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Have you ever seen what it's like inside the New York Stock Exchange? On nearly every surface you'll see numbers flashing all over the place beside esoteric codes, monitors showing talking heads with their own scrawl of numbers at the bottom of the screen, and people yelling and pointing and waving bits of paper in the air. You can't be expected to walk into the NYSE and suddenly learn how a modern economy works. There are just so many variables in front of you that even with guidance it can be hard to figure out just what the hell is going on.
The developers of Europa Universalis 4 have a similar information overload problem. In EU, you take on the role of a country like France, England or something smaller like one of the German states and guide it through the Age of Imperialism, a period that runs roughly from the 1400s to the 1800s. As a player, you're generally trying to make a bigger splash than your country might have made in actual history, or to create alternate histories like taking over Europe as a Muslim state, but because there's no way to "win" the game, it's easy to become overwhelmed. Getting players to stick around instead of glancing around the world map and puttering off to play a game that's easier to pick up is a real challenge.
Even to someone interested in grand strategy games and the freedom of playing in an incredibly detailed historical sandbox, EU can feel alienating. You often just don't know if what you're doing is helping your nation or hurting it. There are wikis written by fans of the series to dissect the best strategies and trial-and-error experimentation is possible, but simple effective moves should be apparent from playing the game, not reading Gamefaqs. I sat down with Paradox Development Studios last week to get my hands on the upcoming Europa Universalis 4 and asked them point blank how they intended to elevate the series beyond its loyal but modest audience.
The good news is Paradox recognizes the problem and is going to spend the next year fine-tuning exactly what information you need to make your decisions as intelligently as possible. "There is a lot of stuff going on in Europa Universalis. And if you go back and look at our earlier games, it can feel like too much. It feels more complicated than it has to be," admitted Thomas Johansson, the project lead for the next iteration of the series due out in September 2013. He said the game's features are basically complete as the code enters alpha stage soon, and the rest of the development time will be spent improving the accessibility.
"We're actually trying to look at the features and the interface, and ask, 'What do you need to make decisions?'" Johansson said. He showed me an example of a feature that was added in one of EU3's expansion that's been revised for EU4, dealing with rebels. In the rebel tab - there are a lot of tabs - there's many variables showing how likely it is for a rebel faction to grow within your nation. Johansson is playing the country of Aragon, and the island of Sardinia might break away from his sovereignty at some point unless you increase your Stability stat or you accept their demands. "Even if you don't figure out all the values, you can go into the new interface and click the button that says 'Handle the Rebels.' You'll realize if you boost the stability that will help with this problem," Johansson said. "We want to keep the underlying complexity, but we want to also help new players get into the game."