FTL: Simulationism Lost
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Games: FTL, game design, roguelikes
All weekend I’ve been captaining a series of (mostly doomed) Trek-like starships in FTL, a new indie game. The gameplay is mostly derived from time management and roguelike games (more on that later), as you juggle crew between tasks, shift power between systems (straight up “more power to the engines and target their shields!”), and balance exploring the galaxy with fleeing from an ever-advancing plot device that’s too boring to describe.
It feels intimidating to start, but despite a half-hearted tutorial it’s pretty easy to pick up if you’ve ever seen a battle on Star Trek. Most of the time you’re figuring out new strategies for dealing with emergencies like fires, boarders, robot boarders, and damaged systems and then juggling your well-limited resources to “make it so”.
As you progress you can upgrade and reconfigure your ship with found and bought parts. With 9 ships (each with a variant layout, though all but the first ship must be unlocked through hidden in-game quests) and a heavy-handed random number generator, most games are about quickly strategizing in dire circumstances, which is where the game shines.
The buzz is that FTL is a roguelike, though I’ve only seen one good review explore what that means. The one thing missing from this writeup is “simulationism”. As you fight through the unending hordes of enemies in a roguelike, those hordes are part of the same simulation you are: they use the same hit point system, the same weapons, the same options available to you, and suffer the same pains you do. If your character can get frozen and have an arm broken off and soldier on partially dismembered, so can your enemies (the ones that have arms, anyways).
Roguelikes allow deep strategies by simulating complex systems (there are, of course, other ways to get deep games). Dying (and oh, can you have some fun getting the ship blown out from under you) is teaching you new ways to destroy the enemy starships that you can see run on the same rules you are. You could build up shields and let environmental hazards destroy your enemies; or send over a boarding crew; try to burn out their crew or space them; use automated drones to harrass; bring overwhelming firepower to their defenses — and these are just some of the core strategies.
It feels like there’s a ton to do and try, and there is, but your choices are badly constrained by a flaw I’ll discuss under the spoiler heading below.
Cruising the galaxy isn’t all the fun it could be. In each game you’ll pass through 8 sectors of ~25 stars (though you only have time to explore around half of those). A narrow majority of systems have an enemy to fight, the rest of the time you’ll have Trek-like events where you have to negotiate with aliens, investigate an anomaly, or react to some peril. After two or three games, you’ll have exhausted most of the events the game has to offer, which is boring because they’re all simple dialogue/action choices that only occasionally care what kind of crew or equipment you have.
Not only do they get boring, they’re very random with harsh consequences. You find a derelict freighter, do you want to investigate? Maybe you get a little bit of scrap, or maybe you get a game-changing weapon, or maybe one of your 3-8 crewmembers dies outright. There’s no way to assess or influence the odds, and (painfully for such a Trek-inspired game) you can’t even send a redshirt to do the deed. In one event a mine attaches to your hull, flip a coin to learn if you lose a vital, painstakingly leveled-up crewmember.
There’s also heavy randomness in what’s available to you. Because the plot device keeps you from exploring too much, you may see few of the ~16 stores per game and never see one you can buy vital upgrades from. FTL’s randomness is great for generating new circumstances of encounters and new strategies, but the wide variance can make games impossible to win, however well you may be playing. (As a quick example: instead of selecting store type completely at random, fill a deck of cards with a distribution of store types and draw from it as the player arrives. Random generation with reduced variance.) Nethack has a lot of randomness and I almost always die thinking “Oh, I should have…” Even after I’ve learned most everything about FTL I’m sometimes left feeling “Yeah, I couldn’t have done any different, it was out of my hands”.
Aside from these major problems there are a few nits to pick in the UI: it’s hard to see crew health (especially enemies), you can’t rename crew in the middle of the game or carry names between games, you can’t direct crew to open or close doors if your control is down, and if your sensors are down (due to damage or being in a nebula) the only indication that an unoccupied compartment is on fire or leaking air is easily missed. The big UI frustrations are that there are few keyboard shortcuts and after almost every combat you’ll have to do 20 seconds to three minutes of routine, totally safe clicking to repair and reorganize back to peak form.
On the whole, the game feels unpolished and flawed. It has some great moments and emergent gameplay undermined by too much variance, UI, and big bad design decision (to be discussed below).
If you’ve been waiting to command your own Trek-style starship, really like lasers that go pewpew, or sorely miss the subsim genre, you should absolutely buy FTL.
If you’re at all on the fence, though, I’d say wait. It has some rough edges and the endgame is a mistake. There will be a great game coming in a few months, or maybe in a year or two. I don’t know if it’ll be a DLC, a sequel, a fan mod, or a clone that gets it right, but someone will polish this rough gem into a classic.
Simulation Lost (Here Be Spoilers)
In talking about variance I touched on fairness. Roguelikes, as brutally difficult and unforgiving as they may be, feel fundamentally fair because of simulationism. The same hazards that are your bane as you learn can be turned into weapons against your enemies. This breaks down in FTL and leaves the game feeling seriously unfair.
A minor example of this (“minor” because the player is less likely to notice a flaw that works in their favor, not because I’m going to be terse) ship engines are upgraded and powered both to improve how likely a ship is to dodge incoming fire and how quickly they offer the option to flee combat. When you are in battle, your FTL is continuously charging; when full you can click to jump away instantly. Charging takes about 30-60s (which is often too late to avoid crippling damage).
Enemy ships will only occasionally try this (even though in-plot every enemy without overpowering superiority should flee at the first opportunity) and you’ll get a pop-up to warn you. Which is odd, because if their FTL works like yours, it should already be powered up when you’ve jumped into their system – or at worst it should be powering up all through combat just like yours. Because it would be frustrating to have enemies constantly jumping away with no warning, the devs added an explicit notification that the enemy crew is selecting that strategy. Fixing this inside the game system would mean a lot of rebalancing: maybe engines aren’t used for evasion and so are not powered up except to charge for FTL, or maybe there’s an entirely different system of FTL that’s less Battlestar and more Trek. This one doesn’t have an easy answer, but the game has rough spots because issues like this got a band-aid instead of a redesign.
The real problem, and the big spoiler, is that the last sector isn’t about exploring but hunting and fighting a boss ship that is far more powerful than any previous ship. It has huge shields, tons of weapons, strong crew defense, and you’ll have to defeat it three times.
Because of its unprecedentedly powerful equipment, the boss battle is gear check. You lose if you don’t have one of the couple weapons powerful enough to break down its super-shield. And because it has more weapons than anything before, you lose if you don’t either have the single piece of equipment that can fix hull damage (hull repair drone) or you get really lucky with the three disappearing, probably-not-close-enough repair ships or you lose. It’s that stark.
You can play your best but go an entire run without once seeing the items required for the boss. You had lots of fun strategies available for attacking previous ships, like using boarding parties and special weapons to target the enemy crew. In the boss battle, the devs decided that those strategies were simply wrong, and even if you succeed over the record-large crew and its unprecedented defenses, the game tells you “no” and, like being told the enemy wants to escape, you’re told an AI takes over for the crew. If you didn’t build your ship around a handful of strategies, you can’t win.
It’s deeply unsatisfying for every game to end with a simulation-breaking fight with an opponent that is roughly twice as strong in every single aspect than the best of any enemy you’ve seen before. I’ve seen a lot of complaints from people about the random number generator, and I think this is what’s at the core of that. Either you get lucky enough to get the equipment for the viable boss strategies or you lose. All the deep gameplay earlier is swept away.
The worst part is it’s probably easier to fix than the engines. Instead of one boss that’s overpowered in every way, create a dozen ships that are overpowered at one or two of the strategies, then require the player to face down three or four in succession. Then the endgame isn’t a lottery the player has happened to win, it’s a test of whether the player has built and commanded an all-around capable starship, with a bit of luck that you don’t get a bad matchup.
So this is why I think FTL is a fun but flawed game. I’ve enjoyed playing it and I’ll play some more, but it’s not the game that people will remember for delivering on the promise of this setup.
Added Sep 28: found another good response (dead link: archive.org version) that makes an important point about positive feedback loops in FTL’s power curve.