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Ebba Ljungerud's grand strategy: A chat with Paradox's CEO

Ebba Ljungerud's grand strategy: A chat with Paradox's CEO
February 26, 2019 | By Kris Graft

Image credit: DICE Summit.

Known best for incredibly cerebral grand strategy games like Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron and the upcoming Imperator: Rome, Paradox Interactive has never been one to shy away from developing challenging games for an equally challenging audience.

The company has been an interesting one to watch over the past several years. During its growth as a publisher and developer, Paradox has become a case study in building a successful game business by serving, nurturing, and expanding a loyal fanbase.

CEO Ebba Ljungerud, who replaced Fredrik Wester last year (though Wester is still serving as chairman), told Gamasutra earlier this month that Paradox will continue to work toward broadening its audience, but in a measured, deliberate manner.

“It’s true that we come from something very specific in terms of grand strategy, but if you look at what we’ve done since 2015 or before, we have broadened our scope,” she said, noting how Paradox is getting more into the management genre and is also looking into more RPG-style games that would fit the Paradox audience.

Imperator: Rome (Paradox Development Studio)

Making complex games more accessible

Paradox has the market cornered on grand strategy, but for a lot of players, the games are demanding, if not impenetrable. Ljungerud said Paradox as a developer is examining how to make its games more accessible, without losing any of their depth of play.

“Our grand strategy games, however niche as they are, they are also growing in size,” she said. “There is a market out there for people who like those types of games…a lot of [broadening the audience] is making it a little bit more accessible. [Ideally,] you still have the complexity and the depth, but you actually understand how to start playing the game.”

“Even in Imperator, we really made an effort to make it more accessible,” she said. “It’s still going to be very similar to the old games in terms of [depth], but there’s just a slightly easier way to ease into it.”

For a lot of fans of Paradox games, using the word “accessible” anywhere near one of Paradox’s deep strategy games is cause for alarm. Any hint of “dumbing down” would see swift rejection from fans.

Ljungerud understands this. “Yeah, that is a fine balance…I really don’t think the two [accessibility and depth] stand as opposites,” she said. “The whole point is to have these incredibly deep and complex and difficult games, but [streamlining] how to get into them. I think many, many people would enjoy that deep complexity if they just could get to the deep complexity, rather than getting stuck on ‘how do I explore planets.’”

Stellaris (Paradox Development Studio)

Nurturing and growing the audience

Paradox fans are enthusiastic – the company even throws an annual PDXCON where the company hosts throngs of fans – many of whom dress up like historical figures who star in strategy games. That level of fan commitment is nurtured through the games themselves; namely through long-term, free updating of games and mod support.

“[Maintaining and growing our audience] is about sustaining the games for a long time,” Ljungerud said. “We really, really feel that that’s one of the core parts of the games. We keep doing expansions, and we keep expanding. That’s not just to get money into the company…most of the expansions are free.”

“Another core part is modding and user-generated content,” she said. “We like having that openness, that interaction with the players.”

While Ljungerud knows Paradox’s strengths, she isn’t afraid to let her studios stretch their legs a bit and experiment in new genres. Asked how Paradox handles market research, she said the process always puts creativity first, and market analysis somewhere afterward.

“When we move into more areas we don’t know as well, even into other types of strategy genres, it is harder to do,” she said. “We can do theoretical market research, and we do all the time, but it’s not an exact science.”

Battletech Flashpoint (Harebrained Schemes)

Creative ownership

A key component of game-making is that it’s not scientific…We’re talking about artists here. They have a passion and they create something out of their passion. I’m not saying market research isn’t hugely important, because it is, but the flipside is that you have to have this passion, this ownership [within] the studios, creative freedom,” she said.

At 450 employees within several studios, Ljungerud acknowledged the importance of empowering the creatives in those studios. “I also find that in a studio, if you don’t have this super-strong sense of ownership and want and need to build something, it doesn’t really matter if you have the best idea ever,” she said. “It’s not going to end up being a good game anyway."

Along with creative ownership within Paradox studios, Ljungerud said there is also accountability. Not all ideas are cut out to be commercial products, and Ljungerud is a believer in cancelling games as early as possible in the development process if the desired level of execution just isn’t happening.

“It’s hard [for studios to cancel games], because people are so emotionally invested, but I think we have gotten good at really focusing on a core [gameplay] loop very early, and seeing if the game is fun. And everything else you can build on top of that. But if the core loop isn’t fun, you have a problem.”

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, just as any company has, and we’ve managed to build this pride in not being too invested in things. It’s a fine balance. Like I said before, you have to have the passion and the ownership, but you really have to balance [cancelling a project and personal investment].”

She noted that cancelling games at Paradox is a decision that is ultimately up to the studios themselves, not the executives. “It’s not that some business people come into [a studio] and say ‘cancel it.’ It’s the studios—they own that process as well.”

Growing but staying agile

Ljungerud said the challenge now is to maintain a certain level of nimbleness as Paradox continues to grow as a company and as a business.

“It’s about how do we ensure that the studios have the creative freedom that they need, but at the same time still have a good system…so we know if things aren’t working out the way we want them to,” she said. “I think we’ve come a really long way there.”

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