As classic strategy game Into The Breach gets a mobile version on Netflix and a major DLC update, GameCentral talks to co-designer Matthew Davis.
The pandemic and the release of the new consoles has made it clearer than ever just how long it takes to make a new triple-A video game, with the amount of effort needed for the graphics and other technical elements taking longer and longer with each new hardware generation.
Indie games are usually thought of as being a lot quicker to make and while that can be the case some actually take longer, although that’s usually because of a lack of funding or manpower. With FTL and Into The Breach though that’s just how developer Subset Games works, with the primarily three-person team preferring to take their time to make things perfect.
They’ve only made two games in 12 years and the third isn’t likely to be along in a hurry, but this week they are launching new DLC for an Advanced Edition of Into The Breach, with a version of the game also coming to mobiles via a deal with streaming service Netflix.
Subset was founded by friends Matthew Davis and Justin Ma, and we were able to speak to Davis about not just the Advanced Edition, but what it means to be an indie developer that can afford to take their time making new games.
The Advanced Edition will be released for free on Tuesday, July 19 for Nintendo Switch and PC. A new Android and iOS version of the game will also be released via Netflix, where it will be free if you already have a subscription.
GC: So, Into The Breach is one of my favourite games ever, even more so than FTL.
MD: Thank you, that’s usually the opposite of what I hear from people?
GC: They tell you it’s their least favourite game ever?
MD: [laughs] No. FTL got a much bigger response from most people. I’m afraid you’re in the minority.
GC: I can see why that might be but… let’s skip ahead a second: why was FTL never released on consoles? It seems like it would’ve been a good fit for the Switch at least.
MD: There’s a lot of reasons. The primary reason was that the game… from a UI perspective, doesn’t really work on anything other than the mouse and keyboard. We were able to move it over to iOS for tablets, ’cause the screen real estate was large enough, but even getting it on phones, we experimented with it and it was never comfortable and as pleasant experience as it is on PC or tablet. So we didn’t bother moving on to more.
And a gamepad… oof. I think we did some very minor experiments with that early on, but I I’d nearly discounted it from the beginning, in that a strategy game where you’re moving units to specific areas just doesn’t lend itself to that interface nearly as easily as Into The Breach, which is more standard in terms of the control scheme.
GC: After you couldn’t get FTL on other formats did you purposefully set out to make something that would work on consoles? Because that means a bigger audience and at the end of the day you’ve got to make money.
MD: Luckily, FTL did so well for itself, even on its limited platforms, that we did not approach the next game hoping for a wider release, we approached the next game purely from what design we wanted to work with and it turned out to be what it was. And then we got lucky that it was able to move on to more platforms.
GC: So did FTL make more money for you than Into The Bridge?
MD: FTL has higher sales. I’d have to crunch a lot of numbers, from the different revenue sources, to actually come up with a final figure for which one made more money. It would actually probably be maybe pretty close at this point. But FTL definitely had significantly more sales. It’s also been around longer, and it was cheaper. So higher volume.
GC: Just as long as it wasn’t a flop.
MD: No, not at all. It was definitely not a flop. If we make another game and it does as well as Into The Breach, I would be nothing but thrilled. Even if it did half as well, a quarter as well, we’d be happy. But it didn’t have the same success, to scale, as FTL did from the beginning.
GC: So why are you doing the DLC now? I’m trying to work out when it first came out – it’s like four years ago now?
MD: Yeah, I think it was four years. We actually started on the new content and the touch controls about a year after the initial release. And we probably spent about six months on that content. We had a functioning touch interface but it didn’t fit on phones yet. But we did see that phones would be a possibility. But ultimately we were a little bit burned out on it. We had other projects we wanted to get experimenting with and we kind of put it on the back burner.
And then three years later Netflix reached out to us, with an interest in putting it on their mobile system. One of the reasons that we set it aside was that mobile games are a weird market. And it’s not a market that for premium titles, which is how we’d rather be distributing it usually – just the classic sell it once, no microtransactions, nothing else complicated beyond that – but games like those are a crap shoot for how well they’re gonna do in that market.
And so, as you said, you gotta make money, and so we put it on hold rather than burn another six months, or another year, to get it out the door and we didn’t know how to sell it to actually make it worthwhile.
And so Netflix… that opportunity came up and, as opposed to other subscriptions and other places that might have satisfied a similar requirement, we liked that Netflix was gonna be on Android and iOS. And so it would be a really nice big release without any complaints from players who couldn’t access it. And in most cases people would be able to access it because a lot of people already have a subscription to Netflix.
We’re not necessarily asking people to sign up for yet another subscription. And so there were aspects of that, along with it allowing us to financially have it make sense to make the mobile port, that we returned to the new content. We tweaked the stuff that we had already made, cut some of it, turned it into something that we thought was exciting and we think it turned out pretty cool. We’re happy that Netflix came out of the blue and let us do it.
GC: That’s interesting in that it implies someone there must have been a fan.
MD: I get the impression that there are some fans within, yeah.
GC: I know Netflix has been experimenting in this area, but this is the first time they’ve announced something that’s seemed actually interesting.
MD: They’re growing. I think there’s been a couple announcements in the last couple weeks, of some of the bigger projects and studios. They did acquire some studios, like the guys who made Oxenfree and some other things. I’m not gonna be great at promoting Netflix here myself, ’cause I don’t know enough about it, but I do think they’re going for a slow burn approach and hopefully it will work well for them, as hopefully it will work well for us. We just want people to play the game.
GC: So when you’re talking about ‘us’ and ‘we’ who do you mean exactly? What is Subset Games? I get the impression it’s just you and one other guy.
MD: It has been for the last… what is it? 12 years or something now. Me and Justin [Ma], as the only full-time developers. About two or three years ago we added another programmer, who’s based outta Spain and he makes for our third full-time employee. We also have a part-time employee, Isla, that does community management, QA work, that kind of stuff – a jack of all trades sort.
Other than that we expand as needed for projects, hiring on additional writing, music, sound, things like that. We’ve always used Ben Prunty for music, for both FTL and Into The Breach. And he would, I would hope, continue to work on anything else we made. I consider him as close to another full-fledged member of Subset Games as we’ve got.
GC: He’s second party.
MD: Yes. [laughs] If you look at the credits now for Into The Breach, especially with all the additional localisation work, they are quite long. It’s people that come and go as they fill in the gaps in our skillsets and without which we wouldn’t be able to make the games.
GC: Justin is based in Japan, right? Was that always the case?
MD: Ah, recently. Just before Covid, he moved out. We met in China. We both used to work with 2K China, in Shanghai. And that was ages ago now. I moved… I was actually in the UK for about five years. I’ve been back in the US for about three years now, Justin was in the US in-between China and now Japan. We’re kind of all about, we’ve been working remotely though for ages now.
GC: That makes sense because I was having real trouble placing your accent. Where are you from originally?
MD: [laughs] I’m an American but I guess I did spend five years here in the UK. I’m married to an English woman.
GC: Did you always want to be in the games industry? How did you start out?
MD: I started off as a programmer but I wasn’t necessarily 100% focused and committed to the games industry from the beginning. I went in to study programming just because I like programming. And by the end of studying programming, I realised I actually didn’t like programming that much. [laughs]
But I did like games still and I thought that maybe if I used programming as a means to an end, in terms of creating something I cared about rather than creating software that was not necessarily interesting to me, that it would work. And it has. And I appreciate the control that being the programmer gives me. I get to really be in the guts of the game and the design and the programming kind of reflect each other in that. But it’s also nice that I get to wear a lot more hats than just programming in running a tiny studio like ours.
GC: Was working at 2K your first job in the industry?
MD: That was my first job out of college, yeah. I went to university for computer science and then… it is tough to get a job in the industry, as every programmer wants to work in games. And that’s why I ended up in China because they were willing to hire and as long as you were willing to move out there, which most people weren’t. So I did all right for myself because of that.
GC: At what point did you decide you wanted to be an indie developer?
MD: I was there for probably, I think it was two years… it might have been three. And I met Justin there. He was a junior designer and I was a junior programmer. And then we both left and worked on FTL, but FTL was originally meant as just… more of a portfolio builder, a hobby project – something to help us get jobs in other studios after 2K China. But we happened to strike something interesting enough to turn into its own full-fledged product. So we just got lucky.
GC: It’s interesting that so many indie games nowadays are roguelikes, with yours being amongst the first wave of that. But what exactly were developers influenced by at that time? I can’t imagine they were all sitting around actually playing Rogue so how was it that so many people were coming up with similar ideas all at the same time?
MD: [laughs] I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that. I think that’s a very fair question, ’cause it did kind of come outta nowhere where half a dozen, at least… I did play NetHack in high school. I played a lot of NetHack in high school. So in terms of a purely traditional roguelike inspiration, you could argue at least I was exposed to it then. But I think more of a touchstone for us would’ve been Spelunky, which was successful, with the free version, immediately before we made FTL.
I was playing, as well as Justin, a ton of the freeware version of Spelunky in the year prior to FTL, which kind of laid down the framework for how you can take a roguelike design and apply it to all these different genres or something completely different from what would be a traditional roguelike. And so I think that should get a lot of credit.
But we were also coming at it from board games and I think board games have always kind of been secretly roguelikes, especially as we started seeing more cooperative board games, and not just a simple competitive strategy game, where every time you get out the box you set up this random world with the random deck and the random dice rolls, and you play through the whole thing in two hours or whatever it takes.
And then you tidy up all the pieces and put it away again, it’s that same kind of feeling in the genre of a roguelike, even though it’s never been named that specifically. And it carried that idea that your decisions were permanent, there were no save states. You told a single story through a single playthrough, and then you were done.
And specifically there was the Battlestar Galactica board game that Justin and I played a ton of in China. And there was another little board game about gnomes on a submarine that Justin and I also played back in China. Both of which involve managing a ship from a top-down view, moving crew around, and in Red November’s case – the little submarine game – you’re literally putting out fires and dealing with ship oxygen levels dropping… that kind of thing. If you pull up a picture of Red November you can see the influences.
And Battlestar Galactica, similarly, you’re managing a ship and you have to make a lot of resource decisions about crew dying or needing food, things like that. That’s a semi-cooperative game, but it has a lot of the same elements. And I think those, we were pulling in just as much, if not more, from other sources in terms of design inspiration.
GC: That’s very interesting.
MD: It’s possible, between Spelunky and… I think it was around 2010 when we made FTL, I think that was kind of the beginning of what we’re now in as a golden era for board games. There’s just a dumb amount of amazing board games being made and I think they do secretly lend themselves quite well to that randomised roguelike design.
GC: I don’t know what was going in the world at that point, that randomness seemed like a good idea to have in your entertainment, but you’re right, that was just as board games were becoming really big.
MD: I definitely wouldn’t discount the impact that Spelunky had and I wouldn’t discount the impact that… in the game community, like the real enthusiast community, where most of the developers are working from… they communicate a lot and they have a lot of the same small base of inspiration. And then the end result is it might appear like a bunch of people randomly, from around the world, decided to do this independently, but really they might all be pulling from these kind of similar sources.
GC: They’re all hanging out on the same forum.
MD: Yeah, exactly. Inside of the tiny communities that exist around them.
GC: What were you playing as a kid that got you into games and which do you think had an impact on you now, in terms of what you’re making?
MD: As a kid, I always loved computer RPGs, like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout and Planescape and those sorts. A lot of other PC games, all the Blizzard works, the original Diablo, the original Starcraft, Warcraft games, etc. were big, along with some of the early simulation stuff like the X-Wing series and the MechWarrior series.
GC: Oh… X-Wing’s my favourite.
MD: Excellent. And I think all of those games kind of work their way into what we’ve made, and there’s always a simulation factor. There’s always a strategy factor. And I also… I like a lot of theme and lore and to kind of immerse yourself in a world. And that is something that we also try to dig into with our stuff.
GC: Definitely. Were you into XCOM at all? That seems like it might have been an influence?
MD: Justin was really into the original XCOMs. I, for whatever reason, missed the original XCOMs. Absolutely adored, though, the Firaxis reboot back in 2012.
GC: Yeah, it’s very, very good.
MD: And that would definitely have been a direct influence on Into The Breach, in terms of me wanting to experiment with good base game design.
GC: So FTL has come out and, and been a big success. What were you thinking at that point? Were you thinking it’s just a small step from there to becoming the next Rockstar or were you thinking that you don’t want to get too carried away, because that will change who you are and how you work?
MD: There wasn’t a big conversation about it. If anything, there was, I remember, something we haven’t talked about much since, that I was almost driven out of even wanting to do it at all, anymore. Managing a tiny studio is extremely stressful in that once you have a success – which is great, and I shouldn’t complain at all – but the community management, the constant emails, the amount of public… dealing with the players and the stress and the anger that you get from people in forums, and the vindictive people that you get in forums… You know, I’m not the first person to experience any of this, but it was enough that I was like: ‘I don’t even know if this is worth it, this isn’t very fun to have to deal with all this.’
But then, besides that, I was very lucky that Justin and I both came from a place that we weren’t looking to start the next big studio and grow and expand and be that rockstar developer. We liked working the way that we worked on a small scale, where we could take a long time to figure out what we wanted. We liked being able to pivot quickly and not have to worry about finding the funding for the next six months. Luckily FTL put us in the position that as long as we didn’t expand into a 20 person studio, with an actual physical location, that we could take the time and screw around and find something that we thought was worth doing.
Without that we would’ve never made Into The Breach, ’cause it was a bit of a gauntlet to figure out how it would work. And it took us over four years, really, to get there. And so I don’t think, had we tried to expand and done that in a proper studio setting, I don’t think we would’ve been able to. We needed the scale that we worked on in order to make Into The Breach. And I think that we will continue to work on that scale.
GC: Recently you’ve had the return of AA games, or super indie games or whatever you want to call it. So do you think the majority of indie developers see that as the natural evolution of what they’re doing? There must be a danger that if you get too big you end up back with the problem that you were trying to get away from in the first place.
MD: Yeah, yeah. I get the impression that most do seem to be at least trying to grow to that midscale size. And just at this last GDC [Game Developers Conference] in March, more than one developer talked to Justin and I about how we were a little bit the oddball now that we have stayed small. And I think somebody put it as we aggressively stayed small.
MD: [laughs] Half of that comes from, if I’m honest, that Justin and I don’t love managing and don’t love managing people and hiring and all of the… we wanna make games, we’re doing this to make games. And we hear from other people who have gone on to run larger studios and they talk about how half their day now is spent on business and managing and leading teams rather than doing it. And I think Justin and I both appreciate the genuine freedom that you get from just two guys that are screwing around with prototypes and design rather than attempting to do something bigger.
GC: Four years or more is a long time to make an indie game though, there’s only so many of those you can make before you start looking at retirement!
MD: FTL took under two years, so there’s definitely a case that FTL… design is hard and no one’s figured out a formal way to design something and know it’s gonna be fun before you try it. And it is a definite amount of… just see what sticks to the wall when you throw it. And that process, if nothing sticks, you just have to keep doing it over and over and over. And with Into The Breach, that’s what it was.
We had to keep iterating, keep changing, and keep scratching the last six months of work off and starting over, which most games and most studios don’t have the luxury of being able to do. I think that that if any studio was given unlimited funding and 10 years to figure something out, you’d have amazing award-winning, brilliant design from every single one of them.
It’s just a factor of how much can you pound your head against the wall until you’ve figured out what works. And in the scale that we have you might only do it for a year, you might get really lucky like we did with FTL and come across it quick and it works or you might have to pound your head on the wall for 10 years before you get there.
It’s also a consequence of how the types of games we’re making… you can’t refer to another game to quickly be able to fill in the gaps. While if you’re making a first person shooter or something there’s less reinvention of the wheel.
Justin and I start working, we have no idea if it’s gonna be fun, then six months later, it’s not fun. And we’re like, ‘Crap, what do we do now?’ And that’s definitely a consequence of the way we work. It’s a frustrating way to work, but it’s the fun of getting to find that new thing that’s kind of different and exciting that we love doing.
GC: I know with a FPS you can at least get a prototype up and running very quickly, there are lots of tools to do that, but where do you even start with Into The Breach? Is it on graph paper or something?
MD: I work by programming, since I’m a programmer first, and Into The Breach I started just programming a grid-based strategy game in terms of getting all that code in so I could actually experiment beyond that. And with Into The Breach it’s actually funny in that the monsters were… I wanted that kind of pushing element but I’m 90% sure that, originally, when you pushed an enemy, the enemy attack moved with it. There was like a crab attack that would queue up a crab attack. And it was only one of them that did that. The other enemies at this point were just doing normal strategy game stuff.
And then as a consequence of my code, when you push that crab, its attack moved because for whatever reason I defined it relative to itself rather than an absolute coordinate. And I’d love to say this was brilliant design and I just knew that would be fun, but it was an accident and then it was fun. And so we’re like, what if we just chased that down? And so we did, for four years. [laughs]
GC: I was going to ask this in terms of the DLC but how did you ever balance any of this? Because you had lots of teams of three mechs each but even within those teams they were all very different with their abilities. I can only assume that a majority of that four years was testing and balancing.
MD: There is a ton of just personal play-testing, Justin and I play the game so much during development…
GC: How do you avoid getting sick of it, though? Admittedly, I didn’t and I probably played it for that long as well.
MD: [laughs] That’s the benefit of working with that roguelike design. If the game can surprise you as a developer, it makes it much easier to go back and keep playing it. It’s hard to say I can play Into The Breach and have fun now, ’cause I’m coming off the development cycle and I’ve been playing a lot, but the game can still surprise me. It will still give me new challenges, new puzzles, and be interesting enough that I very rarely find it a chore to play.
Every day I can easily sit down and do a run or two or three hours of play-testing before then switching over to other things. Again, the benefit of wearing lots of hats. But it’s definitely never been a problem, with FTL as well. Because it’s weird and random things happen. It’s always a little bit more surprising.
I have trouble picturing how someone plays a Mario game and the like, with a strict level design, over and over and over and over to test and to balance, ’cause that does seem like if you know exactly what should happen all the time, that you’d be driven mad by that. But, as I’ve never made something like that… I’ve never made an FPS and to be fair, so who knows the additional challenges there. Even if from an outsider’s perspective, that you and I both seem to agree on, it feels like you can predict that the design will work, but who knows the realities of it. I’m sure it’s more complex than either one of us appreciates.
GC: Oh, I’m sure. You only have to look at how many bad FPS games there are, that don’t even get the gunplay right, to know that. With Into The Breach though, it does have that classic ‘just one more go’ factor. But then I’ve always liked strategy games, Advance Wars was always a favourite – which I assume might have been an influence for you?
MD: It was something that I had played, Justin and I both had, but it was not something that was referenced during development.
GC: But XCOM was?
MD: There are definitely games that I would reference in terms of initial inspiration for why I wanted to make a strategy game and the sort of elements I wanted. We both wanted Into The Breach, which was also kind of a response to FTL, to have a very limited randomness to it.
That kind of predetermined element of the enemies, but also predetermination for the shots you’re taking – you know the damage you’re gonna do, you know what’s gonna happen. There’s no XCOM 50% chance of missing type of element. And we knew, because FTL was full of that, that we wanted to experiment with design that had less of that.
GC: Even without that randomness Into The Breach is a hard game, especially if you’ve never played anything similar. Which, again, if some awful business person was advising you, that would probably not have happened. Were you worried it was too difficult for the mainstream?
MD: Specifically for our development it is a concern that we both had coming off of FTL, which was an even harder game. It was not a concern that it would be too hard, ’cause we knew that FTL was able to sell despite its difficulty and so Into The Breach would do all right. Or it would stand or fall based on all the factors, not difficulty.
But on a kind of a greater picture element, it’s not a conversation we have in general. We rarely sit down and say, ‘Will players like this?’ We only ask, ‘Do I like it? And does Justin like it?’ I think it’s impossible to predict what players will like. You could try all day and you’re gonna get it wrong probably. But I can be a 100% sure if I like it, at least, and Justin is gonna be a 100% sure he likes it. So we worry about it from that perspective.
It does come from a place of being extremely lucky, with FTL’s success, letting us be weird and experimental, and not worry about it. It also comes from an extremely overlooked fact that when you have someone like Justin and myself, we are your classic gamer demographic. We were young American men that make up the vast majority of… so stuff that we like is probably more likely to be stuff that the general audience is gonna like. While if you are a teenage girl in Thailand, maybe what excites you isn’t going to be the same.
In terms of difficulty Into The Breach was an interesting one. I think Into The Breach is a lot easier than FTL and I think Into The Breach is a lot easier than some people think it is. And from player feedback that I’ve watched, it’s actually got a really weird split in terms of some people have complained it’s too easy and some people have complained that it’s too hard. [laughs]
One of the things that, when it came to difficulty, is how little of it was actually decided by us. It was a game that… it led its own sense of difficulty to the design that didn’t really have a lot of wiggle room. Since it is effectively a puzzle game, it has to have playable solutions. There’s not a lot of grey area where your reflexes can be fast enough to make up for it. There’s gonna be, not right and wrong but solutions that will result in you losing or not. And it’s very black and white and, the balance and the spawning and all the balance around the game needed to account for that and needed to be, effectively, always solvable, which led to a game that was slightly easier than FTL.
And we did purposefully, with the easy mode on Into The Breach have that be something that we felt was easier than what FTL offered at its lowest setting. But even the hardest mode of Into The Breach was still not as completely brutal as the hardest mode FTL had. Partly ’cause we just didn’t think we could push that line before you get to a point where it’s just impossible rather than harder.
We did add a new difficulty with this Advanced Edition that is Unfair mode, which is harder. We think it still manages to make that balance. [laughs] But we’ll see how people actually feel once they get their hands on it.
GC: The thing it has in common with Dark Souls is that you can be doing really well, for a long time, but you make one little mistake and suddenly you’re in real trouble. Is that something you actually program for or does it just evolve naturally out of the design process?
MD: Yeah, there’s definitely an aspect of… it almost sounds like a cliché that you’re discovering the design, but it does feel like game development can sometimes be its own puzzle, its own little Sudoku, that you are kind of filling in the gaps of how it has to be. That if you don’t put in the solutions in this manner, the game doesn’t come together in a way that works anymore.
And we start with some constants, like the enemy attacks being predetermined and that player attacks are reliable and never miss and always have the same damage in effect. And then when you’re building around those constants, it kind of feels like it has to be the way that it is.
GC: So what exactly is being added in the DLC? It’s five new mech teams, isn’t it? That’s quite a lot if there’s three in each.
MD: We’ve got five new mech squads, which is 15 new mechs. All of which have new weapons. I think it’s something in the 40 range for how many new mech weapons are added between those new squads.
There’s 10-ish new enemies, three of which are the scions with the little passive effects. There’s two or three new missions to every island and then we also rely on a bonus objective that gets dynamically added sometimes. So in the original version you had things like blocking three enemy spawns or killing seven enemies or whatever. We added two or three more of those, which does a lot for making it feel fresh.
The game actually tries now, when it generates an island, that none of the missions available should repeat the same bonus objective. So you won’t get kill seven enemies on three different missions on an island anymore. It’ll still repeat sometimes because of the constraints for random generation are complicated, but it’ll repeat less. And so it makes everything feel a lot more fresh than it did before.
GC: So… it’s not you that does the art?
MD: Justin does all the art. I do all the programming, he does all the art and the design is a shared collaborative experience.
GC: Okay. I still feel a little awkward saying this, but I have to say one of the few elements of the game I didn’t like is the art design, which I felt was just a little too basic. Was that an example of something where you were thinking maybe you should get in more people or try and increase the budget, or were you purposefully not doing that to keep it all under control?
MD: There’s definitely an element of, ‘Let’s keep it here and let’s keep it all under control.’ And we’ve attempted working with… we did work with some other artists, the portraits, as well as some of the mech designs came from some concept artists that we worked with.
GC: Basically, I want a big poster with a mech on it, but I don’t really like any of the designs enough for that.
GC: Oh no, it just sounds like I’m being mean now!
MD: [laughs] No, you’re fine. There’s a purposeful intent behind some of it, I can’t say behind all of it, because when you have one guy doing the art for the entire game, it’s a scramble, you don’t have the time to put into everything and the insane detail you get out of larger projects. But there’s also an intent, in the same way that you have an ice world, a forest world, a lava location, these tropes and these standards to fall back on… it seems like a cliché and it seems lazy or uninspired design with a smaller team, but there’s an aspect of it that it’s making it more readable and more playable for the user. When a user encounters an environment they’ve encountered before you have less heavy lifting to do as a developer to explain how that environment’s gonna work.
And with enemies, we did the same thing with FTL with a rock enemy or a slug enemy or whatever. There’s a certain amount of preconceptions and expectations to what the player sees that it makes it easier for them to understand what that unit will do and immediately engage with it. You know that the spider enemy throws out spider eggs. That’s not crazy… and webbing keeps you stuck.
Had it been a weird, eldrich horror Cthulhu monster you have no idea what it’s gonna do. That’s like a blob. It looks really cool, but it has no meaning from a game design standpoint. And the same thing with the naming. We could have named ’em all something more interesting than Scorpion and Firefly or whatever, but we just went with the bug names.
But that comes back to when you have the community on forums and on subreddits and stuff, no one needs to say, ‘Oh, wait, what was that thing called again?’ You just call it what it is and you can talk about it easily. And again, I think that falls back to a lot of board game design that relies on that really clear iconography and being able to quickly identify things like meeples, the little person tokens that you have, the classic wooden little token, and you know what that is, that’s the person. It’s so universal and instant that it’s easy to work with from a design perspective.
And so I think that a lot of the approaches that we have to the design of creatures or friendlies or environments are kind of about relying on that pre-existing notion that people have for these things and it makes it a lot easier.
And with a game like Into The Breach, it’s so hard to teach. Half the battle of making the game was figuring out how to explain it, how to make the weapon effects, and how you engage with the weapons. Something that people can pick up on quickly, a game that you can look at and treat like a puzzle that you can just see without needing to hover over every enemy to see what every enemy does every time.
If it makes it 5% easier that the enemies are recognisable insects with abilities you can kind of guess, then I’ll take that 5% easier and run with it, because that will make our job easier.
GC: That is a very good answer to that question. OK, so the obvious way to finish this is… I always know a triple-A developer is never going to answer this, but I don’t know that I’ve ever asked an indie what they’re working on next.
MD: [laughs] We honestly don’t know for sure, in that four year gap we actually worked on two different prototypes. One of them got very close to completion. It was like a small mobile game, kind of inspired by Into The breach itself. And another one was more on the same scale of Into The Breach and FTL. And we were experimenting with weird mechanics where we didn’t have a game that we could point at and say ‘It’s like that!’
We’ll probably return to that one, at least for some time, even though we’re in a position that the design was getting challenging and it was looking like it was gonna be a long project where, like Into The Breach, once you’ve got these design elements that are new, you don’t really know where to go from there. And so it’s hard to say for sure what the next thing would be. But we might return to either one of those and maybe polish them up and/or spend another four years developing them [laughs] to get them in a place where they can get out into the world. I don’t think whatever it is, it’ll be fast.
GC: Are both ideas still roguelikes though? Are they strategy-esque games?
MD: We’re still in the same ballpark area that you would expect from the stuff we’ve done before.
GC: You’re not thinking of signing up to a big publisher or anything like that? Have they been sniffing around or anything? Has anyone tried to buy you?
MD: In the last 12 years, we’ve had a couple companies reach out and talk to us about either purchasing us or buying our IP or hiring us on, things like that. But nothing that we’ve taken particularly seriously, as we like what we do in the way that we do it and aren’t eager to change.
GC: Does Netflix want to make an Into The Breach anime or something? I mean, if Dragon’s Dogma and Castlevania can get them, why not you?
MD: I can be completely honest and say, I have no idea on that one. But I would have nothing against that, we did have some people poke around about an Into The Breach TV show a while ago, but it wasn’t very serious and it didn’t get very far. It’s definitely not something we’d be opposed to, if Netflix would like to turn around and try something like that.
GC: OK, well I think that covers everything. Thank you for your time.
MD: No problem, that was a good interview. Thank you. I think you definitely touched on some interesting design subjects so I felt like I was not answering the same questions that I’m normally answering.
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