INTERVIEW: Justin Ma talks FTL

My ship is in flames, most of the crew is dead, my engines are destroyed and I’m locked in combat with a powerful alien vessel. The final crewmembers frantically try to coax enough life from the engines to enable me to jump out of the system, but the fires consume the remaining oxygen, and they die still at their stations. My once noble craft becomes just another lifeless, damaged ship, drifting through space.

Such is the fickle nature of Faster Than Light, the debut title out today from Subset Games. I had a chance to talk with one half of Subset – Justin Ma – about the game, the studio’s inspiration, plans for the future and their stunningly successful Kickstarter campaign.

I understand the idea for FTL initially came from sci-fi shows like Star Trek and Firefly. How did you turn a love for those shows into such a unique game?
Our vision for FTL revolved around the feeling that we wanted to players to have while playing, but many of the specifics of gameplay were up in the air. It took a lot of trial and error early on to find mechanics that conveyed the atmosphere we wanted. Specifically we drew from a lot of board games for gameplay inspiration (such as Battlestar Galactica, Red November and eventually Space Alert), and we drew from a number of computer games for the pacing and experiential sides of gameplay (such as Spelunky, Flotilla, Weird Worlds and King Arthur).

As a rogue-like(like), FTL can be quite unforgiving. Do you think this could limit your audience, or do you think the wider community will embrace it?
Had you asked me this question a year or two ago, I would have told you that it would significantly limit our audience. However, now I’m not so sure. With [the] popularity of games like The Binding of Isaac and DayZ it appears there’s a growing desire for games that are very difficult without being unfairly frustrating.

What unexpected tactics have you seen emerge as people try to beat the game?
I think one of the most interesting experiences during development was watching the live streaming of a few of our Beta backers. I had watched numerous people test the game, but I had never seen someone who had spent dozens of hours tear through the game while onlookers offered strategy suggestions. They would use complex strategies that we never told players about: such as shutting down your shields temporarily to let a slow-moving ion blast hit a different system. They may be even better than I am at my own game.

Subset Games is only a two man team. With a background at a larger studio, how was the move to a much smaller team? Do you enjoy the additional responsibilities of the business side of development?
As much as I learned working in a larger studio it was never particularly fulfilling. I am a self motivated person that can get up early and work from home seven days a week so the independent studio lifestyle suited me very well. For the first year we were not expecting FTL to be a commercial product so learning how to manage the business side only became a priority around the time of the Kickstarter. It was an intense and rough process; it’s an entirely different skill set than what was needed for development.

Your Kickstarter campaign was over 2000% successful. Did you have an urge to find a way to spend all that money?
The problem was that we were so close to the end of the development cycle. If we were to expand the game considerably using the additional funds, we would need to delay the game greatly. I think we did a good job maintaining a middle ground: the funds helped us smoothly finish development and allowed us to improve many aspects of the game, but we are sticking as closely to our release window as possible


How did you stay on track for release?
One thing I take a lot of pride in during these past two years is our ability to set [an] internal schedule for features and content and stand by it. The way we were able to achieve that was largely due to our willingness to cut features and content. It is an important skill to know what to prioritize and what to cut; but necessary if you want to release in a timely fashion and avoid feature creep.

Kickstarter projects still have a very low success rate, especially for games. Do you think there’s anything you did that helped ensure FTL was funded?
Other than luck, I think a large factor was the fact we had a nearly complete game. Backers could try it out and see for themselves if it was worth supporting.

Do you see Kickstarter remaining viable for game funding in the long-term? Would you ever consider using it again?
I think that Kickstarter as a huge platform for game development funding may be a temporary thing, but it is definitely is the start of a larger trend of crowdsourcing. I don’t think Kickstarter is the ideal method but I expect a more refined system will fill the gap soon enough. Despite having such a positive experience I don’t intend to use Kickstarter for another game project.

Over the beta, we saw you continue to add in new features and functionality. Did feedback from backers change your priorities, and if so, did it take you in directions you hadn’t originally intended?
Our experience with the beta has been extremely positive. Our backers have given us constructive feedback and been patient with us as we tried to hunt down problems. Probably the biggest addition due to the beta users was a save on quit feature, which they felt very strongly about. Other than minor changes, I think I was surprised that things I thought people would complain about were never mentioned. Since these issues never bothered anyone we were able to spend more time improving aspects of the game that they actually cared about.

With FTL now released, do you see yourselves continuing to produce more content for the game, or have you got the urge to move on to something new?
I definitely want to spend some time in the near future working on small prototypes again, but we are not abandoning FTL. The great thing about this game is that it’s very expandable. We already have ideas for weapons, systems, and event types that could be pretty easily added to the game post-release.


Faster Than Light is released today on Steam, and via the FTL official website. The game will be discounted 10% for the first week of sales, and we’ve got a comprehensive preview if you need further convincing. If you want to share your stories of, well… fiery death, try the official FTL forums or check out the twitter hashtag #FTLStories.

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