Offworld Trading Company Review
The Cast - David Paddock
Offworld Trading Company is a real-time strategy game. In this particular era of video games, a high-quality title in that genre doesn’t have to do much to entice me. We haven’t been getting many of them. The top of that food chain has been suffocated by Starcraft and the bottom has been cannibalized year-over-year by empire-building free-to-play whorehouses like Clash of Clans. In the drought between Relic games I take what I can get and what Stardock came up with here has serious conceptual promise even if it probably needs a little more development to be on its best footing.
Most real-time strategy games focus on war, which is almost necessarily a direct confrontation between forces. The rules of real combat map fairly well even to abstractions like video games, and those rules possess that magical quality of being few in number but almost infinite in depth. In virtually any arena that resembles a fight, victory will depend on your ability to flank, cover and move, grab the high ground, and keep a low profile better than your opponent.
Offworld Trading Company has a more metropolitan objective. Instead of an outright tussle, you set about producing and selling resources in a global market with the aim of buying out your opponents. This is still combative in a sense but it adds one more abstraction layer to the formula, which reduces the analogy to combat rules but ushers in a new analogy to market rules. Your basic aim in Offworld is to minimize your losses in the pursuit of maximizing revenue, which demands the same kind of tactical and strategic flexibility necessary to win a wargame but demands it in greater quantities because almost no strategy in the game is reliably profitable, even in meager terms. The efficacy of your factories is a calculable equation with three variables and one constant: the value of their products minus the cost of inputs, construction, and land use. The only thing that’s definite (usually) is the number of land tiles you can claim for the purpose of building and tearing down these factories. The way to compare this would be if the cost, hit points, and damage output of a Marine in Starcraft fluctuated based on how effective they were in the current fight. You are in a constant pursuit of the next big thing, and the faction that pivots first and best to accommodate the stock ticker on the left side of screen rakes in the proceeds.
Offworld gives you plenty of ways to toy with the purity of their futures market, of course. There is a black market with a rotating library of devious abilities players can purchase ranging from debt forgiveness to straight-up destruction of other player’s property. You can build a hacker array that will trigger surplus or shortage panics in particular goods. The endgame is actually dominated by a completely separate market somewhere off in space that you blast rockets off to. These twists meld with the more basic supply and demand mechanics to make Offworld feel very organic for a strategy game.
Almost too organic. The game adheres to a Wall Street paradigm of scarcity to a fault in some ways. In war, if you run out of bullets, you can’t fire your gun. In the stock market, you can always borrow. In a game like Starcraft, if you don’t have 50 minerals, you can’t build a Marine. In Offworld, if you need silicon to make glass, you can run up debt to buy the silicon on the open market and so long as the outputs cost more the inputs that could be a wise move. If there’s a debt ceiling in the game, I never hit it. The tutorials actually encourage you to take on debt in the interest of outpacing it with new revenue, which is business 101 but military suicide. I think this gives the game a unique feel, and I really do enjoy the change of pace in a way.
The trouble is that moving into the business world means that Offworld is not a zero-sum affair the way war tends to be, and that makes the confrontational aspect where someone needs to be crowned the winner less effective than in other RTS’s. In Company of Heroes, unless you win by holding Victory points, most games end with a line of tanks and artillery avalanching their way over an enemy’s last stand, which is dramatic and bombastic and generally satisfying to behold. These events don’t happen in Offworld. Because everyone is always getting richer, the closest approximation to this battle line smash Offworld can provide is the hostile takeover, which has a player clicking on a Buy button next to an opponent’s company until that player loses their majority stake and becomes a subsidiary. Not quite as exciting. There is something to be said for appreciating the most basic, pure elements that make up a game, but I think Offworld demonstrates how much can be said for dressing up those elements in style.
Would it have been enough for Stardock to anthromorphize stock options in the upper-right hand corner, beating each other up as the game progresses? That would certainly be a nice touch, but I don’t think so. The army you build in a strategy game embodies your labor and trials as a player; it is the living memory of your decisions up to that point. Your “army” in Offworld is, for all practical purposes, your warchest: an amorphous sum of cash you will use to usurp your opponents’ amorphous sums of cash. This has a queer elegance in financial markets, but it’s just too detached for a game. There isn’t enough buy-in; it’s too much tinkering and not enough commitment (a complaint many have had about real financial instruments).
Don’t take that as an overall diss of the product. I think Offworld Trading Company is very cool, and its foundation could support a lot of fruitful experiments. Real-time strategy has virtually always centered around war because it’s the obvious playground. I’m glad to see Stardock demonstrate that it’s not the only one available.