An Unconquered Spirit: Fan Communities Resume Development on Abandoned Game. By Alexander Greyswood

In April of 2021, the Swedish video game company Paradox Interactive announced that they would be putting their newest grand strategy title, Imperator: Rome, on a quasi-permanent hiatus, a mere two years after its debut. For a company that is known for developing its games long-term – another title, Europa Universalis IV, was released in 2013 and is receiving an update later this year – the unexpected abandonment of Imperator: Rome came as a bit of a surprise to the gaming community. Paradox had an established record of publishing ambitious games that focused on a specific period of history before slowly expanding the game world over time with DLC. This had proven to be a successful recipe; some of their AAA franchises, like the Middle Ages RPG Crusader Kings (2004) or Hearts of Iron (2002), a gritty WWII simulator, have tens of thousands of daily players, with many of them playing online. But something had gone dreadfully wrong with Imperator, and it appeared that the company would be abandoning their only flagship title to explore the rise of Rome.

What went wrong? Could it have been the gameplay? Paradox games are dense, sprawling affairs, requiring concerted efforts to learn the mechanics – they have more in common with an Excel spreadsheet than they do another video game like Call of Duty. These titles are not intended for “casual gaming”, being so difficult to master that a running gag on the forums is that the beginner tutorials are one thousand hours long. Many of Paradox’s titles are known as much for their memes as they are for their gameplay, no doubt due to their practically infinite replay value; every campaign can have an entirely different outcome. Carthage conquers not only Rome, but expands to Babylon and makes it the capital city of their vast empire? Sure, why not. Or maybe you start as Heraclea Pontica, a small province on the shores of the Black Sea that is surrounded by feuding superpowers, and reform the Achaemenid Empire as one of the last descendants of Darius III? You could do it in Imperator, as long as you learned how to navigate the complicated menus. While some might recoil at the prospect of devoting months to learning the in-game systems, which are carefully modeled to represent the demographics and economies of their respective eras, others flock to these titles in droves, obsessing over the attention to period detail that you can’t find in other big studio releases. In fact, these games are so detailed that some students are opting to take college-level history classes in order to understand these time periods better – much to the bemusement of their teachers, who have often never heard of Paradox Interactive before raised hands in classrooms start asking peculiarly speculative questions.1

Despite these surface complexities, Paradox’s formula was simple enough: pick a time period and focus on certain mechanics while steadily releasing downloadable content. Each game plays similarly, but has a slight change in its core mechanics that offers variety – is this game centered around waging wars and overseeing military logistics? Or are the interpersonal relationships of the characters, their hopes and dreams, the most important thing you have to manage? With this money-making blueprint firmly in hand, Imperator was set to follow in the footsteps of its sister titles, focusing on the time period between the Wars of the Diadochi and the rise of the Roman Empire, a period that is as exciting to academics as it is the layman – something that would hopefully translate to big sales. But the launch was rocky, troubled by missteps and blunders that angered the community, and the game’s reputation never recovered despite the company’s best efforts to address the main complaints. The reviews were brutal. The mechanics of the game are solid, the fans said, but there is no flavor; the world feels empty, devoid of detail.2 Imperator takes place during one of the most exciting periods of history, with larger-than-life characters that are still remembered to this day – not every person on the street has heard of Demetrius Poliorcetes but they have of Alexander the Great – yet somehow, Paradox had made the period bland and uninspiring. For a game that advertised itself as a civilization builder, where one can choose to beautify cities with aqueducts, libraries and temples instead of just leading armies into battle, the most common complaint – a damning assessment from a notoriously picky fanbase – was that Imperator was nothing more than a “map-painter”, an insult grievous enough to destroy its reputation. As a last ditch effort, Paradox switched project managers and overhauled the game entirely to a 2.0 version, but despite this noble effort, most of the fans never returned. A few weeks later, the game was declared dead after Paradox announced they would be suspending development. But the loyal fanbase had other ideas; when the company left, the modding community arrived.

Fig. 1. Imperator: Invictus.

Invictus, which means “unconquered, unconquerable” in Latin, is the name of a fan-led project that decided to pick up the mantle and continue developing Imperator themselves, with the self-proclaimed mission to “combat an attitude of defeat with a fighting spirit”. Choosing to see the game as a blank slate instead of a flavorless shell, the Invictus “modders” create historically accurate content, usually in the form of mission trees that guide the player through a series of tasks, with events that pop up on-screen explaining your choices and their consequences. Paradox abandoned the title? Good, they say; there won’t be anymore game-breaking updates that could interfere with what we decide to do moving forward. An international team coordinates their efforts on platforms like Discord and Trello, with volunteers from every walk of life contributing their services in their free time. No one knows each other in real life. The head of the project is an eighteen-year-old Belgian college student, who oversees his team in conjunction with another manager that lives in Greece. A well-known history podcaster stops by the forums to share the recommended reading list from his latest episodes, and, sources in hand, a music teacher from Washington D.C. begins to write prose for the in-game events. Hoping to settle an argument regarding Iberian tribes on the forums, a student in Germany with access to JSTOR cites a supplementary article outlying his case, and once the arguments have been settled, a Spanish translator living in Vietnam begins the arduous process of transcribing. This week’s updates will have to wait, however; college exams are right around the corner and half of the team is scrambling. It’s a fascinating process to observe, as hobbyists, students and armchair historians work on this labor of love when they can, with the overarching goal of fleshing out the Hellenistic-era sandbox that Paradox left behind. Thanks to Invictus, the game has become one that appeals to the historically curious.

Fig. 2. This map shows all of the regions that the Invictus modding team has developed missions for.

The dedication to academic accuracy is admirable, far beyond what could be expected of a fan project. Some of the mistakes Paradox made when the game was released are easy enough to fix – adding a second king to Sparta is as simple as adding a few extra lines of code – but adding other mechanics often results in contentious debates, with every effort made to accurately represent the historical record. A modder notices that the names of these provinces in southern Britannia are anachronistic, and further investigation reveals that the names of the inhabiting tribes are all wrong as well. This discovery leads to in-depth discussions of Brythonic and Gaulish dialects, with animated digressions and tangents involving the qu > p shift and whether Manavian or Monapian is a better cultural name for the Isle of Man (Pliny uses Monapian and that settles the issue decisively). Once a scholarly consensus has been achieved, the cultures and territories are reworked by the handful that actually know how to program.

Fig. 3. The Invictus team recently reworked the regions near Kush, adding more playable countries based on the latest archaeological research.

In addition to keeping a dying game afloat, the Invictus modders actively seek to expand some of the less-represented areas on the world map, hoping to bring them to parity with the heavy hitters centered around the Mediterranean. Considering that the game focuses on the rise of Rome, the Hellenic world is filled to bursting with the usual suspects – Macedon, the Antigonid Kingdom, the cities of Magna Graecia – yet other important regions were left completely untouched, providing carte blanche for an inspired team. Some of the latest additions involved a drastic expansion of Ethiopia and Somalia; there should be no reason that the glorious kingdom of Aksum has less to do in-game than that of Epirus. Guided by the latest research from archaeologists like Sada Mire, recently excavated sites like Shalcaw now appear on the coasts, providing an opportunity to grow your trading empire around the Horn of Africa.3 New cultures and religions, like the Waaq faith, are meticulously researched before being added, with the hopes that players won’t feel the need to play one of the era’s giants; there are exciting paths to take as one of the minor republics on the Black Sea, for example, or as the island nation of Anuradhapura off of the coast of India. There are countless stories to be told in Imperator, and thanks to the fans and their efforts, there are many more paths to greatness that can be found.

By shining a light on some of the vital civilizations ignored in the vanilla version, the Invictus modding team is bringing much-needed representation to deserving candidates, hoping to accurately represent the rich tapestry that is the world during this time period. And while the semi-abandoned game Imperator: Rome is available to purchase on a variety of platforms, oftentimes on sale, the Invictus mod is completely free, making this title a true hidden gem.

Alexander Greyswood is a professional pianist, an award-winning composer, and a music teacher that currently lives near Washington, D.C. When not performing in ballrooms around the world, you can follow his travels on Twitter.

1 Jukic, L. I. (March 26, 2022). Kids Are Learning History From Video Games Now. The Atlantic.


3 Mire, S. (2015). Mapping the Archaeology of Somaliland: Religion, Art, Script, Time, Urbanism, Trade and Empire. African Archaeological Review 32, 111-136.

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