Offworld Trading Company
Fundamental Critiques and Suggestions for the Game
Let me preface this by saying I was once an avid PC gamer in the 90’s and early 00’s. In the past 10 years I have played primarily console games; however, the lack of meaningful strategy games on console has made me return to PC in an effort to find a game that Offworld Trading Company’s description and promise fits perfectly. I have extensively played Civilization III and Civilization IV – both of which are excellent games attesting to the competence, capability, inspiration, and giftedness of Soren Johnson as a game designer, and his teams in bringing those designs to fruition. The below critiques and suggestions are meant purely to transform this game from what it currently is to what I would like to play and what I feel the designers and other developers at Mohawk Games and Stardock Games want and intend it to be.
Note: In the following discussions my use of the term 'auto-sell' means the auto-sell of all and/or specific incoming resources, not resources already in storage, unless specifically stated otherwise. (Important Note: you can still, at current market prices, manually buy and store more of a given resource and sell stored resources - the auto-sell of incoming resources does not eliminate this important facet of gameplay) Also, my use of 'auto-supply' or 'auto-buy' means the auto-buy of necessary resources only when the output is profitable at current market prices, again, unless specifically stated otherwise.
1.The benefits of allowing auto-sell and having it be the default state for all resource types.
Speculation (i.e., a transaction that has risk of losing all or most of the initial outlay in expectation of substantial gains) is currently the default mode of operation of the markets in Offworld Trading Company. Without auto-sell being the default option for all resource types, the inevitable outcome is inventory buildup (due to a player being unable to constantly sell their items while dealing with other items in the game) and the risk that the price of a good will drop enough to render the sale of the accumulated goods at a loss rather than a profit. The profits displayed in the game windows are calculated at current market rates. This is useless if the default option is inventory accumulation, for which a price drop could lead to a loss rather than the displayed profit. Furthermore, the auto-sale of incoming resources would allow for a less volatile market price and a much more stable and accurate reflection of current supply and demand, thus allowing for easier and more effective short-, mid-, and long-term economic planning.
As stated above, my belief is that auto-sell should be the default option for all items, thus preventing speculation from being the default state of the game; however, by also providing a toggle switch option to turn auto-sell off/on for specific resources, the speculation risk it entails becomes a possible beneficial strategy due to the potential gains from the sale of accumulated assets which have experienced a rise in price, and the potential market manipulation (see: surplus, and resulting decrease in price) made possible by flooding the market with a glut of accumulated goods.
Also, another important improvement would be for storage to be required to accumulate resources. The HQ could hold a limited amount of resources, and, like with power and the Energy Vault, a special storage structure should be required to store further amounts of any given resource (Note: the structure could hold a certain number of any resource type and any combination thereof. [i.e., There doesn’t need to be a specific structure for each resource type.]). Since each storage structure should hold only a limited amount of resources, more would have to be built to allow further accumulation, thus causing the player to need to manage the benefits of storage (and hence speculation) versus other uses of the tiles in question.
In short: I don’t want my entire game time to be consumed by manually and constantly clicking ‘sell’ for potentially 20 different items just to avoid the risks of speculation, not to mention just to fulfill a basic game mechanic.
2. The benefits of auto-supply as the default state for processing structures - with the state being smart enough to not buy resources when the output is currently selling at a loss.
This prevents the annoying necessity of manually buying items for potentially dozens of different buildings just to avoid the frightening possibility of going bankrupt if left unchecked as the current game design proposes. As I further explain in my third point below, it reduces micromanagement in the game and allows the player to focus on what I believe the designers feel is the true purpose of the game.
Note 1: an important flaw of the current game design is that even when auto-supply is disabled, a processing structure could still produce a loss if a supply structure is producing the processing structure's input at a sufficient loss. There is currently nothing in place to prevent this from being assumed solely by looking at the processing structure, and the only way is to constantly check your supply chain. Having things automatically not be produced and the buildings shutting off if not profitable would eliminate this further micromanagement task. It follows that the building should turn back on automatically once the resource becomes profitable again.
Note 2: a combination of point one (i.e., auto-sell) and point two (i.e., modified auto-supply) being implemented would also result in the elimination of the problem that arises when buying a product from the market for use by a building for which input is not being produced by one's self - and then thinking it should be sold along with everything else (since no distinction is made from other resources) - when constantly manually selling things, thus causing a lack of input resources for the structure in question. This is a type of ‘circular’ problem.
3. Microeconomics (i.e., micromanaging) vs. Macroeconomics (i.e. strategy)
Implementing the above suggestions/features would change the game from being micromanagement focused to a macro-strategic economic competition focused game. The prime motivation for eliminating the micromanagement is to allow the player to focus on the effects of efficiency research, patents, specialty buildings, black market manipulation - and last but not least, the higher level (and in my opinion more fun) strategy of managing opportunity costs.
a) Opportunity Cost
Opportunity cost is defined as ’The cost of choosing to use resources for one purpose measured by the sacrifice of the next best alternative for using those resources.’ As a simple example, the production of water may be producing a reasonable profit, and it’s use as an input for a hydroponic farm is also returning a further substantial profit; however, if water’s use as an input for an electrolysis plant gives a higher profit than the hydroponic farm, it is only reasonable to destroy (assuming all claimable tiles are in use, thus creating scarcity of tiles) the hydroponic farm and replace it with an electrolysis plant. The opportunity cost of running a hydroponic farm in said situation is the sacrifice of the higher profit from the electrolysis plant. One can see how complex this can become when considering the number of possible input/output chains, including those with multiple inputs and outputs, combined with constantly fluctuating prices in the game. It is impossible to focus on the incredibly fun aspects of maximizing profits via optimizing for opportunity costs in this and other situations when micromanaging all the other elements described in my previous points, and to some extent, my upcoming points below.
4. User Interface and Information Display Suggestions
a) Have a more noticeable and perhaps quicker ping of green or red when the price of an item increases or decreases.
The game does correctly account for the effects of surpluses and shortages and does not have them reversed as I state below - my apologies.
b ) Surplus versus shortage
One of the things in the game that triggers a pet peeve of mine is when the game displays ‘surplus’ as portending a coming rise in prices, and a ‘shortage’ as a decline in prices. This is exactly opposite of what is taught in economics textbooks. A surplus occurs when the current market price is too high and thus creates too much supply and not enough demand. The correction is to decrease the price until supply matches demand; Conversely, a shortage occurs when the market price is too low and thus creates too much demand and not enough supply. The correction is to increase the price until demand matches supply.
In short: A surplus results in a decrease in price while a shortage results in an increase of prices. The game reverses these basic economic concepts (i.e., currently, in-game, a surplus causes a rise in market price while a shortage causes a decrease in market price).
c) Display of costs, profit, and loss in the screen that appears when hovering over a structure
Upon playing the game for the first time, I believed (perhaps quite naively) that as long as the +/- $‘x’ value listed in the lower right corner of the screen that appears when hovering over a structure was positive, I was making a profit off the item/structure in question. I assumed that the +/- $‘x’ took into consideration all the costs and revenues associated with the sale of the item at current market prices; however, upon my fourth play through it dawned on me that this number, while factoring the various costs of resource inputs, failed to include the cost of the power (and potentially fuel) required for the building to operate. Yes, the screen does show the cost of power and fuel, but it does not automatically factor these in when calculating the (what I believe is intended to be) current profit displayed in the bottom right corner of said screen. With the current setup, a player might believe their high iron mine is profitable even at a market price of $1 for a unit of iron when in fact highly fluctuating power and fuel costs will likely make it unprofitable at that price, in which case the building should display the actual associated loss rather than a perhaps misleading profit. The processing buildings include the market price of the resource inputs while factoring the profit of the building – power and transport fuel costs, being another input, should also be included in the calculation of profitability for every building. *This reduces micromanagement by eliminating the need for me to constantly do mental math to manually factor in the price of power/fuel inputs*
In short – include the costs of all input resources, including power and fuel, in the final calculation of net profit or loss for a building.
d) Further refinements to user interface for profit/loss determination
Note: This is closely related to point 4.c)
Previously in this post I spoke of opportunity cost and its management in-game. Currently the only way to evaluate opportunity cost is to hover over a particular building type, perform the necessary manual mental calculations to include power and fuel costs in the profitability of the item, and then compare this to the structure which represents the next best use of the input in question (again, manually doing power/fuel cost adjustments for that structure). To do this comparison, one must (again) hover over an already-existing structure of the type in question, or hover over its building construction icon which gives a summary of said information.
To alleviate this (further) micromanagement annoyance, there should be a quickly accessible screen that concisely summarizes the current profit and loss of all building types normalized to a certain standard. For instance, instead of listing the profit and loss of a default hydroponic farm based on 0.65 units of output, the P/L should be calculated for one unit of output since that is what the market price reflects and that is how it is sold. This should also be how the P/L for the screen which appears when hovering over a building is calculated.
If the hover-over screen displays power input cost, fuel input cost, and output price, it should also include a P/L term normalized to one unit, which, if further hovered over, gives one P/L amount adjusted for the actual output amount of the building and another P/L amount that is normalized to one unit – the sub-screen would then disappear once no longer hovered over.
e) Further quickly accessible screens to simplify micromanagement and tedious tasks
Another quickly accessible screen should list all your buildings by type, and if clicked, take you to the map location instantly. This would be useful on large/huge maps or to manage sprawling economic complexes. This would eliminate having to click the HQ, determine the color of said building, and trace it to its origin. Relating to the previous point [i.e., 4.d)], this screen could also display the P/L of each building.
I’m sure there are many other ‘summary’ screens that players might suggest.
In closing, this game is incredible as it stands. I have enjoyed every minute of the time I have spent playing it; however, I have not played it long enough to delve into its every intricacy. The above suggestions are based on what I consider a somewhat cursory (though I’ve played 5 hours so far) examination of the game. I hope to later provide even more detailed input about balancing variables, pacing, and gameplay mechanics; however, the above suggestions would serve to transform the game into an even more amazing product that is more readily accessible, more easily playable - without sacrificing depth of play, fun, and rewarding (and with a lesser emphasis on micromanagement! ).
Also, I apologize for my lack of brevity. I appreciate anyone who read this post in its entirety and did not simply post ‘wall-of-text’ as a response.