Justin Ma and Matthew Davis are glued to the computers in their Shanghai apartments. Sitting in dark rooms lit by the glow of their monitors, the game developers watch their screens in disbelief. They've just launched a Kickstarter campaign for their game FTL: Faster Than Light. Having taken a year off from their studio jobs to work on independent projects, the two need help — just a little bit — to see their game through to the end. Their Kickstarter goal is $10,000, which they know is a big ask for two unknown developers who have never released games of their own. If they can get the $10,000, it will replenish some of their fast-dwindling funds and give them a few more months to finish FTL.
The number on their screens climbs. Every few minutes, the Kickstarter page automatically updates — a few dollars here, a few hundred there. At the end of 12 hours, they've met their goal. By the end of 24 hours, they've raised double what they asked for.
By the end of the Kickstarter campaign, FTL raises 20 times the funding goal.
"I was in disbelief for weeks," Ma says. "I mean, everything logically seemed to check out and it seemed like, 'Yes, this is technically what is happening in reality right now,' but part of it didn't feel that way. It just felt very surreal."
In many ways the Kickstarter campaign should have failed. Its developers were unknown. The game had no existing fanbase. It didn't have fancy graphics or promise a product so enormous that players would need to hook car engines to their computers to make it work. The developers didn't set out to make a commercial product backed by tens of thousands of people.
The Kickstarter campaign did the opposite of fail. It was just the beginning of FTL.
Board games in Shanghai
Long before surreal fundraisers and the creation of a game that would be better known by its acronym, Ma and Davis admit they weren't sure what they were doing. Davis had studied computer science at college but never thought game development was a viable career path; even if it was, he had no idea how to get in. Ma majored in Chinese language, history and culture. He loved games — he'd always dreamed of working with them — and both his father and older brother were game developers. But without a specialized skill or knowing exactly what he wanted to do, his path to game development was paved with question marks dotted with Pac-Men.
The two spent months after college looking for a way to break into the games industry. Davis could program, Ma was a Jack of all trades, but their dreams were nebulous — so much so that when Ma landed a job interview with 2K Games Shanghai, it was clear even to the studio that he didn't know what he wanted to do.
"China is a place where they basically hire someone for a specific purpose," Ma says. "So if you're a 3D artist, you only do 3D art. If you're a 2D artist, that's the only thing you do."
Ma presented himself as someone who could do a bit of everything: He'd edited maps in Team Fortress 2, he'd done some 3D modeling, he'd designed games in his own time and he could program bits and bobs. But when asked what he wanted to do, even he couldn't say. He just wanted to work with games. 2K turned him away.
A few months later, they asked him to come back. The studio found itself needing a designer who could do a bit of everything. Ma was brought on as a temporary junior game designer. He'd stay for the next two years.
2K Games was Davis' and Ma's break — the two packed their bags and moved from the U.S. to China for their first jobs in game development. Over two years they'd work on games like Top Spin 2 for Wii, help design 2K's social games and, in the case of Ma, work on BioShock 2's maps. "Not the level design or anything," he says. "The actual cartography."
The more time they spent at 2K, the more they realized what they wanted to do — or more specifically, what they didn't want to do. After a full day of coding and designing massive projects — some that would see the light of day, some that 2K would cancel before announcing them — the two would play board games. Ma would go home and work on little projects in programs like GameMaker. The games themselves weren't remarkable, but he found that he was getting a sense of satisfaction that he wasn't getting working at a big studio.
Over the months the two developers would discover a love for board games and working on their own projects — it didn't matter that the games were small and didn't lead to anything bigger, or that few of their game development peers cared for board games. They felt like they were onto something, even if they weren't yet sure what it was.
Two years into their careers, dozens of board games played and many more tiny games created in their bedrooms, Davis and Ma began talking about the possibility of doing something of their own — even if it meant leaving the security of a big studio and giving up health insurance. Neither were afraid to take a risk — they had, after all, moved all the way to China for jobs they knew little about. But neither knew if it was what they wanted, either.
In Christmas of 2010, Ma's brother and parents chipped in to buy him an all-access pass to the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. He'd spent the past two years developing games in China where, despite the rapidly growing local scene, it was still very much isolated from the global game development community. As a treat, his family thought he'd benefit from traveling to the source of the global game development pulse to be a part of something bigger.
Ma recalls being in awe of the event. It was his first time attending GDC. He attended talks and heard from his game development heroes. He looked at the Independent Game Festival showcase where developers who could do a bit of everything — developers just like him — created original little games that reminded him of why he had so desperately wanted to be involved in the first place.
"I got super psyched," Ma says. "The significant thing that happened at GDC was the Indie Game Summit … just hearing about people's experiences making the games and releasing them and coming up with ideas. I don't know. I don't know if it was the case that I wanted to be doing what they did, or I wanted to be in that community, but in terms of game development, I knew that was the type of space I wanted to be in."
It took him several years in college and another two at 2K Games to not figure out what he wanted to do. After five days at GDC, there was not a shadow of a doubt he wanted to be an independent developer. He wanted to come up with his own ideas. He wanted to be responsible for his own games. He wanted to create something that would give him the satisfaction he got from his own small side projects. He returned to China. He quit his job. Davis — who had left 2K months earlier — agreed to work with Ma for the next 12 months to prototype games. If by the end of 12 months they couldn't find a sustainable way to independently develop games, then both would move on and forget it ever happened. But if they could find a way … well, who knew what would happen? They sure didn't.
Making a commander
"I think FTL was the kind of game I always wanted to make," Davis says. "There were two or three [board games] that did the ship management system that FTL has, and we thought that was really cool, but we didn't understand why other games in the video game world never did that."
Davis says that in most video games, the player is always the pilot, never the commander, whereas in science fiction like Star Trek or Firefly, the fiction focuses on the commander. "It seemed strange that when people want to bring that world to life, they put you in the pilot's shoes. We thought it would be fun to put players in the commander’s shoes for once."
Davis and Ma wrote up a long list of one-paragraph game pitches to prototype. They would be small, manageable games that two people could complete on their own. The game they chose to go with would have to be finished within a year, because that was all they had budgeted for. Among the pitches inspired by board games, roguelikes and all the genres that excited them was a 2D, top-down management game called FTL.
The initial pitch said little of what the game would be like, but both Ma and Davis knew how they wanted players to feel. They wanted to recreate the atmosphere of being a captain of a spaceship in a hostile environment. They wanted players to feel the thrill of exploring the galaxy and conquering enemy ships, but also the sense of anxiety and panic of things going wrong.
"All we cared about was making the player feel like they were Captain Picard yelling at engineers to get the shields back online," Ma says.
During the first few months, the game looked nothing like it does today. They'd designed systems and mechanics, but nothing fit together. "I didn't think it was particularly fun for the first nine months," Davis says. "Even when we started to gain some recognition at the IGF in China back in fall of 2011, I was still very unsure of the game being fun and entertaining."
FTL's early prototypes consisted of dots moving on a 2D ship. There were no visual crutches or distractions — Davis and Ma had to create their Picard experience using only lines and dots. One color of dots represented the crew, another color represented oxygen, another represented fire. The various colored dots moved around like peppercorns with feet. Doors were lines, rooms were boxes. Abstract as the game may have looked, it had to make people care.
"There are tons of games that are able to elicit those sorts of feelings without too much fancy hardware," Ma says. "We could be playing Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game and it's just a board and some pieces of cardboard, but it feels super intense and everyone is sweating and breathing quickly.
"Or playing XCOM! Man, the first time I played the original XCOM, it was 320 by 240 resolution, really blown up, pixelated and ugly, and I was sitting there in this turn-based game — it wasn't even real-time — and my palms were sweating, my whole body was tense and I was shaking trying to figure out what to do. When you really use the player's imagination, there's a lot more you can play with than if you try to show everything that the player is experiencing visually. You use a bit of the player's brain as your playground."
"I felt bad for those 32 by 32 pixel dudes running around, and it was a legitimate emotion."
Six months into development, the pieces started clicking together. The systems they'd built were simple, but could interact with each other in ways that would create a unique experience for the players. Oxygen — originally represented by little dots — moves from one area of the ship to another if a door is opened. Fire will spread unless it is brought under control. Crew will suffocate if oxygen vents out of one room into another.
Justin Ma's older brother, Bryan, is also a game developer. He helped playtest FTL. He appreciates how elegantly the developers captured the special essence of complex board games, and brought it to life in such a simple video game.
"It's pretty exceptional, actually," he says. "Six months into development, I remember playing through and watching the little guys run around on the enemy ship. I was doing pretty well, and the enemy said, 'I surrender! Please spare our lives!' And I was like, 'Man, I really need that scrap!' So we go into the last stage of the battle and I'm about to destroy them — I see them frantically running around trying to put out fires and fix their ship, and I felt bad for them.
"I felt bad for those 32 by 32 pixel dudes running around, and it was a legitimate emotion. That was a big moment where I was like, 'OK, something in here is really working.'"
Near the end of the year they'd set aside to make FTL, Davis and Ma put their game on Kickstarter with the hope of raising $10,000 to pay someone to make music for the game, and to afford them a few more months to finish what they'd started. Their campaign raised more than $200,000.
For the developers, their success seemed freakish and didn't make a lot of sense, but Bryan Ma believes that some of the appeal lay in the fact that they were doing something no one else seemed to be doing well.
"A lot of archetypal genre conventions like sci-fi management, or the Admiral Ackbar 'It's a trap!' and 'Fix the transporter, oh no we're all screwed!' elements haven't really been captured very well in games so far," he says. "This is something we've been watching in popular media for so long — this idea that you're on a ship and you're totally exposed and fragile, and you can survive — you can — you just have to make the right decisions."
He says that a game like FTL offers a shortform experience — the kind provided by casual games — but the kind of depth one might find in something with a big budget. This, he believes, is what catapulted FTL into the Kickstarter limelight.
But for the developers, Kickstarter success didn't lead to a sense of relief or achievement. As the number on their fundraiser website ticked up, so did their sense of panic: How they would handle the thousand beta testers? How they would answer to the thousands of people that were now investors in their game?
"We basically entered the public sphere of game development," Davis says. "Prior to that, we were sitting in a cave, if you will, developing the game without anyone watching. And once we had people watching, they had their emotional and financial stakes in it."
When FTL began development, only two people cared about it: Davis and Ma. When the Kickstarter achieved its funding, more than 9,000 people cared.
"I think we were very unprepared for it," Davis says. "We were unprepared for the publicity and the success of the game. We were stressing about it a lot at night. We set out without much in mind, and we were just surprised when we stumbled into this success."
It's been almost seven months since FTL released to its Kickstarter supporters and six months since they released it to the public. The developers are still working on the game, supporting it with updates and delivering the last of the Kickstarter rewards. FTL is a financial success. Critics love it. Fans adore it. New fans find it every day.
Davis says that the two developers approached FTL like a hobby, but it was also an experiment to see if they could create their own game, make careers from it and finally find out if this was what they wanted to do. "That was the main question to the experiment," he says.
The answer? A resounding yes, echoing through the galaxy on a spaceship.