The Paradox Development Studio has been keeping me ruling over peasants, fighting holy wars, and forging empires for over a decade. Their latest game, Crusader Kings II, was recently on Metacritic's "best games of 2012 so far" list, and I certainly had plenty of lovely things to say about it when I reviewed it back at the start of the year.
Now they are going back to the series that, for many people, defines the studio -- Europa Universalis. Paradox Interactive announced Europa Universalis IV yesterday, and last week I got the chance to chat with Johan Andersson, head of the studio, Thomas Johansson, the project lead for EUIV, and Chris King, the lead designer. We managed to get through a fair amount of Paradox's history, design philosophy and where they are looking to improve before I finally burst and asked for all the EUIV details. Self control. I have it.
While most people know Paradox as the creators of Europa Universalis, which was released in 2002, the company is actually the heritage of another studio, Target Games, which was started in 1995. Johan explained, "Target Games was a big RPG and board game company in Sweden. They imported board games and designed their own, and then they wanted to make a computer game. There was a huge game called Svea Rike. It was a really big board game and they made a computer game out of it. It was really successful, sold 100,000 in Sweden, but that’s when you sold enormous amounts of PC games."
Looking intently at the map of a significant chunk of the world in CKII, pondering my next move, wondering where I would send troops, I could see how it all started with board games. My first taste of the joys of global conquest came from Risk and I just kept taking over the world from there.
Paradox was one of the first developers to use the term "Grand Strategy", and it has now become synonymous with the studio. But what makes a grand strategy game? Johan suggested that it had to cover the entire world, firstly. There's a lot more to it, however, as Thomas explained. "You have to have the different elements. Strategy games are usually about war, but grand strategy, for me ... you have to have countries with some sort of economic model, and diplomacy, and building your troops. We should really call our games strategy games, and the RTSs are tactics games." The term is a marketing position. It differentiated Paradox's titles from games like Warcraft, which focused more on units and battles.
Several titles do not fall into that model, like Sengoku which focuses on Japan and is geared more towards war. They describe these kinds of games as more operational than grand strategy. Then there's Crusader Kings which takes place in Europe and parts of North Africa and the Middle East, and geared more towards building up a dynasty and participating in court intrigue. Paradox considers CKII a strategy RPG rather than a straight up grand strategy game.
The studio's passion for history comes through clearly in all of their titles, but the historical setting is also a practical one. "The big advantage that history has over fantasy or science fiction is [seeing] why the world is the way it is. In fantasy or sci fi you need to create a back story, you need people to buy into it, but when you see a map of Europe in 1936 or 1066, you know, if you really care why things were that way, you can go read a book. So it creates a superb narrative on which to build a game on."
As Chris also points out, strategy games need to constrain players sometimes, and in the historical setting these constraints can be contextually appropriate and be mechanics rather than limitations.
One day we might see Paradox tackling a game in a fictional universe, but right now they are content with tinkering with history. The setting is merely the inspiration, within that there are a lot of options and routes the studio can take. Each Europa Universalis installment feels incredibly different and takes a look at different aspects of the period, or interprets things in different ways, yet the setting is consistent.
There's no doubt about it that the genre has a high barrier for entry, and the prospect of staring at vast maps and deciding the fate of empires can be a daunting task, yet Paradox has managed to build and maintain an enthusiastic, vocal community who they work with closely. But, as Johan mentions, there's the good and the bad.
"You get devoted people who can help out and correct the game and make it better. Let’s face it, nobody is an expert with the history and geography of the entire world -- there are always going to be things you aren’t familiar with. Then there’s the bad. There are some people who tend to be a bit more nationalistic than others and think what they learned in school is the truth, and then you get people from areas in Europe that may have had a war in the last 20 years and for them borders and who is the best are slightly more important."
There's a great modding community that works hard on bringing new ways to play Paradox titles. I've been playing a huge amount of the Game of Thrones total conversion mod for CKII and it's kept me coming back to the game time and time again, long after I've already dominated the world many times over in the core game.
"We have as a principle -- if the feature can be made moddable without compromising performance we have a basic principle to make it moddable because know that these mods will prolong the life of the game and keep it interesting. No matter how much of an interesting game we make, people will eventually start to want to do other things, and if we make our things moddable it will make the live so much longer."
Paradox wants to be able to provide the tools that allow modders to construct their vision. In the case of the Game of Thrones mod they made it so that there was an incest feature. While this isn't something they intend to use in the core game, it's something that's imperative to the mod considering the Targaryen proclivity for sleeping with each other. The studio keeps a close eye on the community, and often hires from within it, as well. Henrik Fåhraeus, who I interviewed about the CKII expansion "Sword of Islam", was a EUII modder, and both Thomas and Chris were hired from the community when they were beta testers.
While historical accuracy and balance are important, it's accessibility that is the most challenging aspect of the games' design. Johan said, "In a game like Civilization ... Civilization is arguably as complex as the games we make, maybe not as complex as Hearts of Iron III. But Civilization has an automatic learning curve in the game. You start with one settler, and you grow from there. But in our games you start in history." You can start up a game of EU or HoI and you could already be in charge of a superpower in the middle of a global conflict. It can be quite daunting.
In the past, the studio has been criticized for having overly complex interfaces and mechanics, but they've been trying to find new ways of presenting information and streamlining actions. Comparing the interface in EUII with that of CKII shows just how far they've come, but they are still working on perfecting the it, as Chris explains. "We’re thinking long and hard about the information we give to players. How we generate it and how we supply it. It’s now one of the key discussions when we come to developing features -- not is this cool, is this interesting, but how do we display it? If you can’t find a satisfactory answer to that question then you’re going back to the drawing board and trying to develop a feature that can have a clean interface."
Chris uses the example of marriage in the original Crusader Kings and its successor. In the original you would have to go around all the courts of Europe, signing treaties, and begging lieges to allow you to marry the person you want, and even then they could still shoot you down. In the sequel it's a matter of clicking a button, bringing up a list, and seeing every single eligible woman in the world.
Thomas believes that they are getting ever closer to matching the accessibility of franchises like Civilization and Total War while retaining the trademark complexity of the studio.
I've always been interested in the various QA processes of development studios, especially those who craft huge, complex games. Paradox titles are some of the biggest, and they are most certainly not without their fair share of bugs at launch. Though credit where credit's due, Crusader Kings II was without incident, and it's rare when I find something not working the way it should.
When the title is in post-alpha Paradox uses their small internal QA studio for testing. It's only two people and some interns, but they test it constantly. Then they send out invites and take about 200 beta testers for the first sessions , give them forums, steam codes, and have them send bug reports internally. The developers also do a lot of testing themselves. For instance, on Tuesdays they have office wide multiplayer sessions called Multiplayer Tuesdays. They play competitively for a couple of hours and then discuss the experience -- from reporting bugs, to smack talk and threats of taking over the world using Prussia.
Despite their recent growth, Paradox is still a very small studio with only 22 people working on four projects simultaneously. So everyone chips in. "You play a lot, even if you’re a programmer you’re meant to spend 10% of the time testing and checking your work." While Johan is the studio head, he was a programmer for 20 years, so he often jumps into a game to test it and look for bugs or things that need to be reworked or added. Chris does a bunch of extra scripting, and added a lot of characters to the CKII database.
Having more support staff, dedicated teams, and the publishing arm in the same office has allowed them to do more, but it's still a very small team for so many large projects.
In recent years Paradox's DLC model has garnered quite a bit of praise, and with good reason. They are continually tweaking their games and adding new content, a great amount of it entirely for free. Gamersgate, which Paradox founded but no longer runs was a great boon for this, and started as a solution to a very specific problem, as Thomas mentions. "Gamersgate started in a way that’s rather particular of the Paradox way. We had a letter from a guy in Brazil and he couldn’t buy our game, or couldn’t get it because it was stuck in the mail. So we thought, who can sell our games to all our fans around the world, and nobody can, so we did it ourselves."
And thus Gamersgate was born. The first DLC was "Victoria: Revolutions", the expansion to Victoria, a three year old title that was far from a best seller. They exceeded sales expectations on launch day and it became profitable within only a month. "You don’t have the high distribution costs, and it’s faster from development to market. With the whole digital distribution model you can make a new feature and see if someone wants to buy that feature. It would never be economically viable to make boxes and discs and start sending them to all the continents of the world just for a couple of great features you don’t want to charge much money for."
Johan's description of their DLC policy is something I think we can all get behind. "You should not be forced to buy DLC, you should get a shit load of new stuff for free, and you should be able to pick and choose from the many expansions and DLC and combine them anyway you want when you play."
Visually their games have changed a lot over the decade. This is especially noticeable when looking at the interface and the map. "Firstly, we’ve updated our map technology so our maps look better. If you have to stare at a map for hours on end your eyes shouldn’t bleed. Step two is we’re going to add more things happening on the map, more feedback. That’s one of our long term projects." We'll be able to see that in action as the studio reveals more media for Europa Universalis IV. Talking of their latest, recently announced foray into the age of exploration and discovery, I found myself incapable of not demanding they spill the beans on the project. Finally, I hear you cry.
They were prepared to discuss the completely new trade system, monarch points, and the events system. Had I shipped them over more alcohol, I'm sure I could have gotten more out of them. I'm filled with regret.
Chris detailed the reasons for going back to the franchise they are best known for. "A grand strategy game is never really finished. There’s always more we could do because the world is so big and complex, but there comes a point if you’re doing expansions that your interface gets really cluttered as you’re cramming more and more into interfaces that weren’t designed in the first place to take the information in. So there comes a point where we couldn’t do another expansion, so you do the sequel and you get to work on the interfaces and redesign them from the ground up to take all the information."
I was never the greatest fan of the trade system in EUIII. I felt like I was constantly waiting for merchants to appear so I could send them to various trade centers, and then watch as they were inevitably out-competed. The new trade system which Chris describes looks like it will make that no longer a concern, while integrating trade more into all the other aspects of the game.
"So what we’ve done is added in a system of static trade routes, so the trade flows along from the world into Europe, and your job is to dip money out of them as they go by. The way you do this... firstly you have your trusty merchant that you can send to various points along the routes to convince them to suck more wealth down to you rather than have the locals cream off the profits.
The second part of your trade empire is territory. If you take the Portuguese empire you’ll see strings of bases along their trade routes, so if you do the same thing you’ll be able to suck more trade home to Portugal and make yourself wealthier.
The third part is the fleet which will help you control trade in areas. We’re going to make small ships trade ships and big ships combat ships. So the small ships, you can send them off to, say, the Arabian Sea where the trade will split between going around to Africa and going up to Eastern Europe, and if you increase your power there you can steer the trade to where you want to."
Trade ceases to be a merchant placement mini-game, and looks set to become far more connected to conquest, colonization, exploration, and diplomacy. No longer do you have to conquer entire countries to get a gold mine in a specific province, you can use your fleet and strategic bases to control the flow of trade on your own terms. Previously the system was very automated "and the moment you start talking about automation, the feature has a problem."
The dreaded spectre of inflation has also been completely reworked. No longer is there a slider that lets you mint currency until you suddenly realize you've botched your economy entirely. You'll only get inflation if you have lots of gold mines, war taxes, take out loans, or seriously mismanage your economy. It's much easier to fix, but you will have to give something up. It can take away from certain abilities, for instance.
In previous installments in the franchise, there were no true characters. It was much more about the nation than the people who ran it. CKII, on the other hand, was all about the people. You could have a powerful kingdom with a great ruler one minute, and in the next he's dead and his brain damaged, drooling heir takes over and plunges the land into civil war. With Europa Universalis IV Paradox are trying to capture what made their medieval romp so compelling.
Johan clarifies how this will work. "So what we are trying to do is that in EU is you have the administrative, diplomatic, and military ability. So we’re making it so that each of these gives you points, then you use this points to do certain things. So if you have a really good monarch you get lots of points every month, these points are used for buying ideas, increasing your technology, making a province into a core, assaulting a fortress, and making a leader" Even building types are connected to monarch power.
The reasoning behind this is a sound one. Once your nation becomes very powerful, which can often happen quite early on, there isn't much else to do other than win the game. By having monarchs with specific traits and powers they have a much greater impact on the nation. So your superpower might start to stagnate because of a bad ruler, which means that the opposition will have time to grow and threaten you. It should make the game more dynamic, filled with unexpected twists, and it will keep you on your toes. It also gives more personality and flavor to the nations and each individual experience.
"That’s what made CKII stand out. It’s a game that makes you want to tell people your story."
In keeping with the theme of accessibility, the studio is reworking multiplayer to make it more up to date, and easier for people to just jump in whenever they want. Their experiences in Multiplayer Tuesdays had a big role in this, as Thomas points out. "We want to make it easy to communicate, easy to find each other, and if you arrive late you can still join.
We have a lot of fun playing all our games in the office in multiplayer. We decided to do the multiplayer in the office for bug hunting and also getting the new people into the games, but then the order was everyone write an update email with issues you found, and these turned into dramatic stories, where the king of Prussia announces he’d conquer everyone. The game is super accessible for us in the office because we are here sitting together and decide to play the game, we really want to give all the fans this feeling..."
They are improving their matchmaking system, adding a chat that, in Johan's words, "wasn't designed in the 80s", and stand alone servers running off players' PCs which allow for saving the game and jumping in whenever you feel like it.
Paradox took a look at the last two EUs, which were extremely different design philosophy wise, and tried to figure out how context sensitive events should be.
"EUII had events. If you had conquered France you got a pop up saying you won the Hundred Years War ... then came EUIII where we managed to do a game where it does what history did, but we closed it. But now we’ve done expansions and learned lots of new things, and I think that now is the time when we can make a game where you are free to build your own history, and where events pop up when they are supposed to in history."
In EUIV we'll be seeing a lot more events unique to countries and years, as well as unique national ideas, and even event chains.
Unfortunately they couldn't tell me any more, or they'd get a slap on the wrist. It's still in pre-alpha stage at the moment, with a year or more of development left. However, they will be showing a hands-off demo during gamescom, so hopefully Hamza or Dale will have a chance to take a look and offer up their thoughts.
Stick with Destructoid for full gamescom coverage next week.