An Interview with Paradox's New Hire: Jon Shafer18 May 2017 3
One of Paradox's more surprising announcements from this year's PDXCON, the company announced they had hired critically accalimed designer Jon Shafer to head up a new team within their internal development studio. Shafer, who was Lead Designer on Civilization V at the ripe age of 21, has also worked at Stardock Entertainment and solo on his own project, At the Gates. We had T.J. catch up with him to find out more.
How did your relationship with Paradox start? Did they come to you? Did you go to them?
Jon Shafer: Yeah, they’ve been trying to recruit me for a very long time. Probably since about 2010, 2011. Shortly after Civ 5. I think at that point, I was still at Stardock. I think, originally, I met Fred [Wester, CEO of Paradox] at E3 in 2011. And he was like, “Hey, would you like to come work for us? You can help fix our interfaces.” [laughs]. I think that was the first thing that came up.
So what made it work this time? Why did it make sense now for you to come over to their team?
JS: A couple things. One is that I’m in the process of wrapping up At the Gates now, obviously. And Paradox is a company that I’ve thought about for a while, but I wanted to make sure the opportunity is right in terms of what I could work on. Because I don’t want to just do the same things I’ve always done. I want to be able to explore new space, explore new concepts. And Paradox is now in a position where they have time, they have money, they have the ability to hire more people. And, you know, ten years ago, 15 years ago, what Paradox was able to do was much more limited. It was like, okay, we make [Europa Universalis] and Hearts of Iron, and oh, we just announced this new thing called Crusader Kings! You know, the scope of what was possible was much more limited back then.
Anyway, in terms of being able to work on At the Gates as well, they were totally cool with saying, “Yes, we have no issue with you finishing this game up. Make sure you can do work with us as well.” But we’re at such an early stage right now [at Paradox] that I’m not going to be doing a lot of hardcore programming or a lot of in-depth stuff. So that gives me - it’s more of the high-level, conceptual phase of the project right now. And so, in the meantime, I’m going to be doing a lot more of the finishing up, polishing, programming work on At the Gates. So it’s like two, completely different things that don’t overlap.
So, obviously you can’t say what your new project at Paradox is, specifically. But do you have a concept of the game you’re going to be working on at this point? Or is it still in sort of a pitch stage?
JS: Still in a pitch stage, but I have some ideas.
And if you’re able to say, are these ideas in the grand strategy realm? Or is it going to be something slightly different?
JS: It’s something that would be recognizably Paradox.
Okay, fair enough. So I’m sure you’ve been asked this all weekend, but where is At the Gates sitting right now? What stage are you at?
JS: We’re pretty close [to finishing]. Obviously, it’s gone on for much longer than was planned. I remember I was talking with you about it, I don’t know… several years ago now.
Something like that, yeah. I covered the initial Kickstarter stuff.
JS: Right, yes. That was quite some time ago now. But we’re probably, I’d say, about 75, 80 percent of the way there. Like honestly, I reached a point a little bit last year where I had just worked so much on it for so long that I was like, I need to step away. I need to kind of take a break from this. And you know, this is not something that comes up a lot in [games development], but it’s a little bit more common with indie [developers]. You know, the horror stories, like, trying to get things done and people have lost their marriages and all that sort of stuff. So it was something where I kinda needed to step away for a bit and refresh my brain. And obviously, some people are a little upset about delays, but most people have been really cool about it. And they have reason to be like, “Hey, what’s going on here?” Like, I understand.
Right, and especially in a Kickstarter scenario, you have people who have already put their money down. You’re always going to have people who, even when you do deliver on stuff, if it’s not delivering exactly what they thought they would be getting, they’re going to be upset.
JS: Yeah, Kickstarter is, I think, in a very interesting place right now. I think a lot of the enthusiasm there has dissipated. I mean, it’s not dead or anything, but it’s completely different from what it was in like, 2012, 2013.
Do you think that was a saturation thing? That there were just too many people trying to get in on the Kickstarter craze and people got burned out on it?
JS: I don’t think so. I think it’s more, just, the challenges of making a game combined with the expectations of Kickstarter. Because with a Kickstarter campaign, the idea in general is, okay, we need money to develop this thing. Which means we’re very early [in the process], because we need money to do it. For the most part - again, there are some projects that are basically done and they’re like, “Let’s do a Kickstarter! It will be good marketing!” Get some extra cash from people that will pay a little bit more.
But I think by and large it’s, okay, we’re starting this thing. We’re still in the conceptual stage. Let’s get the money to hire people and develop. And that’s just a really challenging situation. I mean, games in general are hard to make professionally regardless of where your money is coming from. You know, there are a lot of projects that are cancelled that nobody ever even hears about. Like, there are a lot of stories about companies shutting down and people getting laid off and projects getting cancelled. And these are, you know, with professional funding and investment. You know, with Kickstarter, it’s a lot more open - the sausage factory. So I think that’s probably more what we’re seeing [with the decline of Kickstarter]. The expectations meet reality. And the reality of making these games is much trickier than the popular imagination [believes it is].
Was there one, particular thing or a couple of things that surprised you the most trying to go off and do the indie thing after you’d already been making strategy games for bigger companies for a while? Anything you would caution other indie strategy developers, like - you’re not gonna see this coming?
JS: Absolutely. I think one thing is expectation management. You know, being able to communicate with the people that are invested emotionally and/or financially. And that’s one of the things I think a lot of the people who have done Kickstarter campaigns… You get the passion of the people who are really excited and interested, but that can also turn in a negative way. There are a number of indie games that have really gotten people upset even if they’ve been finished. I remember No Man’s Sky… I think expectation management is a big part of it. It’s a funny, business-y term. You know, people expect more. So that’s probably the biggest thing.
But there are also a lot of things on the development side. I mean, doing the indie thing sounds great. It’s like, “Oh, I can wake up whenever I want! I can work whenever I want! I’m my own boss!”
That’s also how every freelance games writer starts out, too. [laughs].
JS: Yeah, the freelance lifestyle isn’t always the most healthy lifestyle. [laughs]. And when you’re the person in charge of the whole thing, there’s really nobody to tell you no except yourself. And telling yourself no is… [laughs] not something that a lot of people are habituated to. And certainly not myself. And with every project I’ve ever worked on, I’m like, I want to do everything! I want it to be the best in every way! And I’m going to change it all! [laughs]. Then it’s like, oh, wow, this is a lot harder than I thought.
So those two things - expectations both internally and externally. You feel like [going indie] is gonna be a really good opportunity and it will free you in a way. But in a lot of cases, you’re kinda chained down in some additional ways. My preference would’ve been to announce [At the Gates] shortly before release. That’s what a lot of companies are doing now. For example, with Civilization, Civ 4 was announced, I think, a year and a half out? I think Civ 5 was announced nine months out? And I think Civ 6 was like 6 months out. Over time, the amount of time is shrinking. And the thing is, that gives you a lot more flexibility. It allows you to kind of focus more of your energies on the development side of the game as opposed to the communication.
So, are you doing any work on other stuff at Paradox beyond your new team? You mentioned you might be cleaning up some UI stuff.
JS: Mostly, it’s gonna be on the design side. There is a lot of cross-pollination on the design side. So I’ll have people like, “Hey, play Stellaris. Let me know what you think.”
And I’m assuming you haven’t been there long enough that any features Paradox players are familiar with right now came from that process with your input?
JS: It’s been a long week and a half… [laughs]. But not yet.
Gotcha. So is there anything in particular that you feel like is kind of missing from the Paradox Development Studio secret sauce? Anything you’d like to spice up as far as what they’re putting out right now?
JS: There are a couple of things I’m always inclined to do. One is to push the envelope. You know, I use that term a lot. Let’s try different themes. Let’s try different concepts. A lot of the early Paradox games - and I think this has started to change - but they were very similar to one another. EU1 and Hearts of Iron 1 were pretty close. I mean, they were built on the same engine, obviously. But you know, the size of the provinces was all kinda the same. The economic systems were pretty similar back then. The combat systems were pretty similar. You have these stacks that move around. You have the arrow that fills up. It was almost a re-skinning of a lot of it. There were changes, but you definitely see how similar the two are.
But then you compare a game like EU4 to Stellaris. Then you’re like, okay! Now things are definitely starting to separate. Things are definitely starting to gravitate in new directions. And I want to go further down that road. We’ll see how much that makes sense, obviously. There are certain considerations that prevent me from doing [whatever I want]. But that is my natural inclination, constantly.
The other thing would be user interface. User interface is one of the things that’s near and dear to my heart. And I think Paradox has gotten a lot better there. But I think there’s a lot more room to push things there. And it’s tough, because Paradox games are known as these engrossing simulations. But if you look at the interface screen - any screen in, like, EU4 - you’re like, “Wow, that’s a lot of buttons. Wow, that’s a lot of stats.” There’s just a lot of stuff.
So trying to consolidate that is going to be one of my big focuses. Not dumbing it down, but like, how can you organize things in such a way that you have the same amount of depth, but it’s easier to play? I guess, interface-wise, the move from Civ 4 to Civ 5, we’re trying to go in that direction. And what does that mean, tangibly? What does that mean in practice? I don’t entirely know yet. But it’s something I know I want to do. We’ll see where that goes. I’m probably going to be providing a lot of feedback on a lot of other Paradox games.
So, are you more of a consultant at this point, while you’re building up your own team? Or do you have a team already?
JS: There is no team. At this point, it’s brainstorming. It’s pitching. It’s consulting, providing feedback for people. The main focus is on, kinda, brainstorming and building the basic concept for [the new game]. And getting people onboard with that. I’d say that’s about 80, 85 percent of my time.
Having heard you talk about EU1 and Hearts of Iron 1 - it’s obvious you have a history with Paradox games.
JS: Oh yeah.
Are you one of those obsessive people that’s been playing them for all these years? Or are you more of a dabbler?
JS: Well, I’ve missed out on some of the recent ones. I used to play a lot more. I think I definitely had over 500 or 600 hours in EU2. Probably over 1000 hours in Hearts of Iron. Obviously, those games are getting a little long in the tooth now. Yeah, so I definitely used to be the kind of person who would come to this [convention] and be like, “Yeaaahhhh! Kiss me, Johan! Kiss me!” [both laugh].
I’m going to use that out of context, just so you know.
JS: Do it! I’ve been quoted saying worse.
It’s a weird world we live in, where niche strategy developers can command that level of celebrity in the right venue.
JS: Well, this is the thing. People are people. This is something I like to remind folks of at times. But I guess it’s interesting being a “celebrity”, in a way. It’s weird in a lot of ways. I mean, it’s cool, because people are excited to meet you and talk to you.
Do you find people mostly know you from Civilization? Or do they mostly know you from Kickstarter stuff?
JS: Mostly Civ. I mean, [Civ 5] has sold 10 million copies at this point. So it’s just a matter of scale, honestly. I mean, everyone’s heard of Civ 5.
Yeah, so this may be kind of a dangerous question, but do you have any takes on Civ 6? In terms of the direction they went with that?
JS: Yeah, one concept that I do really like quite a bit is the districts system. I’d actually been playing around with ideas for something similar to that with, like, adjacency bonuses and trying to customize a city a little bit more. Because that’s one of the things I thought was kind of a weakness in Civ 5 - the character between different cities wasn’t as strong as I would really have liked. So, you know, if I were to make Civ 7, that’s probably a direction I’d like to push things a little bit further. I think the interface could have been better, but I say that about every strategy game. [laughs].
I also say that about every strategy game. [laughs]. And I’m not even a designer.
JS: Yeah, but it’s one of those things where you really need somebody to own that [aspect of development], to make that their “thing”. And that was my thing. That and like, maps. Procedural maps that do lots of interesting things and have cyclical systems of some kind - whether it’s weather or day/night or that kind of thing.
Speaking of reactive maps, did you play much Total War: Attila? Because I felt like that had some parallels with At the Gates, beyond just the shared time period, but with some of the systems like weather and the adaptation of the map.
JS: A little bit… I think most of At the Gates’ map systems were already functionally in place at that point [when Attila released]. It’s funny, when they announced the game, I was like, “They’re copying meeee!” [laughs]. They’d probably never heard of me. It’s just funny how those things kind of line up. But yeah, things like weather systems, I wish saw we saw more of in more strategy games. I think doing more with the map is the best thing possible. The map is the character. The map is the soul and heart of the game.
So my last question would be - as somebody who has worked with, now including Paradox, some of the bigger, more well-known strategy devs like Firaxis and Stardock, and you’ve done your own indie thing as well… if you had to analogize and compare those experiences somehow, what’s the main difference between of each of these development spheres you’ve lived in?
JS: That’s a good question. Paradox… so far, what I know is that it’s very Swedish. [laughs]. And this kind of a differentiator from a lot of other experiences in the games business - like, if I’m here after 5 o’clock, they’re like, “What are you doing? Go home! Get out of here!” [laughs]. And that’s very different from a lot of American game developers, in particular.
Stardock is definitely a company that’s focused quite a bit on what Brad [Wardell, CEO] wants to do. And it makes sense in a lot of ways because, although he made the original [Galactic Civilizations] back in, like, the early 90s, and that was kind of his first project out of college… for the most part, he made his money and got his business together on the corporate side with Windows skinning and that sort of thing. So [the gaming side of Stardock] is almost more of a hobbyist mentality in a lot of ways. Like, “You know what would be fun? Let’s do this thing. It would be kinda cool.”
Firaxis, by contrast, is very much a Sid Meier model, where you have different teams with a designer who’s kind of the owner [of their aspect of development]. You know, the gameplay designer, the AI designer, the gameplay programmer, the AI programmer. They’re basically the arbiters for everything. And that kind of extends throughout all the different teams. It was true with me on Civ 5. It was true with Jake [Solomon] on XCOM. All the projects Sid has worked on, he’s “the guy”. And the leads will talk to each other. Jake and I would talk occasionally. Sid and I would talk occasionally. But mostly, it’s separate tracks in a lot of ways.
And then indie is just… you run crazy and make mistakes, and you’re like, “Why did I do this?” [laughs]. Wow, I work way too much. I’m tired.
That’s probably how I would describe each of those. And they’re all very unique and cool in their own ways.
Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to talk to us, we can't wait to see what he ends up doing!