I've been here at EGX Rezzed in Tobacco Dock, London which as some of you may know is home to numerous indie dev studios. But in here amongst the startups, there are also some of the big boys. The subject of this interview is none other than Rich Aldridge of Creative Assembly. It's fair to say that much of Rich's life in recent times has been devoted to creating a piece of gaming history. Total War as a franchise marked 15 years in existence last year and in many ways the future has never looked brighter.
Fans of the series are reliable, as evidenced by the years of success the franchise has had. But some quarters have been calling out for the IP to branch out from the historical simulation that it does so well and although personally I think they could have chosen a slightly better IP to team up with for their first foray outside historical simulation (when I first read about Total War Warhammer, I was on the edge of my seat! Then I realised it wasn't 40k), Warhammer is as rich a universe as any out there for them to take a stab at.
I managed to get some of Rich's time at Rezzed to chat about the game he's helped create.
W: Rich Aldridge for Creative Assembly, why don't you introduce yourself to our readers.
RA: So I'm a senior designer on Total War Warhammer so I kind of get involved in all facets of the game whether it be campaign, battle units, primarily that's what I've been doing a lot of work on. Building up some of the nicer things like UI components working with the artists so we've really made an effort to present the game to the player, make it more understandable as we appreciate there are lots of new and weird things in here that aren't going to immediately jump out as understandable to everybody, maybe if you know and love Warhammer you'll know what this guy is but not everyone is going to come at the game with that level of knowledge.
W: So that's a big question that I have. Warhammer was often a case of you were either into it or you weren't. How do you feel you've tried to make it more approachable to the non-Warhammer hardcore fan and maybe someone who is more of a TW fan from their background?
RA: One thing is Warhammer is obviously a battle based game where you paint and build your miniatures and invest a lot of time in them and play then you have to tidy up after which you obviously don't have to do here! There are obviously hours and hours of game here where you can explore lots of different places that the writers at Games Workshop spoke about but you never really saw what they were like so we've taken what they've given us and visually created that. That's what's been a real challenge but also a labour of love for us to fill in those grey areas. For people that like the tabletop, we've got a lot of the main characters that you'd expect to be there, we've stuck to the units you'd expect to be there and the armies playing around with different weapon types, magic items which you can equip to your units and build them up over the course of the campaign so you have a much stronger connection.
Something we noticed when we were playing the tabletop games were these sort of core units or strategies you would employ when you were creating an army you probably wouldn't take some of the main characters because they were quite expensive. We don't want to do that, we want to make sure you get onboard with Karl Franz or Grimgor Ironhide or Mannfred and that you enjoy them for all that large background lore that there is about them so we made a big decision early on that we were going to focus on these guys, really develop their skills, their progression, their narrative through their quests and this is where we are now.
W: Warhammer as a tabletop game has obviously been around for quite a while. Implementing it as a PC game, did you have to do a lot of work with balancing the game or did you find that basically pretty much everything was balanced from the tabletop rules?
RA: Unfortunately not at all! For a couple of different reasons, one is that obviously Games Workshop have been creating Warhammer for the past twenty odd years so different races are at different stages through their army cycle, some are newer or older than others so you've got some compatible rules but they're not all married up.
Then there's trickier stuff like Vampire Counts don't have any missile. They don't have ANY MISSILE WHATSOEVER! No artillery, no bowmen, nothing. So you know, Total War normally is infantry, cavalry, missile, so it's like "well what do we do about that?" We've got to find a way to make them still work and be a challenge to fight against or allow you to defeat the other guys. So we started investing in large creatures you know giants, Vargheists, Varghulfs, flying mechanics, spells and this is what has allowed us to balance so we didn't break what Games Workshop have created and we've found ways that allow us to make it a somewhat level playing field but it might mean that you need one tactic to defeat one enemy and a totally different tactic to defeat a different enemy.
W: So is there a possibility that GW may take anything you've worked on for Total War Warhammer and try to incorporate it into their world??
RA: *laugh* I don't know, it's been a pleasure working with them and they've obviously moved on to working with their Age of Sigmar range so who knows but we've certainly enjoyed taking the 8th edition rules that they've created to make this game.
W: Tell me a little bit about the development, how long has it actually taken you guys to bring this to market?
RA: Well we've been working on it probably for the last 2 and a bit years. We start very small with a little team, couple of designers then you gradually add on programmers once the design is fleshed out we've really been going full strength with a team creating masses and masses of content from the animation to the characters to the environment, there's so many things we've had to build and work on from our previous games. You can't just take the trees from Rome 2 and go "yeah, they'll do", they just wouldn't look right, this is a fantasy and magical setting so we really wanted to do it justice.
W: And in terms of the engine, sometimes people have struggled on lower end hardware. How does it look from an optimisation perspective?
RA: It's ongoing, we've obviously published specs on minimum and recommended hardware requirements but we didn't just want to make it for high end users only, there are ways you can play and we've tried to make it accessible for those with lower spec machines for example reducing the number of men visible on the battlefield so depending on what kit you've got, you can certainly scale it to fit.
W: In a commercial environment with existing products, software development used to be on a waterfall type methodology, now it's more an agile/scrum based scenario and I often wonder how that translates into the games industry. With agile/scrum, everybody loves it but it's very focussed on not heavily documenting tons of stuff upfront for example so how do you guys deal with this?
RA: It changes throughout the dev so you will start off documenting things but as you know there are so many features. Saying that though, it's a game. Some things that are in your head sound wonderful, but when you actually play it, it doesn't feel right. Either there's no connection there with the character or the environment that you're in so you adjust accordingly.
As such, we're reasonably agile in our approach, we do evolve as the project goes and we don't just throw things away so we don't just say "oh we're making a new game so all the stuff we did on Attila or what have you, that's gone". We use it as a platform, we pick and choose pieces we want to keep, obviously we develop new things and we had to do that a lot for this game. We didn't have a lot of these systems so now we can do flying which we've never been able to do that before so goodness knows what that means for the future but it gives us different opportunities.
Same with the mechanics behind the special abilities system. In the past, we'd have a few abilities here and there, it wasn't that powerful a system so we went back and looked at how can we make this a more usable system throughout our Total War products.
We build things specifically for each game but we're sensible that we try to build things also for the longer term that can be shared because we are still going to make historical titles as we know people love them!
W: Of course! And that's another question, what's next for you?
RA: I'm in Warhammer for the long term, we've got 3 games with this being the first with a sizeable amount of DLC and free content coming so I'm locked into that for the next few years but we do have a separate team working on a new and exciting historical product.
W: Oooh! New and exciting historical! Any hints?!?!
RA: *Laughs* I really can't.
W: Ok, going back to Total War Warhammer. I've not tried it yet. Is it more battle focussed or is it like in the past where you've got an even split between diplomacy and trade etc too?
RA: You certainly do, but the nice thing about it is depending on who you're playing as, some of those features are more prominent for some races. For instance, Greenskins are all about the fighting so they don't want to go sit down and have a chat. In fact if you stop them fighting they start to suffer attrition so you have to actually keep them fighting and on the warpath whether that be physical battles or raiding and looting.
Empire on the other hand are totally about diplomacy. Yes they do go out and fight, they all fight, but these guys have got this bitter relationship with some of the different elector counts throughout the empire I mean Karl Franz who you're playing as potentially, you can play as Balthasar as well, he's got the job of sort of bringing them all together now that might mean that he may have to pay this one off or that he confederates with that one or just go and bump him off.
Boris Todbringer who is the Middenland leader, he absolutely despises him so obviously that's a potential conflict whereas other guys are like "Meh, maybe I'll fall under your banner".
W: What's your personal backgroung on gaming then, are you a long time gamer?
RA: Yeah! I sort of stumbled into games by chance. I always loved games but I always wanted to do design. Didn't really matter what, I just loved the idea of building and creating something. I was lucky at EA that I got a chance to get in as a tester and then showed some skills and got into level design and I just went from there. Ended up at CA so I've worked on console games and now PC strategy games. It just so happens that I, like a lot of people was a WH fan when I was younger and this has really inspired me and brought back the memories I had and it's gotten me back into painting! Lizard men and Chaos and all sorts that I've been painting. And playing too! We've got our own gaming room. In developing this game we've gone right back to basics, to the rules and playing the game and that has really opened our eyes to what tactics we should be employing, which units we take, which ones sadly we can't do because they've created so much stuff, we can only do some of it.
It's been really enjoyable and it's not just me, there have been so many people in all different teams, art, programming, animation that you can really see the love for the game that they've put into it. It's really a dream IP.
W: Never a 40k player then no?
RA: I was! I did like my space wolves!
W: So any chance in talking to GW and telling them that's next up for you guys?
RA: Well our sister studio in Vancouver do a fantastic job making the Dawn of War series.
W: But a Total War: 40k...
RA: Well who knows you know? Let's see how this one goes.
W: Anything else that you want to say to the readers?
RA: I guess just that we're out on the 24th of May so pretty soon and fun times ahead!