Paradox Interactive has previously created challenging and complex strategy games for the PC, like Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron. The studio is taking a slightly different approach with Diplomacy, its next game, which is being "designed from [the] ground up based on a proven board game design" with an all-new engine. Lead designer and lead programmer Jonas Bjering sits down with us to give the first details on the game.
GameSpot: Give us a brief overview of the new game and the time period it covers. After Paradox's development of two Europa Universalis games and two Hearts of Iron games, why was the decision made to go in this direction?
Jonas Bjering: Diplomacy is a classical board game about the power game and diplomacy between nations. While the board game uses the historical setting of Europe prior to WWI, Diplomacy is not a historical war game in the same sense as Hearts of Iron for instance. Its abstracted and simple gameplay puts focus on negotiations and overall strategy. In my opinion it is the best multiplayer board game ever and making a worthy computer conversion is the finest job any strategy game programmer could have.
It is also time for a technology shift at Paradox Interactive. Our previous games have subsequently been based on more polished versions of the engine developed for Europa Universalis. With Hearts of Iron II we knew we had reached the limit of that technology, and for Diplomacy we are rewriting everything from scratch.
GS: Paradox has, for some years, crafted games based on centuries of real-world history, but given players the freedom to "rewrite it" by playing through major wars as "losing" nations. Why has the studio taken such an approach, and will the new game continue to allow players this ability?
JB: There is little point in making a historical grand strategy game if you don't allow the player to rewrite history. For players who want to know the outcome of the game beforehand I would recommend reading a book.
The fact that Diplomacy is much more abstract and less of a historical simulation makes it even more open-ended.
As to why we choose to let players play "losing" and "unimportant" nations, the short answer is because it's fun! Why is it fun you might ask? Besides the obvious ability to always play your home country and the endless supply of "what-if" scenarios you create yourself by taking a minor nation on an unhistorical path, I think the ability to play any nation has another more indirect but nevertheless very important benefit: it reinforces the feeling that you are playing on the same terms as the AI. When you are convinced you are playing a symmetrical game with the AI it helps the players to develop a "theory of mind" regarding his or her opponents, which helps immensely in immersing the player in the gameplay. Of course sometimes you wish to limit a player's ability to understand the opponents. When we made the Mongol hordes unplayable in Crusader Kings it was to make their nature alien to the player.
Diplomacy is a very symmetrical game and minimizing the difference between playing with other humans and playing with computer opponents is a cornerstone in our design. You can expect to be able to play any nation that is represented in the game.
GS: While games like Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron have garnered praise for offering considerable depth, they have also met with criticism for perhaps being too complex and inaccessible. How will the new game address this concern?
JB: The games you mention have a gigantic scope. When you make a game that simulates warfare, trade, religion, political, and technological advances over hundreds of years down to a level where you name and rate individual commanders and decide everything from individual trade contracts to local offensives and the detachment and attachment of individual brigades, you end up with a very large feature set and an even larger data set. Designing away the learning curve without removing the enjoyment for the advanced players is always a challenge. With that said, we have learned a lot over the years. In Hearts of Iron 2 the tutorials, automated tasks, and an effective user interface aids the player a lot.
As I said earlier, I don't see Diplomacy as a historical war game in the same way our other games are. It doesn't derive its depth from historical detail but rather from a few carefully selected abstract game mechanics. It is a game that is easy to learn but hard to master by its very nature. We will build upon that nature by providing means to learn the game step-by-step, peeling off layers until the player knows all the tools he or she needs to play. It will be the most accessible game we have made.
GS: What specific lessons have you learned from the previous Paradox games, their development, and how they have been received by the public? How will you be applying them to the new game?
JB: Create a running prototype as fast as possible. It is much easier to get feedback and communicate your design intent in a running game than in a dry design document. The company proved many skeptics wrong about the feasibility of adopting a board game to a computer environment when it developed the first Europa Universalis. We will build on that as well as our experience of working in close cooperation with dedicated players, and we truly look forward to seeing our community merge with the Diplomacy board game community.
GS: Are there any specific aspects of the previous games, in particular, which you plan to revise or improve on with the new game?
JB: Diplomacy is not an evolution from our earlier games, it is designed from [the] ground up based on a proven board game design and implemented on top of a new engine rewritten from scratch.
GS: And what significant new features will be present in the new game? How will these features improve on the gameplay of the previous games?
JB: True diplomacy. True diplomacy has been a missing ingredient in all strategy games up until now. True diplomacy must include the ability to communicate and agree on anything that makes sense in the game world. It must allow you to form agreements and to break them. Other games typically lock alliances or other treaties for certain time periods and apply special penalties for breaking them. In a game with true diplomacy you don't need such artificial constructs. Instead you let the player decide who to trust and make building that trust part of the play, not part of the rules. Far too often, not only in our games, diplomacy is formalized into a very small set of options for the player and the motives or relations between nations are abstracted into simple numbers. Typically you have only been able to achieve true diplomacy in multiplayer, where free-form chatting between human players allows you to do perfectly normal things like coordinate attacks or spread rumors about your enemies. In Diplomacy all these options will be available, between humans and computer opponents alike.
GS: Any specific plans for the new game in terms of multiplayer you'd care to discuss?
JB: You will be able to play Diplomacy with other humans in multiple ways. We have several ideas for multiplayer that we believe will enhance that aspect of the game. It is too early to discuss all the details about them as they are still being developed, but it will obviously be very important to find new opponents of the right skill and play style to maximize the fun.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about the new game?
JB: Well, we have been playing Hearts of Iron 2 in multiplayer every week in the office since we went gold. For Diplomacy I predict an even bigger frenzy in the team, so let's hope our CEO is ready for it!