Early Impressions: Offworld Trading Company

Offworld Trading Company is a combat-free, sci-fi real-time strategy game from the lead designer of the sumptuous Civilization IV.

A great concept with a great pedigree – can it possibly be as good as it sounds? But enough about Snickers More Nuts, let’s talk about Soren Johnson’s new game, an Early Access version of which was released this week.

You’re in charge of a newly-founded corporate spacebase on Mars, which must expand, harvest, buy and sell resources in order to expand further – so far, so familiar. The key difference from the build’n’bash norm is that you don’t create any units. The only moving entities in the game are automated craft which shuttle resources from their various mines and generators back to your headquarters. Your primary job is to watch the numbers (which show the various types of resources you have, and more important their in- and outgoings), and place new buildings on the tiles which will speed up the acquisition of said numbers.

Rival corporations are doing the same, and in the earlier stages of the game you’re trying to place structures on the most resource-rich areas of the planet before they’re snatched by the others. New buildings, building permits and upgrades are bought with certain and varying types of resources, but you can always buy in a resource you don’t have with spare cash. Essentially what you’re doing is making sure you’re obtaining more of most resources than you need to spend, and building is a reaction to monitoring that rather than the key activity. Monitoring the likes of how much carbon you’re mining, how much water you’re using, how much power you’re selling is your primary focus.

The problem with this is that, well, I am spending a huge amount of my time with the game watching the numbers, which are concentrated into a vertical strip down the left hand side of the screen. The remaining 7/8ths or so of the screen, where all the pretty building is happening, barely gets a look in. I go over to it when I have to place a new building, but that takes a second, after which my head snaps back to that left hand bar and stares unblinkingly at it, waiting to see the effects on whatever resource I’ve just allocated a new construction to or worrying about how to make another one increase.

That’s not inherently a bad thing, as so far I’m finding Offworld Trading Co to be an extremely compulsive and tense spreadsheet-balancing game, but partitioning the UI this way can make the ‘main’ screen feel like a bit of a waste. I can see that there’s lots of cute detail in there, as constructions construct and shuttles shuttle, but there’s no cause to actually watch this stuff other than for its own sake, and not even much opportunity to as I need to keep such a weather eye on my own personal stock market. When I do look at the main screen, I don’t look at it as an exciting space colony – I just look for the coloured icons which denote the specific type of resource I need more of, or that I want to temporarily subvert my opponents’ supply of, then I switch back to my numbers. (I should also mention that maximum zoom out is the only logical way to play OTC, but in the current build that murders my frame rate. Early Access is early access, though).

Things change somewhat in the late game. To start with, you’re trying to build up, to ensure a steady supply of every resource/number, or if there’s a few you can’t get or don’t need, such an excess of the remaining numbers that you can afford to buy in that which you don’t have. Your long term goal, however, is to buy out rival corporations who are also busily ripping every mineral they can out of this alien world. For that, you need a) lots and lots of money and b) to keep a steady eye on another set of numbers over on the far right of the screen, where you can see the share price of your rivals.

You need to match that before you can buy a chunk of their stock, but the longer you take there more the price will rise, as just like you the other corps are steadily building more and mining more, and becoming more valuable as a result. Except – and this is the stuff I’ll only get a true handle on after putting many more hours into OFC – there’s a bunch of stuff you can do to screw up everyone else’s share price. Put them in debt and their stock market value takes a hit. To put them in debt – well, now the main screen takes on a far more significant role. The black market menu (bottom right) allows me, at a high cost, to blow up or temporarily disable enemy tiles, briefly make them earn resources for me, disrupt shipments, and assorted skulduggery all designed to create a resource deficit.

Of course, the enemy has access to this too, and my carefully-built network of oxygen generators, carbon mines, glass factories and solar panels increasingly ends up being frozen, exploded, commandeered and otherwise disrupted on an increasingly regular, and often disastrous basis. It can be devastating to see (and hear) those effects, to see your bucket of profits rapidly turn to a deficit, to have to abandon your plans to build this or buy out a particular target’s stock. Just as devastating as fleet of tanks rolling up to your headquarters or a nuke dropped on your capital city.

For me, playing strictly against lower-level AI while I learn the ropes, the black market is something I don’t think about until fairly late in the game, but I can see that a more practiced player is going to be dabbling in this stuff as soon as possible, in order to stop their opponents drawing ahead of them or even from grabbing all the most resource-rich tiles. In other words, in time maybe I won’t be looking at that list of numbers on the left quite as much as I do now. Right now, I tend to have only a vague sense of what the enemy’s built and where, but to be skilled at this my head’s going to have to snap back and forth all over the map, building a regularly-updated mental map of exactly what’s going on with my foes, not just myself.

What I’m saying is that Offworld Trading Company starts off seeming fairly simple, and low-conflict, but escalates into something smart, complicated and tense. It might have no combat, but this is a true arms race. As the corporations tussle for prize tiles or sabotage key buildings at the worst/best moment, constantly leapfrogging each other for the highest stock value, that there are no guns matters not a bit: this might even be a more competitive strategy game than most anything with bullets in it.

There are other complexities I haven’t mentioned too, such as manipulating the market to get a better price for anything you have an excess of, investing in a limited pool of patents with major financial buffs, or choosing from a variety of Corporations with different resource requirements for their buildings. I suppose that’s the Civ IV heritage peeking through: a great deal of thoughtfulness, depth and nuance packed into something which feels entirely approachable.

It’s not without issues – performance is all over the shop on my system (GTX970 / Core i7 980x FYI), what I pray are placeholder voices are cringey, and while I know this is backseat driving I do wonder if the key list of numbers would be better presented in a way that didn’t involve quite so much staring at the left-hand eighth of my screen. At this stage of my learning I’d also benefit from being more easily/quickly able to tell exactly what each building is, as many aren’t hugely distinctive. In time that’ll be a less of an issue, but it’s probably not ideal to spend three minutes going ‘er, um, where.. what’ every time I want to cause a mutiny in a key enemy structure.

Early access. Not a review. Things will change. Looking good already. Under the surface of a game ostensibly about endless harvesting, there’s a hell of a lot going on, and the infrastructure for truly ‘fierce’ battles. Space might be the theme, but boardroom warfare is the heart of Offworld Trading Company. There’s a long way to go, but I think this is going to be something pretty special.

46 Comments

  1. Tinotoin says:

    Holy massive homepage presence Batman!

  2. Retne says:

    Break break break.

    (said in Top Gun style)

  3. Cerzi says:

    I took a rare early access gamble with this when it opened up last week, and became immediately obsessed with it. Something about it that’s truly exciting – a unique but simple idea, the boardgame vibe, the setting… I’ve played many many hours already, and expect to continue playing it religiously.

  4. Pantalaimon says:

    I largely agree with this piece, the game has huge promise, it’s compelling and it’s complex, but perhaps the UI and the way that information is conveyed isn’t that amazing right now. However, the main viewport is quite important in terms of the stragegy of planning what resources to go for and where, and for assessing what your competitors are doing, which I think is quite a large part of the game (even though I have yet to grasp a lot of it). Not that this is made very clear in any of the current basic tutorials (basically just simple skirmish games with different opponents to force you to play different ways) – but thankfully Soren Johnson has done some good play throughs of those same tutorials on the Mohawk Youtube channel, where he gradually expands his focus game by game and goes into more depth on the concept as he goes along. Recommended for new players.

    Based on the euro board game feel, the heritage of the team working on this, and its probably massive complexity, this is a really exciting game.

  5. thelastleonida says:

    Great, we need more of this non-combat stuff. That said… how about a WIT for Grey Goo? (big smile)

  6. emil11 says:

    I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article.

  7. spelunker says:

    It looks great in the videos and rather polished, though the high early access price (essentially full retail price for a game still in development) and the dull opening game of just clicking on resources and uncovering the map with radar bursts have so far prevented me from biting.

    BUT it’s from the guy who designed Civ IV. So…. quietly confident. I just hope it reveals a bit more scope for individual playstyles and doesn’t just become a game of watching resources accumulate so you can afford the next upgrade/ ability.

    • Cerzi says:

      It already has incredible depth beyond watching resources and waiting to upgrade. Having played over a hundred MP games already I can tell you that if you’re playing to win, it’s incredibly intense from the first first minute – perhaps most of all when you’re playing big 8 player FFAs. Alec clearly got a good whiff of that complexity even if he hadn’t played enough to really break into it (tunnel-visioning the market prices is certainly a stage everyone goes through to begin with).

      It’s an extremely reactive game – you’re having to constantly watch your opponents to plan your own plays optimally (which requires less staring at the market window, and more looking at the actual game). Not just in terms of production, price speculation and sabotage, but also in terms of when to buy player stock. It has this really interesting dynamic that reminds me of the balance – in a traditional RTS – of economy vs army, but in a completely abstract sense. Whenever another player makes a big investment into future economy, they’re essentially vulnerable to having their stock bought, as a cunning player may spend the equivalent on buying their stock, instead of teching up themselves. As stock prices inevitable rise throughout the game, early aggressive stock purchasing can be the difference between winning and losing. So then it comes down – on top of all the actual complexities of the game itself – to who is best able to buy up stock without slowing their own investment momentum down. And this is becomes something completely mentally exhausting, like a real time puzzle game in which you’re simultaneously making decisions similar to those you make in a general RTS (eg. who to sabtoage, and how/when) as well as crunching numbers, predicting the future economy, considering tech paths and mentally noting potential expansion areas. I find myself mumbling incoherently while playing as my brain overloads trying to keep up with all the information. It’s fantastic.

      50 hours played so far and I feel I, and others, are only just starting to scratch the surface of the game’s strategic depth.

    • phanatic62 says:

      The opening sequence may seem like a Mass Effect 2ish passive pinging of a world looking for resources, but in reality you’re immediately competing against all of the other players trying to find the best starting location and the best resources. And you don’t need to reveal the whole map. Once you find a spot you like you can plop down your command center and start pillaging the surface of Mars. I can see how the start might seem slow and boring from a video, but when you’re actually playing it the intensity is there from the start.

  8. Gap Gen says:

    Stardock.

    Hmm.

    Hmmmmmm.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      What exactly is wrong with Stardock. It has generally been a great company for PC games other than the botched War or Magic, and they mostly made good on that. The owner seems like he might be a bit of a jerk? Here is a newsflash, jerks work at every single company out there. You going to stop playing games all together?

      That isn’t even getting into the side issue of it not being clear whether the allegations are even true or not.

      Is you computer a locally grown and sustainably harvested unit from the computer trees outside of Nottingham? Oh it was made in Asia by people whose bosses are 40X worse than the bosses at Stardock? You don’t say…

      • pepperfez says:

        Brad Wardell: “I am an inappropriate, sexist, vulgar and embarrassing person and I’m not inclined to change my behavior…I’m not some manager or coworker of yours. I own the company. It, and your job here, exist to suit my purposes, not vice versa.”

        Yeah, I totally believe he’s never sexually harassed anyone at work (PS: That was in response to a complaint about sexual harassment). Everyone’s just making it up and should leave the poor man alone.

        • Joshua Northey says:

          What does that have to do with what I said? All I said was it was not clear if the allegations are true, and that there are jerks everywhere. I don’t understand the weird very small scope social justice crusading that goes on in the PC gaming world these days. It seems badly misplaced and like it is a lot more about the justice warriors own self esteem than any actual desire to improve the world.

          • X_kot says:

            I don’t understand why people act as unpaid corporate apologists, but alas, such is the world. Sic semper capitalism.

          • pepperfez says:

            You said it was not clear if the accusations were true, I offered a statement that suggests they were. There are more emails in that vein, by the way, in which his defense is that he owns the company and so he can do what he wants.

            As for why I should care? Unchecked deforestation is going on in the Amazon, so why recycle? The global poor are much worse off than anyone in developed nations, so why worry about inequality here? Tens of thousands of people are being killed in the Middle East, so who cares about the murder rate in my city? Climate change is going to devastate all life on Earth, so why fucking bother with anything?
            It’s totally possible to care about multiple things, including whether my money goes to some loudmouth idiot who wants the gaming world to be populated by people as loathsome as he is. Mentioning that I would prefer not to do so isn’t related to whether I lobby for fairer trade practices and worker safety regulations, and the idea that it is only makes it harder to correct other injustices.

            NB: This long response is mostly to the idea that no injustice can be addressed until the biggest ones are completely eliminated, which is destructive nonsense in every context.

          • abwell says:

            I think the above quote plus his offering a job interview to a cartoonist based on his revenge porn of an indie developer certainly warrants a “hmm.”

        • airmikee says:

          If sexual harassment by management of a company prevents you from purchasing the products created by said company, how do you buy anything, at all, from anywhere? Or do you really think that sexual harassment is rare enough to only happen at a few companies?

          • aleander says:

            There are companies where you get fired for that. There are companies where you get a lawyer. And then, there are companies where the owner goes all “well, yes, it’s my company, I can do anything I want”.

            I can’t fight all the battles, and can’t stop eating or dressing (though I can pick how). I’m pretty sure I can skip one game, though, especially by someone as odious.

          • airmikee says:

            And then there are companies where an ex-employee accuses someone of harassment, and then later drops their suit in a settlement and apologizes. Americans are supposed to enjoy the freedom of being innocent until proven guilty, and a dropped lawsuit followed by an apology letter from the accuser doesn’t even approach the level of ‘proven’, quite the opposite actually. I’m not defending Brad, I’m just saying such a minor, trivial issue shouldn’t always have to come up every single time his employees produce another video game.

          • Joshua Northey says:

            aleander- the point is it comes off as a pretty silly battle. A large portion of the worlds chocolate supply is produced by child slavery. Do you abstain from eating chocolate?

            I mean do you think for 5 minutes where most of your textiles and electronics and what conditions they are made under come from? On a global scale Stardock is likely one of the best places to work in the world.

          • aleander says:

            I select what chocolate I eat, and yes, I do think about these. And in general, whataboutism is silly. Oh, and no, that guy is no way near being what passes for a good employer. Seriously, the fact that someone is worse doesn’t do anything to justify him.

          • airmikee says:

            “Oh, and no, that guy is no way near being what passes for a good employer”

            That’s fairly subjective. Stardock’s rating on Glassdoor is the same as Rockstar’s rating (3/5, except Rockstar San Diego which is the lowest I could find at 1.4/5), both of which are below EA (3.2/5) and all of which are dwarfed by Valve (4.2/5).

            I would care a whole lot more about their rating as an employer if I were looking for employment with the company. But in this case, I’m interested in their video games, so I will judge them according to how they have made video games in the past.

            If the only evidence you have against the CEO of Stardock is a He Said/She Said dueling lawsuit situation that neither side could prove, with evidence, inside a courtroom, then your standards for evidence are pathetically low and should be re-evaluated immediately. Anyone can file a lawsuit for anything, like the people that sued General Mills because Captain Crunchberries and Froot Loops cereals don’t contain real fruit, or the people that file suits for quadrillions of dollars. Filing a lawsuit doesn’t prove anything other than one knows how to file a lawsuit (yippee, I filled out a piece of paper and paid a fee, real tough work), proving a case, with evidence, in a court room is the only thing that should matter, and that wasn’t done by either side here. Drop it.

        • FriendlyFire says:

          Not this shit again. Here, have a link that’s actually up to date, instead of whatever bullshit Kotaku made up:
          link to zenofdesign.com

      • Ungenious says:

        Perfect is the enemy of good. And you’re right, the truth is actually a side issue.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    Reminds me a little of Fragile Allegiance, where you were competing to mine asteroids. Although I think in that one you basically were doing it to build a fleet of spaceships + enough missiles to destroy your opponents.

    • Cerzi says:

      I freaking loved Fragile Allegiance as a kid. Looked it up a while ago and was pretty shocked to see how badly it was reviewed when it was released, though. But yeah, the way you built stuff on asteroids in that game certainly had a similar aesthetic.

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        Brad Wardell has publicly written awful right-wing garbage for a very long time. No disputing that.

        And yes, Elemental was and is a terrible game.

      • Premium User Badge

        Andy_Panthro says:

        I think I first played a dodgy copy of it (no cinematics, but that really just meant no intro and I think it removed the animated bits from the diplomacy screen? can’t really remember).

        I found it very enjoyable, even if it lacked a decent narrative mode to hold it together. I can imagine the multiplayer being good (I never had the opportunity to try that).

        I used to like hex-editing the save files to give myself enough money/ores to build a huge amount of missiles and rain death upon my competitors. Good times.

    • sinister agent says:

      Fragile Allegiance should be a case study for anyone looking to remake a game (it was originally K240 on the Amiga – one of my favourite ever games). It improved on the original in most ways, included almost everything, and added a boatload of useful and interesting new features.

      The only major criticism I have of FA is that for some utterly idiotic reason, there’s no automated warning when missiles are detected in your airspace, and not even when they hit a colony. So you can spend 5-10 minutes managing a new colony and come out only to find two of your core asteroids were nuked beyond repair 9 minutes ago.

      Still a great game, mind. It was a sod to get working until gog re-released it.

  10. stoner says:

    Great. Another Stare-At-The-Spreadsheet-Number-Ignore-the-Graphics kind of game. I already have that with Banished. (Although Banished has no competing corporations, et al).

  11. Mr_Blastman says:

    Combat free? It sounds boring.

    • P.Funk says:

      Are you trying to make yourself an easy target?

      • trooperwally says:

        It wouldn’t matter even if he was since there’s no combat!

        Zing!

        …. I’ll get my coat.

  12. temujin says:

    Really like the overall concept. Would be better though if instead of “mars”, it was “arrakis” (and I could play as Harkonen..).

  13. mister slim says:

    Maybe they should try a stock ticker for prices. The nice thing about a ticker is it emphasizes changes in the prices over time rather than the current value.

  14. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Colour me cautiously interested in this. I like the premise and the lack of combat is refreshing, and it seems like they’ve executed it very promisingly so far. Just not sure it would hold interest over multiple plays against the AI.

  15. GrilledCheezz says:

    I suppose I’m in the minority here, but I just don’t see the depth. This is a one trick pony – the only path to victory is build up your tanks (cash) as quickly as possible and rush your opponents base (HQ). Same as all the old-school RTS games we grew up with. Since cash is the only “unit” to build, all buildings contribute solely to producing this one resource. Once you have enough, send your “tank rush” to buy out your opponents. The problem is that all players know the only unit to build is tanks and the only way to win is to be the first to rush your opponents. You can even see exactly how many tanks your opponent has as you slowly build yours up. The worst part is, there is no defense against this rush. Once it starts, it just comes down to who has the most and how fast you can click.

    I think once the initial novelty of the game wears off, it will fall into a clinical spreadsheet analysis favoring players who can decipher the data more quickly than others. There is no subtlety or bluffing or finesse. Without mixed units and defense against a cash onslaught, this is nothing more than a rush game. Sure, it has awesome art direction and unique mechanisms but, honestly, this game seems destined to have very narrowly focused strategy and lacks broad appeal for those looking for variety in gameplay. When you know exactly what your opponents will do in order to win (build cash as quickly as possible), your only counter move is to do the same – just be quicker about it. Play again? Apply the same (and only) strategy – get cash quicker than everybody else.

    • BluePencil says:

      Won’t argue against you too vehemently but on the point where you say there’s no way to defend yourself… having watched some YouTubers play it seems you can buy your own stock. I assume that doing so makes it more expensive for other players to buy you out. To make the military RTS analogy that would be like building walls around your base.

    • darkChozo says:

      I think you’re overlooking how the commodity system impacts the game. To expand on your analogy, cash isn’t really a unit, it’s more like HP or an overall measure of strength, and your goal is to build up enough strength to overwhelm your opponent. Your units are the different commodities, with their strengths depending on their value on the market. That value depends to a degree on the unit itself (ie. electronics are like a late-game power unit; hard to make but worth a lot), but also on what exactly the players are doing. Spamming too much of the same commodity devalues it for everyone, so instead of competing with your opponent on unit composition, you’re competing by manipulating the market through what commodities you produce and all the other stuff you can do.

      That’s not to say that the game will have the same depth as a traditional RTS, or that people won’t eventually find a way to break it, just that describing it as spamming cash is a bit reductive. It’s like saying you win a Starcraft match by spamming units until you’re more powerful than your opponent.

    • Parthon says:

      The part you are missing is that you don’t just “get cash”. You have to compete on the goods market. Each game has a different spread of resources, so some will be plentiful and not worth much, and others will be scarce and cost a lot. Then there’s the citizen colony in the middle, which demands goods to expand. If it grows quickly, water, food and oxygen will be in high demand, otherwise they won’t. Then there’s the offworld market, which changes each game, so how you get the cash changes. Then there’s the black market, which allows you to shut down large portions of your opponents production. You have to work out how to build your base so that one EMP doesn’t completely knock you out of the game. There’s also 4 different base types to master and build, and they all have their weaknesses and strengths.

      So yeah, it might be a game about who can cash the fastest, but HOW you cash up each game changes, and it can even change from minute to minute in the same game. I’ve played about 20 games so far, and my “sure fire” strategies have often left me broke, and I figured I should have done something differently. Sometimes I’ll try something weird and it will pay off massively, or it will put me behind and I’ll struggle to keep up. There’s no one winning strategy that will always work, and winning the game is about being ruthless and adaptable.

  16. Muzman says:

    Idle Thumbs made this sound like a window into a nightmarish world of rampant, predatory lassez faire capitalism as run by the kinds of automatic systems we have now.
    Interesting place to visit/play around in, wouldn’t want to actually live there.

  17. Crainey says:

    This is a very interesting new approach to RTS. I love the premise of the game, but can’t bring myself to buy it, not quite sure why though… I probably will one day. As strange as it sounds, this is a game I imagine StarCraft players enjoying. StarCraft at its core, as described by Soren Johnson, really is exactly the same as this. You are constantly trying to build your resources while plundering your opponents. It’s kind of the ultimate StarCraft macro game, just without all the micro requirements.

    Though… I do get paid next week… hmmm.

  18. hansmacau says:

    Those of you who think this is a spreadsheet game will get crushed (especially multiplayer). There is so many complexe strategies you can utilize in this game. And keeping track of the map and what your competitors are building is really important. Ive played the game 40-50 hours now and im still learning for every multiplayer game i play. Its so much fun and so complexe once you understand the game to its fullest. If you just sit and look at the spreadsheet numbers you will FAIL. Use the map to your advantage.

    If you want a “spreadsheet only ” game.. Look somewhere else. This game has some really intense multiplayer matches.
    I highly recommend this game to economy/strategy fans.

  19. twobitcoder says:

    Your review gave me flashbacks to the first (and only) time I played MASTER OF ORION 3. Nothing but a real-time spreadsheet disguised as a TBS 4X game (cringe). No thanks.