The Creative Assembly talks about Orcs, the campaign map and the art of making a faction
In the grim darkness of far Horsham, there is only Warhammer. This time I’m at The Creative Assembly’s top secret headquarters (it’s the giant building opposite the church steeple), to see Total Warhammer’s campaign mode and to talk to the team about how they build a faction.
First off, Al Bickham, the avuncular voice of Creative and one-time writer for this magazine, talks me through the campaign map. At the time of writing, Total War: Warhammer has entered alpha. But for Creative Assembly, that term means something slightly different from other studios. It means that the game is up and running, and feature and content complete, but still needs lots of work – and any of those elements could still be changed or dropped.
“Even months and months ago, all the functions were working, so we’ve really been able to polish it from an early stage,” says project lead Ian Roxburgh. The team have given themselves five months to get the game finished – whether or not they succeed, we’ll find out in the spring.
I’m given a fifteen-minute tour of the Greenskins campaign. The Greenskins start their campaign in the isolated Badlands, the area south of the human Empire, and to the southwest of the main Dwarfen kingdoms, ensconced in the World’s Edge mountains. The Badlands looks a very Orcy place as we zip over it, a bone-strewn desert festooned with brutal buildings, extremely unfriendly flora and the heavy-jawed skull icon of the Orcs nailed on any crag that can hold it.
Notably, there’s not much of a way out for the Orc and Goblin tribes from this desolate wasteland. South are the undead Egyptian deserts of Khemri; west is the sea, and beyond it a continent of hardy Lizardmen; east lie the ruined lands of the twisted Chaos Dwarfs with their deadly war machines. Southeast is the land of Nagash, greatest Necromancer of all time. Crawling under the northwestern lands are the Skaven. (None of which are included in this game – yet.)
So the Greenskins pretty much have to attack the Dwarfs or the Humans, and neither of those wars are easy to win. After all, the Dwarfs walled themselves up in those mountains millennia ago, like stunted survivalists except without the hoard of canned food. Though they’re slowly losing ground, they’re heavilyarmed and fighting every inch of the way.
The Empire looks like easier pickings when you look at the wider map: huge open provinces divided between squabbling Elector Counts and the occasional vampire, with no real central authority at the start of the game. But the Orcs have to get there through a single tight mountain dale, Blackfire Pass, somewhere that is guarded closely by both the Empire and the Dwarfs.
How the Orcs escape that area and how they comport themselves when out and about are hard decisions for a game designer to make, as they’re not exhaustively detailed in the tabletop game this is drawn from – it only deals with battles, really. So I sat down with designer Rich Aldridge, lead character artist Matt Davis, Bickham and Roxburgh to talk about how they translate and design a faction for the game, from scratch.
“The first thing we did,” Roxburgh says, “across all the factions at the same time, is just played the living hell out of the eighth edition tabletop game.” This gave the team an understanding of every race, how it worked, its strengths and weaknesses, and the general mechanics of the game, as well as all the lore. (And then the Age of Sigmar update to the tabletop game came along and killed the Warhammer world. They opted to stick with the eighth edition.) “Everyone who needs to make key decisions is familiar with Warhammer and the game.”
The next stage was working out how all the races best fitted into a Total War context. “Very early on, we wanted them to feel very different [from each other]. Not just the unit rosters, but the way that they play in the campaign.” Then they had to choose which races they could put in, out of the sixteen or so official races from the eighth edition rules.
Unexpectedly, to decide that they first had to decide on the art style. “Like any fan, we went ‘oh, we want all the races!’” Roxburgh recalls. “But it’s a massive, massive undertaking to do even four races to the level we want and to the depth that people expect from Total War… We had a long session of working out how detailed the characters would be, whether they’d be high poly or more cartoony, and technically looked at how the animations would work, because there are so many skeletons.” (That’s skeletons in the sense of basic animated figures, not the hordes of undead in Sylvania and Khemri.)
This research was necessary because to work out how many factions they could get into the game and how many units per faction they could have, they had to know how much work they were taking on. “Every single faction in the game has more rigs than any other Total War game,” says Davis, the lead character artist. “Even within the factions, they’re so different – a heavily-armoured spearman isn’t going to share any parts of the model with a lightly-armoured spearman. A Reiksguard Knight isn’t going to share anything with a Greatsword, who isn’t going to share anything with an Empire state trooper. We’ve limited the amount of different parts for each character, which allows us to put a lot more detail into each of those parts, so our poly counts are pretty similar – for everything except monsters.”
For the animators, Davis reckons, Warhammer is “way more” than four times the size of any other Total War game. Not only has the team had to employ many more animators than usual, they’ve even changed the way that the models are assembled. As a side effect, this has given a much-needed boost to the game’s performance.
But why these five particular races – Dwarfs, Chaos, The Empire, Greenskins, and Vampire Counts – for the starting area of the Old World? After all, the Wood Elves, Bretonnians and Skaven also all inhabit this central world – and Chaos, though a core threat to the world, tend to be restricted to the Chaos Wastes, way out of the way at the north pole (actually a spiralling vortex into a hell dimension). “You have to put it all together as one big jigsaw puzzle and see how it best fits in the long run,” says Roxburgh, “…which we can’t talk about right now. There are some difficult decisions, because you look across all the races and there are so many cool things. We’ve been quite ruthless, the way we’ve planned.”
Once the factions had been decided and the roster for each one sketched out, the team went deeper into each one’s playstyle and mechanics, as Roxburgh explains. “As you go along, you work out the individual design features of the different races, and the different balance between the techs and the skill trees, and how you can use the IP, and the data that goes into a Total War game, to push the race in a certain direction. Every race is like a separate Total War game.”
The Greenskins, for example, need to build up momentum, by fighting and raiding, which allows extra allied Orc armies to spawn nearby and follow your army. Should your ‘fightiness’ meter drop below the Waaaagh level necessary to maintain it, these allies vanish. And should it drop low enough for Animosity to kick in, your troops will turn on each other.
Once the factions were nailed down, the unit rosters were started on. How do you pick units when you’ve got a huge list like the Empire? Do you really need eight schools of magic in there? “Primarily, it’s what works design-wise,” Roxburgh says. “What combination of units reflects the flavour of the Empire. Because you know early on you can’t do them all.” For example, though the Orcs have their core Big ‘Uns medium infantry in the game, I’ve not seen any sign of their Goblin allies’ extensive Squig troops.
Finally, the art team gets to start playing with the units, though building them is a bit different from the normal Total War games. “When we approach this, we have to do a very big sanity check at the beginning,” says Davis. “Because when everything’s this cool, it’s always ‘we have to do that because it’s awesome’ – and I admittedly get excited. But you need to get it down to a manageable list you can get done in time. Then you take all the models for a type – say an entire 40-man block of Empire spearmen – and see what the theme is. Then you prioritise that, because that’s going to be the heart and flavour of that unit. We’re not restricted by making all our guys 20mm tall – we can add more detail.”
And then the team had to choose the heroes for each faction, from the array in the army books. Legendary heroes like Thorgrim or Ungrim, the Slayer King, play differently from each other and from your customisable Lords, especially as they unlock magic items through personal quests. “We move so far from the generic Total Wary stuff, into those little quirks that give every character that bit of individuality,” says Roxburgh. For example, putting mounts on the campaign map (like Azhag the Slaughterer’s wyvern) took a lot of new code – but they do give the characters charisma. The quest battle system – how heroes unlock their unique gear – was also created at this time.
On the design side, the team also allowed heroes and monsters to attack multiple enemies at once, to reflect their huge power on the Warhammer battlefield – though they’ve dispensed with the tabletop game’s slightly odd dueling system. “There’s no specific mechanic for it there,” says Aldridge, “though there will be various reasons why you might want send one of your characters to take out one of theirs, because it will do it better than a unit would, so there’s an element of gameplay there.”
Once a unit has been designed, the artists finally get to make it, based on the tabletop miniature. As these are so small, they actually have to create extra detail, especially for characters who’ll be appearing in cutscenes, such as the legendary characters. “We want stitches and memory folds in clothing, all those little things,” says Davis. Once the models are done and animated, then they’re sent over to Games Workshop for approval.
At last, the designers get to implement the Total War side of things, converting the capabilities of the various troops and heroes into terms that work within the context of Creative Assembly’s game. For the heroes, Aldridge explains, “we’ve got two facets, the battles and the campaign. You take the background of those characters and see what might fit those areas, like a weapon or a talisman. When you unlock an ability, it ties in with the lore, and you get a big wow moment, and then you have smaller upgrades in between that.” So you might specialise the black Orc lord Grimgor Ironhide to be a straightforward melee monster, unlocking his unique armour and weapon, while setting up Azhag as more of a troop buffer, and creating a custom lord to specialise in raiding. That does mean most of the legendary heroes aren’t much better than the other lords until you start following their quest chains.
After that, the team had to differentiate and balance out the tech trees of the races and the skill trees of the heroes. The Orcs tech tree is fairly flat and short, but the dwarfs have two tech trees, while the Empire and Vampire Counts need to construct buildings to access different elements of their tree. “It really just feels like you’re learning a new game each time,” Roxburgh says.
Clash by night
The Creative Assembly team has actually changed how they balance their games, making it more of an automated process. “We’ve had new systems put in for testing units against each other,” Roxburgh explains, “and can actually just massively auto-run combinations overnight. We’ve made a lot ot tech to make that process more efficient.”
The team Creative Assembly has assembled certainly gets Warhammer. I’ve done my best to make this narrative seem coherent and linear, but in fact I had to interrupt them multiple times as they bantered about which unit they hadn’t put in that they were most missing. Al was fond of his customised Ogre Maneater snipers, Ian reminisced about the unreliable Skaven Doomwheel and Screaming Bell, Matt enthused over the Indiana Jones cheesiness of the Khemri Casket of Souls bursting from the desert sands, and Rich praised the Skaven’s Hell Pit Abomination – “the rat that just keeps on giving” – which prompted a full decorum breakdown as they shouted at each other about warpstone and “typically overpowered Skaven units.” That quintessentially beardy-weirdiness is quintessentially Warhammer, and it bodes well for the final game. Dan Grilopoulos