Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
Third-person open world action and stealth game, with Assassin’s Creed free-running and Arkham Asylum combat. You’re in Mordor, it’s full of orc-like Uruks, and for reasons that were probably explained in all the cut-scenes I skipped, you have to use them to get to the Black Dark Lord Hand – who I gather is a ruffian.
A menu of minibosses called Sauron’s Army. They’re Uruk captains with randomly generated looks, names, strengths and weaknesses. You select one from the lineup, interrogate lesser Uruks to find out which of your many modes of attack they’re weak to, then track them down in the open world and decide how to go about taking them out.
Well, that’s cool for starters. It’s cool having to find a source who’ll have information on your target, extracting that from them in a telepathic way that looks frightening but does not appear to be harmful, memorising these secret weaknesses, hunting your mark through the open world, and looking for a way to combine what you know with their situation. Weak to explosions, but nothing flammable around. Weak to stealth, but can I get past his lackeys? Maybe if I distract them over there…
In most cases, this secret info lets you take them out swiftly. And having intel inform your strategy and pay off so decisively in a non-scripted scenario makes this more satisfying than any of my kills in Assassin’s Creed.
But Sauron’s Army gets much more interesting when, in the second half of the game, you upgrade your telepathy to a sort of mind-control. The result seems to be that they see you as their Warchief: they don’t attack you, but nor do they attack their fellow Uruks unless you order them to. And they even mutter about looking for ‘the ranger’ – you.
With low-ranking Uruks this is just a cooler version of every game’s ‘Charm’ spell: it’s permanent, and they work like sleeper agents, waiting for your go-word when you’ve covertly turned enough of a stronghold’s guards to take it over.
But when you flip a captain in Sauron’s Army, you’re essentially becoming part of it. Now you have commanders. They’ll raise their own armies, they’ll fight with other captains, and they’ll try to become Warchiefs. You can step in at any time and send them after a particular target, and whether you micromanage them or not, you can show up to each of the important events in their lives to make sure they go well.
My man Blorg the Poet has been captured by a bigger captain and is about to be executed. The bigger captain is vulnerable to ranged. A spectral arrow whizzes from the bushes and thuds into his cranium.
His men run, Blorg runs, all the other prisoners run. Blorg is promoted into the power vacuum.
In the first half of the game you study their weaknesses, in the second, you suddenly care about their strengths. Not because they matter that much, but because these are your guys. I find myself selecting them for their quirks, cultivating an Uruk sub-faction of freaks and weirdos. Blorg speaks in rhyme. Glabkuk has a claw for a hand. Ukbuk just has a really fancy red-feather headdress I like. This is my team.
All this links into the dynamic, unpredictable business of the captain encounters themselves, which can sometimes run into each other as your fights lurch around Mordor. The first time I faced Ukbuk, I lost control of the situation. I’d stealth-flipped most of his henchmen to make the fight swing my way, but then one of my own captains blundered into the fracas and joined in.
Ukbuk was already weak enough for me to turn him, but I was caught up fighting his remaining loyal subjects as my captain closed in to finish him off. I’d never much liked the guy, so I did the only thing I could to save Ukbuk and his fancy headdress: Dispatch. This detonates the heads of all my mind-controlled soldiers, captain included, rather dramatically ending the fight.
Their bodies dropped, I finished off Ukbuk’s henchmen, and… he killed me. Or rather, he downed me. You get one last chance to come back from the brink of death by completing a quicktime event. But I’d just upgraded that ability to also kill my assailant if I succeed. Saving myself would kill Ukbuk. In easily one of the dumbest things I’ve done for a hat in a videogame, I let myself die.
Ukbuk got promoted for that. But that just made him a more valuable asset when I eventually turned him to my side.
So that’s what’s cool about it. The game has just added a screenshot composition tool that’s so good I almost wish I still worked in magazines. It really shows off how characterful and distinctive the Uruks are – they’re all generated by the same system, footsoldiers and captains alike. Not least because any of the former can be promoted to the latter for killing you.
Here are some other shots I took tonight:
More What Works And Why
LTK: Interesting write-up. Is this "What works and why" going to be a returning thing?
Tom Francis: Thanks. Yes!
Kirk: The first thing I thought when I first started reading up on this at RPS was "Tom Francis should nick some of these ideas for Heat Signature." Generating quests according to faction politics and as a means to gather information on targets seems right up your alley. I also like how making what are ostensibly enemies into a player accessible resource ecosystem really increases your investment in the game world.
Tom Francis: Ha! Yeah, they put all this effort into making these guys distinctive and interesting, then they actually follow through with a way to make you engage with and care about them more.
A lot of its lessons probably require a richer universe than I have the capacity to make for Heat Signature, but it's definitely an education in the fun of turning things to your side and making them work for you - something I was already a fan of.
Hacking a ship's computer to change its mission might be doable. Have to find clean and simple ways to make that kind of stuff viable and interesting without requiring masses of supporting work, though, so who knows if that'll work out.
Ferdinand: i imagine the simplest method would be transferring your current mission to the ship you've boarded?
i would love to try that. setting a ship on an assasination and then following them, and maybe helping a tiny bit would be really fun!
(and very reminiscent of power struggles in shadow of mordor)
Jabberwok: A lot of things about this game intrigue me, but I was initially put off by some of the controversy about them lifting elements or even code from Assassin's Creed (the climbing mechanic did look freakishly similar to the AC2 climbing in the video I saw). Also, I'm just not a big fan of LOtR. Still, sounds interesting.
Kirk: It seems to me that the excitement that comes from Shadow of Mordor's higher level strategies is the way that enacting them scales down to the minutia of your minute-by-minute play. Your basic core gameplay loop contains actions that impact your immediate short term outcomes, but also set up future options for you as well. Having a small arsenal of choices to make at any given time, with outcomes that scale cleanly from “right now”, through “this mission”, to “anticipated future missions”, is really cool. I think what makes this possible in Mordor is that you know that you're going to have to face off against future orc captains, and the game gives you tools with which to build appropriate strategies. To make this sort of gameplay work in Heat Signature, you'd not only need the tools (like hacking ships to change their missions), but also have to be able to think farther ahead than just the one mission. Though, you might be able to get around this by changing the scale of missions so that they have more than one component?
Jason L: Yeah, fractal design is best design. If you can get decisions to influence each other across multiple scales or a scale spectrum, you're probably on to something. It often leads to time delay as well, creating narratives - the rebellious province because of a foolish charge a hundred years prior, the informant who won't work for you because you carelessly shot their friend in the second mission.
Anonymous: Building on the idea of converting amusing characters to work for you- I think that while it might be a challenge to give unique and interesting personalities to the many people who inhabit Heat Signature’s universe, I don’t think you’d need to. After all, it’s the ships that are the real stars (figuratively speaking, of course!). Every time one is spawned, they’re generated with a plethora of individual quirks that surely rival all but the most feathered of hats.
Compared to your pod, which everybody starts with, almost nobody will ever find a ship that’s exactly the same as one of the ones you find. Also unlike your pod, a capital ship can have battle scars. Every corridor terminating in twisted metal and the coldness of space has a story behind it.
Even as it is now, when I think about the stuff I want to try when you finally release Heat Signature, stealing a ship and seeing just how many quests I can use it to complete before it’s reduced to a rapidly expanding cloud of debris is first among my thoughts.
Whatever you decide to do, there’s definitely a lot of scope for giving ships more character, even if it’s something as simple as a randomly generated name that pops up when you step out of the airlock.
At that point, you’re no longer stepping onto a ship that looks like a flying T, you’re boarding the Saint Ghandi’s Retribution, Flagship of Faction X.
ToastyKen: This actually reminds me a bit of Jason Rohrer's Inside a Star-Filled Sky, in the way that you can manipulate your enemies to your advantage. :)
Travis Gallion: Welp, this just got me to go back and finally play more of this game. I stopped at some point and never picked it up again. Specifically being able to controll the uruks is something I didn't get to yet, and now really really want to get to! Thanks for that! Back to the ps4 version!