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    Offworld Trading Company: Strategy’s strange new brother

    Video games are synonymous with combat. The most common cliché among uneducated players is that games harbour and promote violence and blood. It’s a cliché which, sadly, isn’t totally unearned. Even games with a seemingly innocent premise are filled with combat. It is, for better or worse, the main language of the medium.

    But can a game without combat be violent? Offworld Trading Company, a strategy title developed by Cilivzation IV’s lead designer Soren Johnson, comes damned close. It also comes close to being something totally unique, which in a landscape filled with everything from triple-A publishers to a coder in a dirty garage, isn’t something to scoff at.

    Offworld is an economic strategy game. Or, as Johnson himself likes to say, “a strategy game without units”. Instead of conquering an opponent’s base, you attempt to grow your own company’s stock value. Once you buy out the other players, you win.

    In brief, it’s an odd concept for a game, but as Johnson points out, it’s been tried before.

    “The stock market mechanic…that’s lifted directly from Age of Kings,” he says. “I thought it was fascinating, and I’ve wanted to make a game about the mechanic.”

    “We also took a lot of stuff from Railroad Tycoon the resource tree, for instance. Using materials, combining them and making other elements and so on.”

    Johnson is referring to the main way in which you send your stock skyward. At the beginning of the game, players scout for resources, just like they would in Civilization. Iron, water, and other common resources are littered throughout the map. Players find them, harvest them, and use the bounty to both upgrade their own base and create new resources altogether. Control distribution and sell more expensive resources than your competitors, and you’re on your way to winning.

    There’s some variety along the way, naturally. Each of the four playable classes have their own advantages, (robots don’t need water or food), and a black market allow for some nice sabotage.

    But this is where Offworld’s strangest mechanic provides the best emotional thrills. The action is not in setting off an underground nuke, but watching numbers on the left-hand side of the screen. It’s a tension that ebbs and flows. Need some cash? Great sell your resources. Except now you’ve flooded the market, which drops the price, and now your stock price goes down. You’re a sitting duck.

    At times this game is a living lesson in economics. Are your resources becoming cheap? Better pivot and start focusing on new ones. Better yet, monopolise an entire industry when you start detecting a shortage.  

    This tension allows for some fun additions the game has a hacking array which lets you fabricate market demand.

    It’s Capitalism. The Game.

    Offworld is weird. It’s not often you find your heart beat racing because of some numbers on a screen especially when the on-screen animations aren’t necessarily the most thrill-enducing. But it works, partly due to the thrilling way the game informs you of what’s happening at any stage, and that’s kind of a problem for Johnson. Offworld is a hard game to market to both real-time strategy fans and the Civilization devotees who no doubt recognise his name and would be attracted to the project.

    “We get a lot of people playing who love RTS games, and they’re happy to see something different,” he says. “But there is a demographic coming from the longer-term economic games and they’re telling us this is unusual, and they’re not used to playing something so fast-paced.”

    That fast pace is one of the game’s defining aspect and one of the most frightening. Things happen at a remarkable pace in Offworld, to the point where once you know you’re losing, you can’t do anything to stop it. The obvious benefit to this is that you can play multiple games in a short amount of time, and they’re never the same game twice. There are no opening build orders like StarCraft here Offworld is frantic and ultimately comes down to analytical and predictive skill. Which is probably why strategy nerds are already giving it a thumbs-up in the early access program.

    Your ability to micro manage will not help you here. Offworld is a game of the mind.

    “It’s almost good that you don’t know you’re about to die until you do,” says Johnson. “But at the same time, is it going to help people understand the game? They need to be able to do something about it.”

    “I’m enjoying the skill differentiation so far, actually. Within a week we were already getting beat online.”

    Despite the early attention, Offworld is still a year away from release. And Johnson says there’s some work to be done in that time his team, Mohawk Games, is still figuring out how to market the damn thing.

    “I don’t think we’ve figured it out,” he says. “We knew it was going to be a challenge. I hope it developers its own community and goes from there.”

    Johnson’s colleague, former Firaxis veteran Dorian Newcomb, says early feedback from testers was mixed. While they received emails with subjects like, “you’re mis-selling this game”, or, “wewere expecting it to b lik City Builder”, the testers just kept playing. And playing. And playing.

    “Then, two weeks later we keep getting emails. They went from having concerns about what the game was really about to just enjoying it for what it is.”

    “You don’t need to figure it out in the first five minutes.”

    A tough ask for a market built for Whatever’s New. But a legitimate one Offworld is not an easy game, but it is a rewarding one. As with all the best perseverance is a virtue.

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