Interview: Creating The Sandbox For Imperator: Rome’s Grand Strategy

The launch of a new Paradox Development Studios game is one that’s greeted with open arms by their fans, even when it isn’t Victoria III. Imperator: Rome instead takes us back to an age where grand armies marched across the globe, when empires grew and clashed, where tribes of humans migrated and upset the status quo.

As part of our hands on time with the game – which you can read about here – we sat down with Content Designer Peter Nicholson to discuss how this historical world is being populated with an impressive amount of detail, as well as digging into the deeper nuances of the gameplay.

TSA: One of the first things that I found with Imperator: Rome is that I got to the end of the tutorial with Rome, where I’d been conquering and uniting the country, so I felt I wanted a new challenge. I picked a different country and then I immediately thought, “What do I do now?” That’s an interesting problem, where a lot of games are starting to add more story elements, and so I’m curious if that’s something you will also be doing here?

Peter: It’s an interesting balance to strike. I mean, if you give the player an objective, then they will feel that they have to complete that objective. That’s not necessarily something that we want directly; it’s more of a sandbox to decide what you want to do. Personally, if I’m playing the Saxons, I can set my own goal to migrate to India and start invading the Mauryan Empire. Something wild like that!

But you’re right, there is more content to come in terms of decisions to create formable nations – that’s something a lot of players value as a goal – such as to start as the Boi and form Gaul. That gives you a direction to take it. There’s more to be added, but there are a lot of formable nations already in and that’s something that’s very popular in all of our games, so we want to promote that aspect of things.

In the future, maybe more. Who knows?

TSA: I guess there’s two different mentalities as a player. It reminds me of Just Cause, where you see all these videos online, but then I’m sat there and I just don’t have the imagination to come up with that kind of thing!

Peter: I get the same thing when I play Just Cause, actually. Most open world games I think “Where do I go? What do I do?” Yeah, it’s a concern, but I think it’s something that we acknowledge our players expect. EU IV has a mission system which they deal with by making it not too ever-present. You can follow the missions, but there’s no need to and you can ignore it if you want. That’s not something that we plan for release, but there are objectives that you can set yourself and I think we deal with a lot of that by enabling different ways of playing.

In Imperator, you can really focus on conquering your neighbours and creating this huge, wide civilisation which brings problems as you start to deal with the effects of aggressive expansion and people becoming disloyal. You can also do the opposite and really focus on building up your state, not going wide, but creating this tall empire that trades with other people to become powerful and influential.

TSA: It is very interesting how you’re adding depth to these things as well. Combat, for example, you have the different military tactics so you take a step away from just having doom stacks.

Peter: Yeah, composition is incredibly important.

I think when we started out we didn’t intend to make it this in depth, but it evolved out of a need for it. The granularity of the map makes terrain very important – you attack in the mountains and you’re going to be in trouble, unless you’ve accounted for that – and you can also set up who’s in the front row, which unit type is going to be flanking, you can set up your battle tactics…

There’s a lot more investment to it, but at the same time we account for the fact that not everyone is going to want to do that. You can set your armies to AI control and give them objectives, so say you’re invading Phrygia as the Seleucids, you can set half you armies to AI control and support you with what the AI would do, or give them an objective and they’ll do it. With your other army, you can min-max what you want to do, set up your perfect invasion force and work with that.

TSA: The pops are something else where I feel there’s this optional depth. I remember with Johan Andersson’s introduction, he was talking about the various factors to account for, whether they’re a slave, a citizen, their religion, how to convert them. That feels like you can be very hands off with it, or go and micromanage.

Peter: Yeah. I think if you’re playing very wide, you can be very hands off with it, but if you’re playing tall, then it’s absolutely integral to getting the most out of your provinces. It’s also something that will become more important as the game progresses – you’ve probably seen the first 20-40 years of gameplay, but as you go on, pop management becomes more integral to how you play. If you’re stacking slaves in a province, that produces more influence that you can export or use in your outlying regions, things like that.

TSA: There’s also the fascinating migratory tribe system, which is something feels like it might otherwise be the leading feature of an expansion pack.

Peter: We’ve heard that a lot, actually! We didn’t think of it in that term.

TSA: It’s just something that you might not expect to be a core pillar in a grand strategy game, but would be a little further down the list.

Peter: I see what you mean, but this was borne out of necessity really. In 3 or 4 BC, we’ve got this map set up that’s slightly imprecise in northern Germany and Scandinavia because there’s very little data to go on, but what we do know is that at this time the Germanic tribes were in the process of migrating down in all directions and filling this area. It was populated but we don’t know by whom, so we’ve chosen to represent it as empty territory that’s devoid of political boundaries.

We needed a way of saying that these guys would be moving downwards, that something needs to happen, and one of the side effects of that is that you can literally uproot your civilisation and go marching off to wherever you choose!

TSA: That’s just one of a few interesting points of white space on the map where, for example, if you zoom in on Egypt, there’s also a lot of legitimately uninhabitable desert. I remember Johan talking at PDXCON about possibly doing something similar with tribes, where they don’t have set territory and boundaries. How did you settle on the more conventional approach that’s in Imperator now?

Peter: We’ve taken it on a case-by-case basis, really. You’ve probably noticed that Ireland has no tags, and in that case it was because we don’t know enough about Ireland before about 4-500AD, I think, to reliably put people there. I think we know a lot more about places like Iberia and Gaul, as well as I think people expect there to be something there. It may not be the most authentic way of depicting a tribal nation to have a static border, but it’s something that I think is more or less impossible to portray a playable nation in a game that uses a map.

TSA: Lastly, it’s just the choices that you’ve had to make to try and make sure this feels like something well rounded, polished, and “finished”. Paradox games have this habit of needing time to evolve and find their footing. I guess it comes back to the migration, which is a fairly advanced concept to try and tackle, but is it a concerted effort to get ahead of that, or is this still a game where you have to accept that this is a foundation and that you can build upon it?

Peter: I don’t think this is the case that we’re providing something half-baked at release. We want this to be fun, playable, enjoyable in both single and multiplayer, but you can look at EU IV and CK II, and you can keep developing either of them. You can always do more, and I think that applies, whether you take ten years developing a product or two. We want this to be in a state where it is going to be fun, and I think it will be. I think it already is!

TSA: I’d hesitate at calling something “half-baked”, where there’s a different at focusing in on getting the fundamentals right and going wider.

Peter: I think the major challenge, as far as I’m concerned, is content and getting enough in there that makes playing in Egypt unique to playing Gaul. It’s a huge challenge when you’ve got a map as big as it is to make it fun.

Thanks to Peter for chatting to us about Imperator: Rome. You can catch our hands on impressions from our time with the game, and the game is expected to release some time in 2019.

Written by
I'm probably wearing toe shoes, and there's nothing you can do to stop me!