FTL and the player experience

Sun, 04/25/2021 - 13:31

You ever have that sort of relationship where you shower someone with respect, love and affection, and they never give anything back? Like, they promise that they’ll love you and treasure you, but you always end up hurt in the end? FTL and I, we have that sort of relationship.

Well, it’s payback time.

Time for revenge for all of those times when you left me devastated, considering my own mental capacities, hopes and dreams. For all those times when I uninstalled you, and told myself “Never again!”, only to succumb to temptation a few days later.

I’m here to say it. FTL is not a perfect game! *raises fist defiantly*


About FTL

Released in 2012, FTL, or Faster than Light, is a revolutionary video game that helped spearhead the resurgence of the roguelike genre over this past decade. In FTL, your simple goal is to travel across the galaxy and deliver a Macguffin before the evil rebels take you down and destroy your ship. To do so, you take control of a spaceship, recruiting new crew members, upgrading the ship with various new weapons, defense systems and the like, while engaging in tactical isometric battles with other spaceships in quasi-turn-based combat encounters. There’s everything from lasers, rockets, melee combat, shields, robots…..

With each FTL playthrough lasting approximately 90 to 120 minutes, it’s a fairly short game that you can repeat over and over again. The important thing to note here is that the game always throws randomized encounters at you, making each playthrough (or run) feel unique, and making the entire game feel fairly unpredictable and exciting.

It is this unpredictability and forced adjustment on the player’s side that I feel is the crucial element of FTL gameplay. No run will feel the same, and no matter what you do, you will have to adapt to the circumstances. To take advantage of what you were given and use it to win, and the game does this by being randomized on so many levels. Crew members, weapons, shields, ancillary ship systems, enemy sectors, individual encounters… Nothing is set in stone in advance.

If it worked for Blackbeard, it works for me.

For instance, I love boarding, wherein you teleport your own crew to the enemy ship for a short while and kill off the enemy crew in melee combat. However, for boarding to work, you first have to get the boarding system. Can’t board without it. Next up, you generally want to have crew members of races that are good at combat. Mantis and rockmen are good choices, the Engi and Zoltan are bad choices. Furthermore, if I come across a Zoltan sector crawling with Zoltan ships, I can’t teleport my guys over before disabling the powerful Zoltan shields using conventional weaponry. Or if I come across a Mantis ship, those guys will cut through my fighters with ease.

If I fail at any of these parameters, I suddenly don’t have an ideal situation. And spoiler alert, you rarely do. So this means you have to adapt. Board with human combatants and pray for the best. Find a weapon to disable Zoltan shields. Destroy the Mantis ships from afar.

In FLT, you are never at ease. You can never sit back and watch your amazing strategy do its thing. This is not World of Warcraft where you will go grind out enemies for XP and have your brain on autopilot. No, the game keeps you constantly engaged by throwing you curveball after curveball. And this is great.

The issue

However, and now we get to the juicy part, there is one chink in FTL’s armour. One part of game design that goes against this aura of unpredictability and adjustment -  the final boss fight against the rebel starship.

This final fight is an anomaly in that it plays out in an identical fashion every time. Same three phases in the exact same order, same abilities used during the individual phases every time. The good part of this design is that the final fight tests your resilience against each type of attack, and more importantly, tests your knowledge of the game systems and their interactions. In a way, it is the game making a firm statement - you can’t win unless you’ve understood and mastered every single aspect of the game. Like an exam - it’s checking to see if you’ve been paying attention throughout the school year.

However, with this approach, the game goes against everything it set up previously regarding continuous adjustment, discovery and improvisation. Unlike anything else in the game, the flagship is a static encounter, knowable and predictable ahead of time. 

Fortunately, fixing this issue is fairly easy.

Fixing the issue

Instead of giving the flagship three predetermined phases that play out in the exact same order each time, we will instead design five general “phases”. One with boarding, one with rockets etc. Once the fight starts, one phase will be selected at random to act as the first phase of the fight. Once this first phase is resolved, a second phase is selected at random from the remaining four phases. Repeat the same process for phase three.

Throughout all phases, the flagship will always be equipped with basic shields to defend it from the player’s attacks, and with basic lasers to deal damage. These two core abilities ensure a consistent and continuous threat to the player’s ship regardless of the phase’s abilities.

Our five phases will be:

  1. Boarding - the flagship gains the boarding system, allowing flagship crew members to teleport to the player’s ship and attempt to wreak havoc, returning back to the flagship when at low hit points to heal up.
  2. Drones - the flagship gains the drone system, deploying a randomized combination of boarding drones, combat drones and defense drones
  3. Cutter - the flagship gains the ion and beam systems, firing a randomized combination of beams and ion weapons at the player’s ship
  4. Hacking - the flagship gains the drone system, deploying two hacking drones, targeting randomized systems of the player’s ship
  5. Artillery - the flagship gains the rockets system with a single randomized rocket type

Note that each of these phases is also internally randomized to a certain extent, thus preventing the player from knowing exactly what he is up against. For instance, even if you see that the flagship is in the artillery phase, you still don’t know what type of rockets it will fling at you. Or in the hacking phase, you don’t know which of your systems will come under attack.

Of course, you are bound to have situations wherein you target the player’s weakest or strongest sides simply due to randomization. However, this is something that already happens in the game, and I believe it is a core part of the game’s lasting appeal. Skill and mastery are never certain to let you win, they merely improve your chances.

However, what this approach ensures is that unpredictability and adjustment. Maybe your preferred tactic, like mine, is boarding. However, if the enemy is boarding you while you are boarding them, they will annihilate the remainder of your crew. Or what if the flagship spawns with the artillery layout in phase 1 and ruins your boarding system entirely? Or any of the hundreds of other variations of unpredictable and unknowable complications are thrown your way?

Unpredictability and adjustment. Yum. That is the experience that we have playing FTL, and the reason why we keep returning to it.

And it is the player experience that I believe is the ultimate goal of any game. All of the mechanics, lore, character building and development, systems and subsystems, they all exist with the sole purpose of providing a certain experience to the player. As game designers, whether designing a single RPG adventure for our friends to play, or a video game that millions will play, I believe we should always look to the player experience as our target goal.

What do we want the player to feel? How do we want the player to act?

Once we have that target experience in mind, then we start designing the mechanics, lore and the rest. All of these game elements are not independent objects that are built for the sake of existing. They are merely tools in ensuring the targeted player experience.


FTL is an absolutely glorious game that I love deeply, even though it doesn’t love me back. Its gameplay is centered on unpredictability and continuous adjustment, allowing for infinite incremental increases in player mastery.

Its only flaw being the final fight against the rebel starship showcases just how important the vision of player experience is in a game, and how ignoring this player experience can be detrimental and stand out like a sore thumb in a game that is designed with utmost care and expertise. Fortunately, this issue in FTL is minor and in reality, very simple to fix.

This article, and its focus on player experience will be used as a segway of sorts for the upcoming series of articles focused on the player experience. We will analyze the design of the player experience, but not through mechanical elements, but instead through the narrative. In other words, I believe that the upcoming series of articles will be useful to not only GMs of all RPG systems, but also to RPG players and storytellers in general. Till next time!