soren johnson

I am Soren Johnson, designer/programmer of Offworld Trading Company and Civilization 4. AMA!

I have been designing video games for 15 years. I got my start at Firaxis Games in 2000, working as a designer/programmer on Civilization 3. I was the lead designer of Civilization 4 and also wrote most of the game and AI code. I founded Mohawk Games in 2013 as a studio dedicated to making high-quality and innovative strategy games. Our first game, Offworld Trading Company, came out on Steam Early Access in February. It is an economic RTS set on Mars, and you can read more about it at

Finally, here is a peek at one of my board game shelves:

How does it feel knowing that Civ4, the project where you was the boss, has the best title song ever made for games?

Music is a big passion of mine, so I am unbelievably happy that Baba Yetu became such a phenomenon and won a Grammy and was written by my college roommate/buddy Chris Tin. It’s just unbelievable, really. (I am also very happy that the first video game Grammy went to a STRATEGY GAME! Take that, rest of the industry!)

Do you ever pick up the cello and play these days?

Every once in a while – wish I did it more often or had an orchestra to play with… definitely miss making music.

What do you think about Civilization 5’s “one-unit-per-tile” mechanic? Do you think it’s possible to have a middle-ground between this and Civilization 4’s “stacks of doom?”

I am very glad they tried it as it was certainly on my short-list of ideas for Civ that hadn’t been done yet. Obviously, 1UPT creates some serious AI challenges, so I think your opinion about the mechanic is largely colored by how important a competitive AI is to you. (A lot of Civ players just want to walk their way through history and don’t even like fighting wars.) I will say that I am very curious about what happens to the mechanic in future iterations of the series.

What is Sid Meier really like?

Sid is awesome. First of all, unlike a lot of well-known veteran developers, Sid prefers to keep his hands dirty and spends most his time doing what he has always done – writing code. He was always very supportive of my work when I was at Firaxis and is just a very nice person overall… BUT I should say that he also has a wicked sense of humor that doesn’t necessarily come out too often (he’s just too nice) but I’ve seen glimpses of over the years. A lot of that humor goes into his games, I think.

Why is there still nighttime in Offworld?

Basically because I love squeaky wheels.

Why did you name your company Mohawk?

So, I lost a bet back in college, and the cost was that I had to shave my head. Naturally, since I had to shave my head anyway, I thought it might be fun to try a mohawk for a few days.

Years later, I needed a picture on my Twitter account (, so I used one from shortly after cut. Over time, people started to associate that image with me, so much so that they would ask me at GDC where was my mohawk?!?

Once it was time to name the company, we considered a lot of options, but Mohawk seemed like a great name because I already had that association and – more importantly – it also just seemed like a great name for a game company. One top of that, Dorian Newcomb, our VP and Art Director is part Mohawk by ancestry, so that sort of sealed the deal.

How are you going to foster multiplayer growth and lock in a competitive scene? Is a competitive scene even necessary for the game’s health and longevity?

I would love, love, love to see a competitive scene emerge for Offworld. Via Twitch, I already have a sense of who the best players currently are (such as Zultar or PBHead), and I am hoping more people will emerge to challenge them. Hopefully, Tachyon will make that community more robust.

Is Offworld comparable to AOE?

AOE is one of my biggest influence. Indeed, you could say that Offworld is a game just about the Market building mechanic (where you can trade food, stone, wood for gold and the prices are dynamic and global) from AOE.

Are you planning to get back some day to making civ-like games?

Seriously, though, I love 4X games, and history is my favorite subject, but I have nothing to announce. 🙂

As a video game designer you probably have seen hundreds of video games, what video games do you wish you played a part in creating?

In recent years, the games which have impressed me the most are Spelunky; Papers, Please; Crusader Kings 2; Mark of the Ninja; FTL; Unity of Command; and Brothers. Of those, CK2 is probably the only one I wish I had made. 🙂

What is your opinion on free to play games that have micro transactions versus buy to play games and subscription games? Which model do you personally think is better?

I wrote up my general thoughts on how free-to-play is changing games here: The upside is that as the AAA publishers are forced to embrace microtransactions (and thus, screwing up their games), smaller studios like Mohawk can just focus on making a great, uncompromised with a single price, which is hitting a market that the AAA pubs are now ignoring.

What was it like going from a programmer on Civ3 to lead designer for Civ4? Was that your first technical leadership role and if so how did you learn the ropes?

I was also the co-designer of Civ 3, a role that I sort of worked myself into as I took on more and more gameplay code responsibilities, so I did have practice for Civ4. The most important part of that experience was just seeing the response to the initial release of Civ3 and then going through multiple patch processes to improve it.

I really dug the callbacks to CivI (the opening narration, selected musical themes). Were these put in as sort of an Easter Egg to longtime fans of the series?

yes, we indeed used the opening narration from Civ1 as a sort of callback/Easter egg for longtime fans of the series. Glad you noticed – only a few people did. (Btw, did you notice a similar callback to Civ2 in the printed manual?)

Whose job was it to find all those technology quotes, and how did you decide on Leonard Nimoy as the narrator?

It was a team effort to come up with all of the technology quotes. I think we had a spreadsheet with all of the technologies, and everyone who had an idea for a good quote would just add it to the list, and then we made a final decision when we got close to recording.

We chose Nimoy because he seemed like a perfect choice for both our audience and the content itself (quote about science). We were happy with how positive everyone responded to his work as often the use of well-known actors as voice talent is sort of a waste.

Were you there while Leonard Nimoy read all of the Civ 4 Science quotes? If so, how many takes did he have to do for Sputnik?

I was on the phone when he was doing the recording (he was doing it from Tahoe). I wish I had the chance to meet him in person, but he did a great job. I think we had to do one extra session for redos, but he got a lot of it right the first time. (And I enjoyed getting him to read the pig iron lyric.) He definitely seemed like a pro. My strongest memory of it was how many time we got him to say “Civilization” for the intro speech (which was, btw, the same one from Civ1) because we couldn’t quite get the inflection right. Someone at Firaxis later took all of these different versions of Nimoy saying “Civilization” and turned it into a great techno remix although I’m afraid it’s probably been lost to time (not to mention dubious legality).

Is there going to be Linux support for Offworld Trading Company?

It’s something we are considering.

Do you know Civ 4 mods? What do you think of Rhys and Fall? A New Dawn? Realism Invictus? Caveman2Cosmos? Are they following designs you once rejected? If so why?

The mods I thought were most notable for Civ4 were Rhys and Fall, Fall from Heaven, Planetfall, and Dune. Rhys was particularly interesting for me because it was able to explore historical issues that were too tricky to fit into a mainstream Civ release.

When did you first realize that you wanted to depart from the normal combat stlye RTS and go with a fast paced economic RTS?

My inspiration for Offworld comes from many games in my past that had interesting bits of economic gameplay (Belter, M.U.L.E., Railroad Tycoon, Age of Kings’ market) as well as the fact that I loved the RTS format but was somewhat bored by the combat-based RTS’s which are all more similar than they are different.

What factors led to the decision to release the game into Early Access instead of just releasing the finished product?

The number one reason we went to Early Access is to get feedback on the game. For example, I often check out Twitch to see who is playing the game, either to just observe them quietly or to actually jump into their games in multiplayer. Sometimes, I’ll end up on a Skype call with players to discuss what they think of the current balance and what we can improve. I believe the game design has improved already just based on one month of feedback. (The team knows that I wanted to go up on Early Access last summer, but I admit that would have been too early…)

Overall, has it been a positive or negative experience dealing with Early Access?

Early Access has been a very positive experience overall. A+++++ Would sell to again!

I did a personal year of game development and found out that it is much harder/stressful than it appears. How did you cope with the schedules or did you enjoy the entire process of making it a living?

I would making video games, but the process is indeed very stressful. I also hate dealing with schedules, much the chagrin of my various producers. (Somehow, I always get more energy working on stuff I’m not supposed to be working on.)

I think the trick is making sure that your time and work is not wasted, and the best way to do that is to make sure you expose your game to other people as soon as possible so that you learn quickly what your game actually is instead of what you think it is.

It seems to me that the advancements in AI didn’t keep pace for example with the advancements in graphics. (Obviously AI is not easy) Are there some advancements in AI that are really substantial compared to AI years ago?

Most game AI is really pretty basic – if you took a look at my Civ4 AI, the only real “technique” you would find is A*. The Offworld AI doesn’t even have that! Instead, I try to write fairly simple functions that help the AI make decisions based on the current game state. The problem with using more advanced techniques is that you lose control of WHY the AI is making the decisions it is making. I would much rather have an AI perform poorly but I know why than have an AI perform well but the reason is hard to grasp (because it’s using a very complicated, somewhat unpredictable AI technique). If you don’t know why your AI is working, it could suddenly stop working once you make a small rule change to the game, and then you are in big trouble.

Having said that, keep in mind that my thoughts are about AI for strategy games. I think the general graphic-quality-outstrip-game-depth issue is a big problem for our industry.

Are your name actually “Soren” or are you just not using “ø”?

Officially, I am just “Soren” as the US system (not to mention my keyboard) doesn’t really support that letter. I am named after my great-grandfather who immigrated from Norway and then, as was typical, changed his name to Sam. I am pretty sure he had a ø.

What’s a day working on Offworld Trading Company like?

Everyday is different. I keep my own task list of things I need to address, which usually comes from direct feedback from the team or the forums or my own experience, so I usually try to handle as many of those things as I can. Right now, I am rewriting the campaign, which is a multi-day task. If other, er, Mohawks are reading, they should reply as well.

Who are the designers that you’d absolutely love to have in your podcast someday?

I have a bunch of podcasts stocked up with great designers (Brian Reynolds, Bruce Shelley, George Fan, Chris Avellone, Jamie Cheng, Brad Muir, Nels Anderson…), so I’ve been able to speak to everyone I’d like to so far. Of course, at some point, I’ll need to do one with Sid. Probably a three-parter!

What are your thoughts on the recent piece by Bogost on system-centered games as opposed to character-driven ones? (This one:

I was just reading Clint Hocking’s response to Bogost piece yesterday and pondering my own response to the response. I am aligned with Bogost’s general perspective that games are best at doing systems. HOWEVER, I actually think one of the biggest problems with games like Civ and SimCity is that they DO NOT put you in the place of a person, which means you are faced with all sorts of absurd situations (when you can be essentially the unchallenged dictator of a civilization for 6,000 years). Crusader Kings is the game that points the way forward here.

What mobile game are you currently playing?

I wish I was playing more mobile games. I love the format but am somewhat disappointed by the games which have appeared. Business model affects game design, and – in this case – business model has basically ruined game design. I am looking forward to playing Auro and Starships. Choice of Robots was very interesting.

What changes are planned for OTC from now until the actual release? Just tweaks and fixes or any new exciting features?

Tachyon integration will be a huge deal because then we will have matchmaking and rankings and leaderboards and a bunch of stuff.

I am making big changes with the Campaign right now so that it will feel more like running a single corporation (with a cash flow and balance sheet and persistent stock price and so on) over multiple sessions.

We have a big internal list of features we want to tackle, but we don’t want to promise anything that we don’t know for sure that we will be able to deliver.

Also, I am expecting a lot of new features will be driven by feedback from the Early Access community. The new Seven Days mode is directly a result of their feedback (and is now influencing the campaign rewrite).

What do you think of the paradox grand strategy titles? Games such as Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron. Personally, I absolutely love the civilization games because it’s always fresh, but the depth and historic premise are why I like Paradox.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Paradox, and I think Crusader Kings 2 is one of the most important achievements in video game history. Having said that, I do feel like their games have a little too much stuff in them and could use a little editing, but that’s perhaps a question of taste. I sometimes imagine making a stripped-down version of CK that focused primarily on just the dynasties and people without as much of the combat or other map-based stuff.

Do you ever find yourself with the “one more turn” mentality like other Civ players during your games? What’s the longest you’ve ever played your civ game, or any game?

I can definitely still get that one-more-turn feel and have spent many nights that turned into mornings with the game!

What advice would you give to people who wish to become strategy/4X-game designers?

I wrote a general How to Become a Game Designer post awhile ago: although it doesn’t really address how to get into the industry. The exciting thing about right now is that there is really no excuse for not making a game yourself. Download Unity and start something up, or start working on a mod for a well-known franchise like Civ or Total War. Even if your work is not a huge success, it will make you stand out when applying to companies.

What’s the most important skill in game design?

The most important skill is humility, which in this context means that you can focus on how other people experience the game instead of what you imagine it is.

When did you realize you wanted to make games?

I programmed games when I was a kid, so it was clear pretty early. Having said, that I thought I was going to be a chemistry major because I didn’t know what “computer science” meant until I went to school. The path to game development was a lot more murky back in the ’90s.

I’ve seen and heard you say several times that you wrote “most of the gameplay and AI code” in Civ 4, as well as designing it. Not doubting you, but that sounds incredible to me. Did you not have a team? How did you find the time? What were the advantages and challenges of working in this way? Would you do it again?

There was a core team of about 5 programmers for Civ4, who handled everything from the graphics to the UI to networking to general systems (like modding, load/save, localization, etc.) I didn’t get involved with much of this code (although I often can’t stop myself from messing around with the UI). What I wrote was the core code that controlled the game rules and AI. So, if you look at the SDK, the main classes which are “mine” are Player/AI, City/AI, Team/AI, Unit/AI, Map, Tile, etc. The only real gameplay code that I didn’t write were the map scripts, which were written by Bob “Sirian” Thomas.

I love working this way as I am able to try out my design ideas immediately because I just write them myself. Indeed, a lot of my ideas the team never sees because I try them out myself and kill them if they are obviously not fun. The alternative of writing up a design doc and having a bunch of meetings to make sure everyone know what I want (even if I’m not 100% sure myself!) sounds like not much fun. It’s the way I’m writing Offworld, and I will probably always write my games this way.

What advice do you have for the kids out there that dream of making video games, yet feel they aren’t smart enough?

I don’t think “smart” is a good metric to define oneself. I was often called smart growing up as I tended to get good grades, got into a good college, etc, but I would also be absolutely terrible at the vast majority of activities and careers. Indeed, even in the GAMES INDUSTRY, I think I would be mediocre to bad at 90% of the jobs. I am terrible at art, can’t create a believable story to save my life, am pretty bad at graphics programming, and would bankrupt a company as a producer. Futhermore, I don’t think I would even be a good game designer if I had to make MMOs, sports games, fighting games, platformers, shooters, and so on. I am good at making strategy games, and I am very lucky I got to start my career on a big one.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying, don’t put yourself down. Instead, try to find the thing that you can do easily with which other people struggle. Focus on that. Hopefully, it’s something that is useful for making a game.

Looking at your board game shelf, it seems like board games may have influenced Offworld. If so, which board games and how?

I LOVE board games. The biggest ones that have influenced Offworld are Belter, Settlers of Catan, Agricola, and Power Grid.

How do you go about making a good A.I. that would resemble a human? Is it possible at the moment to do that with the computational power we have available? or do you just have them scripted to a point of, If A happens then do B. And give them a few cheat bonuses?

Having the AI respond like a human is more or less desirable depending on the game itself. For example, in the Civ games, you do NOT want the AI to be constantly checking with each other every turn to trade techs or to always try to knock down the top player, even if those are behaviors that a real human would do.

Given the climate of the industry, is game design a discipline that you would encourage others to get into? In terms of compensation, work-life balance and the future of the industry?

I love my job and assume that others would love it to. I usually encourage aspiring designers to learn to code as that’s a huge difference maker for employers. As for work-life balance, we keep a regular 40-hour week at Mohawk although I know that some people put more time in because they are passionate about Offworld. Compensation in the industry is better than average for an artist and worse than average for a programmer (compared to other industries). Our average time in the industry at Mohawk is about 10 years; we are able to make Offworld with a small team because we are veterans. I would recommend aspiring developers who need the stability of a job to at least cut their teeth at a large studio.

Any other big, fundamental-changing ideas you think would be worth trying in the Civ franchise, like 1UPT? (I agree with you that one needed to be tried, even if I don’t quite think it works. Personally, I’d like to see a Civ game with army stacks and some simple, turn-based version of tactical combat on a separate map.)

I think tactical combat on a separate map would be very hard to pull off because of the pacing issue. Indeed, perhaps the greatest innovation of Civ is that Sid slapped a tile-based strategic management game right on top of a tile-based tactical wargame. It doesn’t always fit together, but it fits well enough!

As for other big ideas, I’m trying to focus on Offworld right now! :puts fingers in ears:

How do you think society sees the typical gamer now? Do you think it has changed over the last few years?

I think society has fragmented so much at this point that I have no idea what a typical view of a gamer is. I will say that just because almost everyone plays games on the phones doesn’t mean that they are now suddenly “gamers,” but I will also say that the core gaming population is ENORMOUS now, so I don’t really care what people think of us (at least under the term of “gamer”).

How do you think that Civilization and other similar games affect players’ perceptions of history, geopolitics, and international relations? What responsibilities do designers have in light of this, and is there any way in which you think you personally could have done a better job of this with your games?

I have written a few times on my thoughts about how Civ relates to real-world history and politics:

I’ll quote from one of those posts:

“In college, my dream was to make games about history, that made the past real in ways books never could. Thus, I started my career with my absolute dream job when I joined Firaxis to work on Civ 3. Five years later, when I shipped Civ 4, my old dream was dead (although, to be fair, a new one had started). Civilization was supposed to be a game about history but – despite my best efforts – many of the lessons it taught were somehow the opposite of what I actually believed: that revolutionary change could be controlled, that the orientation of a society flowed directly from its leader, that history was a story of continual, upward progress, and that “upward progress” could even be defined.”

Thus, I think it’s a complicated issue, and I’m not clear if games tend to make things better or worse (or if it even makes sense to think of it in those terms). In other words, it’s probably a good thing for academics to analyze! 🙂