When Europa Universalis IV launches during the third quarter of next year more than six years will have passed since Europa Universalis III first saw the light of day in January 2007. A long wait for a sequel in what could arguably be the most successful franchise Paradox Interactive have, but fans have been getting regular patches and a total of four expansions (the most recent, never say last, Divine Wind was published in December, 2010) in the meantime - and some fans were actually disappointed - Paradox Development Studios announced their new project, as they felt Europa Universalis III with all its expansions was as good as a strategy game about this era could get and that there was no need for a sequel.
The development team however, begs to differ. They feel the need for a blank canvas, as they want to boil down the Europa Universalis experience to the bare essentials, fine tune these features and make them accessible without sacrificing any of the depth the series is known for.
"We've been doing expansions now for seven years or something, and we add features and some of the features we really like and some of them perhaps we don't like as much," project lead Thomas Johansson explains. "But the thing is the game is getting kind of cramped, you have a limited amount of interfaces, you have a certain amount of game systems, and you wonder "we have this new icon and value we should put somewhere, where should we put it?". Well, in here somewhere and now this is the combined religious/politic/rebel screen or something."
In so many words, the old game as it stood needed a bit of a spring cleaning and a breath of fresh air.
"We figured that we need to take a close look at these features and you know why do we think that this is such a great game?" Johansson wonders. "What stuff doesn't really fit in there? What could we make easier to understand, not less complex, but easier to understand. And also we've done lots of games since then, I mean we've done Crusader Kings II and Hearts of Iron III, and we've improved our engine quite a lot and we've learned so much about development so we figured that this is the time to come back to really our favourite franchise, or my favourite franchise any way. Take a step back, look at what do we have, what do we want to do, and make a completely new game."
Another important point Paradox wanted to get across was the emphasis on creating a more dynamic gaming experience this time around. Sure, the era itself provides for some dynamic changes to the political, religious, and trading circumstances of the time, but there was a feeling even more could be done to promote what they refer to as game changers (watch out, I think EA may have copyrighted that phrase!).
Trade has been one such era where the team felt there was much room for improvement. Never quite satisfied with the system previously employed, they designed an all new trade route system that will see players try and manipulate the flow along these routes in order to gain more resources for their own empire. It's easy to see how powers can disrupt the trade of others, and how conflict will arise over regions of particular importance in world trade. It's a more direct system, yet it offers more nuance.
Crusader Kings II is without a doubt one of the more successful and polished products to come out of the studio, and it's not just the engine that is being used in Europa Universalis IV - some concepts from Crusader Kings II have inspired features in Europa Universalis IV.
"There are certain things in Crusader Kings II that really went well," Johansson says. "And I mean it is a great game. One of these things is that characters give you a connection to the game, you think about Britain you think about Elizabeth I, you think about Sweden during the 30 year war you've got Gustavus Adolphus, you have strong characters that really shape how we look at history. But you also have this other thing about ebb and flow, in Crusader Kings II you have this character that conquers lots of land and then he dies and then you have a son, and all of a sudden your brothers that were your allies five seconds ago are now your competitors."
"And while, this is still EU right, it's a game about countries and empire building and painting your map, it's not a game about building your family right - we wanted to get a few of these features into what we're doing so we created this system with monarch power. The monarchs are fairly similar to what they were in EUIII, but what they do with their stats is that they've got power - you have diplomatic power, you have military power, you have administrative power - and these powers really go into every facet of the game and this is really going to be a game changer."
"This is going to create this sort of situation where you have this great military ruler who created a military empire by forming the army and these kind of things, and then he dies and becomes this guy who is either a complete idiot or he may be good at something else, he's good at administrative. And you have the empire you built, you have the army, but the strength you built on to create your empire is no longer your foremost strength."
The title of the game and the time period it deals with really goes hand in hand - this was a time when Europe was at the centre of the world - and it is a period that fairly naturally adds it own game changing elements as history is written whilst you are playing.
"The time period is really interesting, because so much happened," Johansson explains. "You start the time period with a very fractured Europe - the French king is really weak, Spain is two countries, Germany is really fractured, the Ottomans are on the verge of their great expansion and Europeans will soon try to push out across the Atlantic or push around Africa and find new places. And when the period starts you have this fractured, war like, fairly provincial mess and when you end the period you have this huge global spanning empire."
Paradox are only offering us a glance at a couple of the new systems at this time in Europa Universalis IV and you can probably expect most interfaces and systems to be slightly different if not completely re-designed this time around. Effort is also being put into making multiplayer more accessible and easy to manage - hot join and better tools for those hosting games are among the features planned for multiplayer.