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The Surprising Design of Crusader Kings II

January 6, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

In an attempt, perhaps, to make video games and the act of creating them seem more serious, Western developers often seem to emphasize just how much work, how much planning, how much "iterating," and how intentional their game creation process is. Japanese designers, on the other hand, often seem to emphasize feeling, speaking about their work almost as if it's poetry. Fåhraeus certainly isn't being poetic here -- he's quite analytic in all his responses to my queries -- but I was delighted to hear that Crusader Kings II was improvised. Its developers had a good enough idea of what they wanted to see in the game that they were able to play it by ear.

I asked Fåhraeus just how much of it was unintentional and unexpected. "Thinking back to how I envisioned the system, I don't think I anticipated the sheer number of opinion reasons we ended up with. It is surprising how it can still 'click' in the end, with characters doing things for mostly logical and predictable reasons in Crusader Kings II."

Creating the unexpected for the player, on the other hand, was ideal. "The goal is to give players access to everything they need to know to keep their realm in order, but still make it vulnerable to accidents and tiny mistakes that can quickly escalate out of control. For example, if you give a title to an ambitious, deceitful courtier with no land, he will be grateful for a while, but then he'll want more; it's just in his nature."

But Fåhraeus stressed that while there were surprises, they were surprises within the team's control: "To be honest, I generally don't like to be surprised by the game mechanics; that means our design was too sketchy, that we didn't think it through.

There is, however, a huge difference between unexpected (weird) and expected (reasonable) random outcomes. The former is normally undesired (with rare exceptions), whereas the latter is exactly what we are aiming for. In fact, the main reason I love to play the games I've worked on, even with my detailed understanding of how they work under the hood, is exactly that intrinsic element of chance, yielding virtually infinite replayability."


Fåhraeus is understandably happy with how his game turned out, and the role of the opinion system in that experience. "In the end, I really feel that Crusader Kings II turned out quite unique in the grand strategy genre as a game that is all about characters, their ambitions, gambits, personalities and ultimate fates. Just the fact that players care less about which country they are playing than the epic story of their ruler and dynasty as it unfolds through the centuries is fascinating. Because no two playthroughs are ever the same -- or even very similar -- and the opinion system in Crusader Kings II really is at the very heart of whole gameplay experience."

He's pinpointed perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Crusader Kings II experience: it forces the player to role-play. By making the player control the person at the head of a dynasty, and not the dynasty as a whole, or a full nation, the game sets up an intrinsic group of constraints and goals, which are constantly changing thanks to deaths, births, and the Opinion system. Strategy gamers often give themselves these arbitrary goals in order to tell stories or get more out of a game they've mastered, but Crusader Kings II gives that experience to everyone.

This is, I think, why it's been so well-received even from people who otherwise wouldn't given yet-another-Paradox game significant critical attention. Fåhraeus expressed pleasure and a bit of confusion at this. "Well, I always hoped that players would grow attached to the characters and engage in their unfolding, open ended, stories. For me, that is really what Crusader Kings is all about, and what separates it from our other games.

"Of course, it is really gratifying to see that we've succeeded in that respect! I am surprised by just how different people perceive Crusader Kings II to be compared to other games they've played... I am not complaining, though -- no one could be happier than I about the level of success and the amount of attention that Crusader Kings II is getting!"

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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Matthew Burns
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I bought this game a little while ago and it is in my "to play" list. This game just looks incredible.

Oh, I should say I have a degree in history and wrote my thesis on economics in England during the 14th century. Hence I am ridiculously bias toward a game like 'Crusader Kings II.' :-)

Dave Long
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I'm surprised by the views of the author that Paradox games are generally "yet another Paradox game". Clearly, while the sequels bear some resemblance to their predecessors, they generally involve substantial improvements and changes to gameplay (generally far more than sequels in other genres, no less, and often more than other franchises in the strategy genre - eg; Total War) - and the differences between Paradox games are huge (equivalent or more than the differences between the Call of Duty and ArmA franchises, say, were we looking at FPS').

Excellent interview though, and great to see CK2 getting commercial success. I haven't played it m'self yet (it's on my must-play list though) - main issue being that Paradox games are often so damn good that it takes me a few hundred hours to 'play them out' before moving on, which means I can take a while getting through them.

Rowan Kaiser
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Well, obviously there are major differences within the Paradox games, and someone who plays them in depth will see those. But I've been seeing a lot of CK2 love from game journalists who haven't played Paradox games before, or maybe they've played an EU game or two. Definitely not the types who would be able to sort out what makes Victoria so different from Hearts Of Iron or whatever.

Dave Long
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Aye, and that's a good thing :). I just find that game journos (and journos/people more broadly) will stereotype stuff they're not so familiar with - the old "all [pick your ethnicity] look the same" thing applied to videogames. Totally agree many journos may think that way, but that's largely due to their limited gaming experience and limited approach to understanding the world around them. Your response happily suggests you don't fall into this camp :).

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Very nice feature. I just recently bought the game on a Steam sale and now feel like a thief. This game is truly unique and innovates in a genre that could really use some new ideas. What amazes me is that there is this elegant dichotomy between roleplaying and strategy and the way these two fit together is just so organical. In some ways, CK2 is a better RPG, or a truer RPG than any of the Skyrims or Mass Effects of the world. You play a medieval lord, and it puts you in exactly these shoes, with all that comes with it: managing your vassals using diplomacy (which really deserves to be called that), governing your duchy/kingdom/empire, making war, worrying about your successor etc etc. All of the important aspects you'd imagine a medieval lords life to consist of are in here, and none of it is scripted (at least if feels that way). This is what I miss in RPGs today. Most are too preoccupied with trying to cram a prewritten story down the player's throat while more or less clumsily trying to allow some player input to shape the flow of the game. I'd much rather play a game that allows me to play out my own stories, enabled by a sophisticated simulation component that powers the core of the game, and facilitates the random outcomes that designers want to allow for. There's few ambitious RPGs like that in the market, and I'm glad and surprised to see this innovation come from left-field in the form of a grand strategy game.

Talat Fakhri
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One of the better Gamasutra article on Game Design. Logged in specially to congratulate!

Rowan Kaiser
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Thank you!

Mark Chen
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It's also really amazing the role-play put into some of the after-action reports on the Paradox forums. e.g. this fascinating and hilarious tale: