How ‘Crusader Kings II’ has become the great phenomenon of strategy games in the last decade

If I tell you that a game released in 2012 has sold more copies over time than the year it was released, it’s easy that you do not believe me. In addition, it was one of the most sold titles of Steam in 2018. This is the reality that live the games of the Swedish studio Paradox Interactive in its last decade. Let’s talk about the games as a service, the downloadable content policies and, why not, ‘Game of Thrones’.

But for putting us in context. Who are these Swedes? Well, Paradox Interactive is a video game distributor that may sound like ‘Pillars of Eternity’ (in its first installment) and ‘ Cities Skylines ‘, but for what interests us we have to talk about Paradox Development Studio. A developer who lives in Stockholm and is dedicated to strategy games.

From zero to hero

This study (PDS from now on) coined the term “Great Strategy” to define the genre of its video games. To make an idea, if the Total War saga focuses on a large micromanagement in the battles and in a simple but effective macro-management of our nation at a political, economic and social level, the Grand Strategy games are just the opposite. We find a highly developed and sometimes complex management of our nation, and a very simplified war system.

This is why many fans of both genres dream of a utopian alliance between the best of each world , but today we have to talk about the evolution of PDS and how they achieved their current success.

‘Crusader Kings II’ would be released in 2012 and, although it was undoubtedly his first great success, the studio had already a long way from the mainstream. This was founded in 1995 and began almost immediately to make strategy games for PC. These games would be little known and did not get big sales.

In 1999, Paradox decided to split into the aforementioned Development Studios (which would be dedicated exclusively to making games) and a Main Studio dedicated to distributing its own games and other external franchises. We see during this time the first installments of sagas as ‘Europa Universalis’ (2000), ‘Hearts of Iron’ (2002), ‘Victoria’ (2003) or the first ‘Crusader Kings’ (2004). They were 2D games that allowed us to manage any country during a specific historical period.

From a niche to a medium audience

It is important to say that these sagas is not that they have a historical evolution from delivery to delivery, but rather purely technical . Thus, we find little difference between a ‘Europa Universalis III’ and a ‘ Europa Universalis IV ‘ in what is the essence, but the technical leap (graphic, sound, interface) is usually impressive.

Soon a not very large but faithful audience was built . And this niche would support them in the first jump of popularity that the study would experience. In 2007 they created their own graphic engine called Clausewitz Engine (in honor of a mythical Prussian general) that would see the light in titles like ‘Europa Universalis III’ (2007), ‘Hearts of Iron III’ (2009) and ‘Victoria II’ ( 2010). These games were already moving in a 3D environment and the technical jump was important from delivery to delivery.

The success of these games was still moderate, nothing special or surprising had been triggered. ‘Crusader Kings II’ would arrive in 2012 and … nothing special happened either. But there is something that we have not talked about until now, which is the great support that Paradox gives to its games through the possibility of modifying them. That is, the community creates “mods” that allow alternative stories to play, change the music, the color of the interface … and endless options that extend life and the hours we can dedicate to a title.

And then, ‘Crusader Kings II’, a dynastic management game in the middle ages that seemed very complex for some players received its first expansions. And there everything exploded.

Also, at that time, a Game of Thrones mod was launched that quickly became popular . We are talking about the famous series had begun its journey in April of the previous year, and had already begun to win an audience and a series of fans eager to interact with elements of the series . And although many companies tried to create videogames to adapt it ( Game of Thrones Ascent , for example), none would manage to make such a good product or be as faithful to the series as a modification for ‘Crusader Kings II’.

This ‘Crusader Kings II’ is a dynastic management game during medieval times. On a map that extends from Ireland to the most eastern part of India you can choose any character that has a nobility charge (from Count, the lowest rank, onwards), which basically enables you to play with any character in any part of the world, in the year you want, until the time you want.

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It is not so much the idea of “taking a country” because through intrigues and speculations you can implant your dynasty in other countries, and the game ends if your dynasty is extinguished not if your country is conquered (although it is usually related to the other ). In this game there are duels, conspiracies, claims, hunting, wars, love affairs, parties, pagan rituals, coronations … All the elements to play the best ‘Game of Thrones’ experience possible.

The game began to sell enormously thanks to the popularity reached by the MOD. And there is also the chance that ‘Crusader Kings II’ had been made with the most modern version of the Clausewitz engine. Therefore, the need to make a ‘Crusader Kings 3’ for technical reasons was far away and, for the first time, the game experienced such popularity that it was time to make it profitable. A new era began for Paradox.

A new business model

The way to make it profitable was going to be the Packages of Downloadable Content that would materialize in different ways. They were not a novelty on the part of the developer, because many previous games had had expansions. But the concept was going to be: less content at a lower price, launched with some frequency.

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Before, Paradox was launching large updates for its fully paid games. New content, new interfaces, new music and various corrections in a pack called expansion. Starting from ‘Crusader Kings II’ they would begin to launch free patches next to the new DLCs . In this way, they make sure to always give the player something to come back to and continue to monetize their games.

The tonic of free patch and expansion is still underway today. To the point that they will introduce the wonders completely free of charge next April 2nd.

‘Crusader Kings II’ was the new hen of the golden eggs. Only in 2012 would receive 3 DLCs: Sword of Islam , which enabled you to play in the world of the Mohammedan faith, giving them unique mechanics and music. Legacy of Rome : A small DLC centered on the Byzantine Empire, and Sunset Invasion : A controversial expansion that proposed an ahistorical invasion of an Aztec mega-empire into Europe. This last DLC, despite being small and relatively cheap, was so criticized that they have never launched such a thing again.

2013 would see the release of ‘The Republic’ , DLC for commercial republics such as Venice, The Old Gods , a successful DLC centered on the Nordic tribes (and that allowed you to play as Ragnar Lodbrok at a time when the series ‘Vikings’ began to have relevance) and Sons of Abraham: that gave depth to the Abrahamic confessions.

But in 2013 also launched ‘Europe Universalis IV’ , delivery that was to take the same commercial courses that ‘Crusader Kings 2’ at the level of paid content. In 2014 ‘Crusader Kings’ would also receive 3 DLC, but from then on the studio would start to relax having to launch content also for ‘Europa Universalis IV’.

The 2014 DLCs were ‘Rajas of India’ , basically introducing India as a playable country, expanding the map. ‘Charlemagne’, which extended the starting date of the game introducing a new era. And Way of Life , which allowed us to select the vital interests of the character we controlled.

Only in two years more downloadable content had been released for ‘Crusader Kings II’ than for any other game of the company in the same period of time, and this without mentioning free patches and other downloadable content. As ‘Crusader Kings II’ was also monetized through micro DLCs of music (Jewish songs, for example) of dynastic shields, portraits of characters (Iberian Portraits) and unit models.

And we will not cheat. All this downloadable content released makes a great economic barrier that keeps many players from immersing themselves in the delivery today. If we go to Steam we see that the game has a whopping 300 euros in DLCs . A barbarity that forces the community to wait until they are on offer to acquire them.

But as I said, with the release of ‘Europa Universalis IV’ and ‘Hearts of Iron IV’ and ‘Stellaris’ in 2016, the amount has been falling a lot lately. That year they would arrive ‘Conclave’ in February and ‘The Reaper’s Due’ in August. And in 2017 we would have only ‘Monks and Mystics’ in March and ‘Jade Dragon’ in November. Almost a year later, in November 2018, we would have ‘Holy Fury’ , being the first year that a single DLC is launched.

And to see the impact of the launch of the last DLC, in the words of the CEO of the company Ebba Ljungerud: “For example, when we launched Holy Fury – the most recent expansion for ‘Crusader Kings II’ – in November 2018, it sold more during its first month than any other previous expansion in the same time. ”

Now Paradox plays in another league. Their games have a good fan base and all have been monetized similarly to Crusader Kings II. This year, ‘Imperator: Rome’ arrives in April and the system is expected to be similar . And, although it may seem overwhelming how many DLCs there are, the reality is that they sell.

And they sell to such an extent that they keep the community active. A Paradox player is always waiting for the next DLC of one title or another. And in the case of ‘Crusader Kings II’ we can see his latest expansion: ‘Holy Fury’ After almost a year of development was the DLC that added more content for himself to the game. And the fans, knowing this, made it the fastest-selling DLC ​​in the game in the first few weeks. Also beating the records of simultaneous players.

Now Paradox asks: If 7 years have passed and DLCs sell more than ever … Why stop doing them? And the answer is that there is no reason. The only thing that occurs to me is that the game was so technically out of phase that they were forced to launch a ‘Crusader Kings III’. A game that on the other hand would have very difficult to reach the same amount of content as the 2, and we no longer imagine surpassing it. At the end of the day, we have a delivery that has not stopped expanding for almost a decade.

The reality is that ‘Crusader Kings 2’ is stronger than ever . And Paradox too. They have stopped making classic updates to immerse themselves fully in the concept of games as a service during these years. CK2 was the pioneer, also dressed well by luck or by chance to have been the most popular game of Paradox. April 2 receives a new update and we will see if this year ends up receiving a DLC to have a calendar so spaced lately.