Paradox, It's Time for Crusader Kings 2 to End

By T.J. Hafer 05 Apr 2018 4

I adore developers like Paradox Development Studio that provide ongoing support for their games many years after launch. I also adore Crusader Kings 2. It’s among my Top 10 Games of All Time, easily, and I’ve played around 1100 hours just in the retail build. But I think it’s time for it to die.

Before CK2, Paradox strategy games would get maybe a handful of expansions and the franchise would be shelved until it was time to start thinking about a sequel. I wouldn’t advocate going back to this model. Using DLC to fund ongoing feature development and bug fixes for a much longer time after release is, overall, a great idea. We’ve seen every PDS game since CK2 benefit from it greatly. And they continue to benefit.

But as the proverbial lab rat for this model, I just don’t think the foundation of CK2 was ready. It’s a brilliantly-designed game that remains wholly unique from anything else I’ve played, with its emphasis on characters, dynasties, and the way human interactions shape history. But it was never meant to be stretched as far as it has been. Even back in summer 2015 when Horse Lords was announced, I mentioned on the Three Moves Ahead podcast that it felt like a focused, feudal Christendom simulator was continually being hacked and modded to include unfocused and distorted representations of steppe hordes, tribal pagans, and auguste empires.

At this point, it’s sort of a lumbering, gestalt behemoth that has far outgrown so many of its initial core concepts, it seems silly to even call it “Crusader Kings” anymore. And while it can be fun to play as Turkic conquerors or the great dynasties of the Islamic world, they’ve all had their identities shaved down like square pegs to fit a round hole. The very foundations of CK2 are not ideal to support all that’s been placed upon it. And while I still find it enjoyable, I’ve come to a point where I am deflated rather than ecstatic with each new expansion that’s announced. Because I don’t want to see more Crusader Kings 2. I want to see what visionary designers like Henrik Fåhraeus (who has led the charge for most of CK2’s development cycle) could do with a clean slate and a proper sequel.

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If we just take a peek back over the last several expansions, the diminishing returns become clear. Conclave (February 2016) is the last among them I would consider wholly essential. The Reaper’s Due (August 2016) was admirable in its attempt to represent the Black Death and disease in general, as they were major forces that shaped the Middle Ages. But where it fell short was in modelling the sweeping social changes that came as a result of the Black Death - simply because the engine isn’t set up to handle them.

The marquee features in its most recent DLCs are far from essential. Monks and Mystics (March 2017) sold well on the back of its meme-friendly Satanist cults, but the actual effect on gameplay didn’t hold up especially well. Since each society has a limited amount of pre-written narrative content and none of them are especially dynamic, it’s wholly possible to see all that most of them have to offer in only a few generations. When a single game of CK2 can last dozens, I start asking myself why I’m even bothering to join the Hermetic Order again. Likewise the latest Jade Dragon expansion adds China as an off-map force that can exert indirect influence. This is due to limitations of the bones of CK2 to hold up a fully-fleshed China, and another great argument for a total refresh.

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When I look at a game like Europa Universalis IV, I can nod in agreement when Paradox’s Johan Andersson says there will never be any need for a sequel under the new model. EU4 has all the pieces in place to be almost infinitely expandable and introduce new concepts that bring flavorful immersion and interesting gameplay to its era. But it was partly built after CK2 had demonstrated the earning potential of the current DLC strategy. CK2, itself, was not - and it will always be held back by that. I lament because I know how much potential its concepts have to go so far beyond what’s possible in the current codebase. It’s the odd hybrid of Old and New Paradox games that just barely missed the train it was responsible for launching.

When I interviewed Fåhraeus way back in 2014, before the release of Rajas of India, he said “I have a long list of stuff that I want to fundamentally change that is not going to happen in one of the expansions. I can't really reveal any of these, but I expect that if and when we do a sequel, that's when we'll do these changes.” Watching his GDC Europe talk that same year, I felt like I could catch some glimmers of those big ideas. And they get me really excited. Far more than any announcement of new content for CK2 could, at this point.

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You might rightly say, “Of course you’re sick of it after 1100 hours!” And that much is fair. A newcomer to CK2 could still be playing it happily in 2022. But if we don’t have a CK3 by then, it will be a tragedy given its potential to push the conceptual boundaries of strategy games forward just as CK2 did in 2012. At the very least, we deserve a Crusader Kings that was written from the ground up to be as indefinitely expandable as EU4, Hearts of Iron IV, or Stellaris.

As so often happens in the dynastic conflicts at the heart of this game, I must narrow my eyes and proclaim: “I loved you like a brother, Crusader Kings 2. But now, you must die.”

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