Designer Notes 25: Sid Meier – Part 3

In this episode, Soren Johnson interviews legendary game designer Sid Meier, best known for designing Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization. They discuss why dinosaurs need to have ranged attacks, how deals go down on the SimGolf course, and if Civ games have an ideal length.

Games discussed: CPU Bach, Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, Gettysburg, Dinosaurs, SimGolf, Pirates!, Railroads!, Civilization Revolution

Offworld Trading Company GDC Postmortem

I am going to be speaking at GDC this year on the design and development of Offworld Trading Company. I’ve included the description below and a few sample slides. Hope to see you in SF – my favorite week of the year!

‘Offworld Trading Company’: An RTS Without Guns

Speaker: Soren Johnson  |  CEO, Mohawk Games
Location:  Room 3016, West Hall
Date:  Wednesday, March 1
Time:  5:00pm – 6:00pm
Format: Session
Track: Design

For ‘Offworld Trading Company’, Mohawk Games set out to make a new type of real-time strategy game, one that focused on economics instead of combat. Following this initial vision led Mohawk Games to shed other standard tropes of the genre, such as unit selection, on the way to creating a unique gameplay experience, one that de-emphasized micro dexterity challenges in favor of macro high-level strategy while still hewing to the standard half-hour RTS format. This postmortem details the twist and turns of Offworld’s design process, from conception to prototyping to Early Access to final release.


Despite the increasing quantity of games released each year, there are still huge areas of unexplored territory for new gameplay, even within established genres such as the RTS. The development of ‘Offworld Trading Company’ serves as an example on how to find these hidden kingdoms.

Intended Audience

This talk will be of interest to developers interested in the details of how design decisions were made while pioneering a new type of real-time strategy game. Developers interested in open development should also benefit as the talk will give positives and negatives from Mohawk’s Early Access experience.

Trump is no Hitler

Donald Trump Won Because Of Bad Game Design

The 2016 presidential election has produced scores and scores of articles about how Donald Trump went from a novelty candidate to the White House. Most of these articles will overreach in their conclusions because they will focus on his election instead of his nomination, which now seems inevitable in hindsight. However, a very small percentage of Americans decided that Trump would be one of the two candidates for Presidents; he received 14 million votes in the primaries, from only 5.6% of America’s 251 million eligible voters. Only 1 in 20 Americans are responsible for Trump’s nomination. Indeed, only 800,000 more Americans voted for Trump in the Republican primaries than for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic ones (and 2.9 million more voted for Clinton than for Trump).

This percentage needs to be remembered when contextualizing Trump’s success — it is far from clear than even a significant minority of Americans ever wanted him to become President, and many, if not most, Republicans were essentially stuck with him after he clinched the nomination. Trump only won a plurality of votes in the primaries as more Republicans (55%) voted against him than voted for him. In fact, Trump won because of bad game design.

State-by-state, the Republican primaries have widely different rules, but they generally follow a winner-takes-all philosophy. By securing at least a plurality of votes, Trump won all 99 delegates in Florida, all 58 in Arizona, all 57 in Illinois, and all 172 in California. Other states with hybrid rules still gave Trump the vast majority of the delegates – for example, 89 of 95 delegates in New York and 70 of 71 in Pennsylvania – just for finishing first. The intention behind this rule is to shorten the primary process, to keep Republican candidates from damaging each other with friendly fire during an overlong race. However, like many rules intending to fix one issue, this one created a new one — that the nominee did not need a majority of votes to win a majority of the overall delegates. Trump won with an exploit.

In contrast, the Democratic primaries largely divide up delegates proportionally, so each candidate earns delegates proportional to his or her performance. Sometimes, these results can be quite close; in Illinois, for example, Clinton earned 79 pledged delegates while Sanders earned 77. This system has the downside of potentially extending the race much longer than perhaps the party desires, but a candidate without a majority of voters is also unlikely to ever earn a majority of pledged delegates. Under the Democratic system, Trump would have gone into the convention with roughly 45% of the delegates (estimating from his national primary vote percentage), and his nomination would be far from assured, especially considering how many Republicans would have preferred anyone but Trump. The Republican Convention would have been a messy affair, but at least the party would have had a chance to avoid the worst presidential nominee of our lifetimes.

Let me repeat for emphasis: If the Republican party had used the ruleset of the Democratic party, Trump would not have been guaranteed the nomination. Although rules are written to favor certain outcomes, they must be judged not just by what they fix in the best-case (shortening the primaries) but also by what they enable in the worst-case (Donald Trump).

How should the GOP patch this exploit? One obvious suggestion would be to adopt the superdelegate system of the Democrats, which gives the party establishment extra votes to prevent an undesirable candidate like Trump. However, superdelegates are also an example of bad game design because they create a much more extreme version of the problem that the Republican’s winner-take-all primaries were supposed to fix — extending the primary race longer than desired, possibly even until the convention when the superdelegates actually vote. When Clinton did clinch the nomination on June 6th, with only six states left to vote, the ridiculous but technically possible scenario still existed that Sanders could win if enough superdelegates switched from Clinton to Sanders. Indeed, Sanders made a fairly remarkable transformation from decrying the superdelegate system as undemocratic early on to asking for their help near the end to take the win away from Clinton, a nakedly undemocratic move. The real question Democrats need to ask themselves is whether they would ever actually be willing to use the superdelegates to override a majority of primary voters as doing so would clearly be a betrayal of the process. If the party is not willing to use them in such a way, then superdelegates are surely more trouble than they are worth.

The answer – for both Republicans and Democrats – is a simple state-by-state proportional distribution of delegates, with no superdelegates, and the nomination should only be guaranteed to a candidate able to earn a majority of delegates (and, most likely, votes as well). This scenario does increase the likelihood of a contested convention (where no one candidate controls a majority), which could be a problem in the mass media era. However, as we have seen in 2016, the alternative is much, much worse.

Speaking of bad design, we could certainly spend time talking about how the Electoral College is hurting democracy, but instead, I would encourage everyone to write your state legislator about the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which is a clever community-built patch for some legacy code with which we’re all currently stuck.

Designer Notes 24: Sid Meier – Part 2

In this episode, Soren Johnson interviews legendary game designer Sid Meier, best known for designing Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization. They discuss how Sid’s stealth fighter was more interesting than the real one, whether XCOM violates the Covert Action rule, and when the world was ready for hexes.

Games Discussed: Covert Action, Railroad Tycoon, SimCity, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Civilization, Empire

Designer Notes 23: Sid Meier – Part 1

In this episode, Soren Johnson interviews legendary game designer Sid Meier, best known for designing Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization. They discuss using the Ayatollah Khomeini as an enemy, how Strike Eagle differentiated itself from Flight Simulator, and why the torpedo doesn’t go where the player aims it in Silent Service.

Games discussed: Pong, Floyd of the Jungle, Strike Eagle, Silent Service, Seven Cities of Gold, Pirates!

Designer Notes #22: Amy Hennig – Part 2

In this episode, Soren Johnson interviews veteran game designer Amy Hennig, best known for her work on the Legacy of Kain and Uncharted series. They discuss what elements from film can’t work in games, how many hours she averaged per week working on the Uncharted series, and how to capture great acting performance for video games.

Games Discussed: The Uncharted series, The Last of Us

Designer Notes #21: Amy Hennig – Part 1

In this episode, Soren Johnson interviews veteran game designer Amy Hennig, best known for her work on the Legacy of Kain and Uncharted series. They discuss what happened in 1977, how to make a platformer about Michael Jordan, and whether women are now being scared away from game development the way she was from the film industry. In true adventure game fashion, we end on a cliffhanger!

Games Discussed: ELIZA, Sea Wolf, Combat, Dungeons and Dragons, Zork, Electrocop, Bard’s Tale 4, Desert Strike, Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, the Legacy of Kain series, Jak 3

Offworld Trading Company Podcast Roundup

I’ve been meaning to write this posts for months, but it always seemed like there was just one more podcast coming out to delay the complete list. However, I think we are now safely past the podcast saturation point, so if you want to hear me go on and on about Offworld for about eight hours, today’s your lucky day!