Building bigger battles: The making of Total War: Warhammer 3

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We speak to Creative Assembly about how its pushing the boundaries with its latest strategy game, while still keeping it accessible to a wider range of hardware.

The Warhammer brand is a hugely recognisable one, especially in the UK where the recently rebranded Warhammer stores are a high street fixture. From its humble roots as a manufacturer of wooden boards for traditional games, Games Workshop has grown to be the industry leader in tabletop wargaming. Despite supply chain issues, the company has weathered the pandemic remarkably well thanks to many new and returning fans diving into the hobby during lockdown – and even had a splash of mainstream media attention due to actor Henry Cavill talking about his love of Warhammer on The Graham Norton Show.

Video game developer Creative Assembly is another stalwart of the British games industry, albeit one working in the digital realm, rather than the physical. While the vast majority of its flagship Total War titles have used historical settings, in 2015 a new game was announced that marked a departure into the world of fantasy – Total War: Warhammer. Released the following year, this was to be the first in a trilogy of games spanning the classic Old World Warhammer setting, and with the release of Total War: Warhammer III on February 17th, that trilogy draws to a close.

We spoke to game director Ian Roxburgh about the project’s development and the trilogy as a whole, as well as the challenges of reimagining a beloved IP in video game form. Asked about any particular surprises during the process, he highlights the response from the existing Total War player base.

Ian Roxburgh

“One thing that we’ve really appreciated is how receptive the Total War community has been in embracing the asymmetry at the heart of Warhammer,” he says. “Total War always had a unique approach to how each army plays on the battlefield and within the campaign, but with this game we really wanted to ensure we were doing the source material justice by making each race and faction an entirely unique experience."

"With each game, we’ve become more confident in this design direction and it has really allowed us to experiment with some truly unique features that haven’t been seen in Total War previously.”

One of these unique features is the expanding campaign map. While each game in the trilogy is focused on a particular area of the Warhammer world (which roughly corresponds to Earth, with a few notable omissions and additions, such as the Elven homeland of Ulthuan situated in the middle of what would be the Atlantic ocean), a separate game mode allows owners of the first two games to combine them into one huge map (which Roxburgh assures is set get even bigger).

“As soon as we began the project, we knew that we wanted to include the Warhammer world in its entirety,” he explains. The only problem with that was Games Workshop had created such a hugely amazing amount of content that we felt that we couldn’t give it the justice it deserved within one standalone instalment. 

“This then led us to create a unique, narrative driven campaign that remained sandbox in nature but focused on a specific portion of the Warhammer map. Then, as a thank you to the fans who had supported us so wonderfully over the years, we ensured that the combined map was given away as part of a free expansion, as we knew this was the campaign mode that they had always envisioned conquering. We can’t wait to show off the final version, but you’ll hear more about this from our fantastic DLC team after the game has launched.”

Total War has always featured huge battles, especially compared to the Warhammer tabletop game. In the latter, a unit of 40 troops would be considered particularly large, while it’s not uncommon for an equivalent unit in Total War to number over 100 individuals. In addition to the size of units, Total War generally features far more of them, with corresponding increases to the size and complexity of battlefields. We asked Roxburgh if this created technical challenges.

“There is likely a point at which battles are too big, but I don't think we've necessarily reached that point yet,” he said. “The beauty of Total War games is that you can pick and choose the campaign or battle experience you want to have. For example, if you find playing a 20 vs 20 unit battle intimidating, you could auto-resolve the experience, or play the game and use our battle-tempo tools to pause and slow down the experience, which allows you to issue commands at a pace complimentary to your skill level. 

“Our new survival battles are another great example of how we’ve pushed the game engine to create a mode that is visually awe-inspiring in terms of the number of units we can accommodate whilst making the experience enjoyable to players new and old.”

Such spectacular battles are going to tax any hardware, and with supply chain issues, chip shortages and demand for GPUs from cryptocurrency miners all making it more difficult and expensive for PC gamers to update their rigs, keeping the series as accessible as possible is forefront in the minds of the developers. 

“One of the most important technical challenges we always accommodate is ensuring that our games run across a broad variety of minimum system specifications whilst maintaining the quality that the franchise is known for,” Roxburgh says. “We always want as many of our fans playing the games as possible, so accommodating their needs as players is always a priority to us.”

Adapting a tabletop game is a unique challenge, especially within the strategy genre. Whereas making, say, an action game based on Warhammer allows the developer some leeway to reinterpret aspects of the original game, Creative Assembly have had to transplant Warhammer into the Total War framework while keeping in line with the expectations of fans of the tabletop game. Total War: Warhammer wasn’t the first attempt to create a strategy video game based on Warhammer, and the success of previous efforts has been mixed at best. Roxburgh described how they approached the very specific challenge.

“We’ve tried to understand the tabletop game and its intricacies to the best of our ability and transpose that into a Total War context,” he says. “Before we began designing the vision for the game, we played hundreds of hours of Warhammer to understand the units, army abilities and the asymmetry that allows them to stand out amongst one another. 

“We also engrossed ourselves within the fascinating amount of lore that Games Workshop has developed over the years to ensure that we were starting off on the strongest possible footing. Although Warhammer was unlike anything we had ever incorporated into a game in the past, we were lucky that we get to work with the incredibly flexible Total War engine, which made everything that much easier.”

A completely new feature for Total War: Warhammer III, and one that was only recently announced, is the ability for players to create a custom Daemon Prince character to lead their army. Previous titles in the series have featured predefined generals, whether historical figures or characters from the Warhammer tabletop game. While it may not be immediately obvious, this turned out to be a massive endeavour that encompassed every area of the development team.

“Our core philosophy for this game was for it to be bigger, bolder, and better than its predecessors and the Daemon Prince is a great embodiment of that mantra,” says Roxburgh. “Across the project it was a huge undertaking. For example, our campaign and battle design teams had to ensure the game remained balanced, which is no easy feat when you’re dealing with billions of potentially game-changing customisation options. The art team have had to design an entire race’s worth of limbs, heads and weapons to ensure we really encapsulated the horrific variety that Daemon Princes can embody.”

Of course none of this would have been possible without the support of Games Workshop. Fortunately, the two titans of strategy gaming meshed well, according to Roxburgh.

“I think we’re very likeminded companies and the partnership we’ve developed has been instrumental to the success of the trilogy,” he says. “Over the years it has become apparent that we’re both very passionate about the work we create and want to achieve the highest quality in everything we do. 

“These shared beliefs have really allowed the relationship to flourish in the most amazing ways, such as allowing us to bring Grand Cathay and Kislev to a video game for the very first time. This was a monumental occasion for us and we’re ever thankful for the opportunity.”

Total War: Warhammer is a huge project, spanning three games and dozens of pieces of downloadable content. 2022 marks a decade since Sega announced the partnership with Games Workshop that Total War: Warhammer was born from, and with Creative Assembly’s superb history of support for the series, it’s more than likely that there will be new content for at least a couple of years to come. This wouldn’t be possible without a huge passion for Warhammer, which Roxburgh assures is very obvious at Creative Assembly.

“The design and implementation of the Warhammer races was born out of our great appreciation for the tabletop game, and we played hundreds of hours before the series began to really understand its nuances,” he says. 

“Personally, I’m a big fan of The Empire and the High Elves, but if you were ever to visit the Creative Assembly studio, you would see that it's crammed full of painted miniatures and everyone has their own allegiance to one race or another. It really has been the perfect reference point for us as game designers.”

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