I met Creative Assembly’s James Russell and Gabor Beressy on the last day of GDC at a convention center cafe underneath Moscone North. Both men had the worn look I’d seen on most media and developers that day, the toll of five days of meetings, sessions, and interviews. After a weary greeting, the three of us slumped at a table for our last interview of GDC, while all around us workers were tearing down exhibits and overeager security guards started shooing loiterers toward the exits.
Russell is the lead designer for the Total War series, while Beressy is the series’ lead multiplayer designer and the point man on Total War: Arena. Worried we were about to be thrown out by security, I got right to the point: “So the problem I’m having is: I don’t really get how Total War: Arena is going to work.”
They nodded. That’s the problem they’re facing. It’s not easy to explain how the Total War formula can be adapted to a MOBA, and anxious Total War fans are reading their own worries into the news about Arena. Russell and Beressy wanted to set things straight.
Several times during our conversation, Russell talked a lot about taking Total War’s multiplayer “to the next level”. While he and Beressy are fond of the multiplayer campaigns in the most recent Total War games, and the competitive online mode in Shogun 2, they think both are inaccessible to many potential players. The chief problem, as they see it, is the investment of time it takes to fight even a single classic Total War battle against another person, to say nothing of a full campaign.
“Total War is quite intimidating 1v1,” Russell said. “It’s cool and we want to keep that, but Arena is something different. It’s about having that team based, fast-paced gameplay. It’s also about giving you the opportunity to cooperate in a faster-paced environment. We want to have a much bigger community for multiplayer, with really balanced matchmaking. So we want to make it free-to-play.”
Beressy likes the incrementalism that the free-to-play model offers. While he has huge ambitions for Total War: Arena, he knows an idea like this will take a long time to mature and tune.
“Balance is not something we can achieve [at first],” he said. “It has to be part of ongoing support for the game. With this kind of approach, we can do that. We can continuously add content and try for higher and higher quality as the game evolves.”
I pointed out that while MOBAs are popular right now (and perhaps fast-approaching oversaturation), RTS-style MOBAs have historically had problems. World in Conflict might be the closest example to what Creative Assembly are trying to do, and while it was well-reviewed, it never really caught on as a major multiplayer game. For whatever reason, players seem to resist MOBAs that break from the model Dota helped established.
Russell and Beressy have given World in Conflict a fair amount of thought, as it turns out. Beressy was a big fan of World in Conflict multiplayer and wants to re-create some of its team-based tactical play. But Russell pointed out that the problem with games like World in Conflict is that they sometimes play a bit too much like a compromised RTS.
“When you are doing this combined arms through cooperation, I think what you have to do is you have to have a closer, tighter, more action-oriented design,” he explained. “I think there’s a danger of just keeping the same RTS mechanics that you use when you’re controlling a big group, and just sort of effectively making it about cooperation. But you’re not actually deepening the gameplay when you’re just in control of a smaller group.”
In his GDC presentation, Russell mentioned the importance of taking the actions-per-minute of a full-scale Total War battle, controlling a mixed army of 20 units across a sprawling battlefield, and adapting it to a MOBA scale where you are only in control of two or three units. While the focus is narrower, the skill-cap has to be the same or higher for Arena to succeed. Russell and Beressy think they’ve figured out how to do that.
Micro from macro
The heart of Total War: Arena is a single group of troops led by a particular historical commander. The exact size of the group is still up for debate (three units is the size Russell and Beressy cited most often), but the main idea is that players will have to specialize and work together in order to succeed on the battlefield. The commander, who could be a character like Hannibal, Boudicca, or maybe even Napoleon, will provide certain bonuses and abilities to the units under his or her command. As the units and commander gain experience, they will unlock new abilities, equipment, and other upgrades.
They don’t want these roles and specialized abilities to feel like a straitjacket, however. “You might have a commander who is really great at buffing the morale of his troops and he gives buffs to spearmen or something. That kind of thing. So he might make for a good kind of defensive, tanking unit,” Russell told me. “But you don’t want to say that this commander is only about that, and you only have access to those types of units. We want to give the player the freedom to create different combinations. Players will find all kinds of combinations we never imagined. ...There’s all these emergent strategies we hope to see, and if we restrict it and say, ‘This commander is about archers, and you’ll play with archers,’ we’re going to lose a lot of interesting gameplay.”
They envision that at the start of players’ Total War: Arena careers, they will tend to play more general roles so they can adapt to the needs of lower-level games and teams. But as they skill-up and start playing with other veterans, they’ll find themselves coordinating better and being able to specialize more. Suddenly you’re not just a cavalry commander, but you’re commanding light cavalry for recon, skirmishing, and pursuit, while another player commands heavy cavalry and an artillery commander uses your spotting data for targeting.
The cavalry example reminded me of another concern I had with Arena. In a typical Total War game, units can be nearly obliterated in a few minutes of hard combat, particularly light cavalry. All it takes is one charge getting picked off by a spear unit and your average cavalry unit is finished as an effective fighting force. It works in a typical Total War game, but it would be awful to find yourself sidelined in the opening seconds of combat in an Arena game.
Creative Assembly will solve that by making individual soldiers beefier in Total War: Arena. Where in classic Total War they can be cut down very quickly, individual Arena troopers will be able to sustain significantly more combat thanks to having more hitpoints. So while a mistake can still be costly, taking most of your soldiers down below half hitpoints, you will still have the numerical strength of a full unit. They’ll be more vulnerable and won’t tank well, but if you find a good opportunity to put them into action, they’ll still be an effective combat unit.
The more granular approach to hit points dovetails with Creative Assembly’s goal of giving players more to do with fewer units. In Total War: Arena, unlike in other Total War games, individual soldiers can be given orders directly, not just the entire unit. That way you can move weakened soldiers to the back while full-strength fighters take the shock of a charge, and then micro the stragglers around to the enemy flank.
“Or you can manually aim archers,” Beressay said. “You want to aim them at a certain place. Like if you’ve got a charge coming in from one direction, your archers can target that part of the unit. Your charge will probably be more effective because they’ll be more likely to kill the guys that have taken some damage from the archers.”
A lukewarm reception
“I’m sitting there in the session, and posting the announcement,” I told them. “And immediately I start getting replies from people. I was surprised how overwhelmingly negative they were. Immediately you hear the complaints about pay to win, Total War is dead - that kind of thing. And it struck me that Total War: Arena is at odds with a lot of your fanbase. It’s at odds with what Total War has always been about. So who is this for? Why’d you end up pursuing something so different?”
Russell nodded. “You know, there’s always going to be a spectrum of response,” he said. “Some of it is based around assumptions and fears that aren’t valid. The idea that it’s pay to win, or the idea that the core series is under threat. Which is not true. This is not a change in direction for the series. We’re passionate about single-player. We’re passionate about campaigns. We are going to keep making Total War games. This is something different. This is an opportunity to do something exciting and great in multiplayer that we haven’t been doing.
“Some people that don’t like multiplayer, that’s fine,” he continued, ticking off fingers. “People who fear it’s pay to win, they shouldn’t. And people who fear for the future of the series, they shouldn’t because we’re still committed to single player and campaigns.”
Beressy leaned forward, and added, “I’m reading the same things you are. It’s not a Dota clone. That’s not a valid fear. We need to clarify these things, and talk about these things. And it will change.”
A lot of the details of Arena are still in flux. Given that its development is taking place alongside Rome 2, it will probably launch with Roman Republic-era units or perhaps even something a little older, Russell said. They’re also not sure what kind of game modes they’ll support. Team play is one of the Arena team’s override goals, so they’re trying to design maps and game modes to force more cooperation and coordination.
But over time, Creative Assembly want to add more eras and units to Arena, until it eventually spans history. One of the things Russell loves is the idea of a Caesar battling a Wellington, or a Peter the Great fighting against Alexander the Great. Arena battles will be combats between dream teams of commanders and players’ custom units, and eventually you might see the best commanders of the Middle Ages leading lines of musketeers into battle.
As we finished our interview, driven out of the Moscone Center by an increasingly raucous game of Johann Sebastian Joust a few feet away, I asked about naval battles. There was a long hesitation as Russell glanced at Berresy, who was raising his eyebrows at Russell.
Finally, Beressy said, “For now we are focusing on land. We really have to focus on that to build up a community for a really amazing multiplayer experience. We will see.”
“Yeah, I understand,” I said. “Although I will say that with Fall of the Samurai, I thought you guys had probably done the best naval combat in the series. The weather effects and ship micromanagement really came together beautifully, it felt like a proper Age of Sail wargame.”
Russell got thoughtful. “That’s interesting you say that. Gabor here was the lead on naval combat for that game.”
“Well, it was fantastic,” I said. “It made me wish I could see just a navy-focused game out of you guys someday. It’ll probably never happen, but something where it’s just tall ships hunting each other at sea could be really fun.”
“Maybe like an arena battle,” offered Beressy with a smile.
“I’d be on board,” I said, grabbing my bag.
As I left, Beressy was giving Russell an arch look, as if he’d just won an argument.