Sunday Sidebar: Meet Justin Ma of Subset Games

Greetings, one and all, and welcome to another stellar Sunday Sidebar. I do not say that in jest, for this week has me speaking to Justin Ma, co-creator of space roguelike FTL: Faster Than Light. This game is arguably the definitive indie success of the year, and is particularly noteworthy for being the first game to have released after a runaway success on Kickstarter earlier this year. What’s it like developing a game in China? What the heck do you do when you raise 2000% more than you had hoped for? And most importantly: Can Justin defeat his own creation? Read on to find out more!

justin ma headshot 300x300 Sunday Sidebar: Meet Justin Ma of Subset Games

Meet Justin Ma of Subset Games.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Justin Ma. I’m the artist and co-designer of FTL: Faster Than Light. Previous to working on this project, Matt [Davis, Justin’s co-designer] and I worked at 2K Games in Shanghai, China, and we both quit to work on this small indie game together. At 2K I worked on BioShock 2, and Top Spin 4 for the Wii. I also worked on a number of unannounced, unreleased prototypes.

How many are on the Subset Games team? Do you have plans to expand since FTL‘s runaway success?

For FTL we had two part-time contractors helping, Ben Prunty who did the music and sounds and Tom Jubert who helped with some of the writing. In terms of expanding Subset Games, right now we want to keep it small, largely because it would be a little hard to take anyone else on right now. We’re both on opposite ends of the world, and we’ve been living like that for a while. It’s not like we have a studio space and can meet people and organize things. We’re sort of just autonomously working together. [Laughs]

I left China before the release of FTL. Right now, my girlfriend and I are in Long Island, NY and we’re figuring out where we’ll move next. We like to move to random places. I think we’ll move to Seattle soon.

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The opening screen of FTL: Faster Than Light.

“I would go into these studios and just meet everybody and see behind the scenes”

How did you get into videogames development?

I always wanted to work in videogames. I didn’t know exactly how or in what sort of role I’d be working. My father has been in the videogame industry for 25 years, maybe. He was working for Activision, Acclaim, and a lot of really big companies. He does a lot of stuff with going to China. I would go into these studios and just meet everybody and see behind the scenes. I guess that for that reason, while growing up, games took on less of a mystical quality. I knew that there are just normal people behind them, that there are broken versions and people trying to fix them. The whole development process was something that definite intrigued me from a younger age.

He was in the business management side, so he didn’t exactly work on the games themselves, rather than deal with the manufacturing and stuff. He was working in Acclaim during their golden days, doing NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat, Turok. Some awful games too, but a lot of really good ones.

You and Matthew both worked together at 2K Shanghai, right?

We were both more or less there for around two years. I was hired as a game designer. Initially, I was hired because they needed somebody to fill a multi-purpose role. Someone who knew how to deal with Flash, 3D modeling, Photoshop and stuff, which isn’t a normal skill, to be able to bridge all of those, in China at least. Once I finished that project, I meandered towards a full-time game design position. I’m from the USA, but my father is Chinese so I was always intrigued with that aspect of my past and I majored in Chinese in college. My girlfriend and I moved to China after she graduated. We were there almost four years, so I was already in the country when the job opportunity came up.

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Matt Davis watches closely as Adam Saltsman (of Canabalt fame) plays FTL: Faster Than Light.

China has a reputation as being quite a closed-off country, particularly when it comes to the Internet. Does that affect game development?

When you’re working at a larger company, at least in my experience, everybody uses VPNs, which allows you to get past the ‘Great Firewall of China’. We did the majority of the work on FTL while we were both still in China, too. In that case, it was just us in our apartments working, so I don’t think there would have been much difference had it been elsewhere. In the last two months, I was in the United States and Matt was still in China, but we maintained our schedules, except that I had to work from 8pm to 4am every day. Other than that, it was pretty similar!

When the funding total reached where it did, there were two feelings at once: terror and validation”

You were originally looking for only $10,000 to produce FTL. With funding finishing at $200k, what kind of difference did that make? How has it paved the future for your development career?

When you look at FTL where it is now, and you see it as a released product, you can’t really perceive our state of mind, where we were starting that Kickstarter – We’ve never made a game before, and we’re working on this small project for fun. Some people say that it’s totally financially viable, that we should sell it, but we don’t really believe them. So we do this Kickstarter, and it goes absolutely nuts.

It definitely changed our state of mind in terms of how to approach it: People are now paying attention to us. There are 10,000 people who are expecting a certain quality of product that they’ve paid for. It definitely made us step up the intensity, where previously it was just us screwing around. Back then, it was pretty relaxed. It was a passion project. We saved up enough money to not work for about a year. We said ‘Okay, let’s spend three months on one project’. That turned into almost two years, which is why we needed the Kickstarter – we ran out of money.

Scope-wise, it made the game more… dense. It would have been the same game plan, but much more slimmed down. Less events, less interesting aliens. Simpler, more generic stuff. Less music, definitely – one fifth of the music. Less weapons, less ships. It would have been a lot smaller.

When the funding total reached where it did, there were two feelings at once: terror and validation. People actually like our idea, but how the hell are we going to deal 4,000 beta users when we’d been planning for maybe one or two hundred? It was a big turning point, and it was a very stressful transition, because we had to figure out how to deal with all the various business aspects, and press and stuff. A lot of indie games these days, they seem well prepared for a public persona: they have their developer videos every week, their blog posts, etc. We’re both very introverted people, and so having to manage Twitter, and a forum, was very new and scary for us.

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Where FTL particularly excels is in how it engages your imagination.

Where did the funds go to?

Unlike some of the Kickstarters which say ‘If we get X more, we’ll expand our team, enlarge the project, etc’, we had set a date for finishing the game three months after the Kickstarter. In that respect, there wasn’t a way to use the extra funds while staying on track for our deadline. So we tried to meet it in the middle – to use that money to expand the game as much as possible, and at the same time to not delay. Eventually, we were a month later than we had hoped when our scope was much smaller. The rest of the money will go towards other games, and this post-release update.

We are very new at this. The money means that there are a lot of things we have to learn to do, but after that we’ll be able to hire extra programmers if we want to, or port the game to tablets, for example. We’re also looking into translating the game into other languages. It opens opportunities like giving us the funds to exhibit at events, for instance.

Previously we were working with absolutely nothing, and future money was not guaranteed. It has allowed us to use better engines, too. We ran into a few problems with OpenGL. We can afford licensing, for example.

Would you consider going the Kickstarter route again?

I personally wouldn’t, and I don’t think Matt would either. That’s with the assumption that we still have money to play with. We’re not going to Kickstart the next game, because FTL made us enough money to be able to keep working on games. If we’re totally out again, I guess we might consider some form of crowdfunding, but we’d prefer not to have to do that.

It’s not a question of risk, but more a state of mind. We really enjoyed the ‘working for ourselves’ phase, and frankly I think we did better work when we were just working from within our cave, or whatever, with no-one to answer to. We did a lot better work together in that state of mind.

Once we did the Kickstarter, it took a very public approach and while it improved the game, it resulted in a different working condition than we would like in the game’s early stages. Other people can work well in that sort of ‘eyes on you’ situation, but it’s not ideal for us as developers.

Which FTL race was created by the $2,000 backer?

That’s the hidden race, the Crystal. That’s partially why we made them so hard to obtain, because they are special in that regard. It was also for the beta testers. They helped us out so much, and basically solved everything in the game, and unlocked all of the ships. So for them, we wanted to have one last final thing that they could enjoy as well.

They’re also a game-changer. They present a new ability to use, and it’s high skill-cap that I don’t think people new to the game would be able to use efficiently. Even if you know how to unlock them, it’s a little random and is really hard to do.

I noticed that you haven’t backed any other Kickstarters with the Subset account. Do you wish to keep a distance from the site?

That’s part of the whole ‘public persona’ thing. In my mind, that account is Subset and not us personally. I have backed a number of Kickstarters, and so has Matt, but I’m perfectly fine for that to not be a publicity stunt, or part of some public image. I feel a little bit awkward about the dual-purpose of providing support and getting a good image out of it. I don’t really like that contrast between those two aspects of motivation. I’d rather it be personal, and not be up for question.

“I think we’ll want to go back to the screwing around phase.”

What’s next for your team? More FTL, or a whole new project? It must be a daunting proposition…

We’re so entrenched in dealing with FTL that we don’t have anything set in stone yet. I don’t think we’ll be working on ‘FTL 2’ next or anything. We’ll dig in and start some new random idea that we think will be cool. We’ve no specific word on it yet, though.

Our experience changed from screwing around and having fun making a game to ‘how do we make a commercial product?’ So I do think we’ll want to go back to the screwing around phase. I would be perfectly fine with just making a number of smaller prototypes and putting them out for free or whatever, rather than trying to dive into a whole new big project. Who knows, maybe we’ll do another small thing and it’ll blow up like FTL again. [Laughs]

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Choose when and what to upgrade on your ship is a daunting task.

It has to be weird to have left a big company with the aim of doing something more hobby-focused, only to stumble back into that same pressurizing atmosphere.

Yeah, we have fans and we have to be ‘loyal to the brand’, and all that. At least this way we don’t have investors or a marketing team that determine some of the aspects of our games. We still have the freedom to just make something and put it out for free if we choose to do so. I think that was part of the shock of the past couple of months, trying to re-evaluate our goals and so forth. It was that situation of realizing ‘Oh, we’re back into serious work again’. You adapt your perspective towards to it, rather than fight it. Obviously, it’s super, super positive.

“We wanted it to have around a 10% success rate even if you know what you’re doing.”

What’s your personal success rate when playing FTL? Are you able to reliably complete the game? I must confess that I still haven’t succeeded.

To be perfectly honest, it was maybe a few weeks before the release of the game that was the first time I was actually able to beat the game. We were designing it for people who would be really good at it, which is a weird thing to shoot for. We wanted it to have around a 10% success rate even if you know what you’re doing. That was the goal in terms of difficulty.

Now, I can win maybe every third or fourth attempt. Knowing which battles to fight and which choices to pick in the events plays a significant role. We were watching a number of live streams during the beta period. This one guy, I sat there and I watched him win the game on Normal difficulty three times in a row, and I was just like ‘What the hell?! Am I supposed to make the game harder?!’

We definitely wanted the atmosphere of the game to be that you feel like it’s a suicide mission, but that you just might win. It’s the sort of state of mind that doesn’t appeal to everybody, but if you can see that as a challenge, a high goal that you might not achieve, then it can be appealing.

I definitely think it’s a personal thing. Some people see FTL, and they dismiss it straight off ‘No, this is too random for me’. It’s a temperament problem. If you feel like you can eke out and survive, to crawl forward and potentially still lose, but still find that enjoyable, then FTL is for you. Whereas some people will take damage and then want to immediately restart, and that’s not how it should be played.

A lot of people have complained that the game is too random, and that you need luck to win the game. I’ve always taken a bit of an issue with that. I’ve seen people get the best drops ever, and you still get destroyed by this series of unfortunate events. Other times, I can get next to nothing, but still prevail. It is a very random-based game, but I don’t think victory should necessarily be the sole aim.

There is actually a really high skill cap. People say boarders are impossible, but you can defeat any number of boarders if your med bay doesn’t get broken. Watching that guy who won three times in a row taught me a whole new range of strategies. One of the biggest things I noticed was that if he got into a tight spot, he got the hell out of there. He chose not to get involved sometimes.

I would like to hope that when players lose, they can see that it’s a result of a chain of mistakes – that you could have done X or Y better. Otherwise, it can be too frustrating. The Team Meat guys were talking about how they wanted Super Meat Boy to be hard, but not frustrating, and the way they did that was to make no barrier of entry to trying again. And that is, like, the total opposite for FTL! When you die, you lose all of your effort, and you can die in a matter of seconds if you don’t pay attention.

But after you first realize the stakes, it’s very immediate to get back into a new game…

Yeah, and that’s definitely Matt’s emphasis. He said ‘I want literally nothing in the way of the player.’ Adding even one more ‘Are you sure?’ button would make Matt really angry.

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The wealth of unlockable secrets in FTL is astounding.

Do you think it has influenced your own taste in games?

For sure. I’ve been playing the new XCOM recently, and it has shown me there has been a change in the way I approach games. Way back when playing it originally, I was fine with playing and saving constantly. Now, I have this state of mind where I was playing Normal for a while, but I have to play on Ironman now. I no longer get enjoyment from this feeling where I can just save and reload. That used to be fine for me back in the day, playing Half Life or whatever. I play Dishonored now, and I’m really not enjoying it because if I don’t get a silent takedown, I cannot stop myself from reloading. I hate myself for doing it. [Laughs]

I want there to be some permanence and importance to mistakes. That’s definitely something that was high on my list for FTL. Early on, we were talking about how player decisions should have importance to them, we want mistakes to feel like they matter. The boardgame of the television show Battlestar Galactica was a huge influence. Making mistakes in that game is serious business. More than trying to make a game that was ‘rogue-likeish’, that was the big reason that tilted us towards these elements – the question of ‘how do we make this importance of decision take focus?’ and the answer is permadeath. You have to have permadeath. Otherwise, why not just reload?

What is the most difficult part about being an independent developer?

Learning how to, and then maintaining, all of the various business and management aspects of development. That was something we had a very short time to learn how to do. Setting up a company, finding a lawyer, an accountant. All of that is so much more difficult than making the game. Making the game is a vacation compared to it.

The most rewarding part is the mobility and the autonomy of being independent. With FTL, we didn’t know what type of game we were making. One day we make a decision, and we just abandon everything to pursue what we consider as fun. That sort of change happens multiple times in the development cycle. At bigger studios, by nature, you’re not able to make every decision. It puts a lot more pressure on you, but it’s much better to be accountable and have that level of control and satisfaction.

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Justin and his brother Bryan, who also works in the games industry.

Finally, what’s your most prized gaming possession?

I still have Super Metroid for my Super Nintendo. I don’t have a lot of stuff, due to traveling so much and being mobile. Stored in my parents’ place for the meantime, until I can set up a studio, my brother and I still have all our old game systems. He also has worked in the game development industry, and worked at 2K much longer than me. So when we’re together over the holidays, we’ll occasionally dig those out and play together.

Thanks for chatting, Justin!

Thank you!

FTL: Faster Than Light is available from the game’s website, or from Steam. At time of print, it is on sale for 40% off. You can learn more about Subset Games at their website.

About Christopher Floyd

Christopher Floyd is VGW’s token Brit. Ever the champion for gaming underdogs, he is more likely to be found covering Triple-eh? than Triple-A. Each Sunday, he welcomes the VGW faithful to the Sunday Sidebar, with interviews and popular reflections on the gaming world and life within it.


  1. To say China is “quite closed-off” is a ridiculous stereotype. I can’t believe there is still somebody saying so in 2012. Deluded by US media propaganda? We are not North Korea. Live in Shanghai for a few years, and you’ll totally agree that nowadays Chinese big cities are basically no different from New York etc. In terms of the Internet, the GFW is just for restricting the general public. However, for people with international perspective, VPN is a regularity, and Chinese government acquiesces this practice without any problem. Many Chinese have access to anything in this world just as well as anybody else. Hope more success stories like FTL will tell the world the facts about China!

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