At Gamescom this year, Gamnesia had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Creative Assembly Communications Manager Al Bickham about the upcoming Total War: Warhammer. The reactions from the fans have been many, and the questions have been many more. How will a series like Total War, which has previously engaged in historical campaigns, tackle a fictional realm of not only humans but Orcs, Dwarfs, Trolls and Dragons? There are many new elements to this game such as monsters, flying units, and magic. Will Creative Assembly make an amazing new kind of Total War or will this end up being a buggy cash grab? Going into this interview, my mindset was that this game really looks amazing... but so did Rome 2. So I wanted to ask the kind of questions that might answer the previous question. How much effort and enthusiasm does Creative Assembly put into this project?
Before the interview we watched a scripted demo of the game, which you can watch here. And with that out of the way, here's the entire interview:
So Al, we just saw the presentation for Total Warhammer... and I’m gonna call it that.
The whole world wants to call it that so knock yourself out. *laughs*
From what I saw, the game is looking really good and I have a lot of questions. You talked a bit about collisions in the presentations - cavalry collisions to be precise - and how you wanted to work on them more… Now, this game uses the engine from Rome 2, right?
Well, every total war game we make is a modification of the previous one. We had a big engine re-write so after Empire for we got a nice modular system where we can plug in new graphical effects or animation systems or things like that. So it’s modular and with every total war we can develop aspects of that game relevant for that time periods or in this case we had to develop entirely new systems for spellcasting, flying creatures and also huge monstrous single units that aren’t a cluster of guys which is what we’ve had before. So we’ve had to figure out how combat plays out between say two monsters, multiple monsters or many regular units vs one monster.
So I assume for singular unit such as the spider or wyvern a lot of guys can attack them simultaneously but they have a lot of HP.
Yeah they have a shedload of hit points. The ideal situation is if you defend of one of those and – you know those kinds of beasts are terrifying creatures that cause fear or terror and will have an impact on your morale… The ideal when you’re being attacked by one of those units would be to hit them with many smaller units, counter attack with larger units or hit them with a nasty spell.
After Rome 2 you got a lot of criticism about the engine. I’ve seen some good videos highlighting for instance poor collision where soldiers don’t stick to formation and just blob up. Have you been looking at these videos and taken feedback and what are you doing to improve on combat and collision?
There’s a lot in there… Such as mass and speed affects an impact… We look at a lot of such things carefully with Warhammer. It’s also about how animations play out between individual models (individual soldiers). In Shogun II we focused a lot on matched combat animation because we wanted to get across the sense of samurai warfare between two honourable warriors, a single combat in amongst the throng. So one samurai would look around for another samurai that wasn’t engaged and almost challenge him to a duel. And then you’d see those guys play out these beautiful motion captured combat animations. With Warhammer we want to create more of a sense of a throng so we rely a lot less on matched animations but we still have them such as the Wyvern or the Giant. We have one for the Giant which we didn’t get to see unfortunately where the Giant just yells at them and the sound and breath of the Giant knocks soldiers over.
But to answer your question a bit more in details, we have a what we call a synced animation system.
Yeah, so one guy sees another guy so he just finishes his attack and the other guy takes some damage and that’s it, so the front line will be more animated and kinetic. Also with cavalry we want to work more with impact because they’re coming in as heavy units with speed and as you saw in the demo – even with infantry - how spectacular some of these charges look where Orcs will jump into the fray with axes swinging down. And on the other side you’ll see Imperial soldiers with spears brace for impact or even try to get the first slice so it’s much more animated.
Yes, there was one scene in the cinematic trailer where two halberds were stepping out of line to take out incoming orcs before falling back into line and it looks great. I really hope that what we’re seeing here with collision is actual gameplay.
Well, you saw the game engine running and of course we have the usual caveats: that’s pre-alpha and the game is still in development but we wanted to show a bit of how units interact with each other on the battlefield and while we still have a while to go and a lot of work to do I think that we’re heading in the right direction and we’re doing not just total war fans justice but also the Warhammer IP justice.
Right, and on that I really have to compliment you because as a Warhammer fan I can see that you’ve stuck close to the source material and paying attention to details. The way that units move, say how the Orcs run vs how humans run.
That’s actually one of the really big challenges for us. In previous total war games we’ve had maybe five or six different human body types. Then we can map motion captured animation to those models, so we’d do sword vs spear, sword vs sword, spear vs spear, horse vs guy… With this game we’ve had to hand craft so many of them. You know… you can’t get a dragon into a motion capture studio *laughs*
So the way we’ve had to approach that is to hand-craft and create the animations ourselves rather than resorting to motion capture. So the wyvern for instance… there’s no wyvern in the real world to study. We can look at the miniatures and they give you a sense of how they moved based on the pose they have but that can only get you so far. So we looked at it and thought “well it has two legs, it’s not a dragon, dragons have four legs… so how does it move on the land?”. We figured it’s have to crawl on its wings and the only animal that does that in the real world is a bat so we modelled its animations based on a bat. And the same with the demi-gryphs, they’re a mix between a lion and an eagle so we looked at the way lions move to capture the grace of these creatures when we animated the demi-gryphs. So we’ve had to devote much, much more of our own resources to the animations than we’ve ever had before and it’s really bringing the units to life. Sometimes the guys from Games Workshop will come in to look at the project and you can feel their excitement seeing these models that they’ve made come to life… it’s awesome.
Now characters, they move around similar to agents on the campaign maps, yes?
But they’re also playable on the battlefield.
So are they their own individual units that can move around independently with a unit card or are they stuck in a unit?
They’re individual units. So if you take a warrior priest, for example… on the campaign maps they are effectively agents like in previous total war games. Agents have skill trees and unlock abilities and get better at those abilities, so a character in Warhammer might have access to sabotage skills or assassination skills or those kinds of general skill sets you’re used to seeing in Total War. But in addition to that they might have a combat or magic skill tree. So if they’re a magic-based hero they’ll have a specific magical lore and as you level up you’ll unlock new spells.
So you attach them to an army and they’ll become a unit in the army and then appear in battle and that’s a big difference to previous total war games where… we’ve had warrior type agents but they have simply given your army stats boosts. With this game you’ll have that as well but now they’ll actually appear in the battle.
And I guess if they die in battle they’ll also die on the campaign map
Exactly, so you’ve got this elastic tension of really wanting to get them into combat because they are powerful warriors in their own right that can make a difference but you also don’t want to get them killed.
Also, you also have different types of characters in this game. You have the heroes, like your wizards and warrior priests. Then you have your Lords which are general-type characters. Like in previous total war games you have a call for a general, you select one and build an army around that character but of course you’ll have a much deeper skill tree than generals in previous Total War games with their own combat abilities and mounts. Finally you have the Legendary Lords. These are named characters from the Warhammer universe, like Karl Franz or Grimgor Ironhide.
Can Legendary Lords die?
No. What happens is they get taken out for a bit, lick their wounds for a bit and then return to the fray.
Like Napoleon (from Napoleon: Total War).
Exactly. In that way the legends of these characters go on.
The way you level up characters… I assume you get something like experience with things like taking parts in battles. Are there other smaller missions like sabotaging?
Yes, you’ll get experience for everything that characters is designed to do. So it’s the same as in for instance Shogun II where – if you had a ninja, he could sabotage a gate and get experience for that.
Another thing that’s really interesting when it comes to these characters is that… unlike the historical games where we deal with the years 430 BC to 300 AD, this games takes place in a set time in the Warhammer world so characters don’t age in Warhammer.
So it’s kind of like… time passes but not really?
Yeah, exactly. You can only die by falling in battle so that will allow you to build really powerful characters with the expanded skill trees.
So right now you’re based on the 8th edition of Warhammer Fantasy. Do you plan on sticking to that or are you looking at units or characters that might have been around before but no more? For instance, there was a Kislev faction that was around temporarily for 6th edition. Is that something you’re looking at at all or are you just sticking to the standard in 8th edition?
At the moment we’re focusing on the core stuff so it’s just 8th edition for now but who knows what’s gonna happen in the future?
On that note, since you say nothing is really final… Of course with a game like Warhammer, there are going to be fans with a ton of requests and wishes…
… What kind of feedback, ideas or general input are you taking from the fanbase?
At this stage we feel like we’re going to satisfy everybody over time. Everybody who’s into Warhammer in some regard has a favourite faction, a faction they associate with in the way they play or that fits their style… I think we’re aiming to please as many people as possible, without going into specifics at the moment. [Creative Assembly has previously stated that they will release two standalone expansion]
Can you catch them all?
*laughs* And can you kill them all?
Through the demo you talked about how the different races are different on the campaign map. So you have humans that deal with more traditional Total War elements like tax collection and politics while the Orcs for instance probably aren’t gonna build grand schools of magic…
Well… They won’t build schools of magic in that sense. Their magic is kind of shamanistic.
But yeah, the way we’re building it is that every race is quite different from the others because that’s how they are in Warhammer.So they won’t only differ on the battlefield, the types of units they have or the way they fight but also in the campaign game. So a good example is Empire versus Greenskins. So like you said, the Empire is going to be more of a traditional Total War faction. When you start with Karl Franz as your Emperor, you’re gonna be dealing with a lot of diplomacy within your own race because there are other elector counts in provinces all around you and there’s intrigue and backstabbing that goes on all the time. So if you want to expand the empire, you’ll want to do good diplomacy to get everyone on your side, or perhaps go and take over territory somewhere else away from those provinces.
The Greenskins are much less about that kind of expansion. They’re more about building up momentum. There’s a concept in Warhammer called the Waaagh! which embodies everything about the Orcs philosophically, if you can apply that term to the Orcs. They’re all about just charging into battle and whacking things, they’re very Alpha, so to speak. The way that works in the campaign game is the Waagh! is like a resource. So the more you engage in and win combat the more your Waaagh! meter goes up and you’ll get other Orc generals and armies popping up to support you and you’ll find yourself in a situation where you can start steamrolling. Now, you have to keep that momentum going or your forces are going to start suffering attrition from infighting because the Orcs are not like anyone else: they need to fight so they turn on each other. So they’re very different from the Empire, there’s no tax mechanics and the Orcs don’t deal with population management the same way, they just want to get as many Boyz as possible into battle.
And we saw that too in the battle where… the Empire has properly organized rank and file units whereas the Orcs just rush in without any regard for unit formation.
Yeah, exactly, they’re just really messy and noisy.
So that about the Orcs… When can we expect some more details about the Dwarfs and Vampire Counts?
Very well *laughs*. So to finish off, what’s your favourite Warhammer faction?
Firstly, I’m an Ogre player. I have an Ogre army. I find them fun because they’re really expensive and powerful so they’re kind of an all-or-nothing army. You have small, compact and hard hitting units. And we actually have… Games Workshop supplied our artists with one of every model in the Warhammer 8th edition range and that’s what we’ve been working from when building our 3D models. And the idea with that is also that so we in the studio can play the tabletop game. So I got all the Ogre models after the artists were done with them and if anyone wants to play an army it’s their responsibility to paint and assemble them.
That’s actually a genius idea.
Yeah, it’s great! Especially because you have people in the studio who might not focus on the lore, they might work with some technical things, so it’s a great way for everybody to getting used to seeing those armies and all their backstories and such. If you want to play a game of Warhammer, you have to read the army book which contains the history of that race and so on. So it generates people who are fiercely into one particular army and you also get some animosity towards other armies. So I play Ogres who are low on Initiative and a colleague of mine – Joss, the User Interface guy - plays Tomb Kings, so he has a spell that slaughters guys with low Initiative and it’s great because it really gets you into Warhammer on an emotional level. At Lunch time we have two Warhammer tables and there’s usually one or two games playing most days.
Cool! Did you have a tournament yet?
No, we planned on having a league but what we have instead is army lists printed that people can borrow so if you wanted to try a new army you just get the list and the models and give it a go.
Alright, well I have to thank you so much for your time.
I was very impressed with the enthusiasm Al showed for this project, and I hope that's something many more at Creative Assembly shares. I have high hopes for this title, and I'm confident they can pull it off so long as they get enough time to work on it. What's your take on this game? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.