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.
Auctions were an early element of Offworld’s design that were compelling from the beginning. Player interaction is the core of competitive strategy games, and one risk of making an RTS without combat is that players might feel they are playing competitive solitaire, focusing mostly on their own buildings and ignoring the other players. Thus, auctions are a great way to put players into direct conflict as they bid on items, driving up the price until all but one blink. Judging the value of an auction is tricky, and many players experience the “winner’s curse” common in auctions where the winner of the auction ends up losing the game from overbidding.
Initially, we implemented three types of auctions: a new claim, a specific tile, and an unclaimed patent. One mechanic we originally tried with auctions was creating a new resource deposit specifically for an auction if no unclaimed source existed. For example, if all the Silicon tiles on the map had been claimed, the game would create a new source of Silicon and auction it off. We had wanted to create meaningful auctions, but this situation was too meaningful. If a player had accomplished the difficult task of claiming all the Silicon on the map, she felt cheated if the game magically created a new one. The player had the painful choice of either overbidding to protect her monopoly or letting it go and losing a rare advantage. We didn’t want to punish players who went for the strategy of monopolizing a specific resource, so we took away the feature.
As development continued, we integrated new features to improve auctions. Once the black market was no longer a fixed set of seven items but a random selection from a larger pool, we could then auction sabotage items which were not available on the black market (if the item was on the black market, then there was little reason to bid much over the current price). Once special buildings (Patent Office, Hacker Array, etc.) could be built next to the Colony, we could then auction them off since they would be potentially valuable to all players (although we never auction off Offworld Markets because that would be insane).
One other important change was only possible once debt became a game mechanic. Originally, auctions were paid directly from cash, which meant that players were often selling all their resources to be able to outbid their opponents. However, at some point, players are simply going to hit a limit and have no more cash to bid on an auction. Further, if the auction comes at a point when most players are cash poor (possibly from recently upgrading HQs), one player might be able to win an important auction simply because he was the only player in the game with money on hand. That situation felt wrong, especially when a rival player was willing to bid if only she had the money. The solution was to instead pay for auctions out of debt, which solved the problem completely. Players were free to bid as much as they wanted to on auctions but knew that if they overbid, their stock price might crash to dangerous levels. In the days shortly after this change, there were some hilarious playtests where one player (usually me) overbid heavily on an auction and then saw his stock price immediately collapse to $1 and get bought out. Lessons were learned.