Part One of Two – Crusader Kings II and the 'Master Plan'
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On November 18th 2013, Paradox Development studios will release their sixth major content expansion for their hit strategy title, Crusader Kings II. Titled, Sons of Abraham, it marks a transition of sorts between the initially planned post-launch content, and the start of a new series of expansions that will last through to at least this time next year, if not 2015. Considering Paradox Development Studios are also supporting the recently released Europa Universalis IV (which already has its first expansion on the way), along with whatever else they’re working on, that’s a remarkable level of commitment. In part one of this two-part feature, we look at the ‘Master Plan’ behind Crusader Kings II, and how PDS are creating a new legacy for themselves.
Officially designated as ‘Phase Two’ by studio head Johan Andersson, this new series of DLC will be unlike anything that’s come before. It will cover areas that the players probably wouldn’t expect. I spoke to Henrik Fåhraeus about what we could expect:
“It’s more like… The seasons of a TV show or something like that. You can regard the first four DLC expansions [Ed: This doesn’t include Sunset Invasion, which was something they dreamed up in the pub] as kind of the first season, where we didn’t take that many risks perhaps. I think they were the obvious choices, people probably expected us to cover those areas.”
“Phase Two is basically… ideas that have been kicking around my head for some time. I didn’t think we’d be able to do some of them, but it looks like we will, which is awesome. It’s going to be perhaps a little bit more experimental. Probably the next two expansions aren’t going to be things people expect us to do. What’s upcoming though is more ‘out there’”
Six expansions so far, with another four or so planned. Henrik is not sure how long that’ll last, but he’s quite confident the team can put out three a year if they put their minds to it. Still, that’s a fair bit of new content on top of an already respectable library of post-launch DLC. Feature Creeping and bloating is something that can plague a game both before and after release, and has been a problem for titles like Hearts of Iron III, which with an ambitious design to begin with, on top of three expansions, has become a bit of a beast of a game. It’s something Henrik is always aware of:
“That’s a really really good question, and it’s something I’ve been telling our beta-testers a lot. The players our fans, our testers etc... they all keep asking for more stuff basically, and that’s fine, but we as designers we really need to be careful about the feature creep, and as you say, Hearts of Iron III was insanely ambitious and full of stuff to begin with.”
“CK2 wasn’t really, but it’s very suited to DLC’s where you unlock new domains of the game that weren’t playable previously. That’s one way of handling it. You can also make new features optional and hidden away, so you don’t have to worry about ignoring them – I think that’s going to be the case with the College of Cardinals. It’ll be a nice addition if you want some more sneaky mechanics ... you can get money off the Pope, he can grant you claims, but you don’t HAVE to get involved. Feature creep is a real danger, especially with our games, which many people would say are already far too complex.”
Crusader Kings II marked the first game in a new wave of Paradox titles: games that were still complex, but didn’t go overboard on features right at the beginning, games that lent themselves to iterative DLC expansions that would build on the title overtime, and as far as basic design philosophy goes, games that shipped when they were ready, not when they needed to be shipped. Despite its roaring success, Crusader Kings II was still a pioneer of this new approach, the first of many, and because of this there’s probably still potential room for improvement, or room to re-look at some of the things that have been done over the past year or two. Now that the studio’s next game, Europa Universalis IV is out and already a success, I asked Henrik if the new game had affected anything regarding the DLC plans for CK2.
“Yeah definitely. Ironman mode is probably the most obvious thing, so we’re doing that with the patch. Another thing is achievements, but the funny thing is that we added achievements and scripted them and everything, but we kind of had some technical issues… that was planned to be done with the Paradox Connect back-end instead of Steam, but then that didn’t pan out so we had to cut that feature from CK2. Apart from that… I mean EUIV is a very polished game, but graphical stuff like the changing Seasons, would definitely be something we’d want to add in to CK2 at some point. The College of Cardinals wasn’t inspired directly by EUIV, the idea had been floating around for a while, but it worked really well in EUIV.”
Of course, with all this new DLC AND a new game out (with its own DLC, first one coming in January), it’s also possible that Sons of Abraham marks the point where the studio starts seeing real diminishing returns on their DLC releases. Henrik thinks that the presence of Europa Universalis IV especially could hurt sales, despite an overlap in community. He’s confident though that the four new planned DLC’s of this ‘season’ will definitely be made, no matter what. He also doesn’t think that the studio will ever go back to the old expansion model – even though that model allowed for longer development time and bigger budgets, it had drawbacks of its own.
“I would say we’d probably never go back to that model, one of the neat things about this system is that it’s modular, and we can... everyone uses the same executable, put you can pick and choose what expansions and DLC you want to buy anyway. The old system pre-supposed that you needed to have bought all of the expansions previously, if you wanted all of the latest patch stuff, you had to have bought the latest expansion, which is pretty bad. It’s also been a successful model for us financially.”
I asked Henrik if he was worried that he might be overstaying his welcome a bit – you could argue there’s an unspoken agreement between a studio and their community that, eventually, the studio will move on to other things and let the modders have their way with the game. Already, there’s a few high profile mods for Crusader Kings II, like the Game of Thrones or The Elder Scrolls mods, but with Henrik and his team still working on and releasing content from the game, the modders have to keep up with the latest patches and features and work them into their own creations, or at least make them compatible. Is Henrik worried that there could be some kind of community backlash?
“It’s possible, but I would be more worried about all of the minor DLC we put out. I can sympathise a bit with why people would find it annoying... you don’t have to have them at all though, it’s just cosmetic.”
“I can see how it would be annoying when their mods break with every patch or expansion, but what are we supposed to do? Not work on our game? We make our games as moddable as we possibly can, and this latest patch is going to make it more so, we’ve exported more variables into a text file so people can play around with it. It comes with the territory though… I know The Sims has the same problem – they release lots of expansions and the modders cry a little bit each time.”
“Then again, people expect our expansions to contain code changes, and modifications to the game. The modders territory is in the script field, but we guarantee that our stuff works, and we also add new graphics and stuff. It would take a lot of resources for people to add their own event pictures and 3D models and so on. Our stuff comes with a guarantee that it works. You should be able to tell the difference between our stuff and modders stuff. Or at least I hope so.”
Speaking of mods, let’s not forget the studios ingenious approach to ‘linking’ their game together. The ‘Save Game Converter’ project has been something that they’ve been trying to work on for a while now, originally hoping to link games like the original Crusader Kings II, with Europa Universalis III, Victoria II and Hearts of Iron III... sadly, the technical hurdles were just two great to just ‘convert’ the save file of one game to that of another, until they hit upon the idea of making the save a ‘mod’ of the game it’s going to. At the moment, with only two games available in the ‘string’, a save game for Crusader Kings II now becomes a mod for Europa Universalis IV. We expect this to continue to other games that may or may not be appearing *cough* Hearts of Iron IV, Victoria III *cough*, although it presents yet more work for Henrik and his team:
“The converter is a huge undertaking for us – we have to keep supporting it for as long as we patch either game. Sons of Abraham will actually come with some changes to the converter, as if a Heresy becomes the new main religion, that’ll get exported with its own modifiers. Same thing goes whenever they change something in EUIV as well; we have to make changes on our end.”
So, ‘Phase Two’ has begun, and the sky’s the limit. Sort of. Henrik is excited to see how the community reacts to the new DLC, although apparently they have very little in common with each other – apart from maybe that they may not be expected:
“Like our publishing/marketing people like to say, CK2 has become more of a service as opposed to a product. Like an MMO we keep it up and running and keep adding stuff to it. It’s become their buzzword. I think the comparison with the TV show is a little bit apt – I wish I could say the next crop of expansions will have some common theme to them, but I don’t think they will – they are going to be different to each other, and also different to what they’ve done in the past.”
Stay tuned for Part Two, where we look more in-depth at Sons of Abraham itself, and beyond.