It took roughly five minutes for my interest in Europa Universalis IV to go from “Wow who on earth would want to play that” to “this is everything I’ve ever wanted”. I’m a bit of a history nerd, and like every casual reader before me I love to read tales about fictional characters living in times of great change and upheaval. Europa Universalis IV isn’t about me being some pleb experiencing the tyranny of an inbred continental monarch, oh no; I am the GOD ruling that country. I can change history and send all people great and small to die for as little reason as because I damn well clicked the wrong button. To guide us through the latest installment in the series, I sat down with Henrik Fåhraeus, Design Consultant for Europa Universalis IV.
I read somewhere once that Europa and its predecessors are basically a genre unto themselves – do you think that’s true?
I think it is, yeah, I think we actually coined the term ‘Grand Strategy’, at least in gaming. So a Grand Strategy game is basically a Paradox Development Studio game, and the game that started all that was Europa Universalis, which is kind of the soul and heart of our company.
What does ‘Grand Strategy’ mean, exactly?
Well, it means that you have to deal with everything a real nation or country has to deal with at the highest levels, basically. The decision making and the diplomacy that goes into that. Also, it covers a vast scope of some type, usually the globe or the known world. So it’s the struggle between nations on the macro level, with, shall we say, greatly involved game mechanics as well. It has to have a certain level of complexity.
The levels of complexity in this game seem nothing short of insanity. How do you actually make a game like this, what processes are behind it?
(Laughs) How do you make that? Well, obviously this is the fourth game in the series and the first game was less complex, but what tends to happen is we release expansions and we have new ideas on how to improve things and so on, and even though we may, sometimes, take away things, for example I talked about the trade system. In Europa Universalis IV, it’s a simpler system than the previous one. And we also consolidated or struck out the spy mechanic we had in previous games as well, so now we have different actions. So sometimes you need to consolidate back from where you were with the previous game. We also had a lot of help from beta testers doing research on the borders of countries on the rulers that rule certain counties at certain times.
How much research actually goes into the history?
I would say a vast amount, but since this is the fourth game we get a lot of that stuff for free. We’re still covering the same time period and so on, we changed the map a little bit, we get a lot of stuff for free from previous games. It’s countless man-hours of work, and all of the obscure details, you know, like ‘which Turkish tribes held which provinces in 1603?’. That’s the kind of stuff we need to know.
Do you think you could ever use these games for educational purposes?
Yeah, we talk a lot about ‘edutainment’, and certainly they could be used for that. However, they’re still games, they’re not historical simulations and there is a faction among our gamer base who would rather see historical simulation, who would rather see history play out basically as it did, as opposed to playing the game and see random things happen. But definitely, I think you could see these being used for education, because the interesting economical and military processes of history are simulated in the game. So, no question about it.
Do you find your audience shapes the game or that you shape your audience?
It always starts with people at the studio. We always have an idea for a game or what it should be like – of course we listen to our player base, and we’re very active on forums and we do listen to them a lot, and sometimes they come up with really good ideas. But it all starts with the passion of the developers at the studio.
So what do you know about how players are actually playing the game? Do you have access to statistics on that at all?
We started collecting data … it’s always controversial of course, but with a patch for Crusader Kings II we started getting usage statistics from people to see whether they play multiplayer, what countries are the most popular, if they ever start the campaign from a later date, that kind of thing, and it’s very valuable to us. We want to take this further and see how they actually use the interface, which features of the game are least interesting and so on. That’s definitely something we’re looking to expand into.
How does the multiplayer work in Universalis IV?
It’s basically the same as it’s always been in the games, you can play with 32 players at once, you set the speed by consensus, essentially, so if you need to slow down because you’re fighting a war on several fronts or something, you tell the others, and basically the server, or the host rather, slows down the game speed to one, perhaps, and it plays out exactly like a single player game except that some countries are acutally controlled by players. Europa Universalis IV is Steam only, so we’re taking advantage of the Steam multiplayer opportunities, basically the match-making and stuff is done through Steam. A new thing about Europa Universalis IV is that players can come and go during a session, you don’t have to restart it. A player can just jump in and take over an AI country if the other players let them, of course.
From a developers’ perspective, what’s the most interesting thing about the latest instalment?
That’s a very hard question actually … I think for me personally, is that this time around the game is more accessible and user-friendly. That’s something we keep struggling with – making the interface, even to an FPS player, feel like something they can understand right away, and while I think we’ve taken a step towards that we are still far from the goal, but it does feel like a more user-friendly game. And also all the pretty graphics and everything really help the immersion and sense of being there.
On the topic of pretty graphics, how much further is power going to get you in terms of making better games?
It can go further of course, I mean, VR is the goal and we’re a long way from coming out of the uncanny valley, so to speak, but when that happens it’s only going to be a matter of improving the user interface and the gameplay mechanics and so on. It’s not like we put most of our resources into imnrpvieng the graphics, most of the effot goes into improving gameplay mechanics and balancing that out and making it fun to play because the fun factor comes first still. But that’s not usually been one of the things we struggle with. We have problems making our games more accessible to more people. I personally, at least, feel that we should focus our attention on that. Our games are already fun, we just need to bring them to more people.
Stay tuned for our review of Europa Universalis IV, landing shortly!