The Paradox Way: Paradox's CEO on the Future of the Hit Strategy Publisher

At DICE Summit 2019, we catch up with Paradox Interactive CEO Ebba Ljungerud to chat about supporting games in the long term, fostering a healthy work environment, and more.

When Ebba Ljungerud stepped in to fill in the shoes of longtime Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester, hardcore fans of Paradox Interactive were apprehensive, despite her position as a board member there for four years. During a talk at DICE Summit last month, she cited her background with online gambling as a sticking point in the widespread hesitance. But she has been determined to win fans over.

Since Wester announced he would be stepping away as CEO (while remaining at Paradox as Executive Chairman) around this time last year, the transition was slow and steady, with Ljungerud officially taking the reins in August 2018. Her time as CEO has been busy, too. At the end of February, the 4X hit Stellaris made its way to consoles. Just a week ago, Paradox announced it's opening a new studio called Paradox Tectonic in Berkeley, California, to be helmed by Ron Humble (former CEO of Second Life developer Linden Lab and former executive vice president of EA). In January, Paradox acquired the rights to the Prison Architect IP. In late February on a financial results call, Paradox Interactive reported it had its strongest year to date.

That's a lot in the span of half a year with a new CEO.

The Paradox Way

For Ljungerud, she's taking it all in stride. In a tiny corner at DICE Summit 2019, she sat down with me to illuminate her recent time as the boss of Paradox Interactive, and where its niche aim is headed as a prominent publisher and developer in the industry. It all comes down to what she tells me is the "Paradox way" of doing things.

Stellaris recently released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on February 26. | Paradox Interactive

"First of all, I think the whole 'we create the games, you create the stories' runs through everything we do. In the sense that even in an RPG, there is a way for you to create your own thing in that RPG," says Ljungerud. "And then the sandbox games, it's of course very much about you creating your own story, very much like a fantasy game in your head. And that I think is very, very key to what we do, and all our game pillars, they sort of derive from that. It's about the endlessness of a game, and that you can really get into the subject matter and nerd out in the subject matter. So yeah, that [is the Paradox way], no matter what the genre is."

Paradox has also long had its hand in publishing games from other studios, such as 2015's Pillars of Eternity, an RPG from developer Obsidian. Paradox overall, with 300 employees as of 2018, is one of the larger-scale mid-tier studios. Its name has become synonymous with some of the biggest series in grand strategy, from Europa Universalis to Crusaders Kings, while dipping into management simulations with games like Cities: Skylines too. If you're into strategy or simulation games, one of your favorites in the genre is undoubtedly going to be something from Paradox Interactive.

On the subject of maintaining that niche, even with Paradox growing exponentially in the past year, Ljungerud refers to these genres as the "core" of Paradox Interactive. "That's not going anywhere," she assures. After all, not all genres lend themselves to the Paradox Way.

A Stronger Than Ever Paradox

In April, Paradox will be having its first internally developed, non-DLC launch since 2016 with Imperator: Rome. Like other big titles in Paradox's roster, Imperator: Rome, a sequel to Europa Universalis: Rome from 2008, is a grand strategy game. The long-used Clausewitz engine it's built on even got a significant update for Imperator: Rome (and all Paradox games going forward) called Jomini, which will allow for easier mod support in the future. Ljungerud says that all facets of how Paradox operates are stronger than they've ever been before, which makes the impending launch for Imperator: Rome especially important.

She tells me of Paradox's stronger development cycle, the lesser amount of bugs in release builds, the confidence Paradox as a company has in its developers and teams, and also how Paradox has grown to be better on the publishing side with marketing and sales. "The fact that there are so many games that come out every year so you have to know what you're doing in marketing as well," she says on Paradox's improvement in that field. "So it's on both sides, really."

In the past couple of years, workers' rights have been a sticking point. Last year, the organization Game Workers Unite was founded on the promise of advocating for game workers' rights in the workplace through unionization, and more. To the Stockholm-based Paradox, it's not gone unheard, especially now with two United States-based studios under its belt. During her DICE Summit talk, Ljungerud put it succinctly: "Canceled projects doesn't mean canceled jobs." That mantra extends beyond trying to avoid industry-prominent layoffs too, into the pursuit of an overall healthy and rewarding work environment.

"We're in this insanely competitive environment. We have offices in Stockholm, which is like crazy active. Everyone's looking for talent all the time. Same in Seattle, also in the Netherlands. So if we were to have terrible working conditions, I think we would have a very hard time keeping our staff," says Ljungerud. "So of course, there are always things you can work on in terms of how do you make sure you create a good work environment.

"But I do feel that it is important to make sure that people don't do too much crunch time. I mean, yes, everyone can be in a situation where there's some overtime. Just the fact that we have a specific word, that every industry does overtime, but we have a word for it. It's something around that [some are] like yeah, but that's the way you do it and it's cool. I'm more like, yeah, but you should work your hours and that's it. And yes, we will have times when it's a lot of work, but it shouldn't be. That shouldn't be the base, and the same goes for anything else. I mean, we are never going to be the top paying company in the industry, so we're looking at other things that we wanna make sure that people like where they are, like the environment, and like the people they work with and feel safe and secure here. It's really about the whole package; it's not about, it's hard to just pinpoint one thing."

Paradox's Thriving Community

This year PDXCon, Paradox's own convention, is moving to Berlin, Germany, to a bigger space from its usual home in Stockholm. When I ask Ljungerud if PDXCon is set to move frequently now, akin to Hearthstone's globetrotting Championship Tours, she laughs at the notion. ("I think they would kill me. Every year.") She adds that each PDXCon is discussed on a year-to-year basis, and it's too early to say what the future is ahead of this year's PDXCon, which will be held in October 2019.

Ebba Ljungerud talking about her experience guiding a niche publisher and developer at DICE Summit 2019, on February 12. | Zebra Partners/DICE Summit

It's a convention centered on fans, far away from its start years ago as a press-only gathering. It's still relatively small, considering the scope of other conventions. In 2017, the public pool was open to 400 people alongside industry and press; in 2018, that doubled to 800. In 2019, it's expected to grow even larger with the bigger venue in Berlin. Despite the widened scope for this year's convention, Ljungerud assures that it's not going to lose the intimate vibe that is lost in bigger conventions that Paradox partakes in, like Gamescom.

"The whole point of it is that all the developers are there. All the artists are there. The music guys are there. I am there; publishing, everyone, community managers. So, if you make it too big, then you're not going to have that interaction between everyone. So it's important to keep the closeness," says Ljungerud. "It's just such an amazing experience to just walk around and everyone is passionate about the same thing. People just come up to you and talk about whatever, and you can spend a very long time talking about multiplayer functions, you know, stuff like that. And it just makes it very special. So that's key to not lose that side."

A large part of Paradox's games communities is that of modding, something that Paradox wholly embraces through the Steam Workshop and its own modding platform called Paradox Mods. According to Ljungerud, modding has never been seen as a threat. If anything, it's just another asset to the Paradox Way of letting players craft their own experiences, however they wish.

"One of the reasons I think that there is a nice flow to [our games] anyway is that all of our games are open to modding," she elaborates, "and we really like to work closely with the modding community. And that means that there is new content [from us] coming, or you can go back to a modder you really like." Flexibility, it seems, remains the throughline that defines the Paradox Way.

Paradox has been very careful not to alienate that community either. When Ljungerud was announced as CEO, fans were skeptical with her background in online gambling as CCO of Kindred Group—something they feared she would bring into Paradox's games, which have long subscribed to the DLC model of monetization to support more content, rather than loot boxes and other forms of paid formats. She's resolute in continuing the same path, but says she'd be "lying" if she were to say they weren't looking at other options too.

Imperator: Rome is an important launch for Paradox Interactive. | Paradox Interactive

"We're always looking at what business models are available, and what works and what doesn't work. The core of what we do is we want to support the games for a long time. That's really like the underlying thing, and if that then means that we will do many smaller releases, or the ones we do now are very big and they don't come that often," says Ljungerud. "So, I'm not going to say that we're definitely going in this direction, it's more that things change all the time. This industry has changed so much just the last couple of years. So, of course we keep our eyes open, and I think that at the end of the day, we will charge for developing more content. We have to, because otherwise we can't do it. They go together. But how we charge for it, if there's a way that customers prefer, we look at that all the time."

What's Next for Paradox

With a rapidly growing company, the key demographic Paradox is eyeing is changing before its own eyes. What once was largely middle-aged adults, has now shifted to a wider audience thanks to accessible games like Cities: Skylines and even the considerably tougher Surviving Mars, which she tells me surprisingly shares a lot of players with Skylines. In the future, Paradox is hoping to make its games more accessible, even dealing in genres known for being particularly dense. And better accessibility is no easy task.

"It's obvious that we have work to do when it comes time to accessibility, and we want to as well," Ljungerud says. "It's not about making the games easier. It's just about making the onboarding process workable. And, you know, the way that we work with the DLCs and everything, a lot of the times the tutorials don't follow with the DLCs, so the original tutorial doesn't work anymore. So there's just a lot of, figuring out what do we need to do to be more accessible, how does that work, and then just grinding and doing work. But yeah, we have a bit to go with that. We're not done."

With PDXCon going bigger this year, Paradox itself getting bigger, and with a relatively new CEO at the helm, it's going to be an important year for the company. As for Ljungerud, she's happy to be here, and says the industry overall has been very welcoming. Every week too, she finds a little bit of time to play a Paradox game so to better connect with her coworkers and fans of Paradox. At the moment, she really likes Surviving Mars—which she immediately feels "unfair" about, singling one game out of all of them. "I like Crusader Kings a lot as well," she adds. "I like all of them. It's very fun, and, you know, the more you play them, the better they are."

That much, too, is true for the diehard fans of Paradox's catalog; games famous for players dunking hundreds to thousands of hours into. It's the Paradox Way to play one of its games for a seemingly endless amount of time, whether it's thanks to Paradox's own dedicated long term support or that of a favorite modder forever tweaking its existence. If just the past few months' news of a bigger convention, acquisitions, and studio openings is anything to go by, 2019 is shaping up to be a fresh reboot for Paradox Interactive. And Ljungerud is more than prepared to see the company through.

Tagged with DICE Summit 2019, Ebba Ljungerud, Feature, Paradox Interactive, PC, Simulations, Strategy.

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