Exciting science news of the week is that according to NASA’s Harold White, it may be theoretically possible to build a kind of ‘warp drive’ and in so doing, exceed the speed of light. This is of course utterly fantastic news, but rather let down by one teeny flaw. The drive itself would need to be made of ‘Exotic Particles’. For those of you who don’t speak Science, ‘Exotic Particles’ basically translates as ‘Made Up Bullshit’, so I wouldn’t start booking your weekend jaunt to Proxima Centauri just yet.
"...as you can see, with the magical power of Sauron's Ring, we can CONQUER TIME AND SPACE. Or play rugby."
Clearly, the real reason for Mr. White to come out with this is because he has received a hefty chunk of Subset Games’ Kickstarter cash in order to promote their new game FTL: Faster Than Light. (Note: this is not true.)
FTL is a game where you play the captain of a spaceship. It’s brilliant. It will eat up your spare time like the Cookie Monster on crack. It lets you assign energy to different systems, which is a game mechanic I’ve been waiting for since I was about five years old. I think that’s pretty much all I need to say in order to help you decide whether or not you want to buy it or not – so thus endeth the ‘review’ portion of this review. But, it does have a few minor things in it which bother me and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what exactly they are. I’m interested in game design, so I quite frequently attempt to analyse what it is that makes a particular game good or bad and FTL I’ve thought about especially hard since if I ever decide to expand AS.T.Ro I will probably do so by adding in a galaxy-spanning metagame incorporating some kind of spaceship combat system not entirely dissimilar to FTL’s. So what I think is this:
Much like the Alcubierre Warp Drive, FTL is fantasic but rather let down by one teeny flaw.
What that one teeny flaw is has been subject to some debate. It can be rather hard to put your finger on, mainly because its the kind of game that seems absolutely perfectly designed when everything is going well. When things are going badly, however, it rapidly becomes frustrating and unenjoyable. We tend to be a bit more forgiving of games that are no fun when you’re losing because, well, you’re losing. Having a crappy time is part of that, right?
"I sense that you are feeling incredibly irritated by me."
Not according to Dwarf Fortress. In Dwarf Fortress, Losing Is Fun. And that’s relevant here because Dwarf Fortress is, in many ways, FTL’s closest relation, both of them being roguelike management sims. Just replace the underground fortress with a spaceship and hoardes of ungrateful bastard dwarves with a small crew of colourful aliens. Of course there are major differences as well – foremost of which is that Dwarf Fortress is actually at its best when you’re losing, while a fortress where everything is going swimmingly gets fairly boring quickly.
That’s because Dwarf Fortress, like Tetris before it and Real Life before that, is all about losing. There is no way to win in Dwarf Fortress, no possible victory condition, only the inevitability of defeat. However mighty a civilisation you build it is ultimately destined to crumble, the dwarves you’ve nurtured doomed to be slain by Goblins, Zombie Elephants or your own managerial incompetence. The only way to win Dwarf Fortress is not to play. But what that means is that you learn to take your victories where you can. Every day your dwarves are not starving to death, going mad or having their innards converted into fashionable evening wear by some collosal demon is a good day. And even those other days are still pretty cathartic – the videogame equivalent of smashing up a lego model you spent ages building. There is sadness, but also a sense of release.
But we’re talking about FTL, and FTL is all about winning. You have a goal in FTL – you have to get to the final sector, defeat the boss and save the Federation from the dastardly Rebels (this last, incidentally, is an interesting inversion of the standard trope but sadly it doesn’t really go anywhere with it). Losing is bad. FTL makes you want to not lose. This is not in itself a problem, of course. The problem is that, having made you care about losing, FTL will then often fail to provide you with any means of not losing. Well, ‘often’ is perhaps overstating it. During the ‘going well’ runs I have usually died from some stupid mistake that I only have myself to blame for. But there have been other games where things have completely fallen apart for reasons that I’m not entirely sure were my fault – when I cannot see any reasonable way that I could have avoided them.
It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that this is not a complaint about difficulty – I have finished the game on Normal difficulty and actually find it fairly easy compared to most roguelikes (which I kinda suck at, usually). Though, it might be more accurate to say that sometimes its easy and sometimes its basically impossible.
A typical day in the office.
One common criticism I’ve heard made is that the game is ‘too random’. I sort of agree with that, but I’m not sure it’s really specific enough – some of the most popular games in the world have a far higher degree of randomness. The problem is more in the way that it uses that randomness and the way that the randomness acts on its mechanics.
Another argument that has been raised is that your sucess in the game largely comes down to how lucky you are with coming across shops. In response to this, Roguelike supremo Darren Grey managed to complete the game without visiting any shops. I’ve never personally had any problems with finding shops, but just to go a bit Ben Goldacre for a moment: with all due respect to Mr. Grey I’m not sure he really proved anything by doing this, because:
- The sample size is too small. You can’t really prove any argument about random distribution just with one run through.
- He presumably knew that he wasn’t going to be visiting any shops right from the start and was adjusting his tactics accordingly. That’s a bit different to playing with the (not entirely unreasonable) assumption that you will bump into a shop sooner or later.
- He’s Darren Grey, King of Roguelikes. He’s beaten more Roguelikes than actually exist. He’s the guy that ASCII dragons tell their children about so that they eat up all their villagers and grow up to become upper case. I’ve met Darren Grey, and he looks exactly like Mr. T except all the gold chains are actually amulets of Yendor. (Note: this is also not true.) Just because some people are tightrope walkers does not mean that tightropes are not shit bridges.
Anyway, I actually don’t disagree with Darren – I don’t think that shops or the lack thereof are really all that much of a problem. I do think there’s a problem, I think it’s something a little broader.
FTL is, like a lot of strategy games, about investing to stay ahead of a power curve. In this case represented by upgrading the equipment of your ship to keep up with the improvements in the equipment of the enemies you face as you go through the game. And, like a lot of games like this, it features a
negative positive (thanks, me) feedback loop. If you fall behind that power curve then you are going to have a harder time in battle and will have to spend more resources repairing your ship and less on upgrading it, making it much harder to ever catch up to the point where you are supposed to be. I consider this fairly bad game design in general, since it tends to render decisions you make early on in the game far more important to your overall success than those you make later on. That is particularly exacerbated in FTL by the fact that in the early game your options are far more limited, and your success is more greatly affected by entirely chance occurances.
How to win FTL
A lot of similar games somewhat mitigate this by implementing a kind of ‘rubber banding’ – for instance most Roguelikes and other RPGs give you a large experience boost for defeating an enemy which is a much higher level than you, both rewarding you for accomplishing something challenging and allowing you to catch back up with the power curve if it has been leaving you behind. FTL does not do this.
This is all bad enough, but it’s still not what I consider the biggest problem. That has to do with the shield mechanic, or more specifically the way that the shield mechanic interacts with the larger progression metagame. In FTL, ships have shields. Shields absorb damage from lasers and similar weapons and in doing so gradually fade away, but will recharge after a few seconds. A large part of the combat game revolves around wearing down the enemy’s shield so that it collapses and you have a window of opportunity to blast away at the juicy systems below.
The problem is that if you find yourself falling behind the power curve, you can often find yourself in a situation where your rate of inflicting damage is slower than the recharge rate of your enemy’s shields, and that consequently you will never manage to actually penetrate them and inflict damage. This means that if you fail to gain sufficient upgrades quickly enough fights don’t just become more difficult – they become impossible. The game has many fine moments but plucky underdog comebacks against all the odds are not among them – because the odds can often be zero. Conversely, if you’re ahead of the curve you end up fighting enemies who are completely incapable of hurting you and you can just plug away at them with no risk to yourself, which can be gratifying but is still a little lacking from a gameplay perspective.
In FTL, this would not end well.
To be fair, I’m making it sound a little worse than it is. One thing FTL is very good at is offering a variety of approaches to combat with interesting interlocking systems of counters. The most obvious counter for heavily shielded ships is missiles. Missiles bypass shields entirely, making the preferred tactic for such situations to use missiles to attack your opponent’s shield generator, weakening them enough for your laser cannons to grind them down and begin inflicting hull damage. The problem with this is: missiles are a limited resource. A very limited resource. Over the course of the game you will probably come across only around 25-30 missiles. In the late game, however, there is only around a 50% chance that a missile will hit. It can take multiple consecutive missile hits to knock down a fully powered shield generator to a level that your lasers stand a chance of punching through, and that damage can be repaired remarkably quickly, leaving you more-or-less back where you started. This is a mathematical equation that can be solved to give x = not enough fucking missiles. Enemy ships, on the other hand, seem to have stacks of missiles and no reason to conserve them, and will happily fire missile after missile into your most sensitive parts, mocking you and your puny missile-less spaceship. But, for the player it is not really a tactic that can be relied upon and hence is a counter that doesn’t really work.
The other possible countermeasure, and the one that I tend to focus heavily on as it is by a long way both the most effective and most fun tool in the game, is boarding parties. Teleporting your crew to an enemy ship bypasses their shields and, if you can kill all of their crew while keeping their ship intact, provides a massive reward bonus on victory. (SPOILER: It’s also an easy way to completely de-fang the end boss.) However, in the situation under discussion it doesn’t really help that much since in order to be able to do it you need to have outfitted your ship with a teleporter, which you are unlikely to be able to do if you’re already lagging behind the curve, and you need crewmen that are tough enough to do the job (i.e. Rockmen and Mantises). Plus, if the enemy ship has a medibay you really need to puncture the shields anyway in order to keep it out of action long enough for your invasion force to finish murdering everybody.
What the game expects you to do in situations where you have no chance of hurting your opponent is to concentrate on fending off his attacks long enough in order for your FTL drive to charge up and allow you to escape. This, in itself, can be a pretty frantic and entertaining part of the game. But escaping often does not help you that much – not only do you get no rewards and thus fall further behind where you should be, the capabilities of enemy ships increase fairly homogenously so you may find yourself running straight into the same situation with a different ship. Additionally, there are only four upgrade levels of shields, so each increase represents a big step up in difficulty. This means that impossible situations can, if you’re unfamiliar with the game, sneak up on you. You might be doing fine with the weapons you have and not see any reason to upgrade until its already too late.
So, the problem with FTL is not really any one thing but more a collection of very very minor issues that combine together. Even then, I freely admit that it is still a relatively minor problem and I’m basically just nitpicking. But, it’s a nitpick that could be easily fixed and because I like to be constructive with my winging here are a couple of ideas that, either alone or in combination, could eliminate it entirely:
- Most simply and probably most effectively: provide more missiles as random loot and reduce the cost of buying them to just one scrap. Make them an effective resource and let the game work as it was (presumably) designed to.
- Make shields able to take more hits (i.e. make each upgrade correspond to a new shield level rather than every two, which makes more sense anyway) but increase the recharge time. Ships with more shields would still have an advantage because they could drop the opponents shields first and start picking off key systems, but all but the weediest weapons would eventually cause your shields to fail, so nobody would ever be entirely safe.
- Give more weapons as loot/random drops. You are already limited in the weapons you can use by the number of slots you have and the power requirements you can support, so this would really just give the player more choice and stop them from losing simply through never coming across a decent weapon.
- Make random events less random by letting us play through at least their negative consequences. This sounds like it would involve a lot of development but it wouldn’t really. Most of the events (accidentally bringing maniacs on board, exploring a derelict ship being slowly smashed apart by asteroids, going on board a space station to fight giant spiders/fire etc.) can already be simulated perfectly well by the game engine already implemented. Don’t just kill crew randomly, let us kill them ourselves through our own shoddy decision-making.
- Make teleporters part of standard ship equipment rather than something you have to buy. This way everybody has at least the option for a crazy last-ditch attempt to disable the enemy ship with their one remaining crewman. For balance, give some enemies blast doors – it’s kind of weird that they don’t have them – it makes teleporters rather overpowered and it would add an extra tactical dimension to close combat if you had to also worry about keeping their door control system disabled as well.
Just to reiterate one last time: I’m doing this purely as a kind of super-nerdy intellectual exercise rather than because I want to imply that FTL is a bad game. It isn’t. It’s an excellent game with the occasional questionable design choice that stands out simply because the rest of the game is so cleverly put together. In fact it would be a very strong contender for my Game Of The Year were it not for XCOM coming out next month (pleasebegood, pleasebegood, pleasebegood)…