always very conscious of this threshold that we’re quickly approaching where the amount of work I’m putting into making this system understandable to people is not proportional to how much fun it adds to the game. "
“I wrestle on a regular basis about whether it’s even needed any more,” he tells me. “Because people just don’t seem to understand it. It’s very intuitive to me, and to my artist Jon, but whenever new players play it, they think heat is the same thing as speed, or they just get very confused about what’s generating it."
"To me it’s very obvious that when you’re thrusting, that’s heating you up, and when you’re not you’re cooling down, and we do explicitly tell you that. Now we’ve added a heat bar, but I’m always very conscious of this threshold that we’re quickly approaching where the amount of work I’m putting into making this system understandable to people is not proportional to how much fun it adds to the game. Probably, if I could go back in time, I would scrap it entirely, but I’m a bit too invested at this point.”
Since the focus has shifted indoors, Francis tells me that he has toyed changing the name of the game to "Go Inside Spaceships." (He concedes that that might be a bit too literal.)
“It used to be that every ship in the galaxy had a heat sensor, so all of them required ‘heat stealth’ to approach,” he continues. “Now only some of them have these sensors, because we found it’s a much better first experience for the player if they don’t immediately hit a heat sensor, because they’re something that take a long time to understand.’
"Everyone’s first experience was to go full pelt, full heat, slam into the hull of a ship, right past its heat sensor, get detected immediately and then blown up. Almost every single person did that, and none of them understood why they died, and it was just too much too soon. We’ve now limited them to just some ships so people have a chance to get used to the basics before they’ve introduced to that. It’s a weird thing because it was in there from the start, and Heat Signature was always going to be about going inside ships, and the ‘heat’ thing was just a vague theme and title.”
Appropriately, this problem is one that Francis ran into with his previous game, Gunpoint. That one was also named before he’d settled on a final core mechanic. He initially believed the game would focus on holding guards up rather than rewiring buildings.
I ask him if he worries that he’s going to run into a similar problem here, where the name doesn’t really match the game that he’s ended up making.
“I’m not too worried about the name becoming irrelevant," he says. "The look of the game is all these brightly colored vapor clouds of random colors. The setting is a massive mass of those clouds, and the reason that you’re there, and the reason that everyone is there, is that those clouds mask your heat signatures from the outside galaxy."
But he says that he's still committed to keeping the heat stealth as a secondary element in the game. Removing it entirely--well, at this point, that might look a bit sneaky.