There’s a certain kind of game that’s so compelling and demands such a great amount of time that, on reflection, we’re faced with the paradox of both celebrating how enjoyable it was, and lamenting the hundreds of lost hours which were cruelly stolen from us.
Well, what would we have done with that time anyway? Gone and listened to bird song in the park? Took in the fresh mountain air? Planted a tree? Give me a break.
Soren Johnson, CEO of Mohawk games, is largely responsible for one of the greatest offenders of all time in that category – Civilization IV. He more or less sprung up from nowhere to lead the project at Firaxis. He helped to make it a title which redefined the series and received nearly universal adoration. Soon after, as quickly as he came, he pretty much disappeared; surfacing just briefly to have something to do with Spore at Maxis and then re-submerging.
Then, not too long ago, he returned to the scene with his own studio and game. It’s called Offworld Trading Company and it’s a planetary mining RTS with no player-managed combat. The concept is intriguing and, bearing in mind all the usual pre-release provisos, it’s already pretty fun to play. This is at a stage when the man himself claims there’s about a year’s dev still to go.
PC Invasion: You’re best known for heading up design on Civ IV, and you seem to have come from nowhere before you led that project. How did you get into games design?
Soren Johnson: I think even before I had to look for a real job it was already obvious to everyone that I should make computer games. I liked to program, and beyond that I was really into history as well.
There wasn’t some great plan, it was just really good timing in that when I was leaving college the Civ III team kind of fell apart because Bryan Reynolds left and took most of the programming team with him. I was in the process of looking for a job and I’d done a few internships at EA, and I knew at that point I wanted to get into the games industry. A Civ game just seemed perfect. It was probably one of the only reasons I would have moved to the east coast; I grew up in Washington state.
I was able to help ship it in a positive way in a very short time frame so that game them the confidence to give me the lead designership for Civ IV.
PCI: You seem to have a highly analytical approach to games, where does that come from?
SJ: I’m not sure where it comes from… I think philosophically I like to look past labels for a lot of things and see things as they actually are. I think that’s important for a games designer because when you’re designing a game you’re first starting off with things in your head, right? I think with a lot of designers it always stays in their head. They still see this idealised version of the game instead of what actually happens when people play the game.
If you only see things a certain way you’re going to encourage those people who say, ‘Hey, only build as many cities as possible. That’s the best way to play a Civ game.’ then that’s what your game’s about. Maybe that’s what you want it to be about, but it’s important to see it clearly.
PCI: With Offworld Trading Company it seems you have a very specific set of design constraints in mind. What are they and how did you come up with them?
SJ: I love the RTS format; I mean a game that can last 30 minutes with other people that’s strategic, and competitive, and has a climax with clear winners and losers. I like that, but I think that the games which are typically waged within that format are, first of all, largely similar; much more similar than they are different. And I think that the UI demands of them exclude a ton of players; controlling the units is really a huge challenge.
There’s a lot of very experienced gamers who just will not play an RTS because they find that experience stressful. Starcraft, for example, has the stereotype of the APM (actions per minute) Korean gamer who is able to do things that it’s just hard to imagine yourself doing.
I wanted to make a game that fit the RTS format but was about strategy, actually. At a high level, it’s not about trying to do as many actions as you can. In a game of Offworld Trading Company you’re building and building, but you’re limited by however many claims you have. Over the course of a game you might claim 15 tiles; each tile is a building so in the course of 30 minutes you’re constructing 15 buildings. So you have a little bit of time to consider which will be the best to build.
PCI: Are you getting non-RTS fans coming to your game?
SJ: Yeah… I know this is kind of weirdly anecdotal, but my wife had never played PC games at all and now she’s played hundreds of games of Offworld online competitively and she actually does pretty well.
To be honest, it came as a bit of a shock to me… she didn’t even know what an RTS was! When she started playing the game she would play it on a track pad. I actually had to say her, ‘use the mouse, you’ll do better.’ And it took her a while to adapt, but originally she was just sitting on the couch playing on a track pad; it’d be unthinkable to play a game of Starcraft like that.
PCI: From my time with the game it seems you’re focusing on multiplayer, is that the case?
SJ: No, we actually said most people will be playing the game singleplayer.
I’ll be spending a lot of time this year working on the campaign. It’ll provide this long 5-6 hour experience where you’re playing multiple missions and you’ll go between the maps pop up to the global level of mars where you’ll be able to run your business and buy various upgrades, like, ‘Ok, I want better steel mills.’ Or whatever…
We sort of developed the multiplayer first because that’s the fastest way to test out the game design. If I have an idea I can literally implement it in the morning and then in the afternoon say, ‘Hey guys, there’s something new in the game, let’s test it out.’ And with real humans, you know they’re really going to prod at the idea.
That’s actually how we made Civ VI. It was a multiplayer game before it was a singleplayer game, which is kind of counter-intuitive for a lot of people because Civ is almost an iconic singleplayer game, but having it work in multiplayer was really a big benefit to testing out design early on.
PCI: This is the first game you’ve designed using Early Access, how’s that going?
SJ: Yeah, my experiences have been very positive. I mean, as soon as I found out that Steam was going to support something like that officially, I was immediately like, ‘well, that’s what I want to do for sure.’
I believe that you don’t really know your games at all until it’s out in the world and you have real players playing it. Players that you don’t know, who aren’t tainted by your own assumptions about the game.
It’s not just Early Access, there’s a whole infrastructure which helps you make games now. Within an hour of the game being live on Steam I was watching some guy play Offworld on twitch, right? In the tutorial, right? What does he understand? What doesn’t he understand?
During the days of Civ IV, we would have had to have paid thousands of dollars to get that same experience and even then it wouldn’t have been quite so immediate or natural. It would have been in a lab somewhere, right?
At the same time, we’re really well connected with the top players of the game. One of the great things about Twitch is that it kind of forms these watering holes for the top players, they know who each other are.
Like, one of them is doing a stream so the other one jumps on to that stream and they start chatting in the room there. That makes it easy for us because we can be like, ‘Hey, it’s Soren Johnson…’ and then I can jump into the game and eventually we can jump on to a Skype call and talk about their impressions of the game… maybe everyone’s taking one type of base and I can say, ‘well, why’s everyone taking that kind of base?’ ‘Well, it’s to do with this, this and that.’ ‘Ok, what if I change this?’ ‘Well, maybe that…’
Then I do an update the next week, or literally the next day, which changes the game. Then I can go back and see how they react to that. I mean that’s amazing! There was nothing like this ten, or even five, or even three or four years ago.
PCI: Do you prefer RTS titles or turn-based titles?
SJ: I think they’re both great in their own way. With RTS you get the fast-click multiplayer based experience and you get to test out your game really quickly, that’s really useful. It’s very very hard to play a full session of Civ, that’s why the end-games of that series are always pretty problematic because how many times did the designers actually play all the way through to the end-game to see how that part worked, right? It’s just very hard to do that.
Turn-based games are great other ways though, they’re really great at focusing the players on very specific decisions, ‘do you want to research writing or bronze working?’
PCI: How does working at Mohawk compare to the studios you’ve worked at in the past?
SJ: I’m really enjoying my job right now. This is the happiest I’ve been in my career. We’ve got like 8 people full-time right now, so it’s a nice small size. Everyone knows what everyone else is working on and there’s a lot of back and forth about the game. I want to keep my games where it’s possible to make them with a team that small.
Five or ten years ago, I don’t even think you could make Offworld Trading Company with a team this small. All the tools we have today are so much better. Not just Unity, but the tools people have built on top of that are just phenomenal.
PCI: What exactly are the advantages of working as a small team?
SJ: Communication basically. It’s very easy for me to make sure everyone is on the same page. If we want to change something, I can just, that day, speak to that guy and it’s not a problem. Whereas with large teams, once you get bigger than 10 or 20, then you start getting little mini-teams; little mini cliques, and they develop their own thoughts about the game. Sometimes these different groups see the game differently.
If we’re successful, it may be hard, but I’m really going to really try to resist the urge to grow bigger.
PCI: How about modding in Offworld? Are you doing anything to enable that?
SJ: Modding is really important to me. We’re going to do the same basic XML structure in Offworld, all of the game-data is already in XML. You can already create mods; you can already change what you want in the XML.
PCI: It’s kind of surprising that you worked at Zynga after working at Maxis and Firaxis since they have a reputation for mobile and casual games. What were you doing over there?
SJ: It’s kind of funny situation, because I was at Zynga and while I was there I was working on one product and I was given full decision-making power over what it should be. I was making a game that I wanted to see available. I spent 15 months doing that, and it was working out very well but then the Baltimore studio got closed and my game was kind of collateral damage.
I guess the main point is that I didn’t actually work on any game that came out publically. (laughs) I was there for a while but don’t really have a lot to say about the type of games that I was making.
PCI: Will we see another 4X Civ-type game from you one day?
SJ: My commitment is basically strategy games. I am *sure* that I’ll be making turn-based games again at some point…
I’ve got a big list of games that I want to make, I just have to figure out what’s the best one to do next. There are plenty of turn-based ones… there are even plenty of turn-based 4X on that list. We’ll just have to see what happens.
Offworld Trading Company is currently available on Steam’s Early Access and is set for release at some point in 2016.