When Total War: Warhammer 3 game director Ian Roxburgh first joined Creative Assembly as a marketing manager around two decades ago, he had a problem to solve: how to explain to an audience what Total War is all about. “You play this giant sandbox, and as you’re playing it, it’s all very generic. But if you keep proper notes on it, some of the most incredible storylines develop. That’s one thing we’re going to want to do more and more of in the future. The storytelling thing is something we’re going to keep on developing – massively. But – and I’m saying this to the fans – don’t worry! There will always be sandbox gameplay in a Total War game. That’s absolutely sacrosanct.”
It’s hard to argue with that. A few months back, Creative Assembly released the first iteration of Immortal Empires, the most content-rich strategy sandbox in gaming. The combination of three ‘tentpole’ releases – as the team calls them – alongside numerous pieces of DLC and free updates, it’s been a long time in the making. Continued inspiration for such a wide-reaching project might be hard to come by in any other setting, but when Roxburgh and the team first sat down to put their newly acquired Warhammer licence to good use, they had the opposite problem: How do you fit such an expansive world into the traditional Total War format?
“We sat down, we started looking at the massive amount of content and lore. We wanted to do everything. Ultimately, people are going to want to play this world with everything in it. But there’s no way you can do that in [one] game and do that justice, either from a Total War or a Warhammer lore perspective. We’ll need to do at least two or three games, and even that won’t be enough!” Eventually, the trilogy was decided on, with Immortal Empires as a long-term goal, to give dedicated fans a free reward for sticking with the trilogy – the Warhammer world, fully realised.
“It was baby steps,” says DLC director Rich Aldridge. “When we started this project, so many of us were just diehard Warhammer nuts. Even if we hadn’t played for a while. It was amazing seeing everyone bringing their armies out of their old shoe boxes and stuff. We got more ambitious with the trilogy as we went on. It was almost like testing the water with Mortal Empires.” And having that end goal offered endless opportunities for iteration, but with that comes its own challenge: what to prioritise now, and what to save for later, as the final map started to take shape?
“We never felt that we were bare bones initially. It felt massive at the time. It just got even more massive as time went on,” says Roxburgh. “We would have loved to have done minor settlement battles for game one. But the art cost was astronomic, to the point where we would have had to redo the art and the pipelines. At the end of the day, we’ve got a timeline and a budget, and we can’t do everything.”
“‘The hardest meeting I had was when we were discussing Warhammer 1 rosters,” says Aldridge, “and we were discussing Vampire Counts, and there was just so much choice. We knew we couldn’t do it all. But I took inspiration from that going forward. I find it rewarding that we know there’s more to come. We can start talking to our fanbase. We can start drip-feeding little things in there: in the names, the background descriptions, the loading screen quotes. We just want to flesh out the Warhammer world as much as possible.”
“We approach it like history,” says Roxburgh. “We don’t go: ‘here’s a load of design things we want to do in a Total War game, but the lore doesn’t support it.’ We start from the other way round. Let’s understand the lore and this world first. We played tabletop. Read the books. Absorbed ourselves in the world. Then: let’s design a game in this spirit.
“There are plenty of times when we’ve thought the lore doesn’t really support what we need to work,” he continues. “And that involved having a really good relationship with Games Workshop. There’s times where we’ve been like, ok, I know ideally you didn’t do this from your perspective, but we really need the game to work this way. And they’ll be happy to budge because they trust us.”
“We love the grey areas in the lore,” says Aldridge. “What I mean by that is not everything is necessarily depicted by GW. We read the army books and supplements top to bottom and ask questions. And those become the inspiration certainly for the early DLCs, Belegar being a prime example. There was a bit in his lore about how he’d go to his ancestors to pull on their strengths, so that inspired his ancestors being represented by ghost dwarfs.”
To compare the surge in players Warhammer 3 has seen since the release of Immortal Empires with the revival of Belegar’s ghostly ancestors might be overdramatic (and probably worth a grudgin’), it’s hard to ignore the wave of community positivity – and Steam review scores – that has followed in the megamap’s wake. Content is always welcome, of course, but IE brought with it another shift from Creative Assembly – a huge amount of information and transparency following a months-long period of relative quiet.
“The developers would love to tell you everything about it because they’re super excited about what they’re making. But obviously, we have to say the right things at the right time,” says Aldridge. “It did feel like a good opportunity to, with the post-content support, reiterate our desires. It’s hard making games. It’s not an easy task. There are setbacks and challenges, but we look to overcome them, and we look to take inspiration from our communities. That’s why we’re always open in saying: we want to hear about the good, so we can make more of the good. We want to hear about the bad, so we can either fix that or move away from that. The feeling among the team was we’d like to be more transparent and open going forward. We’d like people to understand what it is we’re trying to do.”
Going forward, then, it seems transparency is something the team is committed to upholding as new releases and changes follow. And it sounds like part of those changes might involve a whole new type of expansion for the trilogy, first tested with Immortal Empires’ endgame crises.
“Our vision, our mantra for it, was to have a suite of options, and let you as the player choose which ones you wanted to interact with, or even turn them all off,” says Aldridge. “We’ve obviously pretty much put all landmasses into the game in WH3. We’re probably not going to be increasing the map in size in those directions. Within it, we will absolutely reshape things, tinker with it, add depth, add challenge, and the endgames were just a first effort at trying to do that, and give people a different experience.”
“There’s absolutely no reason why going forward we may not do the kind of things where you have a pack of endgame challenges, or something that you can buy as a DLC to freshen up that experience within Immortal Empires,” says Roxburgh. “There’s room to think about some more off-the cuff DLC, to put some more gameplay in there rather than just churning out new models.”
New models, though, are still all but guaranteed. A fan-favourite speculation at the moment is an expansion based on the much-beloved Tamurkhan: The Throne of Chaos campaign supplement for the tabletop game, and the gargantuan, gangrenous toad dragons it contains. But Games Workshop’s supplements are also known for advancing the narrative of the setting, and with the sandbox of Immortal Empires being CA’s prime focus going forward, is there still room for these sort of big narrative milestones?
“It’s what Ian set out to do on Warhammer 2,” says Aldridge. “To bring some of that in that we didn’t have quite so much of in Warhammer 1. We try to find that right balance where we try to bring the lore to the forefront for people to enjoy – I knew that when we did The Warden and the Paunch. That’s a great story from the lore of Eltharion and Grom that we had to tell. There’s also the opportunity for players to make their own stories, but (a structured narrative) certainly has a place. We know a lot of people really enjoy it, so I think you’ll get to see some more.”
“There’s a lot of stuff we’ve learnt from Warhammer 2 and 3 about narrative and sandbox that we’ll take forward in the next stage,” says Roxburgh, “and possibly experiment with, over time with DLCs. It’s something we’re committed to getting right. Evolving and improving with all manner of games, not just Warhammer. It’s something we know a lot of people enjoy alongside their sandbox.”
If you’re after more Warhammer then we’ve got a roundup of the best Warhammer games on PC, plus guides covering the best Total War: Warhammer 3 mods and a roundup of all the Total War: Warhammer 3 DLC. It’s no secret that we’re just a little bit in love with this series, so check for more news, guides, and features.