FTL: Advanced Edition and the difficulty problem

On April 3, Subset Games released FTL: Advanced Edition, a free update for the popular 2012 space roguelike.

The update includes more ship layouts, a new race and cruiser, new combat mechanics and added encounter types.

The new content is refreshing and it’s the type of update that many developers would charge for.

As players launch back into FTL, they’ll quickly recall how frustrating the game can be. The smallest mistake can force the player back to the hangar, and even worse, so can simple bad luck.

It’s the same type of “frustrating gameplay (and not violent content) that an Oxford study recently linked to “feelings of aggression” after playing video games.

To make matters worse, another addition to FTL: Advanced Edition is a “hard” difficulty setting. Anyone who has played FTL knows the game’s difficulty settings are misleading; the normal difficulty is more challenging than many other games’ hardest setting.

If you’re a masochist, you’ll love the update. Many gamers, myself included, enjoy a challenge.

Yet too many gamers equate difficulty with quality. Just because games like FTL and Dark Souls are hard does not make them good games but that’s often the first thing brought up about the games.

For example, it’s good that FTL requires micromanagement, careful decision-making and strategic planning. It’s bad that playthroughs can be shafted by bad luck when the final boss hacks your weapons or your ion bombs miss three times in a row.

It’s good that Dark Souls doesn’t hold your hand through boss fights and rewards studying your enemies. It’s bad that half of the battle is against a bad camera, interface and buggy attack and dodge mechanics.

Even the identifier “roguelike” has become a buzzword developers use to appeal to certain gamers as if

FTL and Dark Souls are both great games, but what makes them great isn’t solely their difficulty. It’s their backstory, environments, mechanics, customization options, graphics, music… you get the point.

Difficulty is just one part of what makes a game great. The solution to fixing a bad game isn’t to just make it harder — that logic would put perma-death or no checkpoints in Pokémon or LEGO games.

The challenges in a game should all have recognizable strategies to deal with them. In FTL, hacking can usually be thwarted by a defense drone, and Dark Souls‘ ambushes can be avoided with careful scouting.

Some games should be difficult while others should be more forgiving. Difficulty just isn’t a universal measure for game quality, and it needs to stop being used as such by so many.

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