GDC 2013: Designing Without a Pitch – FTL Postmortem


In a filled-to-capacity room full of developers and journalists, Matthew Davis and Justin Ma of Subset Games, creators of the Indie-darling FTL, gave a postmortem which covered their trials and tribulations during an 18-month development cycle. Designing Without a Pitch: FTL Postmortem proved to be one of the most inspiring tracks during the Indie Games Summit yet.

Originally planned as a 3-month long project, FTL quickly became so much more, largely due to the wild success of their Kickstarter, which began only one week after the Double Fine’s foray into the same space.  Subset’s initial goal was a measly $10,000, yet received 20 times that, for a sum of $200,000.

This proved to be both a gift and a curse, as it forced the team to move the original release date of August, back to September 14, 2012 to accommodate the loftier scope and expectations. The initial small design was altered into something grander. With increased funds came high expectations from backers, and a reevaluation of the game’s content. A larger number of weapons would be added, as well as a contractor to handle the music for the game.

Additional enemy types were considered too, including one which would plant itself inside your ship, spawn, and then wreak havoc on crew members, á la the 1979 film Alien. Mind you, all of this was at a time before stretch goals were standard for Kickstarter, so they didn’t include any!


The first playable build

The first playable build

The first build

In order to understand how things came together for the project, we need to start from the beginning. Ma and Davis were seeking what they called a “Captain Kirk feeling, as every game with a setting in space seemed to focus on the pilot, not the captain.” They still needed a stronger definition for their work, and before doing so, a number of options were considered. Which genre would it fit in? Exploration? 4x? Even Diner-Dash in space was something they were contemplating.

The Game Design Doc that started it all

The Game Design Doc that started it all

Finally they settled on taking an approach that included a small ship with an emphasis on crew management.  This all stemmed from a simple hand-drawn image of a shop alongside some chicken-scratch writing.  With the plans of this remaining a 3-month project still in place, simplicity was key. The first playable build included a grid-based movement system, which was supposed to be temporary, but fit so well that it remained in the final product.

The only goal at this time was that of survival. Movement, shields, doors, and a handful of the game’s systems were included as well. This build brought a number of conclusions to Subset’s attention, but one thing stood out: more content and ideas needed to be added. Granted, this was around the 4-week mark, so there was still quite a bit to go. “Combat is the next most important thing. We needed to add this to the mix and see how it feels,” Davis proclaimed.


The Spatial Prototype

The Spatial Prototype

Spatial Prototype

The following build would come not too long after, but brought the addition of multiple ships into the mix. After a bit of time with this build however, Ma quickly realized the game just wasn’t any fun. “Micromanagement wasn’t fun; it was too heavy. Nothing was working together and we weren’t getting the feeling we wanted at all.” Back to the drawing board they went, and chose to scrap the entire concept of moving ships.

Split-screen combat would ultimately prove to be the proper idea, and it stuck around through the lifetime of the project. A focus on the interior environments took shape as well, with wiring between rooms and other fine details being added. An overhaul to the power bars also took shape. Davis specified, “We have to be able to show everything on one screen. Moving between screens for additional info would not work.”

They toyed around with the idea of using hidden menus (pop-ups) too, but that was soon sent to the cutting room floor as well. At this point the project was still “just for fun,” but even so, many of their initial concepts were coming back to hurt them. “The limited screen resolution came back to bite us in the ass, especially when it came to scaling images. Shrinking ship sizes just wasn’t an option,” Ma stated of his art woes. A more fluid movement system would come to fruition at this point as well, rather than sticking to strictly a grid-based one.


A prototype build on the left, and final version on the right.

Jumping from one prototype build to the next

The six-month mark and release day

Ma’s brother, who is also a developer, was playing a build at this point and insisted that the duo shed the placeholder dots they were using to represent the crew and begin crafting an actual crew. More polish came around this point too, including real character portraits to replace the silly ones consisting of cats. The 6-month period that would follow was marked as a period of polish and following the fun.

“It helped to not have pages of design documents,” Davis said. “It allows us to stay agile and make rapid changes.” This runs counter to what we frequently hear development teams say, but I suppose their small size is what allows this to be possible. In the end, Subset Games saw incredible success in FTL upon its September 14, 2012 release, as it hit the Humble Store, Good Old Games, and of course, Steam.

The final piece of advice the pair offered was to avoid releasing for 3 operating systems at once, at least if it’s your first game. “We saw a slew of problems with that approach,” Ma affirmed.

In a closing and powerful statement, Ma proclaimed “Two years ago I was here, went to IGF and IGS talks, and got inspired. This convinced me to quit my job, and join Matt.” Not one to end on a serious note, he finished with “……not that I’m suggesting all of you run and quit your jobs today, though!”

The slides used during the talk are publicly available on the FTL’s website, and can be seen here. Continue to check back here throughout the week as we  provide additional coverage of the Indie Games Summit talks at GDC all week, and let us know what you thought about the postmortem below!

Posted on by Dave Voyles in Features, PC

About Dave Voyles

Dave is located in Philadelphia, and works as a Tech Evangelist at Microsoft. He's coordinated the Indie Games Uprisings on Xbox Live, wrote the UnrealScript Game Programming Cookbook, Made an XBLIG game, and is currently doing JS / HTML5 dev for browser base games. You can follow him on Twitter, at @DaveVoyles

  • Johannes

    Any chance you could upload higher resolution versions of the images? They’re really tiny. Especially the ‘game design that started it all’ image is just not legible, which is a shame because that looks like it would be really cool to look at.

  • Mike Wall


    We got the images from their powerpoint, which you can see here:

    Unfortunately, that is the size of the image in their slideshow