Flush with cash, Justin Ma and Matt Davis struggle to reconcile growing expectations for FTL with their vision for the game.
Chapter 4: Jumping Into Hyperspace
Written by David L. Craddock
(Originally published in the Patreon edition of Episodic Content on 10 August 2015.)
On April 1, the FTL Kickstarter clock stopped. Ma and Davis checked the final figure. The game had raised a grand total of $200,542, a staggering 2000 percent of its $10,000 goal. Ma and Davis posted a public update to the Kickstarter page promising their fans that they would “do everything in our power to make FTL the best spaceship simulation roguelike-like ever!”11
Privately, they wrestled with residual stress leftover from the Kickstarter. The weight of two-hundred-thousand-dollars’ worth of expectations dropped atop their shoulders like a cement blanket. “Part of the reason why we were not too happy post-Kickstarter was because of this new pressure that existed,” Ma recalled. “Previously, we were working from a cave and had full autonomy and agility to change ideas constantly. Post-Kickstarter, we had, ‘[Reward] tier X, Y, and Z declared what we needed to do by X date’ or whatever. That changed the dynamic of how we worked on the game.”
Ma and Davis found themselves standing at the same crossroads visited by all creative individuals who made the decision to offer their works for public consumption: they could give in to popular consensus and incorporate the bulk of the suggestions their fans sent in, or shut out the masses and stick to what they wanted for their project—even though their project was no longer wholly their own. They agreed to hold to their vision as much as possible, channeling the money into play-testing and areas that felt ripe for improvement. Ben Prunty received a proper paycheck and expanded FTL‘s soundtrack.
Despite the enormous pressure from the Kickstarter campaign’s resounding success, Ma and Davis appreciated the player feedback it begat. Certain reward tiers of the Kickstarter promised inclusion in the FTL beta test. Thousands of players kicked in the money necessary to participate in the play-test and flooded Subset Games with a deluge of feedback and suggestions. Ma and Davis picked through every message carefully, open to yet cautious of any change that might compromise the game they had set out to make and the game they had promised their constituents.
A vocal majority of players asked for more world-building details. Ma and Davis concurred. Prior to the Kickstarter, every character, star system, and alien race they had dreamed up had originated from a desire to incorporate cool gameplay possibilities. Story had always come later. The alien race whose engineers could repair damage at twice the normal speed at the cost of inflicting half as much damage on enemies was a fun gameplay idea first, and a world detail second. Much later, they dashed off a back-story for the alien race, which they ended up calling the Engi.
To stay focused on finishing and testing FTL, they hired Tom Jubert, a writer who had penned scripts for Driver: San Francisco and the popular Penumbra trilogy of survival-horror games, to color their world. Ma and Davis let Jubert go to town while making sure FTL‘s story did not to balloon too wildly. Davis explained the importance of balancing story and gameplay. “I don’t want to read pages and pages or watch hours and hours of cinematics. I like to get to the game. We were trying to capture the atmosphere of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and shows like those. That atmosphere is so ingrained in [science fiction] culture that there’s not a lot you need to do to trigger [fans] to live in it. As long as you’re hitting some of the core bases, they’re going to fill in the rest themselves because they’re experiencing something they already know about.”
Ma agreed. “The real story should be the player’s experience as he or she plays the game. Even when we added more elements to the story, we kept a lot of it intentionally vague. We never say the Federation are the good guys, for example. We have had people who tell us that they enjoy pretending that they are playing as bad-guy smugglers hired to help protect corrupt [characters] and whatnot. Giving players the autonomy to create their own background stories was something we really wanted.”
Achievements held another spot on beta testers’ wish lists. A meta-game reward that rose to popularity on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console, achievements asked players to complete specific challenges in a game, such as hitting a high score or defeating a boss without taking damage, in exchange for points added to their user profiles. Other players on their friends list could pull up their profile and marvel at all the points they had racked up.
Ma and Davis liked the idea of achievements, but arbitrary goals like reaching a certain score or not taking damage would not help players learn the game’s ins and outs. It would be better, they reasoned, to wrap some gameplay justification around achievements. Davis struck upon the idea that players could unlock new ships by earning achievements. “The important thing about achievements for me is that they should make you want to play the game differently, or reward playing the game differently. That’s when achievements are at their best. If you get an achievement and get a different ship, that causes you to play the game differently, so you’re always on a different path.”
Game balance was the most popular topic of discussion between FTL‘s testers and creators during the beta, and long after the game’s release. From the moment they decided to implement randomly generated scenarios influenced by Spelunky and roguelikes, Ma and Davis knew FTL would be an extremely difficult game, which was exactly what they wanted. They knew, however, that a fine line separated difficult and unfair. To strike the compromise, the pair weighed the difficulty of enemies in each sector against how many upgrades players should have gained from defeating enemies in previous battles. Some players might avoid battles, they knew, by jumping as soon as their ship recharged, skipping across space like a stone over water until they sailed across the finish line.
Seasoned FTL commanders learned quickly that standing their ground and collecting spoils from defeated ships was the wiser course of action. “I wouldn’t say that every game is beatable. There’s a random difficulty to it,” Davis explained. “But it stills blows me away seeing what other people have done. There are people out there who are far better than I am at the game, and have done some amazing accomplishments in terms of what ships they’ve used to beat it. I think they’ve demonstrated that if you’ve played enough and learned from it, maybe any [scenario] can be beaten.”
One demand brought about by the Kickstarter’s success was that legions more gamers had shown interest. Ma and Davis optimized the game around the normal difficulty mode, reserving easy mode for those who would be less willing to accept a game that set out to beat them down. Even on easy mode, the game was not slanted in the player’s favor, nor was it unfair. Davis drew a comparison to one of FTL’s inspirations. “When you play a board game, the game doesn’t change itself for you. It just does what it does. The deck of cards is the deck of cards. When you beat the game, you beat the game. It didn’t switch things around or cater to you. You beat it. That was important to me as a fundamental aspect of game design.”
Anticipating that some players would call foul when the game’s dice rolls did not come out in their favor, Ma and Davis took steps to mitigate frustration. Unlike other strategy games, FTL did not display the player’s odds of landing attacks on enemies. “To see your chances explicitly, such as an 80 percent chance [for success], also causes more anger,” Davis explained. “With the odds hidden in FTL, people are more likely to think that the number generator is out to get them. With X-COM, you see 80 percent, and people get angry because they expect [success] to be a given. It’s meaner in a sense because it’s showing you the odds and you lost them. It’s very frustrating sometimes.”
Subset Games did their best to predict blockades might arise on the path to having fun and clear them away. Many games peppered players with irksome questions like “Are you sure?” when they wanted to quit a game and try again, and wasted several minutes loading data and piling on story exposition. FTL transferred players from the game-over screen back to the main menu in seconds. No wasted motion.
Yet Ma and Davis knew that, just like in any game that relied on randomization, sometimes triumph or defeat in FTL came down to a lucky dice throw. Ma found that the best players were the ones who embraced luck and learned from mistakes. “I got a glaive beam and a weapon pre-igniter drop in the first two levels, and I remember that game being the luckiest I ever had, and I still lost because of stupid mistakes. I think that’s a personality thing. The people who enjoy learning from failure are the people who we designed for. There are people who write it off; they say, ‘The game’s broken’ and just move on. They’re not going to get any enjoyment out of the game. You really do have to go in there and get your ass kicked, and then say, ‘What can I do better?’ If you’re not the type of person who can do that, it’s not the type of game that appeals to you.”
For Davis, games are at their best when nothing is going his way. “A game grabs my attention when everything is falling apart. Even if I’m in an unwinnable situation—and I’m not positive that those exist in FTL—those are the moments that keep the game interesting. You’re faced with a puzzle that, when you pause the game, you realize, ‘The game might not be winnable at this point, but maybe…’ That’s when the real challenge and thought process comes into it, as opposed to just mindlessly forging ahead.”
Juggling player expectations and guiding FTL through its final polishing stages proved less arduous than slogging through the business concerns inherent in releasing a commercial product. Ma and Davis spent several months in 2012 negotiating deals with distributors, giving interviews to press and bloggers, answering piles of emails, maintaining a presence on the Kickstarter page where they posted updates to constituents, and responding to eager gamers on social media—all the things introverted game developers tended to tolerate rather than embrace. “I think that was the hardest part of development. The actual development of the game was just a breeze, almost a vacation compared to all that,” Ma admitted.
In times of frustration and fatigue, Ma and Davis waxed nostalgic about the first six months of development, when it was just the two of them batting around ideas and moving colored dots around their screens. Even play-testing had worn thin. “From a design perspective, it’s the fun of chipping away at something new and different, and being able to go in any direction you want with it,” Davis said. “In the last half [of development], it’s more about, ‘Should this weapon [deal] 2 damage, or 3 damage?’ That kind of gets old after a while.”
Big and Small
Even in glittering Shanghai, groupthink has not killed off individuality. Huddled amid skyscrapers that stretch up into the smog is Tianzifang, an enclave where indie artisans ply handmade jewelry, arts, crafts, and paintings. Flowers spill out of open windows, and trees line the sidewalks, guarding cafes and shops like sentinels against the forward march of steel and smoke stacks. The locals may not sleep in mattresses lined with currency or drive cars hot off the assembly lines, but they do well enough.
Justin Ma and Matt Davis, indies who paint in code and pixels instead of gems and oils, released FTL: Faster Than Light on September 24, 2012. If graded according to the list of marketing boxes that big-budget developers are expected to tick off to stand a chance of receiving funding from publishers, FTL would have failed. The game spared little time teaching players how to play, leaving all but the most basic actions up to them to learn as they groped their way along. FTL contained no glitzy cinematic sequences that cost almost as much to produce as the game itself. It was bereft of aesthetic knickknacks that cost real money to purchase, an increasingly popular method of creating a perpetual income favored by publishers. FTL eschewed multiplayer connectivity in favor of a strong single-player-only mode. But FTL‘s cardinal sin was its cardiac episode-inducing difficulty, a surefire way to scare off all but the most die-hard players, who made up a fraction of a fraction of gaming’s paying customers.
In spite of bucking every trend that juggernauts like 2K, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Activision-Blizzard hold as dogma, FTL has thrived. From the moment it hyper-jumped aboard digital platforms such as Steam and Good Old Games, the roguelike-board-game mash-up was greeted by thunderous critical acclaim. PC Gamer immediately put the game on its short list for Game of the Year. Perhaps even more meaningfully to Ma and Davis, a panel of judges as the 2013 GDC Independent Games Festival presented them with the Excellence in Design, Best Debut, and Audience Choice awards.Ma and Davis look back at the whirlwind beginning of their lives as indie developers with equal parts exhaustion, bemusement, and satisfaction that following their hearts instead of money-making trends had paid off. “We would have made it if the Kickstarter failed; we probably just wouldn’t have sold it,” Ma admitted. “We would have just thrown it out there. We really just wanted to make a game that we wanted to play. We couldn’t have cared less about what other people wanted initially; we weren’t really considering what would be marketable. It was just about the self-indulgent process of making something for ourselves. It was a pushback against the general atmosphere of handholding, that you’re making a roller coaster for people to experience. [FTL] was us saying, ‘We hate that. We want to make something that’s so F’ing hard and you have to get better at it.'”
“During development, especially those first six months, we had no idea what game we were making. We would try to tell people about it, like [Ma’s] brother or our girlfriends, and it was very difficult to explain,” Davis recalled. “We didn’t really know. But for some reason, we were able to continue making it. We seemed to be on the same page throughout development, even when we didn’t know what that page was. It worked out well for us in a way that I can’t really explain.”
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- do everything in our power to make FTL: “FTL: Our Kickstarter has Ended!” Kickstarter. 1 April 2012. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/64409699/ftl-faster-than-light/posts/199789