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Not here to make friends - A day in Stockholm with Paradox Interactive

Johan Andersson is showing me around Stockholm’s Old Town on a beautiful spring afternoon, pushing his one year-old daughter, Adela, around in her stroller while we talk about games and the business of making them. From time to time, Adela shoots a suspicious glance my way, eyes narrowed. Perhaps she senses her father and I are bound to be mortal enemies, or maybe she’s looked up my reviews of previous Paradox games.

By either standard I’m a bit of a frenemy. I tend to like Paradox games, but with significant reservations. I’m also here in Stockholm to place Europe under my iron-shod heel in a massive multiplayer game of Europa Universalis IV. By geography and by the cutthroat nature of a twenty-person multiplayer session, we are bound to find ourselves at war.

But today is for preliminaries. Johan tells me how good it’s been to step back from designing EU and work in a more supervisory capacity. Traditionally, he’s the one leading development and making the major design decisions, but with a baby and a growing studio, he’s been happy to lead QA and playtesting while project lead Thomas Johansson has set about reinventing the wheel.

“It also means I get to arrange things like this,” he says with a grin and an elfin raise of his eyebrows. “I mean, it’s marketing and I was able to say we’ll get great coverage out of it but, really... this is just fucking fun. It’s going to be awesome.”

I laugh, then admit, “The session we had in Iceland probably changed how I’ll review your games going forward. I don’t think I’d have liked March of the Eagles all that much as a single-player game, but I’ve been playing the hell out multiplayer since we got back.”

“March of the Eagles...” Johan shakes his head, then retrieves Adela’s stuffed Piglet. “I’m just glad it turned out okay. ...We really had to work hard to get that released this winter.”

March of the Eagles began life with AGEOD / Paradox France, a wargaming studio that joined the Paradox fold a few years ago. Earlier this year they left Paradox to join Matrix Games, a major wargaming publisher, and March of the Eagles had to be completed by Paradox Development Studio.

Johan admits that the partnership was an awkward one, in large part because AGEOD and Paradox employ very different business models despite superficial similarities in subject matter. Paradox have a reputation for being a niche publisher, but they still count their audience in the hundreds of thousand. Paradox deal in big topics and modular expansions. Medieval politics, now with Celtic and Nordic tribes! World War II! The Renaissance and age of colonization - now with more Asian factions! 

By contrast, AGEOD (and many other developers in this market) make intricate one-off wargames about specialty topics: The Seven Years’ War in Germany, theater operations and command and control during the American Civil War. Both companies could be described as niche from the point of view of a major publisher, but they’re actually in very different businesses. Paradox are charming history nerds, but there’s a calculating streak to the company. 

Here’s a story I heard from Boel Bermann, Paradox Development Studio’s PR manager: a couple years ago a bunch of Paradoxers were at a trade show in North America. Everyone had just started playing Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story, a simple smartphone game about resource management. You hire a dev team, you make games, you release them, you see how you did, you maybe hire more team members or maybe you hire better team members and then set the overall direction for your company.

Everyone at Paradox started agonizing over this game. Other developers at Paradox were risking everything on hiring the best staff, working to make the absolute best games they could. Time and again they end up underselling, despite strong reviews. They were running low on funds, cutting staff, and looking to abandon major game releases. Someone finally asked Johan how he was doing at Game Dev Story.

He looked up from his phone. “Oh, I just sold my tenth game, I’ve got a decent sized staff, and a few million in the bank. They’re all 70 Metacritic, but they always sell like crazy.”

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