A few months ago Subset Games, the two-person studio behind FTL, released Into the Breach, a mech-themed follow-up that traded space adventures for time traveling damage mitigation while sticking to the roguelike format.
If you've spent any time with Into the Breach, you've likely found that it possesses many of the compelling qualities of its predecessor, plus new elements that make good use of the notion that when giant creatures fight, collateral damage could have a huge impact. To learn more about making this kind of game with such unusual mechanics, we reached out to Subset Games' Justin Ma and Matthew Davis to discuss the design and development of Into the Breach over on the Gamasutra Twitch channel.
We've made sure to embed the full conversation up above for your convenience, but if you've just abandoned a timeline and are diving back into the breach as we speak, here's a few quick takeaways to help your own game development process.
Always building & always playtesting (can have a price)
If you're wondering why the minute-to-minute interactions of Into the Breach feel so good, Ma & Davis say that has partly to do with the fact that the development process consisted of constant playtesting, with a focus on making sure things were fun or interesting much quicker then a game that needed months to make features "work."
What's interesting is that this design methodology had something of a downside for the game's macro-strategy decisions (the parts of the game that take place outside of combat). Ma & Davis say that designing this section of Into the Breach involved putting way more faith into a longer production process, that choices early on would pay off over time, which the pair found to be "frustrating." There wasn't quite a remedy for this situation, other than that, as Davis says, it was just important at every step of the process to make sure things were fun and make things work in these micro-sized chunks.
Managing expectations after you've made a smash hit
With a deadpan tone, Ma told us "The best thing we did was we made FTL in the past," before indicating he and Davis couldn't confidently discuss marketing as a practice. Since many indies can probably relate to this experience, it's probably worth noting the Subset Games pair still had some thoughts about communicating with new players after the success of FTL. Unlike other developers who've advocated recently for marketing games while early in development, Ma & Davis say a deliberate part of their plan was to not give players any expectations that couldn't be lived up to, and holding off on releasing images and announcements until the game was well in development.
But a second part of managing expectations, according to Ma, was accepting that FTL could be his "biggest game ever," and freeing himself to work on a game that he and Davis would find fun to play. That pair argued that keeping that mindset helped them communicate with fans and prevent them from over-hyping their descriptions of the game.
Squads (or ships) help make game variety broad and replayable
One direct design thread from FTL to Into the Breach is the unlockable playstyles that emerge over gameplay. In FTL, players unlocked different ships that came with different loadouts and slots for equippable upgrades, and in Into the Breach, players unlock different squads of mechs that alter how they approach objectives in different areas.
Davis explained that this came from a personal preference for him wanting to be able to shake up how he tries to complete roguelikes immediately after playing. In Into the Breach, he argues this actually has the surprising impact of reducing randomness that players encounter, since ships are fairly well defined before the player even starts gathering upgrades, and therefore they're less likely to dramatically reshape their build during play (which seems to also help with balancing and tuning as well).
For more developer interviews, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamsautra Twitch channel.