OTC Designer Notes #18: Adaptive Gameplay

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.)

We are most proud of Offworld because it makes the player think about each game differently, adapting to the events and environment of that specific match instead of using the same build order or pet tactic over and over again. The game encourages adaptation because so many key parts of the game are randomized each time:

  • Random MapsEach map is randomly generated, with different quantities of each resource available. To encourage interesting randomness, we associated each resource with specific terrain types (Carbon with Craters, Water with Lakebeds, Silicon with Sand, and so on), which determines how likely it is that resources might appear on a tile of that terrain type. Then, we limited these types of terrain to different sections of the map; if Sand fields are in the northwest while Lakebeds are in the southeast, then the Silicon and Water will be in different parts of the map. By preventing different resources types from being too close together, each potential founding location is defined by what resources are close and what resources are not. We also create a dead zone of resources near the middle of the map surrounding the Colony to encourage players to found near the edges of the map, making longer shipping lanes more necessary.
  • Black MarketThe black market typically has six to eight items for sale, and they are selected at the game’s start from a set of eighteen (not unlike the ten card stacks chosen at the beginning of a game of Dominion). As mentioned previously, they are chosen not purely randomly but with certain guarantees (for example, either an EMP or a Power Surge will always be available). Advanced players watch the black market carefully before deciding which HQ type to use. For example, Underground Nukes penalize Scavengers (who are so dependent on maintaining their Carbon supply) but barely affect Scientists (who can still put secondary buildings on top of Trace levels of a resource). Pirates and Magnetic Storms are dangerous for Scientists as they often ship expensive resources across the map; on the other hand, EMPs and Power Surges favor Scientists as they have protection against both. Circuit Overload is dangerous for Robotic players as they like to maintain a positive rate of Power. Expansive HQs are a good choice if Bribe Claim is not available because they will be the only ones with extra claims. Furthermore, the items change how each other can be used; Holograms are much more powerful in games without Spies than in games with them.
  • Random Prices – With the Random Prices option turned on (which is highly recommended for veterans), the starting price of resources also changes from game to game. Although half of the resources stay the same, a quarter of them are reduced by 50%, and a quarter of them are increased by 100%. This option was added once veteran players developed general starting strategies for most of the HQ types. For example, two Steel Mills and a Metal Mine on Iron is a typical Robotic opening; however, what if Iron starts high at $40 and Steel starts low at $30? Then, a Steel Mill is going to lose money by converting $40 of Iron into $15 of Steel (although the actual conversion should be a little better because of adjacency bonuses). The Robotic player can stick to the familiar strategy but might be better off looking for something else. Perhaps in this scenario, Power started higher and Aluminum lower? In that case, a Geothermal Plant would be much cheaper than normal and immediately produce some serious money. Basically, the best players will reevaluate all of their opening moves depending on the set of prices revealed at the beginning.
  • Random EventsDuring the game itself, random events occur that shift prices of resources significantly. Some events (Oxygen Surplus, Food Shortage, etc) will affect just one resource, driving the price either up or down; these events are the ones which can be created artificially with a Hacker Array, so players should always view them with a bit of suspicion (even if a Hacker Array is not visible as it can be hid with a Hologram). Other events affect multiple resources at once; for example, a Pipeline Leak will drive up the price of Food, Oxygen, and Fuel. Finally, Solar Flares and Dust Storms affect how buildings function; while the former boosts Solar Panels, the latter penalizes them but boosts Wind Turbines. Taken together, all these events ensure that players need to adapt to random circumstance during the game as well. For instance, a Silicon Shortage might suddenly make Glass Kilns unprofitable; should the player scrap them for something else, or just hold on until the market balances out again? The answer probably depends on many factors, such as the player’s stockpile of Silicon, the Colony’s demand for Glass, whether the player still needs Glass to upgrade, the cost of switching to new buildings, and so on. The random event, however, forces the player to consider the situation carefully.
  • Other Players The decisions made by other players are, of course, not actually random, but they definitely require the player to adapt. For example, the desirability of each HQ changes depending on the other founds. If other players found Scavenger, then perhaps the player should pick Scientific, which has good protection against sabotage. If everyone goes Scientific, then perhaps founding Robotic and building Power is a good move as Scientific players consume plenty of Power with their secondary buildings. Seeing many Robotic players means, of course, that life support resources will not be in such high demand. Besides the founds, players need to pay attention to what everyone else is building. Is everyone skipping Power? (If so, put down an early Geothermal Plant.) Did most players build Farms and not Reactors? (If so, do the opposite and build Reactors..) Are multiple Patent Labs and Optimization Centers up early? (If so, build Refineries as the price of Chemicals is about to rise.) Basically, watch what everyone else is doing to anticipate where the market is heading.

We hope that we’ve made a game that lives up to our ideal for strategy games — that the player should always be planning, always be reacting, always be thinking.

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