20 years ago, Creative Assembly launched Total War: Shogun, the first game in an epic strategy franchise that would come to define the company. Having spent a decade working largely on ports and licensed sport titles, the established studio decided to invest in creating its own IP – and the result now stands among the UK’s greatest ever gaming franchises.
To discuss the series’ history and its future direction, we caught up with Richard Aldridge, game director at Creative Assembly, who has been working at CA for fourteen years, with the majority of that time spent on the Total War franchise.
“When I started it was less than 100 people,” recalls Aldridge, “it was just outside Horsham, in a place called Southwater. The team was together in one building. And I remember fondly that we had a big to-do, and all went to the curry house. And that felt like quite the event.”
The headcount now is over 500 and that’s split across three studios, two in the centre of Horsham and a third in Bulgaria – CA Sofia, which was previously Crytek Black Sea. Probably a little more than you could fit into any Indian restaurant.
The Total War series has fought its battles across much of the world – India for example was covered in the globe-spanning Empire: Total War in 2009. With Medieval, Rome, Napoleon, Attila, Britannia and more getting the Total War treatment. So how does the company choose the location and time for its games?
“For us it’s always about trying to find a period of time where you’ve got a lot of major conflicts going on,” says Aldridge. “And if you were to go back to that time period, things could have played out in a different way. And that’s what we want the players to experience. Maybe don’t choose the side that ultimately won the war or conquered the world, maybe you go for the other guys, and you live out that fantasy.”
It’s a sentiment that chimes nicely with another of parent company Sega’s other titles: Football Manager. Where taking a minnow to the big leagues has become a staple of the game. “Load up Billericay Town, that’s my home team,” Aldridge agrees.
Despite returning to some favourite eras for sequels, Aldridge says the series still has “many more rocks to turn over,” in terms of unexplored periods of conflict. We’ve often wondered why the series has never taken on the 20th century for instance, particularly WWI or WWII, since after all, the very phrase ‘Total War’ was coined to describe such conflicts.
“It’s certainly a period of time that we as a group of individuals are very interested in and would like the challenge to make a game like that. Obviously, we do have restrictions on what we can do with our engine. It’s very much built with the idea of melee infantry clashing, and cavalry charges, as opposed to things like tracked vehicles, and deformation of the terrain. Those things didn’t really happen so much back during the Bronze Age or the neolithic periods.
“Our engine will help us pick and choose. But we keep modifying, we keep improving and changing the things that we can do and certainly avenues and options open up in time. And maybe that will be one of those ones that we’ll get to play around with one day.”
Instead of moving into the 20th century though, Creative Assembly took an entirely route and left our reality behind entirely.
Total War was a proudly historical series until 2016’s Total War: Warhammer came along. The game managed to be both a radical shift for the franchise and yet make perfect sense at the same time.
“Myself and a big proportion of the team at CA are avid fans of Warhammer Fantasy, 40K and the various different board games, so it sounded like a fabulous proposition. However, we were very much conscious that our fan base was in the historical camp. That’s what they’d come to love and enjoy. And all of a sudden, we’re throwing giant spiders, magic and dragons at them, as much as that sounds awesome, how would those guys take to that?”
So the team approached Warhammer with those historical players in mind? “Definitely, some of the decisions that we made in the first game were based around making sure that people who already enjoyed Total War would still have the opportunity to enjoy it. It wouldn’t feel so alien, ripping the carpet out from underneath their feet, but it still had that added level of spectacular battles, magic and big monsters to play around with, which makes it truly Warhammer.”
Of course, one key advantage was that the license brought in a whole new army of fans. Which now creates something of a classic venn diagram situation, with some only playing historical or Warhammer titles, but many playing both releases.
“We appreciate that fantasy isn’t for everybody. We made sure with [the China-based] Three Kingdoms to go back to our historical roots because we have a large proportion of players that love those games.”
The Warhammer titles have been intermixed in recent years with releases under the Total War Saga banner, which CA has described as “putting defined geographical areas under the microscope” along with a “strong cultural focus and flavour.” Such as the upcoming Troy, which will be free for 24 hours on the Epic Games Store at release, in order to further grow the franchise’s community.
TWO STROKE ENGINE
But regardless of whether it’s Warhammer or historical, all the Total War games dating back to 2009’s Empire are powered by the TW Engine 3, although it’s obviously been updated and iterated on over the last ten years.
“It’s always an iterative process, certain games will share the same engine with one another and I think that you’ll get a feel for that when you play them, but we’re always looking to push on, both graphically and technically, with the gameplay.” And games such as Warhammer have additional features to incorporate some of its more unusual inclusions.
Each game is also distinctly divided, with turn-based decisions to make on the campaign map feeding into the real-time battles.
“If you go way back to the early days when CA formed and came up with Shogun, they realised immediately that battles were never going to be enough to make a fully-fledged game. You need some reason to be fighting those battles, and that is very much the campaign game. It gels all those battles and provides a context.”
Aldridge is keen to point out though that it is all one game. “It’s key to find those crossover links between the campaign and the battles. What effect does that action in the campaign have in the battle that you’re about to fight? What are the consequences of losing those troops in that battle when you return back into the campaign? That’s the buzz that allows people to keep playing for hundreds and hundreds of turns.
“So sure, we have specialists that work on different parts of the game, but their mindset is very much how’s this going to blend together. How will this action or this design that I put here, how would it affect the other portion of the game? And to think of it in that sense. When you choose to have a particular unit join your army, say the big-big monsters in Warhammer, you’ve researched them and paid for it, you really feel it if you lose that monster in battle. It’s not just a traditional RTS where you would probably just churn out another one 30 seconds later.” Indeed, when another super tank comes along after 30 seconds, they stop feeling quite so super.
And you can even name such units in Total War: Warhammer. And it’s amazing how naming a horrific Rat Ogre somehow brings you closer to him. “Exactly,” agrees Aldridge laughing, “poor Squeaky has perished!”
Squeaky’s life may have been cut short, but the Total War series looks set to run and run. That said, finding a template for success can easily turn into a rut of complacency, so how does the team plan to keep things fresh in the future?
“We will never rest on our laurels!” Aldridge exclaims. “While we’ve made some highly successful games and things a lot of people enjoy. We, as individuals, are always striving for more, we want to better ourselves, we want to provide a better experience. We will always look to how we can broaden our horizons.
“The technology is going to change as well. As much as we can be thinking about what we can achieve today, it’s going to change in 12 months time and so on and so forth. And that will come with opportunities. If you think way back to the original Shogun, that game is nothing like Warhammer II. That said, it’s still true to its core, it still has that classic Total War essence.”
For us at least, that essence is making sure, when the crucial moment comes, that you’re the one charging downhill with your cavalry – whether they be knights, samurai or dragon princes – to rout your enemies archers in a single, brutal strike.
HUNDRED YEAR WAR?
“We’ll develop and build things around that. But that core essence is what our fans have come to love and enjoy and we want to make sure that they can, and they can pass that on to others for years to come.”
But organic growth in established markets will likely be outstripped by new ones, with recent title Three Kingdoms, set in China in the third century, undoubtedly looking in part to appeal to a Chinese audience unfamiliar with the series.
“There was a lot of interesting flavour and content and as I mentioned earlier, Total War games need settings with a large amount of conflict. In the case of Three Kingdoms, it has a lot of larger than life characters, and the outcome really could have gone very, very differently based on alliances and so forth.
“So it was great to tackle a different point in time in a different part of the world. And for sure it has opportunities of bringing in new fans, which is always great. We were really proud of how well it was received by the Chinese fans.”
But before it explores other periods, the next step on the Total War road is back to Games Workshop’s fantasy world. “We’re going to complete the Warhammer trilogy, which is going to be a massive achievement, so many of us have been on that trilogy since day one. And it’s like a childhood dream bringing it to conclusion.”
And the game will act as something of a swansong for the classic Warhammer Fantasy setting, which Games Workshop has moved on from, after 32 years, for the new Age of Sigmar. Whether the Total War series will follow is yet to be seen, but for the trilogy it’s the end of an eight-year partnership.
“It’ll be so bittersweet. But there’s certainly more fun for people to have, and lots of exciting content to come.”