If there was one thing I took away from GDC this year, it was that the "mid-level" publishers are having a good time. Digital distribution seems to be favouring them, and companies such as Paradox are working hard to diversify and deliver unusual games. Paradox's line up for this year includes a bunch of interesting titles, such as Crusader Kings II, Sword Of The Stars II, and Mount & Blade: Fire & Sword, and they've already produced a big management title, with Cities In Motion, and this year's surprise action RPG hit, with Magicka. Clearly, it was time to catch up with Paradox's CEO, Fredrik Wester. You can read our conversation below.
RPS: Good GDC, Fred?
Wester: It was great. A lot of people came to see us, even people we didn't expect. I think a lot of those came because of the Magicka Vietnam trailer, and they wanted to see if we had something playable. We didn't, but we had the Arrowhead CEO with us so he spoke to everyone and I think that was okay.
RPS: Magicka Vietnam makes a lot of sense to me, but how did it come about?
Wester: Well it was the CEO of Arrowhead, Johan, who said that all games have a Vietnam expansion. And he's right: all games should have a Vietnam expansion. So we made one for Magicka.
RPS: Can we expect to see Vietnam expansions for Crusader Kings and Sword Of The Stars?
Wester: Sure! I will need to talk to the development teams about that, of course, but I wouldn't completely rule it out...
RPS (trying to imagine what a Vietcong spacecraft would look like): Okay! In terms of other games you have got a busy year, as the GDC showing seemed to underline...
Wester: Oh absolutely, we have a great variety of games coming out, and we showed a number of titles at GDC. Pirates Of The Black Cove is looking particularly interesting, because it's a blend of the old East India company games and something with a little more RPG action. You've seen that, of course. Fans of the old Pirates! franchise – and I am one of those – will get a kick out of this game, I am sure.
Wester: Then we have Mount & Blade, too, which will have a new version with Fire And Sword. As well as new games we have a lot of expansions and extra content for existing games, such as those for Magicka, Hearts Of Iron III, and others. It's going to be a big year!
RPS: Yes, and it seems like you are starting to diversify. I still see people in our comments threads saying “hey Paradox, try publishing other than historical strategy!” But the truth is you are already making in-roads into other territories. Dreamlords is an MMORTS, even. How did that one come about?
Wester: That was just a great opportunity. I think it suited us because it's a hardcore RTS, but it really came about by chance. It's being developed by a Swedish developer who were running it on their own, and they wanted some marketing backup. That's the main part of it for us. It's the kind of game that needs a big kick to get it going, and we are trying to push it through our channels to make that happen.
RPS: Oh and Sword Of The Stars II! I missed that at GDC, unfortunately, but it's looking promising.
Wester: Yes, that should be this year, too. It's slated for August, but I wouldn't take that as being set in stone...
RPS: It seems like a fairly ambitious step onwards from the last game. I suppose you are soon going to be telling us about how it's pushing 4X in a new, exciting direction?
Wester: Well we like to think so, but too many companies cry wolf too often. We do it too! I try to restrain myself from saying that much about pushing boundaries or things like that, but I still think that this genre has not had a lot going on in for three or four years. I'd like to think that we can deliver the spiritual successor to the Masters Of Orion series. That's a big part of the ambition we have for the game. I am biased of course, when I say that, because that's my personal favourite, the Masters Of Orion games. I really love them! Sword Of The Starts II is a game that I – as an old 4X gamer – am really excited about.
Wester: It's actually been kind of a mess. First they made a mod, and then they made a game out of it based on the original Mount & Blade, and then another based on Mount & Blade Warband! But the game you will see out in the West is a polished version of that. It has eight more months of quality on there, and it's much closer to how TaleWorlds want it to be. They've put a lot of work in there.
RPS: I've always been a bit surprised by the enthusiasm for Mount & Blade – does the intense interest from the community ever surprise you?
Wester: Well these are the kinds of games that just keep you interested because of the way they play. If you take the Mount & Blade series as an example, then you can see why people keep on playing, because it rewards those who go back to it and find more, and master more of it. Lots of different games have their own ways of providing that kind of gameplay – just look at Minecraft - but I think these games have a certain mechanic that is fun and rewarding. I think that's what a lot of studios actually forget about: making games! I play a lot of games that look really good, but I have no reason to go back to them. I won't mention any names, but I think these games are throwaway.
If we made Mount & Blade more beautiful – if we made it look like the new Battlefield 3 trailer for example – it would cost a hell of a lot of money, and would probably sell a little more, but we don't think like that, we can't think like that. Instead we think we have an opportunity to challenge that way of doing things.
RPS: Speaking of challenging the way things are done, Magicka is quite an unusual release in many ways... And unusually buggy, too, perhaps? How do you feel about the launch of that now, looking back?
Wester: With the tech that we built upon and the group of students who were working so hard on that game... well, let's say that we were not surprised that it was buggy on release, we just knew we'd have to keep putting time and resources into the game after release. It's in somewhat good shape now, I think. But remember that working with a first-time team is hard, because it's tough to plan the time, to plan the goals. What they say and what we see might not be the same thing. But also these first-time teams have crazy ideas and those fill up the game. That's what we are so happy about with Magicka, because the action is funny and strange, and for something to be different, well, that is a great achievement for a first-time team releasing a ten-dollar game.
RPS: We often debate how finished games should be, and this issue comes up every few months. It seems to me that people are willing to take it case-by-case, though. I mean the reaction of Magicka being unfinished was quite different to the reaction to other games I could mention. Was it down to the price? Or something else in terms of expectations?
Wester: Oh it's a mix of those things. We didn't try to hype the game, and that set the expectations at a certain level. The price point was $10, and how angry can you be at having spent $10? The reaction was firstly “oh, it is buggy”, and we said “right, we're going to fix it”. I've seen other studios say “no, it's finished”, or “it's not buggy” about their games that two weeks later get patched. We just accepted that and got on with it. And we patched every day for a week, which was a difficult thing to do, because how can you be sure that one patch is better than the one from the day before, but it's done and now we are adding even more content. Other companies need to admit that their games are buggy on release, because the gamers have to live with it. If you don't start dealing with problems right away then you lose respect. As a developer you have to react quickly and responsibly. Always be polite, and always write things on the forums that you'd be happy for your mom to read.
RPS: Sound advice for everyone on the internet, there. So, moving on, what's happening with Paradox Connect? I saw you guys announce your social networking functions, but I've not seen it in any games yet?
Wester: Dreamlords is the first game that has Paradox Connect fully integrated. We want to integrate all titles with it, so that there are achievements and so on available for all games. People ask me “are you going to use that to compete with Steam?” But that's just ridiculous, we are complimenting Steam, and nothing else. We want to serve gamers and give them the kind of functionality that they are looking for. This allows us to do that without relying on anyone else.
RPS: But it's not a framework or DRM like GFWL, is it? It's just an optional extension?
Wester: No, Connect is not mandatory. If you want the achievements, avatars and so on, then you have to use it. But you don't need to log into it to get to the game. We don't ever want to hide our game behind different DRM systems like Ubisoft or whoever seem to need to do. We just don't work like that.
Wester: We don't use any DRM. We do however use Steam installers sometimes, but we're not using that as an anti-piracy DRM. Actually we are using it as a way to make sure that our distributors actually pay us money. We've had problems with that in the past with box products, and not being paid, so having control of the Steam framework means we can turn off all the games in a certain channel and that puts pressure on distributors to pay up. That's the whole story. Steam is not a DRM for us. Some people don't like Steam, and I respect that, but it's been useful to defend ourselves from unpaid distributor bills.
RPS: So do you worry about piracy?
Wester: It's a non-issue. A lot of pirates have been converted by Steam and GamersGate. Most people want to pay for games, and most of them do. As long as we make money and have a great business I won't worry about it. The only thing that pisses me off is when people claim they have a “right” to be able to pirate and download a game. Apart from that, I don't worry about it. That might change if we have a heavily pirated game, maybe. We'll see. Haha.
RPS: That seems like a positive attitude. Oh, there was one other thing I wanted to ask you about: you tweeted grumpily that you weren't invited to the strategy game panel at GDC? Yet most of the panel members mentioned Paradox as “an interesting mid-level company”, how do you feel about that?
Wester: It's certainly better than being characterised as an interesting small-scale strategy company! I see it as a good thing. It was a good thing, a really good thing. The guy from Robot Entertainment, for example, was citing us as an example of how games should be more complex, and I like that. Grumpy, though? Maybe that is the right word. But you know if it's a discussion of strategy games on PC, and me and three producers were in San Francisco anyway, you know, invite us! Come on, guys. On the other hand I won't be grumpy about it in a year – I am just giving them a heads up for next time.
RPS: That point about complexity is important, isn't it? I keep running into journalists, gamers, and developers who are all pointing to these kinds of games, or things like Men Of War, as an example of how they are getting more out of complex games. Is that one of Paradox's tasks, to supply those kinds of needs?
Wester: Yes, providing more complex gameplay is Paradox's task. What we need to be better at is to make gamers feel better about playing those games. Some games published by us are really punishing. We need to make sure that the first couple of hours of games like, say Hearts Of Iron, run a little more smoothly. I think if we can do that without sacrificing any depth or complexity, well, that has to be the goal. And we have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.
RPS: Thanks for your time.