Road to the IGF: Subset Games' Into the Breach
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Into the Breach is a game of tactical mech combat, one where the enemies telegraph their moves, turning each match into a kind of puzzle that needs to be studied and completed. Not only this, but there is an added incentive to keep collateral damage to a minimum. While players may know what an enemy mech is doing based on telegraphing, dodging a hit may result in damage to a structure that is more important than the unit itself, adding extra challenge, and more things to consider, in a fight.
Gamasutra sought out Justin Ma of Subset Games, developers of the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and Excellence in Design-nominated Into the Breach, to learn more about why they chose to make players care about blowing up the city they're supposed to be saving, giving players the ability to read enemy moves, and what these two things did to make the FTL developer's new game feel special.
What's your background in making games?
We both grew up making small games, but Matthew (Davis) and I officially started in the industry at 2K Games Shanghai studio. He was hired as a junior programmer and I was a junior designer, and we mainly worked on sports and Facebook titles. We both moved on after a few years and decided to try developing something on our own. Our first prototype eventually would become FTL.
How did you come up with the concept?
The game started as vague idea: “mechs vs monsters where collateral damage matters”. From the start, we knew that it would be turned-based in a sci-fi kaiju setting, but nothing else was set in stone. It was only after a year or so of iteration that we figured out the core mechanics.
What development tools were used to build your game?
The game was written in C++ using Visual Studio and Notepad++ for the Lua scripting. All of the pixel art was done using Photoshop, but I’m not sure what our concept artist, Polina Hristova, used for the portraits. We use Google Docs for our documentation and Slack for our chat. The audio and music were done by Power Up Audio and Ben Prunty, respectively, and implemented in game using FMOD.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
We’ve spent almost 4 years on this game. FTL put us in a position where we could try to formulate a better work-life balance and take our time with development. It was a year or two just working on our own before we went full time and hired additional contractors to fill out the development team.
What drew you to create a tactical mech game after FTL? How did you apply what you learned from FTL to Into the Breach?
We thought Into the Breach’s early versions had the most promise compared to the other prototypes we tried. Both of us find strategy games enjoyable, but I’m not sure what drew us to tactics, specifically. Perhaps it was because it’s a genre which benefits greatly from having a lot of mechanics that interact dynamically. That was one of our favorite parts about working on FTL.
Nearly every design decision with Into the Breach drew heavily from lessons learned from FTL. We prefer games with clear rulesets, and were interested in pursuing something with less randomness than FTL. We wanted to make something where every death felt like your own fault. This lead us to use of telegraphed enemy attacks as a core mechanic.
Friendly fire provides new challenges for players of Into the Breach. What drew you to connect civilian structures to the player's mechs? What do you feel taking care of buildings adds to the tactical experience?
The inspiration came from various superhero movies and other media where a whole city could be destroyed during the battle and no one seemed to care. We wanted a game where you had to care about the collateral damage. When you have varied goals and priorities rather than just “kill the enemies”, you get interesting choices. Sometimes it may be more be worthwhile to let the buildings be destroyed while other times you may choose to sacrifice a mech to save the city. Just surviving, with minimal damage, until the end of the battle is often more important than eliminating the enemy. Forcing the player to react to a situation and adapt their strategy was one of our highest priorities - we wouldn’t want the player to find a single tactic and never have any incentive to try something else.
The enemies telegraph their movements in Into the Breach. How do you balance this kind of feature so that it is still challenging when an experienced player may be able to read every move?
When every enemy attack is telegraphed and there’s no random chance in your attack options, the game starts to feel like a puzzle. We feel that even an experienced player can still appreciate solving fresh puzzles every time they play the game. On top of that, we’ve attempted to provide a good spread of difficulty options to cater for players of all skill levels.
Balancing the difficulty of the game has been a numbers game. A single additional enemy turns a battle from ‘a fun challenge’ to ‘completely impossible’, so it’s a very delicate balance. Fortunately, the game remains fun even if it’s slightly on the easy side since there’s a lot of room for creativity and it is really satisfying to ‘solve’ battles.
What was key for you to make the tactical combat of Into the Breach appealing? What do you feel are important elements for a tactical game, and how did you incorporate them into your work?
The kind of tactics games that I enjoy the most generally have the same similar features in their design. I like games that encourage creativity and fresh approaches - a single strategy isn’t viable in every situation. To do this, we made sure weapons are dynamic and have a variety of uses. The first artillery attack can damage enemies, but its side effect of pushing adjacent tiles is usually more impactful. Considering the many ways weapons can interact to create original solutions is at the heart of the game.
I also appreciate tactics games that allow for advancement of characters in a variety of ways - though still have restrictions so you can’t have everything (you can’t ‘max out’ all attributes). Every game of Into the Breach results in new upgrade paths that are all viable that you have to choose between.
Finally, it’s important to me that when you fail at a goal, it’s very clear how or why you failed so that you can feel like you can improve. As I’ve mentioned before, we hope the limited reliance on random chance in Into the Breach helps make the player feel in control.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I haven’t had as much time to check out games recently, but I have enjoyed the games that I’ve played: Getting Over It, Heat Signature, Tooth and Tail, Hollow Knight, and Battle Chef Brigade, to name a few. Hopefully once Into the Breach launches, I’ll be able to go back and check out everything.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
Nowadays, I feel like the absolute largest challenge for devs is to get their games noticed. I don’t know a single gamer that doesn’t have a large backlog of games they are intending to play at some point. It’s hard to find time to play new games and even harder to convince players to prioritize your game over their backlog. Currently, the only way to have a breakaway success seems to be if your game is enjoyable to watch on streams & videos, and fun enough looking to make you want to buy it after watching. That being said, I’m not sure if that’s something developers should be trying to design around.