Paradox is the giant Swedish developer-publisher behind what it calls 'grand strategy games' – the likes of Europa Universalis IV, Crusader Kings II and Hearts of Iron IV, titles that inspire a borderline-fanatical love among their players. And PDXCon 2017 was where the company brought hundreds of its players together.
Held in Stockholm's Gamla riksarkivet, Sweden's former national archive and a gorgeous example of Romanesque design, PDXCon is both something old and something new. A minor in-joke at the conference is that the first fan/developer meetup took place in 2002 (it was actually 2003), which is perpetuated by a fan in a fake 'PDXCon 2002' t-shirt. At another point, the main stage presentation is interrupted when the CEO and COO notice a frantically-waving sign saying 'Victoria III Hype!' and point it out to the rest of the crowd: "We see you, thank you!" Victoria II was released in 2010 and Paradox has never mentioned a sequel but hope, clearly, springs eternal.
At another point Frederik Wester, the company co-founder and CEO, talks about getting on a plane and being accosted by a steward about when the next Stellaris expansion was going to hit — an anecdote that the crowd loves, because they're on the steward's side. At one point the key figure behind Europa Universalis, Johann Andersson, is singled out by Wester who tells the crowd that Andersson really loves hearing other people's game design ideas. It's those kinds of jokes and that kind of atmosphere: a group who adore the unique flavour of Paradox games, here to swap stories and evangelise about their shared passion.
And it is absolutely passion: not many conferences have to put up signs next to every game saying '2 HOURS MAXIMUM SESSION.' At one point I'm playing the superb Hearts of Iron IV as Hitler, admiring the enormous industrial efficiency that can be achieved with authoritarian rule. I'm rather lost in thought, such is the game's nature, when my reverie is broken by a shout from the other side of the room.
"I'm going full Commie, boys. Fuck Switzerland."
It's a funny line anyway, but also captures this special sauce that Paradox games have. You can become lost in their intricacies, spend hours agonising over a single big decision, and learn all about the history underpinning the grand strategy (in this case World War 2 and the years leading up to it). But at the bottom it's a sandbox. You feel almost like a creative force in Hearts of Iron IV, re-moulding the world one factory placement at a time and crafting a new narrative that begins in real and rich foundations. Part of this is occasionally cutting through all the chin-stroking, and just saying fuck Switzerland.
That all happened in a secluded space near the top of the venue — the building wouldn't suit most conferences, because it's a warren of small rooms rather than a few big ones, but here is somehow perfect. Every game has its own space staked-out, and there are even zones at the bottom given over to some of the best mod teams. I become fascinated with a winding chute that works its way down the middle of a large spiral staircase, and discover it's a precaution from the old days: if the documents were ever threatened by a fire, this was the quickest feasible method for heroic archivists to get everything down and out. A striking and unusual feature that seems out-of-place, but turns out to be eminently appropriate and practical. I thought about the kind of person who'd risk their life to save a piece of history for posterity, the kind of person you'd want working in an archive, and looked around at the attendees. As a central presiding spirit of PDXCon, for me, that grand old fire chute seemed apposite.
There was just an ease here, a mutual familiarity and respect between developers and players that you don't often see. Whichever developer was on the main stage would, without fail, at some point move on to talking about how great the fans were — and while it's very easy to be cynical about that stuff, here the whole atmosphere showed that it wasn't just marketing bullshit. Take this example: I clocked Frederik Wester, and went over to the PR and requested an interview. "Sure, how's half four sound?" Easy. To give you an idea of how unusual this can be, I once buttonholed Phil Harrison at an event in Sony's Japanese HQ. I asked for an interview and, while he didn't literally backflip away while maintaining eye contact, that was definitely the vibe.
Such openness permeated PDXCon. At one point the developer of Cities: Skylines, Mariina Hallikainen, was on the main stage, and after finishing explaining the latest Mass Transit expansion, she says with a laugh "Of course we will keep working on Cities: Skylines, because it makes us so much money!" And everyone laughs, because it is funny. It's also true, and that's perhaps the most striking thing about PDXCon: it's almost a homely event, it has a feeling of intimacy. But when Paradox went public, it was valued at $420 million. And that was two years ago: in 2016 the company's annual revenue stood at $746 million. Even as a publisher it has the Midas touch: Cities: Skylines has sold a staggering 3.5 million copies in the two years since release. Most people have heard of Paradox, but maybe don't realise just how big and successful it is.
You can even see this in the hires, and the calibre of company Paradox works with. One of PDXCon's news stories is that Jon Schafer, the director of Civilisation V, has moved to Sweden and joined Paradox. When you're taking that kind of developer from a company like Firaxis, it says you're a serious global player. Schafer told me he can't talk about what he's doing, though "people are going to be just thrilled to see it." Then you have Haemimont Games, the developer behind the successful Tropico series, announcing their next game here rather than anywhere else, the colonisation game Surviving Mars. As Gabriel Dobrev, CEO of Haemimont, rather winningly notes: "The name 'Elon Musk Simulator' was taken."
Introversion's Chris Delay and Mark Morris flew the flag for Blighty, patiently demoing Prison Architect mobile over several days and giving a substantial talk on the game's development. Of particular note was Morris's testicular fortitude when something in the sound booth exploded and bits of the stage seemed like they were popping: after a cartoon eyebrow-raise, so confident was his continuance that the interruption almost seemed like part of the show.
One of the most enjoyable things about PDXCon was seeing these developers of rich, deep strategy games give their talks — and be applauded like rockstars afterwards. They're regarded as heroes by these players, as it should be, and the nature of the games means the level of discourse is high. While taking questions someone asks the Haemimont staff about the influence of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars trilogy, and one of the developers (unfortunately I didn't catch the name) outlines some of the cultural attitudes therein he found problematic, before ending with: "sociology aside, I really enjoyed it."
A friend of mine asked me to explain what #PDXcon2017 was all about - I referred to it as "a Woodstock for game nerds".
— Fredrik Wester (@TheWesterFront) May 16, 2017
I keep on overhearing these wonderful out-of-context lines. "I declared war on Austria but I didn't have a plan... this is awful." "I never thought I'd love the orthodox faith so much." "St. Michael can fuck off." After my interview with Wester, which we'll be publishing later this week, I ask if he's spoken to Mariina Hallikainen about her amazing and incredibly-detailed pony game idea. "Oh my god the damn Pony game!" he exclaims, throwing up his arms with the air of a man who has clearly been pitched the Pony game (working title: Stable Economies) multiple times.
Then there are the great moments where, for example, I'm talking to an otherwise-chummy attendee and mention my enormous love of Rocket League. The eyes imperceptibly narrow, and I can see I've set off the guy's alarm bell: why is this fool playing games for children? I'm exaggerating, of course, but only slightly.
This is the paradox at this company's heart. Their games are so loved and valued by their audience because of that incredible depth and richness. It's true that there are areas where they can clearly improve: I have no love for the UI of Europa Universalis IV, for example. But as it maintains this enormous audience and widens it further, it's thinking about accessibility and making serious pushes into mobile. How far it can go with this is an interesting question, because one of the things about Paradox is a strong, distinct identity. It does a particular type of game, and it does it extremely well, and picks the games it publishes with real consideration for how they 'fit' in the portfolio. It is absolutely a niche developer-publisher. It's just that niche is so much bigger than people think.
On the final night, there's an awards ceremony where, rather sweetly, Paradox employees give out awards to various members of the community: everything from people who post a lot on the forums, to the teams behind full-blown mods. Afterwards, there's a cosplay competition and it's here, while admiring these wonderful costumes, that PDXCon really blew into life for one final time.
All four finalists were worthy winners. But as the placings were counted down, each got a huge round of applause, and then — voices in the crowd started chanting for the poses. Each cosplayer took turns to go to the front of the stage, and replicate their chosen character's in-game pose animation. As each one hit, the whoops just got louder — everyone loved it, everyone wanted to share their appreciation, and everyone felt like, for just one instant, these much-loved worlds were real.