It’s 8:03 on a Friday evening, and like any young and enviable media professional, I’m watching over a thousand gamers excitedly type Warhammer memes into a YouTube chat, waiting for a stream to begin. This isn’t an official stream from Games Workshop – a company so comfortable in its products’ worldwide popularity that it recently repaid millions of pounds of furlough stimulus. This isn’t even a new announcement from Total War: Warhammer studio Creative Assembly – a game whose dedicated fanbase and frequent official updates have secured it a near-constant place on Steam’s top 20 most played games.
If I’ve implied a level of journalistic detachment up until this point, it’s only fair to point out I’m just as excited as anyone else here, half tempted to join in as typed chants of faux-orcish “‘Ere We Go” fill the chat. In fifteen minutes’ time, the stream will be well underway. Its viewers – now nearly doubled in number – will have already donated over $400 toward the team responsible for this evening’s main event.
That main event? Well, it’s a mod. More specifically, the latest in a long history of updates to Total War: Warhammer 2’s most popular mod, SFO: Grimhammer II.
“SFO is all about choices and their consequences. Everything should have a price so rewards are more satisfying.”
All told, SFO makes hundreds of changes to TWW2, but this is how project lead Venris sums up the ethos behind the mod as a whole. Put simply, SFO turns Creative Assembly’s grand strategy game into a slower but richer experience. Hundreds of new buildings, character skills, unit abilities, and technologies all work towards making the game a more faithful recreation of its tabletop counterpart. Battles are longer, elite units are rarer but more powerful, magic is more impactful, and legendary lords are terrifying.
There’s a surge of excitement in the chat as the softly spoken, Polish-accented Venris enters, and, after some mic difficulties, begins to show off one of the update’s new features – a special iteration of the hulking orcish Rogue Idol, specific to orcish shaman Wurrzag. In tabletop, the Rogue Idol is exclusive to Games Workshop’s sister company Forgeworld, who offer lavish and expensive additions to an already lavish and expensive hobby. Its inclusion in Total Warhammer 2 speaks to Creative Assembly’s knack for digging up impressive oddities from the wider Warhammer world, like the Vampire Coast’s Necrofex Colossus, and adding jaw dropping translations of them as the centrepieces for its DLC.
The SFO team, for their part, have paid extra attention to integrating the stunning new model into their mod, and the stream seems impressed. Gameplay overhaul mods, though all undeniably impressive achievements, aren’t exactly uncommon. To have this sort of communal event centre on an update to such a mod, though, feels unique, exciting, and very special.
Speaking from the home in Poland he shares with his wife and young son, Venris tells me how he joined the modder Steel Faith in 2017 as part of the SFO team. Until this point, Venris was involved in making submods for TWW, alongside games like Skyrim and Mount and Blade. He is, in his own words, a ‘mod addict’, who’ll often “waste four hours searching for mods and play for one.” When Steel Faith himself moved on, Venris took over as project lead.
Aside from the creative changes and maintenance to the project as a whole, each major update from Creative Assembly means more work for the SFO team, who are wholly supported by donations from a passionate community. It’s a huge amount of work. A recent devlog on Twitter attests to the hundreds of hours spent on the latest update alone.
“I always take a long vacation after such big updates, and mod only one to two hours a day to fix bugs. Normally I mod around eight to twelve hours a day.”
Alongside the various changes are hundreds of new hero abilities Venris has personally worked on for the update. Although Venris himself puts in a huge amount of the actual coding, he isn’t alone.
“Of course as I am doing 90% of modding work I make a lot of mistakes. Other people help with those and also calm my temper – some of the ideas I have are rather crazy.”
Besides Venris, there’s a text team working on lore and descriptions, and a balance team to test out changes. The main team consists of Venris and a few other modders and artists. Venris puts the current number at around ten, although that’s frequently changing. “Modding is quite hard,” he adds, “and not many stay for long.”
At least the hard work doesn’t go unnoticed. The main SFO mod currently sits comfortably at over a quarter of a million subscribers, not to mention the various submods, all supported by a community as staunchly loyal as a line of high elven spears. Venris, for his part, stays humble about the whole thing, praising Creative Assembly’s latest efforts with the Warden and the Paunch update. Although many of the new changes to SFO have gone towards tempering what many view as an overzealous Greenskin buff – “Goblins killing dragons at turn 20 are much too much” – Venris himself tells me that “no mod will ever be better than dedicated developer content.”
“Overall I am a perfectionist, I always want to have everything done 100%. When I am focused on working, the outside world doesn’t exist. It’s very important for me because many people are waiting for my work – I don’t want to fail them.”
“Two things SFO does really well are spectacle and scale,” Total War content creator Indypride tells me. “The battles are larger, there are more crazy spells and abilities, and it can be more cinematic to watch.”
It’s channels like Indypride’s own milkandcookiesTW that help introduce the game – and mods like SFO – to a whole new audience. With a thorough knowledge of the game’s intricacies, mixed with a sports commentator’s charismatic flair, Indypride puts out a regular schedule of addictive, informative, and thoroughly entertaining battle reports. Not only do channels like his reinforce a sense of community, but they also help change the perception of the game from an impenetrable, stat-laden strategy monolith to the exciting, detailed, and often utterly ridiculous fantasy romp its fans know it to be.
“I’ve always felt like modding is a great way to extend the life cycle of games, and so when I learned of the vision and scope for [SFO] I felt it would be good content and variety for the channel.” A finger on the pulse of both the competitive community and an ever-evolving vanilla experience also means he’s in a great position to provide feedback for Venris and the SFO team.
“SFO has evolved quite a bit since the Warhammer 1 days. It started out relatively hands-off and reserved for an ‘overhaul’ mod, but as time has gone on and the mod changed hands from Steel Faith to Venris, it’s expanded in size and scope to reevaluate almost every single element of the game. Pretty much any feature or mechanic you can think of has been reshaped and reworked in some capacity.”
Venris himself jokes that, despite previously playing a lot of competitive Starcraft, he’s “too old and slow for multiplayer right now”. This is where feedback from competitive players like Indypride come in.
“With the amount of work Venris puts into the mod and how massive it is, it’s easy for things to slip under the radar. And this is one of the nice things about working with a mod creator, because modders can implement changes and listen to feedback much more quickly and in a much more hands-on way than developers like Creative Assembly. They have much less red tape to cut through, but also less quality assurance as well, so it’s a double-edged sword.”
Indypride attributes SFO’s popularity to “turning the “Warhammer flavour” up to 11.”
“Warhammer is already an extremely over-the-top setting, and SFO takes the gloves off and pushes this idea even further by making each race feel more unique,” the YouTuber says. “Speed and long ranged killing power with AP characterise the Wood Elves for example, and SFO makes their fast units faster, their killy units even killier, and their archers more accurate and more deadly. This is true for every race in SFO really – whatever characteristics make them special, SFO amplifies them.”
Part way through the stream, Venris takes a break from answering questions and bantering with the chat to show the work that other contributors have put into the project, including exhaustive spreadsheets full of lore text (“All praise to the text team.”) Then, he goes through the balance team’s contributions, crediting them for “tempering his crazy ideas”.
Afterwards, he introduces two other members of the SFO team to the chat – Honey Bunny and WestonSammy – and makes allusions to them taking more active community roles when Venris himself moves on to other projects. It’s clear the SFO project, for all the hard work by individuals, has reached heights of popularity that are far bigger than any one of them. And, for all its dedication to the fictional lore of Warhammer Fantasy, it’s clear that for a large part of the community, SFO has become an essential part of the Total War: Warhammer experience in itself.