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Offworld Trading Company: Taking Stock in Space

Offworld Trading Company defies easy categorization. We take a closer look at this RTS with a stock market twist, and talk to studio head Soren Johnson about the inspiration behind it.

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Mohawk Games co-founder Soren Johnson knows his current project is unconventional, and even confusing at a glance. It's a real-time strategy game without combat, a competitive city builder, and a stock market valuation simulator all rolled into one. Offworld Trading Company defies easy categorization, so how does he explain it in simple terms?

"That's a very good question," he laughed. "Do you have any suggestions?"

Buy Low, Sell High, Build Rockets

Part of that may be that Offworld Trading Company bears a passing resemblance to games like StarCraft, complete with alien terrain, a variety of building structures, and minions to gather certain resources. That's where the similarities end. In OTC, resources themselves are the game. The value of each resource type rises and falls according to market conditions based on the classic rules of supply and demand. As other players need materials for their own buildings or flood the market with an abundance of a resource, prices rise and fall accordingly. Your task is to manage your own infrastructure while keeping an eye on upcoming markets, and ultimately to buy out all of your competitors. Imagine The Big Short meets The Martian.

It sounds complicated, and to an extent it is, but the core concepts can be grasped with or without a head for finance. The user interface is clear about the value of markets, so as long as you can understand a number ticking upwards, you can develop a strategy regarding which resources to invest in. And unlike the actual stock market, it's not a slow-moving affair for investments to pay off. A typical match takes about 20 minutes, and is full of frantic, split-second buy-or-sell decisions.

The end-game is usually a race to establish offworld trade, a heavy infrastructure project that brings back big dividends by launching rockets with rare materials. While carefully balancing all this, though, you have to keep an eye on yours and your opponents' stock. Buying at least 50% protects you from an easy buyout. Hostile takeovers of all the other companies in the area is the win condition.

From Mods to Mars

"I found that games that had a market inside of them, it was a really interesting dynamic aspect that I didn't see in other games," Johnson said. "We had one of the programmers at Firaxis who made a weird map script [for Age of Empires]. Forests were very rare, but gold and stone is all over the place. If you play those games, you know that's essentially the opposite of what it normally is.

"What that did is that it turned the economy of the game upside-down. Suddenly spear men were really expensive because they required wood, but knights were cheap because they required gold. So the price of wood on the market kept going up. I know I need spear men but the price of wood is so high, is it still worth it? And I thought, this game is auto-balancing itself because it's built around this free market dynamic."

Having been inspired by a game based in history, Johnson set out to modernize it. He knew he needed some kind of modern-day analogue to have a working, real-time stock market. From there, he needed an environment that was plausibly untapped. Mars fit the bill to a tee, and added the wrinkle of needing to consider life support elements like water and oxygen. Plus, as he says, Mars is believably near-future, as opposed to "a made up place with a ton of apostrophes."

A set of four playable factions add another wrinkle, as well as the unusual way they're chosen. Rather than picking a faction before entering a map, players briefly scout the map and choose which pool of resources to build near. Only then do they choose a faction, which can be heavily influenced by where they're built. The robotic faction, for example, may not build near water since it doesn't need it for life support, but it could choose to build there since it can sell those resources for pure profit without needing it themselves. The Scavengers can make the most of limited resources, but also have trouble handling fuel costs for transporting resources that are far away on the map. Plus, of course, there's the consideration of which faction will counter the ones your opponents have chosen, if they jumped the gun ahead of you.

"I continue to refer to the game as an RTS, even though there's no other RTS like it, just because I want people to know it very much fits the format of RTS," Johnson said. "This is not a calm peaceful building game. It has a lot of roots in board games, there's a Euro-game, Settlers of Catan aspect to it. Those games are competitive but deemphasize direct conflict."

The Human Conundrum

The conflict is largely indirect as Johnson states, but it does offer small ways to directly engage with opponents. These are products of the Black Market, which range from using bombs and EMPs to a "Goon Squad" that will protect you to Mutiny to make an opponent's building work for you instead. All of this centers on the multiplayer aspect, which is the major focus of the game. However, OTC also offers a single-player campaign to teach the basics of combat. The Black Market tools are available in single-player as well--to a point.

Two Black Market options are off-limits to the single-player A.I., the Hologram and the Spy. Holograms disguise a building as another, which is useful for hiding the presence of an important building like an offworld launch pad. The Spy reveals a tile and all six surrounding it, to root out any Holograms. 

"Based on my experience, I kind of knew up-front there's no way to make the A.I. use that appropriately," Johnson said. "When a human player looks at another human player's HQ, there's something they'll notice that's a little off. I see a steel mill, but they're not arranged in a super-optimal way. So it makes me suspect that one of those is a hologram. For an A.I. to know that, it almost has to be pattern-recognition, visual imagery software, which is way beyond the scope of the A.I. in this game.

"But here's the real conundrum. Even if I got the A.I. to do that correctly, it wouldn't matter, because when you're playing the game, if the A.I. figures it out and targets you, you're going to suspect it just cheated. There's two outcomes. Either the A.I.'s bad at it, in which case, there's no point. Or the A.I. is good at it and the human is not going to believe it."

You can turn on those options to use against the single-player A.I., but the game tells you directly that your computer opponents won't make use of them. Johnson says he's glad those tools exist anyway, though, since human players enjoy playing mind-games with them. He says in the competitive scene on Early Access, players will arrange some of their buildings poorly on purpose, just to throw each other off.

Offworld Trading Company is currently available on Steam Early Access.


This Offworld Trading Company preview was based on a beta demo of the game at an event where a meal was provided by Mohawk Games.

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