Although I have worked on Offworld Trading Company for over a year now, I still struggle to know how to first describe the game. It’s a game about making money. It’s a game about colonizing Mars. It’s a real-time strategy game, but you don’t control units or directly attack other players. It feels like a board game but one which could never exist outside of a computer. Ultimately, it’s all of these things and yet something else too: a strategy game full of simple and familiar elements that are combined in a way never before tried.
What makes Offworld special is that each playthrough is entirely unique. The randomly-generated terrain and resources ensure that each map is a new game board that rewards certain play styles. Further, the best players will adapt to how their opponents play:
Perhaps everyone else builds powerful Geothermal Plants, ensuring that the power market will always be over-supplied? Just skip power entirely and jump ahead into more lucrative resources like chemicals and glass.
Spot a market inefficiency, such as the price of water edging above the price of food? Turn off your farms, start selling the excess water instead, buy food directly at the lower price, and pocket the difference.
Someone claims the only remaining source of aluminum on the map? You can patent Slant Drilling and build a mine on an adjacent tile, trigger a fake aluminum surplus to buy some up when the price drops, or just hire pirates to steal from the blimps on their way to the player’s headquarters.
We have been playing competitive Offworld game internally for over a year now, and every strategy leads to a counter-strategy and then a counter-counter-strategy, until someone finally gets enough leverage to finish the game with a hostile takeover. Lessons from these games have informed my development of the AI, so that it use the same tricks and strategies I have both employed and witnessed. We added teamplay after it became our most-requested feature and were surprised at how well it worked. For single-player, we created a dynamic campaign mode that plays out very differently from the standard skirmish game, making long, multi-hour sessions possible.
We are now taking our next step forward, releasing Offworld on Steam Early Access to expose our game to the oxygen of player feedback. Since last summer, we’ve run a small, private Founder’s Program that put the game into the hands of about a thousand fans who were willing to buy the game based simply on its promise and our reputation. So far, their feedback has been invaluable, and I will be forever grateful to the many who were willing to take a chance on us and our game. However, we need a much larger player base to be able to truly understand our game – enough players to poke at the holes in the AI, to be able to find each other for pick-up games, to help us discover if there are a few degenerate strategies that drown out the rest of the design. In time, players always understand games better than their designers, and if we are to make Offworld the best game it can be, we need to start that process as soon as possible.
I was very excited when I first learned about Steam’s Early Access program because it provides the infrastructure for making games the way I believe they should be made, by connecting developers and players as early as possible. I speak from experience; with Civilization 3, we had no player feedback outside of Firaxis and our publisher’s testing department, which led to some poorly-tuned mechanics and simply bad ideas in the initial release. Afterwards, I spent months and months digging through the forums, developing direct contact with the game’s most outspoken critics, and reworking the core design through a series of major patches. Eventually, we were happy with the final product, but I wish we had that feedback before we released the game instead of afterwards. Determined to fix that problem for Civ 4, we launch a private testing program by inviting notable members of the Civ community to start playing the game over a year and a half before release. Our ability to act early on the feedback these players provided was the primary reason that Civ 4 received universal acclaim upon release.
Thus, Early Access is a tremendous tool for small developers like Mohawk who want to learn more about their games without worrying about the infrastructure, maintenance, or distribution required to execute a widespread public beta program. To be clear, we are not launching Offworld on Early Access for financial reasons; we have enough money already to fund us through our planned release date early next year. We are going to Early Access because we are serious about making the best strategy game of the year, and the only way to do so is to find out what is wrong with our game right now when there is still time to do something about it.
I hope you’ll join us. Pre-order now at http://www.offworldgame.com/store, and we’ll see you online February 12th!