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Paradox Interactive chooses development over stagnation with CEO switch

Ebba Ljungerud on the fan response to her taking the role of CEO, and Fred Wester on the "super scary" side of no longer being the boss

Companies of Paradox Interactive's size don't tend to hold annual conventions. BlizzCon, QuakeCon, MineCon; all supported by a company with many hundreds of employees, and in some cases many thousands. Paradox is nowhere near that level in terms of headcount, of course, but if these events exist to honour the passion of their fan-bases, that's one area that Paradox can stand alongside with Blizzard, Bethesda, or any other company you care to mention.

That much was immediately apparent at PDXCon 2018, the second year that the Swedish publisher's annual event has been open to the public. Fans of Crusader Kings, Hearts of Iron, Europa Universalis and the rest buy tickets and travel from far and wide to meet and discuss their favourite games with the people who make them.

"We lose quite a lot of money," said Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester, when we talked at PDXCon earlier this year. "But to us it's an investment in the relationship with the people, and it makes sure we get the kind of feedback that we want."

"How do we, as a group, run the company? I know quite a lot about that...and I think Paradox needs it"

Ebba Ljungerud

That symbiotic relationship is vitally important at this point in time, because last week marked Wester's last days as CEO of Paradox Interactive. This week, Ebba Ljungerud officially takes over the role, and those passionate fans will have to reckon with the change, and the reasons why it is taking place.

"She's a better operational manager than I am, at almost everything," Wester told me. "Which means following up, driving the P&Ls. She's a very good manager, and I'm really not."

Ljungerud has been on the Paradox board for four years, but her main role over the last three years has been as the chief commercial officer of Kindred Group, a leader in the online gambling market. The fact that Ljungerud is taking over from Wester will be difficult to process for some fans, but it is illustrative of the fact that Paradox has now grown too large for these decision to be about the games alone.

"When you're 120 people you can talk to pretty much everyone," Ljungerud said. "When you're 300 people, suddenly you have lot more managers. And this is an industry that people join quite young, so maybe they haven't been a manager before.

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Ebba Ljungerud, the new CEO of Paradox

"It's a lot about just practical things - how do we, as a group, run the company? I know quite a lot about that, and I've thought quite a lot about that, in my previous jobs. And I think Paradox needs it."

Kindred Group had more than 1,500 employees. Ljungerud understands how to manage large numbers of people so that their ideas and creativity don't get lost in the system. For fans, whose understanding of Paradox needn't run any deeper than just its games, this kind of nuance can get lost next to the detail that the new CEO is an online casino executive.

"I think there was a genuine fear that I would introduce loot boxes into every single game we have," Ljungerud said. "That was a little bit surprising for me, because I don't see the industries as similar. Gamers don't see the industries as similar either, but there was a fear that I do.

"It's by far the question I get the most from gamers. What do you think about pricing? Are you going to go free-to-play? And the short answer is, 'I don't know', because it depends on so many different things. I do know that Paradox has always been good at changing with what's happening in the rest of society... But there are a lot of fans in the community that are interested in being involved in that discussion. We're lucky to be able to have that discussion quite easily, because we have that connection with them.

"When a game dev cycle is 18 or 24 months, you have to be aware that things that are the truth today might not be the truth in two years' time. You need that adaptability."

"I think there was a genuine fear that I would introduce loot boxes into every single game we have"

Ebba Ljungerud

Ultimately, the ability to guide Paradox to even more growth and prosperity isn't necessarily linked to number of hours logged in Hearts of Iron IV. Ljungerud has the skills and experience that a company at this stage in its evolution requires, and, crucially, she fits seamlessly with the open and accessible attitude for which Paradox is known.

"I come from this super fast growing environment, big budgets, lots of people, and that's where I can contribute quite a lot," she said. "But probably the main reason Fred felt I was a good person for this, and why I feel I'm a good person for this, is that I'm a pretty open and chilled - and not very formal or corporate - type of person.

"[Paradox is about] the passion of the fans, and also the passion of the people in the company. And I think the way they've reacted to me so far is quite interesting - because, y'know, it's actually pretty positive. It could have been, 'Oh Fred, he's our guy!'"

But there has been some concern within the Paradox community. According to Wester, the immediate reception of the news was "very mixed," an inevitable consequence of the human tendency to "fear the worst and expect the worst" in the face of change.

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Fredrik Wester - stepping down is 'a huge relief and super scary'

"And I think most people haven't really figured out what I do at Paradox any more," he added, laughing. "My role isn't going to change that much, to be honest. I'm just going to spend more time on the projects where I have the most passion, and hopefully we're going to seer more interesting projects and products come out of Paradox as a result of me doing other things.

"I can work in the zone between the business and the games, mostly leaning towards the business side."

Wester will now be "executive chairman" of Paradox, which he describes as "a fancy new title" that reveals little about what he will be doing from day to day. In part, that's because he doesn't entirely know the answer himself.

"I'm going into a role that is very unusual for me, where I'm going to ask people, 'What do you need from me?' For the first time in 20 years, I'm not going to have a single soul reporting to me. That's a huge relief and super scary at the same time. Because, first of all, I'll have to do a lot of work myself, which is always new for a CEO.

"It's about empowering someone else to make changes to something you love. It's very hard"

Fredrik Wester

"And then I don't know if people are going to ask for me either. Maybe I'm just sitting alone at my desk and nobody Slacks me or emails me... I'll be honest and say it's a bit terrifying. Maybe in the first month I'm getting no emails, and come December I'm forgotten and out of the business."

Nobody would seriously consider that as a possibility, of course, and suffice to say that Wester's tongue was planted firmly in cheek at the time of our discussion. What is entirely transparent, though, is that the now ex-CEO of Paradox sees the transition is integral to the company's future; as much to ensure that it can continue to make more and better games for fans of its strategy and simulation titles, and successfully develop its business in new areas and new markets.

"I've been a visionary for Paradox for quite some time, but it's not really enough when you're 300 people. It's really not," Wester said. "You need to be skilled in areas where I'm not really skilled.

"It's a great decision, but it took some time for me. Part of the CEO title is emotional as well, and it's hard to give away something you worked with for so long. It's about empowering someone else to make changes to something you love. It's very hard.

"But there are only two phases for a company: development or consolidation. And if you want to be rude you can call it stagnation instead of consolidation, because it's the same thing. I want Paradox to be a company in constant development."

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