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Paradox Development Studio has been around in different forms since 1995, but it started operating as the studio we know today around the early 2000s. We have consistently raised the bar for ourselves with each release, culminating in the last three major releases from the studio — Crusader Kings II in 2012, Europa Universalis IV in 2013, and the recently released Stellaris.
With each new major release, along with a huge amount of additional content, the studio has smashed record after record both in concurrent players over time and sales. Both Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV reached their highest number of players years after the base games’ release.
To give you an example of the persistence of our games, we looked a two-week sample (taken on April 19, 2016) of the average play time for these games on Steam. The average playtime for the top 100 games on Steam over this period was just shy of four hours. Crusader Kings II had an average play time of 12 hours and 32 minutes, while Europa Universalis IV play time clocked in at 16 hours and 43 minutes.
The studio’s business model became more concrete during the launch of Crusader Kings II. This strategy consists of following up a launch with a long-term series of paid DLC expansions that are released simultaneously with extensive free content and upgrades. Paradox recently broke the 1 million players/month mark, demonstrating how the model delivers content that keeps the community playing the studio’s games over long periods of time.
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This model is only a part of the reason for Paradox’s extensive success and growth over the last five years. It is, in fact, the result of a set of business priorities that have allowed us to maintain commercial growth, organically grow our player base, reinvest the successes of previous titles into upcoming and ongoing development, and still keep the company lean and genuine.
We call this the “PDS Formula.” There are several principles that have been kept true over the years, some of which have proven to be a challenge as the studio has grown from a team of seven to a major studio of almost 100.
Making what we know but not limited by it (new ideas)
We’ve consistently iterated on what we know, but we try to prevent this from turning into repetition. We push the envelope with new ideas but always make sure we have a large degree of “focusing on what we know and do best” in our projects. For PDS, that means large strategy games that distinguish themselves from other titles in the genre.
Everybody makes a game
This is, of course, a question of scale, but at Paradox Development Studio everybody makes a game. Regardless of which department you belong to and which role you have in a team, it is vital that you acutely feel that you are making a game and are aware of the importance of your input. What you are creating will be a part of the player experience. “What can I make for the player/I’m making this for the player” often comes up when the studio discuss priorities and upcoming tasks. A game is made by more than just designers and programmers.
Give people a chance to prove themselves
People have been known to take on new challenges and have a chance to prove themselves quite quickly within the studio. It’s often less about previous honors, pedigree, and resumes and more about what you actually create and deliver — and whether you make others around you better. As we’ve grown, the mobility between job tracks within the studio is perhaps not as quick as it once was, but our external environment changes often and so must we. We try to ensure that this type of constant change also comes with the payoff of personal development and the ability to assume responsibility.
Devs understand and are interested in the business
For a long time, business and money were taboo topics if you were a game developer. Art and player value cannot possibly have anything to do with the business of selling games — or can it? At PDS, we’ve had a different approach since we were a studio who turned publisher, and now the two disciplines exist side-by-side.
A successful game is a game that players want to buy, want to play and creates a space where they want to stay. That is something developers have massive control over and developers who ignore that business aspect of game development are not only doing themselves a disservice, but, more importantly, their players. At PDS, most people are very interested in the numbers, everybody understands or knows the allocated budget and they work to do their part in making the game successful for the studio, the players and ultimately the company.
We are smart with how we use our resources (kill your darlings)
Because there is a strong sense of getting as much out of your investment, whether it’s time or money or focus, PDS has always tried to be smart in how resources are used. Is there a way to get economy of scale in certain aspects, that allows other aspects to receive a more unique treatment? This type of reasoning has been prevalent in the studio from the early days. Back then, it had to do with simple survival and the costs of being a small team. These days, it has more to do with priorities and making sure that focus is placed on the things that will create the best possible player experience, rather than design driven by a particular creator’s interests. When the two coincide, it’s obviously ideal. When they don’t, you can’t be afraid to, as the old writing adage goes, kill your darlings for the sake of the project and studio as a whole.
Make the games we want to play ourselves
This has become almost as cliché as “passion” in the industry, but this is certainly something that we have applied since day one in the studio and we still use it as one of the more important criteria in recruitment and more. Not only does this allow for — in our opinion — better decisions all along the game development process, but it also means people have a greater respect for and understanding of the player. Over a long development cycle, it is crucial that the studio stay engaged on the end goal of what sort of experience we are creating. Even if you don’t start with a lot of experience of our games, we find that to be successful and feel like you are getting the best value out of your experience at Paradox, you tend to sink a lot of time into what we make.
Direcet lines of communication between devs and community
We had not reflected too much upon this, as it’s the way we’ve always operated, originally out of necessity. But we’ve realized how different things can be depending on the studio when we went to Gamescom a few years back and other industry developers were flabbergasted to find actual game developers in the booth. “They let you speak to the public?” For us, that direct line of communication has been a crucial component in achieving the other points discussed here. Granted, when you have people very invested and dedicated in what they do, interacting with a sometimes very vocal community, you don’t always hit a home run in customer relations. We’ve certainly ended up in less than stellar discussions that keep being quoted back to us. However, we find that the benefits far outweigh the negatives and we know our fans appreciate that direct, unadulterated contact, and it’s the same whether you are a member of our development team or the CEO of Paradox. Of course, you can’t fake that genuine interest in staying close to your community, but it’s one of the things we are most proud that we have kept as we have grown.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Another cliche, but given the current PDS DLC model, it’s more true than ever. We always look at what we do in the long term. These days we are confident that what we ship on day one is great, but will only get better over time as we work with our players to add and expand on that game. However, this is not something new. Even before digital distribution, you’d see our games receive patches long past simply fixing what needs fixing. As we’ve experienced success we’ve been able to invest more resources back into the studio and to allow certain game projects to take longer, as opposed to being forced to release something in the face of not being able to pay salaries.
Of course, with larger productions comes a great deal more of responsibility, not just to deliver something that is better but to meet the now-higher expectations of our players. But nothing makes us prouder than seeing the confidence our players have in us sticking with games that people want to play over a long period of time. Having a long-term view of that mutual relationship has certainly contributed to growing our community as much as we have over time, but also to making the “right decisions” over time. The same long-term thinking has also meant we haven’t rushed growth too fast. We’ve grown organically and we consist mainly of full-time employees as opposed to part-time contractors, so if we cancel a project or reduce the amount of people on one game, we can re-allocate them to other projects to the best of our ability. That type of stability, compared to the industry as a whole, means our staff also view their contribution from a longer perspective than just what they are working on at the moment.
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