Learning From The Past: Europa Universalis IV

By Adam Smith on August 20th, 2012 at 7:00 pm.

Europa Universalis IV won’t be out for a long time but it’s already looking polished and that could be the most important fact of all. Whatever new features are in place, whatever old ones have been kicked to the courtly curb, the time that Paradox Development Studio are spending to make the sequel the most stable entry in the series is clear evidence that previous praise hasn’t drowned out criticism and commentary. In terms of development and content alike, this is a timely tale of choices, consequences and progress.

Crusader Kings II showed a commitment to improvement, not only in design and content but also in quality control. I spoke with Paradox Interactive CEO Fred Wester and, among many other things, we discussed the frequent comments that greeted Paradox grand strategy titles in the past: “I’ll wait for the complete edition, when the game should actually work”. Reading those comments, which he and the team do, wherever they might crop up, can be “like a slap in the face”, he says. Then he adds, “That’s a good thing though. It can be a good thing.”

Mistakes have been made, Wester and the studio know that, although that doesn’t mean they’re not proud of their history of histories, and rightfully so. Europa Universalis is the tentpole around which the rest of those past times unfurl, with the torn flags of imperialism and total war snapping from their staffs and landing, muddied and bloodied, in the ‘future’ ages of Victoria and Hearts of Iron. In the fields behind, garish and regal, the banners of Rome and the crusaders stretch back to antiquity. But everything, originally, hinged around the three hundred years of history covered by EU.

Now, seeing an early version of the fourth game in action, it seems the lessons of the past are working their way into the new. There is a greater emphasis on character, although it would be too much to say all of that is borrowed from Crusader Kings II. So let’s not say borrowed; let’s say notes have been taken. The qualities of a ruler are visible as numbers and the more impressive those numbers, the cheaper the resource cost to carry out various actions.

A great military leader, backed up by generals of worth, will find that waging wars does little to sap his nation’s energy, but if he were to die, perhaps while waging a particularly violent war, then a new ruler would be elected or would inherit. The wars, regrettably, don’t magically cease to be a problem when the chap who started them shuffles off this mortal coil, so if the next leader in line has a poor military rating those previously effortless conflicts are suddenly going to become a lot more expensive. But, hey, maybe the new chap is most intriguing, in which case he might be able to sue for peace and pursue diplomatic solutions.

This way the thrust of action comes from the nation, a more imposing entity than the solitary man, no matter how powerful, and that is in keeping with the times. The age of the ruler as head and heart of a people has passed. Any decisions are balanced by the cost of pursuing a particular action. Well, that and planning ahead. A wise player will try to have a contingency plan, particularly when a ruler is old and/or weak, rather than committing all resources to one course of action. To allow for intricate and divergent plans, magistrates are gone, which could actually be one of the biggest changes. Taking away the limit that magistrates place on certain actions complicated the game and made those options feats of micromanagement rather than pure choice. The impression I have of Europa Universalis IV, at this very early stage, is that there is a desire to make player choice the true source of power, ensuring there is always something to do and always a mistake to be made.

And mistakes will be made. One of the key messages that came through when talking to the developers was the desire to have a game whose graph is one of peaks and troughs, thereby all but avoiding the very notion of an ‘endgame’. It is possible to begin, after all, at the very apex of power, just as it is possible to begin at the bottom of the barrel, scraping around for respect and resources. One person’s genesis is another’s goal. Thereby, over the course of the centuries, a game of Europa Universalis IV can have many victories and many failures, but none of them should be considered final. The mightiest empires fall and the vagaries of history can place spanners in even the most majestic works of men. Every potential ‘endgame’, a mire of overfaced management, could become another beginning. All it takes is one bad decision.

The feature that Paradox seem most keen to show off at the moment, at least to me, is trading. Perhaps, with my being English, they mistook me for a shopkeeper. Or maybe they were demonstrating the means by which my tiny island home once ruled the world. Dabbling in trade sees routes painted across the waters and it’s possible to use merchants at the markets that form the termini of these routes, either establishing themselves there, wresting control, or converting goods into cash. Ideally, control of the sea is twinned with control of the actual trade centres, for even if the route is strong, foreign merchants may divert a percentage of the earnings to their own filthy money-holes. This is not good, but it is a method by which the unwarlike and hydrophobic can hope to gain an advantage. There are different flavours of trading nation; those who control the gateways as well as those that control the seas.

Presenting important choices at every interval is all well and good, but if those choices aren’t clear then possibilities are left untouched. To feel in control, a player needs to know his options and a great deal of work has already been done to make the interface more user friendly. This doesn’t mean taking control of detail away from the player, but rather ensuring the screens flow in a manner that reveals rather than conceals. Even the removal of magistrates can be seen as an addition seeing as a lack of them could be so restricting. If there is discord, a single screen now explains why it is occurring, in which provinces, and to what extent. A click of the mouse takes the player to any of the provinces in question and presents options for correcting the issue. It’s not as simple as that perhaps makes it sound, but relevant information is never too far away when a situation is examined, whereas previously it has been necessary to rely on knowing the location of every last detail. Consolidation and flow seem to be the goals as far as interface is concerned, and it already looks like another step forward from Crusader Kings II.

The engine is far prettier as well, with the seasons changing and painting the north of the world white as winter creeps across the land. Speeding up the game and watching the transformations wrought upon it by nature and men is an aesthetic pleasure as much as an intellectual one, the landscape in a cycle of freeze and thaw, peace and war. As well as being attractive, like the improved flow of information on the windows, the map communicates information and it does so in an elegant fashion.

There’s so much that Paradox are holding back and they’re enjoying holding it back. Teasing a feature here or a menu option there, hoping to start speculation and discussion. I wouldn’t be surprised if one reason for that is to feed off the opinions of the ever-observant community that is watching their progress, and why not? One of the greatest lessons of the past is that it’s always possible to improve and it’s always important to listen. Much can be disregarded but so much can be discussed and toyed with as well.

A feature list will never explain Europa Universalis IV because the biggest difference appears to run deeper than that. Put all the elements in place and then leave a massive amount of time to test, to alter, to add, to discard and to improve. There’s a great well of experience to draw on and all the time that’s needed to make sure this is the best Europa Universalis yet. And, yes, it’s only that same ‘time’ that will tell but, for now, I’m content with the notion that patience can be the greatest virtue of all.

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46 Comments »

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  1. MrThingy says:

    All I ever wanted was an EU game with a pretty map (verily, not seen since EU:II).

    So… Shut up and take my money!

    (oh, and a trading system that doesn’t rely on me spamming 2 traders manually every month in the gamiest way possible in order to get results.)

    • Pathetic Phallacy says:

      The map for this game looks exactly like the one for Divine Wind.

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        Smashbox says:

        Also Crusader Kings 2

      • MrThingy says:

        Err.. Nope. It looks like CKII

        Divine Wind on the other hand, looks like a steaming pile of poo.

      • Nimic says:

        Yeah, no, it really doesn’t. It looks like the CK2 map, which is orders of magnitude prettier than the EU3 map.

      • Oak says:

        Divine WInd looks okay, and was a marked improvement over the game’s original look. And the newer Clausewitz games are lovely, but I wish they’d carried over the paper-map look at highest zoom.

    • sinister agent says:

      Funny, I was just thinking while looking at the screenshots here that I really wish they’d make it so that you could clearly make out territories and ownership in the geographical map. I love CK2, but I spend 99% of the game in the “independent kingdoms” mapmode, because the geographical one, while prettier to look at, is useless. This one looks lovely, but they really need some better overlay options to make using it at all practical.

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    Keymonk says:

    Woo, Denmark in what looks like a fist fight with Sweden.

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      dklafder says:

      As always.

    • Anders Wrist says:

      Doesn’t appear to be any fighting going on in that particular screencapture. Skåne, Halland and Blekinge are old danish provinces.
      I’m actually quite interested in their take on the combat this time around – it’s one of the parts of the game I feel could become more interesting, with just a bit more player input. But yeah, Denmark and Sweden did tend to fight a lot…

  3. mmalove says:

    “I’ll wait for the complete edition, when the game should actually work”.

    Describes me in a sentence. Not just about the quality control though, its about features. I’ve about had it with sequels releasing features that were a part of their predecessors as expansions/DLC. (Civ 5 comes to mind atm)

    • belgand says:

      Agreed. I don’t want to buy my game piecemeal. When dealing with a developer or franchise that historically has a large amount of significant DLC I wait. The game will be much cheaper and I’ll get the whole thing all at once. In the days where one or maybe two expansion packs would be released this wasn’t quite so big of a problem, but these days it has become typical to see four or five expansions released that ultimately often lead to a very different game with significant features added in. Why not wait until the balance and bugs are ironed out?

      Far more reprehensible is the current trend for unnecessary “expandalones”. Fall of the Samurai did a good job of it effectively presenting a totally different game with new units, mechanics, setting, everything. Sins of a Solar Empire, however, just released a new complete pack with no option to just buy the new and improved bits without paying what would normally be a full priced game/complete package. All it did was make the still on offer Trinity pack obsolete… without going out of their way to actually mention that it includes all of the previous content.

  4. seniorgato says:

    I would like to see a really good functional matchmaking setup. And some way to not worry about versions. Trying to play with my friends online in EU3 is a bit tough. I just hope they get it sorted out.

    Because I’m definitely going to buy this game. EU2 and 3 have provided so many sleepless night.

    Falalalan, falalalera

  5. Discopanda says:

    I hope that they can pull of making the game as easy to swallow as Crusader Kings II. Love that game!

  6. MerceAR says:

    I hope they make it mod friendly like EU3 was. It would be extremely neat to see MEIOU or MM in this sequel.

    I look forward to hear something about the 1700’s. The industrial revolution was poorly represented in the third installment.

    Oh, and a improved combat/battle system with more modifiers is totally needed. The EU3 one sucked hard. V2 also does.

  7. bladedsmoke says:

    I wonder if it will be possible to take save games from Crusader Kings 2 and continue playing the same nation in EU4, as you could do with Crusader Kings (the original) and EU3?

    I have lots of CK2 rulers who’ve hit the 1400s and are anxious to be able to continue their reigns of terror and/or stability for many years more…

    • Bobsy says:

      I think it’s a hugely requested feature, especially with how popular CK2 has become. It would make it a day 1 purchase for me. I’d love to be able to carry on the story into the renaissance. My epic struggle to take control of a kingdom had resolution, but the tale deserves a sequel.

    • Anders Wrist says:

      The video interview I watched with Paradox Studio manager Johan Andersson, mentioned that it was a feature they would very much like to implement. (http://www.gamespot.com/events/gamescom-2012/video.html?sid=6391927 at the very end.)

    • hjarg says:

      On the other hand- in CK 2 you had already about 400 years to mess up history and have most likely came up on top of the Europe. Would EU be fun or overkill?

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        Stellar Duck says:

        That can certainly be true in some cases, but not all players play it to paint the map their own colour.

        I for instance don’t. In my latest game I played mostly after character stats, so I would change my play style to whoever was my ruler. In the end I’d plotted my way to reforging the kingdom of Aragon in a bit of northers Spain and southern France. It wasn’t my long term goal, but I had an ambitious ruler and due to an unexpected inheritance and a bit of betrayal I broke free from France and set up my own rather small kingdom and changed my pace to simply keep that intact. That certainly turned out to be thrilling enough with all my stupid family members plotting my doom to grab my titles. I basically had to install a revolving door on my dungeon. My next ruler was a lady (due to an unexpected betrayal by my own damn son) and it can certainly be a rocky transition for a female ruler.

  8. MythArcana says:

    Large fonts and/or font customization are sorely needed for their games. Also, tame the DLC beast over there…it’s getting to be landmark fail with 10 DLC available at time of launch; just do expansions. And one more item; stop forcing us to use Gleam, goddamn it! I won’t buy it if that service is required.

    That will be all.

    • battles_atlas says:

      This (the font thing). I know we’re not supposed to demand coverage of such trivialities in RPS, but forcing you to play in 720p because the fonts don’t scale is no less egregious than a console port with no graphics options. Its not on anymore Paradox.

    • Sakkura says:

      Paradox internal games do have a lot of little DLCs, but they’re usually sprite packs or other minor fluff.

      They still make proper expansions, TONS of them in fact, and they don’t skimp on free content patches either (though in some cases those are pretty mandatory, like when they release semi-broken games like Hearts of Iron 3).

      I much prefer the way they’re doing things over the expandalone craze. Imagine EU3 under the expandalone model… :S

    • sinister agent says:

      I’ve just spend another evening playing CK2, and also own several other fairly recent Paradox games. And um… what the hell is Gleam? I’ve never heard of it, and the only reference I can find to it through searching is, well, you.

      • Oak says:

        I think he meant Steam. They’ve been using Steamworks as DRM on non-Gamersgate copies of their games.

        • Malarious says:

          But you can run CK2 just fine without running Steam. It explicitly doesn’t use Steamworks as DRM. You need Steam to install it and update, but after that, you don’t need it at all.

          • Oak says:

            News to me! Someone had better tell MythArcana.

          • Nimic says:

            You don’t actually need Steam to run CK2, full stop. You can guy it at Gamersgate.

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            Stellar Duck says:

            Buying it a Gamersgate also allows you to play with whatever version you prefer. It’s not unheard of from Paradox that they break the game in a patch and it’s nice to be able to roll back until they sort things out.

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    Faldrath says:

    Any hints at all about historical events and colonization?

  10. Baines says:

    we discussed the frequent comments that greeted Paradox grand strategy titles in the past: “I’ll wait for the complete edition, when the game should actually work”

    I believe that sentiment has been encouraged by Paradox in general, not just their “grand strategy” offerings. It is just that they publish a lot of strategy titles, and some of them fail so spectacularly. (I just re-watched TotalBiscuit’s WTF is Gettysburg: Armored Warfare recently. The video that shows the Confederate army exploding on spawn, at least on one map that didn’t cause the game to automatically crash for picking the Confederates.)

    • MichaelH says:

      Keep in mind that the grand strategy games are the only games that Paradox develops. They are both a publisher and a developer – games like Gettysburg: AW, Mount & Blade, Lead & Gold, Magicka are all created by other developers and published by Paradox. Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron, Victoria, Sengoku, and Crusader Kings are Paradox-developed.

      • Baines says:

        If you want to talk about Paradox’s image, it doesn’t really matter. They choose to publish these games, and Paradox has become known for publishing buggy and sometimes outright unfinished games. For better or worse, their track record as a whole affects how people see Paradox-developed games specifically.

        At least I would be wary of Paradox-developed games after experiencing some of the titles that they’ve chosen to publish, as well as the stories told by others. That all makes me take descriptions of Paradox-developed games with a bit more concern than I would otherwise.

  11. King in Winter says:

    Fascinating.

    Looking at the screens that do have UI elements on them, some basic concepts seem to stay for a new round. I see money, manpower, stability and prestige (badboy, I recall, has been removed). Difficult to say what the other meters might measure as the screens are so small, especially the gadget in the upper right.

  12. Frank says:

    “a great deal of work has already been done to make the interface more user friendly…[and] the map communicates information and it does so in an elegant fashion.”

    If that’s true, this might be the first Paradox-developed Europe simulator I can tolerate! Hopefully, they also have an EU-pedia.

    • sinister agent says:

      An encyclopedia would be an excellent idea. Tooltips for CK2 were everywhere, fine, but when you’re trying to get your head round a concept, having to flip back and forth between five or six pages and find the right icons to hover over could be a bit of a headache. An encyclopedia would knock that right on the head, and probably be easier to put together, really.

  13. circadianwolf says:

    “The feature that Paradox seem most keen to show off at the moment, at least to me, is trading. Perhaps, with my being English, they mistook me for a shopkeeper.”

    Maybe they thought you were a remarkably well-preserved zombie economist.

  14. Ateius says:

    I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Eeeeeee!

  15. The13thRonin says:

    Just please for the love of all that is good and wonderful Paradox don’t dumb the game down…

  16. The Pink Ninja says:

    Can we have a default option for choice that come up repeatedly so they can be chosen automatically without wasting my time?

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    ffordesoon says:

    God, I want this game.

    I spent most of last Sunday watching the years (and the rebellions I ignored, and the suspicious accidents, and the utterly pointless festivals my King Heinrich IV likes to throw, and his first wife, and one of his sons whose ambitious wife I promptly chose to marry) go by in CKII. It really is mesmerizing. More involving combat and a real trade system in addition to a heavy CKII influence may make this Paradox’s best game.

    Also, frankly, I like the Renaissance more than the Crusades, seeing as I’m one of those dudes who likes winning Cultural Victories in Civ games.