How to make the masses care? Make the multiplayer, and they will come.
In my last preview of Europa Universalis 4, I discussed how the interface is an obstacle the team must conquer if the franchise is ever going to find the success its strategy brethren like Civilization enjoys. Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester wants EU4 to be the "Strategy Game of the Year" so badly that he's taken to jokingly referring to the project that way in his internal company meetings. While the latest build doesn't solve the interface issue - they still have to craft the tutorial or introduction - I was given a special chance to play EU4 in a way that will entice many players. Multiplayer in Europa Universalis is cutthroat, vicious, and deliciously engaging.
What's that you're saying? How can one of the most engrossing and time-consuming singleplayer games translate to a multiplayer setting? I don't exactly know myself, but somehow setting the game's speed at a leisurely pace and connecting to 7 other journalists in a LAN setup - very easily and seamlessly I might add, the network code Paradox employs through Steam was flawless - resulted in a tense, seesaw game with conflicts breaking out in Europe over trade rights and territorial desires.
It's no accident. The code for EU4 is largely complete now so the team has been doing almost nothing but playing multiplayer matches against each other to test it out and fine tune the mechanics. From veteran EU designer Johan Anderssen to the lowliest intern, everyone at the Paradox Development Studio is playing EU4 against each other and the stories they tell about the backstabbing and political machinations are wildly entertaining.
"About fifteen guys in the office have been playing," said Thomas Johansson, lead designer of EU4. "It's fun to see what happens to the office atmosphere when you play. You see these people having heated discussions, but it's not about game design, it's about asking 'Why did you go to war with me? Why did you ally with him? He's obviously going to backstab you. My idea is much better.'" It's great to see a so-called intellectual strategy game breed such paranoia.
"You can't let the other guys go to lunch without you, because who knows what they are going to be plotting?" he asked, very seriously.
In order to bring multiplayer to EU4, Paradox has added a bunch of features. Up to 32 players can join a game, and the team has developed something called "Hot Joins" which will allow a player to arrive late into the game after it has started. There's also standalone servers you can host on your machine and get other people to connect to it. Custom, private, IRC-like chat windows will also appear to allow you to plot with your fellow leaders. "I can invite France to a channel, and say 'Let's forget our squabbles. Spain is the real enemy; let's go after him.' And then I can open another channel to Burgundy, Spain and Austria and say, 'Guys, I just told France to attack Spain. Let's go get him.'"
Sitting across the monitors and keyboards from my opponents at the Paradox Convention in Iceland this week, we didn't have to use the private channels to plot - we could just call out to each other. I chose to play as Castille, and quickly made a verbal pact with Aragon and Portugal - the gentlemen sitting next to me - which I sealed in-game with an alliance. We went about our business invading North Africa together, but we could hear the lamentations from Venice, as the pact he made with Austria soured. It turns out the Austrian player, while being very outwardly friendly, was quietly fomenting rebellion within Venetian provinces. Once the rebel units got out of hand and actually conquered a territory or two, Austria betrayed his Venetian friend, declared war, and took those territories for himself.