The making of Into the Breach: how Subset Games stripped back to the essentials

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FTL, the first release from Subset Games, was born out of a set of “perfect coincidences”.

Co-designers Matthew Davis and Justin Ma just submitted an early version of the space strategy game to GDC China’s IGF, and people just happened to love it. Luckily, some big names in the industry have taken notice, boosting the game’s notoriety.

The duo also got a chance to develop a game at the start of the crowdfunding boom, right after Double Fine first tackled Kickstarter. When Subset Games went on Kickstarter shortly after, the idea was to raise money for Ben Prunty, music and sound designer for FTL, who had worked on the game for free. The goal was $10,000. By the end of the campaign, they had secured $200,000 in funding.

“We envisioned the process as sort of a way for family and friends to support us,” Justin Ma recalls as we chat during Reboot Develop. “Then all of a sudden the whole industry seemed to go crowdfunding and we were one of the very few games on the platform. Everyone just jumped on it. It was amazing, but it was also a huge stressor so figuring out how to adapt to that seeing how we’re actually going to have a beta with 1000s of people not 15…maybe we could have mentally prepared better but the reality of adjustment after Kickstarter was a challenge.

The new developers were happy with their crowdfunding success, but with that success came added pressure. This was before the days of stretch goals – another mercy – but they went from developing a game in their spare time to being watched by the entire industry practically overnight. It was an overwhelming feeling. Despite the success of FTL’s launch, it’s a sentiment that Ma and Davis are unlikely to pursue again.

“We don’t do marketing. It’s as close to marketing as we get it,” Ma says, referring to the interview we have. “I prefer not to promise anything than to make a promise that does not materialize. The pushback you get from people is terrifying. People are so invested and they care so much about these things. I don’t want to hurt them and I don’t want to put us in trouble.

That’s why Into the Breach, a mechs versus kaiju game released in early 2018, came out of nowhere. “We didn’t announce it very consciously,” Ma explains. they hoped. We also set it up so that we could drop it at any time if we thought it was going nowhere. We didn’t try to create expectations, and we really wanted to embrace the way that we originally worked on FTL in the beginning, that is, we both had fun. We tried to capture that feeling with as little pressure as possible, for moderate success. There is certainly a bit of sophomore syndrome Honestly, FTL was very stressful for both of us and we cracked up pretty hard.

Development on Into the Breach took around four years, and the pair made sure to balance their work with their personal lives this time around. At this point, Davis had two children. Ma and his wife also had stuff going on. They all did a bit of traveling to unwind between projects, and when they settled on Into the Breach, they made a conscious effort not to burn out.

“We really tried not to obsess over it and think about it all day every day,” Ma says. “But that being said, it has the downside of taking way too much time. It was a very slow process and it often felt like we were spinning our wheels and making no progress. I don’t know how we’ll approach our next game, but we definitely want it to be a shorter development cycle.

Part of the reason Into the Breach took so long is that it was such an iterative process that was constantly evolving, all starting from an initial concept: collateral damage. Ma and Davis had watched the rise of superhero film, where seeing the likes of Superman punch someone through a skyscraper sparked inspiration. What if the hero really didn’t care?

“We wanted to show what it feels like to sacrifice yourself to protect people in a city,” says Ma. “The theme of mechs, monsters, and kaiju naturally fits that. The game’s actual combat mechanics were mostly discovered through trial and error. We weren’t sure at first exactly how it would work.

Originally, Into the Breach had an XCOM-esque strategy layer inserted between the action segments, where you had to deal with economy, research, and maintenance of mechanics. This section of the game never happened. “We cut it mainly because it was bad,” Ma laughs. -what’s interesting in this release so far? “”

The interesting thing, it turned out, was the single enemy ability. This enemy had a quirk where it would telegraph its attacks – a mechanic that lends itself well to the collateral damage theme. To counter this enemy, you often had to move your mechs into danger and take a hit, sacrificing some of your armor for the good of the city.

“We were trying a number of things to find a way to be innovative, because we started out as a very generic tactics-style game,” Ma recalls. “So we were trying to play with things like different turn orders , time systems, but [telegraphed attacks were] by far the most interesting thing. It’s also thematically very appropriate because you see and feel the buildings are under threat and then you have to prevent it, rather than the constant theoretical threat of them attacking the buildings. So you feel like you have more control over the outcome. If you didn’t, you would have to defend yourself preemptively and maybe nothing would happen. We basically cut out anything that didn’t inform combat. We’ve made it super simple – a bunch of battles and you’re done. It was a much smaller game than what we did initially, but in the end it’s definitely a better game.

This focus is one of the things that makes Into the Breach such a great game. Your tactical options are always apparent, the rules are consistent, and you always feel like there’s a perfect set of moves – no matter what. whatever team you play on – to counter any situation. However, this isn’t achieved by any AI magic or procedural weirdness – it’s the thinness of the game, the tightness of the design that makes it feel that way.

“Basically, the AI ​​just chooses from a list of what does the most damage and randomly chooses from the top,” Ma explains. “So each of the enemies, they don’t know what the other enemies are doing. He doesn’t know what your abilities are. It’s super, super basic – just a bunch of random threats. I think the reason it feels like there’s always a solution is because we’ve put a lot of effort into making each weapon have multiple purposes and utility besides just damaging. So even though you can only have three units, it looks like a very wide decision space because they can interact in different ways. So it ended up feeling like anything is possible.

“The big way we kept it from feeling impossible, I think, was less about the AI ​​and more about the map design. We’ve structured the maps to avoid situations that feel impossible to solve. , and we also made sure that the AI ​​didn’t stand near the edges, near the back lines, stuff like that, because then you usually can’t stop them from doing damage.

The whole philosophy of Subset Games seems to be built around this: bringing everything back to basics. How do you improve the readability of your game? Literally show the player what the enemy will do next. How do you ensure that there is always some environmental interaction? Reduce cards. How do you make this strategy layer work? Cut it. How will we market our games? We won’t. It’s not an approach that can work for all studios and Ma is well aware of how lucky he and Davis have been in this regard, but I’m glad a company like Subset Games exists – a developer that sometimes realizes that less is more. Don’t expect the studio’s next attack to be telegraphed.

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