From Mods to Riches23 Jun 2014 0
Recently I had the opportunity to have a sit down with Penguintopia who leads the team that produces Veritas et Fortitudo - a wildly successful mod for Europa Universalis IV. He speaks about his initial inexperience with modding to the heights of the mod as they are now, with some personal vignettes that make his modding experience unique and informative for anyone who wants to enhance their gaming experience or is thinking of going into the modding world themselves.
James: Well first of all I wanted to thank you for having a little sit down with me and answering some of my questions. Why don't we begin by introducing yourself and the mod a little bit to those that might not be familiar with you or your mod Veritas et Fortitudo for Europa Universalis IV?
Penguintopia: I go by the forum handle "Penguintopia". I'm a Unix Systems Engineer by trade and have been working in a Management capacity for the past 20 years, though I'm still pretty technical. I live in the suburbs of Chicago, IL with my wife and family. Veritas et Fortitudo (VeF) is a total conversion modification of Europa Universalis IV that has its origins in a single complaint - the infamous "comet" event. While I've played Paradox games since EU1, this is my first time modding. Playing EUIV, that event annoyed me so I decided to figure out how to change it. Things more or less spiraled out of control from there!
At first, my idea was to create an alternate history mod where Byzantium and Persia survived and held-off the Muslim onslaught. At that time, the mod was called "Glory of Byzantium" and was really intended for my son and I to play. I decided to publish, and we had something of a hit. As players began to see the changes we had made, there was clamor for all of our new mechanics to be available for historical play. From those requests, at the prodding of a couple of regular players who had been acting as beta testers, VeF was born, with a historical focus and Glory of Byzantium as a scenario. What started as a one-man mod has now become a team of 10 regular modders with another 5 to 10 making occasional contributions.
James: The mod itself, much like EUIV , is still relatively new yet it has garnered quite a lot of interest and is in the top of the subscriptions list for the Steam Workshop addons for EUIV. What parts of the mod do you think really stand out that make it so popular?
Penguintopia: I think it's the focus I've had since the beginning:
· The game must be enjoyable, engaging and interesting.
· Actions taken by players in the game should have logical results and no single random event should wreck a player's game.
· Gameplay and Balance take precedence over historicity, but historicity is never ignored.
I keep a laser focus on that, and I think that's what has garnered 20,000 Steam subscribers and many more in the Paradox forums. I listen to my players, interact with them, respect them and try to implement features that they want in ways that challenge them.
James: So tell us why you decided on the name Veritas et Fortitudo ?
Penguintopia: Why the name? Glory of Byzantium was pretty obvious as a choice for the mod when that was the focus. When we went "historical" we knew the name had to change (along with loading screens, themes, etc). There is a long tradition of Latin-style names for mods (I played Magna Mundi a LOT back in the EU3 days, for example). When my son and I looked at possible phrases, we felt that "Truth and Courage" were words that fit the period - both in reality and sarcastically. So it can be taken as both a statement of what it took to form the great nation states and a sarcastic comment on the rogue's gallery of men and women who participated.
James: Being a big fan of mods for Paradox games myself, I was wondering what you could say to others like myself who enjoy giving their games a second life with mods by perhaps giving us some things about your mod that are unique from other EUIV mods out there.
Penguintopia: Unique features are tough to have - if you have a good idea, somebody else in the modding community will take inspiration from it and adapt it to their own mod. We've seen that happen a few times, with other mods implementing features similar to ours. And, honestly, we've done the same thing. I think the key is that we keep a focus on making sure that events in the game are influenced by player actions in so far as possible without making the game a cake-walk.
Perhaps the most unique feature we have is our vassal system, followed closely by our internal country management. The vassal system has been around since Glory of Byzantium, and we've been working on various parts of the realm management mechanics since then as well. For us, the biggest thing missing in EUIV was that management. We've implemented a number of mechanics to give the player things to do during peace - managing buildings, managing advisors, research, managing stability (and not just by clicking a button), etc. So, all that is to say, our key differentiator would be realm management.
James: You mentioned that you didn't have any modding experience in the past. Did that mean that you had to learn everything from the ground up when you started? How was it like when you first started on the mod?
Penguintopia: That's correct - no modding experience of any kind with any game. I stared my career as a programmer, though I quickly shifted to systems engineering as I found that more fulfilling work. On the other hand, I've always enjoyed programming. I wrote my first program on an Apple in 1977. I've owned computers ever since and never quit programming for enjoyment. So I had a basic skill set to work with - understanding programming, algorithms, etc.
Of course, that has led to some frustrations as the Paradox Scripting language isn't as robust and complete as I would like.
So I stared out by changing a few things in a few events and I learned by looking at what Paradox had done as well as asking questions in the forums. As I learned, I tried more and more adventurous things and discovered more and more about the modding language. I've learned a lot - to the point where I now answer questions instead of ask the most of the time. I'm also considered the authority on optimization of Paradox scripting language and have published an article on it on the forums. In the end, the 30+ years of programming probably was the reason for my ability to jump in and really get going.
James: Would you say that Paradox has been quite open and helpful with the modding community? I know from talking with other modders that they've found the atmosphere to be very positive and encouraging, especially for some of the larger mods such as yours. What has your experience with Paradox been in making this mod?
Penguintopia: Paradox has, for the most part, been extremely helpful. The recent hiring of "Captain Gars" as a full-time liaison for the modding community as well as having responsibility for expanding the features for modders was a tremendously helpful thing. It shows Paradox has respect for the modding community and values it. Overall, I've been very happy with the support they've provided and their willingness to make changes at our request.
James: Aside from the engineering that goes on in the background, would I be right in assuming that you yourself also have a keen interest in history? It always seemed to me that Paradox modders are half codemasters and half historians. What kind of historical background do you or your team possess that you pour into the mod?
Penguintopia: I have a Bachelors degree in History (not Computer Science). My first co-modder was my son, who goes by the moniker "RivtalDM" who is a history buff (he's ex-navy working as a numerical control machine engineer). Of our main modding team, there are two with history degrees, one studying for history degree and a couple of IT professionals who have a strong interest in history. So you're assessment is correct.
The team is global - quite a few Swedes, a couple of Romanians, an Australian, a couple of Dutch, a Brazilian, several Americans, a Norwegian, a German and more. But we're all history buffs in one way or another.
James: Many of the big mods for both EUIV and Crusader Kings II always seem to have a good company of individuals working together although some have varying degrees of success and synergy. Why do you think your team has been quite efficient so far? How is the team like to work with?
Penguintopia: A good team requires the right people with the right attitudes. I've looked for people who have the same philosophy that I do that I expressed above. The team needs to be congenial, so I look for people with the right personality. Skill sets are somewhat less important than the ability to work with the team. Division of labor makes it easier to fill the gaps. Some of the team have never written a line of code and probably never will. But they contribute and are accepted by the rest of the team as full members. Every contribution is valued and every member of the team has to respect the other members. If they don't, then they don't last long.
A good team also requires a good manager. I think my experience in IT management is a key to our success. I know how to manage large groups of people and large projects, and can bring SOME of those management skills to bear. It's a bit different when everyone is a volunteer, of course, than when they are working for pay. I've delegated a lot of authority to the "Tsars" in each region, and to our map makers and graphics guy. They feel empowered and this helps motivate them. They get to make real decisions and implement their vision, so long as it follows the general team philosophy.
Of course, I have a veto, and I have used it, but only sparingly. We have a lot of creative people and I have no monopoly on good ideas!
James: And it's certainly true that you folks have achieved so much in a relatively short span of time. Was there a group endeavor in particular that, looking back, you were particular proud of; or perhaps simply an outstanding idea that one person in particular had that you all put into fruition that resonated with you the most?
Penguintopia: I think it was the release of a version of VeF compatible with EUIV 1.6. There was basically, a 24-hour a day effort by the entire team to get the mod to work. We had a full working version within 4 days Paradox's release. The amount of effort was amazing and it paid dividends. The sheer number of changes necessary was, frankly, unbelievable. And we did it without any patches from Paradox (those came after our release). To a man, the team felt we owed it to our players to do this.
James: Would you say that this experience of modding was what you had expected when you first decided to take up the gauntlet or is this something, for better or worse, a lot different from what you first imagined?
Penguintopia: I'd say its way better than I ever imagined. The mod was a one-man show until I convinced my son to begin editing province history files for me. He's never had any programming experience, and though a bit of mentoring and looking at examples, he created, from scratch, and entirely new mechanic for the Papacy. I would never have expected that. The reception the mod has from the community is astounding. I would never have believed that more than 20,000 people would want to play a mod I conceived for my son and me to play.
The mod has grown beyond my wildest dreams when I first sat down to fix the annoying comet event. I never imagined we'd be where we are today.
James: One might even say it was an omen haha. Naturally, any modder is in a kind of romance with the base game. What did you think of Europa Universalis IV especially in light of having played the previous incarnations of the flagship title?
Penguintopia: Frankly, I was disappointed. The realm management, as basic as it was in EU3 was essentially gone. The sliders and province decisions were a huge loss for me. The game felt somewhat empty. I think ultimately, that's what spurred me on after the first few tweaks to events. To fill in the gaps left by Paradox. They have a clear vision for the game, and it's selling well, so I can't argue with them. But I can improve and add to what they've done. And frankly, they encourage this, so in the end, it's a win-win scenario. Getting Captain Gars in an official capacity to work with the community was a great thing.
Don't get me wrong - I'm not down on Paradox. Not at all. I just would have made different choices. Fortunately, they have given me a way to do that. So now we have realm management, a new Reformation, a new Papacy, revised Vassal System, etc, etc. And with the promised improvements for modders, we'll have even more ability to change the game. Many of those improvements are things we asked for, which simply proves the point - Paradox cares. And that goes a long way to cover any failings I might thing the vanilla game has.
As an aside, but important, I do purchase all of the DLC and add-ons for EU games because I want Paradox to continue and want to support them with my purchases. I think that says everything about my views of them, in the end.
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