Fredrik Wester can actually name a computer game that was too hardcore, too out there, for his company to publish. That's a surprise, considering how (putting it kindly) obscure (?)… specific (?) … for-nerds (!) the games that Wester's Paradox Interactive puts out there.
Naval combat simulator set in the Arctic Circle? Too hardcore for Paradox? No, they would really make that. And they are. It's a real forthcoming Paradox game.
A massively multiplayer game set in 17th Century New England? Nope. That wasn't too weird for them either. It's called Salem, and it too is coming.
How about a sequel to Paradox's surprise hit Magicka that actually runs on good tech? Also real, Wester promises.
No, when the jovial head of Paradox Interactive met me earlier this week in the Kotaku offices in New York City earlier this week, he said one game that was too hardcore for Paradox was called Señor Heinz.
"You're a German Nazi criminal who flees to South America to escape justice," Wester explained. It would have been an adventure game set in the world of Paradox's niche series Hearts of Iron. "The idea is pretty unique, but it was super-hardcore. Adventure games are a niche of the market and Hearts of Iron isn't huge."
Oddly, Señor Heinz does sound good, but Wester has earned the benefit of the doubt. This is a guy who greenlit a game called Stalin Vs. Martians after having only seen its concept art and then had to deal with the fact that, in his words, "the game was so crappy." GameSpot gave it a 1.5 out of 10. That kind of crappy.
On the day we met, Wester was optimistic that Paradox's Stalin vs. Martians era is in the past. At some point that day, Wester told me, the company's multiplayer fantasy game Magicka was going to sell its 500,000th copy, the first game in the company's 14-year history to do so. Somehow, success is finding this weird Swedish company that makes a whole lot of anti-FarmVilles. This crew makes games for the kind of gamers who will happily endure a bit of graphical inelegance in a game that will let them pore over stacks of stats and tweak the lot of them.
Paradox is doing well, profits up 30% this year, growing by 60% and, before I could mistake Wester for some boring businessman who wandered into the Kotaku offices to hype me on metrics, he was telling me about how his mom used to be a Communist and how maybe, just maybe Gamestop won't "fuck it up" with their new digital store Impulse because his mom did tell him that "hope is the last thing that abandons man." Thankfully, this guy isn't a bland gaming CEO. Not at all.
Breaking from the numbers talk, he was talking to me about death in Salem and how they need to figure out how to get the game's hyped "permadeath" system to work out right. "It's not going to kill everything you ever did, but you're going to be hurt if you die in Salem. A lot of people say 'It's going to be mayhem, because people can do whatever they want to do.' But it's like real life. Out on the street here, you can kill someone if you want to. But it's going to have consequences. If you walk around killing people in Salem, people will find out and kill you."
Wester said that the people at Paradox who publish a raft of hardcore PC games and develop a bunch internally, "make games that we want to play ourselves." This is actually what many game company bosses say about their company and is only a useful statement if you know who these people are. Wester's a guy who grew up in northern Sweden in a city that got a week's worth of non-stop sunlight and a whole lot of days with 24-hour darkness. He was a rabid PC gamer. He was an avid Spectrum user. He grew into the kind of guy who has 180 hours logged in the Paradox game Warband, according to his Steam stats.
Paradox makes games for the "25-50-year old male," Wester told me, the gamer who is "kind of geeky." He corrected himself. "Internet-savvy"… "Internet-savvy is a better word than geeky."
The Paradox people shouldn't be mistaken for PC purists holding out to simply make the basement-gamer ideal of PC games. They're not some mythical bunch of PC gaming saviors (what's to save? Valve and Blizzard are doing just fine, thank you). They've dabbled in console games and will do more. They've just been sticking to PC primarily because they make games for $200,000-$500,000. But they've tried once, with Lead and Gold on the PlayStation Network and now they're planning an Xbox Live Arcade version of Magicka. ("I would imagine if I could look into a crystal ball early 2012, but I wouldn't put it in stone.")
Wester wants Paradox games on iPads and other tablets because "I think our games would fit on that, and a lot of geeks have tablets." He meant to say "Internet-savvy people," I reminded him. Right. Those folks.
They tried Facebook gaming. That phase lasted half-a-day. "The nature of social games is that you look first at the monetization model," he said. "And then you look at the [game design] idea … We started a Facebook game and decided: 'This is just going to be so boring.' It's basically like we're trying to steal people's money." These days, Wester thinks Facebook games might be "evil" or at least "anti-social."
The Paradox strategy for the future isn't Facebook. It's to keep making odd games, to expand on some new platforms and to do a lot with downloadable content. With that last one, there's some nervousness. "Don't be greedy," he said, relating a DLC life-lesson Paradox has absorbed. Sure, they can and should create free and paid downloadable content for their customers to extend the life of their games, but they shouldn't over-charge—so long as the customers understand that offering DLC isn't some sort of concession that the original game it's being bolted to was incomplete. Wester seems worried that people think that way. "That's like saying I have an iPhone 3 and it's really sucky and now the iPhone 4 is out. It should have been the iPhone 4. So screw you, Apple. But it doesn't really works that way. You find out new things because you spend time on it."
In the future, we won't be getting Señor Heinz from Paradox. We will be getting Mount and Blade: With Fire & Sword, which comes out next week. And down the line? Well, this is how Wester's mind works: He loved the ruthless isometric tactical classic Syndicate back in the day. He also works in Sweden and is therefore privy to the fact that a neighboring studio is making a new Syndicate for EA and that the game is "more of a like a GTA wannabe than it's like the original game." Therefore, he wants Paradox to make its own riff on Syndicate. They don't have a game design in mind yet, but that's the dream.
"No one tells us what to do," he told me, summarizing pretty much everything we discussed. They follow no orders and they're succeeding making some less-than-mainstream games. That's the Paradox.