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By on January 30, 2013
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To: Justin, Matt,

cc: Tom

From: Nicholas

Subject: FTL on the iPad

Given the success of FTL on Steam and how well it is designed to be a marvellous free-to-play game on iPad, I have taken the liberty of sending you some design thoughts on making it happen.

What not to change


FTL is a successful game. We don’t want to break it when we add free-to-play elements. Here are some things that have to stay in place:

  • Randomness: If you can buy whatever you want, whenever you want, the core strategy and joy of FTL disappears. The game is about making-do, cobbling together strategies on the fly depending on the resources (weapons, upgrades, drones, augments, crew and so on) that you can gather. Randomness stays.
  • Jeopardy: Each battle in FTL is real. Your survival is at risk. Not only that, but damage to your hull stays with you, meaning that every battle is potentially the one that leads to your ultimate death. Like a predator gauging not only if it can beat its prey, but whether the prey can inflict a grievous wound even as it dies, I find myself concentrating on every single battle because they matter. That would go away if you could just repair your hull with cash. Jeopardy stays.
  • Replayability: FTL is structured to make you keep playing through eight star systems. When you die, you start again, but the randomness means no two journeys are ever the same. Replayability stays

What to change

  • Retention: FTL is great at keeping you engaged as you go through the star systems. While it has replayability, each time I return to the hangar it feels as if I am starting again. There is strength in the mechanics of unlocking ships and the achievements, but we need to look at a stronger meta-game that encourages players to feel that they are contributing to their overall success during every game
  • Durables: I propose giving the game away, so we need to start thinking of what we are going to sell to replace it. We need a $1 no-brainer purchase (which is likely to cost more than $1 for a premium game like this, perhaps $2-$5, depending on what it is)
  • Consumables: We need something that players can choose to spend on if they wish. I recommend that players can gave a great experience (and probably unlock everything in the game) for free, but we need to give them a choice.


My basic recommendation is not to touch the core of the game. It works and it’s brilliant. So we need to monetise the bits that don’t really exist yet: the metagame that keeps you playing for weeks and months. My ideas are not fully formed, so here are just some initial thoughts.

  • I propose adding a virtual currency to the game. It is collected alongside scrap as a premium currency.
  • The premium currency can be used in a variety of ways:
  • To upgrade the races. How this fits with the fiction is something to get Tom to help with. Perhaps it’s racial augmentation. Perhaps it’s implants. Perhaps it’s a theta ray beamed directly to the central cortex. I don’t know, but we can work out the fiction later. Here’s what it brings:
    • Each race is still interesting, but they can be improved over the long term, increasing the potential for players to make progress.
      • A Mantis would start being able to move at normal speed, but can be upgraded to 1.5x
      • An Engi would start with 25% increase in repairs that could be upgraded to 2x.
      • We can go through the races with these upgrades.
  • To upgrade the weapons:
    • A beam weapon could have the length of its beam extended by, perhaps, 100%
    • Missiles might be strengthened to be able to have a chance to avoid being shot down by drones
    • Lasers and bombs could recharge faster
    • To upgrade the ship. These should be valuable, and can affect the game over time. Suggestions include:
      • Adding extra hard points for weaponry. Consider reducing, say, the Kestrel to two or maybe three points for weapons. Over time, a player could earn the right to upgrade it to four or even six hardpoints.
      • To increase the amount of damage the hull can take. I propose only increasing it by 50%, or maybe 100%.
      • To permanently increase the amount of the energy a ship starts with
    • Each of these upgrades should have multiple levels that cost increasing amounts of resources to unlock. For example, you may be able to upgrade your hull by 10% for 100 coins, the next 10% for 1,000 coins and so on. The exact progression would need to be balanced to be fun, achievable but also providing a sense of challenge.
  • I recommend structuring the game such that the ship is lightly underpowered at the beginning, and the early upgrades make a significant difference to the experience. I also recommend that players be able to earn all the upgrades, but that it should take a very long time.
  • The durable upgrade (or upgrades) should be something which any committed player would think was massively valuable. A no-brainer purchase. Suggestions include:
    • A device that repairs one point of hull damage for every FTL jump.
    • A device that doubles the amount of premium currency earned per jump.


FTL is not only a marvellous game, it is a marvellous game that is well suited to free-to-play. A F2P FTL would widen your audience, bring the game to millions of new players and make significantly more revenue then you have to date by delighting your players. It would be wonderful if you could make it happen.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
  • Freemium idea is horrible.

  • I haven’t played FTL on PC so I can’t really comment on how much F2P would alter its core game loops. What I can say is that if you could download it for free on iOS it would already be on my iPad: I like sci-fi and this would reduce the friction.

  • To me, I am still keeping permadeath (which most F2P designers wouldn’t). Your crew still die each time (and each battle is a risk). There is some element of persistence (building on the existing element of persistence that Subset already put in with achievements and ship unlocks) that I believe strengthens the game.
    I freely admit that I am not a hardcore Rogue like fan. That;s why I recommend this strategy on the iPad (not a hardcore platform) rather than adapting the existing Steam game (which is a hardcore platform)

    I believe this change makes this game better on the new platform. Much better.

  • Aaron San Filippo

    That’s exactly the problem. You’re not seeing it from the point of view of a hardcore fan of roguelike games who appreciates what makes it appealing to that core audience – you’re looking at it as a casual fan and as a F2P monetization expert.

    From the game’s designers:
    “Permadeath is at the core of FTL: Knowing that your crew’s lives are in your hands and that each battle could mean the end of your trek fills the player with a sense of urgency and desperation that adds importance to every decision.”

  • To which I would say: that is its appeal to you. It is not its appeal to me.

  • Aaron San Filippo

    I do believe you’re missing the point. Yes, you did a good job of explaining what you could/couldn’t spend real money on.

    But I’m not sure you understand or appreciate what “the core of the game” actually is, based on this article.

    The game’s appeal is the mindset it puts you into as a player, by presenting you with a continual set of highly interesting choices. These choices are interesting precisely because of the delicate balance between your current stats vs. the challenge presented, and the way the game makes you roll the dice in your head. By injecting a “mechanic” wherein you could simply tip the odds in your favor by spending some real cash, even in a “limited” way, it would, by definition, affect the game’s core loop.

    It would be like suggesting that you could spend a bit of money in a poker game for an extra card. After all, it’s only bound to have a limited impact, right, and you’ll still need skill to win?

  • I don’t want to speak for the devs, but it seems like a lot of the impetus behind this game was about creating an atmosphere of exploration and the sensation of a cruel and arbitrary universe. Being able to buy upgrades seems to really undermine that premise. Knowing that you *could have* survived a particular encounter, if you had only purchased the right upgrades in advance seems totally deflating and somewhat sad: I think the wonder is lost. I don’t think an F2P game in this style would be a bad idea by any means but maybe your “what not to change” suggestions aren’t sufficient to preserve the integrity of FTL as a game?

  • There is obviously a lot of details to be hammered out, but I agree with Nicholas that the main problem in FTL is retention.
    I absolutely love the short and medium retention loops (pretty much fighting battles and upgrading the ship), but the long term loop of getting a high-score seems very uninteresting. After I unlocked the mantis ship, which fits my pay style perfectly, I also lost any incentive to play. In other words, I got the dream ship and then stopped playing..

    Instead it would be great to have a very large galaxy with some clusters (maybe in the centre) simply too difficult for new players. Then you’d have an incentive to play a meta-game and do long-term ship upgrades. Every time you’d launch the ship, it would be just a little bit stronger from new upgrades.

  • I agree with much of what’s already been said, but my major concern about a FTP implementation in FTL would be the destruction of meaningful experience.

    Ignoring for now the mechanical implications of introducing money as a way to make the experience ‘easier’ (and making the basic experience harder to compensate), do you not think that adding a ‘real’ currency would undermine the sense of desperation and randomness which underpins the emotional experience?

    When my crew dies in FTL, I feel bad because I failed them. I would feel less bad if I was just too cheap to let them live. It’s a game about life, death, and survival. Freemium fundamentally undermines any sense of fear.

  • It’s funny. I think I make a clear distinction between stuff you can improve with money (which has some but limited impact on your ship) and stuff which you still need to learn/master.

    I think it adds depth, not taking it away.

  • Agree. But that removes the jeopardy/emotional engagement which makes the game so compelling. It would drive monetisation but, I think, damage word of mouth and retention.

    There may be a more sensitive way of implementing that though.

  • I don’t think it is as unbalancing as you think. It only repairs one per jump. Jumps still cost fuel. You still need to search out repairs. If it’s too unbalancing, we could just increase the number of hull points (while increasing the damage at the same rate) so the repair increments are smaller.

    But more than that, these are just ideas. You need ideas to spark debate. It’s amazing how many people think this is the last word – it’s just the start

  • complicated way to monetize. the best simple way is to pay a dollar to revive your ship and keep your progress at the death screen. if you don’t want to do that, simply restart. time vs money. ta da

  • FraserMacInnes

    The way I look at it is, you can pick one of two headaches as a dev/pub of a F2P game. If you have single player game your headache is content. If your game has a significant PvP element thus reducing the need for lots of new content to keep people interested, then your headache is having really good, really thorough project management to ensure that the economy and the gameplay is balanced correctly against the behaviour of the players. Given that FTL is a single player game that can generate new content relatively easily, it’s probably possible to make F2P monetization work quite well, but would the game be better off for it?

  • mikebithell


  • I agree with mike that implementing a “auto repair device” would be against the previous rule “not to be able to repair your ship”. Of course you could let the device repair only 1 hull point (out of 100 e.g.), but then it would be not effective enough… So I would kill that thing only, and I’d agree with you! Sounds great and is a sensitive approach that takes care not to ruin the basic gameplay loop.

  • Not convinced that FTL would work as F2P.

    It’s so tightly controlled that IAP would likely make it unbalanced. The just-scraping-by tension is what makes it so interesting.

    Besides, FTL is unlikely to grab the attention of a casual, browsing consumer, regardless of price. Its screenshots don’t communicate its quality particularly well.

    As such, I’d keep the game intact and release it for £2/3. There’s a large – and growing – market out there for mid/core iOS titles at that kinda price.

    This isn’t a knee-jerk, anti-F2P reaction, btw. I’d just like to see the iPad version of FTL do well. It’s a great game.

  • Aaron San Filippo

    I’m having a hard time reconciling these two:
    “My basic recommendation is not to touch the core of the game.”

    “I propose adding a virtual currency to the game. It is collected alongside scrap as a premium currency.”

    Everything you describe this currency being used for messes with the core of the game. It’s already a frustrating game – in a good way. Adding the choice to spend real money in order to excel, would in my opinion absolutely destroy everything that makes this game the finely tuned specimin of game design that it is.

    No thank you. I will gladly pay $3.99 or more for this on iPad if it comes out, but introducing crappy monetization like this would destroy everything I love about it.

    This article demonstrates the “concerns about F2P” that I wrote about perfectly:

  • Maybe it has a small, dedicated enough hardcore fanbase full of people DEVOTED to scifi as their hobby that it’d support it just fine? Arguably, the more niche the game, the more likely the players are to spend more money… assuming it’s related to an obviously complimentary pastime.

  • mikebithell

    man.. you had me till ‘A device that repairs one point of hull damage for every FTL jump.’

    This contradicts your earlier jeopardy point.. but besides that, I think this is a really cool take. It’s a version of FTL on F2P that I would not be frustrated by.

    A big question though: does FTL have a big enough potential mainstream audience to justify a shift to F2P?