Warhammer 40K: Eternal Crusade lead producer Nathan Richardson on new factions, balancing, and scaling ambitions

Warhammer 40K eternal crusade interview

In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of Games Workshop titles coming to PC this year. Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade is one of them, and it’s probably the most ambitious of the lot. A massive, Battlefield-like third-person shooter set in a persistent world where battles result in gaining or losing territory – and thus power – in an endless meta-campaign for control of the planet Arkhona.

Related: check out our hands-on impressions of Warhammer 40K: Eternal Crusade.

After four years of tumultuous production, during which time that ambition has been scaled back, the game is nearing its full release on an as-yet unconfirmed date this year. As such, we had some questions for Lead Producer Nathan Richardsson on how the game’s shaping up, what’s coming in the future months and what struggles the team have faced along the way.

Eternal Crusade interview

PCGamesN: What’s the state of the PC build right now, and how far are you off release?

Nathan Richardsson: Content-wise it’s all the same [between PC and console]. We’re using Unreal 4 and it’s all built from the same branch. Essentially, what we’re doing now, because we’ve been developing it as a PC build for a long time, is we’re taking all the quirks of the consoles and ironing those out. More or less it’s all in the same place. Post-processing has been more of a problem on console if you compare the two right now. Some features require more memory and the consoles can be quite picky about how they use memory. It’s minor things, but it’s a continuous process: one build might be bad and another might be pretty good. The last build we had, the only thing was fixing the Heavy Bolter because of the performance issues that it was causing everything else. There are dedicated teams just making sure the unified Unreal build is working well across PC, Xbox and PS4.

The game has changed a lot since it was first announced. The overall concept used to be one of an MMO and now it’s split somewhat between the meta-game and the actual boots-on-the ground gameplay…

Absolutely, I mentioned before that we’re more like a traditional MMO-FPS, except that we’re going a bit further than those. There’s Crossfire in Asia, they made $1.6 billion last year so they would be classified as the largest MMO-FPS. We have more massive elements than they have like the persistent world thing. But first and foremost we have to be a good shooter, and that’s why we started there. Now we’re adding the MMO elements afterwards because without a good shooter we’re nothing.

About the things that have changed – I joined a year and a half ago, and the first thing we did was go over the scope. There was technology that had failed at that time, which we brought in and there were a lot of issues with the concept. We took it from being impossible to being possible, but of course there was a lot of sacrifice in the process.

We’ve been trying to message that out in the last 18 months. Everybody could have gotten refunded if they had wanted to, so we thought [let’s] at least be transparent about finally having that direction. When it came to having the choice of refunding, not very many did. We had a change when we went to Steam because Steam has entirely different policies, but it’s only affected our rating. We have a much higher population since going to Steam and they recently changed their review system so that you can basically buy the game, play it for two hours and get it reimbursed – so people are like, “Oh, wow, thank you”. There’s a lot less investment behind a lot of the reviews, but fortunately we’re still doing good.

Eternal Crusade heavy bolter

The part that’s doing less good is the new 30-day review. That’s a result of recent performance problems with Unreal 4 and AMD, they don’t really want to work together. We’re getting past those and of course at the same time we’re adding [content]. Our last patch added the Eldar as a faction, added three new massive sub-factions – like the systems themselves – which had been in the works for many months. Now they’re finally being populated with content.

I think what people are about to see is maybe more than a materialisation of what we call the mix of third-person shooter which is also massively online with a persistent universe. I think that will give people a much better idea of where we want to go, but also give them more opportunity to affect that direction and where we end up going.

What inspired the persistent world? Was it a result of the nature of the Warhammer universe, or were there particular games you wanted to pull from?

That happened a long time before my arrival here. I think the total development time is about four years now. With me coming in a year and a half ago: a lot happened before that. But, there was Dark Millennium Online, which was going to be an MMO, and Warhammer fantasy had an MMO. There was simply a lot of demand for an MMO in the 40K universe. So then we put some thought into what that would actually be like. The first model that was made looked like PlanetSide 2/Skyrim/Eve Online… well, you can imagine. We simplified that to get where we are now. It’s not like we have given up on all of those systems – we are continually evolving the game.

I come from EVE Online myself, and EVE has been going on for 12 years and a large part of that was free expansions. So all of that stuff which was already happening at Behaviour was quite natural to me. I think that for us, launch is just one more milestone in the road to the future. As an example of how much, we’re going to evolve onwards is that we’ve only determined the first expansion, which is three months after launch, and that’s the Terminator equivalents. Each faction has their own equivalent of the Terminators, this huge unit that’s bigger than most guys out there. A lot of what we do afterwards is going to be determined by what happens in the game – feedback and what we feel the game needs at a certain point of time.

Eternal Crusade heavy

Can you tell me about any extra factions that might be coming to the game?

We’ve got five factions at the moment, including Tyranids which are the NPC faction, but there isn’t much difference in adding the foundation for another NPC faction vs a player faction. Yes, we want to add one more faction and a lot of sub-factions, Space Marine chapters and so on because they are more straightforward. But we’d like to add more flavour to the chapters that are already there so they’re not just the same dudes in different spandex. It’s more likely going to come down to what happens during the campaigns, where we decide where to take the Games Workshop storyline, and then ask ourselves what this faction would be doing on the same planet. There’s not much room for five factions – or six factions with the Tyranids as well.

So yes we will, but in what form they appear, we haven’t decided yet. We have this concept of Heroes and they can come from different factions that are already there. If people ask after launch about adding Sisters of Battle, we’d love to, but they might end up being implemented as Heroes. Or we could do a faction that is more like the Imperium, which includes the Sisters of Battle, Sisters of Silence, the Inquisition and that as sub-chapters. So, we have that option of moving forward there, but we haven’t decided because we are so focussed on launch and what we do in the first three months after that.

Balancing must be a nightmare…

My balancers would probably take that as an understatement. Fortunately, what we got early on was one of my lead designers on EVE Online, and he’s used to balancing thousands and thousands of different items. That helps. On the other hand, this is a shooter so it’s not quite the same, because a gun can have anywhere between 50 and 100 variables – so it’s not as simple as tweaking the damage a little bit. Unreal is a long-running and powerful engine for shooters, so balancing the weapons is quite complex, but we have experience and direction. It’s why we’re looking at the basic classes first, weapons for each faction, then making variations of those in terms of specs, and then getting more funky with the tweaking of Heroes and stuff like that.

We have this notion that only specific classes can capture a point, so if we say that you’re a Hero and a difference is that you also can capture a point, that’s a certain advantage, but it’s nothing much. It simply allows you different gameplay but also to capture. It’s good that we have so many options but we’re actually doing a huge rebalancing sweep right now because of how many weapons and abilities we’ve been adding. It was due time to look out at the whole spectrum, especially because Eldar are now in and the Orks are coming next. Is it impossible? No. We can blow ourselves up, but it’s also a force in our favour that Space Marines and Chaos Space Marines are already in there and they have their traits and characteristics already determined. Some of these are actually quite comparable to the other races in terms of type of weapon. There’s a certain amount of wanting to hit the ground running for the new factions – it’s not something that worries me… but that doesn’t mean I don’t have nightmares about it. We’re progressing well.

[Two Space Marine cosplayers walk past the door, both taller than the frame]

Are we safe in here? Is the door locked?

Eternal Crusade ground assault

Considering it’s a shooter, there’s a lot of being attention shown to melee combat.

That’s very much from the lore. We are making a game that’s based on the lore, not the tabletop game, and the lore is just brimming with melee and close-up combat. We felt it was incredibly important that there was a good balance between melee and ranged weapons. It’s something that a lot of games aren’t doing, because where two guys might battle with melee it just takes one guy with a rocket launcher and the romanticisation of melee is gone. That being said, if anything we’ve had problems with melee being overpowered, so we actually have the reverse problem of what we thought we would have. We were going for 50/50 and we have metric tonnes of data about what killed who with what class and what weapon, we even have an evolutionary biologist going through all of that data who makes some pretty amazing graphs – the analysis that we get from that is that we can see the flaws in terms of balancing.

We’re getting closer and closer to melee being powerful but not overpowering. One thing is that having a ranged weapon, if you’re sensible you would try to keep your distance right, and that isn’t always the case and so some of the melee classes have been tough to take out. It’s as simple as that, but we’re addressing it. In the end it’s a big part of the lore, and for us it’s a big differentiating factor for us that sets us apart from others.

We’re going further too, we have Warlords on the battlefield, and they have a lot of different types of ordnance that can actually change the way the battle goes, whether that’s dropping in a drop-pod full of melee people, we don’t know. The thought of the commanders in Battlefield or Call of Duty doing anything like that, they have far more limited options than our Warlords. If you’re a Chaos Space Marine you can call upon Chaos and change the combat for everyone. So what we’re looking at now is the abilities like calling in a gunship, you wouldn’t be able to fly the ship but you’d have a couple of gunnery positions. Even there, while we’re looking at melee the Warhammer universe is full of massive destruction and weaponry so we somehow have to get some of that into there as well. We’re talking about the lore, and making this a shooter using the lore rather than the tabletop game.

Eternal Crusade raptor

Can you tell me more about the progression system? I understand it’s nearing completion.

It’s more like an unlocking system, but it’s also a mastery system. Factions will have different trees and then we will be adding more and more flavour between the factions overtime because the systems allow it. It’s not like in World of Warcraft where it’s a tree of abilities, it’s a hybrid of that. Because our balancing is very horizontal – it’s no fun having a guy come at you that’s ten times more powerful – what we’re seeing is it’s very skill-based.

What comes to you over time is more versatility within those classes. Yes, you’ll be able to get better weapons and accessories, but you’ll also be able to steer the class that you’re playing into a different direction rather than just thinking, “yay, I got the Raptor up to ten”. Instead, you can take your Raptor and fit him up for durability rather than firepower, or vice-versa, or a mix of that. There’s a certain element of mastery, but it’s also allowing you to take your class even further and closer to a play style you want to have, and that applies to all classes. So the tree for the Space Marines will have a lot of things in common, but some of them will be better for a Raptor rather than a Heavy Gunner, because one is trying to fly and the other is slow and heavy. There’s not going to be overlap between those two abilities.

The sub-factions between each race are all quite similar right now. They won’t be in the future, we’ll add more flavour. If we go faction vs faction, we’re aiming for an asymmetric balance. Chaos has a Sorcerer and Eldar has a Warlock and the Space Marines actually have a frontline medic, the Apothecary – you’ll see more over time, but right now we’re taking the core things from the lore – there was no way around the fact that there are a lot of things in common between the sub-factions, and some are very identical. We’re going for asymmetrical balancing, so faction vs faction is even, but not necessarily individual vs individual.

There are a lot of Warhammer games out, or in development, at the moment. Where do you see Eternal Crusade fitting into that mix?

We’re the only third-person shooter, which is massive, that’s entirely unique to us. Also there’s Deathwing, that’s an entirely different game, but we’re probably one of the few games which are actually going for a more massive, more long-term strategy rather than anything else. I think Total War: Warhammer [developers Creative Assembly] also have a similar strategy where they want to continue with the brand and add new factions. They are real-time strategy so they’re far, far away from us. The other games are on mobile, but there are more tactics in those than real-time gameplay.

Games Workshop have been really good at making sure there’s not a lot of overlap between the game coming out and if there is, they are still very specific and unique. Yes, we will have co-op but if you want 4-player co-op you are more likely to go to them [Space Hulk: Deathwing] rather than anything else. For us we will have a variety of co-op modes, they won’t be boring but maybe you won’t want the persistent-world and everything else.

How do you assess Eternal Crusade’s chances? Let us know below.