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.

OTC Designer Notes #10: Optimization Center

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.

Unlike the more orthogonal Patent Lab, the Optimization Center provides consistent and straightforward production upgrades for every type of resource in the game. Originally, the Optimization Center (whose name has become a bit of a running joke in our community as it has also been know as the Engineering Lab, Efficiency Lab, Industrial Lab, Upgrade Lab, and Research Center) gave bonuses not for resources but for buildings. Thus, the player could research Solar Power Production or Wind Power Production. In practice, however, most players were not switching between different sources of Power (or other resources), so the extra complexity of upgrading a building instead of a resource was dropped. (Essentially, claiming a tile with high wind was already a significant commitment.) This simplification also greatly improved the UI for the Optimization Center as each upgrade could be listed right next to the corresponding resource.

The Optimization Center improves the efficiency of buildings (how much of resource X is output per input of resource Y) instead of their speed (how fast resource X is converted into resource Y). For example, a Steel Mill with Perfect Steel Production will produce twice as much Steel but still consume the same amount of Iron. From a gameplay perspective, improved efficiency encourages resource diversification between players and is an important counter-balance to production cycling; if a player researched Perfect Chemical Production, then it might make sense for that player to keep producing Chemicals even if the price drops well below that of Electronics (which is also primarily built from Carbon). This player has a quasi-monopoly on Chemicals as she might be the only player in the game who can make Chemicals profitably (unless, of course, another player starts upgrading Chemical production).

OTC Designer Notes #9: Patent Lab

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 patent system was one of the earliest elements of the game to take shape. As both an RTS and a science-fiction game, Offworld obviously needed an interesting technology system. However, we wanted our system to have variability (so that players weren’t always following the same research path) and interactivity (so that players were reacting to each other’s choices). Turning technologies into patents (meaning that each patent could be held by only one player) achieved both goals at once. Players could never count on a specific set of patents because another player might get to some of them first, which meant that players had to watch one another, possibly sabotaging Patent Labs to make sure no one else got to an important patent first. Further, patents appearing as auctions could shift the course of the game significantly.

Superconductor (+100% Power production if connected to HQ) – The best locations for Power (high altitude for solar, steep ridges for wind, and geothermals tiles) might not be near one’s HQ, but Superconductor meant that a player need only build Power connected to the HQ. A Solar Panel with Superconductor would generally (depending on altitude) be equivalent to a Geothermal Plant, which could be hugely profitable if Power spikes in price. The most important advantage of building Power close to one’s HQ, however, is that those claims can later be deleted and used for something else if Power crashes. However, players often have to build their Power sources before they get Superconductor, which means this strategy is risky if someone else gets the patent first.

Energy Vault (Produces +1.0 Power as storage, up to 100 units) – Power is the only resource which cannot be stored and must be sold immediately, which gives it a unique price curve as players with excess Power are constantly selling it. Because Solar Panels shut off at night, the price of Power usually goes up when the sun goes down and then drops during the day. This pattern makes life difficult for players who rely solely on Solar Panels as the price of Power is highest when their production is shut off. Energy Vault lets players avoid this pattern by storing up a stockpile of Power during the day and then using at night when the sun is gone. Also, it is possible for a player to stop selling Power if she want to keep the price artificially high. Normally, this excess Power is just lost because the player cannot store it; with Energy Vault, however, this tactic is more viable because the player can stockpile this Power for later use.

Financial Instruments (Receive 25% of other player’s interest payments) – This patent was the last one to be added to the game because it originated as a response to players taking on too much debt. Although the debt problem was mostly solved by bond ratings, Financial Instruments also made debt dangerous because a player could benefit from everyone else’s debt. If an opponent racks up too much debt, simply acquire Financial Instruments and use that daily influx of cash to help buy that player’s deflated stock. Naturally, players with a lot of debt also began grabbing this patent as a defensive measure.

Water Engine (Uses Water instead Fuel for units and launches) – The price of fuel can go up quickly on maps with distant resource clumps (for example, if all of the Water is in the west while all the Iron is in the east). Indeed, sometimes distant mines are turned off because the shipping costs are so high that the building would be a net loss. Water is almost always cheaper than Fuel (as it takes two units of Water to make one unit of Fuel, not to mention the Power consumption and the tile occupied by the Reactor), so being able to spend Water on shipping can be very useful. However, Water Engine did suffer from the disadvantage of being strictly worse than another patent, Teleportation, which simply removes shipping costs entirely. To compensate, Water Engine costs half as much (and takes half as much time to acquire) and is still obviously useful if another player gets to Teleportation first. Nonetheless, we felt that a player should still have a reason to acquire Water Engine even if he has Teleportation, which is why we also let players use Water instead of Fuel to launch resources at the Offworld Market, a building that is unaffected by Teleportation.

Perpetual Motion (-50% Power Consumption) – Although Perpetual Motion does not appear to be particularly interesting compared to the rest of the patents, it is the only item in the game that actually reduces consumption of anything. Perpetual Motion can turn a Power consuming player into a Power producing one. Indeed, it must surely be the most flexible of patents as it would aid every player — even a player with Cold Fusion would benefit because his Water consumption from powering buildings is also cut in half. Thus, even if Perpetual Motion is not as flashy as other patents, it is a good one to research early because everyone else is going to want it.

Cold Fusion (Uses Water instead of Power for buildings) – Water is probably the most common resource on average in Offworld, which makes Cold Fusion a powerful patent as it enables a player with a good source of Water to just ignore making Power altogether. Cold Fusion can become dominant combined with Water Engine and Water Production optimizations. Nonetheless, the patent was seen as a bit of a trap early in development because if the Water price rose higher than that of Power, the patent is actually a net loss. Thus, we made a small but important change — that buildings would switch automatically between consuming Water or Power depending on which one was cheaper (Water Engine works the same way). The patent now gives its owner great flexibility in manipulating the market; shorting Power, for example, knowing that once the price of Power passes that of Water, all of the player’s Power buildings will be selling directly to the market.

Virtual Reality (+50% revenue from the Pleasure Dome) – Because revenue from the Pleasure Dome is so highly dependent on the actions of other players (the potential revenue is divided by the total number of Domes on the map), players want to find ways to discourage other players from building more Domes. Virtual Reality is the best method because once a player acquires it, the potential value of new Pleasure Domes drops (as other players know that their new Domes will never get the boost). Often, it is one of the first patents to be taken as players are afraid of missing out on it. Indeed, before we dropped Virtual Reality from +100%, it was almost always the first patent to disappear (which is, of course, why we weakened it as it had become an uninteresting, automatic decision).

Nanotech (Construction resources are refunded when a building is scrapped) – Nanotech was considered perhaps the weakest patent before we released on Early Access, so it greatly surprised us to find that competitive players considered it the best patent in the game. The patent enables player to cycle their production from one resource to another for basically free, with the only cost being the time lost in constructing the new building. Internally, we cycled our production far less than we should have, not taking advantage of resources that were rising in price and not giving up on ones that were actually losing us money. Thus, Nanotech is a good example of why development teams don’t understand their own games nearly as well as the players do. The patent was brought back into balance by raising its cost and from the diminishing returns on adjacency bonuses, which discouraged cycling quite so quickly.

Slant Drilling (Can mine resources from adjacent tiles) – The value of Slant Drilling varies highly from map to map. Its most powerful use is as a counter to a resource monopoly; if one player somehow claims all the Aluminum, just grab Slant Drilling and put a mine next to that player’s best source. The patent is also a useful hedge against Underground Nukes because resources tend to be found in clumps; if someone nukes a player’s High Water, there is probably a Medium Water adjacent to her Pump which she can use instead. Slant Drilling is especially attractive to Scientific players as it makes creating building triangles much easier — all they need is one resource tile for up to six adjacent buildings. Occasionally, a Scientific player might even find adjacent sources of Aluminum, Silicon, and Carbon, enabling free Electronics production by using Slant Drilling to access all three resources at once.

Carbon Scrubbing (Buildings consume Carbon for free) – This patent was inspired by the fact that a building could extract some Carbon from Mars’s atmosphere, which is primarily carbon dioxide. From a gameplay perspective, making one resource potentially free creates an interesting bit of asymmetry among the primary resources, especially because Carbon is an important input for Chemicals and Electronics, two valuable late-game resources. Thus, one popular strategy after acquiring Carbon Scrubbing is to start Carbon shortages at the Hacker Array, which makes producing Chemicals and Electronics less profitable, which drives up their price as other players cycle away from those resources, which ultimately makes Chemicals and Electronics extremely profitable for the player with Carbon Scrubbing who can ignore the Carbon cost! Also of note, Scavenger players love the patent because it means they can keep all of the Carbon they produce for buildings and HQ upgrades.

Thinking Machines (-50% sabotage protection for buildings adjacent to the HQ) – The original Black Market had no defensive options, which meant that players had no way to protect themselves from EMPs, Dynamites, Mutinies, and so on. Along with Goon Squads, Thinking Machine was added to provide another tool to balance the power of sabotage. Initially, the patent provided complete protection against sabotage, but it was easy to see that was simply too much — the player with Thinking Machines was able to put Offworld Markets next to her HQ and just launch her way unchallenged to victory. After changing the effect to -50%, the patent is still important but no longer dominant. Another nice aspect of Thinking Machines is that players now plan ahead in anticipation of picking up the patent later, perhaps even in an auction, by carefully arranging their claims to provide potential location adjacent to their HQs for buildings to be protected by the patent. Ideally, the player has to make trade offs between short- and long-term gains — should I snake my claims out from my HQ to connect to a distant resource (saving Fuel costs and potentially avoiding Pirates), or should I claim every tile adjacent to my HQ to maximize my potential protection from sabotage?

Teleportation (Resources are transferred instantly to and from the HQ) – Everyone wants Teleportation, even if just to make sure that no one else has Teleportation. The benefits are pretty obvious – no more Fuel costs, instant access to distant resource production – but a few special cases are worth noting. Teleportation makes one immune to Pirates and Magnetic Storms, which can be very important if shipping expensive resources; owning the patent means that the other players will use those types of sabotage only against each other, which is certainly a best-case scenario. Although receiving building outputs instantly is the obvious appeal of Teleportation, being able to deliver inputs instantly is important as well; players are free to place their secondary buildings wherever convenient. A Scientific player with Teleportation has the freedom to put his Glass Furnace on Silicon, his Chemical Labs on Carbon, and his Electronics Factories on Silicon, Carbon, and/or Aluminum, no matter how far from his HQ.

OTC Designer Notes #8: Neutral Colony

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.

I mentioned above that the earliest version of the game had neutral Colonies and no HQs. When we replaced Colonies with HQs, the players were immediately more invested in the game as they felt ownership over a part of the map and could also see the progress reflected in the size of the HQ. However, the game’s fiction suffered some as it was unclear why exactly these companies were on Mars. Were they just manufacturing resources to sell to each other? Obviously, the Offworld Market was part of the answer as one purpose of business was to supply goods to colonists living offworld in the Asteroid Belt. Nonetheless, the game felt like it was missing some focal point to justify all this business.

Thus, we brought back the Colony, this time as a single entity in the middle of the map that would serve as important source of market demand. (When the game had no Colony, the market had a hidden demand curve which drove up prices; putting a visible Colony on the map meant that we could remove this hidden mechanic.) The needs of the Colony were visible in the types of modules which extended out from its center. Habitat modules would need Water, Food, and Oxygen; Office modules would need Power; Laboratory modules would need Chemicals; and so on. Further, the Colony would grow over the course of the game, increasing demand for these resources.

That simple system, however, was quite different from how the single neutral Colony started, and the process to get to there is a good lesson about how game mechanics work best in strategy games when they are simple and transparent. The original system, in contrast, was complex and opaque. (In Sid’s words, the problem with complex, opaque systems is that computer is having the fun, not the player.) Initially, the modules all consumed multiple resources (the Office, for example, consumed Power and Electronics) while also having a cost (the Office required Steel and Glass) which affected the probability of it appearing if those resources cost too much. Further, each workplace module could level up depending on that resource cost as well as the Colony’s excess population that needed jobs. Each Habitat module could level up based on its build costs as well as the Colony having more jobs available than population. Moreover, the Colony’s population would go up and down depending on the price of life support resources, which could then leave some workplace modules unoccupied so that they didn’t consume any resources at all. Thus, the Colony might not be growing because Steel cost too much to construct more modules, or it might not be growing because Food was too expensive, or it might not be growing because there weren’t new jobs available for the new colonists. Got all that?

Most players simply ignored the Colony as it wasn’t clear what was going into the black box or what was coming out of it. The system needed radical simplification. Slowly, each part got stripped away – the resource costs for each module, the population restrictions from life support costs, the leveling up of each module – until the colony itself was simply a visual indicator of demand. Finally, each workplace module consumed only one resource (Offices consume Power, Laboratories consume Chemicals, etc.) and every workplace module had a matching Habitat module that consumed life support. New modules were added randomly over the course of the game, independent of the players or the market. The Colony was simply another random element which added replay value by diversifying resource demand — if the Colony is full of Laboratories, for example, then the players might want to invest in Chemical Refineries because of demand from the Colony.

OTC Designer Notes #7: Reveal Map

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.

We are often asked how being on Early Access changed the design of Offworld, and it did so in more ways than we are probably even aware. One of the most obvious changes was the Reveal Map option, which completely changed how the game opens. After removing Scouts from the game, we were pretty happy with the scanning mechanic for exploring the map and founding the HQ. However, once we released the game on Early Access and started running tournaments with the best players, the scanning system became a point of contention. The community argued that if a map had a single best founding location, superior to all others, the game would always be won (assuming evenly matched player) by whoever discovered that founding location first and took advantage of it.

We did have various mechanics in place to balance against the disadvantage of missing the best spot – players who found later can get an extra claim and earlier access to the black market. However, it was hard for us to argue that games would never be won or lost based on who found the best spot first. The solution was to start with the map fully revealed and then let players choose where to found; each player would have the same amount of time to consider which spot to take.

However, obviously just revealing the map would not be enough. Players would frantically look around the map trying to find the best spot, and whoever clicked first would still get a huge advantage. We needed a mechanic to give a cost to founding first. In fact, I had considered a Reveal Map mode before launching on Early Access, but I couldn’t figure out a simple way to make it work. Perhaps players could all mark their favorite positions and then, if they conflicted, find some way to negotiate the tie? Perhaps the game should run an auction for the right to found first? That might work in a two-player game, but how would it work for an 8-player game? Maybe there should be blind-bidding to determine the first player to found? Although that would technically work for all number of player, it would turn the beginning of the game into a turgid, turn-based affair, killing multiplayer.

The solution was to use the debt mechanic to make this process both simple and still real-time. After the map is revealed to all players, a debt counter starts at $200K and then starts going down second-by-second. Founding immediately would cost $200K in debt, which is far too much to manage; thus, players must wait at least a few seconds before getting serious about founding, which provides important time to look around the map. Then, after players have spotted the best founding spots, the question is simply how much is that spot worth? $30K debt? $40K? $50K?

The system is perfectly balanced for all players, works well regardless of player count, and keeps the game moving in real-time. The option quickly became the standard mode of play amongst the multiplayer community. One further wrinkle was added to this system after a tournament game between PBHead and Cubit in which neither player wanted to found because the map had two great founding locations; there was no reason to take on debt and also give the other player the free claim for founding second. We fixed this scenario with a founding bonus that starts ticking up after the debt counter got to $0. Thus, in the situation above, the first person to found would get money to balance out the other player’s free claim.

OTC Designer Notes #6: Auctions

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.

Auctions were an early element of Offworld’s design that were compelling from the beginning. Player interaction is the core of competitive strategy games, and one risk of making an RTS without combat is that players might feel they are playing competitive solitaire, focusing mostly on their own buildings and ignoring the other players. Thus, auctions are a great way to put players into direct conflict as they bid on items, driving up the price until all but one blink. Judging the value of an auction is tricky, and many players experience the “winner’s curse” common in auctions where the winner of the auction ends up losing the game from overbidding.

Initially, we implemented three types of auctions: a new claim, a specific tile, and an unclaimed patent. One mechanic we originally tried with auctions was creating a new resource deposit specifically for an auction if no unclaimed source existed. For example, if all the Silicon tiles on the map had been claimed, the game would create a new source of Silicon and auction it off. We had wanted to create meaningful auctions, but this situation was too meaningful. If a player had accomplished the difficult task of claiming all the Silicon on the map, she felt cheated if the game magically created a new one. The player had the painful choice of either overbidding to protect her monopoly or letting it go and losing a rare advantage. We didn’t want to punish players who went for the strategy of monopolizing a specific resource, so we took away the feature.

As development continued, we integrated new features to improve auctions. Once the black market was no longer a fixed set of seven items but a random selection from a larger pool, we could then auction sabotage items which were not available on the black market (if the item was on the black market, then there was little reason to bid much over the current price). Once special buildings (Patent Office, Hacker Array, etc.) could be built next to the Colony, we could then auction them off since they would be potentially valuable to all players (although we never auction off Offworld Markets because that would be insane).

One other important change was only possible once debt became a game mechanic. Originally, auctions were paid directly from cash, which meant that players were often selling all their resources to be able to outbid their opponents. However, at some point, players are simply going to hit a limit and have no more cash to bid on an auction. Further, if the auction comes at a point when most players are cash poor (possibly from recently upgrading HQs), one player might be able to win an important auction simply because he was the only player in the game with money on hand. That situation felt wrong, especially when a rival player was willing to bid if only she had the money. The solution was to instead pay for auctions out of debt, which solved the problem completely. Players were free to bid as much as they wanted to on auctions but knew that if they overbid, their stock price might crash to dangerous levels. In the days shortly after this change, there were some hilarious playtests where one player (usually me) overbid heavily on an auction and then saw his stock price immediately collapse to $1 and get bought out. Lessons were learned.

OTC Designer Notes #5: Debt

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.

One of the trickiest parts of the design was how to handle when the player needed to consume a resource but had none in her stockpile. Our initial solution was that every time a player could not supply the needed Power, Fuel, or life support, the game would lower that player’s stock price. If this penalty was applied too many times, the company would drop to a price of $1 and would soon be acquired by a competitor. The system worked, in that players would be afraid to run out of required resources, but the system was also obtuse and caused permanent damage to players; each stock penalty lasted for the rest of the game, which meant we were encouraging a very conservative strategy of always making required resources first.

The solution was the debt system, which kept track of each time the player needed to buy a required resource from the market, acting as an unlimited line-of-credit. The debt would also affect the player’s stock price but, significantly, a player could pay off the debt to recover later in the game. Too much of a resource shortfall early in the game was no longer a death sentence. The system now worked because it was transparent, players could see how bad their debt was getting and decide when to fix the problem.

However, as all game designers know, give players a new feature, and they will do everything they can to break it to their advantage. “Debt diving” became a term among the players for ignoring debt in favor of resources that produced straight cash in the hopes of buying out the other players before dying to too much debt. It was a dangerous strategy but, in the hands of the best players, also a dominant strategy. (Simply put, a player with $300K in cash and $200K in debt can easily beat a player with $100K in cash and no debt, even though their net assets are identical.)

The solution was bond ratings, which changed the interest rate paid on debt each day depending on the ratio of a player’s debt to his total assets. The better bond ratings (AAA, AA, A) had interest rates between 2% and 6%, which were quite manageable. However, once a player sunk to a D rating, the interest rate jumped to 30%, which meant that a player could die to debt as her debt might increase faster than she could pay it down. Finally, players with a D rating were also locked out of the black market, which meant they could no longer sabotage their competitors and were also vulnerable to sabotage without access to the defensive Good Squad. Basically, D debt is very bad — bad enough that while players would still use debt as a tool to accelerate their progress at times, they were also acutely aware that going too far could mean disaster.