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The Portable Paradox

Kim Nordstrom prepares for his biggest challenge yet: bringing Paradox IP to mobile

Kim Nordstrom is under no illusions over the scale of the task he's been assigned. As the head of Paradox's brand new mobile department, he's going to have to work out ways of making some of PC gaming's most dense and complex IP appeal to a mobile market, and he wants to do it on a non-premium model, without using resource timers or companion apps and without damaging the incredible brand loyalty which the Swedish publisher has spent so many years establishing.

"There's definitely a challenge here," he laughs. "It's going to be a bumpy road, but it's going to be so much fun."

Until recently, Nordstrom was operating at the other extreme of the mobile spectrum, managing King's Malmo studio. Whilst there, he oversaw the progress of the mobile launch of Pet Rescue, which had seen some success on Facebook previously. He did an excellent job, but was soon looking for a new problem to solve.

"The mobile version was just coming out when I joined - within six months we basically doubled the revenue and the DAU. I built up the studio to about 100 people - this was about a year ago. I felt like I'd peaked. I was very open and honest with the management, I told them they weren't going to really get anything better from me in that role. I was done, ready for a new challenge. I don't fear jumping around - I've done a lot of things. Coming from super casual to super hardcore is going to be super interesting. I've been challenging Frederik (Wester, Paradox CEO) for years, saying how successful Paradox is, but that it wasn't scaling enough.

"So when I knew I was leaving the studio, maybe for somewhere in King, maybe somewhere else, I pinged Frederik. It wasn't long after that when we made the decision."

"I've always been a studio guy, but suddenly I'm on the other side, I'm the guy who wants to work with studios. That's fascinating. I want to make sure those studios get the best deal and make the best games"

It's not the first stab the publisher has had at the mobile market. Early experiment Leviathans: Warships was widely acknowledged as so, but Wester's team has also gone to mobile markets with new IP like Knights of Pen and Paper as well as core company properties like Crusader Kings, Hearts of Iron and Magika. It's had mixed results, and learned a few lessons on the way, but Nordstrom says he's keen to start afresh.

"It's definitely spearheading something completely new," he says when I ask if he's inheriting any previous framework for mobile development. "I've been told about previous attempts, and the unsuccessful attempts, but there's some history of people being open to it, maybe a little reluctantly. But for me that doesn't matter, it's a clean slate, I'm the first guy. I'm going to start building a new strategy, a new portfolio, a new team. I'll do all that, and I want to. It's similar to some stuff I've done before, but there's so much new stuff too. I've always been a studio guy, but suddenly I'm on the other side, I'm the guy who wants to work with studios. That's fascinating. I want to make sure those studios get the best deal and make the best games.

"I'll have full access to the brands, so I want to see what type of games I can build which make sense in terms of brand, mechanics, quality, consumption behaviour and fair monetisation. I don't want to make Paradox games which are pay to win, or have timers. For me, anything which blocks engagement is a bad idea for monetisation. But that is something we need to crack, and it's not going to be easy. I think the audience is actually very keen to pay for a good game, if the monetisation model is fair.

"It's a balance between being that PowerPoint guy who runs around telling everyone it's going to be awesome with a deck of 50 slides, and being the guy who just wants to make games"

"It's a balance between being that PowerPoint guy who runs around telling everyone it's going to be awesome with a deck of 50 slides, and being the guy who just wants to make games. I'm trying to be somewhere in between. On one hand I'm exploring and talking to people - it's still a 200+ person company, so it takes a while - but it's clear which department I need to talk to at certain stages. On the other hand I'm seeing where I can build new teams and where I can create an overlap with existing teams. It's basically gauging people's interest and capacity for this. But I am looking for talent. I need studios to work with, I need talented people.

"There will be new teams, internal teams, to build games, and there will be a set of key people in the publishing section of the company who work for me directly. Also, I will put a lot of games on existing, experienced studios, with anything from a full-funding to a co-publishing deal."

I'm keen to understand exactly how this is all going to work. Nordstrom tells me he's an avid fan of the grand strategy games which are the beating heart of Paradox, but he's not going to try and transplant that Byzantine magic directly to the smaller screen - he knows the strengths and weaknesses of the games, and the audiences, he's working with.

Even the biggest phone screen would struggle with the UI in Crusader Kings 2.

"I think this role is more strategically targeted in the long run, rather than being about straight execution. I think that strategy is to reach a mobile audience successfully. So first we have our existing IP, which are really strong with very well defined audiences, which is great. I really want to use that. I'd also be very interested in licensing deals of other IP we can work with, but I think that's a higher risk because we don't know that audience and it could be a completely new genre or mechanics to us, so let's go for existing brands for now.

"Secondly, I want to aim for the existing audience, the PC audience, for several reasons. Firstly, they're definitely the hardest ones to convince. They're super loyal on PC and they have a thing going with Paradox. They're also a very loyal paying audience, so they've accepted paying for the games. But getting them on mobile is going to be a challenge. The benefit we have as a company is that we know them. We know them really well.

"That's the short-term. In the long run I obviously want to expand the audience, because I want to help grow the company. Also, the existing audience might just be too small for mobile. So those are the first two pillars - engage our existing audience then build it. The third is the actual genres and mechanics. This is where we need to be brave because I don't think we should try to build the same sort of games on mobile that we do on PC. It's going to be tricky because the company has been building these perfect grand strategy games for 15 years and that's going to be very hard to replicate on mobile.

"I want to aim for the existing audience, the PC audience, for several reasons. Firstly, they're definitely the hardest ones to convince"

"Even if the sky's the limit, it's very high risk to do that, at least partly because it could cannibalise the audience and move them from PC to mobile; that's not what I want. I'd rather expand on the brand and the universe, the tone, the feeling, and have the audience recognise the Paradox feel in that game, to be willing to play that and their PC game.

"I'd say a management game would be pretty interesting -- that could potentially fit with any of the other brands. So I'm doing some mapping right now, trying to get some of the senior guys here with all that experience and knowledge and boil down what sort of mechanics and genres we should be building on mobile. They're doing this anyway, but aimed at PC.

"The fourth pillar is obviously the business model. Premium just doesn't really scale on mobile, so it's tricky, since the existing audience is very used to paying upfront whenever a new installment of a franchise is released. So getting them to convert, and not necessarily to a free-to-play model, specifically, but a non-paid model, that's a risk we need to take. I think the brands are pretty big, but I don't think they're big enough to compete with things like GTA or Final Fantasy or Minecraft, those massively successful paid titles. Those are basically the four corners of the approach I want to take."

Cities: Skylines gave Paradox a route into a whole new market, but making it mobile would mean sacrifices

As somebody who has lost more than a few hours sleep to the 'one more turn' nature of Paradox games, I'm surprised that there are no plans to create companion apps for titles like Stellaris or Europa, where players could tinker with diplomacy or production on mobile to get their fix when they're away from a gaming PC. Nordstrom says it's partly about building a business which can operate independently of the main studio schedules.

"The company wants me to be successful on mobile, so initially this is a separate business from the core business," he explains. "I want to be able to prove that we can monetise on these brands on that platform. We don't necessarily have to monetise a lot immediately, but we have to prove that we can eventually. So the setup is that the mobile department will be a separate business with its own goals.

"That doesn't prevent us from working with existing studios, but I don't want to build the mobile business on top of the PC business and base its success on the PC games. That's not really under my control, so it's not where I want to start. The second point is that building these games in parallel is complex and not much fun: the PC guys don't want an annoying mobile team asking why they changed stuff and broke the mobile game. However, from a marketing perspective I'm very interested in building a roadmap which aligns the release of these games, because that makes sense for the company, releasing several games in the same brand at the same time."

"I should also add that I expect the audience to be very vocal on whatever we release"

But where to start in Paradox's treasure chest? I wonder whether something like Cities: Skylines, which wrapped its complexity in prettier paper and had far fewer sharp edges, might be a place to begin, given the breadth of its audience, but Nordstrom doesn't agree.

"City Skylines and Stellaris are the newest members of the Paradox family, and although Stellaris is similar to other previous games in that it is 4X, Cities is a completely new genre with a new audience. From my perspective, those two are actually the most risky because we have less knowledge about, and less of a relationship with, those audiences, so I will be more careful with those two.

"If you look at Hearts of Iron or Crusader Kings, they've been with the company for years, so the loyalty of the fans is overwhelmingly high. They're excellent products and the audience keeps coming back for more, so I would say that the stability of those brands is higher. I can probably experiment a bit more with them without messing them up.

"So we can work with those brands and identify which aspects have a wider appeal - something like the diplomacy from CK for example. Then we have legacy games, brands that were bigger, or never reached their goals. I feel more freedom to experiment with those, too. I think there's the least risk there. Also the least profit, but we can prove ourselves there."

He pauses and smiles. "I should also add that I expect the audience to be very vocal on whatever we release."

He makes a good point. As much as I love Paradox's sprawling visions, they have something of a reputation for being a touch undercooked on release, and the company's fans are very engaged with the process of bug fixing. It's something that the company has made huge strides in addressing in recent years, but that tight relationship with an outspoken community has actually been a tremendous asset, building close ties between developer and player. That works well on PC, where players are financially and emotionally committed by the time they fire up a game for the first time, but is there room for those sort of processes on mobile, where first impressions mean everything? Nordstrom is adamant that it's not going to be that way on his watch.

"I've known Frederik and the company for over a decade, so I've always had access to early versions of their games, and I've had to force myself to play some of them because the impact of that first screen...the UI real estate can be unbearable. When I do play them, I really enjoy them, but I wouldn't say it's always a pleasant experience. But once you're through that UI, the depth and complexity is amazing. It's magical what these teams have built. On mobile, that first time user experience, especially on a non-paid model, is absolutely crucial. Retention is key, so we need to figure out how to show promise of that complexity without overwhelming people by exposing them to it all at once.

"Speaking freely, I think Paradox as a whole should focus more on first time user experience, on onboarding, because I think they can reach a much wider audience by doing that. So I'd like to apply that on mobile, because the wider company isn't my responsibility. So it won't be about going to YouTube to watch a tutorial, or having to play for three hours to understand. I can't afford that in a freemium sort of model, retention would be terrible, probably even with existing Paradox players. We know it's going to be super tough, so we have to keep experimenting.

"It's worth restating, though, that my promise to the company is that I will generate substantial revenue in the long-term, not necessarily in the short-term. Short-term, my focus is on generating knowledge. I want to prove that these brands are viable on mobile, that there is an audience, that they can be monetised. We need to be brave."

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