Offworld Trading Company is Mohawk Games' first title and marks the return Civilization IV designer Soren Johnson, but it's not just another 4X or RTS title. Offworld asks "Do you really need physical combat in an real-time strategy game?" Instead, the title is all about competing in economics: creating larger companies, acquiring resources, and buying shares in rivals. Capitalism is your weapon of choice here.
"We're trying to make a different RTS," designer Soren Johnson tells me in an interview. "A lot of us on the team are big fans of the real-time strategy game. We like Age of Empires, Starcraft, and Command & Conquer, but we don't actually play a lot of current RTS games because they basically feel like they're making the same game over and over again. We're trying to make a game that fits the format - the game takes 30 minutes, it's strategic, it's competitive - but uses a totally different mechanic. In the case of Offworld, the mechanic is much like a Tycoon game."
The framing of Offworld Trading places you on Mars, after mega-corporations have fully-exploited Earth and other nearby asteroids for resources. Mars is the next bastion of corporate power, and it's up to you to take it. Offworld features a real-time market driven by the players: Buy low, sell high, manipulate the market to make your resources profitable and your opponents' resources worthless. Money is power.
"You win the game by buying your competition on the stock market," says Johnson.
Since capitalism is your warzone and the real-time markets are your battlefield, Offworld requires different strategies than most RTS games. It's not about building the largest army or racing to the end of a tech tree. Offworld requires you to think about the resources you have and how you can use them to maximise your profits while keeping your opponents' low.
"The game is different," says Johnson. "It's map-based, but it's also market-based. A lot of the conflict happens inside of the market. You might have a very good supply of water. If the price is good, you can sell the water to make a lot of money, but you might be better off holding onto that water and making sure the price stays high to prevent your opponent from being able to buy water for cheap.
"We hope this is an interesting new niche that we've discovered here. We know we're not going to be taking on something like Starcraft."- Offworld designer Soren Johnson
One difference between Offworld and other RTS titles is unfettered capitalism isn't as easy to market as Starcraft or Command & Conquer. There's no explosions and you can't send a zerg of units to utterly destroy your competition. To some, it may not appear very exciting.
"That's one of the challenges we face," Johnson agrees. "Especially from an RTS perspective. It's very easy to show stuff blowing up. That's a very tangible thing for people to latch onto. But people do enjoy Sims-like and Tycoon-like titles, they just aren't used to playing them in a competitive environment. They're use to these big, sprawling single-player games. There are a lot of board games that are competitive and match with that theme. We hope this is an interesting new niche that we've discovered here. We know we're not going to be taking on something like Starcraft."
Classic players may see Offworld as a game inspired by M.U.L.E., a turn-based strategy title that was released by Ozark Softscape and Electronic Arts in 1983. M.U.L.E. also had players competing through supply-and-demand economics, gathering resources to build the largest amount of wealth.
"We're making a game that I think is in the spirit of M.U.L.E.; it's very different because there's just so much more that you can do with a video game 30 years after that title came out, "says Johnson. "It's the same basic concept of limited resources and limited claims. It's a hex-based map with resources distributed around the map and you can only claim say 4 or 5 tiles. In Offworld there's 13 resources, so you have to decide which ones you're going to specialize in. There's no one best resource. People who do well in Offworld tend to understand the free-market dynamic of supply-and-demand, which was very much the core of M.U.L.E. as well."
"We're making a game that I think is in the spirit of M.U.L.E."- Offworld designer Soren Johnson
That said, Offworld is definitely not M.U.L.E. These are different titles that happen to share some similarities. M.U.L.E. was a turn-based game with local multiplayer, while Offworld is real-time. That alone requires different design decisions on Mohawk's part.
"There's some things that we can't really do," says Johnson. "One of the best parts of M.U.L.E. was that shared auction experience. That was better for a local multiplayer turn-based type thing, whereas we're a full-on RTS. Instead, we have an open market where you can buy at anytime. Every time you buy and sell, it adjusts the price."
Offworld Trading Company isn't launching directly to retail. The title will be hitting Steam Early Access, meaning players can purchase it and actually provide feedback during the development process. Johnson prefers the Early Access method of development to the traditional development model he worked on with Civilization III and IV.
"This is absolutely the way I prefer to make games," Johnson tells me. "If I could, I would've done this with all the games that I've worked on. When you're playing your game, you develop these prejudices about it. Things you believe are true. Once you give it to everyone, players are going to figure out what's really the best way to play the game. The players are going to understand the game way better than the designers. Being able to go to Early Access is great, because we'll be able to find out any problems now, while we still have time to do something about it."
Offworld Trading Company will be available on Steam Early Access on February 12, but players can pre-purchase the game today. The Early Access version of the game will include free-for-all online multiplayer matches, a shifting single-player campaign, and AI skimish modes. On the Offworld Store, the game is only $35.99 for a limited time, a discount from the $39.99 MSRP.