Offworld Trading Company interview with Soren Johnson

Offworld Trading Company Logo

Offworld Trading Company is an upcoming RTS where, to quote developer Mohawk Games, “money, not firepower, is the player’s weapon”. Its stated inspirations include board games, Railroad Tycoon, and conventional real-time strategy.

Below, I am very pleased to present an email interview with Soren Johnson, the lead designer of OTC. Soren has previously been co-lead designer of Civilization III, lead designer of Civilization IV, a senior designer and programmer of Spore, and lead designer of Dragon Age: Legends.

 

Peter Sahui: Hello, Soren – welcome to the site!

Offworld Trading Company is one of the most unique strategy games I’ve encountered. Even after finishing the tutorial and playing several rounds against the AI, it still feels unfamiliar.

Does that affect your work as a designer? Has OTC’s novelty posed any particular challenges?

Soren Johnson: We are purposely making a game unlike any other. As a small studio, our games will never be able to compete with established strategy franchises from big publishers, so we have to be different to stand out. Offworld is an RTS game that uses tycoon game mechanics, instead of combat mechanics, to create conflict between players. The only well-known video games somewhat similar are M.U.L.E. or Railroad Tycoon, which are both quite old and also not really competitive RTS’s. What makes Offworld unique will hopefully get the game attention, but we are aware that it could also put off people who are unsure what they would be buying. Thus, as a designer, I am trying to ground Offworld as much in the conventions of RTS games as possible – from game length (30 minutes) to number of players (2 to 8) to game options (multiplayer matchmaking, single-player skirmishes, dynamic campaigns, etc). We are hoping to develop some type of cooperative mode for team play or just fighting the AI. We want people to understand that it is still a competitive RTS at the core – just one without guns.

 

What have been your single biggest influences (in general, not just for Offworld Trading Company), and why? They could be games, they could be works of non-fiction, they could be novels or movies.

There are four core influences behind Offworld:

  • M.U.L.E. is perhaps the most obvious one considering the setting (settlers on an alien world), territory acquisition (claiming plots of land), and balancing resources needed for life support and infrastructure with more lucrative cash crops. I should note, however, that I actually didn’t play M.U.L.E. until I was an adult as I was only seven when it was originally released.
  • Railroad Tycoon was an important early influence for me, especially as it’s the first purely economic video game I ever player. The resource tree of Offworld and the general idea of shipping routes come directly from Railroad Tycoon. In fact, very early versions of Offworld focused more on the blimp routes themselves with the player having to micro-manage each specific one (bringing iron from a Metal Mine to a Steel Mill and then from a Steel Mill to the Colony, and so on). We eventually moved to a more automated system which opened up space to focus more on the free market.
  • Age of Empires 2 had a very interesting game mechanic hidden inside the Market building. When selected, you could buy or sell three of the game’s resources (food, iron, and stone) for the fourth one (gold). Further, the prices went up or down depending on what other players were doing. (If one player bought a lot of food, the price would go up for everyone.) The designers hedged their bets here by making the buy price double the sell price so that players couldn’t benefit from constantly arbitraging the market. We originally tried two prices in Offworld, but collapsing them into a single price made the market mechanic so much more powerful.
  • Finally, an old GDW wargame from the 70s called Belter was a huge influence on me as a kid. The game had players prospect the Asteroid Belt for ore and gas, mine the resources, ship them to the market, and sell them for profit. Each asteroid had different resource levels, which is an idea we also have in Offworld (trace, low, medium, and high). Belter had a combat mechanic, but we loved the economics so much that we unofficially agreed to ignore it, demonstrating to me at an early age that a game of pure economics could work.

 

I received the following question: ‘How have you improved upon MULE?’ And I’d add to that, how have you improved upon your inspirations? What lessons have you learned, both from your previous games and from other designers?

In some ways, it’s impossible to improve upon M.U.L.E. It was an incredible game for its time and still holds up very well; however, most of the assumptions baked into the design are so thoroughly of its day (such as the requirement for local multiplayer or splitting turns between players) that it would be hard to update it without making radical changes. I would say that we are trying to improve on the spirit of M.U.L.E., which is that a video game can create the same feel as a great board game, but one which is native to its own medium. Basically, we want to maintain the same core of a game built around a free market but allow for simultaneous play to reduce game length, expand the possibility space with a deeper resource tree, and – obviously – update the look for a modern audience.

 

OTC is descended from tycoon games and real-time strategy, two genres that strike me as opposites. Tycoon games tend to be open-ended, single-player experiences about building one’s dream empire. RTS games focus on competition, conflict, and, usually, multiplayer. I’ve noticed that I prefer to play skirmish mode as though it were a tycoon game, so I turn off the black market [a game mechanic that lets you sabotage other players].

How have you reconciled these two influences? And how have players responded? Is there a difference in the way they approach single-player versus multi-player?

We have indeed noticed a split in preferences among players who come from an RTS background versus a tycoon game background. For fans of the latter, they may never be interested in tense multiplayer matches, so we have included multiple game speeds, allowed orders to be given when paused, and provided custom game mode so, as you mentioned, the Black Market can be disabled. I am currently in the process of developing the dynamic campaign which hopefully will satisfy the single-player audience looking for an epic, ten-hour experience. We know it might be difficult to reconcile these two influences, but we’ve also found the territory they share to be very fertile and largely unexplored.

 

You’ve previously remarked that board games are much more diverse than computer strategy games, or at least RTS games.

What are some other subjects, or mechanics, you’d like to see strategy games explore? Where else should the genre look for inspiration?

Almost any competitive endeavor could make for a good strategy game. What about a 2-player election RTS? Or the first to sail around the world? Or the first to discover electricity? Or a contest to build the grandest cathedral in the land? Or to acquire the most territory via royal marriage? It’s pretty easy to imagine board games on these topics (some of which actually exist!) but RTS games on them are few and far between.

 

Thank you for your time!

 

Resources

Ars Technica preview

Offworld Trading Company rules, from the official site

Soren Johnson’s Game Design Journal

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