This week, I got a chance to sit down and talk to legendary strategy game developer Soren Johnson, best known for his work at Firaxis as the AI programmer of Civilization III and as the lead designer on Civilization IV. He’s since moved on to start his own indie development studio, and their first game is Offworld Trading Company. Read GoombaStomp’s review here.
MJR: To start with, you were obviously at Firaxis for Civilization IV, then moved to EA, and then to Zynga. What was it that inspired you to set off on your own to create Mohawk Games?
Soren Johnson: Mostly to be able to control my own destiny. Being at other places, especially places like EA and Zynga, you’re very much kind of at the whim of what comes down from corporate, so it would be extremely difficult to make a game like Offworld at one of those companies, and—actually, it probably wouldn’t be all that difficult to start a project like that, but it’d be extremely difficult to get it actually shipped in a form you’d be comfortable with. So I was really excited about having my own company so that we could make an unusual game and do it in a way that I think also respected the consumer.
I also imagine there’s a world of difference between working on a huge franchise like Civilization and on your own startup with a niche title like Offworld. Did you find this to be more liberating, or was it a little bit scary as well?
It was pretty liberating, I’d say. (laughs) We were pretty pumped to be working on a new title. I think if anything, the scary part was just that we were making a game where we didn’t really have a good model to follow, you know? People talk about how much they’d like to make games that are different, but when you actually have a chance to make one, you realize how difficult it is because you don’t want to have to be reinventing everything, right? And there was a lot we had to reinvent for Offworld, because there really aren’t a lot of other economic RTS games to follow. And if you look at the development process you’d actually see that early on, our game was actually much more like a conventional RTS. We actually did have units that you controlled and you moved around the map to reveal the blackness, and there were even ships that kind of moved around and fought with each other. There was a lot of more conventional RTS stuff in there, so it took a while for us to strip the stuff out that we had just kind of adopted by default.
Very cool. That’s actually one of the things that fascinates me about Offworld, just the numbers game end of it; so you really didn’t initially set out to make a wholly economically-driven game? It had some other elements in there? Which I find interesting.
Yeah, I mean the economic side was the important part, but it was still kind of in the vein of a game like an Age of Empires, perhaps; an RTS that has a heavy economic side to it. And we certainly wanted the economic side to be the dominant factor, but it was still hard to break out of the old mode. So, for example, when you were placing buildings, you’d have little worker units that you would move around that would have to actually travel to a tile to put a building down on it. And as we developed the game more and more, it was like, well, that part of the game is not really what we care about. We care about—what building do you want to make and where do you want to put it? That’s all that really matters, right?
So when I first heard about Offworld, the first thing that came to mind was the Ozark Softscape classic M.U.L.E. Was that a heavy inspiration for you? Were there any other games that inspired you in Offworld’s design?
Yeah, M.U.L.E. was definitely a big influence. In fact, our art director, he brought a Commodore 128 over and got us all down playing M.U.L.E., and a lot of elements of the game came from that. The claim system, for example. Our auctions work differently, but we have auctions because of M.U.L.E. The fact that buildings get bonuses for being next to each other, stuff like that. So yeah, there were a lot of things that we brought on from M.U.L.E.
Age of Empires was a big influence, as I mentioned earlier. That game had a market building that if you clicked on it, actually is a lot like Offworld in that you could buy and sell all the resources, and the prices go up and down for the whole world. It was just a tiny part of a much bigger game and we really zoomed in on that one thing.
I haven’t played that in a long time, but that’s true.
So one of the other things that I was fascinated by with Offworld was the pace of it, despite it being a numbers race. I even caught some of the release tournament and was amazed to see what a genuinely interesting competitive spectacle it turned out to be. Especially with the commentary, given that it’s such a dense game. How did you stumble on a formula that managed to put so much life and energy into what, mechanically, boils down to rapidly changing numbers?
So initially, early on, I think the games were a little bit longer since we had all those extra elements I mentioned before. And as we pulled stuff out, we kind of boiled the game into a shorter and shorter timespan. And now I think the game is as short as it should be, but no shorter. I think it would be harder to make a game with as many interesting decisions as Offworld has in a shorter time frame, so it’s in a nice sweet spot. We could have made it a lot longer, but I would say that at a high level, we wanted the game to be no longer than 30 minutes if possible, because we felt like if you go longer than that, you’re no longer a mainstream synchronous multiplayer game. There are some RTS games that go way longer, like Sins of a Solar Empire or something like that, but those aren’t really games where you’d be comfortable saying, “Okay, I’m just gonna sit down and play a few games tonight with random people I come across on the Internet.” You need your game to be relatively short to work in that format, so that was just kind of a constraint that we set for ourselves if we wanted to really work as a multiplayer game.
Yeah, I imagine that’s especially helpful for a game that’s a little bit further out of the mainstream, just to keep the player base up and make sure that there are always people in the queue there.
Were there any lessons from your past development experience that helped you to balance the economics of Offworld so finely, or were there a lot of new concepts that you had to learn to pull this off?
The big lesson from my experience in Civilization was the thing that pushed me toward Early Access, which is that you have to get your game in front of real people as early as possible to actually figure out what kind of game you’ve made. Because we were playing the game internally from very early on in the project, and it was a lot of fun. So we made a lot of good progress in those days, but really weren’t able to figure out exactly how people responded until we were able to get it in front of average users who didn’t know us. Get some real opinions on how the game worked.
As for the economic side, that part actually … it kind of just works naturally. I mean, one of the big reasons I wanted to make a strategy game built around a free market is that if you have the basics in place—every time you buy a resource the price goes up, every time you sell a resource the price goes down—the game just sort of balances itself, right? Because it’s not like there’s any one best resource. Everything depends upon its price. Even if electronics is the most expensive resource in the game, it still might not be the best one at that moment because maybe carbon and silicon and aluminum are also really expensive, so making electronics is actually going to lose you money even if it’s worth a lot.
So just to wrap up on the Offworld portion here, do you guys have any specific plans in expanding the game with more DLC as things go forward?
Yeah, we’ve got plans for what we’d like to do with the series. A lot of it just depends upon how the fans react to it, and seeing what they want. But then also, the more popular it is, the bigger it is, the more grand we can be with our ambitions. So we’re hoping that it keeps selling well.
And just to get back to your company itself, for a minute, what can you tell us about the Stardock Strategic Investment Fund and how that helped you guys actually get the game off the ground?
Yeah, that’s been a big help. Stardock’s our publisher, but beyond that, they give us a lot of extra assistance in running a company. They handle stuff like HR and finance and a bunch of other stuff that takes up a lot of time if you’re running an independent company. So if you talk to people who start a studio, they’ll often tell you that half their time is spent doing stuff they’d rather not be doing in just sort of managing the company. And really, for the most part, most of my time day to day is just programming. Just playing the game, seeing what needs to be changed, and then making that change, and moving forward. That puts us I think in the best position to succeed.
I imagine as a developer that’s always kind of the sweet spot where you want to be.
Yep. You want to be working.
So how did Brad Wardell end up signing on to be Mohawk’s president? Your website lists him as a co-founder?
Yeah, so when we signed our first policy deal with them, as part of that deal they made, basically, an investment in the company. And so Brad came on board then to become, uh—is he president? Is that the official title? (laughs) We don’t really think about the titles, but he’s officially involved in the company in that capacity.
Right. How many total employees do you guys actually have?
I think we have 8 full-time employees. We’ve got a few contractors who also contributed to Offworld in significant fashion.
So what does the post-Offworld landscape look like for you guys? I mean obviously you’re going to be supporting that game for some time and seeing how things go, but do you have anything in particular you’re interested in exploring once Offworld is kind of on its way out?
Well, we have plenty more work to do on Offworld, potentially for years. But as for myself, I mean, strategy games are my thing, so I have a big stack of ideas for other strategy games I’d like to work on, and we just have to figure out what’s the best one in terms of what we want to make and what the audience probably wants.
Right. Is there any particular type of strategy that you’re most interested in moving toward at some point?
(laughs) Yeah, well unfortunately that’s the type of thing you can’t really talk about until you work your way through your marketing plan. I mean I definitely have ideas, but I just can’t talk about them now.
That about does it for me. But lastly, I’d just like to ask: what are you playing these days?
Mostly Offworld. (laughs) Mostly Offworld, still. I mean it’s fun, and it’s also important that I see how the game’s working out in the community. I was playing some ranked play in the matchmaking system earlier today.
But now that I’m out, I kind of want to jump back into a lot of the 4X games that have been made in the last few years. I haven’t actually ever gotten around to playing the last Civ V expansion, I want to try that out. I want to play some Stellaris, I want to play some Crusader Kings, some EUIV, stuff like that.
Absolutely. I’m working on a Stellaris review myself right now, it’s a fantastic game. Well, thank you so much for your time. I and our readers really appreciate it.
Cool! Thanks for talking.