Interview: Soren Johnson on Offworld Trading Company and Early Access

We talk to Soren Johnson about how early-access has supercharged his game design process, and how the ultimate economic RTS combines the best aspects of Railroad Tycoon and Spelunky...

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Interview: Soren Johnson on Offworld Trading Company and Early Access

Soren Johnson has a great deal of experience in the strategy gaming genre – he coded the AI in Civilization III, and he was the lead designer of Civilization IV (he coded the AI for that, too). With decades of experience behind him, you’d think he’d be the last dev in the world to be second-guessing himself. Yet when he set out to create Offworld Trading Company he decided that the feedback made possible by early access would be invaluable. 

“Until you put your game in front of real people you only really know maybe half of what you need to know to make a good game. There’s just so many things that you assume about a game that you discover are immediately not true. Once regular people who don’t know you and aren’t your friends and aren’t your co-workers start playing the game. 

“Both on how easy the game is to learn, how accessible it is, and also what are the best ways to play. As soon as we got the game out there, within a few weeks, we discovered that a lot of the strategies that we thought were good Offworld strategies were pretty poor, in fact. The community has quickly outpaced us, and that meant we were able to learn from them.” 

Soren and his team at Mohawk Games are all industry veterans, many of them ex-Firaxis. Yet even now they’re still refining their craft – and perhaps the biggest challenge for Offworld was learning just what it means to make a competitive multi-player game. 

“With Civ IV, the miracle was getting multi-player to work at all. People who play Civ multi-player are excited about just the whole concept of playing a multi-player game inside of Civ. But it’s not really the type of game that supports a long-term robust competitive ladder-based, score-based, rank-based community. Whereas with Offworld, that’s something that is important to us.” 

Soren’s new game may not have a lot of the trappings of the genre, but Offworld is a RTS through and through. “The games take 20-30 minutes. They’re very competitive, they’re good with two people, they’re good with four people. We’re taking that part of the game very seriously. We take a lot of time looking at what Blizzard does. With their Starcraft ladder, and their Hearthstone ladder, and we’re trying to get those elements into the game before we ship so that people can have a ranking in 1v1, have a ranking in the four-player free-for-all mode. And figuring out what’s the best way to get people into the game.” 

For the time being the game modes in Offworld will be available cyclically, with 1v1 battles on weekdays and four-player battle royales on weekends. “That allows us to have two different game modes, while at the same time not dividing the community in half.” 

Could Early Access have improved Civilization IV?

At several points in our chat, Soren stressed just how much early access had changed the way he designs games – he even went so far as to say he wished they had early access when he was making Civ IV.

“We have a daily challenge in Offworld. Every day there is a single seed that everyone can play off of. Similar to the daily challenge you’ll see in something like Spelunky.” Soren’s team can then look at the data, and see what surprises them about how gamers performed. “Although having said that, only about a third of the people are beating the daily challenge. It is actually somewhat difficult. But once we got that going, and we got a leaderboard in the game, we took the next step, which is that Tachyon will let you attach a replay file.” By ‘Tachyon,’ Soren was not referring to a hypothetical faster-than-light particle, but rather a new gaming networking service, Stardock’s in-house answer to Battle.net.

“Last week I just sat down, and every day the first thing I did in the morning was I watched replays of games people have played against the AI that day. And then I saw problems with the AI. I made changes. Then I tried it out myself, using the same seed. Checked in the code, made a build, updated the game inside of Steam. So then the next day the same players are now facing a slightly better AI that was fixing the holes that they had exposed. So now they can’t pull the same trick they pulled the day before. And then I just do the same thing the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day. 

“We’ve got this little virtual war going on between me as the AI programmer and all the players on there trying to beat the daily challenges. That’s been a lot of fun.” Soren is revelling in the iterative development Steamworks makes possible, where he can get feedback from early-access customers literally within hours. “It’s something that totally would not have been possible without the type of infrastructure we have today.”  

While Offworld is primarily a game of economics, Soren has made his game as scientifically plausible as possible by working with a scientist who focusses on Martian geology. “He’s making a bunch of maps for us that are realistic locations around Mars. He’s giving us a lot of feedback on how to make the terrain look realistic, where you’d happen to find carbon, where you’d happen to find iron, where you’d happen to find aluminium, on Mars. That’s been very useful.”  

The spice must flow!

To add that extra edge of plausibility, the resource tree is built upon some of the speculation done about how Mars missions could work. “You could get water from some of the ice deposits in the north, for example. The best way to get oxygen fuel, of course, is to take that water and then split it. Things like that.”

The level of thought and modelling put into Offworld has been so involved that Soren can see the merit of it being employed in classrooms, though not necessarily to tech kids science. “It’s not a slavishly scientific game. I think that what people could learn the most from is this little toy box of how economics work. It has a pretty rigorous model of supply/demand. And you get a sense for what it means to diversify, versus focussing on being good at a few specific things. Learning to ride the market, learning not to flood the market with a resource.” 

In practical terms, that means that every single play through is not an exercise in memorising build queues, but in reading the terrain and commodity prices and constantly adapting to events. We asked Soren why there aren’t more games that are fundamentally about thinking on your feet. 

“Oh boy! That’s why we’re making the game. There’s so few games out there that are like that. I mean, Starcraft doesn’t even have random maps! [laughs]. Coming from a background of Civ, which is all about random maps, and having a very different play environment each time, it’s hard for me to imagine why you’d want to play a strategy game where you’ve got this very set situation that you just play over and over again. It’s baked into my design DNA, to think of things that way. It definitely makes the game more challenging for players, if they don’t know what to expect. 

“If you look at the success of the MOBAs, they have a very specific formula. There’s been very few games that have been able to successfully alter the way the map works, for example, in those type of games. The variety is built off of which characters people choose. There’s not necessarily a huge amount of variety, game to game.”

Yet in spite of the phenomenal bank being made by games at the more predictable side of the RTS spectrum, Soren has no plans to leave the realms of randomness.  

“It’s something that I like, and I love, and I think it’s both challenging for the audience and harder to do as a developer. But I think if you get it right, the pay-off can be huge. That’s why Spelunky was such a big success, and also just such a landmark game.”

Finally, we felt obliged to touch on the topic of those tech billionaires who seem obsessed with getting to Mars at any cost. Has the Offworld crew had any calls from Elon Musk?
“[Laughs.] His name’s come up a number of times. I wish I knew how to get him a copy of the game!”

Offworld Trading Company is out now. For more details, visit OffworldGame.com

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