An interview with Paradox Development Studio lead, Johan Andersson
Player choice and player freedom have been a part of some of the most popular games over this last generation, and for good reason. When we the gamers are given some agency over how the game is played, what we can do, and when we can do it, our gaming experience becomes memorable in a direct way. Player choice, as of late, seems to be mostly concentrated in RPG’s and action adventure games, but the avenues of choice presented in those games were mostly superficial.
Although this gaming generation pummeled us with “choice”, particularly morally, the most rewarding and “free” experiences for gamers this generation came from sandbox strategy games, e.g., Civilization V, Europa Universalis III and IV, Victoria II, and to a lesser extent the Total War series. The Sandbox moniker is perfectly at home when paired with the open ended strategy games; just like playing in the sand, your empire can be built and destroyed without some careful and rational planning. One of the most important and highly addictive open ended strategy games come from our congenial neighbors to the North — well, North for most of the population of spaceship Earth. Do you know who is this is? I’ll give you five seconds to guess…Or you could just read the next sentence.
Yes, Paradox Development Studio is correct! Good guess, but can you help GameAspect find the right answers? Let’s find out as we interview Johan Andersson, studio manager at Paradox Development Studio.
GA (Game Aspect) – Paradox Interactive and Paradox Development Studio have evolved and reformed into two different but congruent pieces of a video game puzzle. Does the split focus on Grand Strategy Games from your other non GSG titles lead to a stronger development process for your strategy focused and non-strategy focused games respectively?
JA (Joan Anderson) – We decided to give our development studio it is own identity. A Paradox game is a sandbox strategy game that gives the gamer freedom to make their own choices, with high replayability, both single-player and multiplayer, and it is completely moddable – these are all things that we appreciate in games ourselves as gamers.
When our publisher Paradox Interactive began publishing other genres, we felt the time was right to separate our studio from the publishing company. We at Paradox Development Studio wanted to make sure to keep the Paradox-identity of the games we create, since we are proud of our strategy games and want people to know what they get when they play our games. For us a Paradox game is a strategy game.
We officially became a separate game development studio before Crusader Kings II released in 2012 – however we had already been working independently as a studio for quite some time. The decision was of course also a step to make sure that we didn´t get credits or critique for games developed by other development studios. We are still working very closely with our publisher Paradox Interactive; but we want to make sure gamers know that we at Paradox Development Studio creates strategy games and even if our publisher shift to other genres, we will always create strategy games.
(GA) – Whether it’s the alternative history, strict management, unique player choice, or strategic gameplay, Paradox Development Studio knows how to craft an immersive strategy experience. What is it that makes the studios Grand Strategy formula so unique?
(JA) – It could be as simple as the fact that we create games we love ourselves?
The magic with grand strategy is that the games are a sandbox. Gamers can jump right into history, try things out and see what happens. Do whatever you want, however you want – because you decide your own goals. You don´t need to know everything to have fun and play the game. Our games allow you yourself to create the stories when playing the game.
So I guess we build our games for gamers that enjoy complete freedom and the possibility to create their own stories. I think our gamers are curious and love the idea to play the same game over and over again in different ways to see what happens. They also need to enjoy a good challenge and they shouldn’t be devastated if they lose every once in a while. Wow, this started to sound like a personal ad.
They should also enjoy travel to different continents, exploring unknown lands and conquering the world. They should like to mingle and socialize with their neighbors and it helps if they are strong and confident and don´t let anyone step on them and their territory. If you feel we are a perfect match, feel free to reply on our forum: http://forum.paradoxplaza.com
Simply put, we at Paradox Development Studio believe in the power of sandbox strategy games – games that allow you to set your own goals and decide which tools you will use to reach them. We want you to create your own destiny and feel that the fate of the world really does lie in your hands – and only you decide what that fate means.
(GA) – Is there room for a completely a-historical Grand Strategy Game at PDS (Paradox Development Studio) — A title that might depict a country in the modern “Age of Terrorism” or an alternate future without a Western dominance after the 15th century?
(JA) – To be completely honest, we do not have any plans for a modern or an alternate future game that is ahistorical. If we in the future do decide to divert from history for one of our game projects, it is much more likely that we decide to create a unique and completely different strategy game in a brand new world
(GA) – How important has the modding community as well as the loyal fan base been to the development and patching of your current and future games games?
(JA) – I can´t say it enough. We wouldn´t be where we are today without our gamers and modders. They have meant the world to us, as beta testers, modders, creative ideas, suggestions and sources of reliable feedback. Several of us working in the studio have a background as modders and beta testers. For example both Crusader Kings II project lead Henrik Fåhraeus and Europa Universalis IV project lead Thomas Johansson came to us from the community. We are immensely thankful to our gamers; they are helping us make the games of our dreams as well as theirs.
We have a lot of talented modders in our community and I am happy to see that more and more modders are going for the “less is more” principle and realizing that it can be enough to have one brilliant idea that inspires an entire mod and still change the gameplay experience drastically. I am always hugely impressed by people that create using “Keep it simple stupid” as a design principle. The fact is that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complex. Simplicity should always be a key goal and unnecessary complexity should be avoided. Or “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” as a wise man once said
(GA) – Is there a favorite nation to play as amongst the PDS crew? Obligatory Sweden choice is acceptable.
(JA) – I wish I could say a favorite nation, but the truth is that there is a huge variety of countries people play, and everyone has their own personal favorites. For me right now, I am having a blast playing Morocco in the current Europa Universalis IV multiplayer game. Otherwise, I do love playing Poland and Austria since they are right in the middle of action and quite likely to end up in a war.
(GA) – Board games, war games, and other tabletop strategy titles have risen in popularity as of late. Do you see a connection between the rise in popularity of your grand strategy titles and the rise in popularity of board games?
(JA) – Absolutely. Almost every person one working at Paradox Development Studio is also a board game geek and we have board games lying around pretty much everywhere in the office. We love strategy games and we love board games. Just the simple fact that Europa Universalis is based on the board game says a lot. We are very happy that more people are discovering board games and it is very likely that the interest in strategy games has increased by the rise of board games. However, I honestly know too little to say if the rise of the two is connected.
(GA) – A paramount point of excellence at Paradox Development Studios is not only your dedication to historical aspects and detail but, more importantly, the people that made/make up those varied populations. Giving populations a voice becomes extremely important especially late in Victoria II and Europa Universalis IV, as the player is usually at the will of their often angry voice. What function does giving your population such an important role in the game serve? Is it born out of necessity or out of a realization that the average person in said population is the cultural and physical life blood of the country being played?
(JA) – A country is nothing without its people and the voice of many has affected history in endless ways. Of course, it is hugely important for us to make that aspect come through in gameplay, especially since it makes truly interesting game mechanics. Each of our historical games strives to represent the driving historical processes of the era. For example, in Crusader Kings II, we’re simulating the dynastic struggles of feudal lords, so it’s really a game about a few specific characters; the kings, dukes and minor lords who ruled with almost absolute power over the ignorant masses. In contrast, Victoria II is, as you say, in many ways a game about the people. It would hardly be possible to make a strategy game about the 19th century and ignore the social upheaval, revolutions and great ideologies that defined the century.
So, even though you are playing as some sort of ruler or “guiding spirit of the nation”, you need to listen to the voice of the people. So, for the Victoria games, we needed to come up with interesting gameplay mechanics around social causes and political factions. I guess, to answer your question, it’s a little bit of both; necessity and immersion; it’s necessary to put the population at center stage for a game set in the era, but it is also immersive to represent the various ideologies, class, religions and cultures. It gets you more invested as a player, whether you like to play as a democrat or a tyrant.
(GA) – Do you find it difficult to try and write events, scenarios, reactions, etc. when scripting and designing countries outside of Western influence or at least before large amounts of Western influence propagated throughout the Eastern world?
(JA) – Of course, it is difficult, because we are Western influenced, but we definitely put a lot of effort into representing the world historically and try to break free from our point of view. We do have limitations in that sources for non-Western countries are harder to find in English and we do have a harder time finding really accurate sources, since we don´t know the local languages. Also the sources that can be found in English are usually affected by this Western Influence as well.
The focus in Europa Universalis IV, for example, has always been about building your empire during the age of discovery and covering Europe’s journey from the edge of the dark ages to the era of global empires. The period lends itself well to a game where human history is the stage; you start with fractured weak states and no matter where you start you may find the way to build a world spanning global empire. So the Europa Universalis series does focus on the major powers of Europe and therefore there is a European perspective; however we are also trying to broaden that perspective ongoing. For example, the Americas is largely empty in Europa Universalis IV because of the fact that for most of the period it did not have “states” in the way states and nations are represented generally in the Europa Universalis series.
That does not mean that we are not continually looking at other forms of nations and trying to evaluate how to make those parts of our game. That is our focus in the upcoming expansion Europa Universalis IV: Conquest of the Americas, where we are introducing new options for America’s original inhabitants. We want to make the gameplay between the tribes more exciting and to help you maneuver yourself into a better position, should the pale barbarians come across the sea. So if you take on the role of a Native American tribe in the expansion, you will have some interesting new tools in expanded gameplay mechanics, new tribes, and a chance to form federations with your peers, events, ideas and buildings.
We always keep looking on improvements we can make in the realm of accurate depiction of non-European cultures. As developers, we also hope to evolve the game more over a long time which is our tradition at Paradox Development Studio and we hope to be able to bring in the perspectives of the nation’s outside of Europe more and show their own identities and their unique perspectives.
In most of Paradox Development Studios games, you can play as nations spread all across the world and we have lots of different cultures represented. But nonetheless, most of our games have had a tendency to be centered on Europe – either taking place in an era where Europe is colonizing the world like Europa Universalis or taking place after Europe has spread their domain such as in the Victoria or Hearts of Iron series. To get a reasonably manageable scope for a game, we tend to focus on getting the European perspective right. Traditionally the games from our studio have always focused on Europe and I do think that we are influenced by being Europeans ourselves and because we know that it is in that area that we have the strongest historical knowledge. However we are always trying to expand the world, we are trying to go further and include more countries and we will keep doing this for as long as we possibly can.
(GA) – Has Paradox Development Studio ever been contacted with creating games or simulations for educational purposes in or outside of the classroom?
Absolutely, it happens frequently and we have a policy to always provide high schools and universities our games through digital download for education. Our games are meant to entertain first and foremost, but they are built on a historical foundation and try to simulate the possibilities that countries have had throughout history. If they can push people to grasp the complexity of history and put events into context while at the same time offering gamers an engaging experience, that is of course our dream come true. We are history buffs and we are truly passionate about history. But it is important to remember that our games are entertainment, even if you do learn about history while playing.
We are aiming at creating a realistic simulation of history in our games, so we use the historical constraints. You as a player should face the same kinds of choices that the historical leaders did. However after the starting point, it is still up to you as a player to shape the world. The basic foundation for our games is our own love of history and the freedom for the gamer to take their own choices.
We naturally hopes that our games create a passion for history and a longing to find out more. I believe the strongest historical insight you can get while playing our games is to get the outside perspective to history. You get to view the complexity in how everything is interconnected and how we are never in total control of the events that unfold. History as a whole is chaos in many respects, because no country is ever a single entity isolated and unaffected by other countries actions. You need to take in to account the tendencies in the world and react to them.
Thanks again for your time and answers, Johan.
Thanks for doing the interview and have fun conquering the world