OTC Designer Notes #16: HQ Types

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.)

Offworld is an RTS, so having different factions was part of the design from the beginning; what each one meant, of course, took a long time to form. However, one design choice we inherited without really considering seriously was having players choose their faction before the game began — it wasn’t a choice because every strategy game ever, from Civilization to Crusader Kings, from WarCraft to Company of Heroes, from Master of Orion to Stellaris, from Master of Magic to Endless Legend, has players pick their faction before starting the game.

One of our playtesters floated this simple, but powerful, idea after a match one day — “What if I could choose my HQ after I see the map?” This suggestion took about an hour to code and was immediately a giant step forward for the game. Perhaps this idea was a natural outgrowth of the game’s design; the HQ types of Offworld favor specific arrangements of resources, so players would inevitably wish they had chosen a different HQ after seeing the map. Indeed, the exploration/founding phase of Offworld is also quite unique among RTS games (perhaps our background in the Civilization series made it a natural starting point for us), and adapting one’s choice in HQ to the random map makes for a very interesting decision. The best Offworld players are capable of winning with all four HQs so that they are never at risk of losing a game because the random map doesn’t match their favorite HQ. Finally, choosing HQs during the game also meant that players could take into account each others’ choices; for example, after noticing that all three other players founded Scientific HQs, which often consume tons of Power with secondary buildings like Steel Mills and Electrolysis Reactors, a player might decide to go Robotic and just focus on producing Power, making money as the price spikes earlier than usual.

Expansive – This HQ was always the vanilla one, with bonuses that did not significantly change the game but were still strong enough to compete. Thus, one HQ could be seen as the default – against which the others could be compared – and also what new players could use to get a baseline Offworld experience. The most obvious way to make a player stronger was to simply give him more claims, so Expansive HQs receive one extra claim each time they upgrade, a hugely powerful, if also hugely boring, advantage. We also wanted to give them a construction bonus to help them expand quickly, so we made their buildings cost half as much steel as they did for other HQ types. (In our initial Early Access version, Expansive HQs also needed half as much Steel to upgrade, but our community quickly discovered this bonus was hugely overpowered.) The Expansive player tends to look for as many High resources as possible – to feed all the secondary buildings on its extra claims – so we made claiming tiles father away from the HQ a little easier by increasing the speed of Expansive Freighters.

Robotic – From the beginning, the most obvious way to create a distinct HQ was to simply allow one to ignore life support costs. Thus, the Robotic HQ started as the one which didn’t need to worry about Water or Food or Oxygen. We also changed its units to use Power instead of Fuel, so that Robotic players could truly ignore Water entirely by not needing Electrolysis Reactors. The bonus for founding on top of resources originally belonged to the Expansive HQ, which made more sense with its large footprint when HQs got a slow but steady rate of production from the resources underneath them. We determined that it was just simpler (and reduced our UI challenge) to simply destroy the resources on found and give the player a lump sum relative to the resource level. After the change, the Robotic were a better fit for this bonus as they could take advantage of an early resource lead to upgrade fast without concern (because they consume no extra life support as they upgrade). In fact, the Robotic HQ originally consumed Power (and, in a later version, consumed Electronics), but we felt that having the HQ consume nothing as it upgraded made it even more distinct.

However, players felt the Robotic HQ was still underpowered, so we made two further changes. First, we changed the resources Robotic HQs needed to upgrade — needing half as much Aluminum and using Electronics instead of Glass (and half as much as well). Thus, we improved further the ability of Robotic players to upgrade quickly and, perhaps more importantly, changed what type of resources they looked for on the map. Because Aluminum is much less important to them, Robotic players can found in locations that are unappealing (without good access to either Water or Aluminum) to other players. (The high-level goal here is that each HQ type should have a different ideal founding location so that players benefit from being able to play all four types.)

Second, we changed how adjacency rules worked for the Robotic player; buildings would get an adjacency bonus not just for being next to buildings of their own type but also for being next to buildings which supply their input. Thus, a Steel Mill gets a 50% bonus for being next to a Metal Mine that produces Iron while a Glass Furnace would get a 75% bonus for being next to an Elemental Quarry producing Silicon and an Electrolysis Reactor producing Oxygen. We also experimented with giving Robotic HQs a general production bonus relative to how much extra Power they produced but – instead of adding another special bonus to an already long list – we extended the adjacency bonus to include buildings which provide Power. (Thus, Solar Panels would give an adjacency bonus to all buildings which consumed Power.) Again, these change meant that Robotic HQs benefit from a certain arrangement of resources that might not matter to other HQs, such as a Geothermal near Iron (which could both boost Steel Mills) or a variety of Low resources close together (which enables a chain of input bonuses).

Scavenger – The initial idea behind the Scavengers was an HQ that used a different resource as its primary building material. Almost all buildings in the game require a significant amount of Steel, making it an important resource throughout the game, so allowing a player to bypass that resource entirely radically changes the resource hierarchy. Scavengers originally required Silicon back when Copper was still in the game, but we switch them over to Carbon when it was added because Carbon was the easiest resource to skip during the early game. Carbon only leads to Chemicals and Electronics, both resources that players do not typically need until they have upgraded at least a couple time, so Scavenger players can thrive on parts of the map ignored by other HQs.

We also wanted the Scavengers to thematically be tied to espionage and sabotage, which inspired the HQ’s other two bonuses. For espionage, we gave Scavenger players early warning of most random events affecting the resource market, including all of the ones artificially triggered by the Hacker Array. It’s difficult to quantify the value of this bonus as it is simply information, but a good Scavenger player will buy and sell rapidly in response to an impending shortage or surplus. Indeed, multiple Scavenger players can greatly amplify the effects of these events; for example, if a Food shortage is coming, the Scavengers might buy up a lot of Food in preparation for the coming rise in price, which of course drives up the price before the shortage even arrives. It can sometimes be hard to tell if the price is changing more from the random event itself or from Scavengers playing the market.

To associate the Scavengers with sabotage, we gave them a random item from the black market each time they upgraded. This power was interesting but considered simply too random by most players. In a 2-player match, for example, getting Pirates from the first upgrade could put the other player in such a hole that the match felt over (whether or not this was really true). Thus, we changed the bonus to be a shorter black market cooldown, so that a Scavenger player could buy sabotage items quicker than the other players. This change took away an unnecessary bit of randomness and also had a more pronounced effect later in the game, which improved perceptions of fairness because, early on, the Scavenger player usually couldn’t afford to buy sabotage from the black market each time it unlocked anyway. (Although the old random sabotage bonus was removed, we left the code in the game and recycled it as a special power for one of the Campaign’s Scavenger executives.)

Scientific – The most unusual HQ in the game – because they can ignore High resources and skip primary buildings – the Scientists also started off with very different powers. Originally, the HQ received Optimization Center upgrades simply from maintaining buildings; if a Scientific player built a bunch of Steel Mills, then he would eventually earn Improved Steel Production, then Efficient Steel Production, and so on — and all for free. The Scientists also were the only HQ that could see and use Trace resources (which, at this point in development, were also generated randomly and were as productive as Low resources). Finally, the Scientific HQ acquired patents faster, which actually was taken away by the time the game released on Early Access but came back later to give the HQ more of a scientific flavor.

This combination of bonuses just didn’t seem to work, and Scientists were the least popular HQ. The free optimization upgrades felt too random and hard to monitor; because the player was not making active choices, she wasn’t invested in the outcome of the system. We decided to drop this bonus in favor of a new, more radical one — that secondary buildings could extract their input resources directly from their tile. This idea came from thinking about ways to make Trace resources more important for the Scientific player; a few extra Low-equivalent resources was not particularly interesting, but if those resources could be used to power Hydrolysis Reactors and Steel Mills and Glass Blowers? Suddenly, the entire map looked different to a Scientific player; that giant cluster of uninteresting Trace and Low Water tiles becomes a money-making machine for triangles of Scientific Farms and Reactors.

Ironically, the Trace resource bonus that inspired the defining feature of the Scientific HQ would not last much longer. The one downside to allowing players to choose their HQ type after exploring the map is that there was no way to show Trace resources only to Scientific players before founding (because, of course, these players are not Scientific yet). For a while, we kept Trace resources in as before and simply revealed them to Scientific players after founding, but it seemed like a weird vestigial rule that didn’t fit the current game. Thus, we dropped the association with Scientific players and changed the rules for Underground Nukes so that resources could never be destroyed permanently but instead became Trace resources (which now produced at only a quarter of the rate of Low).

Scientific HQs have one more bonus – protection against EMPs and Power Surges – which used to be much stronger, originally protecting them against all types of sabotage. The desired effect was not necessarily to boost the Scientists but to simply make sabotage decisions more interesting. For example, should a player target the Scientist with the highest stock price or someone else without protection against sabotage? Ultimately, this bonus proved simply too powerful, so we reduced it to only affect sabotage which froze buildings. The upshot of this change is that players now have an important reason to check the black market before picking an HQ; if both EMPs and Power Surges are available, then Scientists are a good choice as they have natural protection against a significant portion of the black market.

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