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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.

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The multiplayer session only lasted two hours, but the 8 journalists involved have talked about it for days afterwards. Every time I’ll hear someone exclaim “Those bloody Lollards!” I’ll know he’s referring to the rebels who took his provinces.

Of course, there’s more to EU4 than just the multiplayer. Johansson is busy perfecting exerting military and civilian pressure on trade nodes, and streamlining the resources to one major pool of Monarch Points which you can spend to improve technology, or recruit advisors and generals to your country. The number of Monarch Points you earn depends on the strength of your ruler. I was unfortunately saddled with an absolute moron king in the game I played – scores of 0 for all stats – so I put him on the front lines as a military leader hoping some Moroccan sword would put him out of his misery to let his surprisingly intelligent and capable son take over. I guess genes aren’t everything in EU4.

Diplomacy also received a drastic overhaul. Instead of showing a percentage of success XCOM-style for a diplomatic task like offering peace or a royal wedding and forcing you to roll the die so to speak, you’ll will know absolutely whether you’ll succeed or not. That’s balanced by only giving players a finite amount of diplomats at their disposal. Only have two diplomats available forces you to choose which missions are more important, and you no longer have the desire to spam Europe with your relations-improving envoys.

Another wrinkle to the diplomatic system is the concept of rivals. You’ll be able to set a nation as a rival, which will mean a penalty to their opinion of you, but it also means a boost to the opinions of other nations which may hate the same country. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Johansson explained. “England may start off setting France as a rival. Burgundy, he might not like the English, but he really hates the French. The English player should set France as a rival, which will help England and Burgundy find each other in alliances.” It’s way for the designers to help program the AI to make more sense, but it can be a great diplomatic tool as well.

Beyond game mechanics, Johansson assured me the team is going to continue to use the Steam platform for EU4 with Steam cloud saves and achievements. Some of the achievements will be nation or story-based – like uniting the Holy Roman Empire under the Austrian flag, for example – but they are toying with the idea of tying achievements to an Ironman mode to discourage save-scumming. If that gets implemented, you’ll know a player earned his laurels because he couldn’t have constantly reloaded to ensure his victory.

“Another big focus for us is of course usability,” said Johansson, echoing some of the doubts I wrote in my preview from last November. “Our games are complex, but they don’t need to be complicated. A lot of that has to do with presentation. When you make a decision and you show it to the player, the player should understand what is going on. It should be about the story, not so much about the mechanic.”

Words are wind, and I’ve heard this rhetoric from game designers before. But even though I had a blast playing the game for a few hours, I’m not necessarily who they need to convince if Paradox wants the game to sell more than a million copies. Hearing about these features at events and having the designers over my shoulder to ask about them is a luxury the common player just doesn’t have. Will the team be able to craft a user interface that isn’t about walls of text, endless popups and incomprehensible numbers?

“I’ve been telling my team ‘Your job is to explain each mechanic to the player,'” Johansson said. “‘If you can’t, well, change the feature.'”

Such commitment is laudable. I hope it reaps rewards for the Paradox team, because I’d want nothing more than for streams of Europa Universalis 4 multiplayer sessions to become the next big thing on YouTube when the grand strategy game comes out in September 2013.

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