Today, FTL: faster than light is recognized as one of the most influential games in the indie sector. Next to The Binding of Isaac and Potholingit was part of a holy trinity of games that popularized the roguelite genre in the early 10s.
But before it’s a hit, FTL was just a humble idea shared by Matthew Davis and Justin Ma, two developers working in 2K’s Shanghai office. The studio wasn’t a bad place to work, in their opinion, but they just weren’t making the kind of games they were interested in. So Davis and Ma left the big-money business and started a hobby project to keep them busy. as they searched for new jobs.
“The original intention, at least from my point of view, was that [FTL] was only intended as a hobby project or prototype,” Davis told Ars. “It was something between jobs to build a resume that we could use to get a job at a studio working on projects that we were most passionate about. But we stumbled upon something that got a whole lot bigger than we had planned to.
In embarking on creating a new kind of indie game, Ma and Davis say they were inspired by the strategic board games that filled their free time when they lived in Shanghai. “Games like Battlestar Galactica board game, and there was this underwater game called November Red it did a lot of team management and cooperative play that we really enjoyed,” Davis recalled.
Before beginning development in earnest, Davis and Ma jotted down some of the mechanics they wanted to take from these types of games to include in their prototype. They also wrote down what kinds of feelings they hoped to convey to the player, landing in an angle reasonably unique to video games at the time.
“We wanted to put the player in the shoes of the captain rather than the pilot of a spaceship,” says Davis. “Most of the games at that time were all about fighter pilots and dogfights in space. We wanted to give you more of that Picard feel of power switching and protecting your shields and dealing damage and this kind of things.
“We wanted them to struggle with managing the ship’s systems and feel the pain of losing a crew member to their poor decision-making,” adds Ma.
In trying to elicit these kinds of feelings in gamers, Ma recalls being inspired by the random situations and permadeath of roguelike games. At the time, these types of design elements extended from traditional turn-based adventures to other types of gameplay.
“I’ve played a ton of traditional roguelikes over the past few years, but that was just classic spelunky it got me thinking about how the principles of roguelikes might apply to other genres,” Ma recalls.
That being said, many decisions to incorporate similar mechanisms were practical. “For example, we wanted you to have to live with the consequences of your decisions, so a race-based game with permadeath made sense,” Ma said. “We wanted you to feel like you were exploring an unknown world, so random text events with different outcomes seemed like the easiest way to create this. We were also a bit of a masochist and liked to fail the game, so it naturally got quite difficult.
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