Podcast: Frank Lantz

In this episode, Soren interviews Frank Lantz, currently Director of the NYU Game Center. Frantz was also the co-founder of Area/Code where he led the design of Drop7. We discuss how to make sure your game gets written up in Boing Boing, why most people who like ARGs have never played one, and how to take advantage of your friend’s trip to the hospital in Parking Wars.

Games Discussed: The Manhole, Dungeon Master, Mortal Combat, Wipeout, Gearheads, Diner Dash, PacManhattan, Shark Runners, Parking Wars, Drop7


Designer Notes is a Podcast!

For years now, I’ve been a frequent guest on various video game podcasts, especially Three Moves Ahead and The Game Design Roundtable. I’ve always enjoy the format and have now decided to start one of my own. Thus, I’d like to announce the Designer Notes podcast, in which I sit down with noted game designers to discuss why we make games.

The folks at Idle Thumbs offered to host the podcast, which greatly helped getting this new endeavor started. My first guest is Rob Pardo, formerly the Chief Creative Officer at Blizzard. We had such a long discussion that I had to break it into two parts, and the first half ranges from his first gaming memories through StarCraft, Brood War, and Warcraft 3. I’ll be posting the second half in early December. Future guests include Frank Lantz, Henrik Fåhraeus, Jon Shafer, Daniel Cook, Brad Muir, Brian Reynolds, Chelsea Howe, and Daniel Benmergui.

EDIT: The second half is now available.

Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Not Me?

I created one of those new-fangled Steam curator pages. Here are my comments:

Atom Zombie Smasher – A well-scoped RTS that keeps everything important and nothing else. The bizarro atmosphere helps too.

Brothers – A beautiful experience, and few game narratives integrate their actual game mechanics into the story so well.

Crusader Kings 2 – Requires an upfront commitment, but no historical game has ever made PEOPLE so important.

Frozen Synapse – Because turns can be submitted in any order, this game is ideal for asynchronous play.

FTL – A perfectly paced game, of just the right length to enable consequence (by being short enough) and progression (by being long enough).

Magicka – A hilarious game, especially in multiplayer. Wonderful joy of discovery if the player stays away from walkthroughs.

Mark of the Ninja – A masterpiece in transparency. Exposing the details of a stealth game (as well as limiting it to 2D) creates amazing intentional play.

Papers, Please – Games have immense powers of empathy, and no game does a better job of creating unexpected empathy.

Spelunky – A monument to the ability of video games to create new worlds from scratch; the last game this amazing was Seven Cities of Gold (for its time).

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution – Simply feels great to play; this game gets every little detail of twitch right.

Swords and Soldiers – 2D? 3D? How about a 1D RTS? This game is a lesson in how simplification leaves room for greater engagement with the actual game mechanics.

Thief Gold – Did you know the original Thief is on Steam? Well, the original Thief is on Steam.

Thirty Flights of Loving – Apparently, this game was made by the same guy who made Atom Zombie Smasher. I assume that’s impossible, however, as nobody can be that versatile.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon – Get a few friends together, team up on Terrorist Hunt, thank me later.

Unity of Command – Remarkably accessible for a wargame. The supply mechanic creates an important perspective on the battles.

The Game Design Round Table #93 and #94

I was on Dirk Knemeyer’s Game Design Round Table podcast twice last month and spent some time talking about how my current game, Offworld Trading Company, is progressing. On Episode 93, we discussed dynamic campaigns in strategy games and were joined by Firaxis designer Ananda Gupta, who shared his experience working on the (dynamic) campaign for the new XCOM. On Episode 94, we were joined by Civ 5 designer Jon Shafer to discuss the current state of Offworld and their impressions of the game.

As a reminder, Offworld can be purchased now on Steam at offworldgame.com.

Offworld Rules Circa June 2014

In June of 2014, I posted the rules for Offworld Trading Company on my company’s blog. Of course, given our practice of constant iteration, it didn’t take long for those rules to get out-of-date, so I am now editing that post to keep it up-to-date with the current game. Indeed, as more and more time passes, that original ruleset will diverge considerably from the publicly available version. Thus, I am re-posting the original June 2014 version here as an archived snapshot of the game, which might make it interesting reading by the time we officially release the game. As a reminder, Offworld can be pre-ordered at offworldgame.com.

1.0 Introduction

Offworld Trading Company is a game about the colonization and exploitation of Mars by corporations who have taken to space for a profit. Each company will found a colony on the map, claim territory, construct buildings, produce resources, and then make money by selling them on the open market. Players can harass each other with industrial sabotage, mercenary pirates, and market manipulation. The end goal is to buy out all the other corporations via the stock market, in which each company’s price goes up and down based on the value of their current assets.

2.0 Components

2.1 The Map

The map represent a section of Martian terrain that has been opened for commercial development. This map has been divided into hex-shaped tiles, each of which can be claimed by players. Some tiles, such as mountains, slopes, and canyons, are marked as unusable and will never contain any resources. Also, each usable tile has one of five height levels (Very Low, Low, Medium, High, and Very High) which means that the map is a collection of plateaus. These plateaus are useful for connecting buildings together into rail-based networks that allows the transportation of resources without using Blimps. Tiles also have a wind level (Very Weak, Weak, Moderate, Strong, Very Strong) and ice content (Normal, Permafrost, Ice), which determine how certain buildings perform.

2.1 The Resource Deposits

Each tile can contain deposits of the primary resources (Water, Carbon, Silicon, Aluminum, and Iron). These deposits are classified into four different resource levels, which each have different yield rates:

  • Trace (-75%)
  • Low
  • Medium (+50%)
  • High (+100%)

Also, some tiles contain a Geothermal Source, which is required for the Geothermal Plant.

2.2 The Colony

Each player founds one colony to start the game, which stretches across multiple tiles, all of which need to be usable and of the same height. All resources underneath the colony will be mined although at only a quarter of the rate that a normal building would produce. A geothermal source will produce energy but, again, at only a quarter the rate of a Geothermal Plant. The colony will contain the player’s resource stockpile, which is where resources are taken from when sold on the open market and deposited into when bought. Each colony also consume life support (Water, Food, Oxygen) which have to be bought on the open market if they are not in the stockpile.

2.3 The Buildings

Each claimed tile can contain one building, and the different types are listed here:

  • Water Pump (mines Water)
  • Ice Condenser (creates Water from ice content)
  • Hydrolysis Farm (turns Water into Food)
  • Electrolysis Reactor (turns Water into Oxygen and Fuel)
  • Chemicals Lab (turns Fuel and Carbon into Chemicals)
  • Elemental Quarry (mine Carbon and Silicon)
  • Glass Furnace (turns Silicon and Oxygen into Glass)
  • Goods Factory (turns Carbon, Silicon, and Aluminum into Goods)
  • Metal Mine (mines Aluminum and Iron)
  • Steel Mill (turns Iron into Steel)
  • Solar Panel (creates Energy from height level)
  • Wind Turbine (creates Energy from wind level)
  • Geothermal Plant (creates Energy but requires Geothermal Source)
  • Patent Lab (can discover patents)
  • Engineering Lab (can improve industrial production)
  • Pleasure Dome (produce money from population)
  • Hacker Array (can create artificial shortages and surpluses)
  • Offworld Market (can sell resources offworld)

Each building (except the Ice Condenser) consumes Energy when active.

2.4 The Units

Units cannot be controlled directly by the players and are instead generated automatically based on player actions. Each unit consumes Fuel, and Blimps consume more Fuel depending of their cargo. The different unit types are listed here:

  • Drone (claims tiles)
  • Engineer (constructs buildings)
  • Blimp (ships resources)
  • Pirate (steal resources from Blimps)

3.0 Turns

Offworld is a real-time game, but the game system itself is updated in turns. Every turn, buildings produce resources, the colony consumes life support, and various other event might occur. The game has five different speeds which determine how fast the turns occur, but the default speed (Normal) is set at one turn per second. In single-player games, the player can change the game speed (and also pause the game) whenever desired.

4.0 Scans

Before founding a colony, the player will spend some time exploring the map. Each tile will have one of three visibility states:

  • Fogged (tile and resource deposits are not visible)
  • Revealed (tile is visible but darkened, resource deposits are not visible)
  • Visible (tile and resource are visible)

Most of the map will start the game as Fogged, but each player will begin with a small section of the map Scanned. The player can then perform scans on specific tiles to reveal more of the map – each scan will set all tiles within a radius of 2 as Visible and all other tiles within a radius of 6 as Revealed. The player will acquire a new scan every 4 turns. Once the first colony is founded, the map will slowly reveal itself automatically to all players.

5.0 Colonies

5.1 Founding

Once the players have scanned enough tile to discover a good place to found a colony, they select a colony type and then place it on the map. Once a colony is founded, the player receives their initial claims, money, and resource stockpile. Players who found later will receive more claims. The four different types (and their bonuses) are listed here:

  • Expansive
    • Double production from tiles under the colony
    • One extra claim at game start and with each colony upgrade
    • Recovers faster from EMPs, Power Surges, and Mutinies
  • Scientific
    • Conversion Buildings can use resource deposit on their own tiles (for example, a Hydrolysis Farm could use Low Water to create Food).
    • Double production from Trace resource deposits
  • Scavengers
    • Uses Carbon instead of Steel to construct buildings
    • Receive a free Pirate after each colony upgrade
    • Learn about news events earlier
  • Robotic
    • Colony does not consume life support
    • Units use Energy instead of Fuel

5.2 Upgrading

Each colony starts at population level one and can be upgraded four times. Each successive upgrade costs an increasing quantity of resources, and each upgrade increases the life support demands of the colony. The benefit of each upgrade is that the player is granted new claims:

  • Level 2 Colony: +3 claims
  • Level 3 Colony: +4 claims
  • Level 4 Colony: +5 claims
  • Level 5 Colony: +6 claims

6.0 Claims

The players receive a set of claims upon founding and upgrading their colonies. Extra claims can also be gained from random events, bribed via the black market, and won in claim auctions. When a player initiates a tile claim, the colony automatically creates a Drone unit, which then moves towards the tile and claims it if no other player gets there first.

7.0 Buildings

7.1 Construction

Building can only be constructed on claimed tiles. The player purchases buildings by spending resources, and then a Construction Yard immediately appears on the chosen tile. The colony create a Engineer unit which travels to the tile and constructs the building.

7.2 Production

Every turn, buildings produce resources. Some buildings create resources directly from resource deposits (the Elemental Quarry creates Silicon and Carbon from the corresponding deposits). A few more create resources based on the tile’s ratings (the Wind Turbine creates Energy modified by the tile’s wind level). Others convert input resources into output resources (the Glass Furnace consumes Silicon and Oxygen and produces Glass). Buildings can be turned off if the player determines they are not profitable.

Adjacent buildings of the same type have increased production rates – two adjacent building receive a +50% bonus while three get a +100% bonus. Higher numbers of adjacent buildings receive no additional bonus.

7.3 Shipping

After resources are produced, they are shipped either to other buildings or to the colony. If one building produces a resource required by a second building and if these two building are connected by an unbroken string of claimed tiles, this resources is instantly transported to the second building via rail. If no such building exists and if the first building is instead connected to the colony by an unbroken string of claimed tiles, the resource is similarly transported to the player’s resource stockpile.

If, instead, the building producing the resource is not connected to either a building that requires the resource or to the colony, the resource is stored within the original building. Once the building accumulates 20 units of the resource, a blimp is created which transports the resources directly to the colony. Players can choose manually to ship resources early before they reach 20 units.

Finally, buildings which require resources can also be supplied from the colony. For example, a Steel Mill that is not connected to a Metal Mine on an Iron deposit will receive shipments from the colony. If the building is connected to the colony via an unbroken string of claimed tiles, the resources will travel instantly via rail. Otherwise, a Blimp will ship Iron from the colony to the building.

7.4 Engineering Lab

The Engineering Lab allows players to research technologies that increase the production rate of specific resources in all corresponding buildings. For example, Improved Water Pumping increases Water production at Water Pumps by +25%. The bonus affects the building’s output but not the input, so Improved Food Production will mean that a Hydrolysis Farm produces more Food but does not consume more Water. Each technology costs Chemicals to research. The four levels of research possible for each technology are listed here:

  • Improved: +25% production
  • Efficient: +50% production (+75% cumulative)
  • Optimal: +75% production (+150% cumulative)
  • Super: +100% production (+250% cumulative)

7.5 Patent Lab

The Patent Lab enables players to acquire patents that can change how their company operates in fundamental ways. Each patent costs Chemicals to discover and becomes unavailable to all other players after the initial discovery. The different patents are listed here:

  • Nanotech: When deleting buildings, the resource cost is refunded.
  • Superconductor: +50% Energy from buildings connected to the colony.
  • Energy Vault: Can store up to 100 units of Energy
  • Virtual Reality: Doubles revenue from Pleasure Dome
  • Perpetual Motion: -50% Energy consumption
  • Water Engine: Units use Water instead of Fuel
  • Slant Drilling: Buildings can access best resource deposit in adjacent tile
  • Cold Fusion: Buildings use Water instead of Energy
  • Teleportation: All buildings and colonies are considered connected
  • Thinking Machines: Buildings adjacent to colonies are protected from sabotage

7.6 Hacker Array

The Hacker Array allows players to trigger artificial shortages and surpluses which can alter the price of specific resources. For example, a Food Shortage would increase the cost of Food. The cost of shortages and surpluses go up each time they are used by the player. These artificial events are indistinguishable from the random events that occur naturally during the game.

8.0 Resource Markets

8.1 Local Market

Once the colony is founded, players can buy and sell resources freely on the open market. If Food is $20, then a player can sell one unit of Food for $20 or buy one unit for the same price. However, each time a resource is bought or sold, the price goes up or down accordingly. Thus, if a player decides to purchase 100 units of Food for $20, the price will go up during the transaction so that the final price will be more than $2000. Resources bought and sold are added to and take from the player’s stockpile at the colony.

Energy is a special resource because it cannot be stockpiled. Instead, it is automatically sold to the local market at the current price. If a player is instead losing Energy, it is bought automatically from the market. Similarly, life support resources (Water, Food, Oxygen) is also purchased directly from the market if the stockpile is empty. If the player also has no money, the automatic purchase increases the company’s debt, which has a very negative effect on its stock price.

8.2 Offworld Market

Offworld prices are set randomly at the beginning of the game and stay constant throughout.

With the Offworld Market, players can sell resources offworld, often for prices higher than on the local market. Each offworld sale requires 100 units of the resource and 20 units of Fuel. Thus, if the offworld price of Food is $500, the player would lose 100 Food and 20 Fuel and then earn $50,000.

9.0 Time of Day

Each turn, the game clock moves forward, which affects a number of buildings. All of the production buildings (except for the Wind Turbine and Geothermal Plant) turn off between 22:00 and 06:00. The Ice Condenser and Solar Panel also have lowered production during the hours of the early morning after 06:00 and the hours of twilight before 22:00.

10.0 Auction

Every day at noon, an auction can be triggered. The auction is open to all players and is timed. Bids are in increments of $500, and the time limit is extended if a bid is made close to the end. Four types of auctions are possible: a new claim, a specific tile, an unclaimed patent, and mercenary pirates.

11.0 Sabotage

The identify of the player triggering each sabotage event is hidden and not revealed until the game is over.

11.1 EMP

An EMP freezes buildings within a radius of 2 from the targeted tile for a period of time. Buildings closer to the target are frozen for longer.

11.2 Power Surge

The Power Surge freezes a number of buildings for a period of time. The surge starts at one tile and then travels randomly to adjacent tiles with buildings.

11.3 Underground Nuke

The Underground Nuke lowers resource deposits by two levels. For example, a High Iron would be reduced to a Low Iron. Resource deposits can never be lowered below Trace.

11.4 Dynamite

Dynamite destroys a building, reducing it to rubble. The owning player can repair it for half its normal construction cost; a Drone unit will automatically appear at the colony and travel to the tile to repair the building.

11.5 Mutiny

A Mutiny allows a player to capture another player’s building for a period of time.

11.6 Pirates

Pirates look for Blimps to shoot down and give the lost resources to the player who hired them. Pirates will stay on the map until they have captured a total of 60 units of resources.

12.0 Black Market

The Black Market is where all sabotage items (except for the Pirates) are purchased. Also, the player can bribe claims on the Black Market. The Black Market is initially closed for a specific number of the turns after a player founds a colony; the number of turns is lower for players who found their colonies later.

Each time items are purchased from the Black Market, the price is doubled for all players in the game. Also, each player is locked out from the Black Market for 60 turns after a purchase.

13.0 Stock Market

Each player’s company begins the game with a stock price of $5, and that price goes up and down according to the value of its current assets (money, debt, resources, buildings, colonies, and stock shares). Shares can be purchased in increments of 1,000, and each company has 10,000 total shares. If no more shares are available for purchase, a player can buyout the other players’ sharing by purchasing them all together for double value.

Once one company controls all the shares of a second company, the second company’s owner is removed from the game, and all the buildings, colonies, and patents belonging to that company are given to the first company. The game ends when only one company remains.

US vs. Germany: The Ideal Draw

The World Cup teams of the US and Germany are in an odd position for their upcoming match on Thursday. If the game is a draw, then both teams advance to the round of 16, which means that the ideal strategy – as pointed out by Mark Heggen on Twitter – is for the two teams to agree to just sit on the ground and let the clock run out. Considering that the US coach Jürgen Klinsmann is from Germany and that West Germany infamously took part in the fixed Anschluss game, it’s hard not to wonder if there will be a little funny business during the match. At the very least, the match threatens to be a defensive snoozefest.

As a game designer, of course, this situation is appalling. Anytime a game’s rules rewards players for boring themselves (not to mention us, the viewers), the problem is with the game designer, not with the players. A similar match-throwing problem haunted the round-robin badminton tournament at the last Olympics, and game designer David Sirlin wrote a great article which placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the tournament organizers. In the case of the US-Germany game, the problem is not quite so egregious – especially since the loser will have to play Belgium in the next round – but obviously the system could be improved.

I am a game designer, after all, so what would I do? The core of the problem is that whenever a game has more than two teams (and the World Cup is basically a game with 32 teams), diplomacy automatically becomes an important tool, regardless of the intentions of the game designer. Therefore, if winning is not required to advance, diplomacy can override the usual incentive for victory. The problem is that diplomacy is considered totally verboten (and a little unmanly) in competitive sports, even though it is considered totally normal in tabletop gaming. (As they love to play in Germany, of course!)

The solution is to focus the two teams on the one incentive left for them in the tournament – the seeding for the next round. The tournament’s rules should dictate that if two teams can advance with a draw, then the group’s other two teams are eliminated immediately. (The phenomenal card game Battle Line – by the German Reiner Knizia! – has a similar rule that allows capturing a flag early if a player can prove that no cards left in the deck could beat the ones on his or her own side.) However, instead of just cancelling the match between the US and Germany, which is problematic for many reasons, the tournament should let them play the game solely to determine who gets the top seed out of the group. Therefore, the two teams are rewarded for playing the game at full effort and have no incentive to make a mockery of the competition.

Now, context is important here as every rule always has a complexity cost. Adding this type of special casing to a video game or, especially, to a tabletop game might not be worth the extra overhead for the player to keep track of it. However, because the stakes for the World Cup are so high and because avoiding diplomacy is a design aesthetic for the tournament, this rule could be useful. Indeed, after the Anschluss game, FIFA changed the World Cup rules so that the final games of the round-robin phase would be played simultaneously to reduce the incentive for diplomacy. The situation the US and Germany face may not but common, but it’s also likely to happen again – all that is required is for a final game to be played between teams which both have one win and one draw. Better game design always beats the alternative.

Early 2014 Podcast (and New Game) Roundup

I’ve been on a few podcasts recently that deserve mentioning:

You may have also heard that my new company, Mohawk Games, has announced its first game, Offworld Trading Company. I go into more detail on our company blog, and I did some interviews on the game with Ars Technica and Rock Paper Shotgun. You can pre-order now at offworldgame.com, which will get you access to our playable prototype this fall!

On the Vault

I was very pleased to hear that the GDC folks posted my 2014 talk for free on the Vault, so everyone can watch it now. I was actually quite surprised during the talk that my content only lasted 40 minutes – I had well over 100 slides, and the presentation was a much expanded version of my 15-minute mini-talk from PRACTICE. The downside is that I incorrectly thought that I wouldn’t have the time to address games that run counter to transparency, including dynamic ones such as Europa Universalis or Out of the Park. The upside is that plenty of people brought up this omission in the Q&A, and I did the best I could on the spot to clarify the value of transparency for different types of games. (I’d point to my answer to Randy Smith – who helped design Thief‘s arrow grammar! – at the 49:00 mark.)

Basically, games like EU are so complex that it’s almost impossible for them to have a transparent rule system because the explanations would probably have to be done as algorithms. Nonetheless, for dynamic, rules-driven games, transparency is still a goal to reach towards; in Crusader Kings 2, the characters’ attitudes towards the player character are broken down in explicit detail (“Long Reign: +8, Liege is Just: +10, Desires Duchy of Ostlandet: -20″) to open a window into a very complicated algorithm. For Civ 4, we similarly exposed the diplomatic AI by detailing all the factors that determine a specific ruler’s attitude towards the player, which increased player comfort significantly. I mentioned that system in the talk, but what I failed to mention is that the designers of Civ 5 tried to move back to a more opaque system by hiding these numerical values but had to patch it back in because players felt too lost dealing with the AI. Ultimately, transparency is a specific game design aesthetic that may not right for all games, especially ones which value mystery, discovery, and perhaps even player frustration, but if a game is meant to be dynamic and replayable, then transparency is a very important goal.

A Study in Transparency

GDC is around the corner and, for the first time since 2010, I’m going to be giving an actual talk instead of just doing a panel. As followers of this blog know, I am a big fan of tabletop games and am very interested in how they overlap with digital games. My talk will be about why transparency defines board games and how that matters to video game developers. (Here is a link to my slides, which are still under construction.) Furthermore, I was on The Game Design Round Table recently talking about transparency in game design, as seen in both physical and digital games.

Here is the info on my talk. Hope to see many of you in San Francisco!

A Study in Transparency: How Board Games Matter

Soren Johnson, Founder, Mohawk Games
Location: Room 3007, West Hall
Date: Thursday, March 20
Time: 2:30pm-3:30pm
What defines a board game? If a video game is described as being “like a board game,” what does that mean exactly? Judging by the recent success of video games inspired by mobile ports of tabletop games, the defining trait of board games is not, in fact, their actual physical components. Instead, the key factor is the transparency necessitated by the physical design. This transparency fosters many positive traits, including deep engagement, player comfort and meaningful choice. This talk will go into extensive detail on how transparency works for successful tabletop games and what lessons apply to the design of digital games.

Three Moves Ahead #249 and The Game Design Round Table #63

Last week, I was on a couple podcast that I frequently haunt. I joined Troy Goodfellow and Bruce Geryk on Three Moves Ahead to discuss the excellent recent iOS wargame Drive on Moscow. (Listen for my reference to noted game designer “Bruce” Reynolds.) I also discussed conflict in games on The Game Design Round Table with Jon Shafer and Dirk Knemeyer, which meant lots of talk about Diplomacy as well as why two-sided games are fundamentally different from multi-sided ones.