interview

FTL Creators Subset Games Talk Returning To The Spotlight With Into The Breach

by Javy Gwaltney on Feb 28, 2018 at 12:19 PM

This is originally a featured was published in Issue #290 of Game Informer. To coincide with Into The Breach's release, we've uploaded it to the site.

While working at the 2K Games office in Shanghai, Justin Ma and Matthew Davis started developing a side project called FTL. A sci-fi roguelike about making it from one side of the galaxy to the other in your spaceship, FTL was a harsh game that heavily drew inspiration from Spelunky.

Davis and Ma thought they were making something with little appeal beyond a niche audience. However, when the duo took to Kickstarter to fund development, adopting the moniker of Subset Games, they discovered that was not the case.

“We went into crowdfunding expecting a small campaign, with the modest goal of $10,000,” Davis says. Within 30 days, the campaign raised over $200,000. Subset spent the latter half of the year finishing FTL. To help with the development, they hired contractors like Ben Prunty, who produced the soundtrack, and Tom Jubert, who wrote the game.

“It was very stressful,” Davis recalls. “For 90 percent of development, we didn’t even know we were going to have something people cared about. While it was exciting to have the support of people willing to give us that much money for a fun project, it was also terrifying to have that much responsibility.”

The two developed the game guerrilla-style, working from their respective apartments and occasionally meeting to discuss development over beers. As had been the process from the beginning, Davis and Ma were more concerned with making a game they would enjoy than something designed to capture the attention of a huge audience, looking to difficult board games like Red November and Battlestar Galactica for inspiration. FTL launched in September 2012 to critical acclaim, immediately becoming a financial success. Outside of some expanded content and a mobile release, Subset has spent nearly five years out of the spotlight.

Davis says that much of the silence was due to personal life happenings. Since FTL’s development ended, he’s moved across the country and had a child. Ma travels often and the two keep in touch through chat programs. During this quiet period, both developers spent a lot of time developing and scrapping various prototypes. “We were trying hard not to get in a sophomore slump,” Ma recalls. “Those days it was about trying to find a game’s hook. It took longer than FTL had until we felt we had something.”

The two ultimately settled on Into The Breach, a tactical sci-fi game that draws inspiration from the likes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Pacific Rim, requiring players to defend cities from monsters with mechanized suits. While this might sound generic, Subset Games has spent a lot of time prototyping the game to make its gameplay addictive and fascinating.

Much of the time spent developing the game has been focused on making sure the foundation is right. “The game has undergone heavy iterations,” Ma states, going on to say that Subset has “gutted everything” multiple times across various prototypes until they distilled the core gameplay down into what they wanted it to be. Instead of beating your enemies to a pulp, you must instead use your units’ various abilities to keep them away from cities for a set number of turns. This encourages you not to think about damage ratios and health meters but instead the combination of abilities at your disposal.

Much like FTL, Subset Games isn’t setting out to make a blockbuster but another game that they themselves would love to play. To that end, Subset hasn’t drastically changed the way they run their operation. Instead of purchasing a studio space, the two continue to work remotely as they did before, with no fixed location and alongside talented contractors.

Into The Breach is far from completion, with the duo now focus on creating content for the campaign. The game can’t help but sit firmly in the looming shadow of FTL, which is not only a fantastic on its own merits but also one of shining examples people point to when they talk about the success of crowdfunded video games. Creating something that will live up to that legacy is no easy task, but Subset, quietly inventive as ever, seems ready to scale that hill one inch at a time.

For more on Into The Breach, check out our review here.