Into the Breach’s interface was a nightmare to make and the key to its greatness


This is The Mechanic, in which Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the difficult journeys they underwent to make the best bits of their games. This time, Into the Breach [official site].

“I think we were resolved to having a UI nightmare from the beginning,” says Matthew Davis, co-designer and programmer of Into the Breach.

“When we decided we had to show what every enemy was doing every single turn, and that every action needed to be clear, it became clear how bad that nightmare would be,” says Justin Ma, its co-designer and artist.

Into the Breach is a tactics game from the developers of FTL about taking a team of three mechs into battle against giant bugs in a last-ditch defence of Earth’s cities. Rich with different strategies to master and challenges to vanquish, it’s deep, complex and “near-perfect”. And yet Ma says that he and Davis spent half of the four years the game took to make on… its UI. Its UI! The truth, however, is that the UI is a big part of what makes Into the Breach great, even though it also ended up transforming its very nature.

The key to Into the Breach is that you always know exactly what the bugs are going to attack next. You see what damage they’ll do and what kind of attacks they’ll make. It’s a game in which you have almost total knowledge, but you’re also outnumbered, and that means your turn is about using your knowledge to disrupt the bugs. Push the leaping bug so it lands on unoccupied wilderness instead of your city, and let your mech block that other bug’s shot. Every turn is a little puzzle box as you try to pull apart the bugs’ plans so you can survive, and it all hinges on you knowing the exact nature of the threat ahead and the exact consequences of your counter to it.


“Our requirement that the player has to understand what’s going on in any situation restricted our game design options considerably,” says Ma.

That’s why mechs and bugs only attack in three different ways. Melee hits the adjacent tile; projectiles fire in a straight line and hit the first obstruction; and artillery can target any tile in a straight line. “For a while we had the ability to target in the traditional three-tiles-range manner, in that diamond shape, until we realised that when we tried to show many enemies’ attack options at the same time you wouldn’t be able to tell who’s attacking what,” Ma continues. The board became a mess of hatched lines denoting targeted tiles which was impossible to read.

“I personally don’t like having to investigate shoot radiuses every other turn, moving a unit to check I can hit from there or to count tiles,” says Davis. “It becomes unmanageable to hold in your head and to eyeball what can hit what. From the beginning I wanted it so you could parse the board at a glance, so you wouldn’t have to investigate and double check radii.”

One of the earliest mockups of Into the Breach's presentation

One of the earliest mockups of Into the Breach’s presentation

Making clearly defined attack types meant throwing out some complex weapon effects, such as hitting a star- or triangle-shaped area, because Davis didn’t like the game turning into an exercise in mentally rotating shapes to work out the results of a shot.

“I would like to interject that I thought it was fun!” says Ma. But he concedes it was totally impractical. “You could just see all these damage indicators all over the map. We were fine with that because we knew exactly what every enemy did and knew who could do what, but it was very clear, as soon as we handed it to someone else, that we needed to make it very clear who was doing what.”


And so artillery was given a looping line to show its trajectory, projectiles a dotted line, and arrows for melee attacks. Each of these little solutions came into the game piece-by-piece as Ma and Davis watched playtesters fail to understand what was happening. Their aim was for the player to intuitively grasp what the weapon did and how it worked, an ambition which forced out some weapon designs which were just too complicated to communicate to players.

For example, for a long time the game featured an earlier iteration of a boulder-lobbing one which ships in the final game. The final version of this is an artillery weapon, but the earlier one worked as a projectile and yet could be aimed to hit any tile along its line. It was already breaking the rules of the game – no other projectile weapon works like that – but it also had another rule: if it hit an enemy, it would drop a boulder in the tile in front. “That was fun, it created interesting decisions and it was nice to hit an enemy while blocking another,” says Davis. “You could do really cool things with it.” But it was unintuitive and difficult to describe.

This early mockup shows attempts to show attack locations and the way movements will update.

This early mockup shows attempts to show attack locations and the way movements will update.

Similarly, many weapons push units but none push further than one tile, and there are no special cases where, for example, pushing on ice slides them until they hit an obstruction. “It’s very hard to convey,” says Ma. “We thought that having a simple push makes it easier for people to understand what’s going on.”

The primary way Into the Breach teaches you how weapons work is through tooltips. Select a unit and mouseover a weapon in the UI and you’ll see a little animation, complete with the actual unit wielding it, showing what tiles it affects and how. It’s a wonderful resource, and part of a philosophy of giving new players access to all they need to know while exposing a simplified UI to players who are already aware. But they weren’t always animated. “We found the language to describe a weapon was getting overly complex,” says Davis.

“Oh man,” says Ma.

“It was so complex to describe some of these weapons. We’d watch a playtester investigate a weapon and they’d just be like, ‘What’ after reading three sentences and still didn’t get it.” The tooltips included images, but because they were generic and didn’t show the unit involved, players had difficulty relating them to their situation. So Davis tackled the thorny challenge of making the tooltips dynamic so they’d always show the actual unit in order to make the weapon’s function explicit.

“I still think it’s the most important decision we made about this,” says Ma. “You could type out a hundred times, ‘Damages a tile and pushes adjacent tiles,’ but showing that little animation of them moving is a thousand times more effective. It’s funny.”

“It’s one of my favourite little things in the game,” says Davis.

A mockup which shows early screen furniture.

A mockup which shows early screen furniture.

What weapons do is only part of the information-storm the game has to deliver to you. There are various environmental effects to get across, such as dust (unit cannot fire), fire (unit begins burning and takes one damage per turn), A.C.I.D. (unit begins taking double damage) and many more. But as simple as they are individually, the logic by which they’d interact was much tricker to untangle. What if an A.C.I.D. tile catches fire? And how do you show it?

“We thought we might add more islands and effects and stuff but every time it would open up 10 more questions like that,” says Davis.

“What if a unit is frozen in ice and then you push them on to fire using an A.C.I.D. attack that doesn’t do damage. Does it break the ice? What happens?” says Ma.

A mockup for how icons showing how units will be pushed.

A mockup for how icons showing how units will be pushed.

Each of these interactions had to be hand-designed according to what made intuitive sense, and they tried to stick to tiles only carrying one effect at a time. So you can’t have a mine with A.C.I.D. on it, mostly because it would be impossible to display both on the board at once.

But when push came to shove and the intuitive approach for solving corner cases ended up in having to show more information, the general solution was putting an icon on it. You see them across the game, from the tiles where bugs will erupt from the ground next, to the cities and units that are under threat. But this approach, too, caused problems. “One and a half years ago the game was just an icon mess,” says Davis. They would add icons whenever they saw playtesters miss relevant pieces of information, and the screen built up and up with them. As for weapons, the solution was editing. “Just as a game design principle, we would sacrifice cool ideas for the sake of clarity every time,” says Ma. “If it can be shown in a clear way, yes, we can have that.”

A mockup for an early attempt at showing an artillery attack by the bugs.

A mockup for an early attempt at showing an artillery attack by the bugs.

And that meant that many of Ma’s visual ambitions for the game, such as burn marks on tiles that have been attacked and scenery getting stomped down by mechs, had to go, too. Not that he’s remotely concerned by that.

“I don’t even think we have the best solution,” Ma continues, brightly. “This could be way better. But it’s entirely functional, in our opinion.”

”That’s the frustrating part, really. I don’t think either one of us consider ourselves particularly great UI designers,” says Davis. “I think we brute-forced this into something that works, rather than used our own design brilliance to come up with a solution.”

”I think we know what we don’t like,” says Ma. “We’re not great UI designers but we have a clear understanding of what we don’t like, so it came down to just hammering on it until we found something that was OK.”


(Into the Breach’s interface design is a lot better than OK.)


  1. Hanban says:

    Into the Breach is great. It’s exactly the game I hoped it would be. For me, FTL was endless tweaking, rarely ending up in an optimal solution but always fun. In a different but similar manner, Into the Breach is just that. Heartily recommended!

  2. Thomas Foolery says:

    I think there are still times where the interface gets a bit cluttered when showing all the actions enemies plan to take, especially when they cross and intersect. But the tooltip that shows you the attack animation for a selected ability (including, crucially, enemy attacks) is a godsend, particularly when you’re using new mechs or encountering new enemies.

    • GepardenK says:

      I agree. I love how committed they are to clarity (cutting features, visual or otherwise, for the sake of it) and I think other developers have A LOT to learn from that mindset. Generally speaking Breach is a joy in this regard.

      That said there are definitely times when things get too cluttered. They are over-relying on visual markers (icons etc) that sometimes make things messy, and often when it is not needed – ice and forest tiles for example should be visually designed in such a way that the tile itself make everything obvious without having to slap another icon on top of the unit as well etc etc. Even emerging burrow spawns have a marker icon and I don’t know why; the sprite animation alone should be able to do that job just as well (if not better) if done right.

      I also find it annoying to visually differentiate variations of enemies (normal vs alpha / having special attacks) on a glance, this could be made much clearer by better more distinct sprite-work. This would also help with the ‘narrative’; have that alpha firefly look like a scary badass firefly and not just one with a slightly different hue.

      • Darloth says:

        They do actually have some of this – you can see it most easily with the alpha hornet, as they have additional spikes on their tail.

        I agree that there could be a lot more of this, and they could be more distinct though.

        • GepardenK says:

          I know, the alpha hornet is slightly better; but it’s still lacking in terms of being easily identifiable at a glance even in maps with lots of clutter.

          Take a look at something like Age of Empires and how the visuals of units change when being upgraded from one tier to the next. They look completely different yet are still obviously the same “type” of unit. That’s how you do it. If development cost is an issue: stick to color changes (or size changes) but make them much much more contrasted with their normal counterpart.

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        MajorLag says:

        Those icons come in real handy when the screen is a bit cluttered and you’re not entirely sure if a unit is standing on a forest or Vek emergence tile.

        • GepardenK says:

          Yes but they shouldn’t need to. The ‘Mech on tile’ visuals should be made in such a way that the underlying tile alone can do the job even when having a targeted Mech on it – thus portraying clear information without adding to the clutter. The small Block hand icon from standing on a Vek emerge tile is easy to miss on a cluttered screen and adds to the clutter itself.

    • Nogo says:

      I’m still a bit salty about losing one of my better pilots on a run because the icon they were on had a forest, fire, attack icons, and an airstrike.

      I missed the airstrike

  3. Helixagon says:

    Frankly I feel like Into the Breach handles clarity better than almost any other tactical game I’ve played. The level of polish is unbelievable.

    Though I admire the developers’ dedication to clarity and simplicity, I feel like this game would be ripe for an expansion with more complexity, for those of us who got sucked in by the base game’s simplicity and are ready for the next level. I know on some level it would detract from the brilliance of the easy-to-understand design, but … I confess I’m addicted.

    Aw hell, just take my money for whatever you want to make.

    • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

      This is only as authoritative as speculation from a fungus with an internet connection generally is; but it would not at all surprised me if that is what happens. The FTL expansion did something fairly similar(lots of new weapons with additional mechanics, balancing crew that need oxygen with crew that deplete oxygen from rooms just by being in them, and so on); but essentially told you “play this after you’ve played some base game” rather than just being a “new more complete base game”; and they certainly seem to have a long list of weapons and options that got the chop for being slightly to difficult to convey to the unfamiliar, which would presumably be easier to convey to those familiar with the base mechanics.

    • AyeBraine says:

      My thoughts exactly. I thought hard just today on how the game could be expanded, because 8×8 grid is just about enough for chess without mountains and cities and ponds.

      I also realized all the mechanics will change dramatically even if you add one extra tile. But yes, I await with anticipation any extentions and add-ons.

      I could name a few:

      A) +2 tiles (optionally) – shouldn’t break the mechanics and random generator that much, especially if an extra-difficult mode is in effect;

      B) all-out slugfests without civilians (but with empty buildings you can slap enemies against) and with lots of extra spawns, optionally on all sides (this one is sorely lacking from the game!);

      C) +1 squad member (could be class locked for the mode). It’s a HUGE deal for a turn-based chess game, but Long War made it work with revamping the entire spawn structure, extra danger and extra abilities.

      D) A new environment effect linked to new abilities. Meaning, say, if you gave the player a more traditional AoE blast without adjacent limitations, you could give its survivors a special status, and mirror it in environmental hazards.

  4. mgardner says:

    I appreciate that you can mouse over something that is going to take damage, and the game will highlight all sources of that damage. This is especially nice when the grid gets cluttered with bugs, and hopefully lets you convert “the turn when you lost” into “the turn when you almost lost”.

    • wwarnick says:

      I had no idea you could do that. That’s awesome.

    • Shadow says:

      Another vital intermediate tool is the Attack Order tooltip, which really comes in handy when pitting the Vek against each other and timing kills before the later-acting bug gets to attack something important.

      Also for realizing environmental damage usually comes first, allowing you to ignore 1 HP Vek on fire or those on certain tiles (about to be frozen or insta-killed, for instance).

  5. skyst says:

    My only interface gripe is that it can be easy to miss environmental hazards when a single can hold a mech, an enemy attack indicator, smoke (or acid, fire, etc) and the environmental hazard warning. I have lost a few pilots to that, usually on the final battle. It can be a real cluster on hard.

  6. blainestereo says:

    Into the breach’s presentation is superb but in this particular case that could be seen as a flaw too.

    What I mean is, the game was meticiously designed to be easy to get, but once you get it – and learn to exploit its mechanics – there’s just not much to do. Play with different squads, learn their quirks? Sure. Hunt for some cheevos that are more fun to do? Sure. Well, I’ve done all that and I clocked like 25 hours of game time. What’s left is do everything on hard I guess and thats a journey of perseverance, not discovery, which is deffo not for me.

    Not saying the game is bad (it’s great), not saying all games should be long (f that), its just this one feels like it could be a 60+ hour game which is only the case if you REALLY love to hit mountains with giant bugs and I cant help but wonder if the super acessible presentation is the part of the problem.

    Welp, fingers crossed for the advanced edition I guess.

    • Excors says:

      I think it might be best to see it as a puzzle game. Once you ‘get’ how to solve Picross or Sudoku or whatever, that doesn’t mean you’ve completed them – you play them again and again, with trivial variations each time, because the mindless repetition is enjoyable. You still need to engage the pattern-recognition and rule-following parts of your brain, but the games don’t require anything deeper than that.

      ITB is not a pure puzzle, since there are multiple viable solutions to each map, but it does seem to involve a similar mental process. You don’t really need to think more than one turn ahead (at least in my experience, on normal difficulty) – you can just run through a simple pattern of checking for the biggest immediate threats to your objectives/grid/units, then considering each available weapon and mentally predicting its effects and choosing the moves that minimise damage to friendlies and maximise damage to enemies, then repeat until victory. Once you’re comfortable with that process, you can play the game over and over again without having to think too hard, and the squads and random maps and random weapons provide just enough variation to keep that repetition enjoyable for a reasonable length of time.

    • OmNomNom says:

      Completely agree with what you’ve said.
      It is great, but not a classic that will you keep you coming back time after time.

      • Shadow says:

        It depends on how much the system grips you. Even past the achievements and unlocking all the mechs, you can customize or randomize squads and spend all the time in the world experimenting with combinations.

  7. OmNomNom says:

    Great game but its definitely no FTL. I’ve spent 20 hours on ITB and already feel like its lost some charm, whereas I must have spent 200 on FTL!
    Already getting FTL nostalgia actually… I think I’ll go back.
    UI is OK.

    • OmNomNom says:

      I mean, both games are good fun. I just vastly prefer FTL.
      ITB was a little easy to complete on Normal at least.
      Also while im here. ITB could do with some more UI options like always on health bars or mouse over instant tooltips

      p.s I pray for the day RPS sends its awful comments system back to the 90s whence it came.

    • GepardenK says:

      I think the combat system itself is miles more interesting than it was in FTL (which got relatively repetitive fast). What Breach is lacking that FTL had is a sense of journey and flow. In short the campaign system is very dull (feels “cold”) compared to FTL and the combat system is much more detached from the campaign system than was in FTL.

      • OmNomNom says:

        I agree about the campaign. By the end of FTL I had a crew I cared about who had been through something.
        By the end of ITB I had some chess pieces.

      • TechnicalBen says:

        I’m amazed that, and wonder if they could add it in DLC/expansion, the “time traveller” mechanic does not let you replay past missions/characters.

        That could add a new twist to coming back, meeting the old battles, with the old units, or having actual “puzzle” levels that are completed for a lasting goal, not random/transitory levels.

  8. automatic says:

    ITB is pretty good. Developers did a great job not only on the interface but also on the units diversity and balance. I wonder though if it would be as successful if it wasn’t marketed as the game from the makers of FTL. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m having a lot of fun, but it’s not super awesome fun like ppl are saying and also it’s sort of a tabletop puzzle game. Not a very popular genre.

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