Fredrik Wester, CEO Paradox Interactive

Fredrik Wester, CEO Paradox Interactive

Last week, I was invited to New York City to attend the Paradox Convention 2011 to see all of the games that the Stockholm based PC game developer and publisher had lined up for the coming year. The festivities opened with the CEO of Paradox Interactive, Fredrik Wester, describing all of the accomplishments that the company has achieved over the last decade in the face of skepticism from the rest of the industry.

When he joined the company back in 2003, everyone told him that PC gaming was dead and that hardcore strategy games as a genre was on its way out of fashion. In the face of such naysaying, games like Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron sold like gangbusters and Paradox’s revenues have grown over 1000 percent since 2001. No one thought that digital distribution would overtake retail as fast as it did, but Paradox launched its GamersGate online store in 2006, and Wester reported that today GamersGate accounts for nearly 70 percent of Paradox’s total revenue. As a PC gamer at heart, I’m certainly psyched for the continued success of the platform and the strategy genre for which Paradox is known.

But as the lineup for 2011 and beyond proves, the company is not content with just designing and publishing plain old strategy games. Wester and Paradox are betting that the new directions into free to play MMOs (Salem), collectible card games (Hearts of Iron: The Card Game) and even action adventure games (Pirates of Black Cove, Magicka) will insure that the company continues to grow.

For anyone who’s interested in where strategy PC gaming is headed in 2011, here is what’s on the docket for Paradox Interactive in the coming year:


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Cities in Motion
Release Date: February 25th, 2011

For many gamers, the best part of games like SimCity and its many sequels was mapping out the mass transportation systems. In those games you could build roads, highways and subways, but the details were always a bit abstracted. Cities in Motion is a modern day version of that sub-game where you run the mass transportation systems in one of four European cities: Vienna, Helsinki, Berlin, and Amsterdam. You can build bus stops, trams that run on light rails, full underground subway systems and even buy water taxis and helicopters to bring customers from apartments and houses to high traffic areas like workplaces, stadiums and airports. On top of that, you regulate the city’s transportation ticket prices, and you can even buy advertising to build confidence in your company.

In contrast to such mundane subject matter, the user interface of Cities in Motion is a delight to use. Each button or function is displayed with elegant icons, with more detailed menus and information hidden “behind the fold.” Once you get the hang of how to build stuff (I was confused that I had to build bus stops before I could link them together into a closed transportation line), the whole interface is genuinely a joy to navigate.

The cities chosen were all places that had interesting challenges for mass transportation, and because Colossal Order is a Finnish design company, Helsinki had to be on the list. Each city is accurately rendered in the game for all of the eras represented – from the 1920s to 2010. For those of you who are sad that London or New York isn’t in Cities in Motion, the game ships with a robust editor so that you can recreate a world metropolis or even your hometown in Bumfuck, Canada.

So you can finally put the bus stop next to your house that you’ve always wanted


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Crusader Kings II
Release Date: Early 2012

In many Paradox titles, you control a country and the whole game is about changing the map color to match your own gloriously pretty national colors. But with Crusader Kings II, you guide a family in increasing its fortunes during the feudal period of Europe, forging a dynasty that can outlast hemophilia and incest. Intrigue within your court is bound to happen and that’s because Paradox implemented a new system of plots to manipulate barons into rebelling or even change the laws of the land. “Your sister’s sons might consider changing the laws of succession so that you can inherit through the female line,” said designer Chris King.

The game begins directly after the Norman Invasion of England in 1066, but you can play as the family from any country in Europe as you try to gain vassals and lands. Of course, with a title like Crusader Kings, the best way to find riches is to follow the direction of the Pope (or maneuver to appoint your own Pope) and command an expedition to retake the Holy land of Israel from the Muslims. Given the current political state of the world in 2011, it may seem in bad taste to release a game in which your main goal is invading Islam, but King assures me that Crusader Kings II is for history buffs, not extremists.

I found the concepts presented by King to be intriguing, but I thought the interface of a static map of Europe with only 2D representations of your court and family-members to be a little off-putting. Still, Crusader Kings II is game to watch as Paradox hopefully refines the interface over the next year.

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Defenders of Ardania
Release Date: Summer 2011

In most tower defense games, you set up a few defensive buildings and watch gleefully as they murderize wave upon wave of bad dudes as they stream towards you. Defenders of Ardania emulates that standard gameplay but it lets you send your own troops to accomplish your own goal on the map. Set in the fantasy world of Paradox’s RPG Majesty, it adds a fair bit of “light RTS” to what can be a tiresome genre. You don’t control your troops directly – that would make it a “heavy RTS” supposedly – but you can level them up, making them more powerful as you invest gold and mana.

There is also more action for the player to do than in many tower defense games, as you can cast spells with areas of effect to take out a pesky troop of enemies or provide bonuses to defense. These spells and powers can be upgraded as well, as you progress through the campaign.

I played through a level as part of the demonstration and despite the prettier graphics than most games of its ilk, Defenders of Ardania doesn’t have anything that would compel me to spend the $15 to play the full game. The only caveat to that is the promise of multiplayer; if Paradox can make tower defense multiplayer work on this scale, then Defenders of Ardania might be interesting.


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Dreamlords: Resurrection
Release Date: April/May 2011

Dreamlords has been around for while; Resurrection is the third iteration of the MMO-RTS hybrid. Designed and originally self-published by Lockpick Entertainment, Dreamlords has been taken over by Paradox to be one of the free to play games released under the Paradox Connect banner. (Paradox Connect is kinda like Steam, with achievements, forums, friends lists, and a virtual currency: ducats.)

Because Dreamlords is already a functioning game, I was able to see a large part of how the game works. Your avatar is an eponymous demigod – a Dreamlord – and you start on a shard of land hovering in nothingness but split into different zones to explore. Each zone will give you something to fight or a quest to complete in a real time strategy map with your minions under your direct control. As your Dreamlord levels up, you gain more minions in your army as well as more powerful spells.

On top of that is a whole new level of MMO systems and communities. Organizing with other Dreamlords into Convergences (Read: guilds) is almost necessary if you want to handle the high-level content or engage in PvP against competing Convergences. There are also Convergence quests that involve collecting large amounts of crafting resources for bonuses to be applied to the whole group.

Dreamlords: Resurrection seems like a pretty deep game for a free to play MMO, and the RTS gameplay makes for a nice diversion from WoW or DCUO for those who prefer that genre.

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Gettysburg: Armored Warfare
Release Date: TBD 2011

Speaking to Danny Green, the President, Lead Programmer, Artist and sole employee of Radioactive-Software, was a lot of fun, and not just because he lives and works less than 20 miles from The Escapist offices in North Carolina. Green is a one-man game-making powerhouse, building the engine, creating all of the art assets and designing the gameplay elements for the futuristic American Civil War game all by his lonesome.

Yes, you heard that right, it’s an RTS with steam-punk retro-future vibe set in the Civil War. The story of Gettysburg is that a man from 2060 figures out how to travel back in time to 1860 and introduces all kinds of technology to the conflict between the North and the South. So you have tanks and troops in body armor duking it out on some of the most well-known battlefields of Virginia, Maryland and, of course, Gettysburg, PA. Not all units will possess the best weapons, though, so there will still be rifles and less advanced explosives. It will be interesting to see how that ends up being balanced, but Green already had enough on his plate for me to bother him with pesky questions.

The game I saw was only in an early alpha stage, but the ability to zoom into a single man on the field for some first person shooter action looked slick and seamless. Gettysburg is another title that will be free to play on Paradox Connect, so I’m interested to see what Danny Green does with it to make it work.


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Hearts of Iron: The Card Game
Release Date: Q2 2011

Hearts of Iron is a big WW2 strategy franchise for Paradox that sells gobs of copies, so it makes sense that the first collectible card game that Paradox branched out with would be based on that IP. Sitting down with producer Shams Jorjani, a fellow Magic The Gathering fan, for the demo allowed us to geek out on the intricacies of Hearts of Iron: The Card Game. Yet another title that’s free to play on Paradox Connect (weird that all three fell next to each other alphabetically), the game will be supported by buying booster packs of digital cards. Thankfully, the price as it stands now doesn’t seem too bad: 100 ducats of virtual currency (equal to US $1) for a booster of 15 cards is a lot better than the $3.99 that Wizards of the Coast charges for Magic cards.

But how does it play? Well, first off, you can choose to play an Allies deck, an Axis deck or a Comintern deck. Each faction starts off the match by choosing a doctrine of war from its deck to determine how attacks would be made. For example, an Axis player might use the Blitzkrieg doctrine, in which you will need two armor cards in play in order to start an offensive. After you are dealt the opening hand, you can play up to 3 factory cards such as an Ammunition factory or a Aircraft factory. These facilities are somewhat analogous to land cards in Magic as you need them in play in order to build infantry or planes. Combat is handled in three stages, with long range artillery coming before tanks and finally close combat infantry. There’s a lot more to it than that, but from what I saw, Hearts of Iron: The Card Game seems to offer interesting strategic options that feel close to real World War II themes.

Perhaps that’s because all of the cards are illustrated with crisp black and white photos of the units and personalities from the era, and Jorjani said that they are always looking to improve the accuracy. General Patton is a rare card that actually functions as a tank in the game (his special ability is to switch places with another tank in the middle of combat), but it’s been hard finding an un-copyrighted photo of the vaunted military leader actually riding on a tank. But Jorjani said that that the team won’t give up without a fight … or several thousand Google Image searches.

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King Arthur II
Release Date: Q3 2011

I will say this: after hearing the presentation for the sequel, I downloaded the first game and was immediately drawn into this RPG-RTS hybrid. You control different Knights of the Round Table under King Arthur and move them around a strategic map of fantasy England, engaging in adventures and recruiting soldiers. When you enter a town or castle, the game switches to an RTS in the vein of Empire: Total War with units of archers, footmen and cavalry position themselves on a real-feeling battlefield full of victory point locations and plenty of forests to hide in. According to Orsolya Toth from Neocore Games in Hungary, the sequel, King Arthur II, solves many of the problems in the first game, while advancing the story into a darker place than you might remember from Arthurian legend.

After the first game, King Arthur has united the land under his banner, but at the start of King Arthur II, a witch queen named Morgouse (not to be confused with Morgana the Fey who is an ally in this retelling) has gravely wounded the King. Because Arthur is mystically connected to the land, a festering wound opens up and dark monsters begin pouring out which your knights must then defeat.

The presentation I saw was short on assets – I was shown a few nice-looking screenshots – but Toth said that the sequel will be a better designed game on multiple levels. The magic system is revamped with casting time allowing you to respond to an enemy decimating your troops with one spell, and many more voiceovers will be recorded so that you don’t hear the same sound effect every time you select, “Archers!” With the recent release of the Druids expansion for King Arthur, the title is quickly becoming one of Paradox’s most loved franchises and the sequel aims to keep the (dark) fantasy alive.


Magicka
Release Date: It’s out already (January 24th)

A funny little action adventure game with a really innovative magic system where you can layer up to 8 elements on top of one another for devastating effects. Check out my full preview of Magicka here.


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Magna Mundi
Release Date: November 2011

One of the criticisms of Paradox’s Europa Universalis 3 grand strategy game was that the nation you chose to represent was little different from any other, giving the player a pretty uniform experience no matter if you were France, Portugal or Russia. The mod Magna Mundi attempted to provide a diverse play experience based on what country you were playing, and Paradox was so impressed with the scope and breadth of what the mod team accomplished that it decided to publish Magna Mundi as a standalone modified version of EU3. The team of about 22 people working on Magna Mundi part-time as a labor of love is led by Carlos Gustavo, a Portuguese gamer who travelled to New York to introduce me to the game.

“With Magna Mundi, the idea is to put your country in the best situation it can be, given its history. [The goal] is not to paint the world in one color,” Gustavo said, which is in contrast to many strategy games. You can choose to play one of 400 different nations, countries and tribes from all over the world, some of which start out more powerful than others obviously. Depending on where you start, there are different challenges and governments to interact with such as European nations manipulating the Holy Roman Empire, while Asian nations must pay tribute to China, or risk open war with the most powerful nation in the region.

Historical verisimilitude is important in Magna Mundi, and even though the game is effectively a huge sandbox in which you can dipliomacize, go to war, or any mixture in between, the “story of history” is told through real “random” events that impact how you play.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that Magna Mundi is using a robust scripting system which will allow people to further tweak and modify their game experience how they see fit so that the cycle of mods refining a game continues. My only question is: Who mods the modders?

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Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword
Release Date: March/April 2011

With Fire & Sword is a standalone expansion for the medieval war simulator that adds gunpowder weapons and a historical setting in northeastern Europe. Check out my full preview and conversation with designer Mikail Yazbeck from TaleWorlds Interactive here.


Naval War: Arctic Circle
Release Date: Q1 2012

We haven’t had a great naval war simulator of cat-and-mouse submarine gameplay for a damn long time. There was Harpoon in the MS-DOS era, and Silent Service designed by none other than Sid Meier back in 1985. But that’s about it. Naval War: Arctic Circle attempts to bring back that gameplay and modernize it using real world ships, aircraft and submarines from the U.S. and Russian navies of today. The short story setup is that the Arctic Ocean is suddenly desirous for both superpowers because of its untapped natural resources, and it leads to naval conflict in the frigid waters.

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Two campaigns from the point of view of each faction will slowly introduce the player to the concepts of active and passive sonar, as well the combined detection abilities of planes, surface ships and submarines. It will be a game of stealth and detection, feints and counterattacks, throwing the entire weight of your forces against your enemy as soon as you figure out where they are. You are limited by all kinds of real world complications such as weather affecting visibility, choppy waves preventing surface-skimming missiles, and fuel capacity of your aircraft. (Thankfully, fuel won’t be tracked for your ships as most either have months of supply or are powered by nuclear reactors.)

Naval War: Arctic Circle is still in the early stages of development, but the engine already looks beautiful and lifelike, not an easy task where realistic ships and rolling ocean waves are concerned. Both Jan Haugland and Fredrik Breien from Turbo Tape Games, based in Bergen, Norway, are super passionate about naval warfare and the sea so I expect that they’ll recreate the mood of Harpoon and The Hunt for Red October brilliantly. “One ping only, please.”


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Pirates of Black Cove
Release Date: Summer 2011

Mash up Sid Meier’s Pirates with the comedic adventure of The Secret of Monkey Island and you get Pirates of Black Cove. The evocative art style and tone at first seems like a departure for Nitro Games, who previously made the trading sim East India Company and Commander: Conquest of the Americas, until you realize that all the Finnish developer’s games focus on naval themes in a certain time period. Pirates’ ships and the Age of Imperialism is kind of Nitro’s bag.

The tone of Pirates of Black Cove is definitely light though, and it’s not concerned with historical accuracy in the slightest. Your stated goal is to unite all pirates of the Caribbean under your banner as “King of the Pirates” and defeat the evil/undead pirates of the Black Cove. Along the way you’ll engage in naval warfare that feels terribly similar to Sid Meier’s Pirates – which is a good thing as that was my favorite part of that game – or rescue beautiful merchant’s daughters from the hands of grimy brigands.

There are light strategy concepts in play too as you have to recruit three classes of sailors to your cause, from ranged specialists buccaneers to fast hawk-owning corsairs. You have to keep your crew happy by supplying them with rum and riches. Based on what I saw, Pirates of Black Cove will present the player with a deliciously fun open ocean sandbox to sing to me hearties and rum a tum tum. *Hic* Sorry, I guessh I shampled too much a dat rums.

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Pride of Nations
Release Date: June 2011

If colonialism is what revs your engines, then the Victorian era strategy game Pride of Nations from veteran studio AGEOD should be at the top of your watch list. Here, you can play as any one of eight nations (USA, Great Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and carve out your global presence between 1850 and 1920. Upon sitting down for the demonstration, the first thing that poppped out about Pride of Nations is its excellently designed user interface that immediately transports you to the era of water wheels, railroads and rifles.

As your nation explores the untamed wilderness of, say, Africa or India, you must send out expeditions with specific goals in mind like finding resources or just plain mapping the jungle. Diplomacy is handled with an incredibly detailed system, and not just with other powers but also the natives that you might meet and barter with in new territories. Once you set up a colony, you will also want to build trading posts and other buildings to send resources back to your home country.

Prestige is important, so you will want to also send out geographical expeditions to map natural wonders. “It’s very prestigious for a nation to say that I am the first to discover the source of the Nile, for example,” said Philippe Thibaut from Paradox France (aka AGEOD.) I can’t say for sure how all that will combine into a fun game, but the UI and the subject matter make me excited to delve into the economic model and diplomatic challenges when Pride of Nations comes out this summer.


Salem
Release Date: Summer 2011

Salem is an ambitious free-to-play MMO set in a New England where crafting and community takes a focus over combat. Oh, and once you die, you die. Check out my full preview here.


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Supreme Ruler: Cold War
Release Date: Q3 2011

Riding on the success of BattleGoat Studio’s Supreme Ruler 2010 & 2020 comes a game that simulates the building tension of the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. from 1945 to the 1990s. In contrast to many strategy games, if the tensions rise too high and open war occurs, then you lose the game. The secret is to increase your nation’s sphere of influence though diplomacy, espionage and fighting proxy skirmish wars like the Korean War or Vietnam. Real world goals like putting a man on the Moon will increase your global influence and help you win the Cold War.

The first choice in Supreme Ruler: Cold War is whether you will play as NATO or the Warsaw Pact. The map interface is a bit cluttered and stilted, until you zoom out and realize that the game is built using satellite images obtained from NASA. On a tactical level, you will be able to control tanks, aircraft and infantry in the proxy wars, being careful not to attract too much attention or even capture too much territory lest the DefCon level reach 5.

It’s an interesting concept for a strategy game, balancing aggression with the danger of open war, and I was interested in how real life events would be represented. For example, the Olympics were often used as prestige-building events by both the US and USSR, and Daxon Flynn from BattleGoat Studios assured me that they were figuring out how to include the results of athletic games in Supreme Ruler: Cold War. Now, if only we could relive the US hockey team beating USSR in 1980 over and over again (except without Kurt Russell), I’d be a happy man.

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Sword of the Stars II: The Lords of Winter
Release Date: Q3 2011

The sequel to Kerberos Productions “4X in space” game is deeply vested in story. It’s an oddity for a small production team like the company has in Vancouver, BC to even have a dedicated lead writer on staff, but Arinn Dembo has crafted an intricate story for a game that doesn’t even have a single player campaign. The story of Sword of the Stars II is told organically through in-game events and the ever-evolving SOTSapedia, a sort of in-game wikipedia. This feature will be populated with the vast backstory for each race you encounter, but it will also allow you to make annotations on pages and then share that with your friends in the game.

The subtitle for SOTS2 denotes the return of the Lords of Winter, an evil race of enormous creatures that don’t inhabit planets but instead the actual space between them. For purposes of scale, lead designer and COO of Kerberos, Chris Stewart, held up a piece of artwork depicting a huge tentacle-laden being in space, and the human Cruiser class starship (measuring about 150 meters) was a mere thumbnail-sized speck beside it.

While you’ll most certainly encounter Lord of Winter in SOTS2, the game still largely revolves around exploring and colonizing planets, encountering science-fiction races like the telepathic Liir and the avian Morrigi, while researching technology and designing better ships in modular interface that reminds me of Alpha Centauri. The turn-based strategic star map yields to real-time space battles whenever you encounter something but if the combat isn’t resolved in 4 minutes, then the turn advances and the combatants can re-engage or try to evade.

All of those features, including hotseat multiplayer, will be preserved in SOTS2, but I hope that Kerberos overhauls the somewhat cartoonish art style of the first game. If what I’ve seen is any indication, it does in fact look like the sequel will be an interesting alternative for Sins of a Solar Empire or Galactic Empire fans.


So there you have it, all the games of Paradox Interactive’s lineup for 2011 and beyond. It seems that the company is branching out into different territory than the classic grand strategy games that has been its bread and butter. And I for one am excited for what the future holds for strategy games and PC games in general.

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