Crusader Kings

On February 14, 2018, the medieval grand strategy game CRUSADER KINGS II (CK2) celebrated its sixth birthday, and yet, it is still one of the most updated and popular games on Steam. How is that?

Originally released in 2012, CK2 has since become one of the flagship games of Swedish developer Paradox Interactive. It is a game that I have sunk 1000 hours into according to Steam. And Paradox is still developing new content for it. An unprecedented 13th major DLC/expansion, HOLY FURY, is currently in development, with an as of yet unknown release date. While Paradox Interactive has been in the games business for decades, CRUSADER KINGS II is often considered to be a watershed and the beginning of the “modern” Paradox. Fans often divide eras into pre and post-CK2. It is no coincidence that CRUSADER KINGS II was Paradox’s most successful title to date at that point.

But why is that the case? What made this game the start of a new era for Paradox?

One of the most noteworthy things about these games is their longevity. Why are these games still so popular years later? What has made them so successful compared to their predecessors? And what does the future hold for them? This article will attempt to answer these questions, and more.

There are a number of reasons for this. Many of these reasons are also applicable to CK2’s sister game, EUROPA UNIVERSALIS IV. Released in 2013, EUROPA UNIVERSALIS covers the timeframe after CK2, from the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery up to the early 19th century. Indeed, both games are among the most popular strategy games out today, and for good reason.

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Crusader Kings screenshot
A screenshot of CRUSADER KINGS II

First, let’s understand the game itself. CRUSADER KINGS II differs from most strategy games (and even other Paradox games) in a number of ways. This is in order to better simulate the realities of the medieval time period the game covers. Perhaps the most noteworthy difference is the game’s perspective. You see, in CRUSADER KINGS II, you do not play as a country or nation or faction, unlike the majority of strategy games out there.

Instead, you play as a character. CK2 is less a game about nations and countries than it is a game about dynasties and the people who make up them. Rather than playing as France or England, you play as the ruler(s) of those countries. Whether you are some lowly Irish earl or the Holy Roman Emperor, it’s all about the characters and their personalities. As the centuries pass, you will play many characters in the course of a single game. No ruler lives forever, after all.

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The other central aspect of the game is that of the time period’s feudal system. You are not the only character in your realm. As a feudal ruler, you cannot simply run the show by holding everything in your realm. Instead, you must parcel out land to your vassals, as the rulers of the time did. Your vassals are also their own characters, with their own personalities and agendas. To the point that, unless you border powerful religious enemies and/or are in the path of the Mongols, the greatest threat to your position comes from within the realm rather than outside it. Everyone, big or small, emperor or count, has something to worry about.

It is honestly one of the best simulators of internal politics I have ever played.

From Then to Now

Despite releasing six and five years ago respectively, both CRUSADER KINGS II and EUROPA UNIVERSALIS IV continue to thrive. The games are continuing to sell well; the player base is only continuing to grow, and new content continues. It is estimated that the base game (not including all the DLC) is owned by around two million players, with the concurrent players averaging at around 6000 people each day. It is easily one of Paradox’s most successful titles in their history and for good reason. The video above, a release trailer for the THE OLD GODS expansion/DLC, is an example of the clever marketing that has led them here.

Even when the game was first released, people knew it was a game changer. While previous Paradox releases were infamous for being riddled with bugs (HEARTS OF IRON III released in 2009 was virtually unplayable on release), CRUSADER KINGS II had a relatively painless, bug-free release. This was a first in the history of Paradox and a sign of how the company has grown from humble beginnings. This explains why some call it the beginning of the era of “Modern” Paradox.

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All about volume

There are a number of reasons why Paradox has been so successful with these titles. One is their embrace of digital distribution. As early as 2010, Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester knew digital distribution was the future for PC gaming and that Paradox would eventually not need retailers anymore. In digital distribution, it’s all about volume; more volume equals more profits. Rather than price their games like solid gold as many strategy developers continue to do, Paradox games frequently go on sale. It is not uncommon to be able to pick up the base game (without the DLC) for $10, so there’s really no reason to pay the $40 non-sale price. This is combined with clever marketing like the video above as well as the Seven Deadly Sins series. It is no coincidence that CK2 has brought in more new players than any Paradox game before it.

The DLC Strategy

Holy Fury Crusader Kings II
Promotional artwork for the upcoming DLC/Expansion HOLY FURY. Image Courtesy of Paradox Interactive.

One of the ways Paradox pioneered their new approach to making games with CRUSADER KINGS II is with their then-new DLC strategy. Prior to CK2, Paradox mainly followed the old-school expansion model of most PC games, strategy or not. My first Paradox game, EUROPA UNIVERSALIS III, had four expansions, and each one was necessary for a complete game.

That is not the case with CRUSADER KINGS II or EUROPA UNIVERSALIS IV. Paradox instead employs a unique strategy that greatly extends the games’ lifespan, in addition to being good for business. Instead of updating them every few years, Paradox releases new content every few months. Not only that, but every single major DLC is accompanied by a free patch. The patches will always add plenty of new content and changes to the games, even for people who do not own the DLC that releases alongside it. In other words, the game constantly feels fresh with new additions, even years after the initial release.

More Mods, Fewer Problems

This is the core of the longevity of these games. The other competent that keeps players hooked is undoubtedly the thriving modding scene. Paradox actively supports the modding of their games. Most of the game files are in text and written in fairly intuitive code, so anyone can try their hand at it while using nothing but Notepad. This has led to some truly impressive feats of modding. Examples include After the End (set in post-apocalyptic North America), as well as perhaps the most famous mod, A Game of Thrones. As the name implies, the mod is based on the world of, well, GAME OF THRONES. Kotaku calls it “the perfect GAME OF THRONES game”.

Paradox has even hired some of these exceptionally talented modders to be a part of their team.

Downsides to the strategy

Crusader Kings II DLC prices
What you’ll be paying for all the DLC if you buy it without a sale. Yikes!

Of course, Paradox’s DLC strategy is not without its downsides. The biggest problem I have with it is that it creates a massive barrier to entry for potential new players. Now, the game is perfectly playable without any DLC. You can also ignore the cosmetic DLC if that is not something you care about. But sooner or later, you will probably have to buy some DLC if you want to, for example, play as Muslims. While it frequently goes on sale, even then all the DLC will probably run you at least $100.

It is one thing to buy the DLC as it comes out. I have owned the game since release, so even if I buy the DLC on release day for full price, I am spacing out the costs over years. The price tag of buying all the DLC at once, even on sale and even excluding the cosmetic stuff, undoubtedly scares away potential new players. I feel Paradox would be wise to try and alleviate this problem. I am not sure of how to do this, but as I said earlier, the volume of participants is the name of the game, the more players the better!

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What does the future hold?

Crusader Kings II DLC timeline
There have been four (soon to be five) more DLCs released since this image was made (Image credit: unknown)

CRUSADER KINGS II is undoubtedly a game that Paradox continues to get an absurd amount of mileage out of. It is far more than most companies will ever get out of their games. There have been a jaw-dropping twelve expansions for the game over the past six years, with a thirteenth on the way. The game is so different from how it was at release that if you compared the two, CK2 today is pretty much CK3.

But alas, all good things must come to an end eventually. While Paradox has admirably extended the game’s lifespan longer than the vast majority of other games, the game is still over a half-decade old. Eventually, it will be time to close the book on CRUSADER KINGS II. With the lessons Paradox has learned from CRUSADER KINGS II, however, I have great hopes for the eventual CRUSADER KINGS III. Though really, CK2 is so different from its original release the third installment in the series will basically be CRUSADER KINGS IV.

What next?

When will it be time to give CK2 a Viking funeral? Who knows. Game director Henrik “Doomdark” Fåhraeus said two years ago that “[CK2] is an old dog now, and it’s getting harder to teach it new tricks.” He also says that he expects development on CK2 to stop probably around the release of the 14th or 15th expansion. Well, we’re already approaching the release of the 13th expansion, HOLY FURY. Could that be the penultimate expansion? Or even the last one? I cannot say.

I personally expect development on CK3 to begin no later than next year. Maybe after HOLY FURY, it’ll have one more expansion left in it, but I wouldn’t bank on more than that. But I am not a Paradox employee, so what do I know?

Regardless of when CK2’s story ends, it has certainly been one hell of a story. This is the game where Paradox truly came into their own. Gone are the days of horrendously buggy releases and development teams of maybe three people. Paradox today is a thriving company; they are not quite a AAA developer but certainly not indie either. They are an “AA” developer if you will. I have no doubt that Paradox will continue to expand and improve in the future. When it finally is time to say goodbye to CRUSADER KINGS II, I know I’ll await CRUSADER KINGS III with bated breath!

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