On FTL and Challenge in Games: Skill-test Satisfaction

by northernbeholder

Something of a follow-up to the last post, in which I discussed difficulty in games and how FTL is really difficult.  Which it is!  It’s downright frustrating at times being so much at the mercy of an RNG, especially when trying to survive long enough to complete the unlock chain for a new ship – the randomly-seeded start event for which you may not encounter again for another dozen playthroughs. But it’s because of that difficulty that success feels so rewarding, and that’s where the fun of the game comes into play.

A lot of modern games have a “hard mode” that just means “you die in two hits, and enemies die in two hundred.”  The issue with this is that it turns any game’s test of difficulty into a test of reflexes, no matter what the game originally required of you.  This makes sense for some games – shooters, for instance.  Veteran mode in Call of Duty and Legendary in Halo ramp up enemy damage, numbers and HP, and test your reflexes to the limit when it comes to dodging, taking cover and lining up snap headshots.  That’s fine; that’s what those games are about to begin with.

Cranking the difficulty all the way up in, say, Skyrim nets the same result, but it shouldn’t.  Skyrim isn’t a reflex-based game – no, not even with the increasingly active combat systems Bethesda have been working into the series.  Your skill in Skyrim is based on your knowledge of the game systems: what perks to take, which stats (health, magic, stamina) to upgrade, what equipment to forge and refine, what to enchant and how to enchant it.  You build a strong character through your experience with the underlying mechanics, but on the maximum difficulty setting, that doesn’t matter.  Maybe it takes an enemy three hits to tear through you instead of just two; that’s not exactly a huge margin for error.  What wasn’t originally a reflex-based game becomes one, and it’s not your knowledge of the game’s systems that’s tested but how quickly you can handle the keys to sprint around in combat.

The same tends to be true of strategy games; cranking up the difficulty just results in the AI cheating itself money, resources and units beyond what the mechanics of the game dictate they should be able to manage, and the experience becomes one of frantic micromanagement – reflexes – rather than focusing on building a humming economy and considering the stroke and counter-stroke of large-scale combat.

What’s interesting about FTL is that going from “easy” to “hard” mode still tests the same skills.  There are only three key differences between the two game modes:

  1. On Easy mode you receive 25% more scrap (upgrade/purchase currency).
  2. On Normal mode enemy ship generation advances through upgrade stages slightly faster – you may face something from Sector 5 on Easy in Sector 4 on Normal, for instance.
  3. On Normal mode the enemy ship generation is allowed to draw from a larger pool of potential weapons – there are no restrictions on what they may be armed with.

You also get a score boost for playing on Normal, but that’s not relevant to the actual gameplay.  What’s important is the changes these differences make to what skills are tested: None whatsoever.  There’s no change: the enemies are slightly tougher and slightly better armed, your resources are sparser, but the skills you need to push through to the next sector as the same as they were in “easy” mode.  Knowledge of what to buy, what to upgrade, and how to fight with whatever sort of arsenal you manage to cobble together by the RNG’s whims are what the game has been teaching you, and that’s what’s being tested.  You don’t suddenly need to learn a whole new skillset to deal with the harder difficulty mode; just refine the existing one.  Because of this, it’s one of the few non-shooter games I’ve played where going through on hard mode is an enjoyable and rewarding exercise, rather than simply annoyance and frustration (random RNG dickery aside, of course). I’m exercising the lessons I’ve learned to gain mastery over the game. I don’t feel like the playthroughs on easy were a waste; they actually feel like they’ve prepared me for the difficulties of the advanced setting.

I still haven’t gotten FTL’s hard mode beat, but for the first time in a long time, I’m actually enjoying the challenge.