Rounding out our coverage from the Total War: Rome II preview event, we have an interview with Jamie Ferguson, Lead Battle Designer for the game.
Yesterday, our preview of the prologue campaign went live, whilst we published our interview with Al Bickham earlier today, and here we get into a little of the nitty gritty, discussing the changes to battles within Rome II.
Most importantly, we asked about shark infested waters…
TSA: What’s it like revisiting another classic setting from the series?
Jamie Ferguson: It’s been great! It’s one of those things where, when you finish a game the first time around, you think you’re done with it and move on. It’s now been 10 years almost, since Rome 1, and things have moved on a long way since then.
There’s so many things that we can do now that where couldn’t do then, and the fanbase are constantly clamouring for Rome 2, so it’s one of those things. Eventually you have to give them something!
TSA: You can only hold out for so long! Were you on the team back then, for the original Rome?
JF: Yes I was.
TSA: How much of that team is actually still at the heart of Creative Assembly?
JF: A lot of them… most of them in fact! [laughs]
TSA: [laughs] The grizzled core of team?
JF: Yeah! You know, I think pretty much all of the original artists and designers, and most of the programmers, as well. There’s a couple of those guys that are actually here, some of the original programmers on that game.
Al Bickham plays through the Battle of The Nile historical battle.
TSA: I believe that one of the biggest changes for battles comes is you’re combining land and sea battles? Just briefly, how has that been worked into the game?
JF: Well obviously there were lots of situations where we previously just prevent those kinds of occurrences. That was mainly because we didn’t really have the technology at the time, but now we’ve got to a point where having ships and land forces at the same time, fighting in a game together, is viable.
So any situation where, for example, you have an army standing by the coast that is attacked either by a naval force or another land force, and there are naval forces within reinforcing range, then there’s that option for them to combine .
TSA: And you’re able to embark and disembark troops?
JF: You can’t actually embark troops during a battle, that’s actually something that’s a bit too difficult. Also, just imagine trying to get elephants on ships, even at the best of times… in the middle of a battle it’s even harder!
So we keep it down to landing the ships and having men get off, so they can take part in the land combat.
You also have artillery that can provide fire support, and that enables you to bring in that extra dimension, in terms of mobile artillery, to attack the enemy. When it comes to siege battles, they can also then be used to attack parts of the city, break down walls by adding long range fire.
So it creates a completely new dimension to the way the battles are fought, and that’s quite exciting and very involving. At the same time, we’ve tried to keep it as intuitive as possible, so that if you’ve played any of our land battles it’s something you can pick up really quite easily.
Since Rome 1, we’ve really moved on a lot in terms of how we control the game and make it accessible to the player, and I think that’s something that we’re proud of. It’s very easy for anybody, regardless of their skill and previous experience of playing an RTS, to just pick up the game and play it.
The depth comes about from knowing how to use the units, how to actually organise them and coordinate them in combat. What that does, is it gives you that strength of a game that a player can intuitively understand, but takes time to master and that they can explore those depths. That’s something that, rather than being shielded from understanding, they can unveil it for themselves.
TSA: We’ve wandered a little… but lets bring it back to boats.
JF: Oh, I’m sorry.
TSA: Only because I’ve set up a nice little joke as we’re going along!
JF: [laughs] OK, I apologise.
TSA: So, when a boat sinks, will there be shark fins circling the survivors?
TSA: There will? Excellent, because I know that was a bit of a meme…
JF: [laughs] Yes, we listened to everybody on that one, and there will be sharks. There are crocodiles, there are fish, there are seagulls…
In land battles, birds will fly out of a forest when they get scared off by units moving through. We have elephants and lions, and all sort of animals you would encounter as you move around the map, and if you’re in the right place at the right time and look in the right direction, you’ll see them.
TSA: Could a general die from being mauled by a lion?
JF: No, because, you know, although lions are quite brave animals, when they see thousands of men marching over a hill, they tend to run away! [Laughs]
TSA: Maybe a one in a billion chance?
JF: [laughs] Well, you never know. If you keep an eye open.
TSA: You’d have to play for many, many hours to get that to happen.
JF: Well, you might have a pet lion, as the commander does on the menu screen for the game.
TSA: That would be cool! With the dynamics of the battles themselves, what changes have you made to the general’s AI? How have you adapted them for this game?
JF: Well, I think anybody who played the original Rome, and hasn’t played a Total War since, will be, I think, pleasantly surprised by the improvements in the AI. And anyone that’s played Shogun 2 or Fall of The Samurai will see the kind of steps forward we’ve made, that ensures that the AI behaves in a way that’s both fun and at the same time believable.
Obviously, just like human beings, the AI makes mistakes. It’s not psychic, and it can’t work out everything that you’re doing. Contrary to what some people might think, it doesn’t cheat. In the same way, with the line of sight system that we have currently, the AI is using the exact same methods as the player, for trying to work out where things are.
So he sends out scouts and gets to high points, to try and find out where it can see the enemy. It looks for open ground that it can defend, and all of those kinds of things that you would expect from a human being.
Obviously, the day that we create AI that beats humans in all cases, and learns from its mistakes, we’ll probably be working for some military organisation somewhere, and I doubt we’ll be allowed to just broadcast that to the entire world!
I think we’ve created a believable and fun experience.
TSA: When you’re controlling your troops, you’ve got two new views in the game: the overall tactical map, and the cinematic camera. Were these fan requests, as with the shark fins, or just additions that you guys thought people would use?
JF: [laughs] Yeah, I thought they were things that people would use. Within the team, we’re always looking at how we can make the game more involved, and how we can make it more exciting.
We did know that, for example, players would want to pull their view up as far as possible, to get the maximum amount of control, but we didn’t want them to become removed from the action and the combat. So we had to find a way to create something that gives the player the overall view of things, and at the same time doesn’t take them away from that action.
We also wanted players, because they have often talked about it, to get up close and actually see what was going on in that front line. We wanted to highlight when there was something worth looking at, so occasionally you’ll actually notice that little button flashes, and that’s because there’s something going on that you can go and have a look at.
TSA: So, things like the routing of an enemy unit?
JF: Or a charge going on, and they’re about to become engaged.
TSA: The particularly cinematic moments?
JF: Exactly, and then that way you can get involved. You’ve got complete control over your camera in that view, so if you don’t like what you’re looking at, you can look elsewhere.
TSA: Look away from something particularly gory, if you’re squeamish!
JF: Yeah, exactly! [laughs]
So you’ve got all those elements, and talking about combat, the cinematic camera brings to you the depth that we have. There is much more animation variety than we’ve ever had in any previous total war game, and that also goes for the variety in characters. The men that you see on the battlefield, they are individuals. Some have got beards or moustaches, or haven’t shaved recently, and different coloured eyes, and skin tones, and different physiques, in terms of height.
Not every man is a clone. They’re all different, and that stretches all the way through the game.
TSA: Finally, how do you decide and prioritise these features, from one game to the next?
JF: Well, I think that the first step is that we brainstorm all the ideas we can think of. We go into more depth on each one, and slowly whittle it down if we think that one is too much to go for. Sometimes we’re not sure, or sometimes we start something and then we may realise half way through a project, or even a few weeks before release, we might decide that something has to change completely.
So, for example, we started out where many, many ships were involved in each battle, and each unit had sometimes five or six ships. But that started to get quite chaotic for the player, and something which was hard to understand where things were going and what was happening. Why is a ship sitting there and waiting? Oh, he’s a part of that unit, and he’s waiting for them to finish the combat they’re engaged with.
You know, those things weren’t necessarily obvious, and we wanted the game to be easy to understand and easy to pick up, but hard to master. We didn’t want it to become impossible to master, with some barriers in the way, so the result of that is we’re down to a single ship per unit. You can have up to 40 ships in a battle, but at the same time it’s a single ship per unit.
Thanks to Jamie for taking the time to talk to us during his hectic day of interviews. Don’t forget to check out yesterday’s preview, and our interview with Al Bickham, Studio Communications Manager, where we ask him such important questions as what his job actually is!
The coverage of Total War: Rome II in this preview and the interviews which follow, was made possible for us and dozens of other journalists from across Europe by SEGA taking us to Rome. Thankfully, this included water, given how Rome was quite oppressively hot.