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.
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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.
Each Offworld Trading Company game can support up to 8 players, either individually or as part of teams. Right now, Offworld only supports custom games, so if you’re going to play against others, you play by their team arrangements. You may also play against the AI, which Johnson, an expert in the field, modestly says is pretty good.
“I’m still working on it, but it’s definitely been challenging for people,” he says.
So after you decide to make the leap, you purchase your HQ (choosing from types like science, robotics, scavenging, and the like) and position it. You can’t move it once you’ve placed it, and you’ll only gain control of 4-5 claim areas when you plunk it down.
Your objective, in the beginning, is to keep upgrading your headquarters, slowly gaining control of more claims, though even when fully upgraded four times you’ll only have 14-16 of them.
There are 13 different types of resources: some raw and some refined. Five are primary, or raw: water, iron, aluminum, silicon, and carbon. You’ll mine and collect these, creating resources to sell on an open market or to support your workforce. Water is used for food, oxygen, and fuel, for example. Carbon plus silicon makes electronics and so on. The resource tree is inspired by the original version of Railroad Tycoon.
You can’t mine or make everything you need because of those limited claims. That’s where the market comes in. As players (or the AI) buy things, the price of that item goes up. If they sell, it goes down. The game will introduce occasional scarcity and surplus. Your goal is to buy low and sell high while continuing to upgrade your headquarters.
Max out and you can buy access to the offworld market, which isn’t subject to local economic conditions and sells stuff at 3-4 times the price to the asteroid belt.
“That’s when you start doing serious money,” Johnson said, and you can start buying up your opponents’ stock. Get enough and you can make a hostile takeover, grabbing all their stuff.
Launching to higher gameplay levels
Those are the basics, but it wouldn’t be a strategy game without a pile of different ways to enact your master plan. Building facilities of the same type next to each other gives increasing bonuses of 50 and 100 percent.
So if you’re playing on a team, where you can share resources, it makes sense to specialize.
Advanced functions like the patent office allow you to teleport supplies (no more blimps laboriously carrying iron to your steel mines), build water engines (no more fuel), or claim extra tiles. Research labs upgrade production. Hacker arrays allow you to manipulate the game’s market, creating fake shortages and surpluses.
My personal favorite, the black market, lets you buy things to mess with people. You can hire pirates to steal from your opponents’ blimps, for example, or set off dynamite or an electromagnetic pulse.
Johnson said the game as a whole has about a year of development left: “Since the game is very playable, we wanted to get it out there for Early Access.”
He’s hopeful that Offworld will do well, not just to vindicate his 25-year quest to make it, but also to possibly create a new market niche for real-time economic strategy.
“I’d love to see other people make games that are like this,” he said. “If there’s room in the market, we’ll be ready to make more. I have a list of ideas that I’m interested in pursuing.”
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