“I remember the first real hate thread about Paradox, which was roughly ten years ago,” reminisces Paradox Interactive’s CEO Fred Wester during a roundtable discussion at PDXCon a fortnight ago. “Wargamer.com, they had a thread that said, ‘Post why you hate Paradox Interactive.’ and Johann [Andersson – EVP Game Development], he was devastated. He was, like, ‘Look at this! It’s twenty people posting why they hate us!’ and I told him this is a funny way to say it, but it’s a sign of greatness because no-one cares about hating an underdog.”
“The fact that they see us as a company who are supposed to make great games is why they start hating on us. What it is, is a love relationship gone bad, basically. They wanted to love us, but we wouldn’t let them love us because we were just making buggy games! So I said, ‘If we make great games, we’re going to win all these people back.'”
Ten years ago, Paradox Interactive was a tiny company with just a handful of people that was best known for its Grand Strategy games such as Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron or Crusader Kings. Truthfully, not a lot has changed in that regard, with those three series still Paradox’s bread and butter, but the company has grown to 170 employees, to the point where such expectations might reasonably be levied at them.
It’s something that Paradox are keenly aware of, as they talked about their plans for the future and discussed their past at PDXCon 2015 roughly a fortnight ago. They don’t want to release poorly received games like Gettysburg: Armored Warfare – with a staggering 22/100 on metacritic – or have to publicly cancel a game long after it’s been announced, like Runemaster was. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t sign them again though; they’re proud of their mistakes, but have tried to learn from them.
It’s for this reason that there weren’t any new games announced at PDXCon, as Paradox plan to keep a tighter lid on games in the early stages of development. As Fred explained, “We made the decision that we’re announcing at Alpha, when we’ve already decided that this game is going to go out, we know approximately what quarter we’re going to release it in, and we know much more about the game than we did before.”
Susana Meza Graham, Paradox Interactive’s COO, added, “I mean, we’ve done that with third party for a while, and we’ve made a couple of exceptions, but we had been a little bit less [quiet] with the internal titles, because we know we have the fanbase and they like to discuss things during a long time.”
“It’s just the amount of disappointment when we had to cancel a game, both for our own teams but also for the fans. We want to know that we’re onto something that’s actually going to hit the market.”
Yet, even without fresh announcements, Paradox are looking to have a busy first half of the year with a lot of game releases, which we’ve been covering over the last fortnight. Hearts of Iron IV is a major overhaul for the WW2 based series, while Europa Universalis IV is currently enjoying Paradox’s customary long tail of support with the El Dorado DLC and an accompanying patch that’s out today. There’s also a publishing partnership with Obsidian Entertainment for the classically styled RPG Pillars of Eternity, while the small team at Colossal Order are aiming to take the long neglected city builder genre by storm at the start of March with Cities: Skylines.
There’s also some early forays into the world of console gaming, as a partnership with Sony is soon to bear fruit with Magicka 2 – the madcap wizarding of which is perhaps the best fit for a console game from their portfolio – as well as the only announced game not set for the first half of this year, Ruffian Games’ 2.5D tactical shooter Hollowpoint.
The cancelled Runemaster was also planned for PS4, and Fred pulled out another little anecdote over Sony’s reaction, saying, “I had a meeting with Sony […] and it’s a very friendly relationship, but they said, ‘Well, you’re starting to cancel games before we have released anything together. Is that a good or a bad sign?'”
“Obviously if we have other parties invested in it as well, it’s even harder to make the decision,” he continued, “but this renewed focus on delivering quality games was a key part of that decision”. Susana concluded, “We want the first game we release with Sony to be a game we’re absolutely 100% committed to and that we believe can make it.”
Even just the ability to delay or cancel games is a positive sign for Paradox, as Fred admits that “10 years ago we couldn’t [delay] because we put so much money into it that we needed cash back.” Now though they do have the reserves to be able to do so, and they’re in the position to look to the future with a vision for Paradox 2017.
It’s relatively modest perhaps, with a goal to continue growing profits and revenue at a similar rate as they have done in recent years, to continue to have those key Grand Strategy titles as their bedrock IPs and, somewhat more aspirational, to be one of the top 5 employers in Sweden. But it’s also important to them that they don’t lose what it is to be Paradox.
Games that they sign or develop internally will still need to match up to Paradox’s game pillars. Naturally, it depends on the game, but they’ll still be gameplay driven, feature long play times or high replayability with subject matters that you can get deeply involved in and tend to aim at a niche market. But internally, they’re also looking to keep a hold of what it was like to be that scrappy upstart.
There might be a more defined support structure and dedicated QA teams for each game, but within PDS, the development teams are still small, at around a dozen people, and Fred and Susana are keen to keep that small team attitude. It’s all about transparency and communicating with fans, with everyone at Paradox encouraged to have a forum account and get involved.
With so many lessons learnt on the development side of things, Fred pondered on whether this would be their next big learning process. “Yes, I think you’re right,” he said, “and I also think the corporate transparency that we’re talking about is a new management trend. I think that’s going to be a trend in the coming two years.”
“In that transparent organisation, everyone can communicate and everyone is supposed to communicate. You can’t media train everyone either. What you have to do is to set the common goal and the common vision, because if everyone knows that, it’s going to be so much easier to talk in more general terms about the company and where we stand and what we’re doing, and then when you go down to each project or game, it’s also easier to see the whole picture.”
But for Susana, the move to transparency has a different root, as she said, “I think this is going back to basics. When we were 15 people in the company, everyone spoke on behalf of the company and on behalf of all of the products.”
“Now we’re 170, so for me it’s almost like we’re going back to the basics. Everyone should be able to talk about the company and people do! We probably have 50-60 people at the company who are regularly out talking at schools about what it’s like to work at Paradox, about the projects they’re working on and so it’s becoming more of a main staple in the company again and I think that’s great. I hope we get to keep that.”
Yet, as any company grows, it risks losing its original identity as new people and personalities are added into the mixture. “I definitely think a challenge for us is keeping that small team feel,” she continued. “I think that’s one of the reasons why people come to Paradox and I think that’s one of the reasons people stay at Paradox, because we have that small team feel and you can really see the effect you have on that particular project, regardless of which project that is. That’s one of the reasons why we set that as a focus for 2017, because we have to keep our eye on the ball the whole time to keep that.”
One thing that will almost certainly still be true is that Paradox will continue to experiment. “How much power should you put into the hands of one person?” Fred asks. “Me and Shams [Jorjani – VP of Acquisition & Unicorn Division] signed most of the games we’ve seen in the last five years, but the past two years have been more of a collective effort.”
“Looking at the quality of the games now, you can see that’s a step in the right direction, but once we come over the hill so everyone can decide everything, we’ve turned into a company that lacks edge. That’s what I’m working with right now, getting more of that back. I mean, we need more Goat Simulators. It scored 56 on metacritic; it’s still a great game.”
It’s one of a number of ideas that came up during the discussion. Fred’s been pushing for a tablet version of a Grand Strategy game for years now, and as Susana stated quite simply, “We’re not done with mobile.” There’s been experiments with Steam Boxes, this recent partnership with Sony and more. While we’re not yet privy to a number of their projects – and there’s one big secret project which Fred mentioned in passing that Paradox have yet to reveal – they’re not standing still, but finding the right horses to back and the right niches to head into that match Paradox’s style.
Fred has often stood up at PDXCon or their annual fan gatherings and talked about the passion that drives the company forward. The narrative might be changing, but here’s hoping that Paradox manage to hold onto that passion for years to come.