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Five Things Other Games Can Learn from FTL: Faster Than Light

I have a special appreciation for FTL: Faster Than Light- it’s one of the games I played plenty of during an Internet outage which left me with far too much free time- I explored galaxies and discovered civilizations, fought epic space battles and saved worlds. For those who don’t know, FTL: Faster Than Light is an incredibly entertaining roguelike set in space that gives you control of a ship and some crew members. Your mission is to deliver incredibly important information across the stars. You can jump instantly through space at certain points- beacons that allow for faster-than-light travel. The trouble is, there are all kinds of things at these beacons- space pirates, members of militant factions, giant cosmic eyes, psychic interstellar slugs- you get the idea. Death can come to all in an instant, and you may encounter the same situation several times, and yet get a different outcome with each new meeting.

It’s an incredibly addictive game with tons of replayability- here are five things that other games can learn from it.

With Great Risk Comes Great Reward- And Punishment

Something that tends to upset me about RPGs is that there’s very little risk. While it takes me a long time to beat most Final Fantasy games simply because I tend to drag my feet, I never really feel like there’s a challenge. Sure, it takes some skill to figure out which abilities to use, it takes some time to explore caves and discover their secrets, but once I understand the game, I’m practically walking through it for the sake of the story. Gameplay, ultimately, feels irrelevant.
This is part of a much broader problem, but something that’s particularly upsetting is that in the absence of risk and challenge is an odd boredom with the gameplay itself- I enjoy trekking through caves to find conveniently “hidden” items and money, but what am I risking by going into the cave? I know that I’ll run into monsters at random intervals, and beating them will only make me stronger and richer. I’ve got nothing to lose by going into that cave. I know that if I find a very powerful item, there’s a very powerful monster up ahead.

FTL is the opposite. In case you don’t know, a roguelike RPG is one in which you’ll run into wonderful random things- not the “random” monsters of Final Fantasy- the random, confusing and occasionally shockingly powerful things that mark it a roguelike. It’s possible to die shortly after starting a roguelike- it’s possible to play a roguelike through to the end.

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FTL gives players a lot of real risks- are you going to go through this pirate-infested territory, or the mysterious nebula in which your sensors don’t work? Is it a good idea to visit a planet on which a single man resides- and should you take him on board your ship or leave him be? Pirates are pursuing a ship full of people- they offer a bribe to look the other way- you could take it or you could reject it and fight the pirates. After the fight, if you survive, will the pirate’s victims have lived? Will they run away from you or reward you or attempt to fight you? There’s a random chance that any event could go very right or very wrong, and FTL forces players to make decisions such as these that have a very real bearing on how soon the game ends.

It’s easy to take a look at a map in FTL and find the nearest “Exit” beacon- you could do your best to minimize on exploration in order to avoid being caught by the ever-advancing fleet of enemy ships- but is this really in your best interests? Less exploration means less opportunities to die, but it also means less opportunities to discover awesome things- how much you explore is your own decision.

How can other games employ this? In all honesty, the majority of games shouldn’t attempt to make themselves as punishing as FTL- death in FTL will send you back to the beginning of the game. That being said, other games shouldn’t be afraid of packing a punishment with their “risks”- why not surprise me with a boss battle in Final Fantasy, just because I chose to explore a cave? It might make me more nervous about exploring in the future, but it will ultimately give the game another layer of complexity without making it convoluted.

Moral Choice Shouldn’t Always Be Clear

Something I appreciate about FTL: Faster Than Light is that moral decisions you make- as to whether or not to leave a madman to rave alone as the sole inhabitant of a planet, or whether or not you’ll save pirates from their own stupidity- it’s not always clear what you should do. You have to size up the situation as best you can, but it’s not always obvious what the repercussions will be when you try to do the right thing. This isn’t to say that FTL is anti-moral- doing good things is often rewarded. That being said, responding to a distress beacon may land you in a dastardly trap- will you answer the call?

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One of my favorite ships to encounter in the game is the good old slave ship; it’s full of captives, and the slavers on board will often offer up a slave for sale. You could accept the offer, or you could ignore the slavers. There’s another option, however- you could fight them. If you can manage to score enough damage on their ship, they’ll often offer a slave for free- will you accept the “free” slave and let their ship sail the stars? You could do that- after all, if you keep attacking the slave ship, it’ll wind up destroyed and everybody on board- slaves included- will die. But if you accept the slave, the ship and the slavers survive.

How can other games learn from this? Going beyond the obvious of refraining from black and white morality (the constant parade of perfect heroes and cartoonishly evil villains sickens me), why not make it unclear as to what a moral choice will ultimately do? There’s nothing wrong with an obviously good or bad choice in a game, but the long-term effects of it should have a bearing on the rest of the game.

In the original Bioshock for instance, players were left with a moral choice. It was obvious as to what was “right” and “wrong”, but there was no risk for picking what was right- there was only reduced reward. By choosing what was right, players were never put into any real danger, so while Bioshock’s morality system was clearly a step in the right direction, it could’ve stood to have gone further. By taking an approach tailored by FTL, perhaps it could’ve incorporated the element of random chance- there’s no telling what doing the right or wrong thing will do.

Other games can also benefit from having more than two options for a moral choice. This may sound incredibly obvious, but it’s something that’s often missed in most games. FTL often offers a third option- the choice to do nothing. Boring as it sounds, choosing to do nothing is in itself a choice- is it good or evil? That’s for players to decide. Is it necessary to stand by and let the pirates get away because your ship is on fire and you’re all out of missiles? Is it right to pursue justice to what will prove to be the undoing of your entire crew and ship? That should be left for players to decide.

Don’t Be Obvious Except for When You Mean to Be

I’m going back to my favorite dead horse to beat and talking about the chests in Final Fantasy again. They make it obvious when trouble’s about to be encountered by putting useful items right in front of you. There’s no real quest or risk to get them- just show up. I can predict what’s going to happen next- some nine-headed-no-hearted cosmic entity is going to show up, I’m going to fight it with the sword I found in a chest, cutscene, and I’m on to the next quest.

FTL, meanwhile, isn’t always obvious as to what’s going to happen- sometimes it’ll attempt to tempt you into doing something stupid, though there will occasionally be some sort of warning. Most of the time, though, I don’t have a clue as to what’s waiting for me at the next beacon. It could be small Mantis ship with tiny lasers, or it could be a Federation vessel with three layers of shields- FTL doesn’t let on as to what’s about to happen, and I love it for that.

It’s pretty clear how other games can stand to be less obvious about their intentions- they can surprise players more often. It might not seem like a big deal initially, but it’ll make games a lot more memorable. I can’t remember a single Final Fantasy boss, but I can tell you about a great time I had in FTL fighting pirates, facing a cosmic horror and stopping riots on a planet full of sick people because the game surprised me.

Frustration Can Be Wonderful

I’ve been frustrated by many games- nothing makes me angrier than lame stories and shoddy design. FTL taught me that being frustrated by a game isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dying over and over again made me want to try again- watching a ship that I sunk much effort into was frustrating, but not crushing. This is a quality that’s kind of hard to pin down- how frustrating is too frustrating? FTL can be unfair at times, and dying after a few seconds is in itself a special cause for rage, but if it weren’t for the frustration of dying with the knowledge that I can do better, I might not play FTL quite as enthusiastically.

How can more games frustrate me in a good way? I honestly haven’t a clue as to how to work that out. It’s not something that I think every game should try and implement- imagine if the tender story of To the Moon was interrupted by random instances of permanent death- I probably wouldn’t have wanted to see the game through to completion. That being said, maybe games should be less afraid to challenge players unexpectedly- not cheaply and artificially, of course, but creatively. An example of cheap challenge would be when a game decides to toss a ridiculous amount of enemies at you in a short amount of time- enemies that you’re not at all prepared for. Sure, it’s a cool trick the first time, but sudden unfair jumps in the level of skill needed to beat a game is a great way to make me hate it- it’s cheap.

Too Much Punishment is Bad

Something I’ve noticed about FTL is that while it’s unfair, it’s not completely and utterly unfair. Dying suddenly because you made a stupid decision or on a random chance can be frustrating in the good way I spoke of earlier, but FTL seems to realize that there’s a limit to how much players will tolerate before they decide that a game is unfair to the point of unfun. Even if the difficulty isn’t “cheap”, where does the game stop being a game and start becoming work? The developers of FTL did a fantastic job at determining where that line sits, and they decided to skip rope with it.

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In all seriousness, though, this is something that developers should think seriously about- while it’s important for a game to have some sort of a challenge in order to make it a game, how much is too much? That’s much to be determined by the type of game being developed. For example, I’ve played quite a bit of Super Meat Boy- it’s a fun platformer that prides itself on being incredibly difficult. I still haven’t beaten that game, and will probably die shortly before I have the chance to, but it’s a game that would be nothing without being hard. There’s not much of a story to be told (girlfriend kidnapped by evil fetus, must pass death traps to save her), but it’s appropriate considering the nature of the game. If Super Meat Boy were an emotional odyssey thick in dialogue and heavy in feelings, dying every five seconds would completely break the game’s narrative- there would be a nasty case of “ludonarrative dissonance”. That’s a discussion for another day, but the short of the matter is that game developers should pick their battles when they lay out wars- they must decide how much of a backlash is too much before a game becomes work.

Conveniently enough, FTL: Faster than Light is featured in the latest Humble Indie Bundle and is absolutely worth buying- you can grab it from this convenient link.

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2 Comments

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  1. Ralp says
    September 21, 2013, 12:56 AM

    I’m a “hobbyist” game developer and am really impressed with your text. What you’ve discussed here is probably the hardest challenge every game dev faces: difficulty curve. Since im still an amateur, the hardest thing I did so far was a ladder shooter, with infinite waves of more and more creatures chasing you like kamikazes (believe or not, I won a local contest with this). But I’ve noticed how hard it is to balance gameplay mechanics, rules, replayability and fun without allowing the player to frustrate and ragequit. And FTL is one of the few games which do it almost perfectly.

    Back to the topic, I had a backfoot on this at first, as im sick of those overly complex spaceship games with countless gears and systems to get lost into, but other than that its all about fight other ships and complete quests. FTL has proven you dont need to become a space equipment specialist to enjoy a startrek-like experience, except it ACTUALLY provides a startrek-like experience. (well, you still cant save planets from becoming black holes, but thats another story! :) )

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  2. October 4, 2013, 12:29 PM

    […] game could be like a mix of Gravity and FTL, but with state-of-the-art graphics that that truly capture the size and majesty of outer space. […]

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