I haven’t been putting in the time necessary for May’s #1gam, but I have been playing a few games which means I’m writing another Playing article. This one is about FTL (Faster Than Light) and in a minor way about Risk of Rain but more generally rougelikes and procedural death games.
FTL is a game in space where you manage a ship and its crew and attempt to get across eight sectors while being chased by a rebel fleet. You fight other ships, upgrade and repair your ship with limited resources, and manage your crew in semi-real-time battles (you can pause as often and whenever you like). Each system in each sector has a random(ish) event that occurs sometimes requiring a decision on how to proceed, but generally ship battles are the order of the day. If (and when) you die, you collect a high score, maybe unlock a thing or two like a new ship or ship variant and go back to the beginning of the game. Risk of Rain is a more action-y platformer with lots of random equipment to collect, but a similar play, die, collect high score, unlock stuff, start over pattern.
Why am I playing FTL (again)?
The influence of one of my friends is the reason I have been playing FTL again. He was playing it next to me while I worked on May’s game (what little I’ve done so far) a couple weekends ago. I had played and enjoyed FTL when it first released but I got tired of the randomness killing me. Or at least that was what I blamed for my deaths and lack of success at the time. In playing the game again, I’ve learned that the randomness is only partially to blame and that it is certainly not the main reason for my difficulties.
After a slow re-install due to connections issues I was back in the game. As I jumped from system to system hitting the random events, I was asking (or pestering) my friend about the choices he would make in the various situations I found myself in. Before I continue; he has completed the game a number of times while I have yet to survive to the last sector. I was hoping for some insight or to have my mistakes pointed out to me so I could figure out where I went wrong.
Oh, it was me all along!
It turns out that he did not really have a different strategy for dealing with the events that I came across. In one way this seemed un-helpful to my struggle but it was also assuring because it meant it was me that was the problem and not the randomness I encountered. What I did find out was that he had some general goals for the end of certain sectors, like having a certain shielding level, crew count, a way to deal with shields, etc. This seemed notionally helpful to me and so I stopped asking about each situation and just played the game.
After one particularly successful run that ended in ruin and disappointment in sector 6, I immediately regretted engaging with the optional enemy ship that destroyed me. Why did I start that fight?! I realized I was not properly adjusting my risk assessment as I was playing. That ship and the crew and events I had come across were valuable to me and not worth the risk at that point in the game. In general, I was taking on fights with too few hull points or with a ship I wasn’t prepared to lose as if I was still in sector 1. I also was not paying enough attention to the clues about the enemy ship strength that the game was providing and generally wasn’t adapting my choices enough as I was playing through the various sectors.
Then I read this article on Gamasutra about Rouge-likes and PDL games which discusses the successes and unique aspects of these types of games. I won’t say genre because I agree with the statements in the article about the game format being outside a particular genre and as more of a game design architecture. Suffice to say that one line in the article fit right in with my self analysis regarding risk assessment and that made me happy to read. I’ve since thought about these types of games a bit and had a few thoughts to share.
I was playing the game from moment to moment instead of taking a step back and analyzing what I should be doing according to my goals and experience. Speaking of goals, having a plan heading into the game is important but it shouldn’t be set in stone. A flexible plan allows you to take advantage of the rare lucky event and handle the consequences of an unlucky one. Each play through is a chance to test your knowledge about the systems of the game with a bit of randomness to keep things interesting. Ultimately the meta-strategy and the random sequence of events that create a memorable story to share with friends are the things that would maintain my long-term interest.