on Oct 2, 2012
In my previous post on FTL, I said the game was “dominated” by randomness. More than one person has pointed out that they can win 100% of the time, or nearly so. These comments don’t have the stench of strutting troll-swagger, so I’m sure these players are genuine. So the game isn’t dominated by random chance. Instead, I’ll say that the random noise is so loud that it drowns out the mechanics that a new player is trying to learn.
Part of my problem with the game is the apparent lack of choices. I can’t customize my ship at the outset. This makes starting a new game very boring to me. If I start a new game of Civilization or Master of Orion, I can spend time customizing my faction or picking a good start location. In FTL, you just begin with the same stupid ship* and go back to making the same arbitrary “right or left?” navigation choices. You’ve got to play for a while before you can get back to doing interesting stuff and testing your theories. “Is this strategy right? Am I doing better? Or was I just lucky this time? I guess I’ll just play six more games before I find out how wrong I am!”
* Until you unlock other, fixed-layout ships.
So the game isn’t random. If you play long enough you’ll discover it’s just grossly unfair, it doesn’t teach you what you need to know, and the difficulty switch should have a little trollface.jpg next to it.
There is strategy in there somewhere, you just have to dig for it. It’s like a game of Civilization where only the top two difficulty tiers are available, you can only play as one faction at the outset, you can’t choose your start location, and new players have to lose a bunch of times before they can even map out the scope of the system they’re trying to overcome. Also, at the end of the game if you try to capture your opponent’s city he magically gets a free military unit every turn until you lose and the game never warns you or explains how this is possible because screw you, player. People can and do beat Civilization on the topmost difficulty, so such a game would be possible. But it would also be daunting and slow to learn and only fun for a narrow audience.
FTL is still not a game for me. I would much prefer to have a bunch of difficulty tiers WAY below the ones offered. I would prefer to play through the game on ACTUAL easy or normal mode where I can get a feel for the game before this run comes to an end. I’d rather not spend twenty minutes just for a tiny peek at the landscape of this particular challenge. On easy I can survive a fight and realize I’d made a mistake without the game coming to an end and sending me back to the boring no-choice beginning. “Wow. I would have been killed if I’d been playing on normal! Let’s see if I can figure out what I’m doing wrong.”
As far as I can tell, most of the challenge in this game is built around hiding knowledge from the player and making them fail repeatedly in order to uncover it. I would much prefer the Master of Orion model, where you gradually optimize over the course of several long games, turning up the difficulty as you grow.
I’m more convinced than ever I don’t want to play this game. I took the time to write this follow-up post because FTL fans passionately stuck up for the game and were generally polite about it. Any game that can inspire friendly defense like this can’t be all bad.
Normally I’d shrug and argue that this is what you get when you design systems where learning is slow and painful. Critics are not morally obligated to put up with your bullshit, and if you hide the fun where I can’t see it, then eventually I’m going to stop digging and conclude it’s not there. If you make a game that runs new players through the wringer without offering them a safety valve, then some people are going to get bored and frustrated and quit. I can’t predict who will like the game or who won’t. All I can do is talk about my experience and let you draw your own conclusions.
Some people decry the “dumbing down” of games, how everything is too easy. But “only hard mode” isn’t somehow better than “only easy mode”. (And financially speaking, it’s worse.)
However, since FTL is the product of a very small team and since it has a devoted following, I’m writing this to correct my earlier assertion that the game is too random. The game has lots of strategy. It’s simply too obtuse, and it takes too many failures to get a feel for how it works and what you should be doing. Also the final boss is a heaping pile of lame cheating.
If you’ve got the perseverance for this sort of thing and you like a good challenge, you can get a DRM-free version of FTL from the website for just $10.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.