OTC Designer Notes #3: Claims

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.

Perhaps the one game element which has changed the least from the earliest prototype to the finished game is the claim system, which was borrowed directly from the classic economic video game, M.U.L.E. However, the way buildings interacted with claims in Offworld did change. Originally, each tile could hold four buildings, and the production bonuses were not between buildings in adjacent tiles but between buildings in the same tile. Two Steel Mills in the same tile got a bonus, three Mills got a higher bonus, and four was the best. However, this system was hard to manage, and the player mostly just built the same four building in each tile every time. Most importantly, players were not specializing in specific resources as they generally devoted one tile to each one, which was a big problem for the gameplay. If each player is building the same set of resources, the market is going to be less dynamic; players don’t have to make hard choices about which resources to skip.

The solution was to allow only one building per tile and to give production bonuses for buildings of the same type in adjacent tiles. (We also switched from squares to hexes around this time, which made adjacency rules much more natural.) The bonuses for two adjacent buildings was +50%, which meant that two adjacent Steels Mills produced as much as three non-adjacent ones (and, of course, consumed less power and iron). This dynamic strongly encouraged specialization, which led to more interesting games as players couldn’t just build one of everything and be safe. It was much better, for example, to commit to either Food or Oxygen but not to both, which meant that the price of either one could spike if players all ignored that specific resource (which would then reward the player who first noticed that no one else was making it).

The bonuses were initially +50% for each adjacent building, which meant that the ideal situation was a circle of 6 identical buildings surrounding a seventh building in the center, which would receive an amazing +300% production bonus. We initially thought that committing seven tiles to just one resource would be too dangerous for players if the price of that resources crashed (which was likely considering the oversupply), but players instead quickly cycled these seven buildings (meaning to scrap and rebuild them as a different type) depending on the market. It was a hectic experience, and we didn’t want the best strategy to be one of constantly scrapping one’s building – it felt wrong and also introduced an unwanted dexterity challenge to the game as cycling speed became important. The solution was to add diminishing returns to the bonuses so that the third building gave a +25% bonus, the fourth gave a +10%, and so on. Ultimately, the maximum bonus possible was only +100%, and a player probably would be better off splitting those seven tiles between two resources instead of committing to just one. Now, the triangle of buildings – each with a +75% total bonus – became the new sweet spot, which felt just about right for balancing specialization and diversification. (Interestingly, the final balance is similar to that of M.U.L.E., which also gave bonuses for adjacent building and for every three buildings of the same type.)

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