Soren Johnson – Mohawk Games

Few people understand strategy game design and development like Soren Johnson. After starting in the industry as a programmer on Civilization 3 at Firaxis, Soren went on to lead the design of Civilization 4. Later he left for EA Maxis to work on Spore, and Zynga East to develop a free-to-play strategy game of his own design. Most recently Soren founded Mohawk Games – A small studio composed of industry veterans. Mohawk just recently released their first title, Offworld Trading Company, on Steam Early Access. In this interview Soren and I discuss strategy game design, Soren’s varied career, and more.  

Soren also runs a blog about game design called Designer Notes as well as a podcast of the same name. Both are fantastic, and you should absolutely check them out!


  • 0:00 – Introduction
  • 1:39 – Soren’s podcast, Designer Notes, and what Soren has found out about the traits  game designers share.
  • 4:40 – The many different paths aspiring developers can take to get into the industry. Soren gives suggestions for getting into game development and then moving into a design role.
  • 8:10 – Soren’s early experiences with games. The formative experiences that sparked his interest in game development.
  • 12:06 – How Soren landed his first job out of school at Firaxis working on Civilization 3.
  • 14:42 – The benefits of creating a game like Civilization which uses elements from history that players are already familiar with.
  • 18:02 – Soren’s experience going to work at Firaxis. What it was like to work with Sid Meier – someone he knew by reputation for a long time when he got the job.
  • 21:44 – Sid Meier’s design advice and Soren’s early missteps on Civilization – “Who’s having the fun?”.
  • 26:34 – The unique culture of Firaxis and the critical role of the “designer/programmer “.
  • 29:59 – Soren’s Transition to EA Maxis and the unusual development process of Spore. The internal disagreements within Maxis about the design of Spore.
  • 37:33 – Will Wright’s process on Spore. How the team felt about Spore after it launched.
  • 40:50 – Sid Meier and Will Wright – How their philosophies and strategies differ.
  • 43:31 – Soren’s experience at Zynga. How his F2P strategy game found a following in Japan. The “honeymoon” period of F2P development.
  • 52:56 – Working with Brian Reynolds at Firaxis and Zynga. Sid Meier’s peaceful, conflict-averse nature.
  • 54:21 – The decision to found Mohawk and the process of pitching Offworld Trading Company.
  • 1:00:52 – What advice Soren would give to the young Soren Johnson just starting at Firaxis.
  • 1:04:19 – Soren reflects on the technical mistakes he made as a young programmer.
  • 1:08:29 – The unexpected strategies and exploits that players of Offworld Trading Company have discovered.
  • 1:13:28 – Soren’s often-repeated design advice. “Water finds a crack” – The lengths players will go to gain even a small advantage.
  • 1:16:56 – The response to Offworld Trading Company so far. Controlling the pace and getting play sessions into the half-hour range.
  • 1:23:58 – Thank you and goodbye!


Rob is a software engineer and amateur game developer. He lives in Bellevue, Washington.

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