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Developer Interview - Doing Away with Cililization's Old Ways in Mohawk Games' Old World
Post by davidwildgoose @ 04:47pm 25/06/21 | Comments
David Wildgoose spoke with Mohawek Games founder and ex-Firaxis alumn, Soren Johnson, about his studio's latest effort, Old World. Read on for more...

A lack of time feels like a modern phenomenon. Busy carers bemoan there just aren't enough hours in the day while startup pals promise five essential ways to hack your bandwidth. Contemporary culture is over-supplied with things that need doing and shrinkingly few opportunities to get them done. The harried 21st century citizen yearns for the slower pace of a simpler time.

But as evidenced by Old World, a turn-based 4X strategy game built on the foundations of Civilization where players plot the dynastic rule of a Mediterranean empire, even in classical times a head of state couldn't get everything done.

"If all your archers are moving and attacking, you won't have enough orders left to also move all your workers...”

Old World's Orders system resets the way you manage the affairs of your empire. In Sid Meier's Civilization series and other similar strategy games, units are discrete entities; every archer can move and attack, every builder can move and improve a tile, every missionary can move and spread your religion, with each action drawing only from an individual unit's movement points for that turn. In Old World, all such actions draw from a collective pool of orders shared across your empire. So, if all your archers are moving and attacking, you won't have enough orders left to also move all your workers to improve tiles. You quite literally cannot do everything.

"A game is a series of interesting decisions" is a quote often attributed to Sid Meier, though no one -- not even Sid himself -- is entirely sure if he meant this definition to apply to all games, be limited to "good games" or "strategy games", or if he even said it at all. Soren Johnson spent a number of years working alongside Meier as the lead designer on the highly acclaimed Civilization IV. After a stint at Electronic Arts where he worked on Spore, Johnson founded Mohawk Games and is the lead designer of Old World, his studio's second release following Off World Trading Company (2016).

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Riffing on the possibly apocryphal Meier quote, in a column for Game Developer magazine in 2008, Johnson wrote that, "A game design is a collection of interesting decisions." Back then, Johnson argued that strategy games frequently overload their design with too many things--too many units, too many buildings, etc--that distract from those interesting decisions. It's a design flaw, he said, to offer too few options for the player, but the more common failure is too provide too many.

It's a principle Johnson maintained when designing Old World and its unusual Orders system.

"A core guiding principle is that we want to make each turn interesting," he says. "Which is something that 4X games struggle with.

"The Orders system radically widens the possibility space of actions for a player each turn, which is a fundamental building block for strategic depth.

"After playing with the Orders system, it becomes clear that many decisions in 4X games -- do I want this Worker to build a Farm or a Mine? -- are made because the player has to make the decision, not because the player wants to. There is no reason not to use a Worker each turn with the traditional Civ formula. In Old World, using Orders to build Farms means you are NOT using your Orders to fight a war or explore the map or even conduct diplomacy."

"As the years pass you'll unlock ways to grow your pool of Orders to keep pace with your growing empire...”

The Orders systems forces choices that feel interesting and meaningful because to commit in one direction means making a sacrifice elsewhere. Even in the opening turns you notice the potential consequences. Spending Orders to send your scouts far and wide will enable you to discover valuable resources and establish trade routes and diplomatic channels with other empires, but it will likely leave your own lands lightly defended and vulnerable to barbarian raids.

Sensible limits are imposed to maintain balance. You won't be able to give all your Orders to a single scout and issue them halfway across the map in one turn. Diminishing returns mean a unit will cover less distance with each additional Order to march on the same turn. In practice, you'll find yourself doing a little bit here and there each turn, the balance of your Orders shifting from development to expansion to conquest and back again as your priorities change. As the years pass you'll unlock ways to grow your pool of Orders to keep pace with your growing empire, but such advances must be weighed against progress in other fields, such as science or culture.

Given Johnson's pedigree, it shouldn't come as a surprise to hear that Old World was conceived as a response to Civilization. Playing the Early Access builds for the past year has felt very much like playing a version of Civ from an alternate timeline. Or, in more prosaic terms, as if Johnson and the team at Mohawk had looked at Civ IV, Civ V and Civ VI, isolated every feature, mechanic or choice Civ makes, and questioned it. Some they decided to keep, but many others were reassessed, reinvented or tossed aside.

"Old World is definitely a response to how Civ functions as a historical 4X game," says Johnson.

"Every aspect of the game was considered and re-examined. The early prototype looked a lot like Civ IV, although the game always had the Orders system. But each element was slowly changed, modified, or removed until there were very few systems left that work similarly to how they work in Civ.

"These changes were not arbitrary; they were all based on a couple decades of experience considering which parts of the Civ legacy were worth inheriting and which parts were not worth using."

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Old World retains a tech tree where new technologies are researched as science is accumulated each turn. But the presentation borrows a randomising element from deck-building card games that aims to stir progression from becoming predictable.

"Similar to how we want to make every turn interesting, we want each tech choice to be interesting as well," Johnson explains.

"One thing that works against that with the traditional Civ tech tree is that, over time, there will be established tech 'build paths' that the community finds, optimal paths through the tree depending on what the player wants to achieve.

"Instead [what we do is use] transparent rules borrowed from deck-building games, so the player faces dynamic choices that are different each game and which can be difficult. The player might have to choose between Lumbermills and Archers, for example, on the same turn while knowing that the one she doesn’t pick won’t come back until she cycles through the tech deck again, which might be many turns in the future."

Complicating research decisions further, shuffled in amongst the tech cards is occasionally a free unit or large resource deposit. Selecting them often means recruiting a military unit you couldn't otherwise produce or gaining a resource not present in your territory--a valuable prize, undoubtedly, but evaluating the short term boost against delaying a useful technology is an agonising process.

Religion has undergone a similar reappraisal. Players can found a religion, but once that faith has been released into the wild, as it were, its specific tenets and beliefs can be determined by all players. Religions are upgraded via Theologies with bonuses that are applied globally, so that whichever player decides to make Zoroastrianism a Mythological religion, for example, is making that decision for the whole world. As Johnson notes, "If the player shares a religion with another nation, be aware that the other nation may establish its Theologies if the player doesn’t do so first".

"Both elements intend to address weaknesses in Civ's millennia-spanning ambitions...”

Old World limits the scope of Civ, shortening the timescale to two centuries of Classical Antiquity and focusing exclusively on major period cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East, from Rome to Babylon to Egypt. At the same time it digs deeper into the leadership of its empires, nodding towards Crusader Kings by concerning you with familial relationships and lines of succession. Both elements intend to address weaknesses in Civ's millennia-spanning ambitions. Mohawk doesn't have to worry about designing consistent combat systems that support both spearmen and stealth bombers, for example, but there are other benefits, too.

"Many parts of the design are easier if it focuses on a smaller slice of history because we don’t need to introduce major new game mechanics in the final quarter of the game," Johnson concludes.

"However, the best part of playing at a human time scale is that, perhaps ironically, it makes major changes in fortune more palatable because the success or failure of a nation is often tied to the strengths and weaknesses (and quirks) of the leader. Which, of course, is historical in a way that a game of Civ’s scale can never be.

"A sudden war or abrupt peace because a rival nation has a new leader makes a lot more thematic sense than a long-running ally in Civ suddenly turning on you."

Like Off World Trading Company before it, Old World launched in Early Access in 2020 only on the Epic Games Store. There's a sense that this period of EGS exclusivity allowed Johnson and his team to gain the real world player feedback they wanted as they continued development while not being on Steam allowed them to remain low-key enough to manage that process with the resources of a small studio.

On July 1st, after nearly 60 near-weekly game updates, Old World will hit its Version 1.0 release and for the time being at least will remain exclusive to the Epic Games Store. Development will continue beyond that date, of course. There are always more orders to give.

Read more about Old World on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!

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