Don't miss our review of Europa Universalis: Rome here.
Since the release of Europa Universalis in 2000, Sweden's Paradox Interactive has become renowned for its deep historical simulations. Their games are usually hits both with critics and with those strategy gamers who want more from a game than a tech tree.
This year Paradox Interactive turns its attention to the classical world with Europa Universalis: Rome. Johan Andersson, Rome's producer, agreed to sit down for an interview about Rome, Paradox's legacy and his views on how to guide gamers through the past.
Crispy Gamer: What have you learned from your previous games that you carried over into Rome?
Johan Andersson: I've been making games like this for 10 years or so and there are a few things I've learned, the most important of which is to make the games easy to get into, but have enough depth to hook a player in for the long term.
Crispy Gamer: Can you give me a specific example?
Andersson: Having a large interface that obstructs the screen or having things that are not explained tends to make people feel alienated from the game immediately. You know the game we made called Victoria?
Crispy Gamer: Yes.
Andersson: It had no tutorial, the interface had loads of layers, lots of numbers, things everywhere, and there were no guidelines or help features. Yeah, it's a good game underneath the hood but it takes a lot of effort to learn how to play it.
Crispy Gamer: Especially the economic system.
Andersson: That's a perfect example. Everything about it was complex. So now we make our games easier to understand without dumbing them down. Interfaces are more streamlined and always have things that tell you what you should do. In Rome we have hints throughout the interface telling you "it would be a good idea to do this or do that."
Crispy Gamer: Rome has a lot of role-playing elements -- character traits, loyalty, etc, stuff that carried over from Crusader Kings.
Andersson: Yeah, we've taken a lot from Crusader Kings. It's like Crusader Kings without the family being so important. You have family, but it's really about the loyalty and connections. It is like a role-playing game because one thing we've learned is that people like to feel attached to what they are playing, and characters make things a lot more interesting and intriguing.
Crispy Gamer: It seems in this case, though, that a lot of the effects are really under the hood and out of the player's control. Italy, for example, has 10 governors off doing whatever they want. Is there a point where the game controls the player instead of the player controlling the game?
Andersson: No. I don't think so. They don't have that much power. The characters are just off living their lives and you don't have much control over that. You are playing the country, but you are not the puppet master.
Crispy Gamer: The ancient world is very different from the periods you've covered so far. What have you done to try to capture the feel of ancient Rome?
Andersson: A lot of little things, from the choice of colors to the music. For example, it's a very little thing, but the names of the units are different depending on what nation you play. Roman soldiers are called cohorts and archers are called cohorts sagittarium. We've also really made sure that different types of countries played differently. A republic is very different in how it works than a monarchy. A republic has elections every other year and the guy with the greatest popularity and prestige will become the leader. This may bring good things or bad things.
Crispy Gamer: If someone unfamiliar with ancient history picked up the game, what would you like them to take away from it as a lesson about the period?
Andersson: There are two things that people will talk about. The first one is civil wars. Any character can start a civil war if he is ambitious and has a strong enough power base. It doesn't matter how long the game goes on or how powerful you become, you always run the risk of having your country deteriorate and go through civil war.
The other thing is that barbarians are always a threat. Most of the map is covered with barbarians at the start and you can only colonize slowly. Barbarians will go pillaging whenever they can so you constantly need to think about that fact and keep your guard up.
The game has islands of civilization where might makes right. It's an empire builder, but large states are not entirely stable all the time.
Crispy Gamer: The tension between historically accurate and "fun" game design has been around since the beginning of the industry and your audience and community seems to divide pretty much evenly. Some people want a lot of history and others just want this big history-themed sandbox. Where do you fall in that debate?
Andersson: What I've noticed is a lot of people don't really know what they want. And it's not like there are just two factions there; there are 20 more than that. There are people that want historical accuracy as long as it does not adversely affect their country. There are other people who think a game should only be context-sensitive with regard to historical accuracy, for example an archer should not appear with a machine gun.
My goal is to make sure that there is a balance between what feels historical and what feels like good gameplay. Good gameplay is when you do not "map" a game.
Crispy Gamer: How do you draw that line? There is quite a bit of history in all of your games.
Andersson: So long as you cannot plan in advance precisely what will happen because it happened historically. Have you ever played Europa Universalis II in multiplayer?
Crispy Gamer: Once or twice.
Andersson: In multiplayer the game pretty much breaks down because after people have some experience, they wind up making decisions based on historical events rather than the play of the game. If it is your country, then you are thinking "Oh, I know this historical event is coming, so I don't have to do anything now." It became very, very silly.
Crispy Gamer: Is there anything with which you're especially happy in Rome?
Andersson: I am really happy with all the characters and how you don't know what will happen with them. You have this guy and you put him in charge of your army. He's very successful and becomes very popular because he wins a lot of battles. Then his troops become loyal to him. So you are left wondering "OK. What is he going to do?" Then you try to reduce his power base so he doesn't start a civil war or do something worse.
Crispy Gamer: Is there anything you regret having to leave out of the game?
Andersson: You mean features? When we start developing a game, for the first month we have loads of ideas and then we start cutting them. For the last year of development we don't cut any more or introduce new features since we have a plan and need to leave enough time to balance what we put in.
Crispy Gamer: So there's nothing you regret dropping?
Andersson: I'm not sure. I kind of like how it turned out. We had plans for more advanced internal political systems like a Senate, but now when we are playing the game we realize that you already have enough to do. It's a mixed bag. It would have been cool to have those features but I think it would have been more micromanagement in the end.
Crispy Gamer: Given how much content your games do have in them, when do you know you've hit the limit of how much a single gamer can handle?
Andersson: I think Victoria was over the edge. Looking back at it, I think the design we had for Crusader Kings was perfectly planned. The problem with that game?oh, I don't want to admit it, but it's probably cursed.
Crispy Gamer: Cursed?
Andersson: Yeah. It seems that whenever we do something with it, it turns out badly for us. . It was in development for years and years and the programmer who was working on it quit -- long story. It's a great game. It's one I play a lot on my own. I'd love the chance to do a new Crusader Kings with a new engine.
Crispy Gamer: So Victoria was too much, Crusader Kings was just right?
Andersson: To be honest, 'I base my opinions on what I can play, and when I go back and look at old games today, Victoria is far too complex. I can't make the effort or dedicate the time to get into it, and I'm the one who designed it. I programmed it. When I can't make the effort to get into it, it's probably too complex.
Crispy Gamer: In February, Neil Sorens wrote an article for Gamasutra about story telling in strategy gaming. He pointed to Europa Universalis 3 and its end-of-game summary as a small step forward in helping gamers develop narratives. Is this something you take seriously as a designer?
Andersson: That's one of the features I originally wrote for Europa Universalis 3. Some day if I have time I want to implement an interactive history book into the game. The version currently in EU3 is a pale representation of my original vision. My whole vision was that in EU3 you create history, you don't replay it, and the idea was that the game should be a history book as well. It would save screenshots of how the map looked at certain points and it would write a story book about, say, the "Great Nordic War" with battles and all that. Unfortunately it would have taken three or four times the development effort, so it was cut. I would love to introduce more storytelling like that into games, though.
Crispy Gamer: The move to 3-D is not always a popular one, but you stuck with it and it seems to look better in Rome. What does the third dimension bring to a game like this anyway?
Andersson: Well, you can depict much more and give greater information to the player with better graphics. We?re still working on it. It's pretty new to us. But in theory it will mean larger maps with more detail for players.
Crispy Gamer: Your company has a reputation in some circles for releasing interesting games, but it also has a reputation of releasing games that need a lot of patching very early on to become playable.
Andersson: Yeah, 'we got that reputation from Hearts of Iron and Crusader Kings. But if you look at EU3 and Hearts of Iron II and a game we don't talk much about, Diplomacy, they were solid out of the box. No crash bugs, all the features are working, there is reasonable balance and reasonable artificial intelligence. If you look at the EU3 patching cycle, yeah, we had 10 pages of notes on the patches but only half a page of that is bug fixes. The rest is stuff where we said "OK, let's tweak the game a little where the community thinks it is not perfectly balanced." And there were some historical inaccuracies to correct that this province did not belong to that country on that date and so on. And we keep constantly improving the AI.
But yes, unfortunately we still have the legacy of Hearts of Iron being a buggy piece of shit. And there's not much we can do about it except keep trying to make games that are as bug-free as possible.
Crispy Gamer: Your community forums are very active.
Andersson: Yeah, we have about 90,000 members.
Crispy Gamer: You engage with the members on your forums quite often. Where does this fit in your corporate philosophy?
Andersson: When I asked him two weeks ago what I should spend time on, my CEO told me, "You need to keep spending your time on the forums because those people are the core of our business." They are the ones who buy the games. It's very important to be active. But I'm not just active there. I lurk on a lot of forums reading about games.
Crispy Gamer: Do you ever get led down the wrong path by the forums, where someone makes a suggestion that sounds good but proves to be unworkable?
Andersson: 'There are always people who think they can do a better job creating a game than you. No matter what decision you're making, there will be a bunch of people who think it's the greatest decision ever made and a bunch of other people who think the decision is total shit. You can't really let what people say influence your final decisions. It's more like you need to be there to explain why you think it will be a great game or feature. In the end, I must make the game that I think is fun to play, because if I don't think it's fun to play, then how can I persuade someone else to play it?
Crispy Gamer: The community is your core group of consumers. Suppose you wanted to expand your audience?
Andersson: Well, those consumers are not a monolithic group. I have a mostly positive view of people. I don't think that 95 percent of gamers are too stupid to play our games, but I do think that by easing the learning curve we should be able to broaden our audience. I don't want to make the games "dumber," though, because then I wouldn't enjoy them myself.
Crispy Gamer: Recently there has been a lot of discussion from PC developers about the effect of piracy on their business. What is your view on it?
Andersson: Our view is very simple. I don't like copy protection on games myself. I think that copy protection does nothing to stop pirates and in the end only hurts your consumers. ' It doesn't take that long to crack; you wait a day or two and it's on all the pirate sites anyway, so why bother screwing the legitimate consumer? The guys who actually pay for the game shouldn't be the ones you make suffer.
I don't think we've had copy protection on any game I've worked on in the last six or seven years. Only when we were working with Strategy First and it insisted on Europa Universalis II having protection on the CD we shipped.
Crispy Gamer: You have a new expansion for EU3, In Nomine, coming out in the spring. Have you already decided on what your next major project after that is going to be?
Andersson: I know exactly what it is, but I'm not allowed to tell anyone. I think we'll announce it at the end of the summer.