Designer Notes 28: George Fan

In this episode, Soren interviews independent game designer George Fan, who is best known as the creator of Insaniquarium and Plants vs Zombies. They discuss why he learned to program instead of just focusing on art, how most Diablo monster design is a variation of kill-me-first, and why Plants vs. Zombies wasn’t Fish vs. Aliens.

Games discussed: Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., Are You Dumb?, Wrath of the Gopher, Magic: The Gathering, Bomberman, Risky Planet, Insaniquarium, Diablo 3, Plants vs Zombies, Octogeddon

Designer Notes 27: Lucas Pope

In this episode, Adam Saltsman interviews independent game developer Lucas Pope, best known for the immigration officer simulation Papers Please. They discuss how Naughty Dog taught him to mercilessly cut features, why it might be a good thing if Obra Dinn is bad, and how Adam has time to do these interviews.

Games discussed: Malice, Gearhead Garage, Papers Please, The Republia Times, Return of the Obra Dinn

Offworld Trading Company – Jupiter’s Forge

Offworld Trading Company‘s first expansion pack – Jupiter’s Forge – was released today. Buy it here on Steam.

Jupiter’s Forge, the first expansion pack to Offworld Trading Company, is our chance to see just how flexible free-market game mechanics can be. During development of Offworld, we discovered that the core gameplay was remarkably robust because the buy/sell mechanic auto-balances the game. Thus, the game should be just as fun even if the map, the HQs, and even the resource tree changed significantly.

Reworking the resource tree would be the most significant change as everything in the game is downstream from how the resources interact. We knew this change should not be minor, so we looked for a location in the solar system that could flip the water tree, which led us to Io, a moon without water but with sulfur oxide ice and a steady stream of hydrogen ions from the neighboring planet. Here, instead of splitting water into oxygen and fuel (hydrogen), the player would melt the ice for oxygen, collect hydrogen from Jupiter’s radiation, and combine them into water. Life support becomes much more challenging when the player can’t just extract water straight from the ground.

Io has a few other wrinkles that mix up the familiar formula from Mars. The day is much longer – 42 hours! – with an additional two-hour eclipse when Jupiter blocks the sun. From the Ceres DLC, we are borrowing diminishing resources (which drop high and medium tiles to low over time) and cave terrain (which gives mining access to all adjacent tiles). Because Io has no atmosphere, wind turbines are not buildable, so players must rely on geothermal plants, solar panels, and nuclear energy. Io also has liquid basalt lakes, on which players can build basalt platforms that produce iron, silicon, and uranium. (Further, scientists can use these resources as inputs for their buildings.) Finally, Io has an assortment of random event new to Offworld – radiation storms, sulfur frosts, landslides, and tremors. The Patent Lab on Io has some new options as well: Nuclear Engine (use uranium as fuel), Geothermal Borehole (all buildings adjacent to geothermal tiles produce power), and Synthetic Meat (farms are permanently boosted).

We also knew that we wanted to encourage new ways of approaching the game by adding two new HQs to the game. The Penrose Collective (colloquially known as the Nomads) are scrappy survivors, emphasizing flexibility and adaptation by allowing the player to actually return claims back to the colony to grab new locations. If aluminum crashes, return you aluminum tiles and get into something more profitable. The Nomads also are able to place two HQs on the map, which reduces their shipping costs and makes moving claims around easier. Finally, the Nomads use silicon instead of steel as their primary resource, making them a good choice for maps rich in the former resource.

The Diadem Trust (known as the Elites) are thematically the rich kids of Io, focusing on special versions of all the advanced buildings. Their Pleasure Dome produces double the revenue (but consumes chemicals); their Patent Lab can license patents from other players; their Optimization Center grants free claim for each fully upgraded resource; and their Hacker Array can create a shortage and a surplus simultaneously. Finally, they can build three Space Elevators instead of the typical two. (Oh, did we mention that Io has a Space Elevator instead of an Offworld Market?) Thus, the Elites are difficult to stop if they make it deep into the game (although that itself can be a challenge as they have few early bonuses).

We hope players find Jupiter’s Forge to be a fresh experience that makes them rethink their old strategies from the base game.

Designer Notes 26: Sid Meier – Part 4

In this episode, Soren Johnson interviews legendary game designer Sid Meier, best known for designing Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization. They discuss what game Sid wishes he designed, how to determine if a prototype should be turned into a game, and why we need a Zombie civilization.

Games discussed: Civilization Revolution, CivWorld, Ace Patrol, Starships, Tetris, SimCity, Seven Cities of Gold

Offworld Trading Company: An RTS Without Guns

I spoke at GDC this month on the design and development of Offworld Trading Company, and video of the talk is now available online:

Slides from the talk are also available.

Designer Notes 25: Sid Meier – Part 3

In this episode, Soren Johnson interviews legendary game designer Sid Meier, best known for designing Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization. They discuss why dinosaurs need to have ranged attacks, how deals go down on the SimGolf course, and if Civ games have an ideal length.

Games discussed: CPU Bach, Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, Gettysburg, Dinosaurs, SimGolf, Pirates!, Railroads!, Civilization Revolution

Offworld Trading Company GDC Postmortem

I am going to be speaking at GDC this year on the design and development of Offworld Trading Company. I’ve included the description below and a few sample slides. Hope to see you in SF – my favorite week of the year!

‘Offworld Trading Company’: An RTS Without Guns

Speaker: Soren Johnson  |  CEO, Mohawk Games
Location:  Room 3016, West Hall
Date:  Wednesday, March 1
Time:  5:00pm – 6:00pm
Format: Session
Track: Design

For ‘Offworld Trading Company’, Mohawk Games set out to make a new type of real-time strategy game, one that focused on economics instead of combat. Following this initial vision led Mohawk Games to shed other standard tropes of the genre, such as unit selection, on the way to creating a unique gameplay experience, one that de-emphasized micro dexterity challenges in favor of macro high-level strategy while still hewing to the standard half-hour RTS format. This postmortem details the twist and turns of Offworld’s design process, from conception to prototyping to Early Access to final release.


Despite the increasing quantity of games released each year, there are still huge areas of unexplored territory for new gameplay, even within established genres such as the RTS. The development of ‘Offworld Trading Company’ serves as an example on how to find these hidden kingdoms.

Intended Audience

This talk will be of interest to developers interested in the details of how design decisions were made while pioneering a new type of real-time strategy game. Developers interested in open development should also benefit as the talk will give positives and negatives from Mohawk’s Early Access experience.

Trump is no Hitler

Donald Trump Won Because Of Bad Game Design

The 2016 presidential election has produced scores and scores of articles about how Donald Trump went from a novelty candidate to the White House. Most of these articles will overreach in their conclusions because they will focus on his election instead of his nomination, which now seems inevitable in hindsight. However, a very small percentage of Americans decided that Trump would be one of the two candidates for Presidents; he received 14 million votes in the primaries, from only 5.6% of America’s 251 million eligible voters. Only 1 in 20 Americans are responsible for Trump’s nomination. Indeed, only 800,000 more Americans voted for Trump in the Republican primaries than for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic ones (and 2.9 million more voted for Clinton than for Trump).

This percentage needs to be remembered when contextualizing Trump’s success — it is far from clear than even a significant minority of Americans ever wanted him to become President, and many, if not most, Republicans were essentially stuck with him after he clinched the nomination. Trump only won a plurality of votes in the primaries as more Republicans (55%) voted against him than voted for him. In fact, Trump won because of bad game design.

State-by-state, the Republican primaries have widely different rules, but they generally follow a winner-takes-all philosophy. By securing at least a plurality of votes, Trump won all 99 delegates in Florida, all 58 in Arizona, all 57 in Illinois, and all 172 in California. Other states with hybrid rules still gave Trump the vast majority of the delegates – for example, 89 of 95 delegates in New York and 70 of 71 in Pennsylvania – just for finishing first. The intention behind this rule is to shorten the primary process, to keep Republican candidates from damaging each other with friendly fire during an overlong race. However, like many rules intending to fix one issue, this one created a new one — that the nominee did not need a majority of votes to win a majority of the overall delegates. Trump won with an exploit.

In contrast, the Democratic primaries largely divide up delegates proportionally, so each candidate earns delegates proportional to his or her performance. Sometimes, these results can be quite close; in Illinois, for example, Clinton earned 79 pledged delegates while Sanders earned 77. This system has the downside of potentially extending the race much longer than perhaps the party desires, but a candidate without a majority of voters is also unlikely to ever earn a majority of pledged delegates. Under the Democratic system, Trump would have gone into the convention with roughly 45% of the delegates (estimating from his national primary vote percentage), and his nomination would be far from assured, especially considering how many Republicans would have preferred anyone but Trump. The Republican Convention would have been a messy affair, but at least the party would have had a chance to avoid the worst presidential nominee of our lifetimes.

Let me repeat for emphasis: If the Republican party had used the ruleset of the Democratic party, Trump would not have been guaranteed the nomination. Although rules are written to favor certain outcomes, they must be judged not just by what they fix in the best-case (shortening the primaries) but also by what they enable in the worst-case (Donald Trump).

How should the GOP patch this exploit? One obvious suggestion would be to adopt the superdelegate system of the Democrats, which gives the party establishment extra votes to prevent an undesirable candidate like Trump. However, superdelegates are also an example of bad game design because they create a much more extreme version of the problem that the Republican’s winner-take-all primaries were supposed to fix — extending the primary race longer than desired, possibly even until the convention when the superdelegates actually vote. When Clinton did clinch the nomination on June 6th, with only six states left to vote, the ridiculous but technically possible scenario still existed that Sanders could win if enough superdelegates switched from Clinton to Sanders. Indeed, Sanders made a fairly remarkable transformation from decrying the superdelegate system as undemocratic early on to asking for their help near the end to take the win away from Clinton, a nakedly undemocratic move. The real question Democrats need to ask themselves is whether they would ever actually be willing to use the superdelegates to override a majority of primary voters as doing so would clearly be a betrayal of the process. If the party is not willing to use them in such a way, then superdelegates are surely more trouble than they are worth.

The answer – for both Republicans and Democrats – is a simple state-by-state proportional distribution of delegates, with no superdelegates, and the nomination should only be guaranteed to a candidate able to earn a majority of delegates (and, most likely, votes as well). This scenario does increase the likelihood of a contested convention (where no one candidate controls a majority), which could be a problem in the mass media era. However, as we have seen in 2016, the alternative is much, much worse.

Speaking of bad design, we could certainly spend time talking about how the Electoral College is hurting democracy, but instead, I would encourage everyone to write your state legislator about the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which is a clever community-built patch for some legacy code with which we’re all currently stuck.

Designer Notes 24: Sid Meier – Part 2

In this episode, Soren Johnson interviews legendary game designer Sid Meier, best known for designing Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization. They discuss how Sid’s stealth fighter was more interesting than the real one, whether XCOM violates the Covert Action rule, and when the world was ready for hexes.

Games Discussed: Covert Action, Railroad Tycoon, SimCity, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Civilization, Empire