How a team of Swedish programmers redefined ‘niche’
Paradox’s position as standard bearer on the field of grand strategy is fitting, given it claims to have invented the genre. It’s near impossible to discuss games of invasion and diplomacy on a global scale without some reference to its dogged, 20-year effort to simulate and pervert the past, from the Middle Ages through to the end of WWII. Titles such as Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis and Hearts Of Iron have become a convenient shorthand for the complex histories that play out upon the signature map and oh-so-many menus of the in-house Clausewitz Engine. You can spot a Paradox game at a glance, in the same way that a surfeit of vantage points and a map to fill by activating them announces a Ubisoft open world.
Legally speaking, Paradox Development Studio has only been at it for three of those 20 years, having splintered from Paradox Interactive in 2012 in an effort to distinguish the company’s development and publishing arms. Tracing the company’s complex origins any further back is a matter of forensic archaeology more than history. Still, opposite us sit Johan andersson, EVP of game development, and thomas Johansson, studio manager, both of whom have worked here – whatever ‘here’ was called – since the early days. When Andersson joined, for example, Paradox Entertainment was a division within the now-defunct boardgame producer Target. Maybe it’s surviving all these years or the cosy meeting room, but both are disarmingly unguarded about their failings, and those of others – and quite a bit of blame seems to fall on Conan The Barbarian, an IP that Paradox Entertainment acquired in a drive to own more brands.
“As [Paradox] Entertainment, we had the computer games part, but we didn’t publish games at that time,” Johansson tells us, “and then they also did various old roleplaying and board game brands, and they also owned the Conan brand, and that was kind of a big focus for them. My first year at the company, I noticed that when we had these quarterly meetings there was lots of talk about all the Conan movies coming out soon – oh, and the new computer games. They decided that Entertainment wanted to focus fully on Conan, so they split off, and that’s when [Paradox] Interactive came about. In retrospect, maybe we should have renamed the company!”
Paradox’s game arm has gone through convulsions of its own. Until recently, it would have been fair to call Paradox Development Studio’s games ‘niche’: their interfaces are filled with a dizzying assortment of sliders, stats and multipliers. Add to that the wealth of historical detail that describes major events and you end up with games for a particular type of enthusiast. Though the stability of Paradox’s audience has helped – the studio knows its games will make their money back – that group’s size has never left it with much margin for error. And there have been plenty of assaults on that margin.
“Some publishers didn’t pay,” Andersson says. “Strategy First went into bankruptcy and of all our Victoria I and Hearts Of Iron I money, we ended up getting one cent on the dollar on one year later after bankruptcy court. People in all of North America may as well have pirated Victoria and saved us the money.”
This marked the point at which Paradox Interactive, led by CEO Fredrik Wester, opted to become a publisher itself. However, a new set of challenges arose for the development team when the larger company published some stinkers and, coupled with the shaky (“shit”, according to Andersson) release of its own Hearts Of Iron III, Paradox’s reputation began to suffer.
“We were publishing a lot of games that were referred to as Paradox games,” Andersson says, “but when some of the published games had different… reputations, we were like, ‘This isn’t that fun – we want to make a statement about what our studio’s games are all about.’ That’s why we’re now Paradox Development Studio. We didn’t want people to think we were responsible for someone else’s failures.”
“It’s a branding issue,” Johansson tells us. “We give a promise to the fans, right? Now that we’re making Stellaris, for example, they should know that this isn’t some other title Paradox has found, it’s a Paradox Development Studio game.”
Paradox development Studio, and all its prior incarnations, is driven by programmers. The Clausewitz Engine that props up each game is closer to a code library than anything like Unity or Unreal, and to hear Johansson tell it, Europa Universalis IV was begun by taking the code from Europa Universalis III and the graphics engine from Crusader Kings II, shutting himself away and hitting it with a hammer for a month. When he joined in 2004, the entire studio – by this time with four games under its belt – consisted of Andersson in charge, one game designer, four programmers and two artists. Andersson has stepped back from the big chair to spend more time coding, but otherwise the default team structure remains largely unchanged, a swelling staff instead buying Paradox the luxury of running projects in parallel. Despite tiny project sizes, however, a profound love of systems has meant that the average playtime for a Crusader Kings II owner is upwards of 90 hours.
Given its games’ focus, you might expect that you’d need to be a keen historian to work at Paradox Development Studio, but that’s not the case, and neither does the studio have a dusty professor on retainer. Paradox instead prefers initiative and a sense of pride in the finished product to a brain full of facts. “We do have our scripters,” executive producer linda Kiby tells us. “We call them ‘historical researchers/scripters’ – all of them. They come in as a brainstorming aid, and then when we’ve started and there’s a foundation, we do the scripting fairly early. And we also have a huge amount of people who do beta testing on the forums, and they help us with all these minuscule details – if you wanted to know who was a count in Spain in the year 1300, we can’t find that ourselves, especially since we don’t speak Spanish!”
The fact that so many of the original staff remain at Paradox Development Studios after more than a decade of iterations on four core franchises, and continue to enthuse about each as if it had just been released, speaks to the faith they have in the strength of historical grand strategy. Shortly after Europa Universalis IV came out, Johansson was forced to ban multiplayer negotiations between staff during office hours to prevent underhanded collusion in meeting rooms.
Belief in the concept of global domination was rewarded with the release of Crusader Kings II in 2012 – a game that brought a dark and humorous human focus to Medieval conquest that those who were uninitiated in Paradox games could easily relate to. Paradox Development Studio, a company with immense pride in its limited niche, suddenly had a millionseller to its name.
“Primarily, I’d say it’s because it’s a game that makes you want to talk about it,” Andersson says. “Yes, it was more polished, we spent more time on it and it was easier to get into, but most importantly for every new player who actually got past the fact that there was a map and an interface and no tactical battles, he managed to explain it to his friend and that friend explained all the weird stories he found in the game to the next guy. The sales curve grew and grew.”
Crusader Kings II’s concurrent players count is higher now than it was at launch, enviably defying the typical release-week spike and crash. Europa Universalis IV, released one year later, outsold it with ease. Word-of-mouth advertising is the lifeblood of a small and dedicated community, and the advent of YouTube and Twitch has allowed Paradox to find enthusiasts who were previously unreachable. As a matter of course, multiplayer QA sessions in which testers get to grips with the game are streamed alongside a host of regular development updates.