How Justin Ma Makes Games

Tell us about yourself – Who are you? What do you do? My name is Justin Ma.  I founded the game studio Subset games with Matthew Davis in 2012.  Our released titles was FTL: Faster than Light in 2012 and Into the Breach in 2018.  I do the majority of art on the games and roughly half of the design. 

If I’ve never played your games before, what’s the first one I should try? 
FTL seems the obvious choice.  The gameplay revolves around making the player feel like Captain Picard, giving high level orders and trying not to get his crew killed.  It’s brutally hard but the setting and role as a captain of a space ship seems to resonate with a lot of people. 

What games are you playing most right now?Right now… I’m currently playing a lot of Mordhau, going through FF7 again and Cadence of Hyrule.

What are your all-time favorite games? The games that made the most impact on me might be – Final Fantasy Tactics, Super Metroid, Baldur’s Gate, and Spelunky.

What draws you to make games? I’ve been clearly obsessed with games and their design since childhood and that naturally lead me to want to make them.  I think what draws me the most is the fact that they’re these little experimental worlds where systems are coherent and explicitly designed.  The real world is overwhelmingly complex but games can be pleasantly straightforwards – 10 health until you die, this armor increases your movement speed, etc.  Figuring out how systems work and how best to exploit them is one of my favorite aspect of games… plus they’re just fun. 

How did you get started making games? Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product? Originally I just made a lot of small flash prototypes.  I’m not a great coder so they never got particularly far, but they were great learning processes.  When Matthew and started working together on FTL, our development process was pretty similar to my old mindset.  It’s a constant balance between coming up with fun mechanics and fitting into the restrictions of our small team.  Our lofty game ideas are heavily constrained by our limited skill sets – we won’t tackle a 3D game for example. 
Reaching a final product is always a challenge.  There’s always more you can add to a game so eventually you just have to figure out what would be a reasonable amount of content to ship – and then just polish the heck out of it.  It takes a lot of self restraint to give up on ideas you want to implement in favor of shipping earlier, but honestly it feels so much better to just get it out of the door.

How do you market your games? Not particularly well – our marketing strategy was largely built on being in the right place at the right time (aka luck).  We did a Kickstarter right as Kickstarter blew up in the games press with Double Fine’s Adventure Game.  Other than that, it has been largely word of mouth of fans and the happy coincidence that a lot of people in press just like our games and want to talk about them.  Into the Breach was largely just marketed on the back of our previous games – “From the makers of FTL” and all that.  We have a lot of contacts we try to reach out to but we don’t actually spend any money on marketing.

What game-related or game business-related media do you consume on a regular basis? I listen to game OST’s all day.  I watch twitch streams for atmosphere rather than specific personalities.  I watch a lot of GDC and other design talks online.

What are some tool/programs/supplies that you wouldn’t work without? We rely a lot on Slack for communication and I use Photoshop for art. 

What’s your playtesting philosophy? How often/early do you playtest? How do you find playtesters? For gameplay I mostly just prefer testing myself.  Every few months I like to get feedback from designers I trust to see if we’re on the right track or not.  Rather than making a game for a specific audience, I try to design things that I find fun… with the assumption that someone out there will agree with me.
UI and UX are the things that we playtest a lot – figuring out where people get confused and how to more clearly convey the games rules and systems.  This happens throughout development but most strongly near the end.

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work, and how have you overcome them? Puzzling through design problems and the early stages of game development are the most fun for me.  Some of the hardest are related to business – managing the company, interacting with distributors, finding contractors, communicating with press, conventions, and so forth.  We can do these sorts of things ok, it’s just not really where our interest or skills lie.  Beyond that, managing motivation and connection with others while working alone from home is a persistent challenge.

How do you handle life/family/work balance? When you work from home on a passion project it’s really easy to get lost in work.  After years of constantly thinking about game development even when away from the computer and not really knowing how to truly relax, I’ve started to actively set times where I try not to think about work.  Giving myself permission to focus on family and other things might be the hardest aspect to internalize, but it’s critical.  

What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers? Just keep making things.  Expose yourself to all aspects of development – a little about programming, a little about art, a little about design, a little about UX, etc.  You don’t have to be able to perform those jobs, but it’s critical for communication to be able to see from another team member’s perspective.  Understanding in principle how the code of a feature is set up will make you that much better of a designer, for example. 

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received? Life is full of experiences you don’t have complete control over – successes, failures, provocation, accidents, etc – The only thing in life that you have control over is your reactions to those experiences. 

Thank you for your time, Justin! Find out more about his work at SubsetGames.com, and follow Subset games on Facebook and Twitter!

If you’re interested in how tabletop games are made as well, check out out tabletop Game Dev interviews at AndHeGames

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