Crowdfunding helps LIer's video game take off

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Justin Ma, a 27-year-old from Huntington, has become a sudden phenomenon online, designing a retro computer game that has become a top seller.

Since its release last month, Ma's sci-fi game, "FTL: Faster Than Light," has ranked with some of the most popular games being sold on a major online platform.

Helping generate buzz for the game: Ma and his business partner and collaborator, Matthew Davis, 26, of Los Angeles, raised $200,000 to finance it via a "crowdfunding" website where they solicited donations.

At a time when computer screens' graphics can rival the cinema, Ma's game has found an audience despite being a throwback with two-dimensional graphics. It requires the player, as captain of a spaceship, to manage resources and crew while facing down enemy ships.

"Instead of a lot of space games where it's more a piloting simulation, this is trying to be more a captaining situation," Ma said.

"FTL," which draws inspiration from science-fiction shows such as "Firefly" and "Battlestar Galactica," is one of the 20 most-purchased games on the popular gaming website steampowered.com. It can be downloaded there for $9.99 alongside top sellers like "Call of Duty" and "Borderlands 2."Ma won't say how many copies have been sold.

The game review website gamespot.com said "FTL" was "undeniably old-fashioned yet still somehow fresh and original."

California-born Ma moved to Huntington when he was 6 years old. After studying Chinese culture and the arts at Tufts University in Boston, he moved to Shanghai in 2008. There he met his future business partner at 2K, a computer game studio.

Last year the two left their jobs to take a chance designing their own game, with Ma focusing on the visuals and story, and Davis doing the programing.

In Shanghai, Ma said, "the cost of living was very low, so we were sort of able to live cheaply for a year off our savings while we tried to finish the game."

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But they ran out of money. In February they turned to kickstarter.com, a website where people with "creative projects" can ask for donations to fund their ideas.

Ma thought they'd raise at most $20,000 from contributors, who were promised copies of the finished product or a chance to beta test the game.

But an honorable mention at an industry awards show in San Francisco brought them attention. At the same time a spate of news stories made crowdfunding a hot topic.

The result: The fundraising "went absolutely nuts -- in the first day we got 250 percent of what we were asking for," Ma said.

Crowdfunding has opened the door for independent game designers, said Piers Harding-Rolls, a computer game analyst at IHS Screen Digest, in the United Kingdom. "You don't need those official channels of publishing, which can be difficult to secure."

In all, 9,818 people gave a total of $200,542. The money paid for a sound engineer and soundtrack, a writer, a large beta test and start-up costs to found their company, Subset Games.

Fast sales mean the duo can take a break while figuring out their next steps.

"We're going to be able to keep working on games," said Ma, who moved back to Huntington three months ago, "and not worry about rent for a while."

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