I am a huge fan of the Crusader Kings series, so you can imagine my excitement when our e-mails requesting an interview regarding the release of Sons of Abraham were received warmly. What resulted was an interview with Henrik Fåhraeus, Project and Design Lead for Crusader Kings II.
– What made you and your team choose to focus this release on religion?
Well, religion is a fascinating subject and obviously of huge importance in a medieval game. At its core, Crusader Kings II is a game about medieval rulers, their families, ambitions, personality… and faith. Religion was all pervasive for these people, whether they were fervent believers or cynical power mongers. For example, some crusaders, like Raymond of Toulouse, were no doubt fired by very real zeal, often selling their lands to gather an army. Others, like Bohemond of Taranto, were purely political animals who did not hesitate to exploit the situation in order to expand their power. Now, we’ve actually focused on religion in two of the previous expansions for Crusader Kings II as well, making Muslims playable with “Sword of Islam” and then pagans and Zoroastrians in “The Old Gods”. It’s been a natural choice since we could unlock previously unplayable realms and createnew deep mechanics in parallel with the regular Christian gameplay. With all the cool things we’ve done with those religions, we felt it was time to go back and see if we could not improve the regular Christian experience!
– The Crusader Kings series in one of the most historically centered series of all time. Was it hard to add even more historical content in Sons of Abraham?
It is not hard to add content as such, there are so many fascinating angles to explore! We always look for the driving historical processes, the strong currents of history, if you will, and try to turn those into good gameplay. What we did this time around was focus on how the player interacts with the Pope and the various knightly monastic orders. Of course, it can be hard to avoid feature creep. For example, we discussed doing something to represent the Investiture Controversy of the late 11th and early 12th centuries, which many players have probably heard of. But in the end I felt it risked forcing players to deal with more complexity (not always a bad thing for advanced players, but many new players already find the learning curve rather steep.) Another thing for us to keep in mind is that expansion features have to be sort of optional and not too deeply entwined in the core gameplay experience, since our expansions are modular. If we are going to change existing mechanics or add a feature that is super important, how do we avoid messing up the game for players without the DLC? What usually happens in those cases is that we just put the feature in the free patch instead (which we can afford as long as people keep buying the expansions!)
– Where do you source historical content from?
It depends on what type of content it is. Historical characters and the political landscape of the map at different start dates are usually researched by a group of volunteers (our permanent beta testers)together with our scriptwriters. For features, it usually starts with an idea in the team and then we read up on it before we decide if and how to transform it into good gameplay.
– The expansion Sons of Abraham is obviously focused on the Abrahamic Religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism). Why were these religions chosen in particular?
We have already covered all the major religions of the region during the era, so we felt that it was time to return to the roots and take a look at how to improve Christian gameplay. From there, we decided that, hey, why not add playable Jews now that the Jewish Khazars are actually in the game as a force to be reckoned with. (We like unlocking previously unplayable states, or adding new religions that are only playable with the DLC.) To round it off and make it a sort of companion expansion to the “The Old Gods” – “The New God”, if you will – we re-examined Muslim gameplay as well.
– It was said in the Dev Diaries that Holy Order appearance is no longer time-based (created on a specific date), rather now they appear mostly during a crusade / jihad. What were some of the factors leading to this change?
The hard date based activation of the crusades, jihads and holy orders was never a good solution. I don’t like that kind of historical railroading; it does not take account of the actual situation in the game world. The new system makes a lot more sense; activation can come early if the religion is perceived to be under serious threat.
– It was also said in the Dev Diaries, that the College of Cardinals was something that players have been asking to be developed. How much say did this kind of direct player feedback have in deciding content for new releases?
A fair bit, but it’s also something we’ve always wanted to do since the original Crusader Kings. We had these actual bishops on the map, some of them quite powerful, yet they had no say in the papal election, and there were no cardinals. It feels like a very natural addition to the game, and to make it more interesting we gave the pope some additional powers.
-As Project Lead, what is your role in developing a game like Crusader Kings?
For Crusader Kings II, I was both Lead Designer and Project Lead, which is an unusual combination at Paradox Development Studio these days. I also programmed a lot of the gameplay and AI code, but that is actually the norm: Our teams are very small and the project leads – all of whom are programmers – cannot be spared from getting their hands dirty. Of course, both project leads and designers can really benefit from practical understanding of how much work it is to implement a feature. The toughest part is knowing when to delegate. For me, it’s always been a balancing act between management, design and real work (i.e. programming. )Anyway, I had a lot of freedom with Crusader Kings II, as well as a really skilled team who could help realize my vision and assist with the nitty gritty of the design and tell me when I was wrong.
– What drove the inclusion of pilgrimages in Sons of Abraham?
It is a similar mechanic to the Hajj for the Muslims that we added in “Sword of Islam”, which turned out very well, I think. I really like this kind of mini-adventure. In fact, I originally envisioned the game to have many, many rare but complex and engaging event chains that you would perhaps only see once every couple of playthroughs. The Hajj and Pilgrimages are a step in the right direction, but I would love to add a lot more in the future J
– What is your favorite, most memorable, or fun part of working on Crusader Kings II?
To actually play the complete game (which I still do frequently, just for fun.) When you start working on a new game, your head is filled with all kinds of fears and worries. It’s a leap of faith; the design looks good on paper, but will the game actually be fun? It’s immensely satisfying when it all comes together and you pull it off, even finding yourself getting immersed in playing the finished product.
– Where do you see the Crusader Kings series going from here?
With the coming expansions for Crusader Kings II, I would like to add more story telling elements to the game, but it will have to wait until after the next expansion (the one after “Sons of Abraham”), which is going to be something else entirely, and a big one; it’s likely to come as a surprise to many. Crusader Kings II has some more mileage left to it to be sure, but inevitably at some point we will have to start looking forward and move on. I have plenty of ideas for fundamental improvements if and when we do Crusader Kings III, but in the meantime, I hope people will keep playing, modding, and telling stories about Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV and our next lineup of games!