WWII grand strategy game Hearts of Iron IV’s fifth year is proving an eventful one so far. On the one hand, it’s working towards one of the most significant expansions in its history, one that will finally give the Soviet Union the overhaul it needs. On the other, it’s losing the game director that took it from its nascence through half a decade of being one of the most consistently popular of Paradox’s releases to date.
“[One] reason HOI4 has such a strong community and consistently high number of players is likely due to the modding scene,” outgoing director Dan Lind reflects. “It's very easy to craft different experiences with mods, it gives people a lot of cool stuff to play with between expansions, and stops you from becoming bored or burned out. The other day I heard Hearts of Iron referred to as the Garry's Mod of strategy games!”
Lind tells us that one of the first concrete thoughts he had during the early days of the game’s development was that of executable battle plans. “I always enjoyed playing HOI3 with a fair amount of front automation, but wanted some more control, plus being able to inject overrides.”
Battle plans are one of the core features of Hearts of Iron IV, and give some gravitas to its strategic planning phase prior to war breaking out.
Unfortunately – as the saying goes – no plan survives contact with the enemy, and the battle plans system struggles to keep up with the ever-shifting nature of front lines once the guns start firing. As a player, it’s a feature which leaves me feeling disappointed by the end of the game, as fun as it is to set things up before the fighting starts.
As for Lind? “The peace conference system is still my biggest disappointment,” he says. “I really wanted a system that benefited those who were bold and wanted to create some kind of ‘rush for Berlin’ feeling.”
One of Lind’s original ideas for the mechanic was to have a haggling phase, but it never made it to final release, and the conferences in general haven’t really had a decent design pass since launch. Lind finds the system is frustrating in ways it wasn’t intended to be.
“I wanted you to be angry at someone for taking territory,” he explains, “not because they had first pick, but because they outbid you even after you tried to take back control.”
Lind still hopes that it will get improvements eventually, although that will be down to Hearts of Iron IV’s new game director, Peter Nicholson, who used to be in charge of Imperator: Rome before development was paused.
As much as Lind had a plan for Hearts of Iron IV during his tenure, not everything went according to it, and there were many ideas he’s had over the years that never made the list. “I always wanted to make a research-themed, slightly crazy Wunderwaffen DLC,” he muses, “but it never felt prioritised enough compared to the rest of the ideas we wanted.”
The Devil’s in the Data
While collecting data and player metrics to inform design decisions isn’t new, Dan Lind and the Hearts of Iron crew are one of the few development teams I know of that like to talk openly about the information they collect. We asked Lind to share some final metrics with us as he departs:
Favourite metric or player pattern
“I have a couple so I am gonna list all of them. Shortly after [major] releases, I enjoy trying to guess which branches of focus trees people pick (you guys pick monarchies. All the time!).
“More generally, I like looking at difficulty settings. About 43% of players play on easier difficulties, and many of them also pick custom game options to boost themselves. Why? Because they go to HOI4 for relaxation. I like that a lot because it’s a reason I myself play it sometimes. No massive obstacles, just making choices, tuning stuff and painting the map while chilling out.”
Most surprising metric or player pattern
“Probably multiplayer distribution. MP players make up around 10-12% of the player base, and by far the most popular way for them to play is two-person cooperative (somewhere around 75% of multiplayer games). The type you hear about most online is groups of five or more playing competitively, which is more like 0.2% of the playerbase, so I think this would surprise most.”
The metric or player pattern that led to the most significant change in Hearts of Iron IV
“Definitely when we started seeing trends towards alt-history. We both saw people making more ahistorical choices as well as playing more minor nations, and we decided to support that. It worked very well and we could see people responding by playing more of those choices and the game gaining in popularity. Looking back I feel a bit cowardly for not doing it earlier, but on release we were worried that it would not be received well.
“The more active vocal community is still a bit split on this stuff, but the way I see it, we’re adding more options without taking anything away from anyone’s playstyle. It is 100% the right way to go.”
That one metric you’ve been trying to change but it won’t budge no matter how many times you try
“Game pausing! I tried to design the game to be played on an average speed of 3 to get away from the max-speed-or-pause playstyle of most Paradox Development Studios titles. It turns out people really like max speed or pause, and it’s not really budging.”
We’re not sure what project Lind is moving to next, but it’s definitely not Hearts of Iron V. Every Paradox grand strategy game leaves a legacy for future releases – even Crusader Kings III’s 3D character models seem to be making their way into Victoria 3 – and Lind feels Hearts of Iron IV’s contribution to grand strategy is already being seen in newer releases.
“The focus tree model of being able to tell detailed stories and control nations is really compelling,” he says, “and I see it as something that will show up in other games. It kind of has already, even outside PDS.”
Europa Universalis IV, which is older than HOI4, has since incorporated a version of this to replace its mission system, as did Imperator: Rome after launch. Lind also thinks that the WWII game’s production lines and equipment will be seen in future games.
As Hearts of Iron IV delved further into the realms of alt-history and sandbox play, it’s made me wonder if the series could ever go back to its roots from past games, which were more ‘accurate’ in the sense that events were almost forced to unfurl as they happened in history.
Lind, at least, doesn’t think he’d want to go back in that direction: “I am very interested in doing more accurate simulations of big events and movements that shape the world, but I am not necessarily interested in forcing the player down a narrow path of ‘accuracy’, meaning stuff needs to happen as it did. But deeper simulation? Yes. I think the more on-rails stuff is interesting for a narrower scope.”
To finish off, we asked him what his favourite bit of the game was: “That’s harder. The industry system is great and I think the [current] submarine raiding/strategic warfare system is the first time it has really clicked after trying in several Hearts of Iron games to get it right.”
Suffice to say, we can’t wait to see what Lind is working on next. The next Hearts of Iron IV DLC – No Step Back – doesn’t have a release date.