Strategic Insight: The Rise of Paradox Interactive

It seems unbelievable that a company that specializes in hardcore, complex turn-based historical strategy games with titles like Crusader Kings, Victoria and Hearts of Iron can be successful in this day and age -- let alone be an industry innovator -- but that is exactly what Paradox Interactive is. Ahead of the curve in digital distribution, niche marketing and fan collaboration, the company is set to continue to grow on their own terms.

We had the opportunity to talk to producer Shams Jorjani about the company, its history, its philosophy and its bright future.

DIG: Can you give me a brief history of Paradox Interactive?

Shams Jorjani: Paradox started as a small dev studio in 1999 and Europa Universalis I was our first game. We worked with other publishers but soon realized that if we wanted to grow properly, we’d need to handle a bigger part of the operation ourselves.

So when we finally had money enough to hire one more person, the choice was between a marketing person and another programmer. The developers were, of course, furious that we’d even consider anyone besides a programmer: “Good games sell themselves” was their reasoning. Paradox hired the marketing person, and from that day the company was changed forever -- for the better.

But starting a publishing business is no small feat. We had to start with signing anything we could afford just to keep moving. All those games were not, shall we say, the finest moments in PC gaming (see Stalin vs. Martians), but they allowed us to continue working and sign better titles.

Once in a while we found a diamond in the rough that took off, which in turn allowed us to sign even better games. Being small means flexibility is a key element to success. We decided early on to focus on digital sales. We’ve always been ahead of the curve there compared to other publishers who still rely on brick-and-mortar retail.

Today we’re in a situation where we only sign on games that we really believe in and think we can do something fantastic with. While our development team has grown considerably in size, the publishing side has done so tenfold in the amount of games, expansions and DLC we release annually.

DIG: Over the years, you’ve specialized in historical PC-strategy games. Was that always the goal?

S.J.: Our motto has been, “Strategy is our game.” We started off focusing on strategy games because we were good at it. As time progressed, we realized it wasn’t strategy games per se; rather, we became good at making, showing, marketing and playing games that others would shy away from. Simply put, we try to make smart games for smart gamers, so maybe “Niche is our game” is a more apt motto for us now.

DIG: Paradox strategy games are lovingly intricate, reminiscent of the old Avalon Hill board games. How has catering to that niche shaped the company? Has it been a limitation or an advantage?

S.J.: It’s mostly been an advantage. It’s definitely helped us establish a loyal fan base and allowed us to grow. It has also taught us to really get to know our audience and understand what makes them tick. Sticking close to the gamers is a very important part of how we work. But as we branch out, it’s been a challenge for us since there’s not always a huge overlap between our core game audience and other genres.

On the other hand, that also allows us to release a Hearts of Iron game on the same day as Modern Warfare -- not a luxury many other publishers enjoy. Our gamers don’t necessarily care about headshots and kill streaks compared to supply lines, diplomacy and historical accuracy.

DIG: Embracing complexity seems to fly in the face of conventional game design wisdom, which encourages increasing intuitiveness. Does that conventional wisdom play a part at all in the Paradox philosophy? Will we ever see a simple strategy game from you?

S.J.: I think it’s important to differentiate between complexity and accessibility. A game can be incredibly complex, but still be accessible. It doesn’t take long to learn chess, but mastering it takes a lifetime.

Chess, however, has a fairly simple set of rules. Our games have complex rules and a tremendous amount of depth. Furthermore, they’re fairly punishing when you make mistakes -- not exactly beginner-friendly.

We’ve made tremendous strides when it comes to improving the user interface and player feedback, but we have a long way to go still. This is our Holy Grail. I don’t think you’ll see a simple strategy game from us (say a RTS), but I think you’ll see a strategy game from us that is simple to learn.

DIG: How important is fan feedback? And how do you work with the modding community for your games?

S.J.: It is extremely important. Fans are the lifeblood of gaming companies -- getting too detached from their needs is very dangerous. On the other hand, it’s dangerous to listen too closely; you’ll run the risk of losing objectivity. As developers, we’re tasked with driving innovation and staying fresh while still appeasing the existing fan base.

Modding is also very important for us; it acts as a source of inspiration and keeps us alert. It’s also a great way to keep the community active and involved. We’ve even signed on talented modders and turned their work into full-fledged commercial products.

DIG: In terms of the current climate of change in the industry, how important is it to both publish and develop games?

S.J.: Today’s gaming climate renders the need of a publisher less relevant. More and more independent developers can release games on their own. But as more do it themselves, it becomes harder and harder to push through all the white noise. And that’s where the publishers become relevant again, if you want to achieve true success.

Paradox releases roughly 20 to 25 games every year. Of these, 15 percent are internally produced games. The lion’s share are externally developed titles that Paradox helps develop, market, distribute and sell. Paradox has increased the size of the publishing team considerably the last few years, which means that when we find a new game that we think can do well, we can put considerable resources in helping the developers hit their marks and make the great game that was once just a cool idea on a piece of paper.

We really try to work as a partnership. This means that we put a large amount of trust in each other’s work. The developer gets to make their game in peace and quiet, and they trust us to do the best marketing and sales job we can do on the publishing side. The producers are there to help developers avoid problems, offer input, remove threats and offer an outside view on the game to make it better. Our marketing/PR side focuses a lot on social media, and the sales department sells!

Sword of the Stars Screenshot: http://www.ign.com