Cult Development: A Paradox Profile

“We don’t want to be a cult.” Shams Jorjani is VP of Acquisition and Portfolio Strategy at Paradox Interactive. He’s the guy who reads through and listens to a thousand MOBA pitches and occasionally finds a Teleglitch hidden behind them. He laughs at the cult line as soon as its out there. This, after all, is a company that frequently dresses its employees in coloured wizard robes, faces concealed.

Cultish maybe. Cult adjective rather than cult noun. Bruce Campbell’s career rather than Tom Cruise’s alternate career.

Jorjani is discussing the company’s publishing arm, alongside CEO Fred Wester and COO Susana Meza Graham. Summarised, the message is one of concentrate focus. Paradox know how to make a certain kind of game and it stands to reason that they know how to help external developers who are making that kind of game. On top of that, they want the Paradox brand to mean something to the people who play their games – the logo shouldn’t just be a seal of approval, it should be a sign of crossover appeal.

Not that any of the three is likely to use the word “brand” without throwing up scare quotes with their hands or through the inflection of their voice. There’s a distinct lack of corporate equivocation, even when all the talk is about the “pillars” of design (not to be confused with the Pillars of Eternity). In fact, when Paradox describe what kind of projects they’d like to publish, they’re talking about the kinds of games most of us enjoy – high on replayability, deep, and supportive of the kind of modular design that easily allows for updates and expansions.

The latter might be offputting to those who (sometimes justly) flinch when DLC is mentioned but, as I mentioned in my article about the third anniversary of Crusader Kings II, Paradox are looking to sell and support rather than sell and resell with minor updates a year later. And the reaction when free-to-play is mentioned ranges from wariness to mild hostility. Disregarding the spiffing Magicka: Wizard Wars for now, which seems like an experimental release from a business perspective if not a design perspective, Paradox are staying away from in-game transactions.

But that’s not to say they’re stuck in a traditional sales model. Quietly – so quietly that nobody really seems to have noticed – they’ve been recalibrating and reinventing the sales process and digital shelf life for the kind of long-tail game they’ve been making for almost two decades. To some extent, the quality of Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV is irrelevant to their long-term success. They’re the kind of niche games that could find their audience within the first couple of months of release. Even if the niche might be expanding, how are strong sales maintained for three years?

The expansions help. They improve the games, always release alongside free updates, and create fresh conversations about features new and old. That, in turn, provides a new window in which to reach new players, by offering discounts while the conversation is happening. It helps that one of the core pillars of a Paradox games is storytelling – player-led storytelling.

It’s no mistake that Paradox were one of the first companies, in my memory, to recognise the potential value of Twitch and YouTube. It’d be easy to look at the moving parts of a game like Crusader Kings II and wonder how video could be an attractive proposition, but strategy Let’s Play videos don’t need to be flashy – they’re the home of commentary, conversation and collaborative thinking. Almost every time I mention a grand strategy game here on the site, someone in the comments or by email will ask for video recommendations.

Those interfaces aren’t quite as intimidating when you have a friendly voice in your ear and sometimes you just want to see a pagan empire tormenting the Pope and don’t have time to do it yourself.

Combine all of that with comedic trailers that will probably manage to stick in your head even if the jokes don’t quite land and you have a recipe for long-term engagement. It should be mentioned that “engagement” is another one of those words that would probably bring out the scare quotes.

On the development side, it’s easy to ignore the effort that has gone into establishing and maintaining such a strong profile. The internal Paradox Development Studio is led by some of the best minds in the business and they have the freedom and resources to experiment within their niche. That’s another advantage of the modular design and internal support for long-term expansions.

When I spoke to CK II lead designer Henrik Fåhraeus about the Rajas of India expansion last year, he admitted he’d had to do a fair amount of historical research. He hadn’t imagined that adding new cultures, religions and geography would necessarily be viable two years after release. Crusader Kings II, in its current form, does not force the player to engage with either crusades or kings, just as Europa Universalis is continuing to expand options and depth of simulation away from the traditional Old World hub.

The publishing arm of Paradox is a different story.

Four years ago, when I first attended a Paradox Convention, I thought the company was attempting to reinvent its publishing arm as something like a Microprose for the modern PC gaming era. Titles like Warlock: Master of the Arcane and Impire had direct analogues to games from the nineties golden age (Master of Magic and Dungeon Keeper respectively), and the focus on strategy and simulation games fit the mould of Meier’s one-time home. Somewhere along the line, the outlook changed. At this year’s convention, the portfolio was noticeably streamlined and there were no announcements about new titles.

This may be partly due to the cancellation of Runemaster, an internally developed Norse RPG that was shown at the previous Convention and at last year’s Gamescom. While they were happy with some of the systems and ideas, and particularly the theme, Wester says it was hard to find “the fun”. Jorjani claims that Paradox would publish games that didn’t live up to expectations again – including Impire, Game of Dwarves and Gettysburg – because the lessons learned were important and best gained through experience. I sense a stronger air of regret around Runemaster, perhaps because it’s such a recent project but perhaps also because the effects of cancelling were felt closer to home.

One result of that cancellation is a stronger focus on what is happening rather than what might be happening. There are games in development, but we’re not told what they are. Not until they’re absolutely definitely one hundred percent ready to be revealed, and certain to be released in some form.

The same is true of third party projects. We know about Pillars of Eternity because we already did. Paradox came to the project when it was a known entity and didn’t hesitate. Wester says that a journalist asked if he had any doubts when considering working with Obsidian.

“Are you kidding? It’s Obsidian. Making an RPG. That’s it. I’m there.”

I asked Jorjani about Teleglitch, another game that became a Paradox title after its initial exposure to the public. “I’d love to do more Teleglitch. I think it’s the best game we’ve ever published.”

I’m also interested in licenses. Paradox mostly work with their own intellectual properties, although they make no claim on the IP of titles that they publish rather than develop. In the grand strategy niche that they’ve made their home, surely there’s room for a Warhammer 40K project or…

“There’s only one license I’d like to work with.” Wester knows that we know the answer. “I’ve been a fan since I first started reading the books.”

The license is Game of Thrones. Of course it is. When I first wrote about Crusader Kings II, I said it was the best Game of Thrones game that would ever exist, and I wasn’t being enough of a smartarse to consider that somebody would make a total conversion. The base game, unmodded, creates stories packed with incest, betrayal and bloody murder. Kings clash and crows feast.

Wester mentions discussions with HBO, causing me to prepare a newsflash Tweet, but the discussions are about the mod.

“They’re not shutting it down. They’re just a bit… wary about us monetising it, or if we’re marketing it.”

So why not offer to monetise the license by making a bespoke Game of Thrones grand strategy game?

“It would make a great franchise for us, it’s just that we just need to get over that inner feeling that [licensing] is not the right thing to do. It’s a lot about creative control.”

When I speak to Paradox today, I don’t see those reflections of Microprose. It’s tempting to take qualities like the aversion to free-to-play and dependence on complex PC games, and to draw up a picture of a company that is somehow in thrall to the past. Paradox are looking forward though and even though I feel as if they’ve applied the brakes a little over the last twelve months, that might be a precautionary measure as they navigate toward the next stretch.

In part two, I’ll be digging into the weirder corners of the roundtable discussion, including conversation about the titles that fell by the wayside and a brief psychoanalysis of the company’s character.

35 Comments

  1. Cei says:

    Just give me Hearts of Iron IV already. III crashes on launch :(

    • UKPartisan says:

      Have you tried clearing your map cache folder?….Navigate to C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common\Hearts of Iron 3\map from there delete the Cache folder. Then re-start HoI3, hopefully the game will re-build the map and should launch.

    • UKPartisan says:

      I forgot to mention crashes at launch are often linked to an error during the initial load after installation, where the game builds the map database. Deleting the cache usually works.

  2. Hanban says:

    Right.

    – Fred Wester, CEO of Paradox

  3. SuicideKing says:

    It’s tempting to take qualities like the aversion to free-to-play and dependence on complex PC games, and to draw up a picture of a company that is somehow in thrall to the past.

    Is that a bad thing though? Most of us dislike most of the F2P stuff out there, and complain about microtransactions. We also complain about shit PC ports, and mindless, dull and boring AAA games that rather play themselves.

    So what’s wrong with a company that wants to put out complex, high quality, playable-on-day-one non-F2P PC games?

    • Emeraude says:

      It’s not modern.

      And the quality of anything is obviously defined by its modernity.

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      Absolutely nothing! My argument is that what Paradox are doing isn’t a case of standing still while times change – it’s forward motion in a different direction.

      • airmikee says:

        Paradox definitely doesn’t follow the herd. After they released Warlock2 they bundled up all the DLC for Warlock1 into a complete edition and gave current owners of W1 all the DLC they hadn’t purchased for free. Even though it was only a few dollars in gifts, it’s still something that very few publishers or developers do with their older games.

      • ffordesoon says:

        I would argue that, from a business perspective, it’s actually the megalithic publishers that are stuck in the past. Give or take a few pockets of sanity within the impossibly vast machines, they haven’t changed the way they work to keep up with the times. Instead, they’ve bent new ideas and new business models into unnatural shapes in order to avoid having to do things differently, which has continually escalated costs in money, time, and manpower until every single game is an all or nothing proposition that can’t be meaningfully different from any other game. That’s not forward-thinking. That’s Hollywood but dumber and less agile.

      • P.Funk says:

        I would contend that Paradox is showing us that you can be modern, successful and forward looking and still not be a total template of the kind of business that makes most gamers who remember the mid/late 90s groan.

  4. MajorManiac says:

    Mount and Blade

  5. 2late2die says:

    Not to take away anything from the article/interview, which is great and I will definitely be reading the 2nd part, but if anyone is interested in more insight into Paradox you should definitely check out Angry Joe’s Q&A session with them from couple of days ago link to youtube.com

  6. pepperfez says:

    My feelings towards Paradox grew 100% warmer when they released some of their games on GoG. Thanks for that, Paradox!

    • LordCrash says:

      It’s probably worth to mention that all game made by Paradox themselves are effecitvely DRM-free on Steam already which means you can play them without the Steam client running once installed and you can even copy the game files to another PC and play the game there without needing the Steam client at all for installation or playing.

      You only need the Steam client for initial download, updates (if you want them) and multiplayer which is probably the reason why their newer games aren’t available on GOG since they use the Steam servers for multiplayer and not their own.

      • Cinek says:

        Hopefully we’ll see all of their games on GOG. Including some new titles. It’d be a move in right direction.

  7. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    I’ve been a long-time player of Paradox stuff since EUII and always enjoyed the grand strategy stuff and how they continue to enhance those games for years. Even though I think the UI on most of their games is pretty crap. Looking forward to HoI IV now, which seems like it’s shaping up nicely.

    My respect for them really grew when they had the guts to cancel Runemaster – that must have been a tough call. Compared to some of the absolute crap you see shoveled out onto Steam nowadays, it was was refreshing to see them pull the plug since it wasn’t coming together as they wanted.

    • blastaz says:

      When did they cancel runemaster? I certainly never saw the announcement, but the flood of dev diaries has come to a close.

      I guess I saw it coming, I didn’t see what the core of the game was, whether it was meant to be a rpg or something more like homm 3. Personally a ck homm mash up would be pretty awesome but it looked like they wanted to make a purer rpg but without letting go of the strategy game comfort blanket.

      Anyway obligatory give us EU:rome 2 post, and a 390ad ck2 expansion as a double v sign at CA…

  8. Premium User Badge

    SuddenSight says:

    To follow up on the video comment:

    Over time I have found myself more interested in games with less interesting visuals. The value of LP’s – especially strategy LP’s – comes from the commentary. This makes story focused, visuals light games like CKII and EUIV, quite interesting to watch. Because you aren’t really there for the visuals alone – the joy is in following the narrative from the perspective of the player (and perhaps learning how to play as well).

  9. LordCrash says:

    If some of you are interesting in getting into Paradox’ grand strategy games I can recommend this tutorial video series from Arumba for Crusader Kings 2: link to youtube.com

  10. Premium User Badge

    Hammer says:

    I will happily pre-order anything that even looks like a strategy game from Paradox. Spent so many hours in CK2 without noticing, going to sleep plotting how to take over half the world as Ireland or Scotland that they have earned my trust dozens of time over.

  11. Philopoemen says:

    I remember when EU first came out and set the comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.strategic group on fire with the hundreds (if not thousands) or threads. Of losing many many hours to EU, EU2, Vicky and CK, back when I actually had free time. And spending many hours perusing AARs and threads on the very friendly Paradox forums. Good times…

    I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m time poor now, or the games tried to get more and more intricate and involved, but I don’t find them as easy to play anymore, and they don;t suck me in as much. CK2 is the exception, but even then, I’m not playing days and nights like I did with the original.

    Of course, I still buy everything with a Paradox logo on it :-)

  12. Cinek says:

    Paradox got very mixed history. They made some lovely games which took months of my life, including great HOI2 or really fun EUIV. But on the other hand they got a very long history of horribly buggy releases (basically everything before EUIV), games that never live up to even quarter of their potential (eg. supreme ruler series), and occasional enormous flops (Sword of the Stars II, anyone?). I’m always afraid buying their games. It’s a lottery. Either you’ll get an exotic fruit, or a rotten apple.

    Also, what’s pissing me off about them: Steam-locked games and spam of DLCs. Especially these with skins… Just release one pack with 50 skins in instead of pulling it one by one… Jesus.

    • mattevansc3 says:

      In fairness to Paradox they are still supporting games years after release with free updates. This of course costs money so they doo need a steady stream of income, hence the DLC.

    • Lord Byte says:

      While they ARE supporting them years after their release, quite a few are STILL buggy messes (Even high profile ones like Magicka… Try and play through the campaign in multiplayer (or even singleplayer)… You can’t because of bugs, crashes, disconnects, … Multiplayer arena is even worse, pretty much every match one wizard will bug out and become invincible…)

      I AM happy that most recent releases have been pretty much bug-free and very polished things, but I am still wary too, because I’ve burned myself to many times on their stuff (I still don’t dare to turn on SOTS II).

      • mattevansc3 says:

        What endears me to Paradox is answer they gave in an interview last year whereby they said they’d rather invest a million dollars in ten cheap games instead of one large big budget game because it meant they could be more adventurous in their choices as the individual loses wouldn’t be catastrophic.

    • davidgilbert says:

      I tend to be pretty mixed when it comes to purchasing DLC depending the on the game / publisher, but I would happily purchase the expansions for CKII and EU4 as the content is well thought out and actually add to the two games, which is not always the case for DLC from other games / companies

  13. Jim Dandy says:

    Platypus skellingtons are awesome ipso facto, Paradox are awesome.

  14. MythArcana says:

    Cult of DLC…I’ll give them that!

    • airmikee says:

      While Paradox does love DLC, they’re nowhere near the worst offenders. The Sims 3 is still $400 for the entire game and Train Simulator 2015 is over $4600 with all the DLC.

  15. Mr Coot says:

    Paradox is for me what Blizzard used to be. For Blizzard, I never used to bother with reviews because I knew that whatever they put out I would enjoy. That perspective crashed to a horrible fiery death in the space between their merger with Activision and their release of D3. Paradox is who I keep tabs on nowdays instead.

    Sorry to see Impire getting the albatross treatment – I am very fond of it, espesh because it immortalises the late John Pinette. I think expectations really were its problem – ppl expected something different. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and wasn’t daunted by the micromanagement, which if you delved into the mechanics a bit, was manageable.

  16. Cosmosis says:

    Is there an ETA for Part Two being published? I can’t wait to read it!