OTC Designer Notes #2: Free Markets

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 reason we streamlined unit selection from the game was that we wanted to create room for the part of the game we cared about – the free market gameplay. Originally, this aspect of the game resembled Railroad Tycoon as well. Players did not have an HQ at all but the map had multiple neutral Colonies, and the player earned the most money by dropping off a resource at the Colony with the highest demand for that resource. Thus, Steel might be selling for $10 at a nearby Colony but for $100 at a distant one, so it was worth the effort to ship the Steel to the other side of the map.

Players had a hard time investing in this version of the game as they felt disconnected from the map, so we decided to add the HQ, a place for the player to store all her resources in a single stockpile. Once the HQ appeared, it also became the natural place to put secondary buildings that required input resources – Steel Mills, Glass Kilns, and so on. At the same time, the HQs replaced the old neutral Colonies (which would make a comeback later in the project), so the local markets were now gone, to be replaced by a single market. In this case, we were heavily inspired by the Market building from Age of Kings, which allowed players to buy and sell Iron, Wood, and Stone at prices that went up and down with each transaction. Thus, if one player bought Wood, the price went up for everyone. We built a similar game-wide market but developed one important difference.

The designers of Age of Kings hedged their bets on free market dynamics by forcing the purchase price of a resource to be always double the sale price. Thus, if one could buy Stone for $100, one could only sell it for $50, which meant that using the market too much would eventually drain away one’s Gold. This price relationship greatly hindered one’s ability to play the market, preventing it from becoming one of the core mechanics of the game; instead, the market was simply an interesting but inessential part of the whole. In our case, however, the resource market is the core of Offworld, so we wanted to encourage people to use it as much as possible. We did originally use the price doubling mechanic from Age of Kings but, fearing that players weren’t using the market enough, collapsed the buy and sell price into a single value; the results were immediate and positive as players started taking advantage of buying low and selling high; the market was now equally driven by the game’s rules and by the players’ strategies. This one change resulted in the first glimpse of what Offworld would become, an intense free market RTS that was unlike anything we had ever played.

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