In February of 2012, on the eve of the release of Crusader Kings 2, Paradox Interactive was a company of around 45 people. Fast forward to 2019, and it has swelled to nearly 500 employees and outgrown two office buildings, like a lowly count from rural Ireland who makes for himself a kingdom. The success of the medieval grand strategy sandbox, renowned for generating player stories of high drama and intrigue, was a turning point for the team that I originally came to know as scrappy, indie underdogs. And the game's legacy is writ large over what the company has become, with an annual fan convention featuring live music and hundreds of players hanging on its every word.
Before Crusader Kings 2, the studio had found modest success in its small niche with its core franchises: the Age of Discovery simulator Europa Universalis, early industrial social engineering game Victoria, and ultra-detailed World War II wargame Hearts of Iron. But it wasn't globally renowned, even within strategy game circles. As a Civilization addict from Colorado, I hadn't even heard of Paradox outside a magazine ad here and there before the buzz around Crusader Kings 2 started to rise.
Fredrik Wester, former CEO and current Chairman of the Board, recalls that in the old days he would personally package game discs for distribution with the rest of the team to save costs. He now speaks to me over the phone from his home in sunny Catalonia, far from the chilly streets of Stockholm where it all started.
"People come in now and they never saw us when our theme song was "Livin' On A Prayer,"" Wester says, referencing the Bon Jovi anthem that is still in heavy rotation when the company gets together for karaoke. "I was responsible for the customer support [forum] account until mid-2011."
It was from this era that the original Crusader Kings emerged in 2004, and it was anything but a smooth launch. Wester always hoped it would get a sequel.
"Crusader Kings 1 was not a big hit for us," he recalls. "We made it in-house in 16 months with about four people. Then our American distributor went bankrupt, delaying the release for half a year. It released three days after Rome: Total War, but it still scored very well [in reviews] considering everything. There was so much promise."
That promise may never have been realized without a little help from some wizards. While Paradox's in-house dev team, Paradox Development Studio, toiled on, the company's publishing arm found unprecedented success in 2011 with the quirky, sorcerous action game Magicka at a time when the purse strings were tight.
"The reason we had the fortitude for [Crusader Kings 2] was because we had released Magicka," recalls Paradox's Chief Business Development Officer, Shams Jorjani. "It was an unbelievably big success—it cost next to nothing to make, but we'd never had those sales numbers or that level of attention."
Bolstered by that success, they set to work on Crusader Kings 2 with a team of eight developers. By contrast, the upcoming Crusader Kings 3 has almost that many just working on writing event content.
"'Indie' back then would have been a fair assessment," Jorjani says.
The idea was to deliver on some of the unrealized promises of Crusader Kings 1: strategy gameplay with RPG elements, and what Jorjani described as "medieval Sims" features. The real departure from your garden-variety map-staring game was the intense focus on the characters. Crusader Kings 2's lead designer, Henrik Fåhreus, stresses that characters always have been at the core of everything, and he wants to expand on that in the upcoming sequel.
It's easy to get lost in abstractions when you're looking at provinces and regiments in these types of games. But Crusader Kings 2's character focus humanized everything. It's a very complex game, but I've had an easier time getting my non-strategy-game-playing friends into it even compared to something relatively simpler like Civilization. It's really because of how intuitive its portrayal of human interactions is. I can see a person on the screen and say, that's me. I have a father. I have brothers and sisters. I might want to get married. The count next door is a jerk, so he becomes my rival. I want to make his life harder. Understanding this web doesn't require any specialized knowledge of medieval succession laws or the difference between a bill and a halberd. It mirrors the types of interactions and relationships we encounter all the time as regular people.
The foundation of soap operatic, dynasty-driven drama was laid. But Crusader Kings 2 also represented a big departure in how Paradox developed, supported, and monetized games after release. This new handling of DLC and expansions was partly enabled by pivoting to Steam as its main distribution platform.
"We did digital expansions for Victoria 1, Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron," explains Johan Andersson, Paradox's EVP Creative Director and the mastermind behind some of its biggest hits—as well as the recent Imperator: Rome, which had a mixed reception from fans. "But every expansion required the previous one. We could only update one version at a time. Everyone had to buy the expansions in order, and that fragments the player base."
The shift to the new model, which has become almost synonymous with Paradox, was to have a single version of the base game with a small army of modular expansions that added new visuals or features. Crusader Kings 2's first expansion unlocked the ability to play as Muslim rulers, and smaller DLCs featured things like new clothing for your characters. The decision was also made to allow all players in multiplayer matches to use all of the host's DLC, even if they didn't own it themselves, so everyone could play together without worrying about who owned what.
"We had seen a few expansion pack models, but we wanted to create something new," Wester says. "The architect was Johan. We knew something had to be done and he had a very strong vision on how to proceed with the DLC model."
Crusader Kings 2 Arrives
On February 14, 2012, one day after the birth of Andersson's first child, this experiment called Crusader Kings 2 hit the Steam store. Critical reaction was positive from the outset, with the base game sitting at an 82% on Metacritic today. But sales didn't take off immediately.
"Initial sales were not strong," Wester says. "The fan base was not built-in. It wasn't until The Old Gods [a viking-focused expansion released in 2013] that it really took off."
"CK2 only sold 12,000 copies on day one," Andersson recalls. "It took three months to sell 55,000. But there were so many stories in the first months. Everyone was posting and talking about the game. You wanted to talk about your game experiences. If the game makes you want to talk about your game experiences, you get that viral spread."
You don't need to play Crusader Kings 2 for very long to start collecting these kinds of gotta-share anecdotes yourself. I still remember a game I played in 2012 in which I married my son to a scheming princess in Denmark who came to live on my humble Irish estate. The girl was ambitious with few scruples, and soon my spymasters started dropping dead mysteriously. It turned out she was killing off anyone who held that job because she wanted it for herself. This wasn't part of any kind of pre-made event chain. It all happened because these characters are constantly pursuing their own agendas in the ways that best fit their abilities and disposition, and it created a problem I had to solve.
Through this word-of-mouth and viral posts on places like Reddit, Crusader Kings 2 started to earn a reputation and sales numbers grew until Paradox realized it had a surprise hit on its hands.
"We had 12-18 months [of content] planned ahead of CK2's release," Wester says. "Previously, we thought a game was dead a year after release. There were no tools then to measure player retention. So we thought, we'll give it 18 months and see what happens. I would have laughed if you had asked me what the game would look like in 2019."
Jorjani echoes how unexpected this success was.
"[Crusader Kings 2] should not have sold this many copies," he admits. "It was too weird of a game. But it struck a chord. It allowed emergent gameplay on your own... Strike a chord with a core audience and you create a ripple effect that will ripple outside of that core and bring in more players. Cities [Skylines] did this again. It propagated based on the player stories. I'm not going to be humble about it. We don't want to tell stories. We want players to tell stories within our games."
In the years since, Crusader Kings 2 has received 15 major expansions building on everything, from adding India to the map to introducing unique mechanics for the Black Plague. It all culminated in last November's Holy Fury, a capstone and love letter to the community that, unknown to us at the time, was meant to bring an end to the era of Crusader Kings 2's active development to make way for Crusader Kings 3. It remains a rousing success in its old age and left a mark on the company Paradox is today.
"CK2 has done better every year," Jorjani says. "Its worst year was the release year. It's still doing gangbusters and will probably continue to do so."
Even still, the upper brass at Paradox remains aware of what it could have done better. Andersson reflects on how a slower pace could have improved things over Crusader Kings 2's life cycle.
"I would have done... slightly slower pace on making expansions, more focus on getting them done early and more focus on the polish," he says. "The short time between DLC releases also makes it slightly hard to get invested in a campaign. Two to three expansions a year is way too much for most people's attention span since we have so many active games. Content packs and species packs, those can be released more often."
While the studio may have grown ten times in size, Paradox still looks to the success of games like Crusader Kings 2 as it moves forward.
"The basis of how Paradox works today, our core pillars, are born out of the direction that Paradox Development Studio set," Jorjani says.
As the seven-year reign of this feudal story-generator comes to an end, check out our preview of what is to come as Paradox answers 12 important questions about Crusader Kings 3.