I’m not in the habit of recommending, much less playing, early access games. I’d just as soon wait until a game is finished before playing it. It makes no sense to me that I’d jump into some form of entertainment while it’s still being made, any more than I’d eat lasagne before it’s been baked or move into a house before the roof was in place. “Hey Tom,” Joss Whedon might ask, “do you want to watch Avengers 2 now? I haven’t shot all the scenes, and the ending isn’t in yet, and there’s no CG yet for The Hulk. But here, you can watch what I’ve got so far!” What kind of deal is that? Why wouldn’t I wait until the movie comes out? Besides, I have plenty of finished movies I could watch.
It’s no different with games. So why would I play Offworld Trading Company, which enters public beta today and is available for $40 on Steam?
After the jump, it just takes one moment of weakness.
I booted up Offworld Trading Company real quick just to take a peek. It was mainly out of curiosity about how it looked rather than any desire to actually play it. The game had been announced for some time, and I’d heard people talk about playing early builds. But because the art still had a long way to go, people were asked not to post screenshots. So I had no idea what Offworld Trading Company looked like. I figured I’d boot it up real quick just to take a look. It looked pretty good. While I’m here, I thought, I might as well click on a few buttons and just see what happens.
That’s how I discovered that Offworld Trading Company is mostly complete. It works the same way a finished game works. It’s not like eating uncooked lasagne or living in a house where the rain gets in. It’s not like watching a movie in progress. It’s like playing a released RTS. Furthermore, a complete RTS. It has a skirmish mode, a (really good!) single-player campaign, and multiplayer support. These are the three things that any real time strategy game has to do, almost like three separate types of games in one box. And right now, Offworld Trading Company is doing all three of them just fine. Some of the buttons have placeholder graphics, but otherwise, it plays from start to finish like a completed game, without any conspicuous gaps or omissions.
Furthermore, Offworld Trading Company is a self-contained half-hour experience. I just happily uninstalled Darkest Dungeon after taking a quick peek. That game spans many hours, building up characters over several play sessions, guiding them through content that is currently incomplete. With several character classes and locations yet to be added, playing Darkest Dungeon’s early access version is only playing part of Darkest Dungeon. But for the most part, playing Offworld Trading Company’s currently available beta is playing the entirety of Offworld Trading Company. I get the sense that the things that will change are the things that will change between the release of Starcraft II and Starcraft II after several balance and tuning patches. Although the tuning is in progress, the basics of the game are done and they provide immensely satisfying RTS matches. When Starcraft II came out, did you opt not to play while waiting for Blizzard to work on patches?
But what about the sort of polish that you only find in finished games? I’m not sure that applies so much here, because Offworld Trading Company is mostly gameplay. I’ve written before that every RTS exists on a continuum between spectacle and skill. At one end you have the Hollywood war movie spectacle of Company of Heroes, and at the other end you have the intricate skill required to play Starcraft II. Company of Heroes requires skill as well, and Starcraft II can certainly look spectacular. But they’re at either end of the spectacle vs. skill spectrum in terms of their emphasis. Almost all RTSs exist somewhere on this spectrum.
But Offworld Trading Company is a strange beast. It looks good, but since it doesn’t include any combat, it eschews the traditional appeal of spectacle. Even though dynamite and underground nukes are available on the black market, nothing really blows up. The only claim to spectacle is an occasional parade of blimps carrying cargo. Offworld Trading Company is almost all skill. In fact, you don’t play by watching the map, which is where you find spectacle. You play by watching the market information along the left side of the screen. This is abetted by an interface created by Jim Alley and Scott Lewis (Lewis was one of the folks who worked on the interface for Rise of Nations, which is one of the finest interfaces you’ll ever see in an RTS).
So whatever polish is left to apply isn’t the sort of thing that leaves visual gaps. It’s not like watching a movie without CG sequences. There is obviously still work to do, but it’s all additive at this point. I can’t imagine any missing visuals that detract from the experience of playing Offworld Trading Company. I’d even be hard pressed to complain much about the current interface. There are obviously more things that can be done to get Offworld Trading Company really dancing under your fingertips, but in its current state, it’s absolutely manageable, slick, and intuitive.
There aren’t many alternatives to Offworld Trading Company. After spending some time playing, I went looking for games that exist in the same space. I tried a few city builders, specifically Anno 2070 for its long elegant production chains and slick sci-fi motif. I tried Settlers 7 for its head-to-head competitive structure and boardgame conventions. I almost tried Sid Meier’s Railroads (another Scott Lewis interface, by the way) but thought better of it. Sid Meier’s Railroads was attempting the same thing as Offworld Trading Company: a relatively short and self-contained economic battle among players. But Sid Meier’s Railroads was a tangle of messy rail lines and dry gameplay.
I couldn’t find any way to download Stardock’s Entrepreneur and Corporate Machine games, which were also economic real time strategy games. But the game I most wanted to revisit, but I couldn’t find my copy and it doesn’t seem to be available for download anywhere, was ruthless.com, an unappreciated gem by Shadow Watch designer Kevin Perry. Ruthless.com — technically, it’s called Tom Clancy’s ruthless.com — was about competing software developers using dirty tricks and corporate espionage against each other. It was a turn-based game but so, too, is Offworld Trading Company when you consider that it proceeds in “ticks”. That the ticks run in real time is almost beside the point. You can freely pause and play Offworld Trading Company in single-player mode.
The playing pieces in ruthless.com were departments and skyscrapers deployed on a grid that represents the market and gives the gameplay a territory control element. But one of the things that sets Offworld Trading Company apart from so many other games is how it is decoupled from the concept of territory control, which is a tenet of most strategy games (and even most sports). Offworld Trading Company is about the resources instead of the map. Sure, the map dictates the availability of resources, and positioning is an important element in terms of how long it takes to get resources, or your options for adjacency bonuses, or placement of pirates and the use of patents like slant drilling. But conventional territory control has no role here. You’re not trying to seize terrain. How many strategy games can you say that about?
But one of the main reasons I recommend playing this beta is that Offworld Trading Company won’t be finished for another year. Well, “finished”. I mean, for Pete’s sake, the overwhelming sensation I get from this thing is that they should just slap a 1.0 in the corner of the screen and release it. I say that as an impatient consumer, by the way, and not as a critic, a guy who somewhat understands the process of game development, or a fan who wants Offworld Trading Company to be as good as it can possibly be. Those three aspects of myself are fine with the game being in development another year. It’s just the impatient consumer who wishes they would release it now. That’s the guy who’s going to be playing it off and on for the next year.