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.