Total War Takes on Warhammer

An Interview with Al Bickham of Creative Assembly

The world of Warhammer has finally breached the Total War Franchise. Creative Assembly are known for building stunning recreations of historical battlefields. They take great pains to rebuild the units, landscapes and wars from the past, and they do it very well. Now they are moving their attention to something a little less real, and a little bit more magical by taking the universe of fantasy built by Games Workshop and bringing it to life, all with the same level of detail and care that they have with previous titles. Drawing from the countless books and units already existing in the Warhammer world, Creative Assembly have crafted an experience that players of the tabletop game could only imagine.

The war between all the factions within Warhammer universe will soon be decided with the click of the mouse, bringing the power of magic, myth and fantasy to the battlefield in amazing detail. We were lucky enough to get to sit down with Al Bickham, Studio Communications Manager at Creative Assembly, to discuss what fans should expect from this new installment of the Total War series.totalwarinsert2Let me start off with asking how you guys got involved with making a Total War Warhammer game?

Al Bickham: The first thing is that we’ve always wanted to do a fantasy game for some time, and we’ve been, on and off for years, kind of chatting with Games Workshop about the possibility of Warhammer. But as you know, the scale of Total War games, I mean, they’re colossal. They might deal with a historical context and might deal with a 300-year periods and hundreds of different unit types. I think we got to the point where we have enough teams to work on some new projects and the resources to do it, so we were like, “hey, let’s do it.” We took it to Games Workshop and after that, everything seemed to fall into place.

What was the process of turning the Warhammer mythos into something that could be digested in a Total War game?

In a way, there are two parts, I suppose. We can break it into the visual aspects and the cerebral game design features. So for the visual side, we really need the bulk of our art team. When we make a historical game, authenticity is the watchword. We’re looking for something to represent that period in history, so we carefully research warriors, the weapon types, the technologies they used. On the campaign side, the political situation of the time, who the key players were in that part of the world. So in a way, it kind of hasn’t been that different than when we were making a historical war game because we’ve got the universe right there in the form in many books of reference.
totalwarinsert3Did you use any of the actual Games Workshop models?

Yeah, all our models are hand sculpted within 3D Studio Max or whatever. They’re all digitally sculpted by our in-house guys. Basically, we got two of every single model in the Warhammer range, put them all together, and actually, there’s a ton of us who [grew] up with actually playing battles. I have an Ogre Kingdoms army where I probably win about 25% of my battles. So my arch nemesis is actually one of our artists who has an incredible Chaos Warrior army. We had aspiration. We literally took the range models that are available and worked with those. The key is to represent the truth, the vision of Warhammer that the people at Games Workshop created and bring it to life in the video game world.

How did the storyline of the game get started?

Our plan is, in a broad sense, to represent as much of the Warhammer world as we can. It’s set in the eighth edition Warhammer, so it’s ancient times. It’s set in the pre-end-times era. That’s an important distinction to make because the end-times stuff is already different with all the army books mixed up. It’s a very different kind of game. We’re setting it in a kind of old world.

Could you discuss more on the creation of the storyline?

The thing is, there isn’t a single storyline. It’s still a Total War game; it’s a sandbox game. You can build your empire, or you can steamroll your way across your opponents, and your place will be defined by the race that you play as.

I guess the way that develops is we take the map of the Warhammer world, the old world, and you’ve got the races you can play placed in various places in the world. You’re gonna have a specifically different challenge playing a certain faction than you would as another one, and you will need to factor this in as you play. There is a lot of narrative development that we are embedding into the game as players go through the missions.
totalwarinsert4Could you go over how the leader unit will work in the game?

Your faction leader, so let’s take the empire for example, is Karl Franz. He’s the emperor, the Death Lord, the mightiest Griffin in the empire with a special bond. He’s a tremendously powerful battler. That’s one way that it’s different than previous War games, is that you have generals in a typical war, and they influence and they’ve got special abilities that they can trigger to influence the battlefield. But you’d never send them in alone ‘cause you’d be like, “I can’t afford to lose him.”

What is the real risk of using that power? It looked like it devastated the things around them and nothing really touched them.

It’s fair to say we are dealing with more extreme individual units than we’ve ever had before.  But if you take your war boss online, and you go attack that unit, you can sit there and hack away at these guys for quite a while until they’re finished and move on again. He’s got a lot of hit points but they’re not infinite, and if you lock him in place with multiple units around him he’s going to get stuck in combat.

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These new units and skills will change the flow of the battlefield?

Precisely. There are still scouts about, you can’t just dominate the skies. We now have effectively an air force in your army, which we’ve never had in Total War games because we’ve never had flying before. So that does make a difference and it does open the tactical options that you can fly them over there, a unit from the rear, so the tactical situation changes. So you can think about protecting your artillery and things like that with, you know, the kind of units that are going to be good against the air basically. There are counterbalances that bounce around and spells as well.  They’re very powerful spells.
totalwarinsert5Will there be limits to the spells and skills you can use at one time?

Exactly. That’s counter balance. We’ve got to make the game a bit challenging to play. There’s got to be a counter to everything as well. And the winds of change thing is interesting as well because in the Warhammer world the winds of change blow stronger in certain geographical worlds in more areas than others. So if you go to the North in the old world near the chaos wastes, the winds of magic blow a bit wilder there. If you have battles up in the North, you’re probably going to see more magic going off and actually, you might want to move some of your mages or mage characters to join armies up there. If you’re expanding up there, then you might want to make sure you’ve got some magic up there because you’ll have more firepower.

Can you explain more about how battles will work with later game armies as seen in your E3 Demo?

So when you play that sort of battle, you’ll still want to take a big army because you’ll be facing a quest battle. One of Karl Franz’s quest battles is worth touching on briefly. The characters in this game, they have much deeper skill trees than in previous War games; they’re much more RPG-like. So if you’ve got Karl Franz, he’s got like 30 levels to get through and different skills to get, and those big characters will unlock new mounts as well or new weapons for example. So the quest battles are an optional narrative change which lead you through a series of set piece battles. Purely optional, you don’t have to do them, but there’s usually some fat loot at the end of it.
totalwarinsert1It’s kind of enticing to do, like any RPG, and if you do it, you can help yourself later in the game.

And they’re a great way to enable us to bring some more of the lore, the narrative and a universe to play and tell a little bit of the story. See, you go down the little paths and do it.

Will there be advantages and disadvantages between the races?

They’re all very different, in a way that we don’t have the luxury of doing in a historical game. Everybody is human in that, and they’re mostly men. Occasionally they’re horses, or dogs, or elephants or whatever, but they’re mostly men fighting with different weapons, different skill levels, and things as well, but they’re all men. You see the variety they’ve got going on over there? I’m going to show to you how different those armies are to play like the Empire, much more artillery and much more line troopers, when compared to the Greenskin, their war machines are made of meat. They’ve got big monsters, giant spiders, so on the battlefield, they’ll play very differently. But in the campaign games, the differences are tremendous. It’s not like you’ve got this faction’s got this slight bonus to diplomacy, and is better at recruiting some types of units or gets a cash buff. With this game it is different. For example, the Greenskins don’t have a use for diplomacy, so you’re not going to be fiddling around with tax breaks. When you’re playing the Greenskins, they’ve got a mechanic of their own taken from Warhammer lore.

If you play the Greenskins, you’ve got to keep fighting; you’ve got to keep going forward and battling. It is up to you to keep them busy to avoid the animosity against each other, because if you don’t, they will start fighting themselves. So you keep fighting, and as you do, you get to a point where you can pick up war and then more like ambient orcs in your area will rise up and more armies will form and you’ll go on these massive campaigns.

Where as when you play as the Empire, it will be more about uniting and bringing boarder human forces into the fold using diplomacy and politics to improve. It will be more about utilizing technology and trading stuff. As you can see, the way you play each faction is very different.
totalwarinsert6Basically, whatever faction you play in the game will have completely different skills, units, battle engines, etc?

Yeah, basically. We call them races; they’re not really factions anymore. That word doesn’t really get the core differences.

They do sound very different. Could you tell us who players will get to experience in the final game?

So we’re doing I think what we announced is we're going to have two large expansions. We’ll have some content options between that and what those are going to be, and so the initial game is going to contain the Empire, the Greenskins, the Dwarves and the Vampire Council as well. You’ve got very interesting, all very different, playable races in there. There is a tremendous amount of replay value.

I’m surprised. Haven’t you added Chaos as one of the key few races?

All in good time.