Subset Games cofounders Justin Ma and Matthew Davis created FTL: Faster Than Light out of a desire to think small. Over three years, the game's scope expanded far beyond what they had envisioned, spreading across multiple operating systems, iPad, and an Advanced Edition that put a bow on the game's content. For their next project, Into the Breach, Ma and Davis started out aiming for a comfortable middle ground. To the surprise of neither co-creator, the design has grown.
"As these things happen, it just kept getting bigger and bigger until we basically decided, 'We're going to see where this leads us,'" Ma said. "That was about two years ago that we first started working on the first Into the Breach iteration. It's been a much slower process this time."
"We did what we did with FTL, where we sit down and immediately start prototyping gameplay content, seeing what works and what doesn't, and iterating from there," Davis added. "I think you're always going to run the risk, with that type of design, of running down a lot of blind alleys. I think this game just had more blind alleys for us than FTL did."
Into the Breach derived from one of Davis' multitude of experimental prototypes: a turn-based strategy title with procedurally generated elements, like FTL's encounters. "I was dabbling with a grid-based tactics game, but it wasn't necessarily intended as our next project. I think that's where it spawned from. It was less of a, 'Let's do this type of game,' and more 'Check this out; do you want to keep poking at this?'"
Turn-based strategy gaming was ripe with possibilities. The genre had enjoyed a resurgence dating back to 2012's XCOM, a reboot of the 1994 game designed by Julian Gollop. Still, Ma and Davis needed a hook for Into the Breach, like FTL's foundation of captaining a ship and being responsible for everything and everyone aboard it. When inspiration struck, it hit fast—faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to level tall buildings in a single punch.
"Into the Breach was a response to movies and media where there would be a superhero fight—like Superman [Man of Steel] or Pacific Rim—where the whole city gets demolished, but no one cares because the good guys won," Ma explained. "No one notices the seven million people who died in that process, or even acknowledges that that happened. Our idea was more [a response] to general frustration with that trope."
"If anything, collateral damage was our sticking point from day one," Davis put in. "The very, very earliest prototype had buildings, and the whole point of the game was to defend them."
Cause and Effect
At a glance, Into the Breach appears not unlike most other turn-based strategy games. Maps consist of plains, mountains, rivers, fields, cities, and snow. Each colorful square is one in a grid of tiles. Terrain offers advantages and disadvantages. Mountains block shots, and water drowns units.
"That stuff is pretty standard strategy-game fare, I think," said Matt Davis. Where Into the Breach differs lies in how its terrain changes. "One of the important aspects for us in terms of atmosphere is you have these giant mechs and giant monsters fighting," he continued, "so we wanted the aftermath of battles to look like you just had giant mechs and giant monsters fighting. That meant the mountains had to be able to be destroyed, and forests had to catch fire, and buildings had to fall. You have this post-apocalyptic feeling to fields after you're there."
In every scenario, players control a squad of three mechs. Those mechs will see players through to the end of the game, much like the ship they choose at the outset of an FTL outing. Also like FTL, Into the Breach's story about giant robots fighting giant aliens—known as the Vek—provides a jumping-off point from which Ma and Davis can launch gameplay scenarios.
"The entire game is structured around trying to avoid and being threatened by collateral damage," Ma said.
Mechs require power to operate, and every building functions as a node on a power grid. If players were to, say, throw a punch that sends a Vek flying into a skyscraper, that building would take damage. Too much wear and tear, and the node goes dead.
"A lot of the skills, the player skills and the enemy skills, are built on trying to give you tough decisions between, should I be trying to just protect buildings and stave off [their destruction] for one turn? Or should I risk and damage civilians to have a temporary gain in this battle?" Ma explained. "There are a lot of those tough decisions."
"There are times when you might accept some level of damage," Davis cautioned, "because obviously stopping an enemy that's going to blow up six buildings by taking out one in the process is still a win. But mostly it's a fact that buildings are what you need to defend to win, and if you don't want to lose, that's all there is to it."
Casting buildings as power nodes exemplifies Subset Games' layered approach to design. The topmost contains undiluted gameplay: Losing buildings lowers the player's chances of victory. So long as players grasp the importance of buildings, they understand Into the Breach's core rule.
"We're really big fans of simplifying absolutely everything to its most basic construct," said Ma. "Taking a complicated idea and saying, 'What is this to the player?' What is FTL's fleet to the player? It's just simply a hunger clock. All it is, is a limit on how much you can explore. We try to then see what [an element] is at its most basic, and then embrace that and only that."
"Basic" should not be conflated with "boring." Mechs and aliens can be viewed as chess pieces, each with its own characteristics and abilities. "There's no 'this mech does X damage' and that's it," Davis explained. "Nothing is ever that simple. Everything has more than one use, more than one effect, like a weapon that hits multiple times or something that makes you take into account how or when to use an attack. It's not as simple as 'point the gun at the bad guy and shoot.'
Peel back the board-game layer of collateral damage, and a narrative is revealed. Players invested in the game's characters and setting—written by veteran RPG scribe Chris Avellone—will look at structures and imagine soot-stained, emaciated survivors cringing inside. They will strive to protect buildings not only because they must, but because they are invested in the world and their role in it: heroes who protect the world from, rather than add to, devastation.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter why players care about buildings, only that they do care. "I want you to care about the buildings even if you're the type of person who wouldn't care if it said how many people died," Ma declared. "We're trying to turn that paradigm of 'all that matters is the fight' on its head."
Traditionally, players form attachments to their troops in strategy games, not terrain. The original X-COM created by famed designer Julian Gollop let players name their soldiers. Losing a soldier named after one's wife, husband, best friend, parent, or pet mouse stings a lot more than losing Trooper #772.
"We went through a lot of iterations for how to make the player care about collateral damage, how to make the player not destroy random buildings, and moving a mech in front of an enemy attack in order to save a building," Davis recalled. "What we came down to in the end is that we did have to tie [buildings] to the victory and game-over mechanics. Without it being that absolute, the carrot and the stick, it was too easy for them to put it lower on their list of priorities."
When the stick falls, it falls hard. Mechs battered into submission by Vek hordes can always be repaired in between levels. Should all three of the player's mechs go dark during a mission, the pilots operating them can die, and the game ends. "I think that's part of the reason those types of games are interesting," Ma said. "If they can't die, the relationship you have with your units becomes very different."
"That's really where the importance lies," agreed Davis. "You need to make sure they care about every choice they make, because it can lead to their downfall if they don't."
Into the Breach shares more in common with FTL than permanent death. Every map fits on the screen, letting players get the lay of the land all at once.
"I guess you're describing something about us, design wise," Ma admitted. "We appreciate when you can have everything so clean as to fit on a single screen. With Into the Breach, it will be somewhat similar in that there's a variety of battles that will take place in a single playthrough across different maps, but it will all be very contained, and they'll all be relatively short battles."
Each mission in Into the Breach gives players a limited amount of turns in which to quell the threat posed by the Vek. Ma and Davis designed the game that way as a response to the traditionally slower pace of turn-based strategy games like X-COM, where players can nose around for several minutes before spotting an enemy, much less engaging one.
"Mopping up in a turn-based game isn't fun," Davis said. "You can end up where the last quarter of the game is you saying, 'I need to finish this,' and you have to hit 'next turn' six times to be able to find the [last] alien and finish it off. We wanted to put a hard limit on battles to keep the game moving. At the same time, we wanted to offer a lot of scenarios and interesting missions with interesting objectives. In order to do that, you have to shrink down the experience to where it's something not exactly like XCOM with its hour-long battles."
A counter showing how many turns remain facilitates Subset's intention for battles to resolve sooner rather than later. "It kind of cuts to the chase in many ways," said Davis of Into the Breach. "We've created something that is leaner than other games in the genre. I think that allows for every battle to feel tense from minute one."
Many turn-based games play out like chess matches. Players may glean insight into their opponent's strategy by studying the board, but they do not know what the next move will be for a certainty. In sharp contrast, Into the Breach won't keep players guessing.
"The big point of how the gameplay works is the fact that all enemy attacks are telegraphed," Ma said. "At the beginning of every turn, you know exactly what the enemy's going to do. They all set up to choose where they're going to attack. There's no lack of knowledge about enemies. Your turn, then, is used to react to the enemy's plan. After all your units act, the enemies will execute their queued attacks."
"Early versions of the game had some enemies that did that, but it wasn't the core basis of the game," Davis added. "It was just one of the things that was consistent, and we decided through iteration that that was a bit we liked, so that was a bit we kept."
Lest players get too cocky at staring down enemies that telegraph their intentions, Into the Breach borrows FTL's randomized encounters to set goals that may end up shifting as battles wear on.
"There are a lot of mission scenarios," Ma said, offering up one that he and Davis are still working out. "For example, there's a terraformer that's trying to convert part of this land, and you can to use [the terraformer] as a weapon, but you also have to use it to terraform part of this planet while also protecting buildings and fighting the Vek. You may end up in a situation where you have to abandon a specific mission goal where you have to protect the buildings themselves."
When lumped together, Into the Breach's seemingly disparate elements transform the game into a sort of puzzle. Once players get a few matches under their belts and learn how the game works, they'll have all the tools they need to win. Mission aren't puzzles with only one solution. With the tools at their disposal, players will be in charge of figuring out how best to implement them.
"One of the things I enjoy most about [playing] this game is when you have those little ah-ha moments," Ma told me. "You're given a situation that looks doomed, and you come up with some mini strategy you've never done before. You use this weapon on your own guy to move him this way, and that opens up these other options. Those small, ah-ha moments are the most fun about this game."
Everything around those moments is still up in the air. Into the Breach has been in various permutations of development for over a year and a half, and despite the level of polish evident in the announce trailer, the game isn't finished yet. Ma and Davis have refined Into the Breach's mechanics to a point where they've been able to piece together maps for the purposes of game-design rubber meeting road, but there's still lots more to do—and a number of experienced contractors have signed on to help cross items off Subset's to-do list.
In addition to veteran gaming scribe Chris Avellone, Subset has rounded out their team of contractors with individuals as passionate about their fields as Ma and Davis are about design. Isla Schanuel, a researcher and Web designer, joined the team in 2015 to manage Subset's enthusiastic community and apply her specialty in user testing to run play tests that will garner invaluable feedback. Musician Ben Prunty, who composed FTL's score, is lending his talents to Into the Breach. The team at Power Up Audio is hard at work putting together the myriad sounds that will puncture the game's vibrant artwork, painted chiefly by Justin Ma with assistance from freelance artist Polina Hristova, who's pitching in on environmental details like terrain and all-important buildings, as well as concept artwork.
Neither Davis nor Ma felt confident in suggesting a ballpark estimate of when Into the Breach might be finished. "We spent a very long time iterating on the game design ideas, but I feel like we've come to a happy place where the actual user experience is pretty solid right now," Ma said. "The problem is we just do not have content. The next step is to just build out the rest of the game: all the different weapons, enemies, mechs, scenarios, and corporations."
The end of FTL's development had been hectic and stressful due to running and fulfilling their Kickstarter campaign, but had paid off in financial security. They have time, and they're content to take as much of it as they need in order to ensure the game feels just right.
"Like in FTL, we're conveying a lot of elements that aren't necessarily standard in games," Davis added. "A huge portion of development time over the past couple of years has been trying to make the game as usable as possible and convey all those ideas. We'll continue to iterate on that because it's a never-ending task."