In February, Double Fine Productions made international headlines for their successful utilization of Kickstarter to crowd-fund their upcoming game Double Fine Adventure. In the months since, many other independent videogame studios have attempted to generate funding for their projects in the same way. Many have succeeded, and a few have emulated the overwhelming reaction that Double Fine produced. One such work-in-progress is Faster Than Light, which raised 2000% of its fundraising goal. Recently I had the opportunity to discuss the project with Matthew Davis of FTL’s two-man development team.
Faster Than Light (FTL) is a game that is inherently difficult to define. The official website describes it as ‘a spaceship simulation real-time roguelike-like,’ utilizing genre classifications that are unfamiliar to most (roguelike refers primarily to level randomization and permanent player death). Despite this somewhat ambiguous definition, many followers of the independent games scene have flocked to support this title.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun describes FTL as “the Star Trek Game I’ve Always Wanted.” Yet Star Trek isn’t the only property that science-fiction fans have identified with this game – many have claimed this to be the Firefly of indie games, and those who have played Weird Worlds and other games involving space exploration – particularly those from the 1990s – have found a lot to get excited about.
Interestingly, despite these comparisons to existing space strategy videogames, Matthew Davis shared that much of the initial gameplay design was inspired primarily by tabletop games and non-strategy videogames, particularly the Battlestar Galactica board game:
Matthew Davis: Looking at our game, you can quickly see how the static view and discrete room design of the ships are more reminiscent of board games than modern computer games. Elements of the 90's games I grew up with definitely found their way into the game as well. For example, I missed power management from games like X-Wing, which had you constantly shifting power between your engines/shields/weapons depending on the situation.
Power management is a significant gameplay factor in FTL, though it is utilized in a different way than in LucasArts’ X-Wing. As captain of a single starship, players will be tasked with managing their crews and material resources as they jump (faster than light) from one solar system to another, never knowing if the destination is host to friends or foes – all while the rebels, the game’s antagonists, continuously encroach on Federation space.
Matthew Davis left 2K Games’ Shanghai studio in early 2011, and he initially spent the following period biking through China. When he returned he began working on the project that would become FTL, and shortly afterwards he was joined by his former co-worker Justin Ma. Supporting themselves with the money they had saved, they set to work, adopting a design strategy that allowed them to develop the core of the game without comprehensive art assets:
Matthew Davis: Being small and independent allowed us to be extremely agile in our design. For the first six months, we were unsure what the final product would be like and we relied heavily on trial and error. During this period, art was kept to a bare minimum (mostly just squares for the rooms, and circles for the crew or asteroids), and we were able to quickly shift and tune the gameplay to find something that would be "fun." It wasn't until August of 2011, shortly before the China IGF, that the gameplay and art you see today was finally starting to solidify. I think it's easy to get bogged down in all the various elements of games (art/sound/story/etc.), and it really worked for us to just focus on the core game design before worrying about the rest.
The strength on display here is the utilization of two-dimensional graphics and text-based storytelling. While large developers must often fill every scene with special effects and design elements that entail multi-million dollar budgets, Matthew and Justin are able to create larger degrees of variation between the scenarios players will experience given that they are presented primarily through text and relatively simple graphics. While this game may not appeal to the mainstream, there are many gamers who feel that large development budgets and cutting-edge graphics often disallow the kind of engaging gameplay and customization that is present in FTL – these are the individuals who funded FTL’s Kickstarter.
From the China Independent Games Festival, FTL began to gain attention from both videogame news outlets and industry peers. An article in P.C. Gamer gave the game a significant amount of exposure, and when Justin and Matthew showcased their game at San Francisco’s IGF earlier this year, they struck a deal with OnLive – an online game distributor that specializes in streaming content – to host a demo as part of OnLive’s Indie Showcase. At the same time, money was getting tight for the development team. Their sound/music engineer Ben Prunty had thus far completed his work without pay, and the team knew that they would need to pay publishing fees (and a lawyer) before their fledgling studio would be able to distribute FTL come August.
The development team determined that $10,000 would be enough to meet their financial obligations and allow them to deliver the finished product by August. Aware of the success that Double Fine and others had experienced, they turned to Kickstarter. With a successful demo build from the OnLive promotion, they were able to provide potential funders a good look at the game in action and detail many of their game’s selling points – exploration, randomization, and setting.
Within the first day of their Kickstarter’s launch on April 1, their funding goal was surpassed. But the money kept coming, and word started spreading to those who had not yet heard about FTL. The flow of funding accelerated, and by the end of their campaign, 9,818 backers had pledged $200,542.
One of the challenges that crowd-funding success creates is allocation. When a project receives 2000% of its funding goal, funders usually expect some expansion of the project itself. For their part, Justin and Matthew intend to hire additional writers and programmers, and to expand the music order. Yet its not as easy as throwing money at the project:
Matthew Davis: It's difficult to balance staying on schedule and expanding the game. Initially, we're just focusing on succeeding in our original goals for FTL. But we hope to be able to expand our original soundtrack/sound design as well as flesh out other sections of the game where possible with additional contractors. The extra funds will definitely allow us to continue working past the initial release of FTL to continue adding any features that we've needed to cut because of time constraints. FTL can be taken in a lot of new directions and expanded nearly infinitely, so we're excited to be able to explore that in the future.
The team remains committed to their original release schedule, so you can expect to see Faster Than Light available on Steam and other digital distribution platforms this August.