Play Early, Play Often: Prototyping Civilization 4 (GDC 2006)

I gave a talk at GDC 2006 on the development history of Civilization 4, with the benefit of post-release hindsight. We actually demoed multiple early versions of the game, but unfortunately the talk was not filmed. However, I always wanted to get it online, so I went ahead and reconstructed it from the original audio and slides. If you give it a watch, let me know what you think!

Don’t Blow It: Successful Franchises (GDC 2004)

I gave a talk at GDC 2004 on maintaining successful franchises, with a focus on the Civilization franchise. This talk was the first time we gave any significant public details about Civ 4, so it’s interested to see what I thought was going to be important over a year before shipping. Unfortunately, the talk was not filmed, and because I always wanted to get it online, I went ahead and reconstructed it from the original audio and slides. If you give it a watch, let me know what you think!

Theme is Not Meaning (GDC 2010)

I gave a talk at GDC 2010 on the interaction of theme and mechanics in games, specifically arguing that a game’s mechanics take priority over its theme when determining the game’s meaning. (The talk was based heavily on these columns written for Game Developer magazine.) Unfortunately, the talk was not filmed, and because I always wanted to get it online, I went ahead and reconstructed it from the original audio and slides. If you give it a watch, let me know what you think!

Designer Notes 28: George Fan

In this episode, Soren interviews independent game designer George Fan, who is best known as the creator of Insaniquarium and Plants vs Zombies. They discuss why he learned to program instead of just focusing on art, how most Diablo monster design is a variation of kill-me-first, and why Plants vs. Zombies wasn’t Fish vs. Aliens.

Games discussed: Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., Are You Dumb?, Wrath of the Gopher, Magic: The Gathering, Bomberman, Risky Planet, Insaniquarium, Diablo 3, Plants vs Zombies, Octogeddon

Designer Notes 27: Lucas Pope

In this episode, Adam Saltsman interviews independent game developer Lucas Pope, best known for the immigration officer simulation Papers Please. They discuss how Naughty Dog taught him to mercilessly cut features, why it might be a good thing if Obra Dinn is bad, and how Adam has time to do these interviews.

Games discussed: Malice, Gearhead Garage, Papers Please, The Republia Times, Return of the Obra Dinn

Offworld Trading Company – Jupiter’s Forge

Offworld Trading Company‘s first expansion pack – Jupiter’s Forge – was released today. Buy it here on Steam.

Jupiter’s Forge, the first expansion pack to Offworld Trading Company, is our chance to see just how flexible free-market game mechanics can be. During development of Offworld, we discovered that the core gameplay was remarkably robust because the buy/sell mechanic auto-balances the game. Thus, the game should be just as fun even if the map, the HQs, and even the resource tree changed significantly.

Reworking the resource tree would be the most significant change as everything in the game is downstream from how the resources interact. We knew this change should not be minor, so we looked for a location in the solar system that could flip the water tree, which led us to Io, a moon without water but with sulfur oxide ice and a steady stream of hydrogen ions from the neighboring planet. Here, instead of splitting water into oxygen and fuel (hydrogen), the player would melt the ice for oxygen, collect hydrogen from Jupiter’s radiation, and combine them into water. Life support becomes much more challenging when the player can’t just extract water straight from the ground.

Io has a few other wrinkles that mix up the familiar formula from Mars. The day is much longer – 42 hours! – with an additional two-hour eclipse when Jupiter blocks the sun. From the Ceres DLC, we are borrowing diminishing resources (which drop high and medium tiles to low over time) and cave terrain (which gives mining access to all adjacent tiles). Because Io has no atmosphere, wind turbines are not buildable, so players must rely on geothermal plants, solar panels, and nuclear energy. Io also has liquid basalt lakes, on which players can build basalt platforms that produce iron, silicon, and uranium. (Further, scientists can use these resources as inputs for their buildings.) Finally, Io has an assortment of random event new to Offworld – radiation storms, sulfur frosts, landslides, and tremors. The Patent Lab on Io has some new options as well: Nuclear Engine (use uranium as fuel), Geothermal Borehole (all buildings adjacent to geothermal tiles produce power), and Synthetic Meat (farms are permanently boosted).

We also knew that we wanted to encourage new ways of approaching the game by adding two new HQs to the game. The Penrose Collective (colloquially known as the Nomads) are scrappy survivors, emphasizing flexibility and adaptation by allowing the player to actually return claims back to the colony to grab new locations. If aluminum crashes, return you aluminum tiles and get into something more profitable. The Nomads also are able to place two HQs on the map, which reduces their shipping costs and makes moving claims around easier. Finally, the Nomads use silicon instead of steel as their primary resource, making them a good choice for maps rich in the former resource.

The Diadem Trust (known as the Elites) are thematically the rich kids of Io, focusing on special versions of all the advanced buildings. Their Pleasure Dome produces double the revenue (but consumes chemicals); their Patent Lab can license patents from other players; their Optimization Center grants free claim for each fully upgraded resource; and their Hacker Array can create a shortage and a surplus simultaneously. Finally, they can build three Space Elevators instead of the typical two. (Oh, did we mention that Io has a Space Elevator instead of an Offworld Market?) Thus, the Elites are difficult to stop if they make it deep into the game (although that itself can be a challenge as they have few early bonuses).

We hope players find Jupiter’s Forge to be a fresh experience that makes them rethink their old strategies from the base game.

Designer Notes 26: Sid Meier – Part 4

In this episode, Soren Johnson interviews legendary game designer Sid Meier, best known for designing Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization. They discuss what game Sid wishes he designed, how to determine if a prototype should be turned into a game, and why we need a Zombie civilization.

Games discussed: Civilization Revolution, CivWorld, Ace Patrol, Starships, Tetris, SimCity, Seven Cities of Gold

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.