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Total War: Warhammer - balancing magic, gyrocopters and a stable launch

With a ten year plan covering a trilogy of games, you have to get the first title right.


"It’s a been a big focus of ours from the beginning, to really make sure that we release a really good, solid game, and get the brand fully on track, and learn from previous mistakes" - Ian Roxborough, game director

The Total War team are staring at a ten year development cycle. Few games companies - Bungie and Blizzard aside - have committed so much time to a single project. That shows how much confidence the Creative Assembly and Sega have in Total War: Warhammer - that they expect gamers to buy this game three times at full price, along with DLC.

We caught up with three of the team entrusted by the Creative Assembly with making that dream work. They were Ian Roxborough, the game director; Jim Whitston, the campaign designer; and Scott Pitkethly, the lead battle programmer.

VG247: So, the game is finished now?

Roxborough: Yeah, and to be honest, we're at the end of polishing. We're just stabilizing and just, that's it. It's fixing every last thing we can, and just making sure it's a really good, stable release.

VG247: Given the problems recent Total War games have had at launch, you must be spending a lot of time polishing. Is this going to be the most stable Total War game ever?

Roxborough: It's a been a big focus of ours from the beginning, to really make sure that we release a really good, solid game, and get the brand fully on track, and learn from previous mistakes and really be hot on that. We've made a lot of changes to the processes and the pipelines to increase that, and we've been very self-controlled and very aware of that. It's always been a big focus to just say, "Look, let's not push the boat out to the point where we go over the edge, and just really stay on focus."


VG247: You didn't show the campaign off to the press until very late in the day. Why was that?

Roxborough: All sorts of different reasons. I mean, the battle side of it was certainly the part of the project that we were pushing first because we had a lot of the animation team come in onboard early, and we wanted to prototype that because that was a big, chunky amount of time on the project that had to be started earlier. Also, you want to save things for people to see later on!

Pitkethly: Also, when we started development, because everything is so different to what we've done before, we had to make quick approximate size proxies of everything, just so we could start stress testing the engine before we could have time to make all the models. It's the same kind of thing with the campaign, we got things in which allowed us to find a lot of the problems, play-test a lot of things, but we wouldn't want anyone to see it.

VG247: The monstrous creatures, the flying creatures, and the magic are the big differences from previous Total War games. Were there any particular challenges from implementing those?

The flying creatures wasn't just a technical problem, but also a gameplay thing. Exactly how we end up implementing flying creatures will directly affect how easy they are to play with. If they are swooping around individually then that's going to be very difficult to read as a player. How can you see where they are, how can you look at both the ground and the air? We tried all sorts of different things to make it look great, but also to make it still understandable and playable.

There’s a difference in scale in Warhammer but it's bigger than that in our game - the giants are absolutely massive. From a combat perspective we had to really look at everything we had and decide, well, how is this going to work? The matched animation system we had before works on a one-on-one basis. With Warhammer, obviously, there are huge permutations of sizes, so even if we had the time to make all those anims, we wouldn't have the memory to store them. We had to work around attack and reaction, sort of things that could work at any time. It allowed us to be much more fluid. A lot of the criticism we had about ‘blobbing’ in Rome II, it really helped with that. Our solutions to that ended up making it, visually a lot better as well as actually work.

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VG247: What about the magic? It felt that it would be easy to unbalance the game with it. I cast some sort of flaming skull spell that destroyed most of a unit by itself.

"Doing it across the three titles, it gives us that time-frame to not have to make too many compromises about whether we want to cram all of this content into one title which means we can't do this unit, we can't do that unit, we can't do this feature" - Jim Whitston, campaign designer

Roxborough: We've said all along, what we wanted spells to be was not this overpowered thing where micromanaging your spells in a battle was going to the be-all and end-all, they should just be another string to your bow within a battle. If you do pick the right spell at the right time in the right context that could be that thing that turns the tide of battle. Probably for a spell to be that effective, you probably had units on the cusp of their morale level anyway. They'd probably all taken quite a large chunk of their individual entity hitpoints and that spell has just pushed them over the edge, you know what I mean?

VG247: How have Warhammer fans reacted to the game in testing?

Roxborough: It's like a dream come true for them, because they're seeing all their fantasies that they've seen in this format over the years actually in 3D and with animations and all that, so it's just brought the world to life. For example, Andy Hall, our lead writer, used to work at Games Workshop and was brought in very early on to help with the lore. He's just like a kid in a candy shop.

VG247: These are players who are new to Total War; is there a particularly easy tutorial to help them get acclimatised?

Roxborough: If you play as any of the races you get to choose the prelude campaign which will put you in a very basic battle to start with, controlling a few units and give you some extra advice and talk about the camera. The beginning of the campaign game then talks you through buildings. We've also got tutorial movies that are linked to the game guide which is literally a very big overview of the core features so that a complete newb to Total War can just watch that and go, "Oh, I see, so there's this thing called diplomacy, and that's roughly how it works." They can get a sweep of the game relatively quickly, the way they would if someone was just sitting over their shoulder going, "This is the basic functionality of the whole thing."

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VG247: What’s so exciting about the game for you guys that you want to work on it for ten years?

Pikethly: That it's so different to any Total War in that sense that every faction of those four playable factions plays so differently. You can say that with other Total War games, they've had different flavors and that's true, but with this they're just completely different styles. The vampires, they don't have any missile or any artillery, that makes a huge difference, but magic's crucially important to them. Then you've got the dwarfs who don't have any magic or cavalry, but then they've got these crazy gyrocopters.

Whitston: Doing it across the three titles, it gives us that time-frame to not have to make too many compromises about whether we want to cram all of this content into one title which means we can't do this unit, we can't do that unit, we can't do this feature. We've actually got that scope to really hit everything that we want to hit with the quality we want.

Roxborough: It also means that people who own the original game, they will constantly get a game that's being modified and improved as they go along as well, without even having to buy future games. If they do buy the future games they've got that main game plus another chunk of world with loads of races attached to it, so that whole experience just gets bigger and bigger.

Total War: Warhammer is set for release May 24 on PC. You can read our hands-on impressions of the game here.

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Dan Griliopoulos


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