Longtime strategy fans will likely be well aware of Soren Johnson's work, even if they've never heard the name before. Throughout his career as a maker of games, from his big break at Firaxis around the turn of the millennium, through the establishment of his own studio, Mohawk Games, he has been at the forefront of strategy design, and he also regularly shares his knowledge across a number of forums (including the excellent Designer Notes podcast).
And so, as part of our new series - Vertical Slice - we reached out to Soren and asked if he'd be willing to talk to us about his career and the games that he's worked on along the way, from Civ to Old World and everything in between.
After graduating from Stanford University and completing an internship at EA, "the one place that really stood out to me was Firaxis." The lure of working with Sid Meier was too strong to resist. In fact, he reached out to the studio three times, but in the end, it wasn't his qualifications that got his foot wedged firmly in the door, and it was the fact that he played the cello that made his resumé stand out. Interestingly, Soren started at Firaxis at the same time as Jake Solomon, who would go on to helm the XCOM reboot at the same studio. "We met on the elevator on the way up on our first day, or something like that," he remembered, painting a picture that well-read strategy fans will no doubt appreciate.
Soren's first game at the studio was Civilization III, but as he recalled, it was a "pretty crazy project to be involved with" as the first half of the game's development was completed by people with one foot out the door. The studio had almost been split down the middle after several key developers had left to set up on their own. In the end, much of what the original team produced had to be redone, as the game was built around the old Alpha Centauri codebase, and pretty much all of the people who had worked on that had since left the building. And so Soren and his colleagues carried on the traditions of this burgeoning series at the same time as exploring new ideas in the already established 4X genre (just in case you don't know, 4X stands for explore, expand, exploit, exterminate), delivering another game all about steering a civilisation through the ages.
After what turned out to be "a baptism of fire" on Civ 3, during which time they rebuilt the game and then shipped it, it became clear that the most valuable lessons were being learned after the fact. By wading into the online community and finding out how people were really playing the game - often not as intended by its designers - the team was able to gain valuable insights that would help improve not just the mechanics that defined the player-experience, but how the team developed the game itself, this time with Soren in the key role of lead designer.
"The game I thought we made was completely different to the game that we actually made, and the only way to actually discover that is to talk to people out in the wild ... and so the game got a lot better through the patching process." That feedback helped define the direction the series would take in Civilization IV, where there was a notable improvement in key areas, for example, "we had a really good multiplayer architecture for the first time in Civ's history," they started working on AI earlier than normal, and there was "a really great modding framework". It also meant they could cover new ideas that hadn't featured in the series before, including the additions of religion and great people.
It was also during this time that Soren started experimenting with early access, although these first tentative steps bear little resemblance to how things work now. A forum group referred to as Frankenstein had already been helping with the patching process for Civ 3 and now these diehard fans were being brought into the process earlier than ever before and given access to the fourth Civ more than a year ahead of release. In fact, Soren noted that this new working relationship allowed them to "see the danger areas in the design early enough that the problems could be fixed before they got to players."
That feedback proved essential and having a clearer idea of how players were interacting with Civ's many intertwining systems meant that they could bring about changes that allowed people to focus on having more fun rather than micromanaging their economies to make marginal gains. The phrase that Soren kept coming back to was how they "wanted to protect the player from ruining their own experience." Despite a number of sweeping changes that came into play in Civ 4, it was perhaps the strengthening of the relationship between developer and community that made the most telling impact on the series and its longterm development.
After working on back-to-back Civ games at Firaxis, "it was really time to work on something that wasn't Civ." Despite being asked back to oversee the fifth iteration of the series, "I kind of felt like I'd be doing them [Firaxis] and the series a disservice by continuing to do that. Once you've been through it that many times, at that point what you see mostly is problems. You see reasons not to do things." John Shafer was handed the reins and Soren went looking for a new project.
After working with Sid Meier, next up was a role back at EA, this time with The Sims developer Maxis, where he worked with Will Wright on "a hugely ambitious" product being developed by what he describes as an incredibly talented and diverse team. Spore let players take their own creations through five evolutionary stages - Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space - and in many respects it was a game ahead of its time. Soren was put in charge of the Civ level ("maybe that was a little bit of typecasting but that's fine") where the player-created organism would establish a primitive civilization. He worked on the project for around a year-and-a-half, and while Spore has proven to be surprisingly popular in the long run, it endured a mixed reception at launch.
"I think that the initial design vision for Spore was fundamentally flawed, in that it probably wasn't a great idea to try and cram five games into one, at least not games that go in succession," he recalled. "It was never clear what we should focus on and trying to get those transitions between those different levels to make sense for the player was always very challenging."
It was a fascinating game, though. In it, players could build their own creations and then share them among the community, although while Soren described the tools that were given to players as "pure magic", he noted that the game never took full advantage of them. As for the game itself, Spore was about creativity and freedom of expression, rather than more defined limitations that result in interesting decisions, however, that was exactly the kind of game that Soren was itching to make next, and so it was time to move onto something new.
"Social gaming was starting to take off and it seemed like an interesting space," Soren told us as he remembered his next step in the industry. "I spent a while prototyping a bunch of [what were] essentially board and card games that could be played in your browser, which was kind of fun." The team he worked with got on well with the Bioware crew, and before long Soren was working as the designer on Dragon Age Legends, "which was like this mini MMORPG that you could play in Facebook."
"I was trying to solve the problem of people hoarding potions in an RPG. Like, you'd get to the end of the game and you've never used a single one of your potions because you never know when you might need it. So I wanted to give you the ability to make your own stuff; so we had this loop where you'd go out, you'd do quests and combat, and then you'd come back and you'd craft stuff in real-time." Players could also recruit friends to be in their party and use their characters, which was a feature that people liked at a time when more meaningful interactions were few and far between in the social space.
"The hard part was, I didn't realise I was designing an MMO until it was a bit too late," Soren admitted during our chat. Apparently, players burned through the content that they had prepared much faster than the team had envisioned. Ultimately, it never grew into something more substantial and the game "needed a more robust design team" than it got.
After that came a period of time at Zynga, working on a game for a year that sadly never saw the light of day, which is a surprisingly regular occurrence for game developers working at big studios, where the plug is often pulled on projects before they're released. The team he was working at was shut down, but with his severance package, Soren founded his own company... Mohawk Games (named after the haircut, naturally).
The idea behind Mohawk's debut production was to create a real-time strategy game without guns, where instead of tanks and airstrikes, players would bring economic pressure to bear on their opponents. It was a theme inspired by classics such as M.U.L.E. and the economy in another popular strategy series, Age of Empires, and it's a theme that certainly gels well with the build orders and resource management that are synonymous with the RTS genre.
"I felt like there was a real poverty of topics" in the RTS genre, he said. "They're basically all the same game, right? Some are a little more tactical, some are a little more strategic, but they're all basically about building a base, building some tanks, and blowing up the other guy. I still believe that, that the RTS space has calcified, unfortunately, on just that particular formula. There's a lot more design space there."
It was also around the time that early access was taking its current form, with Valve formalising the relationship that was starting to form between developers and those dedicated players who are happy to play an unfinished product and help its creators both with feedback and by squashing bugs as they play. Working with the community on Civ 4 may have opened Soren's eyes to the many benefits of involving players early, but what was perhaps just as persuasive was the loss of player-feedback when working on Spore and Dragon Age. The benefits were clear.
"My wife [Leyla, who works with him at Mohawk] would organise tournaments, which became a really big deal because ... once you have a tournament, people just want to win, they're not playing any other way. If you're going to ask gamers to win, they're going to quickly figure out what the exploits are, what the loopholes are in the design. They don't care if something's fun or not, they're just going to do the thing that gets them the most success. So from these tournaments, if we saw a hugely dominant play-style or strategy then we knew we needed to adjust things."
Offworld Trading Company resonated with strategy fans to the extent that it's still going strong four years after it first landed with a series of expansions and gameplay additions keeping it relevant ("we have some DLC being worked on for Offworld right now, four years after release"). According to Soren, "it's a way to keep working on the game" and the paid content helps support the addition of free updates that the whole community benefit from. It no doubt helps that Offworld "doesn't really have any competition in the sense that there are still no games that are quite like it."
And that brings us up to date and the studio's sophomore project, a turn-based strategy game called Old World. Even a cursory look at the game will tell you that it shares more than a few things in common with Civ, except here, as the name implies, the focus is on ancient times rather than trying to cover the entire history of humankind.
"I love history, so I would always prefer to do that, but I don't necessarily want to make a game like Civ, which is about all of world history. I don't want to copy Civ because making a game about all of world history just makes it a lot harder," Soren explained. "It's a bigger production, but also it increases the scope of the project and it makes it harder to make the game that you want it to be." He continued, noting that "you can't skip over a period of history or that will bug players." Not only that, but covering all that history ensures that the game is much longer with more moving parts to consider and balance. That being the case, the plan was to make a more focused strategy game that concentrated on a more specific period of time, exploring that era within a familiar 4X framework.
Then Soren mentioned a game that makes a lot of sense upon reflection. Crusader Kings has proven extremely popular over the last decade (you can read my review of CK3 right here), and while the Paradox-crafted dynasty simulator isn't entirely aligned with the 4X genre, its impact on the strategy space simply can't be denied. Players are hungrier than ever for strategy games that have a bigger focus on characterful storytelling and emergent possibilities.
Having a fixed period of history to examine in more depth "opens up the possibility of things changing the game because you might have one leader who's a great scholar and another who's a great military leader, and suddenly the bonus you have is going to change through the game." It certainly works in Old World, with its focus on specific leaders from ancient history, and Soren isn't the only designer looking to inject more personality into his strategy games. It's "something that Civ has kind of shoehorned in in ways that don't necessarily make sense thematically, and that are not really natural. But in this case [Old World], it's sort of right there in front of you, it almost comes for free."
"Essentially, you get all these mechanics for free that people already understand because people already understand the idea that different leaders are different and families have conflicts, and people die after X number of years. It's always great when people are able to understand a design because they can relate to it."
We ended up talking about what's happening with Old World right now, and Soren mentioned the addition of multiplayer, which has just come online and offers a variety of new ways to enjoy the game ("you can play it synchronously, asynchronously, team games, you can play with characters, without characters, there's a play by cloud mode that's really great for passing the save back and forth between players") and naturally everyone at Mohawk is really excited to see how the community reacts to the additions.
As for the single-player, the studio is adding spit and polish, reacting to the feedback from players online, although "basically, the bones of the game are there" and it's a case of refining what's done rather than adding any huge game-changing features. "We don't have this long list of random things we're going to add the game, it's more like we're just trying to make a better game experience, and I think each month the game has got better."
If you want to take a closer look at any of the games mentioned in this article, Old World is currently available on the Epic Games Store alongside Offworld Trading Company, which is also on Steam alongside Civilization III, Civilization IV, and Spore.