Here at LadiesGamers, anyone that visits regularly will know that we are big fans of strategy games, especially myself. So I was delighted to try out Old World Heroes of the Aegean Expansion for a preview in April, and then I review Old World in May, which you can find here.
Old World and its expansion, Heroes of Aegean, are developed by Mohawk Games, consisting of a small team of industry veterans. Thanks to Hooded Horse, the publishers for Old World, we were offered the chance to interview Leyla and Soren Johnson, which we jumped at.
Meet Leyla Johnson and Soren Johnson
Leyla Johnson is the CEO and Creative Director of Mohawk Games. Her background is in journalism and languages. In her pre-Mohawk career, she worked for the US State Department and hosted multiple talk radio shows in Lebanon.
Soren Johnson is the Design Director of Mohawk Games. Before starting the company, Soren was the designer of Civilization IV and Civilization III.
How did Leyla and Soren start out in the Game Industry?
Leyla got her start building the community for Offworld Trading Company after she fell in love with the game and started streaming it regularly, becoming active on the game’s Discord server, organizing monthly tournaments, and providing feedback to the team. When Old World hit a bump because the original publisher of the game went through a bankruptcy process, she came on board first as a writer and later took over other responsibilities, including management, production, and art direction.
Soren got his start back in 1999 as an intern at Electronic Arts. His first full-time job in the industry was at Firaxis Games, where he was hired to write the game and AI code for Civilization III, eventually moving into a design role as well.
Can you tell our readers how and why Mohawk Games was founded?
Mohawk was founded in 2013 as a studio dedicated to making innovative strategy games which could not be made at a traditional AAA games studio. Our first game, Offworld Trading Company, was a good example as it is a real-time strategy game without any combat. Instead, it focuses purely on the economic side of RTS games.
Where did you take your inspiration from for Old World?
Old World was clearly inspired by the Civilization series and strategy games such as Crusader Kings and XCOM, which centre around human characters with strength and flaws, growing, changing, and dying.
We felt that adding characters to the 4X formula would make the game much more replayable because character development would be dynamic and unpredictable. Losing a great king or queen would be a meaningful moment which would force players to adapt, always a good thing for a strategy game.
Developing 4X Historical Strategy Game
What is the biggest challenge in making a 4x historical strategy game like Old World, and how did you overcome it?
Our greatest challenge was creating the event system because it is quite different from anything we had done before and also quite unusual for the genre. Enabling our writers to create events that were interesting to read, felt like they were part of a coherent story, and give the player interesting choices was quite a challenge. We solved the problem only through hard work and iteration. By slowly expanding the capabilities of the engine each time one of the writers had a good idea, until now, the system can handle almost any idea we throw at it.
What did the early versions of Old World or prototypes of the game look like?
The earliest versions of Old World were certainly not visually impressive. We focus on deep gameplay first without making any compromises while waiting for the graphics and UI engine to come online. Further, Old World started as a purely multiplayer game so that we could test it out immediately. By playing games against each other instead of waiting for an AI to be written.
Writing AI while the game design changes frequently is a thankless and often a fruitless task. So being able to play the game for real against other players during the first few months paid dividends in the long term.
Old World’s Orders system resets the way you manage the affairs of your empire and differs greatly from other 4X games. How did the Orders system come about?
The inspiration for the Orders system comes from many places, including worker placement board games which force the player to make do with limited actions. However, the most direct influence comes from perhaps an unexpected place, the “social” games of Facebook circa 2010. Many of those games, FrontierVille is a good example, limit the player’s actions with a resource called “Energy”, which functions exactly like how Orders work in Old World.
Of course, those games used Energy as a way to pry extra money from the player (Buy More Energy for $1.99!), which we didn’t have an interest in. However, the simple idea of giving the player the flexibility to use their actions as they see fit gave us a good starting place for Old World.
Old World has a tech tree where new technologies are researched as science is accumulated each turn. However, the tech tree is randomised. How and why did you decide to go that route with the Tech Tree?
4X games and technology trees have a long tradition going back to the original Civilization I. But there is a significant downside in that players discover Golden Paths; the fastest way to get to Gunpowder is to research these ten specific techs in order. Thus, mixing up the player’s options by limiting them to a choice of four techs at a time (which are then reshuffled through a deck of tech cards).
This means that there is no predictable Golden Path. That each research decision becomes more impactful because choosing to research Forestry means you are also choosing not to research Steel until it comes back through the discard and draw piles to your hand.
Advice for Aspiring Developers
What part of the development of the game sparked the most joy in you?
Seeing how the community has embraced Old World gives us the greatest joy. Seeing players share the stories of their leaders, organize multiplayer games while making new friends, building mods that take the game to new places, the fans are very inspiring for us.
Favourite recent Games
What advice would you offer aspiring developers working alone or in a tiny team?
Building a game with a small team is a challenging task. The best advice I can give is to make sure, to be honest about your game’s scope and positioning. As well as what can your team actually achieve, what are they good at making, what do they want to make, and do people want to buy that type of game. Not easy questions, of course, but worth asking.
What are your favourite recent games?
We discovered recently that Bomberman on the Switch can be played with five controllers. So it is a great activity for our family with three kids. It’s not easy finding video games that work for five, so it’s always great to discover a new one.
Here, you can find the Steam page for Old World, which will be released on Steam on the 19th of May 2022. You can also find the Steam page for Off World Trading Company here.
LadiesGamers would like to thank Marcello from Hooded Horse for setting up the interview and to Leyla and Soren for agreeing to be interviewed.