Subset Games

Two men, $200,000, and a successful Kickstarter: how FTL did everything right

Two men, $200,000, and a successful Kickstarter: how FTL did everything right

FTL, or Faster Than Light, began its Kickstarter campaign in February of 2012. That’s a lifetime in Internet terms, and the two-man team’s campaign seems almost quaint compared to what we’re used to in modern campaigns. The video isn’t professionally shot, there are no stretch goals,  and the layout is sparse. The game went on to raise over $200,000, well over the $10,000 initial goal, but that’s not the amazing bit.

The game is actually going to be released this week, making FTL one of the first major success stories in the modern age of video game Kickstarter campaigns to actually reach the hands of gamers. Bonus: from what I’ve played, it’s very good.

Where the money went

“When the Kickstarter was launched, FTL was a good 3/4 done.  We were only asking for enough money to get us through the last few months and pay our sound designer and the costs of starting a company,” Justin Ma, one half of Subset Games, told the Penny Arcade Report. “With the additional funds we were able to greatly expand the sound and music design, hire a writer to flesh out the aliens and atmosphere, and run a very successful beta.”

Ben Prunty, the game’s composer and sound designer, was able to quit his job in order to devote more time to the game. The game’s soundtrack is now on sale via Bandcamp.

The campaign itself was basic: They simply felt they needed to describe the game and offer reasonable rewards. “Our campaign was definitely less planned out and professional than it would probably need to be on today’s Kickstarter,” Mathew Davis, the other core member of the Subset Games team, said. “I’m blown away by how polished and well-run Kickstarters are now.” They were ahead of the curve in one way, however; few of the Kickstarter rewards were physical. They realized the time and cost of creating and shipping multiple physical rewards for backers, long before other teams ran into this problem. The focus was kept squarely on the game, and they avoided rewards that would take time away from completing FTL.

Wired ran an interesting article on the problems of success, and Subset Games found that dealing with almost 10,000 backers was difficult and expensive. “One funny side effect of additional money and a large number of backers is that everything then starts to cost more,” Davis said. “As a small example, sending out beta keys required a more professional mailing service that wasn’t free and was only necessary because we were sending out so many keys.”

Why stretch goals didn’t fit

The game was always going to be released, as the two men were only a few months from completion when the campaign began. Ma said that they would have been able to borrow the few thousand dollars needed to complete the game; the windfall merely allowed them to widen the scope of the game and increase the game’s production values. One of the unexpected benefits of the Kickstarter success was the high level of interest in the game; the 4,000 beta testers allowed them to gain immense feedback on what was working and what needed to be adjusted. Bugs were found and quickly squashed. For a small team, it was like having a large, vocal QA team that had paid for the privilege of helping to make the game better.

They also avoided stretch goals, which proved to be a wise move. “I feel the stretch goals would not have made sense for our campaign since they frequently imply large additions to the scope of the game,” Ma explained. “When we started our Kickstarter, our game was already mostly done with a release date only a few months away, so massive additions would not have been feasible or would have involved considerable delays.” They instead worked to balance the expectations of expanding the game while sticking to the original schedule.

“As it stands, we were able to use a lot of the funds to make FTL considerably better, but there is some money that will go towards our future work, which will either be post-release content or our next project,” Ma said.

Despite the interest in FTL and the Kickstarter windfall, the two men are staying conservative with their future plans. “Even a reasonable amount of sales will be able to support us to continue working on other projects,” Ma said. “We don’t have too much overhead since we’re not looking to expand the team: we intend to continue to work on small, focused projects.” They looked into hiring others to help with the game, but the process of finding talent, bringing them up to speed on the project, and fitting them into the workflow would have been more detrimental than helpful. They did hire writer Tom Jubert (who also worked on the Penumbra series) to help craft the large number of encounters and text in the game.

It’s unknown if the game will find further success upon release, but it may not need to. “In many regards, the game is already more successful than we initially hoped for when we set out since we weren’t even sure it would become a commercial product,” Davis told me. “I hope that we’re able to carry the momentum forward and have the pleasure of working on a ‘next project.’”

What went right

It was refreshing to talk to these two gentlemen. They asked for the money they realistically needed to finish their game, and when there was greater interest in the project they were able to resist feature-creep to release the experience they had always imagined, albeit with strong music and a higher level of polish. The original Kickstarter stated the game will be released around August, and they’re launching the game this week. Subset Games has executed on its promises and delivered a game.

Too much money can be as much of a distraction as too little, and Justin Ma and Mathew Davis were disciplined enough to finish their game on their terms on the original schedule. Those that backed the project are rewarded with the final game, which delivers the romance and danger of managing your own ship in deep space. This is a win for the good guys.

FTL will be available on Steam, and the team’s own webpage on September 14th for $10.