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FTL and Into the Breach: Two-of-an-unkind

Subset Games' first two titles are very difficult, yet very different; Justin Ma talks about the games' common threads and the studio's unconventional marketing strategy

Subset Games' first two titles have found success, but they arrived at it through very different avenues. The two-person studio's debut, 2012's FTL, is a real-time roguelike spaceship simulation developed over a span of 18 months. The follow-up, Into the Breach, is a turn-based strategy game released in February after four years in development.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the Game Developers Conference in March, Subset artist and designer Justin Ma emphasized the difference between the process of creating the two games with the other half of Subset Games, Matthew Davis.

"It was a lot of iterating, a lot of scrapping ideas and starting over before we found something we thought was good enough to pursue," Ma said. "Of course, we weren't willing to show it off too much until we could get it as polished and comfortable as possible."

The core gameplay loop for FTL came together in just three months. For Into the Breach, it took about two years. FTL was "announced" six months into development, when Subset submitted it to the GDC China Independent Games Festival. Into the Breach was announced after it had already been in the works for three years.

Into the Breach looks like a turn-based strategy game but has a puzzle game element to it

Into the Breach looks like a turn-based strategy game but has a puzzle game element to it

"We didn't want to build up too many misconceptions or preconceived notions about what the game was before people had it in their hands, because it's not exactly the way it looks," Ma explained. "It's more of a puzzle game. So we didn't want to go out too early trying to build hype based on our promises or something like that. We were more like, 'When we know exactly what the game is, we'll show people exactly what the game is.'"

"I think early on we knew our marketing was just literally going to be yelling 'FTL' a bunch"

That flies in the face of one bit of conventional wisdom thrown about the indie games world a lot in recent years: announce early. Subset also ignored the companion piece to that advice: communicate constantly.

"We are not the type of developers that will have a dev blog or weekly streams, or any constant interface with people," Ma said of himself and Davis. "We find building and interacting with online communities to not be our strong suit, so I suspect with anything we do, we won't say anything until we're confident it's something we can do, or is going to happen one way or another."

That might sound odd coming from a developer who had a successful Kickstarter campaign with FTL, but Ma described that as a difficult sink-or-swim situation. He learned a lot from it, but wouldn't repeat it unless absolutely necessary.

"I had an inkling I wouldn't be particularly good at it," Ma said of the standard indie game promotional grind. "I tried to be parts of online communities, but every single time it was unsuccessful. I won't continue to post on Reddit. I won't hang out in a forum. Even guilds and MMOs, I'm just sort of on the sidelines picking up roles whenever needed. I don't use Facebook. It's just not something I do. It's the same with Matt. So I feel like a lot of those things you're required to do, hashtags and constantly interfacing with people, it feels a bit forced for me. It's not a very natural thing."

Given that, it's no surprise Subset eschewed the crowdfunding campaign and constant interaction approach for Into the Breach. But without those tools, how was a studio with one hit game supposed to build consumer interest for a follow-up title with a different setting, theme, and genre?

"I think early on we knew our marketing was just literally going to be yelling 'FTL' a bunch," Ma said. "But with FTL, I think the entire reason it became popular was because it was a game people liked to talk about. It is also a type of game that strongly appeals to people who pay attention to games: hardcore gamers, or games press, or game developers. They just generally appreciated this game, and they talk a lot about games, so that word of mouth seemed to persist.

FTL looks nothing like Into the Breach, but reflects some of its design sensibilities

FTL looks nothing like Into the Breach, but reflects some of its design sensibilities

"It didn't feel entirely like we were starting from scratch [with Into the Breach], but it definitely felt like this game had to prove itself on its own merits entirely. So we approached those early times trying to get people to be interested by just showing them the game. We didn't talk about it. We didn't announce it until we were 90% done with the game. Then from that point, we just started getting it into the hands of press and other people as much as possible, just to have them theoretically have a positive reaction to it and be willing to talk about it in the future. Of course, that's entirely a gamble on whether or not the game is good and would appeal to people. But it seems it may have worked for this, as much as it could have."

Ma didn't have any concrete numbers to point to, but anecdotally it seemed like the Venn diagram between the audience that would appreciate FTL and the audience that would appreciate Into the Breach had significant overlap.

"I still enjoy playing Into the Breach after working on it for four years, and I still see things I never expected come up"

"I honestly was expecting more responses of, 'I loved FTL but this isn't for me,'" Ma said. "That hasn't been the case from voices we've been hearing. I suspect a large portion of people who are buying Into the Breach also liked FTL, or they at least seem to appreciate this game, even if it's not perfectly in line with their sensibilities. I expected there would be a bigger disparity between the two games, because they are quite different. Maybe there's some underlying mental approach to both that triggers the same feelings for people. I don't know."

Even though there's little to connect the games superficially, Ma said they do share common underpinnings as a result of their creators.

"In my mind, Matt and I are both mechanics obsessed, so we love games where it has independent mechanics that work together organically to create unexpected situations," he said. "I still enjoy playing Into the Breach after working on it for four years, and I still see things I never expected come up. And that is what interests me the most as a game developer, so I suspect any type of game we would make would have some elements of systems dynamically interacting. Similarly, I at least am not a big fan of linear storytelling. I'm a huge fan of stories being built out of what the players' actions are in the game and having it shift based on the mechanics and stuff like that. So I doubt we'd make a linear storytelling game ever."

As for what other people see tying the two games together, Ma has heard a number of times from people that identify FTL and Into the Breach as both very challenging games that punish mistakes heavily.

"I would agree that's something that ties Matt and me together," Ma said. "If you're given an opportunity to make a decision and we want the choice to have some sort of weight, that means there have to be pretty heavy consequences, so I wouldn't be surprised if future games have that sort of principle behind them as well."

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