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.