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!"