On July 20, 1969, man first landed on the moon. Since then, humanity has made great strides in space exploration, sending countless probes to the outer reaches of our solar system to study the planets there with a curiosity that only mankind can muster. But even with our wide scientific reach, we haven’t yet been able to best those early manned trips to our closest neighbor: the Moon.
SpaceX and NASA now have their sights set on Mars. The former agency hopes to go there by 2024, while the latter has a mission planned for the 2030s. Both are lofty goals.
Mars has always been a target for human curiosity. For centuries, we’ve looked at the Red Planet and dreamed of what might wait for us there. Fiction has spun a variety of tales about the possibilities and – from War of the Worlds to Total Recall – most seem remarkable. Fantastic.
Chances are that life on the red planet will be far more mundane than fiction has presented it. The reality is that when humanity reaches Mars, it will be a long time before life there resembles anything similar to what we have here on Earth. And even then, what’s to say that it will be that much different? That it won’t echo the daily beats of life here? That our overbearingly capitalistic society won’t bleed onto the ruddy soil of our nearest neighbor?
Enter Offworld Trading Company.
The game’s story paints a bleak picture of the future. Earth has been drained of resources, and megacorporations have already claimed the asteroids. Mars, apparently, remains the last bastion of capitalist entrepreneurial opportunity and it is up to the player to leverage its abundance against all comers.
The idea sounds simple enough. It is anything but.
Interplanetary Capitalism in Real Time
Offworld Trading Company has a lot in common with real time strategy (RTS) games of yore. Players are given a home base and starting resources with which to establish an outpost. But from there, the similarities diverge drastically. The focus of OTC remains with the initial outpost. Rather than create units to attack opponents, players are tasked with growing a base to mine resources, refine them, then craft them into more complex materials. The units that are present in the game – transports reminiscent of semi trucks – play a much more passive role, serving only as indicators of supply lines and counters for how much fuel is consumed.
At first glance, the lack of units seems simplistic. And, the generally static landscape criss-crossed only by slow moving transports can seem sedentary. So, how can a game that lacks anything past base building be engaging? The answer lies in Offworld Trading Company’s unique – and complex – combat system.
Entrepreneurial fortitude rules the day, so combat, unlike typical RTS games, takes place through the ubiquitous Martian commodities market. Early on, the market has little effect on gameplay. While outposts are founded and resources are harvested, the market stands pat. But as time passes, each player’s strategy will distort the financial landscape. Much like real world markets, sudden developments quickly turn the tide. And fortunes change.
Plumbing the Depths
I first played Offworld Trading Company with friends, expecting it to be an overwhelmingly simplistic game. We were catastrophically wrong.
Without the benefit of a tutorial, our outposts were quickly on the receiving end of low market values for the resources we were producing. Multiplayer games in Offworld Trading Company are played in real time and designed to last no longer than 20 minutes or so, and without the ability to pause and think, our AI opponents quickly bought us out.
It was a sobering and unexpected experience.
I play more than my fair share of games and, generally, don’t have many issues diving into something new. How could Offworld Trading Company be any different?
A few games later, I had my answer.
OTC expects more of the player. Most RTS games have a specific metagame that fleshes out into a system of checks and balances. It can be learned and applied during play – on or offline. But OTC takes the concept of meta and turns it on its head. Like the real world markets, success is based on a moving target that changes from second to second. Predicting this market is based on forethought and skilled diversification.
Skilled is the key word here.
In many RTS games, players are limited by available resources. Generally, quick collection of said resources breeds faster production, which allows faster expansion and unit production. OTC caps players by providing limited land claims. Developing them too quickly can put the player out of sync with the commodities market, but holding on to them for too long can cause a critical lag in production.
Further, each faction has a short list of materials needed to operate, so resource availability and claim allocation has to take these factors into account, as well.
The Martian market, however complicated, only scratches the surface of the game’s complexity. A Patent Lab can be built that allows research of crucial technologies that provide unique advantages. An Optimization Center allows for speedier mining and production. A Hacker Array provides opportunities for market manipulation. A Pleasure Dome is a quick cash grab that generates revenue each second. Finally, an Offworld Market ships materials to Earth and the asteroid belt for (typically) massive monetary gains. And if all that wasn’t enough, there is a black market where assistance and sabotage can be purchased for cold hard cash.
These options allow for varied play styles. Pure market manipulation via a Hacker Array can transform simple iron deposits into gold mines. Skilled use of the Optimization Center can turn flagging production around. But, most of all, the Offworld Market is the game changer. Once built, it allows for rapid accumulation of funds. Funds that will, ultimately, be used to buy out the competition and bring the game to a close.
After all, hostile takeover is the whole point of Offworld Trading Company.
This is accomplished through a rudimentary stock market. Each corporation starts with one share of stock and a base value. Growing increases the value and the amount of money required to purchase additional shares. This also becomes a balancing act. Self investment can block hostile takeover attempts, but only for a brief period of time. Past that, this mini market becomes a dance of buying and selling stock. Early investment can sometimes pay dividends if a competitor grows quickly. Other times, it ends in disaster.
By now, you must be thinking that Offworld Trading Company is maddeningly complex, punishingly difficult, and overwhelmingly stressful. It is.
But it’s also fun.
Very few games focus on resource management. While it is always a component in 4x strategy games and a myriad of RTS offerings, it almost always boils down to income versus expenditure. For those games, that’s fine because other strategies rule the day. But Offworld Trading Company strips away the excess and distills the core gameplay to resource management.
Surprisingly, the formula works.
The learning curve is brutal, and the constantly running clock during multiplayer matches is unforgiving, but it forces reactionary thinking. There isn’t time to agonize over what to produce next, or what the absolute best course of action might be. Instead, snap decisions are required – and the realization that things as they are now, might require change later.
It’s a riveting formula.
The game does have a campaign mode that packages the typically frenetic action into a pill that’s a bit easier to swallow, but I’m not entirely sure this take on the game works. Compared to the high stakes action of skirmish mode, or multiplayer matches, the slower objective-based maps don’t feel like they measure up. I felt unsatisfied by the objectives and limited in the number of buildings available to me. For those that enjoy additional structure, however, there are plenty of options – including two expansions and a map pack if the campaign really strikes your fancy.
Ultimately, Offworld Trading Company delivers a satisfying experience wholly different from typical RTS offerings. The focus on resource management rather than unit micromanagement is refreshing and paints a new face on a genre that’s decades old, though I would say it’s best sampled as a multiplayer experience.
Just make sure not to stomp your friends into the Martian dirt too badly.