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Interview: CA On Bringing Hannibal And Carthage To The Total War: Arena Open Beta

Don't forget Hasdrubal!

Total War: Arena is coming back out of the shadows, with this free to play game heading to open beta on 22nd February after five long years of development. The open beta milestone is a major one, but it also comes with some new content that will delight those who’ve stuck through the closed betas.

After playing the game, we spoke to Creative Assembly’s Josh Williams about the jump to open beta, what goes into making a new faction and his favourite Hannibal facts.


TSA: It’s obviously been five years since Total War: Arena was announced, but where so many other free to play games have come and gone in that time, you’ve not managed to release the game and kept on developing. How has Total War: Arena managed to stick it out all this time?

Josh Williams: We’ve had that a couple of times over the last few years – “That game’s still here?” – because we went silent a lot of times. When we went with Wargaming we had to rip out all the Steam backend and put in all the Wargaming stuff, which meant we went silent for nine months, and so we’ve really had two betas…

TSA: I was going to ask you how Wargaming has helped as a partner, but that sounds like it’s a trickier question than I thought! [laughs]

Josh: [laughs] They are really hands off when it comes to the gameplay. They say, “You know your game. Just do your game and we’ll help you with the free to play stuff that we know works.” For example, no Total War game has had premium, so we don’t know how that works, and they gave us a lot of their experience they’ve acquired over the years. We’ve learned a lot from them, but it’s a two-sided relationship and we definitely learn from each other.

But to go back to your original question, I think we have a strong core team. Dave’s been here five years, Rob’s been here ten… we have people who really believe in this game, and that’s because when we have so much fun, it’s hard not to believe in it!

You play it and there’s nothing like that. You see a lot of games where the market is being saturated, like with MOBAs and I’m sure we’re going to see a saturation of Battle Royales soon, but when you look at Total War: Arena – and it is quite a daunting game to play, you have to sit down and give it an hour – there’s nothing quite like it. You’ve got this permadeath thing where if you lose some men it’s fine, you’ve got some more, but they’re not coming back. World of Tanks and World of Warships are similar in a way, but the scale we have is unrivalled I think in most multiplayer games.

TSA: Thinking back to what I played back in 2014, the core concept hasn’t really changed. How has the game evolved since then?

Josh: Well, a lot of stuff has been polished and we’ve been working on a lot of new content. We’ve been working on that content silently, like Carthage, which we were working on six months ago, because what we want to do when we hit open beta is having a more consistent roll out of content in the future. A lot of stuff that we’ve been doing isn’t stuff that people will see right now, but it’s stuff we hope they’ll be seeing soon, like the maps that we were working on months ago, but are only just coming out.

It’s hard to sum up how much has changed in the last few years! Working with Wargaming means we had to change a lot of how our studio works, because to have a meeting, we have to Skype someone who’s halfway across the world in a different time zone! It took us about a year to get into the swing of things, but we’ve hit a point of max optimisation, so if we need something from each other we can get it in minutes. Learning Wargaming and them learning us is one of the biggest hurdles we’ve overcome.

TSA: So, you’re finally reaching open beta, and that’s going to bring a huge influx of people new to the game, new to Total War, and so on. How does Arena pare this grand strategy series down for this 10v10 multiplayer battling?

Josh: It’s interesting because we took all the time and resources that would go into a tentpole Total War game and decided to focus on just half of it and see what we could do if we really, really polished that side of the game. We decided that the battles were the focus, because the Total War battles are quite unique in how they play, so if we could find the core part of what makes that interesting, then we knew we’d have a winning formula. Making it multiplayer, it’s the tactics of those battles.

It’s a risk to make a team-based communication game, because some people don’t want to communicate, so you’ve got to make a game where a solo player can do well, but also a team who talks will do really well. That’s the challenge, and we’ve shown it in our videos, but there are definitely moments for individuals.

In Total War: Warhammer 2, you can do a custom battle with all the units in the game, but with Arena, we know that because more people are going to be starting this as their first Total War game. Some people are more interested in multiplayer games and don’t want to commit to a 60 hour campaign, but they’re fine with playing 15 minute battles. I think that was the most important part that we took from Total War and really changed, the time limit on what you have to put into the game. New players will only have a selection of units when they start; they won’t have everything because that’s completely overwhelming and we don’t want to force people out if they don’t learn all of the intricacies of our meta within the first five minutes.

Making this a more accessible Total War, while keeping the depth of the single player game has been the biggest challenge.

TSA: Speaking of the game’s meta, it feels like you really zoom in an get players to start micromanaging their units, as well as really amplifying their strengths and weaknesses compared to a mainline Total War game. It’s Total War, but with an arcade edge to it.

Josh: Yeah, it’s a little bit like Total War on steroids. As you say, it’s amplifying those battle parts, because that’s what we found is fun. It is those moments; it’s the charge, it’s when the arrows hit and the last man falls before they can charge you.

Those moments were really accomplished by extending the boundaries on either side, but when you do that, the skill level definitely increases, which is why it was important for us to introduce players slowly. When you play a Total War with 20 units, you can definitely catch someone off guard – you look at two at a time, but the rest you tell to move forwards and attack a line – but with Total War: Arena, you only have three units. We chose three for a specific reason, because we found that people could only look at two at a time, so the skill you have to learn is to check your third unit. We try to have a lower skill floor so people can get in and be fine looking at one or two units and just letting their third die, but a really skilled player will be fighting three different battles on three fronts and communicating with their teammates!

TSA: With the open beta, you’re adding a fourth faction with Carthage and Hannibal…

Josh: Don’t forget Hasdrubal! How could anyone forget Hasdrubal?

TSA: What goes into making a new faction?

Josh: So, we start off by finding what faction we want to have – what helps is I’ve bought a humongous map of all of history that stretches across the office and we can walk along and find cool things that happened. We knew it would be Carthage because every single fan has at some point posted “We want Carthage in Total War: Arena!” It was so heavily requested and it fits perfectly.

The first thing we look at is why they fight and what makes them unique. For Carthage it was the elephants that they brought to the table and really surprised the Romans. Historically elephants were so-so in their fighting ability, but there was one moment where Hannibal was crossing the Alps when some Gauls tried to trap him in a valley and were throwing boulders from the top. It looked like Hannibal was going to die, but his elephant went mental, crashed through the line – this is where their battle mechanics have been inspired from – and freed him. That’s then exactly what he did at Lake Trasimene. He learnt from that and used it against the Romans.

It’s that kind of thing where you look at the really incredible moments, how they were accomplished, and that’s how you start to layer your faction. Hannibal and Hasdrubal also used Numidians, so that’s your cavalry line, and they’re really unique and interesting because they can throw spears, while the spear soldiers were trained like Greeks, but weren’t as good as Greeks, so they don’t have as tight a phalanx, but they’re faster because they’re not quite shoulder to shoulder.

It’s looking at their core and then looking at what you can build on what you have.

TSA: Finally, what’s your favourite Hannibal fact? As far as you can say favourite when they’re largely about massive acts of war.

Josh: Oh! So this one has no death in it!

So, when Hannibal stood and saw the Alps, his men were with him looking at it and some of them were trembling. He says, “Anyone who doesn’t want to pass, go home,” and so like a third of his troops leave and go back to Iberia. Then he looks at the rest and he’s like, “Understand now that we are in this together.”

Not a single man routed while crossing the Alps because of that. Everyone who wanted to left and everyone who stayed had that same fire as him. It’s one of the only cases in history where a man did not have people rout from his army, especially when doing something like that!


Thanks to Josh for chatting with us. Be sure to catch our preview of the open beta here and dive into the game later this month if it tickles your fancy!

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