Soren Johnson as a developer rose to a level of fame within the industry for his work on Sid Meier and Firaxis’ Civilization series, designing the AI for Civlization III, before his role as the lead designer on Civilization IV. Now his new studio Mohawk Games are showing their hand as Offworld Trading Company - their economic RTS - makes its way into Early Access. We spoke at length with Soren about the game’s mechanics and the decision to launch into Early Access at this point in the game’s life.
GameWatcher: You’re describing Offworld Trading Company as an economic RTS, In some ways that gives us more questions than answers as to what the game actually is, how would you describe it to someone who has never heard of the game?
Soren Johnson: So, when I say it’s an economic RTS what I mean is that it very much plays out like an RTS, you can sit down with people and play a game in 30 minutes and have a really competitive experience that supports team-play as well as free-for-all. It’s very much a symmetrical strategy or RTS game. But of course you don’t build units, you don’t attack the other player, it’s about running a business and that’s a huge difference.
It’s sort of a small step away in some cases, most RTS games have resources and each of the resources maybe have a different purpose. In The Age of Empires games, they have a market building and if you select it you can buy or sell the resources and the prices will go up or down depending on what everyone else in the game is doing. In Age of Empires, that mechanic is an interesting sidebar to the game, what we’ve really done is really zoomed in to that one mechanic then expanded it out to fill an entire game. Instead of four resources we have thirteen and some of those resources can only be created from the primary resources. There are all sorts of different type of building that produce one resource, or convert two resources into one other resources with different levels of costs and starting prices.
GameWatcher: As the player we’re not just trying to expand and grab resources like we would in a traditional RTS though, we need to look at the market and prices at all times?
Soren Johnson: In fact there are more resources than you’ll be able to get on your own. When you start the game you only get four or five claims. The game is also tile based which means it’ll be familiar to someone who plays Civ, but at the start you can only claim five tiles and there are 13 resources, which means you’ll have to figure out which resources you think are the most important. Often the best resource might simply be the resources no-one else has gotten to yet.
GameWatcher: You’ve written on the Mohawk Games blog that as a studio you’re making Spelunky not Uncharted, free-form games that you can replay; what’s the driving ideal behind that, is it the free-form nature, or the replayability that choice gives you?
Soren Johnson: Replaybility is a big aspect for us, this is an issue for a lot of RTS’s, they tend to play out – you get the game and it takes you a few days get to get a sense of how you like to play, but once you do you have a set pattern – ‘this is the way I play the Protoss’ and you tend to do it each game. Maybe you deviate a little depending on opponents, but at some point it’s more about execution. We wanted to make an RTS that’s much more about strategy.
Every game the map is randomly generated, the resources are randomly generated on top of that. The different HQ types that each player picks, really changes the supply and demand of the market. For example there’s a robot type you can pick that doesn’t rely on food water or oxygen. So if a lot of people pick robotic, food water and oxygen isn’t going to be lucrative. The main point is that every game is going to play out differently.
You want to adapt. You can see that in the way that most RTS games, maybe every single one, you choose your side before you begin the game – your faction or civ or whatever. In Age of Kings you choose.. (laughs).. the Franks or whatever, in Starcraft you choose the Zerg and so forth. In Offworld there are four basic types – expansive, robotic, scientific and scavenger and you pick that after the game has begun. The game starts you do some exploration then you decide which type you want to be. That can depend on the map and it can depend on whatever everyone else chooses.
GameWatcher: So you can see what everyone else has chosen and say, there’s a gap here to play a different style?
Soren Johnson: Yeah exactly, as soon as a player founds their headquarters you can see where and what type of hq they have and you can adapt accordingly. There’s a little bit of a brinkmanship game in terms of as you explore the map you see good resources, but whoever picks first is sort of committing to a certain path, which allows the other players to adapt to what they’ve picked. Like a lot of board games it’s debatable whether it’s best to pick first or last depending on the situation.
GameWatcher: So from this discussion it sounds like there’s a focus on multi-player, but is there a single-player component to Offworld?
Soren Johnson: Oh yeah, there’s single-player skirmish and a dynamic single-player campaign. We’re really excited about the multi-player and we’ve being playing it for a year around the office and it’s a lot of fun. But really the majority of people who buy an RTS are playing it for the single-player and Offworld is meant for that. Certainly tycoon and business type games tend to be for single-player anyway so it fits well with that.
We have this dynamic campaign set up where you’re going to be maybe doing seven or eight different missions on Mars. You get a map of Mars and you get a choice of three locations each time through and there are other corporations you’re competing with over the course of these missions to try to be most successful by the end of the campaign. As you go through the campaign you’re earning extra money that you can spend on different buildings and abilities over the course of the campaign. It seems pretty fun and we’re trying to make it somewhat different from the base Skirmish game. When you start the campaign a lot of the buildings will be unavailable, you have to earn them over course of the campaign and that makes it play out differently each time.
GameWatcher: You mentioned earlier that there’s team play in the game. I was wondering whether the game is entirely adversarial, obviously you’re in competition with other businesses, but is there scope within the game to barter with other people? Or perhaps conspire with another player to take down a mutual rival?
Soren Johnson: Yeah, while that would be cool, we’ve kind of committed to having a relatively short play-time – 30 minutes, which is not really a good setting for having a lot of diplomacy. So the free for all and team-play works really well, but it’s set teams. You can play with six people and have three teams of two and things like that.
There is a thing in the campaign that is a little different. There’s an independent colony on the map which is a sort of NPC in the game that’s buying stuff and affecting prices. If the price of water, food and oxygen gets out of control and gets too high the colony will start shrinking and if it shrinks all of the way down to zero all of the players will lose that mission. So there are things you can do that could hurt your opponents but could also end up costing you the whole mission. But that doesn’t really work in skirmish mode, because in multi-player that would essentially be kind of like griefing, but in the campaign it’s appropriate.
GameWatcher: So another aspect of the game is that it’s set on Mars, so does the environment come into play? Are there random events that occur, are we fighting against the planet? Or is it just more that it’s a blank slate?
Soren Johnson: There’s a lot of advantages to setting it on Mars, as you says there’s the blank slate, it’d not be quite as plausible on Earth. There’s the assumption that you’d have modern commodity markets, the stock market and all those kinds of things, we have a bunch of futuristic techs and patents in the game that could change things, things like teleportation for example changes the way the map works. But also one of the nice things about Mars is that there’s the assumption that you’re going to have to support your own people, you have to find a way to protect them, to feed them and keep them alive. There’s an element that you might be making some of the really expensive resources, your electronics, your chemicals or whatever but if you’ve fallen behind the life support curve you can end up going into so much debt that someone can buy you out.
Events also tie into the Martian landscape that really shake up the market things like dust storms and solar flares. We’re trying to integrate as much Martian flavour as we can.
GameWatcher: So while there’s obviously a pretty strong focus on the multiplayer aspects, you’re quite well known for being someone whose adept at writing AI, obviously you wrote the AI for Civ 3 and Civ 4 so can we expect any interesting AI personalities, or are they also written very much to adapt to the situation?
Soren Johnson: Yeah, I’ve been working on some AI. Early on I tried to write one good default AI. But recently I’ve committed to that personality path. There’s one personality that likes to upgrade their headquarters as quickly as possible, there’s another that tries to buy stock as quickly as they can, which is kind of like rushing because you’re going for an early victory.
There’s another that likes to get patents as quickly as possible. There’s another that likes to do sabotage and buy out items from the black market, to mess with the other players. So yeah, I’ve been working on getting personalities into the play. If you play multi-player you play with a set group of people over a period of time, so you have a sense of how one friend plays over another friend, and I want that same sense with the AI like ‘Oh it’s the sabotage guy again, I better protect myself’.
GameWatcher: In a way as well, I guess it prepares you for the multi-player, as it shows you different ways the game can be played and helps you adapt to different styles of play?
Soren Johnson: Yeah, I mean I hope people are able to learn from the AI. One choice we made was to not have any fog of war. So that you can actually see what all the other players are doing, since it’s an RTS game it’s not a huge issue - having too much information - your time and attention is an important resource, so you don’t really have the time to to pore over what everyone is doing. But at the very least you’re not going to be totally shocked at what the other plays are doing if you take the time to look at them.
You can definitely learn from the AI as you’re playing the game. I think that’s a problem in general with RTS games, when people start out they’re kind of struggling to figure out how to get going, then they’re overrun by a hoard of tanks and it’s a shocking moment. We’re trying to not have that problem.
GameWatcher: You’re also working with Stardock, they’re publishing the game and Brad Wardell is involved with Mohawk too. Is that predominantly a publishing partnership or are Brad and Stardock having any creative input on the game? Obviously they have experience of space games and strategy games too.
We chose Stardock because they definitely have a love for strategy games like we do, it was a good fit. The basis of the relationship is certainly a business one, they’re a publisher and developer. We pay a lot of attention to their feedback and they play a lot of the game too. We’re a lot more comfortable working with them where we know that there’s a lot of shared culture, as opposed to a publisher that may or may not get strategy games.
GameWatcher So you’re moving into Early Access in the near future, what is it you’re looking for with Early Access? Is it the financial support so you get the time you need to make the game you want to, or is it very much wanting to get the community involved with the game at an early stage?</b>
Soren Johnson: We want feedback basically. We want feedback on the design decisions we’ve made. We’ve played the game a lot internally but you can never get a really good sense of where a game’s at until it’s released into the wild then you find out what people with no contact think of the game and what they do with it. We have have our own strategies that we like with the game, but some of our assumptions could be totally wrong. I look forward to being proven wrong online and finding out what is the actual best way to play this game.
We’re releasing on Early Access now so we can find out about that early while there’s still time to do something about it. I think that the game has gotten to the point now where we’re really happy with the design and the game is fun, but we’d be wasting our time continuing to develop the game without exposing it to direct feedback. It’s not a question of money, we have a publishing deal we have enough money to release the game with or without Early access, we just want it to be as good as possible.
GameWatcher: Does that mean then that the game is close to feature complete and it’s more a case of working on balance or is there a lot more to come into it.
Soren Johnson: We still have a long way to go, we’ don’t yet have an official date or anything but we have at least a year left to work on the game. We just want to get to Early Access now so we have as much time as possible to change it. When you play the game you’ll see that all the gameplay features are there, but you’re looking at 75% of the art is still prototype. The team is now shifting to production mode, trying to make the game look like it needs to be for release.
GameWatcher: You’ve also spoken about how the games going to be providing mod tools. Is that something that’ll be available during Early Access, or is it more likely that you’ll release them once the game is finished?
Soren Johnson: Yeah we’ve just started to work on some modding stuff right now. You can sort of modify the base XML files, which determine what all the different buildings are, what the different resources are and the values to create your own mods that way, so that’s the starting point. But a lot of the rest of the stuff we’ll be looking at over the course of the year, depending upon what people in the community seem to ask for.
GameWatcher: When I think of RTS mods I think of new units that mess up the balance entirely, with this more of an economic game what kind of things do you foresee people working on and wanting to introduce into the experience?
Soren Johnson: What I think we might see is different resource trees. We have what we think makes sense for Mars but it’ll be interesting to try a totally different environment with different sets of resources, prerequisites and environments.
In some sense I really don’t know what is going to happen with the modding. And that’s one of the exciting things about modding is you never quite know what’s going to come out. I don’t have a huge expectation one way or the other. It’s not quite Civ where it’s really natural to figure out, you know there’s going to be a fantasy mod, you know there’s going to be a sci-fi mod. I’m definitely more curious to see what’s coming out for Offworld.
GameWatcher: Do you think you might see things like scenario arise, which are popular in the Civ series, with very specific situations?
Soren Johnson: Sure, I could see people creating challenge maps. We normally have randomly generated resources, there’s no reason you can’t have pre-built maps that have really unique distributions of resources like having no water or something
GameWatcher: So a lot of the variety in the game comes from the procedurally generated maps, how different can they be from one game to the next. Is it purely a case of the resources being here and there, or can we expect to see some quite dramatically different versions of Mars.
Soren Johnson: There will definitely be a lot of different sets of terrains, there might be a big canyon going through the middle of a map so its split in two. We have different basic terrain types, sand terrain, volcanic terrain, rocky terrain, dried up riverbeds and lake beds. Then each terrain type is associated with different resources. In sand it’s very likely you’re going to find silicon, in the old lake beds it’s likely you’ll find water. If a map has a certain distribution of terrain types, that suggests a certain distribution of resources. When you’re scanning you can sort of tell, even if you haven’t scanned an area you can tell what terrain type is there and base your scanning decision on what sort of resources you’re hoping to find.
GameWatcher: Are there any interesting strategies that you’ve seen either in your internal test or from the prototype that you’ve made available, that perhaps you weren’t expecting?
Soren Johnson: So there’s the scientific headquarter type and what makes them unique is they can build their secondary buildings on top of their primary resources. So instead of building a water pump on water and then building a farm elsewhere, you can just put the farm directly on top of the water.
One of the things that’s led to is that when people play scientific, their buildings kind of just tend to be everywhere all over the map, and they’re very difficult Civ type to mess with, because you’re used to everyone clumping their resources and buildings near their headquarters, because there’s all these specific types of sabotage items. So people who are playing scientific it feels like they’re hiding their buildings off in unexpected parts of the map and surprising people when they suddenly have all this glass or different resources.
Part of the thing is that we’ve tried to build in an answer for whatever happens in the game. If someone does corner all of the aluminium on the map, one thing you can do is get the slam drilling pattern that allows you to mine in adjacent tiles. So even if you didn’t claim that tile with the aluminium you can take the tile next to it. Or you can hire pirates and then you can put the pirates on the blimp route between the aluminium and the headquarters. Or you can pay for a mutiny and take over the metal mine. Or you can get a hacker array and launch a fake aluminium surplus which drives the price down, so it doesn’t actually matter that they even have a monopoly over it.
But then, for most of these things that I just mentioned there are things that the person who does have the monopoly can counter with. They can hire Goon Squads to protect their tile from a mutiny, or get teleportation so that they don’t need the blimp routes any more, they can get their own hacker array to cause an aluminium shortage to drive up the price.
There are definitely tools for people if someone does find a monopoly, but then if they can figure out what you’re going to use against them, there are ways to protect themselves.
GameWatcher: So, you’ve mentioned previously that in a lot of RTS games people are used to looking at the map all of the time, but in Offworld they need to keep an eye on the market at all times. Do you think this is something that existing RTS players might find hard to adapt to?
Soren Johnson: Ah, well (Laughs) there’s definitely a learning curve, not in terms of the game being complex, because at its core most of the systems are fairly simple, but in that people aren’t used to playing a game like this. With a lot of RTS games they can be complex because people already know half the game, because they’ve played RTS games like it before. So that’s one of the challenges that we have with Offworld, communicating with the player, having the right UI and whatnot, because we often hear the comment that someone was watching the map because they didn’t know how important the market is. There’s a reason why it takes up a good portion of the screen.
GameWatcher: Is there anything else about the game that you’d like to communicate to Gamewatcher readers that we haven’t already touched upon?
Soren Johnson: Two things I want to emphasize for people because they sometimes assume the opposite. This is a game that is going to be a great single player game. We talk about the multiplayer because that’s where you have so much fun, but primarily we’re seeing it as a great single player experience.
The other thing is that while the game is very much about building up an infrastructure and creating this profitable business, there are a lot of systems and mechanics that put you in direct contact with the other players, whether that’s racing for claims or. There are these auctions that come up where you’re bidding directly against other players for a plot or patent. There’s the piracy where you’re choosing to attack different players or the black market where you can buy dynamite, EMPs and power surges and use them to mess with people. These things can be used in combination right, you can get an EMP to knock out power, then use the hacker array to trigger a power shortage which means that suddenly this player doesn’t have a source of power while the price is going up high. So you can watch at the same moment their stock price starts dropping as they go into debt and you can use that opportunity to buy up their stock. There’s definitely a lot of direct interaction.
GameWatcher: It reminds me on some level of the Vic Davis game Solium Infernum where you can sabotage and affect the other players without necessarily coming into direct conflict with them. It’s more about control, does that feed into Offworld?
Soren Johnson: Yeah, there are limited opportunities to make choices that adversely affect opponents so you have to be really smart, because you’re only going to get a certain number of EMPS per game, so you have to make sure your targeting the right player in the right place.
Another similar comparison would be the robber in Settlers of Catan, its a powerful piece but you don’t always have control of whenever you want to use it.
Thank you to Soren Johnson for speaking with us. Offworld Trading Company is heading to Steam Early Access on 12th February and we’re intrigued to see how its unique blend of RTS and economic shenanigans come together over the course of its development.