OTC Designer Notes #9: Patent Lab

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 patent system was one of the earliest elements of the game to take shape. As both an RTS and a science-fiction game, Offworld obviously needed an interesting technology system. However, we wanted our system to have variability (so that players weren’t always following the same research path) and interactivity (so that players were reacting to each other’s choices). Turning technologies into patents (meaning that each patent could be held by only one player) achieved both goals at once. Players could never count on a specific set of patents because another player might get to some of them first, which meant that players had to watch one another, possibly sabotaging Patent Labs to make sure no one else got to an important patent first. Further, patents appearing as auctions could shift the course of the game significantly.

Superconductor (+100% Power production if connected to HQ) – The best locations for Power (high altitude for solar, steep ridges for wind, and geothermals tiles) might not be near one’s HQ, but Superconductor meant that a player need only build Power connected to the HQ. A Solar Panel with Superconductor would generally (depending on altitude) be equivalent to a Geothermal Plant, which could be hugely profitable if Power spikes in price. The most important advantage of building Power close to one’s HQ, however, is that those claims can later be deleted and used for something else if Power crashes. However, players often have to build their Power sources before they get Superconductor, which means this strategy is risky if someone else gets the patent first.

Energy Vault (Produces +1.0 Power as storage, up to 100 units) – Power is the only resource which cannot be stored and must be sold immediately, which gives it a unique price curve as players with excess Power are constantly selling it. Because Solar Panels shut off at night, the price of Power usually goes up when the sun goes down and then drops during the day. This pattern makes life difficult for players who rely solely on Solar Panels as the price of Power is highest when their production is shut off. Energy Vault lets players avoid this pattern by storing up a stockpile of Power during the day and then using at night when the sun is gone. Also, it is possible for a player to stop selling Power if she want to keep the price artificially high. Normally, this excess Power is just lost because the player cannot store it; with Energy Vault, however, this tactic is more viable because the player can stockpile this Power for later use.

Financial Instruments (Receive 25% of other player’s interest payments) – This patent was the last one to be added to the game because it originated as a response to players taking on too much debt. Although the debt problem was mostly solved by bond ratings, Financial Instruments also made debt dangerous because a player could benefit from everyone else’s debt. If an opponent racks up too much debt, simply acquire Financial Instruments and use that daily influx of cash to help buy that player’s deflated stock. Naturally, players with a lot of debt also began grabbing this patent as a defensive measure.

Water Engine (Uses Water instead Fuel for units and launches) – The price of fuel can go up quickly on maps with distant resource clumps (for example, if all of the Water is in the west while all the Iron is in the east). Indeed, sometimes distant mines are turned off because the shipping costs are so high that the building would be a net loss. Water is almost always cheaper than Fuel (as it takes two units of Water to make one unit of Fuel, not to mention the Power consumption and the tile occupied by the Reactor), so being able to spend Water on shipping can be very useful. However, Water Engine did suffer from the disadvantage of being strictly worse than another patent, Teleportation, which simply removes shipping costs entirely. To compensate, Water Engine costs half as much (and takes half as much time to acquire) and is still obviously useful if another player gets to Teleportation first. Nonetheless, we felt that a player should still have a reason to acquire Water Engine even if he has Teleportation, which is why we also let players use Water instead of Fuel to launch resources at the Offworld Market, a building that is unaffected by Teleportation.

Perpetual Motion (-50% Power Consumption) – Although Perpetual Motion does not appear to be particularly interesting compared to the rest of the patents, it is the only item in the game that actually reduces consumption of anything. Perpetual Motion can turn a Power consuming player into a Power producing one. Indeed, it must surely be the most flexible of patents as it would aid every player — even a player with Cold Fusion would benefit because his Water consumption from powering buildings is also cut in half. Thus, even if Perpetual Motion is not as flashy as other patents, it is a good one to research early because everyone else is going to want it.

Cold Fusion (Uses Water instead of Power for buildings) – Water is probably the most common resource on average in Offworld, which makes Cold Fusion a powerful patent as it enables a player with a good source of Water to just ignore making Power altogether. Cold Fusion can become dominant combined with Water Engine and Water Production optimizations. Nonetheless, the patent was seen as a bit of a trap early in development because if the Water price rose higher than that of Power, the patent is actually a net loss. Thus, we made a small but important change — that buildings would switch automatically between consuming Water or Power depending on which one was cheaper (Water Engine works the same way). The patent now gives its owner great flexibility in manipulating the market; shorting Power, for example, knowing that once the price of Power passes that of Water, all of the player’s Power buildings will be selling directly to the market.

Virtual Reality (+50% revenue from the Pleasure Dome) – Because revenue from the Pleasure Dome is so highly dependent on the actions of other players (the potential revenue is divided by the total number of Domes on the map), players want to find ways to discourage other players from building more Domes. Virtual Reality is the best method because once a player acquires it, the potential value of new Pleasure Domes drops (as other players know that their new Domes will never get the boost). Often, it is one of the first patents to be taken as players are afraid of missing out on it. Indeed, before we dropped Virtual Reality from +100%, it was almost always the first patent to disappear (which is, of course, why we weakened it as it had become an uninteresting, automatic decision).

Nanotech (Construction resources are refunded when a building is scrapped) – Nanotech was considered perhaps the weakest patent before we released on Early Access, so it greatly surprised us to find that competitive players considered it the best patent in the game. The patent enables player to cycle their production from one resource to another for basically free, with the only cost being the time lost in constructing the new building. Internally, we cycled our production far less than we should have, not taking advantage of resources that were rising in price and not giving up on ones that were actually losing us money. Thus, Nanotech is a good example of why development teams don’t understand their own games nearly as well as the players do. The patent was brought back into balance by raising its cost and from the diminishing returns on adjacency bonuses, which discouraged cycling quite so quickly.

Slant Drilling (Can mine resources from adjacent tiles) – The value of Slant Drilling varies highly from map to map. Its most powerful use is as a counter to a resource monopoly; if one player somehow claims all the Aluminum, just grab Slant Drilling and put a mine next to that player’s best source. The patent is also a useful hedge against Underground Nukes because resources tend to be found in clumps; if someone nukes a player’s High Water, there is probably a Medium Water adjacent to her Pump which she can use instead. Slant Drilling is especially attractive to Scientific players as it makes creating building triangles much easier — all they need is one resource tile for up to six adjacent buildings. Occasionally, a Scientific player might even find adjacent sources of Aluminum, Silicon, and Carbon, enabling free Electronics production by using Slant Drilling to access all three resources at once.

Carbon Scrubbing (Buildings consume Carbon for free) – This patent was inspired by the fact that a building could extract some Carbon from Mars’s atmosphere, which is primarily carbon dioxide. From a gameplay perspective, making one resource potentially free creates an interesting bit of asymmetry among the primary resources, especially because Carbon is an important input for Chemicals and Electronics, two valuable late-game resources. Thus, one popular strategy after acquiring Carbon Scrubbing is to start Carbon shortages at the Hacker Array, which makes producing Chemicals and Electronics less profitable, which drives up their price as other players cycle away from those resources, which ultimately makes Chemicals and Electronics extremely profitable for the player with Carbon Scrubbing who can ignore the Carbon cost! Also of note, Scavenger players love the patent because it means they can keep all of the Carbon they produce for buildings and HQ upgrades.

Thinking Machines (-50% sabotage protection for buildings adjacent to the HQ) – The original Black Market had no defensive options, which meant that players had no way to protect themselves from EMPs, Dynamites, Mutinies, and so on. Along with Goon Squads, Thinking Machine was added to provide another tool to balance the power of sabotage. Initially, the patent provided complete protection against sabotage, but it was easy to see that was simply too much — the player with Thinking Machines was able to put Offworld Markets next to her HQ and just launch her way unchallenged to victory. After changing the effect to -50%, the patent is still important but no longer dominant. Another nice aspect of Thinking Machines is that players now plan ahead in anticipation of picking up the patent later, perhaps even in an auction, by carefully arranging their claims to provide potential location adjacent to their HQs for buildings to be protected by the patent. Ideally, the player has to make trade offs between short- and long-term gains — should I snake my claims out from my HQ to connect to a distant resource (saving Fuel costs and potentially avoiding Pirates), or should I claim every tile adjacent to my HQ to maximize my potential protection from sabotage?

Teleportation (Resources are transferred instantly to and from the HQ) – Everyone wants Teleportation, even if just to make sure that no one else has Teleportation. The benefits are pretty obvious – no more Fuel costs, instant access to distant resource production – but a few special cases are worth noting. Teleportation makes one immune to Pirates and Magnetic Storms, which can be very important if shipping expensive resources; owning the patent means that the other players will use those types of sabotage only against each other, which is certainly a best-case scenario. Although receiving building outputs instantly is the obvious appeal of Teleportation, being able to deliver inputs instantly is important as well; players are free to place their secondary buildings wherever convenient. A Scientific player with Teleportation has the freedom to put his Glass Furnace on Silicon, his Chemical Labs on Carbon, and his Electronics Factories on Silicon, Carbon, and/or Aluminum, no matter how far from his HQ.

One thought on “OTC Designer Notes #9: Patent Lab

  1. I have been reading your blog all week and I absolutely love it.
    It is very well written, and you go in to such depth about actual game design decisions.
    (Also I like space strategy games…)

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