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Soren Johnson, a designer of blockbuster strategy titles, knew what kind of game he wanted to make as a kid in 1990. It would only take him another 25 years to develop it.
Offworld Trading Company, a tycoon-like real-time strategy game, hits Feb. 12 for PC and Mac on Steam Early Access and for prepurchase directly from Stardock for $36. It’s the first work from Mohawk Games, Johnson’s studio.
He played M.U.L.E. in the early ’80s, an economic strategy game made for the Atari 400/800 (later ported to “modern” platforms like the Commodore 64), and liked it. Then he picked up Railroad Tycoon in 1990 and was in love.
That was it. He was going to go into development and make a real-time strategy game where you defeated your enemies with dollars instead of arrows or bullets.
Things did not exactly go according to plan.
“There’s nothing really like it, so when you’re trying to convince publishers to make something like this, they don’t know what to do with it. They’re naturally conservative,” Johnson said.
A slight detour along the way
No problem. He went on to write the artificial intelligence for Civilization III and later served as the lead designer for Civilization IV. He also worked on Spore and even tried his hand at social game developer Zynga. Success followed him, and he became a well-known name in strategy circles. Now, surely, he’d finally get to make that little economic real-time strategy project.
Not so fast.
“Even as I became more well-known in the industry, it becomes more and more difficult to get a game like this started up,” he said. “It’s too small for publishers. It’s harder to take risks. They’re really only interested in something blockbuster size.”
But he had a buddy who also worked on strategy: Brad Wardell, the founder of Stardock Entertainment, wrote the A.I. for the Galactic Civilizations series, a bunch of games that even he admits were “Civ in space” long before Civilization: Beyond Earth took Civ to, uh, space. But we digress.
So when Stardock execs started mulling over the idea of publishing games from other developers, a partnership felt natural.
“This is a game I wanted to make even before I got in the industry,” Johnson said. “Something set around business and industry. Brad really liked the idea, and we knew we wanted to work together.”
Together they founded Mohawk in Baltimore with another Civilization vet (Dorian Newcomb) in charge of art, signed on with Wardell’s Stardock in Michigan as a publisher, and got to work.
Taking the trip to Mars
The result is Offworld Trading Company, an economic RTS set on Mars that asks you to establish a headquarters, collect resources, refine them, sell them, buy shares in your opponents’ companies, and finally make a hostile takeover and crush them under the heel of your space boot.
“What I like about the economic setting is that it makes the game very replayable,” he said. “Every game will be very different. It’s less predictable. You can’t really choose a set strategy before you begin the game.”
You won’t pick your headquarters type until after the game starts, for example, and you see what the randomly generated barren red landscape has to offer.
Why Mars? “It’s a nice open environment to start with,” Johnson said.
It’s all played in real time — a departure from his turn-based work on the Civilization series.
“I really like real time strategy games,” Johnson said. “I like the immediacy of them. It’s nice to play a game that can go quickly.”
He estimates Offworld matches will run 30-40 minutes each.
“I’ll probably always make both real time and turn-based games,” he added.
A walkthrough of a typical Offworld game
You start an Offworld game with a black screen, Johnson says. Every few seconds, you get a scan that shows a little bit more of the landscape in front of you. You can choose to wait and see more of the map in order to make the best decision about what HQ to buy and where to plunk it. But your opponents are making the same call, and if they get started before you do, they might have the advantage.