Apr 9, 2015

FTL Is Unfair(ly Maligned) - Part 2: The REAL Problem With FTL

After enemy weapons go down, I can safely pull the engine 
guy to fight the boarder

I may sound dismissive towards people complaining about having a hard time with the game, but I actually understand where they are coming from. Their problems are all symptoms of an underlying unintuitiveness of FTL's gameplay, combined with a lack of hints or tutorials teaching how to play, not just how to control.  Because the tutorial doesn't do much more than teach where all the buttons are, all the player has to go on is their pre-existing knowledge of RPG games and how to play them.

But FTL's approach to upgrade progression differs significantly from a typical RPG. In a regular RPG, the player picks a path (guns, swords, plumbing expertise) to follow and then keeps investing more and more into that one path: getting shootier guns, bigger swords or mightier plungers, excluding everything else. In contrast, FTL is all about upgrading to a wider range of attack and defense systems.

At its heart, FTL is a game about counters. Ions counter shields. Shields counter beams and lasers. Beams counter high evade engines, which, in turn, counter missiles and so on and so forth. Getting a laser that fires 5 shots instead of 4 may help your chances against a triple shield enemy, but it won't be as good as getting missiles or bombs that bypass shields altogether. In that context, the best ship isn't one that has the biggest gun or the most souped up system of one specific type, but an array of decently developed defenses and attack modes which can counter any enemy combination thrown against them. You don't put all your eggs in one basket.

But because people have nothing to go on but their pre-conceived notions on how to play this type of game, they invest all their scrap (the upgrade currency) and put all their faith into one thing, be it shields, a particular type of cannons or what have you. Then, because this one thing will outright beat, say, 40% of possible enemy compositions, they will usually do great for a while, take little to no damage and get lots of scrap. Which tells them that they are on the right track, they need to keep investing into that one area. And they keep playing like that until they run into an enemy from that other 60%. On which their chosen strategy has little to no effect! And, suddenly, they experience a difficulty spike and go from dominating every encounter to getting their ass kicked by that one ship out of nowhere! It seems totally unfair and random, while in reality it's just the other shoe finally dropping on lack of planning and preparedness. And once you dig yourself into that hole it can be very difficult to get out. If you die like that, out of the blue, when you were previously doing so well, it's hard not to blame the game for failing you out of nowhere. In most games there is a gradual buildup of resistance when you start doing the wrong thing, giving you time to recognize your mistakes, but FTL will kill you within one or two encounters.

The narrative of the game also doesn't quite fit with the mechanics: you are allegedly a messenger trying to deliver critical intel to the Federation fleet as soon as possible, which implies that rushing to the end quickly and avoiding most fights is the best, most logical strategy. But the actual game requires you to get into every fight you can before hitting the escape beacon, so you can earn enough scrap to overcome the consistently growing opposition (and why would enemies become stronger the closer you get to home base?!). It's less about trying to get ahead of the Rebel Fleet and more about balancing on the very edge of its vanguard, like a surfer riding the tidal wave. So what little the game does tell you turns out to be a complete contradiction.

And thus players become lost, unable to see the forest for the trees, to even realize that they are doing something wrong in the first place, much less figure out exactly what. And really, I believe it's the game's responsibility to explain itself and show how to play it, especially if mere logic and common sense don't make it immediately clear (and they don't).

It's a real shame, since FTL is otherwise a very tightly designed game with real, hardcore choice and consequence mechanics. But between the stilted learning process and the percieved randomness being thrown around and hiding the real problem, who knows how many people it has needlessly put off itself...

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