Preview: Offworld Trading Company

Preview: Offworld Trading Company

Starting up Offworld Trading Company is like being a college graduate out on your own. You don't know what you're supposed to be doing, you just have a basic guide. Do your job well, make money, and improve your home base! Everything is about helping to slave away at a company for the sake of improving their bottom dollar and standing in the corporate world. Congratulations! Now don't expect any help in how to do ANY of that! At least in real life you have parents who might be willing to help you and on-the-job training. Offworld Trading Company really doesn't offer any of that, which is so far the game's biggest flaw.

So there IS a tutorial in it, but it's laughable. "Upgrade 5 times to win!" it says. But the tutorial makes it so simple to upgrade that you really don't learn much along the way -- the best thing it provides is a sandbox for you to tool around in, free from the AI really attempting to bother you while you fumble over yourself. Why do I need to upgrade? What are claims? Ok, so I built this patent lab, but... what do I do with it now? Plus that's not even how you win in an actual match!

Even then it's a simplified toolbox, without concepts like the black market, auctions, or random weather events. It doesn't teach you why you might want to turn off or scrap a building... or even explain that it's something you can do. When my girlfriend (who has played maybe 5 times the amount of this game as me and would honestly be better for this preview) suggested I turn off a building so as to save on power because I'm already overstocked on whatever the resource was, I just looked at her. "That's a thing you can do!?"

This combines to make Offworld Trading Company one of the most accessible and least accessible RTS games I've ever played. Because that's the thing--I'm absolute garbage at RTS games. As soon as it says that I need to pay attention to both what my resources are AND what's going on with a battle somewhere, I completely fall apart. But OTC focuses just on one aspect--resource gathering, and using those resources to indirectly wage war on others.

It's a lot easier to get into this and learn how to make it all work because for the most part, what you need is right in front of you. You don't have set base locations, AND you can choose a specific type of base to be once you actually start the game. If you're finding a bunch of carbon, toss a scavenger down. Tons of silicon but no water? Throw down robotics, since they don't need food, but do need electronics.

OTC isn't a game that's focused on APM or click speed or build order because the maps are randomized--the strategies you'll have to take are relatively similar on each map (again, based on type of base you put down), but you'll have difficulties based on scarcity, what your opponents put down, and figuring out what's the best place to put down a base so that you're close enough to all the things you need.

As a result, a measured hand with the ability to predict and control the market will likely be able to win out over a 'faster' hand. I'll give an example, using power, one of the more difficult aspects of the game to really get a good handle on. Power fluctuates constantly, in terms of rate, and even your generation can go up and down depending on how you've got your systems set up. It also auto-sells and auto-buys because without power, you can't do anything. Certain spots are better for power on a map than others, and if you can sweep those up or win auctions for the rights to that land, you'll be in the position to hold the means of energy production, which you can then use to drive up prices by creating scarcity. If someone else gets a lot of power, you can then drive it down, causing their gains to be tiny, and laugh over the ruined remains of their economy.

When Conan the Barbarian said that what was best in life was to "crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women," I don't think he meant economically, but it's such a sweet victory nonetheless when you're making hand over fist because of decisions you took earlier in the game. This is all part of the metagame and goes on with every resource, even those that aren't mined directly from the environment.

The win condition is to completely buy out your enemy, which is quite a feat, and gets more difficult if they own other stocks, and this end-game part is the other section that feels like it could use some more work. Often, the best way to do it is by building the Offworld Market, which allows you to ship parcels of resources to Earth at a price determined at the beginning of the game (meaning it is not subject to the monetary fluctuations on Mars). At some point, it comes down to you and one other person just sort of waiting to see rockets departing the planet so your cash on hand is large enough so you can completely buy out the other person. No point in sabotaging, not much else to do but wait. Like Starcraft, this is the point when people can tell this part of the game's starting, and the host will say 'gg' and leave if someone is clearly ahead.

OTC is an early access game, but it's more or less ready to go-- right now is more of a prolonged beta test, trying to get the balances tweaked and change a few things as they need-- but hopefully they'll go back in and work on getting in newbies better. This is probably more important than the end-game issues, by far, because people being unable to get into the game will cause far more issues with helping a fanbase grow. Because you can figure it out if you want to, but if you're just curious and pick it up on a whim, it probably won't have legs.

Plus the campaign then works really differently from the other modes, in that you're limited. In multiplayer and the tutorial and even in a quick match, you have access to everything, but the campaign limits you and you have to buy access to the other devices you don't have (in-game currency only). It's a cool mode, but it's also set up in a way I don't quite understand, with rounds and eliminations involved, but generally if you just win, that's all that matters.

If this sounds like I'm grousing, I do really like the game, but I'm really hoping the developers are listening. This is an awesome game, and a really cool idea. Every time you win feels great, but there are just a few things they need to do to make the game a real winner. Even after the hours I've put into the preview I still don't know if I really know everything in the game, not because I haven't unlocked it - but because I just haven't been told. It's not the best way for a game to leave you feeling.

But with just a few tweaks, Offworld Trading Company, a fun and deep (oh so deep) game, has the ability to really take off. It has the ability to appeal to even people who aren't into RTS games, and that's an impressive thing. I can't believe how much I like it, personally, but if you have a chance, you should give it a try. Just expect to get more questions than answers.