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Five reasons why FTL is a perfect free-to-play game

By on January 30, 2013

I’m playing FTL and loving it. It is a strategy game where you play the role of an omniscient spaceship captain. As you flee across the galaxy, you jump from planet to planet, fighting pirates, aiding civilians and gathering equipment to help  you survive for longer. Resources are scarce, the equipment you are able to cobble together for your ship is random and the game is hugely replayable.

It’s a perfect free-to-play game.

1. It’s fun

The first rule of free-to-play game design is “is it fun”. For many users, FTL is fun in spades. I have a book deadline and a busy life, but I’ve already logged 19 hours on the game.

2. It has short play loops

Successful free-to-play games have bite-size chunks of engagement. You don’t worry about whether you have a couple of hours to spare to get really engaged (as you might with Skyrim); instead, you think “Oh, I;ve got time for just one go.” The size of the bite varies with the platform. A mobile game needs to be a meaningful experience in the length of time it takes for a barista to make a machiato. For a Steam game, where you need to turn on your PC, wait for Steam to initiate and then load the game, it is longer, maybe 10 or 15 minutes. FTL delivers this brilliantly, because each FTL jump drops you into a new star system where you may have to make a narrative choice or defend yourself against a pirate. If you don’t meet a pirate (and don’t choose to read Tom Jubert’s entertaining writing), each jump might last 15 seconds. If you do meet a pirate, it probably takes 5-10 minutes. I can easily defend committing “just a few minutes” to FTL whenever I want to.


3. I stay for an hour

I may say I’m just committing a few minutes to FTL, but if you have played the game, you know that I am a great big fibber. Once I’m in the game, it grabs me. I’m defeat a pirate but I’m damaged. I need to patch up the ship. Then I need to decide on what upgrades to build with the scrap from the destroyed pirate. Then I need to look at the star map to plot the route to the next sector. Then the gigantic JUMP button lights up, encouraging me to press, just to see what is awaiting me in the next system. And so the loop starts again. For hours on end.

4. Be simple to play, hard to master

In my design rules, I recommend that free-to-play games should add complexity in layers. FTL is a little difficult to get into compared to many F2P games, but boy does it layer on the complexity. I am only just beginning to understand the depth of tactics and flexibility which the game offers. I am just learning how to use lasers and missiles to weaken the shields of an enemy so the beam weapons are devastating. I haven’t got to grips with how to use fire as an offensive weapon. I’m still rubbish at sending boarding parties although I love the idea. I still don’t allocate crew efficiently or route power well. I still don’t know what the best defence against a boarding party of insect-like Mantises is. Yet a new player could up one of my games and, with a tiny bit of coaching, have a great experience with vastly less knowledge of the underlying systems than I have gleaned over my 19 hours. I am confident that there is much more there for me to learn.

5. It never ends

I’d like to say that FTL never ends, but I don’t entirely know. I still haven’t defeated the Federation flagship. But as far as I can tell, the expectation is that you play again, and again, and again. You play to unlock all the different ships (I’ve got four). You play to learn new tactics. You play to get the achievements. You play because it is too darned fun not too. A free-to-play game needs to drive retention to be successful, and FTL already does this extremely well.

FTL is a perfect F2P game

FTL has the fun and replayability of an free-to-play game already baked in. Yet it puts a barrier to entry in the way of acquiring new customers by not being free and it puts a barrier in the way of getting a community of passionate fans from funding more and new content by having a fixed, upfront price. FTL would be a perfect F2P game, and it could be done without ruining the game. Read my next post to find out how.

My next post is now up. Read FTL FTP on iOS.

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: