A decade of FTL: Faster Than Light

By Craig Pearson
FTL: Faster Than Light appeared ten years ago, like a small scout ship illuminating the path for the rest of the fleet to follow. The game, a tough-as-nails roguelike, is simple enough: you’re the captain of a fleeing Federation vessel, desperately trying to keep ahead of a wave of Rebel ships hunting you down. Every step of the journey is a leap into peril, where your captaining skills are called upon to divert power, vent fires, and battle the hostile enemies that focus on your vulnerable ship. Developers Subset Games made a game they wanted to play, and as it happens, a lot of people wanted to play it, too. 

Through an exceptionally tight combination of mechanics, storytelling, and calamity, FTL remains a remarkably popular way to ruin an evening. A decade on, people are still starting up their Kestrel’s engines and plotting routes into the unknown. Some will make it. Most will not. 

We talked to the Kirk and Picard of Subset Games, Justin Ma, and Matthew Davis, who crafted FTL, about the impact of the game on themselves, the players, and developers alike. 

A Decade Of Ftl Faster Than Light Setup
FTL began as a prototype while the developers were between jobs for a year. It has always been a harsh experience from the start. “We didn’t really expect anyone would enjoy it; we were making it entirely for our own entertainment,” said Justin Ma, artist and co-designer of FTL. “After we started showing the game around, it became clear it might be viable as a finished product, so we formed a company, did a small Kickstarter, and tried to finish it in a timely manner. Every step of the way, the reception of the game exceeded our expectations.”

Programmer and co-designer Matthew Davis was surprised, too. “It started to snowball into something that people seemed to be legitimately excited about,” he said. “During our time as finalists in China’s IGF, we met other developers that we respected who were genuinely interested in the game. And later, PC Gamer reached out to us to do a feature, which made no sense at the time for our little prototype, but the resulting PC Gamer write-up still hangs framed on my office wall. What, we thought, was a personal project turned into something very different.”

FTL was a success even before the game’s release. The Kickstarter (they asked for $10,000 and received over $200k) was a huge step on the game’s journey. People clearly wanted to experience the harsh realities of keeping a ship together while the universe tries to take it apart. What’s surprising is that they’re still playing the game today. The fantasy of captaining the ship, with the procedural world resulting in unexpected wins and losses, is an emotionally taxing experience, but Ma believes that’s one of the reasons the game remains popular. 

A Decade Of Ftl Faster Than Light Meteors
“I suspect that people continue to enjoy it in part because it’s so emotionally tiring,” he said. “It’s quite rare to become emotionally invested in a game or story, so I imagine if a game can keep making you feel strong emotions, it is less likely to get boring.” 

“I think the ‘dynamic storytelling’ element makes the game compelling to a lot of players. The game’s story isn’t something that is told to you by a writer; it’s created by the player interacting with the random elements of the game. For some people, what happened to a single crew member over the course of one game could be more compelling than the best-written story. It’s similar to how your D&D campaign might make a mediocre book, but experiencing it firsthand is incredible because you took part in authoring it.

“Other than storytelling, I suspect one thing that helped is that FTL was a very difficult game during an era where games were rarely punishing.  It was almost a breath of fresh air to be really challenged, and finally being able to beat the Flagship seemed to mean a lot to players.”

Davis agrees: “Yeah, at the time, difficult games weren’t quite as common and ‘roguelike’ was not yet a widely known genre. We happened to ride the wave of what ultimately became a massive movement for popular design elements and mechanics, and there’s always a benefit to showing up slightly earlier to the next big thing.

“It also helps that the story the player gets to create takes place in an easily recognizable theme,” Davis added. “Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, etc., have sold the fantasy of surviving (and exploring) in space for decades. Leaning on that previously established atmosphere makes it so easy for players to fall into it. For a similar recent example, the game Stray has the simple pitch of ‘You’re a cat!’ and is immediately exciting to people. It’s easier to sell ‘You are a starship captain’ than something weirder like ‘You are sentient goo!’.”

A Decade Of Ftl Faster Than Light Map
Though there’s nothing quite like it, FTL has also ushered in a small fleet of games that are clearly influenced by its design. Even Bethesda’s long-in-development and space RPG, Starfield, has referenced the indie game as a touchstone for its space ways, where players will have to balance systems at crucial moments to keep the ship going. It’s something that humbles the team. 
“A few years ago, I had a designer tell me that they got into development because of FTL,” Davis reflects. “The reason he cited was that FTL’s design was so transparent and easy to parse, it really helped him understand how games work and what game design can be. I find a lot of joy in the transparent design of board games, where the mechanics by necessity must be clear to the players, so it’s cool to hear we did our part to bring that to digital design as well. I’d like to think FTL’s influence expands beyond just FTL-likes and developers borrowing specific mechanics.”

Ma agrees. “That’s been the most moving part of the game's success for me personally,” he said. “The number of people purchasing or playing the game is so abstract of a concept that I have trouble imagining its implications. When a developer whose work I’m very familiar with explains how our game inspired theirs, it’s more tangible and emotional for me. And even now, developers talk about FTL as if everyone should obviously already be aware of it. It still blows my mind.”

A Decade Of Ftl Faster Than Light Ship
It’s one thing to make a game that has a seemingly endless supply of fans creating their own stories within it, but it’s another thing to create a game that birthed its own sub-genre. FTL has been slowly, steadily followed by several games that could be called FTL-likes. Is there anything the developers believe a game has to have to be considered an FTL-like? Ma’s not sure. 

“There are a few games that wear their FTL inspiration on their sleeves,” he notes. “But most games which list FTL as being a big influence are so dissimilar, I think it’d be a disservice to call them FTL-likes. Many people have said other games copied our mapping system design or our text event system, but it’s not like we were the first to come up with either of those mechanics. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, so to speak. 

“I guess if I had to define the term FTL-like, I would say a game that hits all of the main mechanics of the game—procedurally generated world with events that are influenced by your crew/equipment; slow and/or pausable combat between two stationary objects while having to micromanage their inner workings (specifically crew, system power, etc.).”

Davis has a similar view. He views FTL’s journey as something that’s not entirely of its own making. It’s part of the larger world of ‘roguelikes’. 

He said: “I also couldn’t speak really directly to what an FTL-like may be. I think FTL can introduce a lot of concepts to players who might not have come across them before – the list of games that influenced us is incredibly long. I hope we contribute to the world of what a roguelike can be. There are so many completely new ways you can remix the basic mechanics, such as permadeath and randomness. It doesn’t all have to be dungeon crawlers or dual-stick shooters.”

Despite that, there are games that clearly follow on from FTL as a concept. A small squadron of games that, were it not for FTL, probably wouldn’t exist. They have similar stretches of fear-based progression, decision-making, and ship-based setting. Ma’s played some. 

“I’ve played a lot of cool games that might have been inspired by FTL,” he offers. “But they’re so different I’d have trouble using that term. Games like Out There, Bomber Crew, and Crying Suns come to mind.”

Davis offers up a game that they were inspired by. “To flip it around, FTL was at least partially inspired by Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space. It doesn’t share the combat / crew management, but it does involve jumping around a node-based space map, collecting equipment to upgrade your ship, and having strange encounters in a roguelike structure. So, it’s an FTL-like that predates FTL by roughly ten years!”

A Decade Of Ftl Faster Than Light Choose
With that in mind, and with FTL clearly still providing a template, or at least inspiration, for future games, is there anything that Subset Games thinks developers should be doing to ensure success on their journeys? 

Ma has a very specific idea. He said: “I kinda wish there were more games that focused on the power management and crew micromanagement aspects of FTL. I feel like that’s a relatively untapped well of design ideas.”

While Davis suggests a few areas that could prove tricky, adding: “I know that we stumble into a lot of pitfalls when taking inspiration from other games. One thing is not really considering the full ramifications of any single mechanic and how it will fit (or not fit) in our games. It’s often a difficult process of trial and error, and by moving design ideas into our games, we learn a ton about how different mechanics work together. No mechanic is a one size fits all solution.

“I’d also be wary that random world generation means easier development. I think that’s probably out of date thinking by now, as more and more developers have experimented with the roguelikes, but some players still think that procedural generation means faster development. Sadly, any of the time you save in not having to design levels is often lost in sorting out the details and balance of the world and system generation. Any roguelike game has the potential to be just as big a time sink for development as a more linear, pre-designed experience.”

A Decade Of Ftl Faster Than Light Boarding
As much as it means for players and other developers, FTL has made the biggest impact on the team at Subset Games, who took a year out to make something they wanted to play, and somehow created a game that’s, so far, stood the test of time. The impact it has had on its creators is profound. 

“I still don’t know what to think of FTL at this point,” said Ma. “It has had an impact on millions of gamers and enabled us to pursue our dreams of making games on our own terms. It still feels surreal that such a silly little prototype would change our lives so dramatically.” 

Davis is equally amazed. He added: “It’s awesome to hear from other players and designers that FTL had an impact on, and will never stop feeling weird to have it referenced by other developers. We absolutely would not be still working independently had we not gotten as lucky as we did with FTL, and for that, I’ll forever be grateful.”

FTL: Faster Than Light is available on the Epic Games Store.