Many game developers have left large companies for the greener pastures promised by independent game development. The promise of creative freedom and working for oneself is hugely appealing, and feasible, for many developers today.
Every now and then, one of these new independent studios is worthy of special note. Take Mohawk Games
, revealed today, for example. It's the new Baltimore-based studio founded by Soren Johnson, one of the foremost designers in the strategy game genre.
At EA Maxis, he contributed to games including Spore
, and is best known as the lead designer on Civilization IV
from Firaxis. He even worked a stint at Zynga at a time when the company was recruiting "classical" game designers like Johnson to design new kinds of social network games.
But in all his experience, there's always been that one game he always wanted to make. With the newly-announced Mohawk, he and Dorian Newcomb, the former lead artist on Civilization V
, look to make that idea a reality.
"We are basically going back to making core PC strategy games. The idea is to try to achieve this with a very small team," he says. Mohawk will expand to maybe four or five people, says Johnson, but design-wise, the studio is aiming for the breadth and depth of strategy games from large developers, catering to audiences that play games like Master of Orion
In order to achieve the big game feel with a very small team, Johnson says Mohawk will avoid making a game that is so content-based, instead offering randomized maps and a wide variety of economic resources in order to encourage a wide variety of winning strategies. The studio's first game is a to-be-named near-future RTS set on Mars. Instead of focusing on military might, will concentrate on something that has long fascinated Johnson--in-game economics.
"If you think of the typical RTS being 75 percent military and 25 percent economy, our game is more like 25 percent military and 75 percent economy," says Johnson. Like typical RTS games, it will offer highly-competitive multiplayer. Mechanics will hearken back to titles like Railroad Tycoon
, he says, and will have a heavy emphasis on good old-fashioned supply and demand.
"With our game, the backbone is the market itself," he says. "In typical RTS games, there's something like two to four resources. In our game, there are 12." Like other strategy games, the terrain and its resources will determine the kind of strategies players implement, but with so many resources, players have to remain highly-adaptable, and the way games play out can be widely-varied, says Johnson. Often in RTS games, players almost exclusively react to the actions of opponents. He envisions his design as one where players must react to that, plus market conditions and randomized resources in the terrain.
"I love RTS games, but they've essentially become one game," says Soren. "They have different themes, and might play out differently, but at their core, there are a lot more similarities than differences. I wanted to make a competitive multiplayer RTS that was significantly different than anything out there. I wanted it to be original."
The studio is funded through investment from Michigan game developer Stardock, which makes games including Galactic Civilizations
and Elemental: Fallen Enchantress
. Stardock CEO Brad Wardell is offering business support for the new studio.
Soren is more than ready to strike out on his own. After leaving Firaxis, he was one of a handful of strategy game designers that Zynga hoped would bring a new breed of games to social networks. That didn't pan out, when early this year, Zynga revealed it would shut his studio down.
"Three or four years ago, there was kind of this big open question: What would happen with free-to-play games, browser games - how would it develop," he says. "That's what interested guys like me, Bruce [Shelley] and Brian [Reynolds]."
While Reynolds' FrontierVille
met with major success at Zynga, the game still made concessions in order to fit the mold of the "social game," says Johnson. "[At Zynga], I was trying to make something that somehow straddled what core strategy gamers were looking for, but also fit the format of free-to-play browser games. That just added a number of extra challenges to the already difficult challenge of making a good strategy game. In some sense, I've just tried to make my life simpler."
He says his Zynga game was fun, but what it didn't guarantee was the enormous player base that a large company like Zynga would need to make the product worth its while. "The term that they used was, 'Was it a game that 'moved the needle' for Zynga,'" he says. The company determined it wouldn't move the needle, and disbanded Johnson's studio and team.
At Mohawk, Johnson is learning to live by the rule of the independent developer: "Keep your costs under control. Learn to get by with less," he says. Creative freedom does come at a material cost, but for Johnson, it'll be worth it.
"This is the game I've been wanting to make ever since I got into the industry. It's the game I've been dreaming of," he says.
Pictured: Soren Johnson, with an actual mohawk.