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By Justin Ma and Matthew Davis
Faster Than Light (FTL) was a hobby project that tumbled into success. Here are our highs and lows from the development process -- and the Kickstarter campaign.
1. Unique, Novel Design
FTL started as a pretty basic concept. We felt that space games often focused on the act of piloting a ship or managing a fleet, but never let you feel like the captain. We wanted to experience making high-level decisions about the ship's strategy as well as managing every action of the crew. In our search for an enjoyable experience we created a unique type of gameplay: part simulation/strategy, part "Choose Your Own Adventure," and part RPG.
We found that for many people, the strength of the basic gameplay (with the help of amazing music from Ben Prunty) was enough to overlook what they might have considered flaws in the game: the simplistic graphics, its repetitive nature, and the sometimes frustratingly brutal difficulty. It effectively satisfied the little fantasy that we've all had when watching great science fiction movies and TV shows.
Initially we thought that there would be no potential market for a game this unforgiving, and we were genuinely surprised by how much other people liked it. In the end, we believe that the desire to create a game that we ourselves wanted to play allowed us to come up with something that appealed to others. Developers have stated this sentiment for ages, but we think it played an especially large role in FTL's success.
2. Amazing Timing (and Luck)
In early 2011 we had both quit our jobs to spend a year making small game prototypes. After starting FTL, we used the IGF China 2011 submission deadline as a concrete milestone for our development; we decided that if we couldn't get a solid game prototype by that time, we'd move on to another idea.
We then spent four months working on game mechanics, rather than a game, and we were frustrated and unsure what the game would be until something clicked during the last two weeks. We determined the game's structure and pacing almost overnight, and were able to submit our first playable prototype to IGF, where it was well received. Indie game competition deadlines continued to line up nicely as periodic development milestones, but that was just the start of our fortuitous timing.
By early 2012, we were running out of funds and started to look into crowdfunding options. This was before Kickstarter had been used to raise millions of dollars for game projects, and at the time we thought it would be a good way to reach out to some people and raise a few thousand dollars. We had gained some publicity with honorable mentions in the 2012 IGF, which also gave us an opportunity to have a brief public demo on OnLive's service during GDC, so we were already planning to line up our Kickstarter with those events -- but our luckiest break actually came when Double Fine launched their Kickstarter campaign, which was two weeks before we were ready. Thanks to Double Fine, our Kickstarter got much more traffic.
So in just one week, the FTL Kickstarter benefited from the "Double Fine effect," two IGF honorable mentions, and a demo available on OnLive and the GDC show floor. This perfect storm of publicity undoubtedly led to our Kickstarter's overwhelming success.
3. Kickstarter: Positives
Money changes everything. The Kickstarter's success changed FTL from a hobby project to a business overnight. We became a "studio" with a decent number of fans keenly awaiting the release of our game. This was one of the biggest moments of success in FTL's development, but also the primary source of stress and issues (explained later).
Our savings were all but used up one year into development. If we planned on releasing the game as a commercial product, we'd have to cover everything from food and rent to licenses and a lawyer, so we launched a Kickstarter campaign with the modest goal of $10,000, expecting that we could barely reach that amount, or, if very lucky, perhaps achieve $15K to $18K. But due to the fortunate timing of events described above, we ended up with just over $200,000 in funding.
The Kickstarter had a number of positive benefits on our development: First and foremost, we no longer had to worry about paying rent. We were also able to expand FTL's scope; Ben was able to expand our initially slim music plan into a full soundtrack, and we were able to enlist writer Tom Jubert to expand FTL's universe and lore, which in turn led to more ships, aliens, and weapons.
The campaign also publicized the game. Our campaign made us part of an expanding Kickstarter movement, and when we released, we became one of "the first" from that new wave of Kickstarter successes -- both of which led to a lot of press attention. It even got the attention of Valve, allowing us to both distribute the game and host our beta on Steam. This private beta was possibly the most important part of the Kickstarter; we got almost 3,000 beta testers, which is a lot for a new independent developer, and FTL became a far more polished and stable game for it.