Despite continual gloomy proclamations by some individuals in the games industry, strategy gaming on the PC appears to be in rude health in 2013, including that traditionally most niche of genres: the historical grand strategy title. We spoke to Victoria II game designer Chris King about upcoming expansion Heart of Darkness, his own background in Paradox's Development Studio and historical gaming and why he thinks its popularity is on the rise once again.
Strategy Informer:Heart of Darkness is the second major expansion for Victoria II. Can you give our readers an overview of what new and revamped elements it brings to the game?
Chris King: There’s two major core features with Heart of Darkness. Firstly, we’ve revised the colonization system to make it more competitive. The way it was originally in Victoria II was that whoever got in first won. Now you have to build up power by sending points into provinces for colonies. You also need to get three points in front of everyone else before you can colonize. So, providing people can stay competitive, it’s no longer a matter of if I get in first, I win.
The other twist is that you have to maintain colonies with the same points. So if you already have a big colonial empire you’re going to generate fewer points to sustain yourself for other colonies. The points are generated through fleet size so we’ve also made the naval system more important. That’s core feature number one, hence the title Heart of Darkness.
Another thing we have is the crisis mechanic. There’s two places where this comes in. The first is where colonial competition is locked in a tie, and then there is a chance that a crisis will spawn and one side will win. The other place is wherever there is tension. So the Bulgarian population in the Ottoman Empire, to give a historical example, can agitate for independence, and a crisis will happen. The Great Powers can then get involved and decide who they are going to back. Either one side will back down or there will be a war.
Also, minor powers have the ability to actually stir up crises in the core provinces, allowing countries such as Serbia and Greece, whose routes to expansion are very, very limited, to now use the crisis mechanic to start to grow and, hopefully, get big enough to stand on their own two feet and do something.
Strategy Informer: With the expansion’s focus on colonialism, which is obviously a very sensitive topic still to this day, and one whose effects the world is still dealing with, was how to handle it uppermost in your mind when you started work on Heart of Darkness?
Chris King: Yes and no. Obviously we read a lot of history, and are fully aware of the darker side of colonialism, and that it wasn’t all planting the flag and thinking aren’t we jolly good people. But also for a 19th Century strategy game, the “Scramble for Africa” was such an integral event of the time period that we couldn’t not touch it.
So we focused far more on the competition between the Great Powers for colonies as, shall we say, our take on it, because with any historical grand strategy game you can never capture everything. You have to choose your focus and decide this is the area we are going to concentrate on.
So we focused on the Great Power competition - the idea of them sitting back in their great rooms in Europe and drawing lines on the map.
Strategy Informer: The naval system has seen quite a big revamp in Heart of Darkness. Can you talk a bit about the changes in mechanics?
Chris King: Reading our forum, one thing that we were aware of was that the fans were dissatisfied with the naval system, they didn’t feel it really worked. So what we’ve done is incorporate a modified Hearts of Iron III naval system, where you have fleets closing into range based on their speed, and once in range they open fire.
We’ve also limited the number of ships that can target an individual enemy ship, stopping players from building a doom stack with hundreds of ships and just sailing around destroying everyone. The goal was to make the naval system less about building such big stacks and more about maneuvering fleets.
Strategy Informer: So the larger your colonial possessions the more stretched your fleet resources are going to be?
Chris King: Yeah, but there are solutions to the stretched fleet resources, because if you release a Dominion that area no longer costs you maintenance. So what we’re also trying to do with this system is show the logic of countries such as Australia and Canada becoming Dominions, because pre-Heart of Darkness there was no reason to release them. You might as well keep the territory yourself. With the new system, you have a good reason to release Dominions, as it frees up points for the “Scramble for Africa”.
Strategy Informer: Will land warfare see a similar revamp?
Chris King: We haven’t done any major upgrades with land warfare, but what we have done is played around with unit stats to balance them better and give them more defined roles. We’ve also changed mobilisation. Previously, you pressed the mobilisation button and all these regiments appeared at zero morale, and then you had to wait for them to build up. What happens now is that you receive the units at full combat power but staggered over several months depending on your railway levels. So if you improve your infrastructure you’ll be able to mobilise your armies much quicker.
Strategy Informer: One of the origins of World War I was that once mobilisation kicked in, it became all but impossible to step back. Is that reflected in the game?
Chris King: If you are involved in a crisis and you mobilise, you automatically push the crisis closer to war. A crisis is on a timer: one side really has to back down before the time runs out or else it will result in war. So if the other side mobilises during a crisis, and you’re not prepared to back down, then you will need to also mobilise and so you get that sort of snowball effect towards war.
Strategy Informer: One of the things that makes the crisis system so interesting is that it adds an element of against-the-clock tension that you rarely find in grand strategy games, especially once you get into the late game. Was that part of the motivation in introducing it?
Chris King: Yeah, it adds something new in the late game. We’ve introduced a prestige effect. Early in a game, if you decide to not get involved in a particular crisis you’ll lose a little bit of prestige, but as the game rolls on you’re going to start getting hurt score-wise and in terms of your Great Power status if you do not get involved and pick a side. You’ll also get hurt more if you back down peacefully.
So there’s this kind of rising tension where diplomacy is starting to run its course, and people will feel pressured into going to war when they’re not ready. One of the weaknesses of these kinds of strategy games is that you choose your wars; you only attack people when you’re as ready as you can be and most confident of winning. So the idea we’re introducing is that you’re going to get sucked into a war when you’re not quite ready, which will hopefully add a challenge factor for players and make the late game more interesting for them.
Strategy Informer: Will real historical flash points be modeled in the game?
Chris King: Basically what we’ve tried to do is have a dynamic system which is modeled on the flash point idea. So you have colonial competition as one, and holding territory that the other side claims as the other. You also have rebel movements who can create flash points.
We’re trying to keep the whole system as open as possible while also trying to model history at the same time.
Strategy Informer: You mentioned the out of proportion influence that smaller nations can wield in moments of crisis...
Chris King: For a smaller nation, the more a Great Power likes you, the more prestige loss it will suffer if it doesn’t back you in a crisis. So you have diplomatic tools to try to not just manufacture a Crisis to gain more territory, but also to hopefully get the right kind of allies.
As Greece, you’re directing your expansion towards the Ottoman Empire, so you can use diplomacy to cosy up to Russia and Austria to then make it more costly for them not to back you, making them far more useful allies in a war against the Ottomans.
Strategy Informer: You’re also introducing a Newspaper system. Typically in grand strategy games, relaying the sheer amount of information about the changing state of affairs across the game world is really difficult to achieve, especially in an immersive way, but this seems like quite a smart way of doing it.
Chris King: We thought it’s a handy way to condense major events and wars of the period. I’m actually running a game of Heart of Darkness at the moment, and looking at my latest newspaper, it’s announced that I’ve crushed some rebels, that Portugal has gained a province, I hear about Austria’s technological inventions and all these sorts of things.
So you’ve got all these little pieces of information - some very important, some relatively minor - running through the game. And there’s also little stories running through as well.
Strategy Informer: One of the things that’s interesting is that it show hows the A.I. of other nations view you through the way their news stories are framed...
Chris King: Yeah, I’m just looking at another newspaper here and it has Hessen painting a picture of its great relations with Russia, and that Nassau is worried about its relations with Hesse-Darmstatd. So we tell you how other countries are perceiving each other and how the pieces on the board are moving as an assistance to you in forming your strategy.
Strategy Informer: Talking of the A.I., has there been any tinkering under the hood with it in Heart of Darkness?
Chris King: Yes. We’ve actually hired a new A.I. programmer, and he’s been assigned to the project for a few weeks, looking at and improving several aspects of the A.I., especially capitalist building which I think has seen a marked improvement as well as the artisan product selection. Plus general diplomatic and military as well. We’re trying to get the most bang for the buck A.I. wise.
Strategy Informer: And will we be seeing any enhancements for multiplayer?
Chris King: No, there’ll be no enhancements in multiplayer. We’ve been running a long series of multiplayer tests, just to make sure our existing functionality has not been broken by adding the new features.
Strategy Informer: Talking about yourself for a bit, can you explain how you first got interested in history, and how that fed into your desire to get involved in game design?
Chris King: My interest in history probably spans all the way back to my childhood. I used to love playing the big war games like Third Reich. I’ve always had a keen interest in history and played board games, so it was a natural progression to move on to computer war games. They were great because you didn’t have to spend two hours just setting them up then monopolise a whole table for countless weeks. Plus you could play against an A.I. and not need other people for an opponent.
From there, I kind of stumbled across Paradox’s games. I bought Europa Universalis as a throwaway - I actually bought it because it was buy one, get one free and I needed a second game. So I picked up this strange game and was instantly hooked. Then I moved on to beta testing and five years later managed to land a job at Paradox, which was great luck, and moved into game design.
My great principle of game design is that we use history as a constraint on players. Strategy games are not just about what you’re allowed to do, but what you can’t and why. So we try to look at great examples from history that will provide the player with interesting challenges to work round.
Strategy Informer: Just getting a game like Victoria II up and running must involve a huge amount of historical research. Can you describe how that works as a process?
Chris King: We’re actually really fortunate that pretty much everyone in the office has an interest in some part of history. So just through natural office discussions you can build up a fair amount of knowledge on the historical period in question. But at the design stage, you sit down and look at the major events of the time period in which you’re setting a game, and start thinking which are the most important, which can you set cool game mechanics around, which one’s you have to include.
So for example in Victoria II, you really have to have an American Civil War, it’s one of the seminal events of the time period. The “Scramble for Africa” is another. You have to think about how you can model them and make them interesting in the game.
Strategy Informer: How difficult is it to get that balance between accurate historical modeling while still making player interaction engrossing in the game?
Chris King: I think you’ve got to put player interaction first. It is a game rather than a simulation. One of the criticisms people had with Victoria II on release was that too much ran under the hood. What we’ve steadily done through the expansions is try to expand the player interaction to make the game more interesting for them, because it is the most important part.
Strategy Informer: We seem to be going through a really fertile period for historical strategy games, with Paradox at the forefront. Do you think anything has changed? Have historical strategy games become more approachable, or has game design changed in a way that makes them more appealing?
Chris King: If I had to pick the single biggest thing that’s helped historical strategy gaming, I would say digital distribution. All of a sudden you’re not fighting for shelf space. If you take Europa Universalis II for example, I had to import it from the U.S. for something like £60, because it simply wasn’t available in the U.K. on release.
Digital distribution has definitely allowed historical strategy games - these more niche titles - a platform to reach the public, but from there it’s been up to developers to try and improve their products. We’ve sank a lot of effort into making our maps look nicer, because we expect you to stare at them for hours at end, so your eyes shouldn’t bleed afterwards. So improving the games themselves, combined with digital distribution, has been fantastic for strategy gaming.
Strategy Informer: And then you have Steam sales, where quite often you can pick up a publisher like Paradox’s entire back catalogue for what you would spend on a single game...
Chris King: Yeah. I mean, myself as a purchaser of games, the higher the price barrier of entry, the more I feel I have to like it before I will buy it. So Steam sales, for people who are let’s say on the fence, make them think that at that price they will buy it and you end up with some new converts to the genre.
Strategy Informer: Do you think there are design methods that would allow a grand strategy title like Victoria II to work in the free to play market?
Chris King: I’m not sure about that. The one thing with free to play is you’re looking at follow-up microtransactions as your revenue model, and with a historical game either you’d end up not allowing access to key parts of the game or have to lock out certain countries or something along those lines, which would only diminish the experience. Part of the joy of these games is the depth of choice, and I don’t think having a pared-down version unless the player coughed up money would really work with this style of game.
Strategy Informer: Although Heart of Darkness is still yet to come out, do you as a team have any future plans for Victoria II beyond this expansion?
Chris King: At the moment, no. What we’ll probably do is let the game bed in and then see where we’re at a few months down the road before we decide what we want to do with it, because obviously you want to make sure that the new introductions are working first before moving into the future.