Faster Than Light: Stumbling upon success

Developer Matthew Davis talks to about the making of an indie classic

Image: Jan Kaláb

Image: Jan Kaláb

FTL: Faster Than Light is a fantastic game, you’ll struggle to find anyone who disagrees. Despite coming out not just over three years ago it’s still massively played and is held up as one of the great indie titles, heralding an era of ‘perma-death’ games that still goes on today, and introducing the world to a more crew focused space flight experience. I met Matthew Davis (one of the creators of FTL) at GeekFest. He wasn’t able to take part as he had his newborn in tow but he kindly agreed to set up an interview with me later on.

I asked him where the original idea for FTL had come from. He explained that the project came from the joy that he and Justin (his co-creator of FTL) found in board games: “There was a couple of board games like Battlestar Galactica the board game and Red November [which] were probably the two primary inspirations.” He mentioned that they wanted to create a game that emulated Sci-Fi shows such as Star Trek, by focusing on the crew running the ship rather than having you be a fighter pilot like many games out there. He later told me “It was designed from that board game standpoint that you open up the box, set up, play it for two hours and then you’re done. If you win or lose it doesn’t really matter you had fun when you were doing it”.

This board game like design seemed to have helped when FTL made the jump to tablet. FTL began as a hobby project back when the original iPad had only just been released so there was no intention to ever bring FTL to tablets. However it was eventually ported onto the Apple App Store opening it up to a brand new audience with its innovative GUI, that took some six months or so to port. “There’s a lot of stuff, it’s a complex game with managing your stuff, managing the crew and weapons. With a one tap system is actually not so easy so it took a long [time] to get it to be as intuitive as it is.” Despite this they eventually released another great product that took even them by surprise. When I asked him if there would ever be an android release he told me that the technical challenges of that would just be too great, and the team wants to move on to new things.

At the same time as the iPad release, they also updated the game with the Advanced Edition which was added free of charge. I asked why they chose this over charging a small amount for it, which especially due to the sheer amount of additional content would have been perfectly reasonable. “It was always designed to be free from the beginning,” he said following this on by talking about how not only did it feel disingenuous to sell something that made the product more as they had originally intended, but also that they wanted to do right by their customers who had helped make their game a huge success. “We don’t do any advertising, we rely entirely on the people that like the game, so we want to do right by them just like they do right by us.”

Despite a second chance to add things to the game there was still inevitably a large amount of content left on the cutting room floor. Early in development they planned to have a reputation system with the various races, and a system in which you zoom in and out of the ship to be able to fly it, but eventually these were cut. Matthew mentioned that he would have liked far more play with gases and playing with the doors, such as was added with the Lanius race in the Advanced Edition. Alongside these major cuts were “tombs” of weapon and race ideas that didn’t make it.

FTL features a large number of random outcomes throughout the game, and when I questioned Matthew on this he told me that it was integral to the way the game played. “If you’ve played it a lot then you know the outcomes you know that you have a fifty percent chance of your crew dying or a fifty percent chance of getting this item so the advanced player gets to play the long game of hedging bets and taking risks where you need to. The new player just gets the excitement and freshness of not knowing what’s going to happen. The game doesn’t get stale that way.”

One of the most memorable features of FTL is the final boss. It’s a brutal fight that takes either a lot of skill or a lot of luck. “We wanted a really traditional final boss. With the phases and the special attacks and that old school approach to it as this big beastly creature that you have to defeat.” Whilst he admitted that the balancing could have been better for the different difficulty settings (something they made some attempt to fix in the Advanced Edition) they were ultimately very pleased with it.

FTL gained the kind of success that many games simply don’t get and I asked, Matthew what he thought might have caused this. He told me very simply “Luck”. While pointing to several potential causes such as the relative freshness of many of the game mechanics, he felt that it really did come down to being in the right place at the right time.

To finish up I asked if they were working on anything, and if he could tell me anything about it. The answer to that was yes and then no. So I guess we’ll just have to sit patiently to see what they come up with next!

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