Just a friendly reminder that the Faster Than Light Kickstarter ends shortly. If you want to support this team directly, now is the time to do it.
Today’s INDIEscriminate is one I’ve been super excited about since it was originally released. Titled FTL, the game is a Spaceship simulator wrapped up in a rogue-like and was created by a very small development team. Justin Ma and Matthew Davis, after a very, very successful Kickstarter campaign, took some time out of their busy schedules to talk to me about FTL and their design process.
Piki Geek: How did you guys get your start as a game developers?
Justin Ma: Living in China, I had applied to 2K’s studio without having a clear idea of what I wanted to do in the industry. They had a project which needed someone with a diverse background and they luckily thought of me. After that, I settled in a game design role.
Matthew Davis: I got a degree in computer science and then took a job as a programmer for 2K Games in Shanghai. Frustrated with working on projects that didn’t interest me, I quit after just two years to travel and then ultimately start work on FTL. I was fortunate that Justin, a great designer and artist, was also interested in independent work.
PG: What were your biggest influences and inspirations for diving into Game Design?
JM: Games have always been a large part of my life. My father has been in the business side of the industry for years, and I have fond memories of playing the Revolution X arcade pre-release versions of Mortal Kombat 2 for hours and hours at his office. When I discovered I could make games as a job, I didn’t see any other alternative.
MD: While growing up, I grew most attached to the CRPG classics of the ’90s (Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Arcanum, etc.). The X-Wing and Mechwarrior franchises were also big influences and are from a genre of ‘hardcore simulation meets action’ games that I miss. I think wanting to make games like the ones that I fell in love with as a kid drove me to programming in the first place.
PG: What is your opinion on the indie video game environment? Do you prefer it over big studios?
MD: I love working from my apartment. Nothing will ever beat that. But I miss being able to afford a beer in a bar.
JM: Personally, I just love the camaraderie between indie developers. Everyone seems to just want everyone else to succeed and are willing to help if possible.
PG: Any advice to give aspiring young developers looking to break into the industry? Any key resources that they should take advantage of? Super Secret tips?
JM: Just start making stuff. If you don’t know programming, use Game Maker or Flash. Don’t try to make your dream game as your first experiment, make a tribute to a game you like. There’s less pressure, and you’ll learn better.
MD: Keep an open mind to opportunities. My willingness to move to Shanghai was my “in,” and then my willingness to risk time, money and stress has lead to FTL. Other than that, game creation is awesome because it is available to anyone with a computer. None of the skills required are magical mysteries and just take patience and practice. Programming isn’t magical anyway… I’ll never be an artist.
PG: FTL is a very unique game, drawing upon genres such as rogue-likes and space sims, but for those of us who are unaware of the project, could you briefly explain the concept?
JM: We call it a “spaceship simulation roguelike-like.” You command a small ship traveling through a very hostile section of space. Unlike other space games, it focuses entirely on the inner workings of ship: manage the power distribution between systems; order your crew to repair a breach or man a station; choose your weapons targets to knock out enemy ship’s systems; etc.
MD: It’s always been difficult to explain the gameplay of FTL. We just put up a gameplay video showing our newest features that might help explain how FTL works.
PG: What inspired you to pursue this project and what spawned the original concept behind FTL?
MD: For me, the initial spark to want to make the game happened while watching Deep Space 9. That atmosphere of trying to keep a crew alive in a very hostile setting seemed under-utilized. We realized that most video games tend to focus too much on just the piloting, while what made shows like Star Trek exciting were the experiences of the crew as a whole. From a design perspective, I think we’d both point to board games (specifically Battlestar Galactica and Red November) as the primary inspirations. And the inherent difficulty and randomization of the rogue-like genre fit the atmosphere we wanted to create. We really didn’t know exactly how the game would turn out, and we’re as surprised as anyone that such a vague initial concept has turned into something people are excited about.
PG: The game seems to draw heavily upon the original Star-Trek premise, based around exploring and charting the universe. Will we be seeing any allusions or “tips-of-the-hat” towards other Sci-Fi franchises? Or is FTL trying to carve out its own mythos/universe?
JM: FTL is so steeped in that shared culture that references to popular franchises is almost unavoidable. We will likely add minor references, but we don’t plan on making a militaristic humanoid alien called the “Klongon” for example.
PG: What kind of alien life should the player expect to meet on their intergalactic journey? Will there be friendly as well as hostile enemies?
JM: Rather than just image swaps, we wanted to have each alien race to have differences that impact gameplay (i.e. the rock-like race move slowly but have increased health and are immune to fire.) We want the players strategies to be affected by the types of crew they have. Other than playable alien races, we will attempt to add as many text-based events as possible; many will feature interaction with other races.
PG: Though the game is described as a rogue-like, will there be any specific goal for the player to work towards?
MD: We haven’t actually hammered out the final details on that, but we do know that there will be some sort of end goal for the player. It will be something difficult to reach/achieve so it isn’t too commonplace and maintains the difficulty expected from the genre.
PG: I couldn’t help but notice that your HUD is extremely streamlined, especially for a roguelike, whose genre is often marred by endless menus and horrible interfaces. While designing the game, was accessibility and legibility a main concern? Were features left on the table do to concerns with complexity?
JM: Although we enjoy the depth and complexity of classic PC games, we hate the terrible user experiences that go with it. A clean and clear presentation was one of our highest priorities from the beginning and it has impacted our gameplay design. It has lead to ideas like the “Power” for the ship’s systems simultaneously filling the roles of: system health, strength and power usage. One scrapped feature was the management of spacial positioning: you had to zoom out to control your ships position relative to enemy ships (think Weird Worlds). It was abandoned in favor of entirely focusing on the interior. This lead to a more focused design that capitalized on what made FTL unique and fun.
PG: Who do you feel this game caters most towards: a casual audience or the hardcore crowd?
MD: At first glance it’s probably easy to classify FTL as something catering towards a more hardcore crowd. But as discussed above, a lot of work has gone into streamlining the design and presentation to be as elegant and clean as possible. That, along with the inherently short playtime, should appeal to the ‘casual’ audience as well. I think anyone who desires to command a starship and her crew through a hostile galaxy can get something out of FTL.
JM: But we hope to add a high enough difficulty option to satisfy the most masochistic players too, haha.
PG: Now for the fun part! Please tell us what you believe would be the perfect FTL experience. The moment or event that legitimizes the game entirely?
JM: The difficulty of FTL is core to the experience. Narrow escapes and costly victories make you picture death as a tangible thing chasing you. I feel the strongest experiences are when the player connects with their crew and ship adding import to every decision: choosing who to send to put out a fire; if you should divert power to engines to escape; whether or not to trust a suspicious transport ship’s call for help; and so forth.
MD: Our sound designer, Ben, messaged me excitedly one day when he was experimenting with the new teleportation system. He had successfully sent a boarding party to the rebel ship to wreak havoc on their systems. All was going well so he wasn’t paying close enough attention when the rebel ship started to power up their engines to escape. Moments later, they jumped away… his crew still on board. He hadn’t even considered that they might ditch out and capture his crew, and he loved that it happened. Unexpected consequences are a hallmark of the roguelike genre and we think FTL capitalizes on them.
For more about FTL, check out the official website.