By Nathan Grayson on August 9th, 2012 at 6:00 pm.
Paradox has made an unlikely business out of almost exclusively publishing wonderfully off-kilter PC exclusives, but it’s not all sunshine and (Wars of) roses. Stability has never been the Swedish conglomerate’s strongsuit, and games like Sword of the Stars II, King Arthur II, and Magicka have generated an ugly cloud of bugs that swarms around its reputation, slowly but surely devouring goodwill bit-by-bit. But, contrary to how things might appear, Paradox is very, very aware of this. So after a nice, long chat about DLC, senior producer Gordon Van Dyke and I caught up again – both to follow up and to discuss the fairly drastic measures Paradox is taking to squash its bug problem once and for all.
Say what you will about Paradox, but at least it can admit when it has a problem. Magicka, Sword of the Stars II, and countless others stumbled out the gate essentially broken, but patches (and copious apologies) appeared to fill in the cracks as quickly as possible. How did we get to this point, though? What’s going so horribly and consistently wrong in Paradox’s kitchen?
“It’s an ugly stigma,” Van Dyke admits to RPS. “It goes back to budget size. We don’t have the money to throw at a giant QA team. We try as hard as we can, but it’s really difficult. Another thing is that we’re primarily PC, and there’s so many different variations of PC configurations. That’s always really difficult to manage within. We do our best, but we’re small.”
“A lot of the time, some of the mistake comes from the design. You over-scope. You try to make a bigger game than maybe you even needed to. There’s nothing easier to do than to over-design a game – to put in a lot of features feeling like they’ll make your game feel bigger. But the truth of the matter is, having a really solid core experience, simplicity, and presentation – Minecraft is a perfect example – is more valuable than having a ton of features.”
I don’t doubt what he’s saying is coming from a truthful place. It’s an honesty that pervades the company’s entire operation, and – in this day and age of squeaky clean, almost robotic PR – it’s an incredibly admirable quality. But admitting you have a problem is just the first step, and you can only fail to stick the landing so many times before the crowd starts wondering if they’re ever going to get their money’s worth. This time around, though, it at least sounds like Paradox is on the right track.
“There’s been a huge change in Paradox,” Van Dyke explains. “There’s been a lot of people like myself who come from a very different development background. We’ve worked at the big triple-A studios, and we bring a lot of different experience over. I’ve changed how our development schedule progresses and made it more akin to something I’d experience at DICE.”
And while he notes that extended periods of alpha testing are key in that, Paradox has – rather predictably – faced a constant uphill battle in another area as well: Quality Assurance testing, or QA for short. It’s an aspect of game development that often gets taken tremendously for granted, but if nothing else, Paradox serves as a perfect object lesson in what happens when QA’s MIA for most of an operation.
“We’ve been dumping a lot more money into Quality Assurance,” Van Dyke quickly points out. “As an example, as you saw today, War of the Roses had no issues. Granted, it’s also further along in development and our team is a bit more experienced. Paradox deals with a lot of really small developers, and they’re learning. But, like a lot of comments also say, we apologize and admit our flaws. Then we do everything within our power to fix them.”
“I’ve gotten QA [on War of the Roses] basically since we hit alpha, and we’re gonna have beta as well. So we’re gonna have QA guys working on it all the way to launch – and maybe even after. We’ve spent an enormous amount of money and time on Quality Assurance.”
Once again, notes Van Dyke, the longtime lack of QA goes back to Paradox’s paradoxically (at least, given the grandiosity of their visions) bite-sized development teams. But being the itsy bitsy spider in an industry that’s less water spout and more Niagara Falls isn’t all bad. Really, he argues, it’s Paradox’s secret weapon – especially when it comes to sweeping changes like these.
“The nice thing about being at Paradox is that it’s a smaller company. It runs like a start-up. We’re very dynamic. Things can change at the drop of a hat. No one there is stuck in their ways, and we don’t have a lot of overhead. We don’t have a lot of people that need to go through red tape to get something approved. I can come up to [CEO] Fred Wester and say, ‘Fred, I really want to do things this way.’ And unless I’m saying something completely insane that makes zero sense, he’s gonna be like ‘Go and do it.’”
Further, going back to our DLC talk, Van Dyke points out that making triple-A games while independent and small is what allows Paradox to put its customers first.
“We’re not publicly owned,” he says. “We don’t have shareholders that we also have to answer to. And that’s a sacrifice some companies make. You get more money to invest in games. And bigger companies like EA can make these big, awesome games. Maybe the DLC or whatever they do isn’t the best it could possibly be, but they make amazing, amazing games that people really enjoy.”
All those things in mind, Van Dyke certainly doesn’t think Paradox has an easy fight ahead of it. After all, throwing money at these problems and hoping they’ll go away on their own simply isn’t an option when you’re so small, and being uniquely scrappy will only take you so far. So for Paradox, it’s either think outside the box or get trapped inside it and suffocate.
“If you find any bugs, you measure how broadly it’s going to affect people,” he points out, providing an example. “Then you decide if you should fix it. Because any time you fix something, there’s a huge possibility that you’ll open Pandora’s Box. And then there are a whole bunch of other things that start crashing. So you look at it and say, ‘Is this worth fixing before we ship this game? How many people is this gonna affect?’ You have to take that really seriously and fix things smart, because then you’re gonna have to fix other things.”
Perhaps the most pressing bug-related issue currently doing the backstroke in Paradox’s soup, however, is the fact that plenty of damage has already been done. It’s like the old saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, and suffer the wrath of my eternal ire in Internet comment threads oftentimes tangentially related to the topic at hand – if at all.” But Van Dyke’s well aware that, even if Paradox succeeds at turning over a new leaf in the near future, people won’t so quickly forget what came before.
“When you do something too many times too consistently, it becomes the rule. Fans might think War of the Roses is an exception to the rule, and an exception isn’t gonna change things over night. So we have to make the new rule focus on quality on our first releases of games. We can’t have another Sword of the Stars II or King Arthur II experience. We need to fix that. And that’s the focus.”
I then wrap the interview and return to playing an impressively stable demo of War of the Roses. Sure, my horse spawns into a table once, but otherwise, the colossal, surprisingly complex murder blender of a melee goes off without a hitch. At that point, I remember something else Van Dyke told me: there are only 13 people working on this game. And in that moment, it’s hard not to feel a nauseating twinge of doubt about their chances in the long run. But based solely on what I have in front of me – on this furious dance of blades, hooves, and hilariously hideous peasants that’s demoing (admittedly in a controlled environment) impressively well – I can’t help but feel something else too: anticipation. Fingers crossed, everyone.