Apr 9, 2015

FTL Is Unfair(ly Maligned) - Part 1: It's Not Random

This is so unfair, the enemy ship can't even damage me

As I have mentioned in one of my previous posts, I love "roguelites": indie games mixing various existing genres with traditional roguelike ideals of replayability, permadeath and procedural world generation.

And my favorite roguelite game to date is FTL: Faster Than Light. It is a rare example of a game that focuses on planning and preparation, and rewards that above all else (and, contrarywise, punishes lack of planning and sloppy, reactionary play).

Thus, being both a fanboy and the type of gaming windbag focused mainly on dissecting game mechanics, I am dismayed by people constantly claiming it's "random" and "unfair". I see those labels being used all the time, by everyone from everyday gamers to pundits and professional reviewers and critics (who are supposed to know better), some going so far as to brand it nothing more than a "slot machine", a game where the player's actions are meaningless and the whims of the random number generator alone determine if you win.

Now, I will agree that the game is hard. It requires a good deal of forward thinking to win, you can't just get by doing the first thing that comes to mind in any given encounter, like you can in most modern games. This game will kill you for that, eventually.

I won't dispute it being hard. It's people branding it unfair that really pushes my buttons. The game does have some other problems, serious ones, judging by the number of people spouting how insurmountable it is, but I'll get to that later. But in my opinion, it's actually one of the fairest, least RNG based roguelites out there. The Binding of Isaac is more random than FTL!
In the Binding of Isaac: You upgrade and progress your character mainly by collecting random items. If you get a draw of items that sucks (this doesn't usually happen but it's theoretically possible) you may have trouble beating the game.
In FTL: You upgrade your ship by spending scrap, which you get from virtually every encounter. Aside from a couple of extra systems you can find in stores, the upgrade paths are set in stone from the start of the game, and driven entirely by your success. If you do well you earn lots of scrap and get good upgrades. If you don't, you don't.

Now, I know people will bring up other examples of FTLs percieved unfairness screwing them at random,  I'll try and go over the most popular ones:

1) You can encounter ships way above your power level at any time!
Having played through the game a considerable number of times (about a dozen won runs, a few more failed ones), I can say that this does not happen. While enemy setups are randomly picked for every fight, they are still tied to an overall difficulty curve: you will not encounter a ship with triple shields in the first few sectors, no matter what anyone says. This is actually an issue of perception, I'll get to that in Part 2.

2)  Enemies can randomly avoid your attacks at the worst possible moment, suddenly turning the tide of the battle!
So FTL has a dodge mechanic. And so does almost every RPG in existence, but you don't hear people crying about Baldur's Gate or Morrowind being unfair and random (annoying, perhaps, but that's a different matter). Probability management in general seems to be a hangup for a lot of gamers, especially in games where rolls determine the outcome of high stakes situations. In any case, probability is something that can be worked around, or purposely stacked in your favor. But people tend to focus on isolated cases of failure, on that one time their lasers missed and failed to bring down enemy weapons at a critical moment, or that time their defense drone let a missile slip past, but in a playthrough overall, the outstanding failures and unexpected critical passes will balance eachother out towards a stable middle where your decision-making and skill will determine the outcome. In any case, don't rely entirely on your missile always hitting the mark, expect that at some point it will miss, plan accordingly and have a contingency ready.

3) Text-based events can screw you over at random and kill your crew!
The thing about events in this game, is that there's always an option to opt out and ignore them. Essentially, those events are little gambles you can take to risk something for a chance to win a reward. Take them if you can afford to lose crew, skip them otherwise. Again, it's your call whether or not to participate, the random roll is not forced on you. I will concede that the game doesn't communicate this idea very intuitively, which touches on the acual problem with FTL, which I will adress in Part 2.

4) Sometimes you get powerful weapons for free, sometimes you don't get anything good and end up underpowered!
As I mentioned above, the crux of the progression is in system upgrades, which are fixed for each ship. You need guns to fight, true, but having more weapons doesn't automatically make you more powerful, and neither does having bigger versions of your starting weapons: most guns are sidegrades to eachother, they trade higher damage and greater number of shots for slower charge times and bigger power requirements. Most ships' starting guns can serve you for the entire game, and you can purchase extra weapons in stores even if you don't get any freebies, because you will get scrap.

5) If you don't get easy random encounters, you'll spend all scrap on repairs and fall behind!
I will concede that buying repairs is a weird mechanic that tends to snowball into failure, as you spend your upgrade money on repairs, fall behind on upgrades causing you to take more damage and require more repairs. However, if you're playing properly you shouldn't require repairs in the first place, at least not so much that they make you bankrupt. It is entirely possible to avoid damage altogether no matter what kind of ship you end up facing.

6) The AI can randomly target a critical system and render you helpless!
This is really more of an example of randomness serving to help the player, because statistically most enemy shots will land on unimportant rooms and systems. Only a small fraction of shots will blow up something critical and create a problem for you, at which point you should have a better plan than "hope my critical thing never gets blown up".

I think that about covers the main grievances people have, aside from minor things like shop inventories and reward compositions being lightly randomized, but let's be real, you're not gonna die over getting an exra 1 missile instead of 10 scrap a few times.

So what is this big problem that causes so many people to play badly, fail and blame random numbers?  

Find out in Part 2

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