On FTL and Challenge in Games

by northernbeholder

Steam tells me I've already sunk 15 hours into FTL. Where does the time go?

FTL (Faster Than Light) is an indie offering from Subset Games.  It is, in the simplest expression, a spaceship roguelike.  It’s immensely fun and immensely frustrating all at the same time, and has sparked some debate over the merits of game difficulty.  Not being one to miss a bandwagon when I see it, I naturally have my own perspective to add to the debate, a mere two weeks after the game released.

If I commented on something current, it wouldn’t be a history blog, would it?

First, for those that haven’t played it, a brief overview of the game.  FTL involves commanding a spaceship through eight sectors of space, each of which has over a dozen systems to explore (the exact number varies, but I’ve never seen a sector with less than 12).  The sectors and systems within are randomly seeded each game, so your journey will never play the same way twice. You are closely followed by an enemy fleet intent on your destruction, so you won’t be able to fully explore each sector or double-back to a space station to pick up a new gun you couldn’t afford earlier – your movement is ever forwards.

It's hard to tell from my terrible screengrabs, but the graphics are crisp, clean and attractive.

Managing your ship and crew makes up the bulk of the gameplay.

Most jumps will have you face combat or an event on the other side, always prefaced by succinct yet subtly evocative writing (it’s often surprising what they manage to do with only a few lines of text in order to set up a scenario or event).  Failure means hull damage, systems offline, crew wounded or dead.  Frequently, so does victory.  Winning also nets you the spoils, though, which you can use to repair and upgrade your ship, or purchase new equipment.  The choices you make on what to purchase – additional fuel, hull repairs, systems upgrades, more crew, new hardware – will have compounding effects through the rest of the game, and it takes time and patience to gain the experience necessary to know which decision is better at a given point.

However, because all of the content is randomly seeded each game, sometimes that experience means nothing at all.  If you get to the final sector having gone the entire trip without either finding or being given the opportunity to buy an upgraded or additional laser cannon, for example, you simply won’t have the firepower to break through enemy shields in the endgame.  Or perhaps the game generates a series of enemies in a row all armed with heavy missiles – your shields are useless, you take heavy damage, and when you limp into a station you are forced to spend your cash on repairs rather than the teleporter system being offered there (and only there).  Maybe you discover at the last moment that the layout of systems in this sector invisibly forked five jumps back and you can’t reach the exit beacon before the enemy fleet intercepts you because, unwittingly, you took the wrong path. My best run on the harder difficulty setting saw me get quite lucky with events, money and items, and I made it to the final sector well-equipped and proceeded to blow through the first two of the three boss encounters … only for his randomly determined path to put him right on top of the only remaining randomly seeded repair station in the sector.  I had to fight the third and final encounter with a heavily damaged hull and quickly lost.

Most of the ship unlocks rely on the random seed giving you the right sector and event to start a miniature quest chain.

You only start with one ship, but up to eight more can be unlocked.

It was death by random number generator, no more and no less.  Here’s where we get into the meat of the issue:  Some players have complained that the randomness of the game is at times too harsh and unpredictable.  Others have, in response, accused them of hating difficulty and challenge in games, or wanting everything spoon-fed to them.  The thing is, these people don’t necessarily dislike difficult games; just game systems that create challenge by dint of random disaster.

I’m going to throw out some broad categories here.  Bear with me.  Generally speaking, there are three kinds of difficulty a game can include: reflex, experience, and randomness.  Each tests a different aspect of a player’s skillset.  Reflex difficulty is typically the sort you find in action games, whether they’re platformers or first-person shooters. The reaction time of the player in making quick jumps or snapping off a headshot before the enemy does is what makes the difference between success or failure.  Muscle memory, situational awareness and hand-eye coordination are key.

Experience difficulty is a test of the player’s familiarity with the game systems, and relies not so much on speed as on knowledge.  It’s often found in strategy games and RPGs.  Knowing what tech to research, what units to build, and how to deploy them with maximum efficiency is a skill that comes with experience and learning the game.  The same can be said for building your character’s stats, skills and spell selections in an RPG. A knowledge of the systems underlying the game and how they interact leads to success. Dark Souls is probably the king of experience difficulty at the moment, and the satisfying rush of success as you exercise your hard-won knowledge is unforgettable.

Finally, randomness is the difficulty of facing the unknown.  Every game contains this element the first time you play it.  You don’t know there’s a grenade-tossing ambush at the end of this rubble-strewn corridor, whether or not that next jumping platform is going to collapse under you, that the enemy army receives a bunch of free paladins if you destroy a certain part of their base, or if the necromancer has buffed his skeletons to be fire-immune.

Maybe he could buff my spaceship, too.

Enemies are randomly generated and can have very nasty weapons.

For most games, the randomness factor of difficulty disappears after your first experience with it.  You know where the ambush is, which platforms can be trusted, what triggers enemy reinforcements and how the necromancer tends to fight.  However, since FTL’s galaxy is randomly seeded each time you play, the random difficulty never goes away.  You don’t know which events you’ll trigger and what the rewards might be (sometimes the reward is death).  You don’t know where the stations are, and if they’ll have the components you’ll need – if you can even afford them.  You don’t know what enemy you’ll face until combat starts and they begin ripping through your shields like tissue paper.

Now, FTL’s difficulty isn’t wholly random.  There is a lot that experience can grant you.  Knowing what to upgrade and when, knowing which pieces of equipment are must-buy and which you can afford to pass on or sell for some extra cash, knowing your way around combat strategies – all these are important, and can be learned.  They’re also, I’m quite sure, not what people have in mind when they complain about difficulty.  They don’t like the randomness of a death.  They don’t like jumping into a system to be greeted by an event which involves six pirates teleporting onto your ship before the battle even starts, or being impotent before a late-game enemy because they’d never gotten the opportunity to upgrade their guns properly on the journey there.  To say they don’t like challenge is a misnomer; they just don’t like a particular type of challenge, the challenge of random misfortune that can undo an otherwise hard-fought success in a single blow.

I’m not a huge fan of random disaster myself, but I’m still playing anyway.  FTL is a fantastic game; it’s pretty, it’s challenging, the soundtrack is amazing, and it’s an absolute steal at only $10.  Support an indie developer and start exploring that galaxy. See if you can make it all the way home.