Mike Simpson is creative director of the Total War series and has been there from the start, as producer of its inceptive game, Shogun: Total War. He continues to supervise both design and production, and has recently ordered some interesting ventures into free-to-play and mobile. Perhaps less of a risk, given how much perfect sense it made, was the collaboration with Games Workshop for the series's foray into fantasy, which has since paid off in spectacular fashion. We got the chance to speak with him about the future of Total War, and the impact that Total War: Warhammer's success will have on that future.
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PCGamesN: What prompted the decision to relaunch Total War: Warhammer as a physical edition?
It’s something we do quite commonly. We take a bunch of improvements and other gubbins - and the game will have changed quite a lot from when it started to that point, because one of the unusual things about Total War games is that they stay on sale for a very long time, so it’ll be around for ages - so it’s worth packaging up as a new thing, saying this is kind of 'the final edition'.
I’d like to ask about the timeline for the rest of the Warhammer trilogy. I understand you won’t be able to talk extensively about this, but we know the next historical Total War is in pre-production and due in a couple of years’ time. Is the Warhammer trilogy scheduled to finish before then?
That’s a cunning question, and I probably shouldn’t answer that, because we’ve learned through harsh experience not to promise stuff before we’re absolutely certain we’re gonna deliver it, and we’re fairly early in the process so far. It’s looking good, but no, we’ll get to the announcement in due course and at that point we’ll be sure what we’re doing. But up until then things can get swapped round and things can change, so it’s best not to promise.
Turning to your other Total War properties, we've just heard of your partnership with Wargaming on Arena, which was scheduled to release in 2016 last we heard...
It has been at various times...
Is that still on course?
Depends what you mean by "release". We’ve had one round of closed betas where we learned an awful lot, to the point where we decided we were gonna make some fairly major changes and we closed it down, and we spent some time doing that stuff, and we’re now ready to start that process again.
It’s as long as a piece of string: we go through a number of phases and you don’t move to the next until you’re ready. It’s quite different to developing a boxed product from that point of view. So we could stay in open beta for however long it takes before we say it’s officially “ready”. So again, that stuff will get announced in due course as it becomes clear.
Total War Battles: Kingdom was your venture into mobile, but it's also free-to-play on Steam. What's next for that property?
Kingdom has been an interesting experiment for us. We had two goes on mobile, I think Kingdom was a really good game, I don’t think we could’ve done much better. But, things changed a lot between when we started and when we released that game. When we started, it was the height of the free-to-play “boom” on mobile, and what you’d find is, at that point, when players had a choice between paying for something or having a go for free on free-to-play, they’d choose the free-to-play, and you’d get ten times as many people going down the free-to-play route.
So all you needed to do is put a good game out there and people would come. By the time we finished, everything on that platform, more or less, was free-to-play... So instead of being able to put your game out there and have ten times as many come, you’d put your game out there and one times as many people would come. So from many points of view, free-to-play stopped working for new entrants into the market.
If you want to be successful, there are successful publishers in free-to-play still, but they generally have millions of people as a captive ecosystem that they can move from one game to the next, and they spend vast amounts of money to do that. So it’s a very different environment to when we started. And it was just an experiment which we enjoyed, we enjoyed making the game, it’s been fun, but we’re probably not gonna do that again for a while.
When you talk about the things you’ve learned from Total War: Warhammer, and how they might affect future Total War games, we heard that factions might differ on the strategic level a little more, or their unit rosters might differ, with capabilities changing from faction to faction. Do you have a sense for how that works in an historical context yet?
It’s obviously not as easy to see how that works in an historical context...
Because the world’s militaries have tended to coalesce around a uniform set of effective tactics?
There is that, there’s also the fact that everybody in history tends to be human, as a starting point...
Yeah, probably should’ve gone there first.
So yes, there are not obvious differences, where one faction for example won’t have money, but will have something else instead. That kind of thing, generally speaking, is harder to do, but I think we will find ways to create differences like that - maybe not quite as extreme as that - because one thing about Total War is there are many, many different game cores in the campaign side. It’s not just about regions gaining income, which you spend on buildings, which make units, which go out and conquer regions. That’s the core of it, but on top of that you get all the extra things like politics, technologies, skills, traits, retinues, characters and so on. So there are many many layers layered on top, and I can imagine some factions having a strongly different flavour to one of those secondary cores.
It sounds like asymmetries won’t be as extreme as in fantasy.
I think we can probably get close. It’s not as obvious as to how you might do that, but I think, functionally, we can get close. The rules of the game are an abstraction of the real world, and by doing a slightly different abstraction for a different faction, you can change it.
So is asymmetry the next big thing in Total War going forward?
I think it’s one of them. There are other things that we’d like - there are things we always try and do, we’re always trying to push forward on a number of different fronts, and it’s hard to say which one’s gonna end up being the biggest thing. Could be anything. Could be performance. Could be fun, that’s another aspect that we think a lot about.
Fun. We’ve been thinking a lot recently about the difference between enjoyment and fun, where fun is the non-cerebral side of enjoying yourself.
I guess that would be the difference between seeing a dragon firebomb an enemy unit, and pulling off a clever tactical manoeuvre.
Exactly. Another good example in Total War is chasing down routers, right? That’s fun. It doesn’t actually achieve a great deal, you could just end the battle and you’d get pretty much the same result, but it’s fun. That’s the kind of thing where we think about, OK, how do we make the game more fun, particularly at the beginning. It’s one of the several things that we have on our list of things that we’ll get to.
Accessibility would be another, making it easier to get into the game. Performance is also something we always look at. The whole depth-versus-breadth tradeoff, that’s another thing, because we obviously want players to keep finding stuff as they’re playing the game. One of the things I like to do in Total War is to have some of the stuff a little bit varied, so that even if you’ve been playing for a hundred hours, you’ll be playing a game and you’ll go “wow, never seen that before”.
So there are a number of different lines like that that we’re always pushing along, and sometimes it’s unpredictable which one will end up being the strongest new thing in a particular game.
To round things off, just so we understand the Total War products that are going forward: there’s fantasy, which may or may not go in parallel with historical, and Arena, and Kingdom as well? Are all of them being sustained into the long-term or are some more permanent than others?
I think the only one that we’re certainly gonna take a pause on for a while would be the mobile stuff. I don’t think we’re immediately planning to do anything new there. But there are many, many other parallel opportunities as well. We’ve always had this, but we’ve always been limited mainly by time, space and the number of people we have, but now we have more capability, so we can consider more stuff. There are plenty of parallel opportunities.
And on that tantalising note, our time is up. I thank Mike and am left to wander the halls of Creative Assembly, wondering what those "parallel opportunities" might be. It's clear that Total War: Warhammer's success has filled CA not only with ideas, but with the money and the confidence to pursue them.
We don't yet know where those ideas will lead beyond Warhammer, but it's this kind of talk that makes me think the next historical game will be the Total War to end Total War, if you know what I mean.