When it comes to historical strategy games there’s a studio that immediately comes to mind, the Paradox Development Studio, a Swedish video game developer closely associated with the video game publisher, Paradox Interactive. And, if you’ve been following this site for a while – and even if their titles fall a bit outside of our core themes – chances are that you have already played, or at least heard about strategy titles such as Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, Victoria or Hearts of Iron. And if that’s so, you’re probably interested in knowing how it all started for PDS, and what will be coming next. So, here’s what Johan Andersson, studio manager at Paradox Development Studio had to say to us about the history and future of the studio and its grand strategy games.
SS: Tell us about yourself, what made you start working on video games?
Johan Andersson: I have always loved strategy games, always been passionate about history and a gamer by heart. When I started as a programmer in the gaming industry I was actually working on action and fighting games in Norway, believe it or not! But then I felt that I really wanted to return to Sweden and by doing so I was fortunate enough to get a chance to start up a game dev studio as part of the company Target Games, which created board games. They wanted us to create pc-games based on board-games and the first game I was part of was Europa Universalis I, based on the board game Europa Universalis. The board game was complicated as hell, but we were still convinced that it could be transformed into a magnificent empire building game for PC. And so we got the rights and created it followed by Hearts of Iron, Victoria and Crusader Kings. We wanted to make grand games in the aspect that we wanted to make the world into a playground and give the gamers everything history could provide.
When we made Europa Universalis II, I remember three brave game devs in the start of the project with the tiniest of resources cramped in a small room, sharing desks, programming away. And so our story began. As a development studio, we have always been our own entity within other companies, up until before the release of Crusader Kings II. Then we made the decision to create a new identity for the studio and call ourselves Paradox Development Studio. But of course we work really close with our publisher Paradox Interactive still, they are awesome. Everyone working here at PDS are gamers and we have the luxury to be game devs with the creative freedom to make the type of games we ourselves love.
SS: What was developing your first game like in comparison to making your newest game?
Johan Andersson: Well, we now have our own desks! Ha, no, the thing is that I have always believed that great games can be made by small teams as long as each team get enough time to work on their passion projects. Paradox Development Studio has indeed grown a lot, but we are still a fairly small Swedish game dev studio and every game has a dedicated team. We are now 40 people in several teams: Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, Runemaster, Hearts of Iron IV as well as our art team that works on all projects. But if you take Europa Universalis IV for example, every single person in Paradox Development Studio has worked on that game during the development at one time or another. When we need help and extra resources, for testing, bugfixing and so on, everyone helps out! So each game is a labor of love for the entire studio, even if you are not on the dedicated team and by having grown we can now easily get everyone on board when we need more resources.
So in some ways, our development process hasn’t changed that much throughout the years. It is just that we now have more time to rework and polish the games, take more time to iron out bugs and develop the games further, and add gameplay features for free. What really helped was the success of our strategy/RPG Crusader Kings II, since we are self-funded. The money helped us to make the release of our empire building game Europa Universalis IV the best still and will keep helping us improve on our future games.
SS: What is it like now that Paradox has hit the big times with such successful titles as Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV?
Johan Andersson: It is absolutely marvelous, truth to be told! I think there is a real craving for sandbox strategy games that let you, as a gamer, write your own story and feel that the fate of the world really lies in your hands. Working on both Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV, we decided early on that we did not want to compromise on the complexity of the games. But we spend a lot of time looking on what could we do to make it easier for new gamers. We reworked almost every single feature in the games to make them understandable, make our first steps to create solid tutorials, added hints and tips systems and hired an interface manager (for EU4) to make the interface easier to grasp. Games don´t need to be dumbed down, but they shouldn´t scare the life out of a newcomer either.
I also believe that, besides the above, what really helped was the storytelling from gamers and the word of mouth. It´s like we finally breached the barriers down and managed to show new gamers what sandbox strategy really has to offer. For a newbie, it is so easy to look at the games and just say – ok, maps, that´s it? When in fact our strategy games often has more storytelling and more choice to explore than the RPG games out there. They just needed to discover that and Crusader Kings II was the game that made them see it!
SS: What do you consider to have been your greatest work so far?
Johan Andersson: All of them! Sorry, you can’t ask me that, it’s like having a parent choose a favorite child. I am proud for every single game I have ever been part of creating as well as the ones we are creating. For us at PDS, a great video game is a set of situations in which the player is confronted with meaningful choices. We want to give our players all sorts of options; instead of telling a focused, linear story, we strive to create situations in which the player can create his or her own story. The games are so different once you enter their worlds, from the intrigues and backstabbing in Crusader Kings II, the feeling of conquering the world in Europa Universalis IV, the political decisions and the people’s revolts against your politics in Victoria II or the feeling of WWII-warfare in Hearts of Iron. I would say that our studios greatest achievement is that we can create challenging games that all have their distinct personalities, the freedom for the player to choose how to play and I feel that they all bring something unique to the table.
SS: Have you ever considered making your own sci-fi or fantasy universe for a Grand Strategy game?
Johan Andersson: Of course we have considered it, but we are more curious in exploring other game genres with strategy elements rather than making a grand strategy game in a sci-fi or fantasy setting.
So now we have revealed our upcoming games! Side by side, you will find the development of our WWII game/grand strategy game Hearts of Iron IV and our tactical RPG Runemaster! So indeed, Runemaster is our first game ever that is not based on history, but instead based on Nordic Mythology.
I think that we as a studio always think of what we want to explore next, mostly new aspects and eras of history since we love history and since it is an endless source of inspiration. But since we are all gamers and strategy gamers at that, we know most gamers that enjoy strategy games loves not only historical strategy games, but also games set in other areas and realms, as long as they offer really good gameplay.
SS: How do you feel about your community? Every Paradox game I’ve seen has had a massive modding community as well as After Action Reports coming like rain. What do you think of some of the bigger mods, such as Elder Kings, Lux Invicta and Game of Thrones?
Johan Andersson: Our modding community mean the world to us, we really want our games to be modded and we want to see gamers own visions and we have recruited several modders to PDS. There are plenty of excellent mods and I think that above all, they also make gamers discover our games that think that sandbox strategy isn’t their cup of tea. Then they find a mod on a theme they enjoy and can relate to, and it makes them fall in love with strategy games.
I am personally really excited that there is a growing trend among modders to create according to “less is more” principle, where one simple idea can change the gameplay experience drastically. The fact is, most systems work best if they are kept simple and I am happy to see more of that in the modding community :)
SS: What kind of challenges are there when it comes to making a grand strategy game?
Johan Andersson: What is our strength, and also the hardest thing to handle, is the scope of the game and at the same time making it accessible, no doubt. Because it is the depth that is genuinely fun to explore and play – because if offers such a huge variation and replayability. In Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV we worked harder on how we ought to explain things to new gamers, because we really do want our games to be easier to get into so more can caught up in all the drama of strategy games :)
Historical accuracy has always been one of the things that makes Paradox Development Studio game stand out from other popular strategy games. However we still need to add not only real historical events but also plausible and realistic simulation of history that works for your take on the world. Our has never been to recreate history in detail and make gamers play along a set path; instead we look at the historical choices that countries faced at the times and then we build the game logic to make these choices good in game terms. Especially in the Europa Universalis series you can view this development as we have had a different take on historical events in every game. Where Europa Universalis II had a very historically set path, Europa Universalis III had more free events, and Europa Universalis IV introduced dynamical historical events where each country gets guidance on its historical path, but these events might not happen if the conditions are not there because you’ve taken your nation on a different path from the historical one. Naturally, this also means that some ahistorical successes might lead you to interesting and plausible alternate history events…
Overall I think the core of our games is the idea that the individual pieces need to be clear. If you look at the systems in isolation, most of them are fairly simple to use. The complexity comes in your mind when you try to grasp all the pieces at once.
SS: One of the iconic traits of a Paradox game is the soundtrack. When creating the music to suit a specific atmosphere, what are some of the challenges you face?
(Answered by Andreas Waldetoft, composer at Paradox Development Studio)
Andreas Waldetoft: The hardest part of making music to grand strategy games is actually that the games are so open and free for the gamers. When composing, you don’t know what the player will do or what will happen, so you can’t really compose like you would if you made a movie or a more linear game. That means that the atmosphere is the most important feature of the music.
PDS games are mostly historic, so you have to lend some of that eras particular harmony and instrumentation to get the right mood. We have a music system that can change the music to whatever happens, the only problem is the amount of music you need to have it truly dynamic. I have composed around 3.5h of music for CK2 and I feel it’s still not enough to be as dynamic as I’d like. And in most Paradox Development Studios’ games you can choose any country in the world, so making music for all cultures would also mean a lot of music.
The hardest part of all this is that the music will be played for possibly hundreds of hours because of the replayability of PDS games, so I try to not overuse the same themes in many songs like you would if you made something more linear.
SS: What future games do you have planned?
Johan Andersson: So now we have announced our upcoming games from Paradox Development Studio! Our game projects in the making that are announced are our WWII grand strategy game Hearts of Iron IV and the tactical RPG Runemaster based on Nordic Mythology, Crusader Kings II: Rajas of India expansion opening up a whole new part of the map as well as Europa Universalis IV: Wealth of Nations expansion focused on enhancing the trade aspects of the game.
SS: With each new game being more in-depth than the last one and covering more of history in more detail, do you think there will ever be a universal grand strategy game? On a side note, what about the future of the grand strategy genre?
Johan Andersson: Ha! Why would we want to remake Civilization? ;) I can honestly say that you won’t get a universal grand strategy game from us. All the different eras offer different challenges, and for us to create one single game would either give a very fragmented experience or simply not make history justice. And the future, well, I think this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the future of grand strategy games. We can see a constant stream of new gamers finding their way into sandbox strategy. I personally feel that gamers are becoming more dedicated and passionate when they find a game or a game series they love and a studio they trust – they keep supporting it and thereby helping the games develop and make even greater games. And it is up to us devs to prove them right and surprise them as well :) Always in motion is the future.
SS: Thank you for your time.
Hearts of Iron IV is slated to release in Q1 2015. The ETA for the tactical fantasy RPG Runemaster is end of 2014. Crusader Kings II: Rajas of India expansion is announced for Spring 2014 and the Europa Universalis IV: Wealth of Nations expansion should arrive in Q2 2014. We’ll keep following the developments of Paradox Development Studio and its grand strategy titles.Subscribe RSS
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