[Author's Note: Anything But Sports: The Making of FTL: Faster Than Light runs four chapters. It will begin its run on May 10, 2015, for all subscribers of the Episodic Content e-zine, and will conclude its run on August 10, 2015. Learn more about, and subscribe to Episodic Content by clicking here.]
[Update (5/19/15): This article has been revised to account for corrections sent to the author by Justin Ma, co-developer of FTL.]
Anything But Sports: The Making of FTL: Faster Than Light
Written by David L. Craddock, author of Stay Awhile and Listen
Chapter 1: Big and Small
The City on the Sea
Everything is bigger in Shanghai. A bastion of economy situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the city hosts China's main stock exchange, a glittering symbol of Shanghai's status as the world's largest and busiest port. Luxury hotels and businesses soar over a population of twenty-four million and counting. British colonial architecture, relics of the Opium Wars, sits in the shadow of tower high rises. Tunnels and bridges connect the two sides of the Huangpu River, unifying old and new Shanghai: a megalopolis where traditional styles clash with the glass and steel of modern architecture. At night, the city's skyline flares into Technicolor brilliance. Neon flashes from all sides, illuminating a city of both antiquity and modernity.
Thriving economies come at a cost. In 2013, pollution coughed up from innumerable factories and automobile exhaust pipes choked the skyline. Schoolchildren were proscribed from venturing outside their homes.1 Traffic thinned. Authorities cancelled sporting events, and high demand for masks and air purifiers left local stores running low on supplies.
Shanghai was not always so dense. China's economic jewel originated as a fishing village between 5th and 7th centuries A.D. The city flourished thanks to high demand for silk, cotton, and fertilizer, three of its chief exports. In the 1990s, Shanghai began recording economic growth upward of ten percent per year through the start of the new millennium.2 As early as the mid '90s, the Pudong district was a tract of farmland.3 Now, Pudong is the beating heart of Shanghai's financial district.
Financial movers and shakers were some of the first to benefit from the economic growth spurt felt across Shanghai and the People's Republic of China. Game publishers were quick to follow. The high cost of personal computers and software relative to the populace's median income led to growing interest in Internet cafes, where males between the ages of eighteen and thirty plugged into online games such as Blizzard Entertainment's World of WarCraft for days at a time. Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, NCsoft and other publishers flocked to put down stakes in the East, hoping to cash in on the growing mobile and online-gaming scenes.
In 2006, publisher 2K Games opened 2K Shanghai, the first of many Chinese studios the corporation would collect under the 2K China umbrella.4 Their first job was to localize Sid Meier's Civilization IV for the Chinese market. Following that, they would pitch in on other titles in development at sister studios until they cleared enough room on their plate for their own games. The studio grew slowly, filling its airy bullpen with cubicle farms, coffee stations, foosball and Ping-Pong tables, and a lounge where developers could grab a drink and a snack.
Early on, 2K Shanghai's small band of developers consisted mostly of local artists and programmers. More diversity was stirred in as the studio recruited budding developers from around the world. One of those developers was Matthew Davis, who had earned his degree in computer science in Northern California. "By the time I graduated, I realized I wasn't a massive fan of programming. I knew just enough to sustain me on my own, and I wanted to get into the games industry."5
Davis headed to the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) held in San Francisco every spring. Besides offering the chance for developers to attend talks given by design luminaries, GDC is the ultimate job fair—both for studios looking to recruit, and for hopefuls like Davis looking to get a foot in the door. He passed out his resume to studio representatives at every booth he visited and crossed his fingers that he would get to work on something creative. "When I was applying for jobs at GDC fresh out of college, some guy asked me what types of games I wanted to make. I paused before answering, and he answered for me: 'Anything but sports, right?'"
When a rep from 2K Shanghai invited him to relocate to China, Davis jumped at the offer. He arrived in late 2007 and became a jack of all trades, writing code for games on social networking services and porting titles from one platform to another. None of the projects set his world on fire, but it was a job in games, so he stuck around.
Eighteen months passed. After work, Davis met up with friends outside the office to engage in one of his favorite pastimes: playing board games. Justin Ma, one of 2K Shanghai's newest hires, quickly became a regular at the meet-ups.
Ma was something of an anomaly in the Chinese games industry. He was a graphic artist fluent in 2D and 3D art, he dabbled in design, and he wrote code on the side. "When I was in China, I had some connections at 2K Games Shanghai. I applied to them, and they basically said, 'You're really all over the place. If we hire a designer, we need a designer. If we hire an artist, we need an artist.'"6
Shrugging off the rejection, Ma continued looking for jobs. To his surprise, reps from 2K Shanghai called him back. They explained that they happened to have need of someone with his diverse skill set to pitch in on BioShock 2, a shooter set in a dystopian underwater city. Ma's job would be to design 2D overhead-view maps of each level.
Ma accepted the offer in 2009 and ended up taking the desk beside Matthew Davis, who was writing code for Top Spin 2 for the Nintendo Wii console. The two clicked. When fatigue from the hustle and bustle of working on big-budget projects set in, the two friends discussed a shared goal: to splinter off from the monolithic industry and design games of their own.
Justin Ma's favorite Christmas present of 2010 did not come wrapped in a bow. His parents and brother pooled their money and bought him a pass to the 2011 GDC. Ma was hyped for the trip. It would be his first time attending the annual show. More pressingly, working in China was fun and fascinating, but he had been feeling cut off from the global gaming scene. He was also burnt out. Tired of putting together maps, he often went home after work and fired up Game Maker, a program that let users build fully functional games without needing to write a single line of code.
Upon setting foot in San Francisco's Moscone Center, the site of GDC, Ma instantly felt at home. He attended talks given by legendary game designers, but it was the Independent Game Festival (IGF), a showcase where indie developers got to show off their homemade games, that captivated his imagination.
At IGF, Ma noticed the glaring juxtaposition between big companies such as 2K and the scrappy indie developers. Big-budget publishers poured millions of dollars into facsimiles of money-makers like Call of Duty and World of WarCraft. Indie games did not require millions of dollars, a team of hundreds, and a minimum of four years to create. One person, maybe two or three, could build a game, put it up for sale on Apple's App Store or Valve Software's Steam digital games platform, and make a decent living if they sold around 100,000 copies. Big publishers like 2K had to sell millions of games just to break even on their investment in salaries, equipment, office space, and marketing. Independents could chase any wild what-if they imagined.
GDC's week-long festivities passed in a blur. Upon returning to Shanghai, Ma felt a malaise settle over him. "I was working on a larger project which I still put a lot of effort into. I was doing my best. But I'd go home [after work] and work on small games using Game Maker because I'd get really fired up about some small idea. I was doing game jams [development marathons] and that kind of thing. It was slowly dawning on me: Why don't I just do this full-time? If that's what I get enjoyment out of, and if it could potentially be a source of income, why not?"
Matthew Davis was one step ahead of him. "Part of it was just getting up and going to a normal office job every day. That on its own was starting to wear on me. As far as the industry was concerned, working for a studio wasn't a problem. The only problem with the games I was working on was that they didn't really get me excited. The atmosphere was fine; the people there were great; the studio was nice. But working on a tennis game wasn't that exciting for me."
After some soul-searching, Davis decided he would never have a better opportunity to chase his dreams. He was in his early twenties, had a few games under his belt, and sat on a sizable nest egg from two years of salary work. Plus, he was an experienced programmer. If his funds ran out, he could get another job easily enough. Not that he was concerned. The notion of his bank account drying up was less alarming than the idea of continuing to wake up every morning and go to work in an office, even one with foosball tables.
For Ma, his best friend's departure was the perfect motivator. "He was quitting, and I decided, 'Okay, I'll join you once this project's over so we can work together.'"
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1. Schoolchildren were proscribed from venturing outside: "Schoolchildren Ordered Indoors as Air Pollution Cloaks Shanghai." The Guardian. 6 December 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/06/schoolchildren-air-pollution-shanghai-eastern-china
2. Shanghai began recording economic growth: "Shanghai: Rise of the Global City." New Geography. 9 May 2010. http://www.newgeography.com/content/001558-shanghai-the-rise-global-city
3. As early as the mid '90s: "Shanghai: China's Capitalist Showpiece." BBC. 21 May 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/7373394.stm
4. In 2006, publisher 2K Games opened 2K Shanghai: "E3 06: Take-Two opens Shanghai studio." Gamespot. http://www.gamespot.com/articles/e3-06-take-two-opens-shanghai-studio/1100-6149682/ (Author's Note: a now-defunct link on 2kchina.com gave a more comprehensive overview of the studio's history. I've included the link here, which I originally accessed in April 2014, for completeness: http://www.2kchina.com/en/content/2k-china-history-0
5. By the time I graduated, I realized I wasn't a massive fan of programming: Interview with Matthew Davis. All quotes from Matthew Davis come from interviews conducted from 2012-2014 via email and Skype.
6. When I was in China, I had some connections at 2K Games Shanghai. Interview with Justin Ma. All quotes from Justin Ma come from interviews conducted from 2012-2014 via email and Skype.