Total War: Arena is coming along nicely. The joint project between Creative Assembly (developer) and Wargaming (publisher) is currently in closed beta, bringing to life multiplayer battles set in ancient times, with Greek, Roman, and Barbarian armies doing battle, thousands of men to a side, across the blood-soaked battlefields of a bygone era.
What could make such battles even more entertaining? Why, samurai and guns, of course!
Those were just a couple of the topics discussed during my recent visit to Wargaming America, where I met with Creative Assembly’s Joshua Williams. His business card describes his post as “Developer Communications.” I think it should read, “Unabashed History Nut,” based on his obvious passion for the days of yore, which was clearly evident in his discussion of Arena and how CA is adapting its flagship franchise for a competitive audience.
A general interest
In our introductory group session with Williams, he went into fantastic detail about Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the new Roman commander in Arena. He was a badass among badasses, who worked his men to the brink of exhaustion and whose siege of Athens in 87 BC was so complete, he had the Athenians eating shoe leather and grass to stay alive. Apparently, they hadn’t invented Greek yogurt yet.
In the game, Sulla’s brutality and skill at siege works is represented in his three abilities: Fortify, which increases a unit’s defenses over time; Whip, which increases a unit’s abilities while decreasing its morale; and Proscription, an AoE ability that causes all units – friendly and enemy – to take a penalty to their melee attack. Popular guy, that Sulla.
In the larger sense, Williams also spoke briefly about the reasoning behind Total War: Arena, and why Creative Assembly decided that now was the right time for a proper multiplayer version of its franchise title, which had enjoyed great success as a (mostly) single-player entity for nearly two decades.
“People really loved the Shogun 2 Avatar Combat system. That made us decide that we’d needed to do something, we need to make a multiplayer Total War because they really want it.”
“People really loved the Shogun 2 Avatar Combat system,” he said. “That made us decide that we’d needed to do something, we need to make a multiplayer Total War because they really want it. They want to play against each other in a really balanced environment. We found a demand for something we didn’t know was there.”
The demand comes from all sectors of gaming, from single-player Total War veterans to the competitive multiplayer PvP crowd. Creating a game to appeal to those varied audiences represents a significant challenge for Creative Assembly. “We start off by making it very easy to get into,” Williams said, describing how players start with very few abilities which ramp up as commanders and units increase in level and complexity. Casual players might stick at those earlier tiers – which I can say from experience still provide some pretty solid battles and tactical decisions – but the more competitive types will be able to move on and find greater challenge. “It takes a lot of skill when you’re at tier six and beyond to be able to play well. That’s where the hardcore PvP players are going to find their element.”
Wait, did we say “skill” and “hardcore”? That can only mean one thing: e-sports! That was a larger focus during Arena’s initial rollout, nearly two years ago, so I asked Williams if organized, competitive play was something that was still in the works – especially now that Creative Assembly is partnered with Wargaming, which has a robust competitive scene for World of Tanks.
“We’d want there to be a demand for it first,” he told me. “We’ve seen a lot of games come out that say ‘We are an e-sports game,’ and they failed because of that. You’ve got to build up a community that trusts you first and trusts that you’re able to handle an e-sport responsibly, and that’s when you start to transition over to it.
“We are starting to hear whispers of that. I’ve been given a few business cards of tournament people, so it’s something we’re aware of and we talk about, and it’s the question of how we would implement that, how we would support that. We have to wait and see, when we let more players in, if enough of them believe that there’s a need for an e-sport there. We don’t want to force anything.”
Guns vs. Greeks?
Speaking of “forcing” things, I had to ask Williams about something I thought I’d heard way back around Arena’s initial reveal that seemed a little out of place. While the current roster of units all date from roughly the same time period – give or take a few centuries – were there plans to include soldiers across many different eras and different Total War games, such as samurai or even gunpowder units, like those featured in Empire: Total War?
Turns out, it was revealed at Tokyo Game Show last month that Japanese armies would be added to the game at some point. While some may bristle at the mere theoretical notion of samurai fighting Romans, a bigger concern is how such units would interact. There’s a big difference between a honed steel katana and the weapons and armor worn by soldiers over a millennium earlier in Europe – not to mention the impact of muskets and cannons – so I asked Williams how such elements could be balanced.
“We understand that we’ve really dug ourselves a hole by saying we want to do different eras, but that’s a hole we were absolutely willing to dig, and we’ve got some good ideas of how to tackle it.”
He laughed and said, “Well, you’ve asked the right person. I had to do a lot of research into the history of metals, so I know a lot about how we would balance different kinds of metals. But it’s like how we did, for example, the Greeks would use bronze and the Romans would have their steel armor, which bronze would have a very difficult time against. With the Japanese, that’s something we’re working out, but maybe it’s something like having the Japanese be a more aggressive version of the Romans, because they have that superior weaponry but didn’t use shields.
“It’s things like that, where we always work from history. We understand that we’ve really dug ourselves a hole by saying we want to do different eras, but that’s a hole we were absolutely willing to dig, and we’ve got some good ideas of how to tackle it. It’s something we’ll balance more through gameplay than through history.”
And don’t worry: Williams confirmed that the game would be 100% historical in nature, so units from the Warhammer universe wouldn’t be included in Arena. Sorry to those of you looking to test your Roman armies against dwarves or lizardmen.
Other entries in the “we’ve thought about that but don’t have solid plans for” category Williams told me included some form of a campaign map and clans. “We’d like to have a bigger ‘meta’ system where players would work with their friends, work with their clans, and have that kind of persistent territory.” That’s likely quite a ways down the line, though, so don’t put the war chariot in front of the horse.
Brothers in battle
Given the two companies’ backgrounds, Creative Assembly’s alliance with Wargaming seemed like a natural fit. Right from the start, Arena seemed to “feel” like a “World of” game in terms of its progression system. According to Williams, both entities have benefited from the partnership – especially for a company that had never produced a F2P online game.
“The free-to-play space was completely new to us. We knew we wanted Total War: Arena to be free-to-play because we wanted as many people to play it as possible. The first year, we learned a lot on the go. We had to develop entirely new departments to cope with things we didn’t even know were an issue: a live ops team, for example, to make sure everything was running.
“They’re teaching us so much about the free-to-play space, and this is the first big game that they’re publishing [under Wargaming Alliance], so we’re both learning a lot, in a very positive way.”
“When we met with the Wargaming guys … I think it’s obvious that their passion for history really matches ours. We instantly clicked and they really understood our vision for the game. They understand that space really well, so we thought that we’d love to be able to take that knowledge and combine it with our passion for history, so whenever we’d come into a roadblock, we could turn to them and ask, ‘How did you do that?’ They’re teaching us so much about the free-to-play space, and this is the first big game that they’re publishing [under Wargaming Alliance], so we’re both learning a lot, in a very positive way.”
There’s still a long ways to go before Total War: Arena is ready for release – Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. I voiced some of my quibbles regarding progression speed and various numbers, to which Williams provided the standard “It’s still in beta and things can change” response. It’s a good thing Sulla isn’t in charge of development. He’d get things done more quickly but would probably run afoul of HR.
Wargaming America covered the costs of my trip to visit their offices for purposes of writing this interview.