I had a problem when I first grabbed FTL. I couldn’t stop playing. I didn’t get my chores done, I had a hard time concentrating on work. Leave the house? After this next game. Maybe the one after that. Then something happened. I beat Sector 8. Every time I managed to best the flagship, I felt a little less inclined to play again. Then I stopped playing almost entirely. What happened?
I’ve identified five distinct phases to playing FTL. Each one provides a different context for failure, and progressing past each one represents a different feeling of winning. Four of these phases are some of the most fun I’ve had playing a game in a while. The final phase stumbles pretty hard.
Sectors one and two can often be defeated without purchasing a single upgrade or piece of equipment. When you first play the game, the purpose of the first two sectors is to give you a relatively safe space to learn about the game’s basic systems or an unfamiliar ship. Failing in the first two Sectors is always a process of basic learning. The challenges are diverse, but not intense. The first time you achieve a solid success in this phase feels like taking the training wheels off and really starting to play.
The second phase, spanning sectors three to five, applies enough pressure to force you to adopt some kind of strategy, and introduces more difficult challenges. Teleporters and ion weapons become more common. Extra shielding and more hull points make battles last longer. Enemies appear sporting multiple drones. Aimlessly augmenting your ship is no longer sufficient. To complete this phase, you really need to have some solid idea of how equipment works together, and how to be prepared for each type of challenge. Making the jump to Sector 6 in good shape, you feel like you know what you’re doing. You have a plan.
Sectors 6-7 test your build with increased pressure. You’re too invested in particular priorities at this point to really adapt, so equipment you find that doesn’t follow suit is usually sold to purchase things that do follow suit. You have a skilled crew, and protecting them is more important than ever now that they have fully mastered their roles and having that edge is important as enemy ships become more powerful. If your ships perishes here, you probably chose a risky or ineffective strategy. Losing is a possibility regardless of how good you are at the game. 3-4 shield points is serious business and a weak build will fail.
In Sector 8, things change. I personally wasn’t expecting a boss encounter. The rebel flagship performed the role admirably. Destroying it felt pretty damn good. It’s a big, intimidating foe and you really need to have a top notch ship and crew to take it down. There’s one other big change here. Sector 8 has an explicit binary win state, and ends the game on victory. A strong association has already been created between failure and having to start over, though. Your reward for playing well has always been to continue forward. Having that taken away, it almost feels like being punished even when you win. After defeating the flagship, we enter the final phase of the game.
In the first four phases, losses felt good because you could lose “better” and you made progress. You are now aware of the final binary win condition. The final challenge begins to set the tone for the entire game. Destroying the flagship becomes an expectation, a new way of rating your performance. Dying before Sector 8 is no longer just a graded failure, it’s also implicitly a binary failure to destroy the flagship. Over a few more attempts, the game ceases to be about exploration and becomes a race to gear up for the final battle. Every decision is guided by knowledge of the flagship’s capabilities.
The first time through, your own developing skills as a captain make the final encounter and ending feel right. You started off incapable of dealing with a couple of pirates or an asteroid belt. You learned how to confront each of the game’s challenges in turn, and how to plan a build strategy for your ship. You learned about the different races, and how to appraise equipment. Then you confronted a giant battleship which throws almost every trick in the book at you. The game ends.
Subsequent encounters with the flagship don’t carry the same meaning. It’s a known quantity. Defeat it a few times and you will know without any doubt on arrival in Sector 8 whether or not you will emerge victorious. It doesn’t feel like the end of the story any more. It feels like the middle, where you face a difficult challenge that you know you are equal to, and then the game ends before it hits you with something that truly tests your mastery. Worse still, knowing the exact details of this encounter makes it very easy to prepare for it over the course of Sectors 1-7, so it become easier and easier as you naturally plan against the only fixed and guaranteed encounter in the game.
If you complete the game a few times, you’ll notice that the final score you are assigned varies wildly, based primarily on luck. It doesn’t really serve its purpose anymore, because it doesn’t rate your performance in a way that relates to the victory condition. It measures survival above all else. This makes sense when you are failing repeatedly, but not when the game ends for a reason other than not surviving.
When you are learning how to play FTL, it bills itself as a game of exploration and dealing with an increasingly hostile universe. A great sandbox in which to tell your own stories of triumph and failure. Once you reach the summit, though, you find out that it’s just a linear story about defeating a big ship. I would play the sandbox game forever. The flagship story just doesn’t have the same replay value. If you are lucky enough to never really get the hang of it, you will get optimal enjoyment out of FTL. Winning takes the fun out of it.
Is this consistent with your own experience with the game? Do you have any idea what could be changed to fix the problem? I’m still puzzling through that one myself.