Ramblings on MMOs

This post is inspired by the news that Blizzard officially cancelled their Project Titan.

To me, that is not a surprise, because WoW, just like most runaway successes are not fully understood by their creators and as such cannot be replicated. Plus, the pressure of success is crushing when attempting a followup, and this is true even for big companies like Blizzard. A lesser company would have released something, but Blizzard decided quality first on their brand, and thus Titan got the axe.

Now, let me add a disclaimer. I have played a handful of MMOs. I am not as genre-savvy as true MMO fans. However, I have also played Final Fantasy XI for 7 years, and this experience largely colors my perspective on MMOs, but it does not govern it, because for all that kept me there, XI is still a very flawed experience as an MMO.

Let me also say that I have yet to try Eve Online, though I have read quite a bit about it, which is why I will inevitably refer to it at some point.

So let’s dig into my point, shall we?

First, a runaway success is a rare and highly sought-after phenomenon that transcends understanding as far as replicating it. From Goldeneye 64 to Minecraft, while stopping by Angry Birds, and Flappy Bird, these massive successes are all accidental in nature (with the possible exception of Angry Birds, but it’s also the least impressive. I digress.) Goldeneye was first and foremost a technological success, innovating on the FPS genre while also delivering tight multiplayer experiences. Minecraft was something Notch started as a hobby, asking himself what he wanted to play, that just grew into a multi-BILLION dollar acquisition.

WoW is no exception. It came in the wake of Ultima Online and Everquest, but it applied the Warcraft brand while also offering a staggering amount of content, and most importantly it was incredibly accessible, as far as MMOs of the time were concerned. This allowed WoW to gain massive traction and word of mouth along with clever advertising granted WoW a popularity that was unimaginable at the time.

But ultimately, WoW is the logical followup to Everquest.

I should mention here that the universe of MMOs is a usually very expensive venture to get into. This means that the people with the money tend to be very risk-averse. In turn, this means very little in the way of experimentation is allowed in the development of MMOs, traditionally. This may actually be the one thing that is a shame about Titan being cancelled. Blizzard definitely wanted to innovate somehow, and with Titan being cancelled, we’ll never know how.

Innovation is a tricky thing, however. People demonstrably go for experiences that feel familiar, but be too familiar and your game will be bland, a rip-off, a clone, whatever you want to call it. This isn’t true of everyone, of course, but in general, players tend to lean for experiences that feel familiar, rather than step out of their comfort zones. To illustrate what one company does that I am aware of: Ubisoft, with each iteration of Assassin’s Creed, apparently aims for 70% familiar and 30% innovation. So they’ll add more stuff, but the majority of the experience will feel familiar if you’ve played the previous game(s).

However, MMOs do not get that luxury. It is so expensive to develop one, especially with the WoW mindset, that very little in the way of innovation is allowed into the games. I’ve played ArcheAge for about an hour, and the core gameplay works very much like WoW. The leveling system is slightly different, but the core - in the case how you fight monsters - works more or less like WoW. But of course, as I’ve been saying about MMOs, “like WoW but” is a very frequent expression, since WoW was a runaway success that MMOs have not managed to replicate.

Why? Because they refuse to innovate. It’s just too risky. If you gave me millions of dollars to develop an MMO, I’m sure you’d make sure I use “Trends and Data” to guide me through the development process, and “Trends and Data” are all over WoW. So if you gave me a lump sum to make a game, but that you were invested in the project, you would, whether on purpose or not, encourage me to replicate the core WoW engine.

But some MMOs have managed to innovate. Some that have managed to grow in the shadows of WoW. The prime candidate here is EVE Online, who is still growing after running for more than 10 years. It does not have the numbers WoW has, but most MMOs have declined out of existence after 10 years. WoW have been steadily declining for a few years now, as well.

EVE has smaller numbers because they’ve made their early game a largely unrewarding grind, but once you get past that stage, and the game opens up, it turns out everything is player-driven. Everything.

That is stellar because it strikes a massive contrast to games that try ever so hard to tell a story through quests, and that hold your hand through increasingly leveled up zones of monsters pseudo-arbitrarily. The problem when you give almost no control to your players over the shape of their server is that their investment in your server has less avenues.

As someone who played FF XI for 7 years, there were two things that kept me around: the quest for better equipment to unlock more potential for my character, and the other players with whom I was friends with. Leaving them behind was actually the hardest thing to do. But leaving my quest for grind was not so much. Especially after Square-Enix made my current goals more or less meaningless by opening up a higher level cap, and making all of my goals actually obsolete.

I’ve said it before, and I will repeat myself here: What keeps players playing after reaching the level cap is player-driven goals. The grind will keep players playing for an arbitrary number of time, but it in itself is not a means to an end. FF XI, to its credit, had TONS of gear that could be obtained at level 75 (The cap up until shortly before I stopped playing), and the gear had varying levels of commitment required to obtain it. So my goals were not the same as some of my friends’ and that was cool. The endgame gear grind is generally the next grind after the level grind, but it is just that, another grind. But unlike the level grind, the gear grind has the potential to be much more personal. You HAVE to reach the level cap to unlock all of the game’s potential content, but the gear grind CAN be done in whichever order you choose, or with the desired level of dedication.

But back to EVE Online for a bit. Possessions in EVE aren’t an eternal thing. You can lose money and your ship if you get defeated. And players aren’t shy of destroying other players, so the “gear grind” is perpetual, to replace things you lost and to get back to where you were prior to your previous encounter if you were destroyed. But more importantly, factions and the economy in EVE are all run by players, giving players a large breadth of options to explore as goals. Interestingly, I encourage you to read up on the most known EVE events, it is rather astounding what players can do. And to what lengths players will go.

After over 10 years, players are still invested in their agency on EVE.

Of course, a case can be made for the perpetual grind for in-game currency which can be used to purchase your monthly subscription, so you play to afford the game, in a perpetual cycle. But if the game had no substance, such a system wouldn’t be sustainable, people would just stop playing. But instead they have kept playing, and people have simply joined them, for 10 years of growth. Which means these players find substance in the player-driven worlds of EVE.

MMOs are persistent worlds, but in every single MMO I have played, the world’s persistence was narrowly restricted to player avatars. Final Fantasy XI had world control where certain predefined factions could control certain areas of the world, and player actions could influence this, but these mechanics were less and less relevant the more you leveled, and the more content they kept pumping out.

Persistence is an aspect MMOs should explore much more, I find. See EVE, see online Minecraft servers that keep players playing. And that, I guess, is the point of my rant. Blizzard is one of the few companies that COULD experiment with MMOs and maybe trigger a new revolution, but the crushing success of WoW is a hard act to follow, especially if they want to convert the older players, or reacquire the ones that have left. So it is good that Titan was cancelled, because I suspect they still carried Avatar permanence, an ultimately very content-heavy approach that is restrictive in its long-term engagement. Eventually, you ARE abled to obtain all the things, and at that point, what else is there? What if, instead, you had a hand in shaping your world, and it left an impact, however small? What if loot could be lost or destroyed? There would be a much bigger market for Iron Swords, for one! I think WoW-like games could learn a lot if they tried the more hands-off approach of EVE, instead of constantly reinventing The Grind (TM).

In fact, I briefly pointed it out, but see online Minecraft servers. There is a point to be made for player-driven content creation, and also player-driven destruction. I’d argue Minecraft’s online is weak when opened to a wide public because destroying is much easier than creating, but that’s a point for another entry.

I want innovation in MMOs. But then again, I’ve read this point before, so I know others think like me, but persistence is a powerful and incredibly under-utilized tool for MMOs. But using persistence more, using player-driven objectives more is a risk. Can you really put the prosperity of your game in players’ hands? If I asked that to someone giving me millions of dollars to make an MMO with which he’d then go on making money, I’m sure this person would laugh at me and flatly refuse.

On Persona 2: Innocent Sin and why I stopped playing it

As I have expressed in a previous post, I’m a big fan of JRPGs, and I have been playing them for an extensive period of time. It comes as no surprise that a few years back I stumbled upon Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and was instantly smitten with the amazing gameplay in a more or less unique scenario as far as JRPGs dared to thread. I was hooked through and through, and Persona 4 just further cemented how much of a Persona fan I had become.

Like a true fan, I had to hunt down other Persona entries, the earlier ones, the ones people didn’t talk about, and I had to play them. As a fan yes, but also as a game designer, to see the evolution of the mechanics. The games changed drastically from the days of Persona 1. The latter was, in fact, archaic, but also much closer to the usual Shin Megami Tensei mechanics with a mostly narrative twist. There was a huge leap between P1 and P3. So of course I had to explore Persona 2. Note here, however, that I found P1 ultimately rather ordinary, if not at times tedious, but it still worked as a game, and interestingly, there were actual branching paths and several different endings. I got a bad one though, and of course it was as a result of answers I had given hours of gameplay earlier and since then saved over. But oh well, I understood P1, and appreciated it as the relic of its time.

Persona 2: Innocent Sin however, has turned out to be a game I’m quitting midway through. And instead of simply doing a boring old rant, I figured we’d talk game design. After all, a game with cracks is an excellent piece to analyze and discuss!

First, let’s get technical issues out of the way. Persona 2: Innocent Sin is a PS1 port to the PSP. That is because the original PS1 game never made it to North American shores. As a PS1 title, it came with the PS1 trademark of loading times. But as a straight up port with translations added, the PSP port did no optimizations on the performance. The game transitions, especially the more frequent ones, feature a really long delay of 15 seconds from the time the game exits its current location, displays a loading bar that slowly fills up and the new location is generated and finally returns control to the player. 15 seconds. Frequently. That leads to a LOT of waiting. But this is a retro game, these kinds of technical issues come with the territory.

Now, because we talk about frequent delays, I HAVE to discuss random encounters. Anyone who has met me in person and discussed it with me knows, but I despise purely random encounters. And I have very good reasons for that.

Random encounters appear during a JRPG phase I refer to as “exploration”. You walk around, navigating areas, trying to get somewhere. Random encounters force a sudden and mentally brutal break of the exploration to transition to a battle, which is completely different gameplay. Then, when the battle is concluded, the player is returned to the location he was in the exploration initially. However, because the transition was sudden, the player has been forced away from his bearings, and must reorient himself.

Compare this to Chrono Trigger, whose encounters are scripted in the exploration map and in fact keep the map intact upon the battle starting, allowing the player to maintain his sense of direction when the battle ends. Another example is of course Persona 3, that instead spawns enemies on the map that you engage by attacking them or running into them during the exploration phase. Both of these approaches have a small but fundamental difference. When the player encounters these fights, he has an opportunity to commit to memory where he was and what he was doing before the battle takes place.

Traditional random encounters, like the ones Persona 2 use, do now give you this luxury, you have half a second with a sound effect before the exploration screen is stripped away. That is not enough time to keep a mental model of your environment.

Then, another important factor is the length of battles themselves. There is one boss battle that was fought with a timer, and said boss encounter took 7 minutes to defeat, spread over a lot of turns. I would estimate a little over 10 turns. With 5 characters to enter commands for, and enemies numbering usually between 2 and 5, a single turn can take as long as a minute, and traditional encounters will last several turns, since few enemies fall to a focused attack of all of your characters, and when they do it’s usually because there’s a lot of enemies, which can mean 5 turns, or almost 5 minutes? Add to that 2 bits of 15 seconds from the loading times, and your bearing are completely lost when you return to the exploration phase.

Now, to their credit, 2 elements of design were included to facilitate exploration. The first one is a minimap. The second one is tiny steps icons on the minimap showing the last few steps your character has taken, which stay when you are returned to the exploration step after a random encounter. But both are poorly designed in the game’s structure and actually contribute to the disoriented feeling a player suffers when he returns from the battle.

The main exploration screen can be rotated 360 degrees around the player, a feat that, for a sprite-based game in the budding PS1 era was a pretty big deal. However, the minimap does not follow this rotation. Worse, movement follows the player avatar, which makes the minimap actually confusing. “I want to go right on the minimap, My character is facing left on it, but the camera is facing southwest, so I actually want to press up and left.” That is the thought process you would want to have.Of course it doesn’t happen, so you fumble around for a few seconds before finding your bearings, and then you start heading where you want to go. BAM Random encounter. 5 minutes later you repeat this annoying process.

You might say here the optimal strategy is to simply keep the orientation static and never look at the world map. And you would be right. But there are damage tiles on the floor that only get mapped if you step on them, and this is something you learn early. Therefore, you must keep your eyes on the map, something done easier by rotating it to see your character best. Because of course, obstacles do not turn transparent if your character is standing behind them. So no, you have to resign yourself to the disorienting charade every 5 or so minutes.

The minimap also has another annoying feature. You are limited to seeing only about 4 steps in every direction. You can never seen the whole layout of a floor with it alone. I have no found a way to bring up the whole floor’s layout. This makes the minimap incredibly constricting, and ultimately not very useful for navigation.

Of course though, that is not where the game’s faults end. Encounters can be solved with battles, as usual, or with the “MegaTen” system. This system is a basic conversation system when you interact with demons to try to forge pacts and gain items. Persona 2 makes it so you need to grind the conversation system to obtain Tarot Cards, the resource you need to “create” new Personas to use in battle. The MegaTen system is very hit and miss depending on which game you find it in. In Persona 1, it was a mess, but fortunately it was something that could be used sparingly. In Persona 2, however, it was arguably worse, but you had to go through it because you need the Tarot cards.

Allow me to explain. When you trigger a conversation with your enemies in battle, you select with character (or character pair) will perform an action to try to reach out to the demons. Different demons have different personalities (categorized roughly in 8 subtypes that can be mixed with up to 3 traits each, for example a demon can be “Gloomy Wise Forceful”) and each character has 4 actions and unique actions in pairs. Demons will react to your actions by becoming Angry, Happy, Eager or Scared. Each of these states can go up by a maximum of 3 levels, and each actions increased one of them by 1 level, determined by the action and the personality traits. This, of course, is a massive exercise in trial and error, and memorization. A really long dungeon I got lost into allowed me to realize with pinpoint accuracy that “Gloomy Wise” demons reacted eagerly to Ginko using the “Discuss Love” action. Eagerness maxed gives Tarot cards, you see. Angry maxed makes the demons do bad stuff to you, Happy forms a pact, or gives you loot if you already have a pact with them. Scared I have no idea what it does, I never managed to scare a demon off.

Confused yet? It gets worse. Demons may ask you questions of their own after an action, and their questions are multiple choice answers. However, different personalities expect different answers, guessing wrong makes the demons angry by 1 level. When a demon gets angry, he’s very likely to ask a question, and these can chain. I have here and there chosen an action that made the demon eager, only to have him ask me a question i got wrong which made him angry, and just repeat this process until I maxed his anger bar. All because I forgot or did not know what answers were good for that personality.

I did mention that encounters break the flow and come with incredibly long loading times right?

The MegaTen system in Persona 2 feels far too random, and I don’t have the internet at hand to get the right answers every time. This is also a terrible thing to say, essentially begging me to have a guide open so I don’t waste my time and my efforts by accidentally making demons angry. Trial and error and heavy memorization isn’t a good way to approach a mandatory grinding system gated with excessive loading times. Oh, and when you successfully “win” conversations, you get no experience or money, so you have to choose between getting Tarot cards and getting experience at every fight.

Now for the finisher, where everything came together in a really bad decision. A level eventually features a building set ablaze with the party trapped in it. However, this building had schoolchildren in it. You have 10 minutes to escape to the top floor while also finding and rescuing all of the children. You are not allowed to progress past a floor if you have not found all of the children on a floor. Thankfully, children are in rooms, so really you must just find all of the rooms containing children. However, you have 10 minutes to do 3 rather large sprawling floors. Remember that the minimap is useless to seeing the big picture, and anyway, running into fire will damage you severely. But fear not! At least there are no random encounters!

That is, until you reach the fourth floor.

At least the timer does not count down during the encounters, but even trying to escape them all causes you to have lost all sense of direction when you return to the burning building exploration. Of course, there are encounters every 15 or so seconds, and I’ve estimated it to take me up to 5 seconds to resume walking where I originally wanted to go, depending on whether I was lucky or not when I resumed frantically walking. I had little more than 10 seconds of exploration before I was beset with yet another random encounter.

Of course, I failed this challenge, which resulted in a Game Over. But the worst part is, this “10 minutes” crisis turned out to be closer to 45 minutes of gameplay. And yes I had saved right before entering. Despite that, I refuse to attempt this challenge again. The game mechanics are a poor fit for it, and it makes the ordeal a design-wise mess.

To recap the situation, the tech induces severe delays between gameplay loops. The random encounters break the exploration flow in a critical and undesirable way. The minimap and exploration support systems are unhelpful at best and downright confusing at worst. The MegaTen system feels far too random in this iteration. And the timed exploration is an absolutely horrible level for all of the wrong reasons.

My recommendations, should a “Remastered” version ever get considered:

1- Fix that tech. Those loading times may be a retro relic, but they’re definitely something that belongs in the past.

2- Random Encounters are rooted deep in the design, so find a way to make them less intrusive on the exploration. Even having the exploration state present as a static image during the loading to and from the battle would be a massive help.

3- Make the minimap retain the angle of the camera when the player rotates it. What is currently in place is insufficient and unhelpful.

4- For the MegaTen system, make the game remember for us how demons react to certain actions. If I’ve seen a Gloomy Wise demon and figured out that my current target has this personality, show me in the HUD that “Discuss Manliness” will anger this demon so I stop trying to see what happens for the umpteenth time because I forgot. Same with the multiple choice questions.

5- Remove timer sections. You can keep the sections, but narratively explain the timers away. See my earlier entry about JRPGs to see how I perceive JRPGs to be about choices made with reflection, and not with haste. It’s also that timers are at extreme odds with the game mechanics, they stick out like a sore thumb. Yes the one where I died was really bad, but there was an earlier timer section that counted down also while I was fighting a boss and that still required a little bit of exploration to find a clue afterwards. And that section was still unnecessary too. It didn’t add to the experience at hand, in fact I may have reacted the same way as I have done here but sooner had that timer been my demise.

EXTRA: Plot decisions where you have to guess based on a textual clue where a wrong guess sends you to a wrong ending is also not great. Fortunately for those sections, I had the internet to guide me. Not sure how those tie in to the narrative exactly, however, so I choose not to pronounce myself on those. But they need mentioning because they were also a rather lacking aspect of the game’s otherwise decent narrative.

On JRPGs and what makes them stand out

RPGs hold a special place in my heart. I grew up with games, learned them first with Mario and Duck Hunt and Sonic and Double Dragon, with a couple of other odds and ends inbetween. But that gaming I did as a kid was all mastering twitch, skill-based gameplay. And I truly got addicted when I first discovered the original Pokémon Red and Final Fantasy VII.

You see, Pokémon Red and Final Fantasy VII, as RPGs, were NOT twitch skill games. I mean, you may argue that FF7 was timed in its encounters with the Active Time Battle, but it wasn’t hard to just enter the “Attack” command, and you had ample time to plan your moves, monsters had a delay in their action times to compensate for player input time. So you didn’t have to make split-second decisions to jump or dodge or fire at an incoming enemy. You had time to make decisions.

I need to specify too, when I say I got addicted, I do mean it. I played a very large quantity of mostly JRPGs after I discovered these games. They became my main game fix, along with Starcraft for a while. I have played in their heyday on the PSX and the PS2. So I can confidently say I know RPGs. Especially JRPGs.

The idea to write this post came to me as I was thinking up interesting systems to use in a turn-based JRPG system, and I ended up remembering so many articles and commentaries on the so-called “death” of JRPGs, or their shortcomings, or even people suggesting how to improve upon them.

Why did I like JRPGs so much? Why haven’t WRPGs driven up the same passion in me? People have suggested all sorts of theories about such topics too, but nothing I came across really properly captured my thoughts on the matter, hence the need to organize them in this post, so here goes.

The first thing that undeniably comes up when people mention JRPGs of yore is their narrative aspect. Because yes, games back then spent very little time with narrative prospects. In Sonic, you destroy robots, little animals come out, and whenever you crush one of Eggman’s big robots, you open a canister full of those little animals. That was called a plot back then. By contrast, Cloud’s struggles with himself within a larger world and with his friends, a team of people with other concerns and personalities, this definitely produced a narrative on a whole other scale.

Side note, I also play Dungeons and Dragons with friends semi-regularly. We had a conversation last time about how the advent of the internet brought about min-maxing from a thing that was shunned to something that is fairly normal. The best theory we could conjure up for that is simply that people online don’t give a crap about the adventures of Ragnar the Paladin that happened to strangers in a strange friend group. Even though DnD is pretty much a game about narrative, the most interesting conversations people have will be about the system itself. That’s something everyone shares an interest in. Rules questions, min-maxing “character builds” and homebrew rules. I’m not saying that’s all people talk about, but this part is relevant for my point about computer RPGs, bear with me.

Yes, video game academics love to talk about the impact FF7 had on video game narratives as a whole. It was eye-opening, shocking. Games can make you cry! But…

*FF7 SPOILER WARNING* (Though to be fair this specific part has been discussed to death already anyway)

But… As a kid who played FF7, yes we would talk about that event once, because those who us who used Aeris were bummed to have her taken from us, and those who didn’t use her in our party were suddenly justified. However, our favorite conversation topics when it came to FF7 were about the 2 partners you teamed up with after Cloud, and your reasons. Also, Materia builds. (“If you grind enough Materia Points, you can set up your entire party with the Final Attack-Phoenix Combo that makes it so you can never die!”) Or strategies for specific difficult fights (“Did you know Ruby Weapon is actually vulnerable to Stop, of all things!?”)

Yes, narrative plays a part in RPGs. But rather than being the PURPOSE of a JRPG, I would say that it serves the same purpose as the narrative in Call of Duty. It strings you along between encounters and boss fights, and gives context to everything.

My point is, JRPGs were popular, and still are popular, because they’re games centered around their combat systems and their exploration systems. The “good” narratives on top of them are merely icing on top of the proverbial cake. JRPGs reward you for making good decisions when it comes to assembling your party, if the option is there. They reward you for giving your party members equipments and skills that allows them to overcome all of the unknown challenges the game will throw at you. They reward you for actually making good decisions in battles, where all of your planning comes into effect.

If I may draw parallels, I would say JRPGs offer the same kind of enjoyment a TCG like Magic: The Gathering offers. You want to assemble a strong combination (deck) from a large pool of options (characters, skills and equipments) and then play this combination to the best of your ability in combat (an actual game).

So JRPGs are about choice. At every point in the game. Good JRPGs don’t punish you for having bad reflexes. They will, however, punish you if your party can only inflict Fire-elemental damage.

Games that add these popular seasoning that is RPG elements add that type of mental stimulation to their games for the planning, but ultimately, decisions tend to remain on a skill-based thing made easier or harder with your choices. In essence, these games have planning as a subsection to make your skill-based experiences more tailored to your tastes. (Bad at jumping? Take the Jump Distance+ boost! Good at Jumping? Take the Jump rewards+ boost!)

But JRPGs are not dead. Many people jumped all over the Shin Megami Tensei franchise ever since the advent of Persona 3, and much more recently Bravely Default told Square-Enix that JRPG fans still exist and that we want content.

Of course we still exist! Our desire for games that make us plan and execute without the pressure of twitch gameplay needs to be sated too! JRPG fans like a good narrative, but good gameplay tied up to it is what will make the sales. And good RPG gameplay offers you meaningful decisions frequently, preferably in battle and out!

And all of this was supposed to be a preamble as to why I think using generic MP was actually a poor idea if not from the fact it’s become a norm. Oh well, that may be for another blog post, after I’ve written up some more game system designs on paper somewhere!

On Paradox Games and their approach to Culture

Let me get this out first. I’m a recent fan of Paradox Grand Strategy Games. But I’m a HUGE fan already. Over 500 hours of Crusader Kings 2, as well as a complete Let’s Play series on Youtube? Check. Approaching the 250 hours on Europa Universalis 4? Also check. No sign of stopping either anytime soon? Also check.

With that said, I want to talk about Culture. Now another disclaimer. I don’t have academic knowledge of how culture works. I have discussed in the past with people who did, and otherwise everything I’ve learned on the topic is from hobbyist research particularly in history. So I’m no expert on the matter, nor do I claim to be one. But I do have some knowledge. And it is enough to make this blog post. If I say anything blatantly wrong, feel free to correct me, I’m open and welcoming of constructive criticism!

Cultures, both in Crusader Kings 2 and in Europa Universalis 4, play a non-negligible role in the stability of your sprawling Empires. As they should. Ruling over people of different cultures is inherently harder than ruling people who share your cultural inclinations.This makes sense.

In Crusader Kings 2, both individual characters and counties (Think of them as provinces) have culture. Conquering a county of a culture different than yours applies a large penalty on the province’s performance for a decent number of years, and also as long as the province and you have different cultures, there is an increased risk of peasant uprisings. Cultures belong to different cultural groups (largely geographic in categorization) and cultures of a different group than yours inherently have a larger risk of peasant uprising. It should be noted that culture does play a role in some aspects of the game. They removed cultural requirement to create titles, but nor cultures still determine what kind of special retinue you can assemble. It’s a small but non negligible “game” aspect. For example, characters of Greek culture can assemble Cataphract retinues, widely considered the most powerful because of how combat works.

In Europa Universalis 4, provinces have cultures, and each nation has a primary culture. Cultures can become accepted (and be treated the same as the nation’s primary culture) if they ever at any point provide 20% of the total income of your nation. They will lose this status if they drop to representing less than 10% of your nation’s total income. Provinces with non-accepted cultures will pay less taxes, produce less goods, and send off less manpower. They are also more likely to revolt and desire to splinter off as their own nations and defect to another nation that has their culture as the primary culture.

What drove me to writing this, the meat of this article/post/whatever you want to call it, is how culture CONVERSION is handled. Let’s look at them step by step. And then look at some historical culture conversions. Then I will suggest alternate approaches that may not break the games I so cherish.

In Crusader Kings 2, characters can switch cultures in several ways. A character gets his culture first from his primary parent. The primary parent is determined by simply whose dynasty is continued with the child. Usually the child gets his father’s culture (and religion), but in matrilineal unions, the child will get his mother’s culture (and religion). A child needs to be educated once he turns 6, and can be educated until he turns 16. If his assigned tutor is of a different culture than him and his liege doesn’t share the child’s culture, the child has an opportunity to pick up his tutor’s culture. If the child IS the liege, he can pick up any tutor’s culture as his own. Then, an adult vassal can take a decision to “convert” to his liege’s culture. The liege cannot force his culture on his vassals. You can choose to take up your liege’s culture so he likes you more, but it’s your decision to discard your former culture, and this decision angers people who share a culture with you. You also have a decision to adopt your capital’s culture, should your capital province have a different culture than your character, with the same repercussions as if you adopted your liege’s culture. This seems fine to me, for the most part. Within the confines of the game, this offers a somewhat believable use of culture, as one of the many, many variables of the game.

However, provinces can also switch cultures. This can happen to a province after 50 years of being ruled by lords of the same (different) culture. The game will pop an event saying “You felt surrounded by strangers so you decided to bring people from home to live here.” This flips the province to your character’s culture. The narrative context of the event makes sense, but it is very limited in scope and, for me at least, it severely disconnects what really happens in such an event.

In Europa Universalis IV, if a province has been integrated in your nation (Cored in game terms) and it has your nation’s religion, you can press a button that spends Diplomatic Power, one of the game’s resources produced by your monarch and your advisers slowly over time, and, after some wait time, the province has your nation’s primary culture. There are no repercussions, This very system is what prompted me to write this in the first place. It is so wrong, so overly simplistic, and so unrepresentative of what actually happens during historic culture conversions that I feel it needs a massive overhaul.

To understand where I’m coming from, and this is where I’m most likely to be misinformed so please, please correct me if I’m wrong. Culture is a way of life inherited by a group of people in a geographic region. It is manners, language, beliefs and more. It also evolves constantly, over time, but slowly, as it reacts to external stimuli.

An example to illustrate this natural evolution. Modern day France was first settled by a large group of people collectively related to as the Gauls. The Gauls had their way of life, fitting of the Antique era France. One of the Gauls’ main adversaries was a growing republic rather historically well-known. Rome. The Gauls proved superior in the 300’s BC and sacked Rome, destroying earlier records, and instilling fear of them in the Romans. Until a few hundred years later, where Julius Caesar led the Gallic wars to an astounding victory that turned all of Gaul into Roman territory. The Romans were very lenient on their subjects when it came to faith and as such all the Romans did was slowly bring their technology to the Gallic region, their language, Latin, and some of their customs. Romans settled in Gaul, where they remained a minority, but still an important minority. A result of this is that the native Gauls slowly obtained traits of their new lords, but they also retained a lot of their identity. The new culture is referred to by historians as Gallo-Roman. Neither fully Gaelic, but not fully Roman either. This took hundreds of years of mostly peaceful coexistence. A few hundred years in, Rome began to decline, and Gaul was invaded by the Germanic tribe of the Franks. They settled Gaul and made it their own kingdoms. But they were a minority. However they were the new overlord, so the same process happened. Gallo-Roman adapted to their new overlords the Franks, and the resulting culture was a hybrid melting pot of everything. But all of this was achieved through largely peaceful coexistence over extended periods of time. Note too that the Frank lords eventually took aspects of the Gallo-Roman culture and incorporated it in their own. It was a two-way street.

By contrast, forced and rapid culture conversion happens indeed more rapidly, but it is far less pleasant. Modern-day Turkey was known for a long time as Anatolia, as Asia Minor. It was a crossroads where many civilizations converged. The last people to take this land were the Turks of the Ottoman Sultanate. But the Sultans in power didn’t like the multicultural nature of their new homeland, especially the Greeks, their bitter rivals. The Ottoman Sultanate sought to homogenize Asia Minor into a land more their own exclusively, and fast. They accomplished this with genocides, forced exile and the destruction or appropriation of cultural monuments meaningful to the former owners. This was bloody, it was kept under wraps, and whenever it’d come up in the open, it was fervently denied, and made them be despised by everyone who heard about such actions, especially people of the cultures that were decimated.

For further examples of forced cultural shift, see the Spanish Inquisition, the colonization of the Americas, and in a modern-day setting a subject that is very touchy with the news, what Israel is doing to Palestine, to name a few. For one close to some of my friends, see what Britain tried to do to the French Canadians in the 1700’s and the 1800’s. Quebec still feels scars of this today, that’s how powerful forced cultural conversion is, whether it succeeds or it fails.

Forced cultural conversion involves settling people of the new culture, forced exile, genocide, and forced conversion of people of the old culture. It is a highly confrontational and politically suicidal move that must be kept under wraps. If exposed, it rouses the entire culture involved up in arms to defend themselves, and it impacts neighboring countries with a massive influx of exiles fleeing for their lives. Neither of the games address this point at all.

In Crusader Kings 2, cultural conversion of a province should be an event chain with many nefarious choices randomly popping up, it should be expensive and it should not guarantee success. It should also cause a lot of uprisings, and long-lasting opinion penalties with every character in the same culture as the one getting converted, and a reduced penalty to characters in the neighboring culture group. Also, if a series of rulers of a given culture rule over another culture without conversion happening with force or with the ruler just adopting the locals’ custom, there should be an event for the ruler, the province, and members of the ruler’s court that share his culture, to have them all converted to a new culture hybrid of both, possibly allowing it to spread through events over his whole realm with people of both his culture and the original province’s culture, to simulate a healthy cultural exchange’s natural endpoint.

In Europa Universalis 4, it should have the same kinds of ideas with an event chain that could take years, one that leaves scars especially with other provinces of the same culture as the one that got converted, and it should give every country with the culture being converted as a primary or accepted culture a large opinion drop and a Casus Belli to stop the process if it gets exposed. It should also reduce the province’s efficiency on the short to medium term. I don’t see an easy way to add in peaceful cultural shifts however, given the systems in place. As a game much more about Imperialism however, I don’t see peaceful cultural shift as being necessary to the simulation. But that convert province button really needs to be heavier in different ways.

There are other routes that could be explored, and my understanding of certain events or situations may be lacking, in this case I would appreciate being corrected so I could maybe revise my assumptions and my conclusions as necessary.

P.S. In Crusader Kings 2, if William the Conqueror successfully takes over England, there is a unique event that will “create” the English Culture, born from a coexistence between ruling Normans and the Anglo-Saxons they ruled over; They themselves being a cultural melting pot of everyone else who invaded England over the centuries. So there is awareness of this at Paradox. I just wish culture conversion was more historically accurate, while still remaining an interesting decision for the players.