Designer Notes #18: Offworld Trading Company

In this episode, Bruce Geryk interviews Soren Johnson about his new economic RTS, Offworld Trading Company. They discuss how exploring a black map is one of gaming’s greatest hits, why the hardest part of designing Offworld was ending the game, and why Early Access games shouldn’t have QA. Also, listen to hear Soren correctly pronounce timbre!

Games Discussed: Offworld Trading Company, StarCraft, Age of Empires 2, Railroad Tycoon, M.U.L.E., Belter

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/offworld-trading-company-1

OTC Designer Notes #19: Special Thanks

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, released on April 28, 2016, and is available for purchase here. (A Game Almanac, which includes the full Designer Notes, is available as free DLC.)

Offworld Trading Company was not an easy game to make, perhaps most especially because people needed to believe that it would work in the first place. Thus, I need to thank Brad Wardell, Derek Paxton, Brian Clair, and everyone else at Stardock for believing that an economic RTS would actually be fun.

I also need to thank the team for taking the leap with me and working so hard to build the game. Dorian Newcomb, my business partner, was the game’s official Art Director and unofficial Producer, making sure that life on Mars looks amazing and that everyone was working in sync. Jason Winokur was the first programmer to join us, and he handled the graphics, supported modding, and generally made sure our project was in great shape. Dave Wagner implemented multiplayer, replays, saved games, leaderboards, and all the other details needed for a modern game. Jim Alley created all of our interface art as well as our great logo. Josh Hardy, after being lured away from the Star Control team, made our building, colony, and HQ models as well as our effects. Joel Bowers implemented the scenario system and then built the tutorials on top of them.

Zack Fowler implemented our terrain system and built the map editor on top of it. Tommy Truong helped us finish, animating our buildings and HQs. Mark Cromer made our sound effects and helped with audio design. Christopher Tin composed an amazing soundtrack that scales with the player’s progress. Kirby Runyon created 32 maps by hand, based on real locations on Mars. Andy Hull added some nice polish to our character popups (and invented the giant check for losing). Erik Ehoff made some key early concept art the helped to define the game’s look. Shentloc, our localization team, did an amazing job to help us ship in nine languages. (Ten if you count British aluminium!)

I’d like to thank my wife Leyla who, perhaps unexpectedly, fell in love with the game and sunk 1,000 hours into it, her very first RTS; her excitement and encouragement helped me keep going during the rough times. Finally, I want to thank the fans that provided us with amazing feedback and support during the pre-release phase; the game would have been much different (and certainly worse) without them. I specifically want to acknowledge the contributions of the following players: Zultar, Cubit, PBHead, Gameslayer, Blues, Blackmagic, Death Tacticus, Indczn, Kingmorgan, Jaiwera, YerAnd, GalacticWino, Roler, TheSpinCycle, Veivi, UltraPope, Dermas, Heisenberg, Showcasemike, and Sir Rogers.
Offworld would still just be an idea in my head without the amazing team we have at Mohawk, and I will forever be in their debt for believing in the game and committing to making it great. I think we will all remember that year when we were playing the game internally as one of the best of our careers — iterating on it constantly based on daily games while slowly becoming aware that we were making something truly unique. Actually finishing the game was very hard work, so I am very proud of what we created. I hope the game will mean as much to you.

OTC Designer Notes #18: Adaptive Gameplay

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, released on April 28, 2016, and is available for purchase here. (A Game Almanac, which includes the full Designer Notes, is available as free DLC.)

We are most proud of Offworld because it makes the player think about each game differently, adapting to the events and environment of that specific match instead of using the same build order or pet tactic over and over again. The game encourages adaptation because so many key parts of the game are randomized each time:

  • Random MapsEach map is randomly generated, with different quantities of each resource available. To encourage interesting randomness, we associated each resource with specific terrain types (Carbon with Craters, Water with Lakebeds, Silicon with Sand, and so on), which determines how likely it is that resources might appear on a tile of that terrain type. Then, we limited these types of terrain to different sections of the map; if Sand fields are in the northwest while Lakebeds are in the southeast, then the Silicon and Water will be in different parts of the map. By preventing different resources types from being too close together, each potential founding location is defined by what resources are close and what resources are not. We also create a dead zone of resources near the middle of the map surrounding the Colony to encourage players to found near the edges of the map, making longer shipping lanes more necessary.
  • Black MarketThe black market typically has six to eight items for sale, and they are selected at the game’s start from a set of eighteen (not unlike the ten card stacks chosen at the beginning of a game of Dominion). As mentioned previously, they are chosen not purely randomly but with certain guarantees (for example, either an EMP or a Power Surge will always be available). Advanced players watch the black market carefully before deciding which HQ type to use. For example, Underground Nukes penalize Scavengers (who are so dependent on maintaining their Carbon supply) but barely affect Scientists (who can still put secondary buildings on top of Trace levels of a resource). Pirates and Magnetic Storms are dangerous for Scientists as they often ship expensive resources across the map; on the other hand, EMPs and Power Surges favor Scientists as they have protection against both. Circuit Overload is dangerous for Robotic players as they like to maintain a positive rate of Power. Expansive HQs are a good choice if Bribe Claim is not available because they will be the only ones with extra claims. Furthermore, the items change how each other can be used; Holograms are much more powerful in games without Spies than in games with them.
  • Random Prices – With the Random Prices option turned on (which is highly recommended for veterans), the starting price of resources also changes from game to game. Although half of the resources stay the same, a quarter of them are reduced by 50%, and a quarter of them are increased by 100%. This option was added once veteran players developed general starting strategies for most of the HQ types. For example, two Steel Mills and a Metal Mine on Iron is a typical Robotic opening; however, what if Iron starts high at $40 and Steel starts low at $30? Then, a Steel Mill is going to lose money by converting $40 of Iron into $15 of Steel (although the actual conversion should be a little better because of adjacency bonuses). The Robotic player can stick to the familiar strategy but might be better off looking for something else. Perhaps in this scenario, Power started higher and Aluminum lower? In that case, a Geothermal Plant would be much cheaper than normal and immediately produce some serious money. Basically, the best players will reevaluate all of their opening moves depending on the set of prices revealed at the beginning.
  • Random EventsDuring the game itself, random events occur that shift prices of resources significantly. Some events (Oxygen Surplus, Food Shortage, etc) will affect just one resource, driving the price either up or down; these events are the ones which can be created artificially with a Hacker Array, so players should always view them with a bit of suspicion (even if a Hacker Array is not visible as it can be hid with a Hologram). Other events affect multiple resources at once; for example, a Pipeline Leak will drive up the price of Food, Oxygen, and Fuel. Finally, Solar Flares and Dust Storms affect how buildings function; while the former boosts Solar Panels, the latter penalizes them but boosts Wind Turbines. Taken together, all these events ensure that players need to adapt to random circumstance during the game as well. For instance, a Silicon Shortage might suddenly make Glass Kilns unprofitable; should the player scrap them for something else, or just hold on until the market balances out again? The answer probably depends on many factors, such as the player’s stockpile of Silicon, the Colony’s demand for Glass, whether the player still needs Glass to upgrade, the cost of switching to new buildings, and so on. The random event, however, forces the player to consider the situation carefully.
  • Other Players The decisions made by other players are, of course, not actually random, but they definitely require the player to adapt. For example, the desirability of each HQ changes depending on the other founds. If other players found Scavenger, then perhaps the player should pick Scientific, which has good protection against sabotage. If everyone goes Scientific, then perhaps founding Robotic and building Power is a good move as Scientific players consume plenty of Power with their secondary buildings. Seeing many Robotic players means, of course, that life support resources will not be in such high demand. Besides the founds, players need to pay attention to what everyone else is building. Is everyone skipping Power? (If so, put down an early Geothermal Plant.) Did most players build Farms and not Reactors? (If so, do the opposite and build Reactors..) Are multiple Patent Labs and Optimization Centers up early? (If so, build Refineries as the price of Chemicals is about to rise.) Basically, watch what everyone else is doing to anticipate where the market is heading.

We hope that we’ve made a game that lives up to our ideal for strategy games — that the player should always be planning, always be reacting, always be thinking.

OTC Designer Notes #17: Stock Market

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, released on April 28, 2016, and is available for purchase here. (A Game Almanac, which includes the full Designer Notes, is available as free DLC.)

The hardest part of the game design to get right – and one that changed significantly only a few months before release – was the stock market. The system had both a thematic purpose (a modern economic game needs a stock market to reflect success) and a gameplay purpose (the system serves as a desperately needed victory condition for a game in which wiping out the opponent militarily is not an option). Basically, we needed a way to end the game that was more interesting than simply counting who made the most money.

Our initial idea involved buying out other players and actually acquiring their HQ as well as all of their claims and buildings. After a player had no more shares available on the open market, she would be vulnerable to a buyout, which any player could trigger by paying double value for all of the shares owned by other players. Thus, a player could defend himself by buying up his own stock or attack other players by buying up their stock, in preparation for a later buyout.

This system worked reasonably well except for two problems. First, players often felt that the game spiralled out of control following a buyout because they inherited a lot of new buildings all over the map that they didn’t have time to manage. Second, buyouts were all-or-nothing affairs; when two players were racing to buyout a third player, the winner would usually snowball forward and easily dominate the rest of the game (or, if we tried to balance out this effect by making buyouts too expensive, an even worse situation occurred in which players saved up their money instead, in hopes being able to afford the final buyout).

We solved both these problems with the subsidiary system, under which players no longer acquired all of the eliminated player’s buildings and claims but instead now owned shares of a new subsidiary, which is the eliminated player’s company run by a modified AI that focuses solely on making money (and avoids advanced options like sabotage, patents, auctions, and stocks). The subsidiary simply exists to distribute its profits to shareholders, according to the ownership percentage. This system is much easier for players to handle as they don’t need to manage their subsidiary’s buildings and also easily handles split ownership, avoiding the problems of the original all-or-nothing system.

Because subsidiaries enabled partial ownership of companies, we were able to add one more wrinkle to the system — the majority buyout, which occurs if the other players own six shares (meaning more than half) of a player’s stock. In a majority buyout, the targeted player is instantly eliminated and turned into a subsidiary. This feature prevents players from staying in the game far after the point it becomes obvious that they don’t have a chance; if a player’s rivals own six or more of his shares, his chances of winning are slim at best. Most importantly, the player is not left around with an opportunity to unbalance the game by, perhaps, using sabotage maliciously to keep a specific opponent from winning. If a player has clearly lost, the company should be run by the neutral, subsidiary AI as soon as possible.

One final important change to the stock system came very late, less than five months before we shipped the game. Some players asked for more transparency in how close players are to buyouts. Thus, we experimented with a system in which players could buyout an opponent’s self-owned stock one-by-one (for double cost). Stocks owned in one’s own company became the equivalent of hit points, and when a player ran out of stock, her game was over. The system led to some tense games in which players could easily see how close the game was to ending as they lost control of their own stock, one share at a time. For the first time, three-player games were playable because the two leading players could each end up with half of the last-place one. However, free-for-alls with more than three players suffered because players could team up against one specific player and buy one or two shares each, forcing him out of the game.

Next, we tried a middle ground. Players could buyout shares one at a time until only five shares remained; at that point, the remaining five shares have to be bought all together. This mechanic struck the right balance between making buyouts more transparent while also protecting players from being knocked out by the group. One final small change gave us our final stock system – during a buyout, players have to pay 20% extra for each share owned by a third party, which gives a bonus to players who invest in buying some of the first five shares. Many players didn’t even notice this final tweak, but it felt better; if a player buys the first five shares in an opponent, she is now best positioned to finish the buyout.

We are often asked how Offworld compares strategically to more conventional RTS games. Some parts of the game are so different that it is hard to even make comparisons; however, the development history of the game’s stock market is interesting because it ended up in a place that mirrors the most famous dynamic in RTS games – rush vs turtle vs boom. As a short explanation, these three strategies have a high-level rock/paper/scissors relationship. A rusher (who sacrifices economy for early military) will beat the boomer (who sacrifices defenses for a strong economy). The rusher, however, loses to the turtler (who builds defenses in preparation for an attack). Finally, the boomer beats the turtler by outpacing him economically by the end game.

Strategically, our stock system parallels rush/turtle/boom. Going for an early majority buyout of another player is akin to the rush, which is done by investing one’s money not in economic growth but in buying another player’s stock. This rush, however, can be beaten by a turtle strategy, which means buying up shares of one’s own stock, especially that all-important fifth share that prevents a majority buyout. However, the turtler will lose to a player planning to boom by investing as much money as possible in upgrading her HQ, expanding production, and usually building the first Offworld Market. Completing the circle, the boomer risks losing to the rusher who only needs to buy those first six shares to knock her out. Most games of Offworld have specific key moments when this strategic tension is clear – when a player buys his own fifth share and blocks a majority buyout attempt or when a player spends all her money to upgrade to the final HQ level but forgot to buy enough shares to defend herself. The original stock system did not have these dynamics, so it’s interesting to consider how we came upon the rush/turtle/boom mechanics of a traditional RTS, basically on accident.

OTC Designer Notes #16: HQ Types

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, released on April 28, 2016, and is available for purchase here. (A Game Almanac, which includes the full Designer Notes, is available as free DLC.)

Offworld is an RTS, so having different factions was part of the design from the beginning; what each one meant, of course, took a long time to form. However, one design choice we inherited without really considering seriously was having players choose their faction before the game began — it wasn’t a choice because every strategy game ever, from Civilization to Crusader Kings, from WarCraft to Company of Heroes, from Master of Orion to Stellaris, from Master of Magic to Endless Legend, has players pick their faction before starting the game.

One of our playtesters floated this simple, but powerful, idea after a match one day — “What if I could choose my HQ after I see the map?” This suggestion took about an hour to code and was immediately a giant step forward for the game. Perhaps this idea was a natural outgrowth of the game’s design; the HQ types of Offworld favor specific arrangements of resources, so players would inevitably wish they had chosen a different HQ after seeing the map. Indeed, the exploration/founding phase of Offworld is also quite unique among RTS games (perhaps our background in the Civilization series made it a natural starting point for us), and adapting one’s choice in HQ to the random map makes for a very interesting decision. The best Offworld players are capable of winning with all four HQs so that they are never at risk of losing a game because the random map doesn’t match their favorite HQ. Finally, choosing HQs during the game also meant that players could take into account each others’ choices; for example, after noticing that all three other players founded Scientific HQs, which often consume tons of Power with secondary buildings like Steel Mills and Electrolysis Reactors, a player might decide to go Robotic and just focus on producing Power, making money as the price spikes earlier than usual.

Expansive – This HQ was always the vanilla one, with bonuses that did not significantly change the game but were still strong enough to compete. Thus, one HQ could be seen as the default – against which the others could be compared – and also what new players could use to get a baseline Offworld experience. The most obvious way to make a player stronger was to simply give him more claims, so Expansive HQs receive one extra claim each time they upgrade, a hugely powerful, if also hugely boring, advantage. We also wanted to give them a construction bonus to help them expand quickly, so we made their buildings cost half as much steel as they did for other HQ types. (In our initial Early Access version, Expansive HQs also needed half as much Steel to upgrade, but our community quickly discovered this bonus was hugely overpowered.) The Expansive player tends to look for as many High resources as possible – to feed all the secondary buildings on its extra claims – so we made claiming tiles father away from the HQ a little easier by increasing the speed of Expansive Freighters.

Robotic – From the beginning, the most obvious way to create a distinct HQ was to simply allow one to ignore life support costs. Thus, the Robotic HQ started as the one which didn’t need to worry about Water or Food or Oxygen. We also changed its units to use Power instead of Fuel, so that Robotic players could truly ignore Water entirely by not needing Electrolysis Reactors. The bonus for founding on top of resources originally belonged to the Expansive HQ, which made more sense with its large footprint when HQs got a slow but steady rate of production from the resources underneath them. We determined that it was just simpler (and reduced our UI challenge) to simply destroy the resources on found and give the player a lump sum relative to the resource level. After the change, the Robotic were a better fit for this bonus as they could take advantage of an early resource lead to upgrade fast without concern (because they consume no extra life support as they upgrade). In fact, the Robotic HQ originally consumed Power (and, in a later version, consumed Electronics), but we felt that having the HQ consume nothing as it upgraded made it even more distinct.

However, players felt the Robotic HQ was still underpowered, so we made two further changes. First, we changed the resources Robotic HQs needed to upgrade — needing half as much Aluminum and using Electronics instead of Glass (and half as much as well). Thus, we improved further the ability of Robotic players to upgrade quickly and, perhaps more importantly, changed what type of resources they looked for on the map. Because Aluminum is much less important to them, Robotic players can found in locations that are unappealing (without good access to either Water or Aluminum) to other players. (The high-level goal here is that each HQ type should have a different ideal founding location so that players benefit from being able to play all four types.)

Second, we changed how adjacency rules worked for the Robotic player; buildings would get an adjacency bonus not just for being next to buildings of their own type but also for being next to buildings which supply their input. Thus, a Steel Mill gets a 50% bonus for being next to a Metal Mine that produces Iron while a Glass Furnace would get a 75% bonus for being next to an Elemental Quarry producing Silicon and an Electrolysis Reactor producing Oxygen. We also experimented with giving Robotic HQs a general production bonus relative to how much extra Power they produced but – instead of adding another special bonus to an already long list – we extended the adjacency bonus to include buildings which provide Power. (Thus, Solar Panels would give an adjacency bonus to all buildings which consumed Power.) Again, these change meant that Robotic HQs benefit from a certain arrangement of resources that might not matter to other HQs, such as a Geothermal near Iron (which could both boost Steel Mills) or a variety of Low resources close together (which enables a chain of input bonuses).

Scavenger – The initial idea behind the Scavengers was an HQ that used a different resource as its primary building material. Almost all buildings in the game require a significant amount of Steel, making it an important resource throughout the game, so allowing a player to bypass that resource entirely radically changes the resource hierarchy. Scavengers originally required Silicon back when Copper was still in the game, but we switch them over to Carbon when it was added because Carbon was the easiest resource to skip during the early game. Carbon only leads to Chemicals and Electronics, both resources that players do not typically need until they have upgraded at least a couple time, so Scavenger players can thrive on parts of the map ignored by other HQs.

We also wanted the Scavengers to thematically be tied to espionage and sabotage, which inspired the HQ’s other two bonuses. For espionage, we gave Scavenger players early warning of most random events affecting the resource market, including all of the ones artificially triggered by the Hacker Array. It’s difficult to quantify the value of this bonus as it is simply information, but a good Scavenger player will buy and sell rapidly in response to an impending shortage or surplus. Indeed, multiple Scavenger players can greatly amplify the effects of these events; for example, if a Food shortage is coming, the Scavengers might buy up a lot of Food in preparation for the coming rise in price, which of course drives up the price before the shortage even arrives. It can sometimes be hard to tell if the price is changing more from the random event itself or from Scavengers playing the market.

To associate the Scavengers with sabotage, we gave them a random item from the black market each time they upgraded. This power was interesting but considered simply too random by most players. In a 2-player match, for example, getting Pirates from the first upgrade could put the other player in such a hole that the match felt over (whether or not this was really true). Thus, we changed the bonus to be a shorter black market cooldown, so that a Scavenger player could buy sabotage items quicker than the other players. This change took away an unnecessary bit of randomness and also had a more pronounced effect later in the game, which improved perceptions of fairness because, early on, the Scavenger player usually couldn’t afford to buy sabotage from the black market each time it unlocked anyway. (Although the old random sabotage bonus was removed, we left the code in the game and recycled it as a special power for one of the Campaign’s Scavenger executives.)

Scientific – The most unusual HQ in the game – because they can ignore High resources and skip primary buildings – the Scientists also started off with very different powers. Originally, the HQ received Optimization Center upgrades simply from maintaining buildings; if a Scientific player built a bunch of Steel Mills, then he would eventually earn Improved Steel Production, then Efficient Steel Production, and so on — and all for free. The Scientists also were the only HQ that could see and use Trace resources (which, at this point in development, were also generated randomly and were as productive as Low resources). Finally, the Scientific HQ acquired patents faster, which actually was taken away by the time the game released on Early Access but came back later to give the HQ more of a scientific flavor.

This combination of bonuses just didn’t seem to work, and Scientists were the least popular HQ. The free optimization upgrades felt too random and hard to monitor; because the player was not making active choices, she wasn’t invested in the outcome of the system. We decided to drop this bonus in favor of a new, more radical one — that secondary buildings could extract their input resources directly from their tile. This idea came from thinking about ways to make Trace resources more important for the Scientific player; a few extra Low-equivalent resources was not particularly interesting, but if those resources could be used to power Hydrolysis Reactors and Steel Mills and Glass Blowers? Suddenly, the entire map looked different to a Scientific player; that giant cluster of uninteresting Trace and Low Water tiles becomes a money-making machine for triangles of Scientific Farms and Reactors.

Ironically, the Trace resource bonus that inspired the defining feature of the Scientific HQ would not last much longer. The one downside to allowing players to choose their HQ type after exploring the map is that there was no way to show Trace resources only to Scientific players before founding (because, of course, these players are not Scientific yet). For a while, we kept Trace resources in as before and simply revealed them to Scientific players after founding, but it seemed like a weird vestigial rule that didn’t fit the current game. Thus, we dropped the association with Scientific players and changed the rules for Underground Nukes so that resources could never be destroyed permanently but instead became Trace resources (which now produced at only a quarter of the rate of Low).

Scientific HQs have one more bonus – protection against EMPs and Power Surges – which used to be much stronger, originally protecting them against all types of sabotage. The desired effect was not necessarily to boost the Scientists but to simply make sabotage decisions more interesting. For example, should a player target the Scientist with the highest stock price or someone else without protection against sabotage? Ultimately, this bonus proved simply too powerful, so we reduced it to only affect sabotage which froze buildings. The upshot of this change is that players now have an important reason to check the black market before picking an HQ; if both EMPs and Power Surges are available, then Scientists are a good choice as they have natural protection against a significant portion of the black market.

OTC Designer Notes #15: Black Market (Part III)

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, released on April 28, 2016, and is available for purchase here. (A Game Almanac, which includes the full Designer Notes, is available as free DLC.)

Adrenaline Boost – The original concept of the Adrenaline Boost was to be the opposite of the EMP, meaning an area-of-effect black market item that boosted buildings instead of disabling them. However, players need to be careful with Boosts as they increase a building’s speed (how fast it works) and not its efficiency (how much of resource X is made from resource Y). Thus, a boosted Steel Mill will produces twice as much Steel but also consume twice as much Iron, which means that the player may not have enough Iron to support the boosted Mill, which means the price of Iron will rise as the player has to buy more and more Iron to feed the Mill. By the time the Boost is over, the building might even be running at a loss (especially since the price of Steel might drop from the sudden overproduction). Adrenaline Boosts are also great for advanced buildings as they make them all work faster, meaning quicker patents, optimizations, hacks, and (most importantly) launches. In fact, players favored boosted Offworlds so much that we had to add a special rule for them, increasing the speed of just that one building by 50% instead of the standard 100%. We dislike adding special rules to handle a single tactic, but a boosted Offworld (especially if protected with a Goon Squad) could simply end the game, especially in 1v1.

Slowdown Strike – Initially, the Slowdown Strike was meant to be just an alternate version of the EMP, hitting all buildings within a certain radius but slowing them down instead of disabling them. However, the EMP was still strictly better, which put the item in an odd place; it is never good to give a player two choices, one of which is always worse. We tried to fix this imbalance by giving the Slowdown Strike a bigger radius and longer effect time, but we had to increase those numbers so much that the item somehow felt both too powerful and yet still too weak (because the buildings did keep working). Instead, we gave the Slowdown Strike a unique power — the ability to ignore Goon Squads. This change gave the item an important strategic position, a way to hurt a player even if everyone knows he has a Goon Squad on that one important building. Ignoring Goon Squads only works because the original effect was so weak, an example of solving a design problem with an orthogonal power instead of just turning up the numbers. Further, the Slowdown Strike is the mirror opposite of the Adrenaline Boost (meaning a building with both effects works just like normal), and as players often protect their Boosts with Goon Squads, the Strike is the natural counter to that situation.

Network Virus – Perhaps the most conceptually strange item on the black market, the Network Virus punishes other players for allowing their buildings to become unprofitable. Initially, the effect only prevented players from deleting buildings and turning them on or off. However, as long as a player turned off his buildings when they were losing money, the Network Virus wasn’t that dangerous. Thus, we changed the effect to force a building to be always on. Still, players could still find a way out by selling off all of the input resource consumed by the building (which means it would stop processing). Next, we turned on auto-supply for all buildings, which meant that the input resources would be automatically purchased by the owning player. Of course, players found a way out of that too, by simply getting rid of all their cash to prevent auto-supply from happening. To fix that, we made Network Virus auto-supply actually buy input resources from debt if necessary. This change fixed all the ways player could avoid the effect, but it created a new, bizarre problem, which is that auto-supplying using debt is actually a GOOD thing if a building was profitable (because the building can now work even if the player is out of cash and resources). Fortunately, a fix was possible by simply not allowing players to hit their own buildings with a Network Virus, which was not something we had worried about previously. A Network Virus is most effective if the attacker is also manipulating the market at the same time; for example, if Steel Mills are hit with a Virus, the player who attacked should also buy up as much Iron as possible to drive up the price and push the Steel Mills further into the red.

Circuit Overload – Originally, the Power doubling of Circuit Overload was part of the Network Virus. The player couldn’t turn his buildings off, and the building would consume twice as much Power, which usually guaranteed that the building would be locked in an unprofitable state. However, players quickly found ways to hurt their rivals with the Network Virus regardless of the price of Power, but if Power was high, the combination was devastating. Thus, we created Circuit Overload for just the Power effect. However, because the item didn’t affect Power buildings at all, we also extended Circuit Overload to shut down buildings that were producing Power. Occasionally (and especially on maps with lots of Geothermal Plants), the price of Power drops so low that Circuit Overloads are not particularly effective; in that situation, players will often use the item as a cheap and safe method for removing Goon Squads from enemy buildings. (Because the price of Power is low, giving a Circuit Overload to an opponent is not particularly dangerous.)

Core Sample – The Core Sample is the only way to add resources to the map after the game starts. This ability could easily be too strong if players could control which resource is found, so we made the discovery random. However, the probability for each resource is different depending on the terrain; for example, a Core Sample of a Volcanic tile is most likely to find Iron. Thus, players can usually find the resource they want if they take the time to find the right terrain type. Randomness after the player makes a choice is generally not a good fit for Offworld (see above as we stopped Power Surges from hitting Goon Squads randomly), but we mitigate that issue by actually showing the odds of discovering the most likely resource to be found in the popup help when mousing over a tile. If players are going to roll a virtual die, best to be as transparent as possible with their chances.

Underground Nuke – In some ways, the Underground Nuke is the mirror opposite of the Core Sample; it is the only way to subtract a resource away from the map. However, that is actually a bit of an understatement — the Underground Nuke is the only way to permanently damage another player. Every other type of sabotage, while painful, is still only temporary. EMPs and Power Surges wear off eventually. Pirates leave after stealing enough resources. Buildings destroyed with Dynamite can be repaired. Not only do Mutinies end, but a building can be stolen back with another Mutiny. An Underground Nuke, however, is forever. Thus, players sometimes treat Underground Nukes the way real nukes were treated during the Cold War — with the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. If Nukes are available, players will often not use them, unless someone else makes the first move. If one player nukes another’s Aluminum, the victim is probably just going to nuke the attacker’s Aluminum in return, so maybe the players will all just watch and wait. Not all players are this cautious, of course, but this situation is common enough. One important change to Nukes came when Scientists were no longer the only HQ that could see Trace resources; instead of just removing Trace levels from the game, we made it the minimum state for a nuked tile, which did help Nukes from being too powerful.

Dynamite – As mentioned above, Dynamite replaced the ability of the original Pirate unit to destroy buildings. The effect could never be quite as strong as before because an unchallenged Pirate could wipe out all of a player’s buildings away from the HQ (which had natural protection against Pirates). Indeed, we were worried that Dynamite was going to be a little bit boring; the building gets blown up and then simply gets repaired. Was there an interesting choice being made? After adding Dynamite to the game, however, we found that it had two interesting uses. First, because the repair unit, the Engineer, is very slow, distance makes a great deal of difference. Dynamite is a powerful tool against a Geothermal Plant, or even just a Mine, on the other side of the map from the owner’s HQ. Also, because the owner needs to pay half the construction resources to repair a building, Dynamite is great against Offworld Markets, by far the most expensive building in the game. Even though Offworlds are usually near the owner’s HQ (so repair times are minimal), having to buy large quantities of Glass, Electronics, and either Steel or Carbon can really slow down a player. Furthermore, if the saboteur happens to be making Glass or Electronics and would benefit from an increase in demand, it is all the better.

Mutiny – Another one of the original black market items, the Mutiny allows perhaps the most devastating of powers — stealing an opponent’s building for a period of time. The Mutiny is best used to take a building at the peak of its effectiveness. If Power spikes, grab a Geothermal Plant. If Water becomes a problem, steal a Water Pump. Better yet, the player should take one next to his own Pump, benefiting from an adjacency bonus. Advanced buildings are also great targets for a Mutiny to grab a patent, trigger a shortage, or even launch resources offworld. If the launches are arranged ahead of time, a stolen Offworld Market can launch twice during a Mutiny. (Taking a boosted Offworld is one of the greatest pleasures in the game.) Stealing a tile already hit with a Mutiny is also a great move because those tiles are very unlikely to be protected by a Goon Squad (although that is occasionally seen in 1v1 play).

Goon Squad – The Goon Squad has been mentioned so many times already that it is hard to know what else to say about it. Although the item was created to give players a defense against sabotage, we designed it to also encourage revenge. If sabotage is caught by a Goon Squad, the identity of the attacker is then revealed, and the sabotage item is then given to the defender. Thus, the game encourages the defender to strike back at the attacker with the same sabotage used against her. Players often make an emotional decision in this situation, even if it’s not necessarily the correct one; saving the sabotage for later or for a different player might be the best choice, but revenge definitely feels better. One interesting aspect of Goon Squad use is guessing where one’s opponents have placed them; every time a black market item is purchased, the price goes up, so everyone knows when a Goon Squad has been bought. If a player gets down the first Geothermal Plant, and Mutinies are on the market, then a Goon Squad would be a good idea to protect the tile. However, once the Goon Squad is purchased, and the price goes up, everyone is going to assume that the Geothermal is protected. Perhaps it would be better to protect the Steel Mills and catch everyone by surprise? Finally, we made one small but important tweak to Goon Squad after seeing it in action. The protected tile is shielded from EMPs, Power Surges, and other sabotage that hits multiple tiles, which of course reveals the location of the Goon Squad. After seeing players watch for these events, trying to remember which tile had the Goon Squad for later, we decided to just make it easier for players and permanently reveal the Goon Squad to everyone once it had been exposed. If information has been available to players previously, we don’t believe taxing their memory is good game design — better to help them remember to inform decisions later in the game.

OTC Designer Notes #14: Black Market (Part II)

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, releases today and is available for purchase here. (A Game Almanac, which includes the full Designer Notes, is available as free DLC.)

Bribe Claim – Certainly the simplest black market item, Bribe Claim is one of only two (along with Cook the Books) which takes effect immediately. Everyone wants more claims, but however appealing a new claim may be, players should be careful not to overvalue the item. Bribing a claim for $4K may sound great, but what if the player could instead upgrade her HQ for $8K and get three claims? The best time to bribe a claim is if the player has one claim left for a new building and needs the extra claim to at least build a second building for the +50% adjacency bonus.

Cook the Books – This item is one of only two (along with Bribe Claim) that can be purchased with a D bond rating, which is especially important in this case because buying Cook the Books can actually raise the player up to a C rating. (However, the game will track if the player’s debt is so bad that he would be below D if such a rating existed. In that case, buying Cook the Books will not raise the bond rating.) Games with Cook the Books available are interesting because players know that they can take on more debt than normal. However, a lower interest rate on a larger amount of debt can still spiral out of control, so sometimes the winner ends up being the Robotic player who decided to skip debt and just sell Power.

Auction Tile – The first version of this item only allowed players to auction off their own tiles. The upside is that the seller is rewarded in straight cash (while the buyer can overbid with debt), and if the other players get into a bidding war, the money can fund something much more important than the lost tile. In fact, the building on the tile is auctioned off as well; I’ve always been curious to know how much people would pay for an Offworld Market although I have certainly be too hesitant to try that myself. However, auctioning off one’s own tiles is a rare strategy, so we also added the ability to auction off neutral tiles (although in this case, the money goes to the bank). The typical strategy is to auction off a tile next to one’s own HQ so that it is not particularly valuable to anyone else and can therefore be bought for a low price.

Hologram – Philosophically, I have always designed games for both the human and the AI. Obviously, game mechanics needs to be fun for the human as the artificial intelligence is not going to be buying our game. However, I also always evaluate game mechanics by whether the AI can, not necessarily have fun with them, but can understand them and use them in a reasonable way. The hologram is a very interesting black market item that adds an element of guessing the opponent’s mind into the game, but it is completely unsuitable for the AI. The problem is making the AI capable of guessing where the humans placed her Holograms. If we don’t solve that problem, then the human can easily hide every Offworld Market and just walk to victory. On the other hand, if we DO solve that not insignificant problem, then the human is going to just assume the AI is cheating and peeking at a bit of game state it shouldn’t be seeing. It’s a classic lose-lose situation for an AI developer. We solved this problem by finally drawing a line between the single-player and the multiplayer versions of the game; the Hologram (along with the Spy and Auction Tile) would be considered Advanced Sabotage and turned off by default in the single-player game. Keeping both sides of the game identical is still the rule, but sometimes breaking that rule is worth it. Holograms were simply too much fun to sacrifice to a philosophical goal.

Spy – Of course, the Hologram would never have worked at all if there wasn’t some way to counter it, which is why the Spy exists. However, the Spy does a whole lot more; it reveals hidden Goon Squads, what advanced buildings (such as Patent Labs and Hacker Arrays) are doing, and the stockpile stored inside a building (which can be useful when destroying a full Glass Kiln with Dynamite). Information is powerful although that power is also hard to quantify; many players felt that the Spy was not worth triggering a black market cooldown, especially when looking for an Offworld Market to steal with a Mutiny. Thus, we removed the cooldown for the Spy, as well as for the Hologram, so that players could use as many as they could afford. Because both items only affect information and not actual resources, this change was still balanced with the rest of the black market. (We also tried taking the cooldown away from Auction Tile, but Zultar proved in a memorable game how much one player could grind everything to a halt by auctioning off all his buildings.)

MULE – A not very subtle nod to one of the major inspirations for Offworld, the MULE also lets the player do something unique — to mine resources without constructing a building or even using a claim. Thus, players can acquire 200 Aluminum without actually having to commit to an Aluminum tile. MULEs are also a great way to take advantage of a primary resource that has spiked in value by simply mining the most valuable resource relatively close to the player’s HQ. MULEs do, however, consume Fuel while traveling and while mining, so players should be careful not to use MULEs if the price of Fuel is too high.

Pirates – As mentioned above, Pirates were originally actual units that the player would buy and move around the map, attacking enemy ships and buildings. The black market version simply stayed on one tile and stole resources from every Freighter that came within range (and would disappear after giving a total of 100 resource to the attacker) Initially, every ship was shot down, so a player hit with Pirates early in the game might be knocked out entirely if he lost his first 100 units of Steel to another player. Thus, we added a dice roll for each shot so that each Freighter had a 50% chance of surviving. This system worked reasonably well but could still annoy players (either the attacker or the victim) if the dice were streaky. Our artists came up with a new concept for the Pirates; they would no longer fly in circles but instead shoot at Freighters from the ground to knock off resources. This art change inspired the final system, which uses no luck and also doesn’t strangle victims. Now, Pirates always hit Freighters but only steal half of the resources; we’re not sure why it took so long to get to this obvious solution! (Putting Pirates on the ground also creates an interesting, if obscure, wrinkle; players can actually remove Pirates from the game if they construct a building in the same tile. Normally, placing a building in a tile just to kill Pirates doesn’t make sense, but players should at least consider this possibility when placing them.)

Magnetic Storm – The Magnetic Storm originated from trying to design a way to hurt Freighters differently than Pirates do. We chose the simplest approach — to simply destroy all Freighters (and their cargo) within a large radius. This power can be especially useful if multiple players are shipping across the same territory as it can hit as many units as are within its range. Scientific HQs are especially vulnerable to Magnetic Storm as they sometimes ship Food, Oxygen, Fuel, Steel, Glass, and even Chemicals and Electronics across the map, all of which tend to be valuable. Players who want to wipe out a specific resource can use an EMP first on the distant buildings, which then automatically triggers a shipment to the owner’s HQ, which can then be wiped out immediately with a Magnetic Storm. One rare, but still powerful, use of a Magnetic Storm is to prevent a player from repairing a distant building destroyed with a Dynamite; the repair Engineer can be wiped out just before it gets to the tile (and although the it does regenerate at the HQ, these units travel very slowly).

EMP – One of the original black market items, the EMP may have been the first one added to the game as it has such a straightforward effect – simply turn off all the buildings of another player within a certain radius. Initially, all buildings were shut off for the same period of time, but we found the choice more interesting if the effect decreased by distance from the target tile — not only did this effect make sense thematically, but players now needed to consider which specific buildings were the most important to freeze. Because an early EMP can be so devastating (potentially shutting down all of a player’s buildings), an expert player will often split her early buildings between different sides of her HQ, making sure that at least half of her production would survive an EMP attack.

Power Surge – The Power Surge works similar to an EMP but is meant to punish players for a different type of arrangement. The EMP is most destructive if a player clumps his buildings together to take advantage of adjacency bonuses. A Power Surge, on the other hand, is most dangerous if a player builds out in snaky lines, which are less vulnerable to EMPs and can be useful for connecting the HQ to distant resources. The Power Surge moves to adjacent tiles randomly but cannot hit the same tile twice. Therefore, if a player isn’t careful, a Surge can end prematurely if it gets trapped on a tile without a valid path; the best place to start a Surge is at the end of a line of buildings because it will have a clear path. We made one important change to how Power Surges interact with Goon Squads, which kill Power Surges if they randomly hit them. After the change, the Surge will only move onto a tile with a Goon Squad (even if unrevealed) if there are no other options available, which means that players never get an unlucky roll with Surges. Players had referred to hitting Goon Squads with an unlucky roll as a “bad bounce” — which meant an unintentional and unwanted bit of luck had entered the system. (Goon Squads were meant to protect primarily against single-tile sabotage, like Mutiny or Dynamite; it was not meant to kill Power Surges randomly.) Now, if a player wants to protect against Surges, she should arrange her buildings with chokepoints and place the Goon Squads on those tiles, guaranteeing the block.

OTC Designer Notes #13: Black Market (Part I)

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, releases on April 28, 2016, and is available for purchase here.

Although the black market is one of the defining features of Offworld, it was not part of the initial game design. The idea originated, after the basic free market gameplay was already in place, from an offhand comment made by one playtester — “It would be cool if I could sabotage the other players’ buildings.” The game was not supposed to be about combat (although in this earlier version of the game, the player could hire pirate ships that flew around attacking units and building), but some well-timed sabotage sounded interesting and fun.

The first question was how players should acquire sabotage. The idea of something called a “black market” fit well with the economic theme of Offworld. Initially, the Black Market was actually a neutral building that appeared on the map, which players could discover during exploration and then access to buy the items. (An equivalent Pirate Haven building existed for hiring pirates.) Each time a player bought an item, he would then be locked out of the market for a specific period of time, so players couldn’t sabotage as much as they could afford. (Under the original model, if a player found more than one Black Market, they could buy sabotage more often.)

We were also concerned about players turning an economic game into a de facto military one by deciding to spend as much money as possible hurting each other with sabotage. Therefore, we decided to double the price of each item every time it was bought by any player. (Eventually, this algorithm became a little more nuanced; the price went up by less than double, scaled by the number of players, and also increased for the purchasing player slightly more.) This global increase in price meant that, at some point, the cost of sabotaging another player would be so high that it would no longer be worth doing. Increasing prices globally had another interesting effect; seeing a Mutiny go up in price means that everyone knew that someone just bought one. Who is going to get hit? Which building? Maybe a player should buy a Goon Squad to protect his Geothermal Plant? Of course, once the player with the Mutiny sees the price of Goon Squads increase, maybe she should be more careful where she attacks?

The visibility of black market prices created a wonderful sense of paranoia, and we wanted to ratchet up the level of distrust among players by also not revealing who actually triggered each sabotage incident. When a Geothermal Plant gets destroyed with Dynamite or stolen with a Mutiny, the owner can only guess who attacked him. Hearing inaccurate accusations fly back and forth during play sessions is a singular experience. Players will sometimes engage in crude diplomacy by declaring who they think should be targeted (and why they themselves, of course, should not be). The fear of players aiming to knock out a specific players based on his pregame reputation led to the idea of the Masquerade mode, which hides a player’s identity until he is either eliminated or wins the game.

Originally, the items on the black market were the same six every game: Bribe Claim, EMP, Power Surge, Statis Field, Mutiny, and Underground Nuke. The Stasis Field, which froze ships in place, was cut when the Pirate and Police ships were removed from the game. To replace Pirate ships, two new items were added to the black market that had similar effects but no micromanagement – Pirates attacked shipping lanes and Dynamite destroyed buildings. After playing with this set of items for months and months, we were worried that players had no way to protect themselves from sabotage. Thus, we added the Goon Squad as a check on too much black market aggression.

We launched on Early Access with these seven items – Bribe Claim, EMP, Power Surge, Underground Nuke, Mutiny, Dynamite, and Pirates – which long-time players still think of as the classic set. However, after many more months of play, we felt that we were missing a great opportunity to add diversity to the game (and thus encourage more adaptive play) by adding more items to the black market and choosing them randomly before each game. Eventually, we added twelve more items to the black market, from which around seven are chosen each game.

Initially, the algorithm to select them was quite random, like picking cards from a deck, but this method made the game too random as the delicate balance between each type of sabotage and the other game mechanics was lost; for example, a Scientific player didn’t have to worry about Pirates or Magnetic Storms if neither one appeared for sale. Thus, we added some rules to govern the black market — there would always be either an EMP or a Power Surge, either a Dynamite or a Mutiny, and either Pirates or Magnetic Storms. Further, Goon Squads would always be in the game as long as at least two items which triggered them were available. These rules helped preserve a bit of the flavor of the classic black market, so that players have a sense of which items are more common and which are more rare.

 

OTC Designer Notes #12: Offworld Market

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, releases on April 28, 2016, and is available for purchase here.

The Offworld Market was inspired primarily by the triangle trade system outline by Robert Zubrin in The Case for Mars — miners in the Asteroid Belt would send rare and valuable metals to Earth, Earth would send send colonists and finished goods to Mars, and Mars would send supplies and life support (water, food, oxygen, fuel) to the Belt. Although Mars seems like an unlikely source of, say, food, the important facts are that Mars is significantly smaller than the Earth (so that launching a rocket offworld consumes much less fuel) and also much closer to the Belt (saving both fuel and time).

From a gameplay perspective, the Offworld Markets give players access to a much larger trade network with more stable prices. Essentially, there is no way for players to drive down offworld prices because the demand is so high and widespread, which contrasts significantly with the violent swings of the onworld market. This stability is important because, simply put, it guarantees that the game can end. Occasionally, players produce so many resources that the onworld prices drop low enough that not enough money is available to end the game in a timely manner. Once players start shipping offworld – often making over $50K per launch – the end is near.

Thus, Offworld Markets are equivalent to the uber-units seen in traditional RTS’s, which are only available at the end of the tech tree and are used to end a game quickly. Because Offworlds signal the endgame, the are a frequent target of sabotage, especially Dynamites and Mutinies. In fact, some players believe that one Offworld Market is better than two because it is much easier to protect just one Offworld with a Goon Squad. The worst-case situation after constructing a (very expensive) Offworld Market is for another player to steal it with a Mutiny and then start launching resources himself. (Actually, the worst-worst-case is to have someone munity away an Offworld just powered up with an Adrenaline Boost.)

Offworld Markets changed quite a bit over the course of development. Originally, it was actually two buildings – a Launch Pad, which functioned similarly to the current building, and a Space Elevator, which shipped faster and didn’t consume Fuel or Aluminum when launching. We combined them into a single building to simplify the game and also to connect the building with the title. Once we chose the name Offworld Trading Company, it made sense to have the most important building in the game reflect the title. Also, there were originally no limits on how many Offworlds a player could build, which led to some ridiculous Offworld arms races in which two players had four, five, six, and even more each, making so much money that their stock prices were rising almost as fast as their cash, extending the game far too long. Furthermore, once a player has more than two Offworlds, sabotage becomes a less useful tool against him, which also makes the endgame somewhat stale. Things improved after limiting Offworlds to two per player, and they improved again when we tied the first one to HQ level 4 and the second to level 5. Now, players have an interesting decision to make at level 4. Build an Offworld early (perhaps using a Hologram so no one notices) or push ahead to more claims at level 5?

OTC Designer Notes #11: Hacker Array

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, releases on April 28, 2016, and is available for purchase here.

Probably the most difficult building to use in the game, the Hacker Array is the only way a player can influence the demand side of the supply-and-demand equation. The building emerged from the random event system (inspired by M.U.L.E.) which randomly triggered resource shortages and surpluses during the game. These random events add some nice chaos to the resource market so that it is not so primarily driven by the players. Once they were in place, however, we began to wonder what would happen if a player could trigger a random event, especially if the other players couldn’t tell if the event was real or not.

Thus, the Hacker Array lets players start artificial shortages and surpluses, which can be a great tool used at the right time. One of the best aspects of the Hacker Array is the paranoia it creates in other players. As soon as a Hacker Array is spotted, players start to doubt the events – maybe one Electronics shortage is inconclusive, but two in a row? (The best, of course, is when those two consecutive event were actually real!) In fact, we had to make an important rule change to the Hacker Array shortly after coming out on Early Access because players quickly discovered that if they built not just one Hacker Array but two or three or even more, they could trigger multiple concurrent shortages of a stockpiled resource, driving the price up so quickly that they could win the game just be selling at the top price. Therefore, we limited multiple hacks of a single resource from processing concurrently; players could still use multiple Hacker Arrays, but they needed to be manipulating different resources.

What makes the Hacker Array so tricky, however, is that unlike the other advanced buildings, there is no guarantee that the building will help its owner the most. A player might short Steel after noticing that he has the most Steel Mills on the map but end up helping a different player who was holding a stockpile of 500 Steel and then sells out of it before the original player realizes what is happening. One of the tensest moments of the game is watching the price of a resource climb up and up and up with one’s cursor hovering over the sell button, trying to win the game of chicken by selling for the highest price just before anyone else does.