Victoria 3 is set in what is perhaps one of the most interesting periods of history. From 1836-1936, the effects of the Industrial Revolution were still being felt as technology continued to march onward, as social and cultural change swept across many countries around the world, and as Great Powers rubbed shoulders with their colonial might felt around the world.
It’s also fascinating as it is one of the most consistently requested games Paradox history. Having gleaned as many details as we could for our Victoria 3 preview caught up with Game Director Martin Anward and Game Designer Mikael Andersson to discuss what took them so long and how the game seeks to represent different facets of the grand strategy genre.
TSA: What do you predict will replace Vicky 3 as the next Paradox Development Studios meme game announcement?
Martin: I actually don’t believe the meme is going to die just yet! I think it’s just going to run on inertia for a while, and even a number of years after the game is released, people will still be asking “Vicky 3 when?”
But as to what will eventually replace it? I don’t really know!
TSA: I guess from that, because people have been demanding it for quite some time, some might wonder why it’s actually taken you so long to get to it. Was it a particularly difficult game to conceive? Something you felt had to sit in the backs of your minds to help it come together?
Martin: So the way it started was, boringly enough, pretty much identical to how all our other projects started. It starts with someone being the champion of it, having the opportunity, because they’re not too busy with something else, and having an idea of what they want to do. Then it’s taking that pitch, getting it approved, getting a team together, starting pre-production and eventually full production.
The reason why it’s coming now is two fold: it’s just how things fell in terms of when we could start it and who could on it, and we do want to take our time with this one because it is such a meme, such a legendary project in the fan base. We wanted to take the time too get it right.
TSA: PDS is definitely in a very different place to where you were when Vicky 2 launched, and it feels like you’ve got a very different ethos, in particular for accessibility. You see that in Stellaris, where you have the level playing field starting positions, or the excellent tooltips in CK3. How much of that experience can Victoria 3 lean on to help newcomers not be overwhelmed? A lot of people just won’t know Vicky 2!
Mikael: Yeah, this is definitely an area of focus for us. The approach we had to take with this is that we couldn’t dumb down the game. You could not Victoria 3 and have it be less complex than Victoria 2, which sets the bar even higher for accessibility and tools to permit new players to conquer this incredible learning curve.
The approach we’re taking goes everywhere, from pure game design, to UX design, to just code quality. We have to make sure it’s firing on all cylinders.
We can’t, of course, have a symmetrical start like Stellaris. The whole thing about the game is just about how the power differentials are enormous and you need to be able to play a very small nations and a very big nations. So we’ve introduced tools to manage your economy and your politics in a similar way, regardless of the size that you are. If you’re managing 50 states or if you’re managing 2 states, you still have a single way of making a technological upgrade to your textile mills. It’s the same one click to do that.
The other thing I’d like to mention is that the core loop is very familiar to even new players. It’s about expanding your economic engine and making people happy, which is a very simple core loop that people understand, but then that flows into all the other systems in the game. So if you expand those textile mills, now certain parts of your population are happier and other parts are maybe no happier, so now you have to deal with that. You learn the game as you play.
Martin: And if you can’t make them happier, you can just try to keep them in line instead!
TSA: One of the things with Victoria is the dramatic social change through this period. For some players coming to it, the most obvious path might be to embrace that change, but you can also go the route of of the Russian Tzars and cling onto power for as long as you can… I guess those are the two predominant play styles you can really have?
Martin: Absolutely, you can dig in your heels! You can be like, “I’m Russia, I’m going to be ultra-conservative, I’m not going to abolish serfdom, I’m going to do all these things…” but that means you’ll also have to play differently. It means you’ll get some different strengths and you’ll have a lot of Authority, you will maintain a ton of power with your ruler and make all these arbitrary things like promoting an interest group, promoting consumption of a certain good, improve road maintenance here. These are powerful tools you will get, but it also means that you’ll have heavy censorship, you’ll have less technology spreading through your country, you’ll have less of these cool new innovations and you’ll have to base your economy a lot more on agrarian interests that place power in the hands of land owners, the aristocrats. You’ll be more political conservative, than if you built a ton of universities to be a head of technology, where you’re then going to have a lot of academics who are not conservative. If you industrialise, you might have a lot of engineers who want something like socialism… oof!
It really depends. We’re not trying to say any of the play styles are the one you should be going for, because this is a society builder and a lot of it comes down to wanting to let the player play with all of these different scenarios in all of these different countries.
TSA: I find the different interest groups an interesting catch all way of representing governments around the world. The way I understand it, it’s identical between all the different countries, and it sort of balances who has the power to match?
Martin: Not quite; there’s a couple things that do differ. First of all, not every countries will have every group as relevant – for example, if you start in Bhutan, you’re not going to have any Industrialists because you’re not going to have capitalists, trade unions.
The other factor is that the interest groups can actually vary in terms of the ideologies they have. While Industrialists will generally represent the interests of capitalists and capital, what they actually believe will differ between countries and depending on the leader the have.
One example that Mikael’s brought up a few times before is the Devout IG. That’s representing the state religion, but they believe different things depending on what that state religion actually is.
Mikael: Yeah, so that Interest Group is supposed to actually be called the Catholic Church or the Church of Sweden, and they might have different ideologies. Shintoists are going to believe different things to a Shia Muslim.
Martin: So we chose to limit the number of groups because we want to keep things manageable and we want the player to be able to understand what you need to do, who you need to empower to pass laws.
TSA: War is often the focus of 4X and grand strategy games (even if diplomacy is an option), but you’re really trying to shift the focus away from that in Victoria 3 with the Diplomatic Plays. Where did that come from and how does it work?
Mikael: Diplomatic Plays, as a concept, were heavily inspired by the crisis system from Victoria 2 Heart of Darkness, and we really wanted the great powers to feel like they had this great influence around the world, depending on where their interests were. They could get involved as world police, things could escalate and then get out of hand.
Another thing that we really wanted to emphasise is that, while war obviously needs to be present, it is the ultimate way to enforce your will on the world. It could eventually get to that point, but we wanted to see if we could create a design that would emphasise the bit just ahead of that. The balance of power is really relevant with the great powers, different countries aligning with different blocks, different powers sponsoring smaller nations and deciding that they’re going to lead your interests in a region. We wanted to create that sense that you could solve your problems by making aggressive moves, but try to play the different factions against each other and come out of it without having a bloody and costly war.
Martin: It’s also very topical for the era, as well. This was the era of conferences, a lot of “I’ll go to war if we don’t get an agreement,” but then an agreement was reached and something happens.
TSA: Does it add a bit of unpredictability to the diplomacy? It’s very easy for diplomacy in this genre to boil down to stats and simple maths. This feels like throwing more variable to the mix.
Martin: Yeah, we’re definitely aiming to make it feel a bit more unpredictable, so it’s not just a matter of knowing your numbers are bigger, hitting the ‘Declare War’ button and then winning. We’re hoping that it will be more interesting, that sometimes you’ll play smart and get what you want, and sometimes you’ll get a little thing in the Balkans that goes a little out of hand.
TSA: [laughs] It was always the way with the Balkans… I guess the key there is still ensuring people understand why things are happening, instead of the XCOM thing of having a 99% chance to hit, and missing.
Mikael: Yeah, the unpredictability needs to be there and it needs to be tense. We don’t actually show things like (and we often do this in our diplomatic interactions) that if you can only squeeze one more relation out of them, they will agree to this. We don’t want to show that the UK has a 68% chance of joining if you do this, that and the other thing, it needs to be like “Oh, shit, something could go down here if I don’t play my cards right!”
Martin: Yeah, though we might say the UK is a bit more favourably inclined towards you, but then that doesn’t mean anything if they get a fantastic offer from the other side.
TSA: So you can have other countries being invited to stick their nose in to Diplomatic Plays, but can you flip the tables and oppose a rival’s expansions and moves? Or do you have to be invited?
Martin: It’s all based on where you have an interest. We have strategic regions in the world, and you have a strategic interest if you own territory there, if a subject of yours owns territory there, or you declare an interest there – the higher rank you are, the more declared interests you can have.
If you have an interest in a place where things are going down, you can just decide you’re going to get involved. You don’t have to be invited, you can just say “I’m getting involved on this side, I want this to happen.”
Mikael: And one of the reasons why you might want to do that, even if you’re not getting anything out of it, is to join one side just so the other side backs down, so there won’t be a war. War is costly, and even if you’re not directly involved, if the sulphur mines you’re exploiting in the region are going to be impacted by this fight, that’s going to be bad for you regardless, so you might join a side to prevent that change.
TSA: In the modern day we talk a lot about soft power and hard power, and I’m curious how you feel that concept is represented in the game?
Martin: I’m going to say the most significant way is through the Market system, because the way you can grow your power without actually conquering territory is by growing your market, bringing countries into it, getting captive markets for your goods and access to more resources.
The Interests in general can also be a sort of soft power where you’re just, you know, declaring an interest in an area to make everyone less inclined to start something because they know you’d get involved if they do.
We do definitely want that thing where you feel you can lean on people due to your economic muscle, rather just declaring that you’re ready to invade them.
TSA: I’ve obviously asked a lot of questions geared toward the Great Powers, and that’s how a lot of people are likely to play, but how does the game scale down to smaller countries?
Mikael: Yeah, the power differential is a really fascinating design challenge. There’s very different kind of gameplay that you might engage with as different countries.
In terms of how you might play the smaller countries, they will almost always focus primarily on making sure that their core competitive advantage economically is up and running, figure out what raw resources you can use. The main way you would compete is with prestige, which is a combined score for how well you’re doing, but it’s entirely subjective in the eyes of the rest of the world. That means as a smaller power, there’s always one guy that’s just a bit higher than you and that you can surpass.
Eventually the goal for most minor nations is probably going to be to become a major power that can do things like colonisation or get involved in at least one other continent and get access to more resources that you need to expand further.
Martin: Part of the design challenge, and a thing I kept repeating for all the mechanics we made, was that is has to work for Texas and it has to work for China.
Texas is a playable country with 56,000 people in it, and China is a playable country with 381,000,000 people in it! So whatever system we build has to, in some way, scale to both. It is, for sure, something that has been one of the really unique and fun design challenges. We’re not abstracting away and saying that Texas has 5 economic units and China has 500, we’re saying China has 7,000 times the economy that Texas has and all that entails.
TSA: I’d just love to see the kinds of Diplomatic Plays that Texas would try to pull against China! Like “Yeah, we’re in the South of the US, but our true rival is clearly that massive country all the way over there!”[laughter]