Paradox Interactive has always been known as the place to get complex, 'grand strategy' games for PC, like Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron, and Crusader Kings. The company has a strong, hardcore fanbase that it supports with great titles and the community pays them back with excellent mods, heavy evangelizing, and continued purchases. But for many mainstream PC players, Paradox operated on the fringes of their perception until Magicka hit in 2011 and brought the studio to a new audience.
Paradox Interactive CEO Fredrik Wester has been with the company since 2003. He's been the director of publishing and the executive vice president in charge of the PC gaming side of the business. In 2006, Wester ascended to his current position and began steering the company towards what he felt was most important: the games.
"I ran Paradox when it was a seven-man studio. I came in as a business director for the computer games part," Wester tells me. "When I joined in 2003, I wanted to be a part of turning this company into something really great. The former owners of Paradox Interactive did not have a vision for the company. They didn't really care that much about games. I felt that [Paradox] deserved a CEO and leadership that cares about games and gamers."
Since he's been CEO of the company, Wester believes that Paradox has found its identity in the larger gaming market. When he first took on the position, Wester told Gamasutra that the publisher does whatever it feels is right for the fans. He believes that statement still remains true today.
"I think we've found the perfect niche, where we feel really happy and we can do whatever we want to do. The most important thing for us is to make the kinds of games that we want to play ourselves," he says. "If we can't get passionate about the products we make, then who else will be passionate?"
Paradox is continuing to serve its passionate niches with titles like Europa Universalis IV, War of the Vikings, and Crusader Kings II, but it's also trying new things. Runemaster represents the company's first internally-developed RPG; it exists because Paradox asked its fans what they wanted to see from the publisher, and they said "RPGs". Runemaster is also a response to larger PC RPG developers moving their focus towards consoles.
"We're putting a lot of effort into developing new RPGs for the PC format," explains Wester. "Many of these big RPGs have gone to the consoles, but we think PC gamers deserve better. We're keeping it in PC format, so the PC gamer get better quality RPGs. That's the next challenge that we're working on."
Wester admits that much of Paradox' output can be complex, dense, and hard for new fans to get into, but he says that's not a problem because Paradox gamers "are our greatest ambassadors." Fervent Paradox consumers convert others with their love for the games and that leads to growth for the company. Services like Steam Early Access and Steam Workshop only increase Paradox's interactions with those fans. Steam Workshop is a big focus for the publisher: Paradox recently hired employees to interface with modders full-time to ensure modders have the tools and help they need to create excellent content for the community.
Many publishers follow trends; everyone used to try to develop MMOs, and now the current zeitgeist is the free-to-play MOBA. Why isn't Paradox heading in that direction? The upcoming PVP-only arena title Magicka: Wizard Wars could be seen as Paradox's MOBA, but Wester says that game was the result of feedback from the original Magicka, not because of the success of League of Legends.
"We don't jump on trends," states Wester. "That's not what we do. We're trying to find the concepts that we really like and work with that. We have the grand strategy games that are our core. We're not abandoning that fanbase. They would be furious if we stopped doing those games."
I ask Wester if there are any projects or genres that he'd love for Paradox to tackle. He briefly mentions an open-world RPG or a sequel to Capitalism, but then the conversation is drawn to some other ideas. One of them could be a salve for fans who felt burned by EA's latest SimCity.
"I would like to do a hardcore city-builder," Wester muses. "A really hardcore one, like the old SimCity games where you had to do all that micromanagement that makes your city actually run. I could sit for hours and discuss this. We can dream, but we have to work as well. We have a shortlist of games that we really want to make, and these are just a few of them. I hope that we find a studio that's actually designed to realize these ideas. Especially a city-builder; that would be really fantastic."
"In all my AMAs I promise a 4X space game from the internal team and every time I do it [Paradox Development Studio manager Johan Andersson] wants to kill me," he chuckles. "So I promised him I'd stop doing that, but that's also one of my dreams. I want a 4X space game that's really a Paradox Development Studio product. Do we have the time and resources to do it? Do we have someone with the passion to deliver the game it deserves to be? I'm really pushing hard to make this game in the future."
"We have a few games that we haven't really announced yet that are going to make a huge splash in the market," Wester adds.
When it comes to platforms beyond the PC, Paradox is relatively open to new ideas. The publisher has been talking with Valve about its Steam OS for "almost a year" and many of its games are already Linux-based. Wester believes Steam Machines have "a good chance of making a splash in the market," but admits it's going to be tough. He also tells me that Sony and Microsoft contacted Paradox last year to get onboard with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Wester was flattered by the attention from both platform holders and he likes where the new consoles are headed, but currently Paradox has nothing concrete to announce.
"We don't really want to dumb down the experience," Wester replies when I ask about Paradox staying away from mobile platforms. "I think that's the main reason we've stayed out of mobile for such a long time. First and foremost, I tell everyone who works at Paradox that our games are not for everyone. The reason for that is we're not trying to please everyone. We want people to actually have games as one of the main things they're doing as a form of entertainment, as a form of life."
"Previously, we haven't really had an approach on how to do a really complex, engrossing mobile game," he continues. "Now I think we're getting there. We hired some people who have mobile experience and we're starting to get there. I don't want to be the game you play for five minutes on your commute, I want to be the game you play for five hours when you fly between New York and LA. We can make Crusader Kings for iPad. I would love to do that, but we need to have the same super-hardcore gameplay that we do in the PC version. There will be no dumbed-down version."
That said, Wester and Paradox don't have anything against iOS or Android as platforms for gaming. Wester says the company goes where the gamers are.
"We want to meet our gamers where they want to play our games, so we're not that into what OS or machine it is. 'Is it a touch interface or mouse and keyboard?' I think that's obsolete. We're trying to find the gamers where they are," he tells me. "The most open and free platform has been Windows, but that might change in the coming three or four years. We need to adapt to that and be ahead of the curve. We're going to do a lot of Linux stuff. We're going to do a lot of mobile stuff with Android and iOS. We're also going to do next-gen consoles, but more as a test to begin with and see if it works out or not."
Finally, I ask Wester what Paradox's message to gamers everywhere is with upcoming 2014 and 2015 titles like Hearts of Iron IV, Runemaster, and War of the Vikings.
"Our games are not for everyone, but if you like them, you're going to play them for hours," he says. "We want to be part of your lifestyle. I hope that together with our gamers, we can achieve this."