FTL is a new indie game that explores a novel concept: how do you fuck up an idea that simply cannot fail. It is one of the first games that was crowd-funded from the ground up via Kickstarter. The development studio (if you can call it that) behind this product was composed in its entirety out of two part time enthusiasts. One dude wrote the code, the other created the pixel art. There are thousands, if not millions of such coder/artist duets toiling away on their hobby projects all across the world, but you rarely hear about them. Matthew Davis and Justin Ma on the other hand became an overnight sensation.
What did they have that all these other people didn’t? An idea and a good prototype. When they uploaded initial gameplay mock-up videos to the Kickstarter page, the gamers across the planet said: “this is good, this needs to happen” and voted with their wallets. Their project got funded in record time, and our heroes were able to not only finish and publish it – they actually got their game distributed via Steam and other high profile outlets. And justifiably so because their idea was indeed exceptional.
They have done something very difficult – they have come up with a original idea for a game that did not fit into any existing genre or category. It was new and fresh, and yet deliciously retro. It promised to combine space trader sim and roguelike rpg mechanics. It was supposed to be little bit Frontier Elite, little bit Nethack and a little bit squad based RTS all made with Nintendo era sprite based graphics. And for the most part, they nailed it.
You have a ship which is a maze of rooms that can host various ship subsystems, which can be upgraded. You have a crew which can move between these rooms, repair the equipment, defend it if you get boarded and level up their skills over time. You have a huge galaxy to explore, shops, pirates, quests, etc. It sounds amazing – and it is amazing for the first few hours. And then you realize the game has a fatal flaw: it ends. And I’m not talking about permadeath here – I’m talking about the fact that it is impossible to make it last.
Here is the thing: I have been playing Nethack for years, and I have never ascended. In fact, I didn’t even realize you could actually beat the damn game until I set up a public server and someone did it like four times in a row in the space of a week. Before that I just kinda assumed it was just a never-ending random maze with progressively stronger monsters. And that’s the great part of that game – it was not about finishing it. Most casual Nethack players don’t usually get lower than the Dwarven mines on most games – and that’s actually perfectly ok. Nethack was always about dying in spectacularly memorable or ironic ways.
FTL is heavily influenced by roguelike game mechanics and philosophy but fails to implement the most important part: the bit where you randomly fuck around and explore not worrying about the end game. Matthew and Justin made a very odd choice to add urgency to a game that ought to be about lazy exploration and adventuring. I guess maybe they felt their game needed a direction – a plot of some sort. This was a terrible decision.
The plot was cribbed straight from A New Hope – your crew has obtained secret plans that can help you destroy the evil mega ship of doom that the bad dudes use to terrorize the local star systems. Your mission is to promptly get these plans to the good guy home base, while being pursued by the antagonists. In game play mechanics it looks like this: the galaxy is divided into sectors. Each sector contains about a dozen star systems you can explore. The longer you dawdle in a sector, the more of the map is denied to you by the opposing fleet. Eventually you have no place to go and you have to jump to the next system or fight unfair battles with better equipped ships that drop almost no loot.
In normal random encounter fights with pirates you can usually expect to at least partially recoup your losses using the rewards you get for defeating the opposing ships. The scrapes with the bad-guy fleet however are heavily weighed against you. You have a huge incentive to keep moving forwards and avoid the enemy controlled zones. The effect is that the game is a mad rush to the finish. On most playthroughs you can probably expect to see the final boss within the next hour or so. Then you either win or you die, and you have to start over. Just as the game starts getting good, your ship starts becoming powerful and you start getting interesting weapons, it abruptly ends.
Part to me wanders if this hard time limit was put in by the young game makers in order to mask lack of content? FTL is surprisingly complex but at the same time very simple and reductionist. The combat mechanics and upgrade paths are realized very well – they completely nailed this aspect of the game. It is well thought out, well designed, well executed and polished to high sheen. It works. But the exploration aspect of the game leaves a lot to be desired. The way you progress in the game is by jumping into a system, and experiencing a random encounter. The game basically just rolls the dice, and picks a random result – which 80% of time means a ship-to-ship combat section. The remaining encounters are usually just text descriptions of what is going on sometimes accompanied by a shallow dialog tree. The dialog options usually involve taking some risk (damage to the ship, potential combat encounter, losing a crew member on a mission) in exchange for some reward, or avoiding risks in exchange for nothing. The results are randomly generated and applied immediately. This works well, but in my playthroughs I noticed there are only about a dozen unique encounters, each with 2-3 permutations.
The more you play the game, the more repetitive it gets. The random encounters that seem fun and quirky become routine. After six or seven games you won’t even be reading them anymore. Which is why I imagine they have added the time restriction to the game. Without it, the game would just get boring after a while. As it is, it is an exercise in resource management – how bad-ass can you make your ship in the short alloted time you get before you have to face the final boss. Or how many achievements can you unlock before the game severely punishes you fro not getting with the program. It does add a new dimension to the game play, but at the same time it leaves you slightly disappointed that you can’t fully explore the galaxy or level up all the areas of the ship.
The game could have been so much better. Like Nethack it could have been about fucking around, exploring and dying random deaths. In fact, I think this is what most Kickstarter backers were expecting to get. What ended up being released was a much different game. One which attempts to mask content deficiency by introducing a limiting factor.
Is it worth the $9 on Steam? Yes it is. It is a fun little distraction – perfectly suited for casual play on your lunch break or in-between projects. The combat and crew management is very enjoyable. But as a whole, the game seems unfinished. It seems like a demo version of a much bigger, more complex game. The potential for greatness is there – all that would be needed to turn this game in something truly exceptional, paradigm breaking legend akin to Nethack or Dwarf Fortress is a few more iterations and minor tweaks to game play. Here are the things that could have been in the game but are not: exploring planets for resources, mining, interplanetary trade, ability to buy/sell ships, space banks, etc…
The 60-90 minute game time is a valid design choice… For a phone game. On the PC it feels limiting. It cuts you off at the exact moment you start having a lot of fun. It was a wrong choice. I really hope the team will learn a lesson from this project, and expand on the themes and ideas of this game in the inevitable FTL2 which I’m hoping they will announce sometime soon.