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?