I came, I saw, I previewed Total War: Rome II. I also chatted to Total War series lead designer James Russell about the enduring appeal of the Roman Empire, how it's possible to control a wargame on this kind of scale, introducing a human element to the game's soldiers and politickers, and branching storylines on the campaign map. This is part one of a two-part interview - more tomorrow.
RPS: I guess my immediate question is the complexity of controlling something that’s so much bigger. Does it feel, when managing all these units, like a big step up, or is it more about the amount of soldiers within each troop?
James Russell: To take a step back regarding that part of it, I guess what’s special to us about Total War is the spectrum you get of scales, you drill right down into human level interactions and individuals fighting it out. You can zoom out and see that ten thousand times and it’s that spectrum that makes Total War unique in a way, that you get both of those ends of the spectrum. What we’re wanting to do with Rome is really, really push both ends of that spectrum, so I think it’s pretty clear on the human level stuff, we want to have more emotional interactions, you see your buddy get downed and you might try and help him up, or you see more interactions…
RPS: Can we trigger those reactions, or just witness them?
James Russell: Well that would be part of how men behave. So similarly, a guy gets hit by an arrow, I react to it, instead of just ignoring it. It makes it feel more human, and then you’ve got the facial animation and the shouting of orders and incidentals, and we want that to happen more and more, so you’ll see the officer shout if the unit’s getting flanked, and that kind of stuff, plus the unit level camera, so it’s really pushing that human level scale.
But then on the other end, really pushing the epic, large-scale spectacle of the battle, so there you saw I think combined battles, so you’ve got land and ships in the same battlefield, and then also we’ve got multiple ships in a unit, because ancient world battles weren’t fought with eight ships, you had several in a unit. We’re having several in a unit because you’re going to have many more ships than before. And then we’ve got bigger environments and epic cities and that sort of thing, so to get back to what you were originally asking about with that large scale thing, we’re not intending for it to be more to control, it’s just a more impressive scene.
For instance with ships, you don’t have more, you’ve got more ships per unit. With land and sea, we’re not going to necessarily go above 40 units that we’ve got for Fall of the Samurai, right, you might have a number of ships, a number of navy units and a number of land units. It’s more about the larger scale environments and the fact you can do more with each unit rather than having loads more units, so we want to do more with scale without creating that management burden.
The same thing’s true on the campaign map, so it’s that combination. We want human level dramas and storylines that we can talk about in a sec, but we also want to push the scale so, just as we were talking about on the battlefield, the map of Rome, the Roman World, is going to be bigger than the Rome one, quite a bit bigger, so we’re pushing the map further out. And that’s going to have consequences, in terms of the concern you raised, you could ask that about the campaign map, ‘does that mean there’s going to be more management, a lot more stuff to control?’
That is a valid question on the battlefield, and the same is true of the campaign map, but what we want to do is make sure that you’re not actually controlling more things. So for instance on the campaign map, what we want to do with regions is have what we’re calling a province system, where you’ve got a province that’s made up of several different regions, and what that means is that you still capture small chunks of territory. So there’s still a lot of strategic depth, you’re not head-shotting great big regions, which means that we can still have hundreds of regions in the map, so it’s really big. We’re having a province system where for several regions, maybe three or four regions, you’re only managing one province. It means that you get the strategic depth in terms of capturing territories and moving armies around.
RPS: To take them over you have to grab them individually as regions, but once you’ve got them you can bulk manage them essentially?
James Russell: Yeah. There’s one management node for several regions. Whether you call that bulk…I think that the point is about strategy game play is that it’s about interesting decisions, and we want to make the decisions more interesting. We don’t want to give you more of them for you to necessarily have to repeat and repeat and repeat. But it also has other consequences, because it means you can capture territory without always having to fight a siege battle, so you get a greater variety of battle types, and a greater variety of battle environments as well, because you’re not always trying to head-shot the city.
It allows us to have a bigger map, grander scale, without making you have to control loads more things in terms of the management side of the game, and we’re doing the same kind of things with armies as well. We want the player to be thinking like a Roman military leader. A Roman emperor was not thinking about, do I move that unit of archers together with that unit of cavalry and make a two stack and then send them between those two cities, the Roman emperor’s thinking about where the Tenth Legion is, and thinking about the fact that they want to reinforce it with the Eighth Legion. We want the player to be thinking more about their legions rather than a random collection of units.
So I think that makes the gameplay deeper and more interesting and also it reduces the micro-management. So the aim there is to have fewer and more significant battles, and we’re doing a number of different things to encourage that and make that work. For instance we’re really trying to create a strong concept of a legion. A legion will have its own legacy, its own gameplay effects and character - so for instance if you’ve lost a great battle or done something very specific with a legion it might get a trait with a particular game effect that reflects how you’ve used it. And that outlives its General, so it’s not just about the effects of the General.
RPS: Does that move to legions and the fewer and more significant battles reduce the rock, paper, scissors aspect and make it become more about where you’ve put your legion as opposed to needing the specific counters to the specific types you’re up against?
James Russell: We definitely don’t want to have bog standard legions where they’re all the same, absolutely not. In fact the opposite in many ways because that’s why we wanted to give these legions a character, so they’ve got their own unique nature. We don’t want to have all your legions being the same, I think there’ll definitely be strengths and weaknesses to each legion and to each General, and obviously there’ll be plenty of rock, paper, scissors gameplay within the battles themselves. You’ve got a massive variety of combat styles and cultures as well. The Rhine legions might be quite different from the Eastern regions, and that kind of thing, depending on how you use them.
RPS: I actually prefer that, as long as I’ve got enough men and I can position them well, I have a chance, as opposed to ‘oh no I haven’t brought the right type of spear and therefore I’m screwed.’
James Russell: As a strategy design philosophy question it’s interesting how strong you make the rock, scissors, paper effects. Do you make them overwhelming, so you have to bring the right counters, or do you make them quite weak? There are pros and cons to each approach. I guess in the situation you describe where you’ve brought the wrong troops and you’re screwed, it’s probably because the enemy army took quite a risk and was quite specialised as well.
RPS: It’s all part of the drama to some extent.
James Russell: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. You want to make it strong enough so it’s really part of the game and has genuine strategic implications, but you also don’t want it to be so overwhelming that you feel like ‘well, this army’s just the wrong type.’
RPS: In terms of the micro scale getting to see the human element, is that purely a style thing to enrich the whole vista, or could it start to replace UI elements, like you don’t need to watch the morale meter, you can actually see that these guys are visibly freaking out and that’s your cue to do something about it?
James Russell: That’s a very good question, in battle the key thing is that making the men feel more human makes you more invested in them. It makes it feel much more impressive when you zoom out. In terms of core gameplay effects, I think one key thing to emphasise is the unit level camera where you go down and lock the camera to that unit, we don’t just want that to be an aesthetic thing, the player’s going to need some incentive to do that. We don’t just want the player using that in order to go in and watch something, it’s got to have an effect.
RPS: Because otherwise you only really use it when you know the victory is in the bag.
James Russell: Or at least it’s just the only skirmish going on while the other troops manoeuvre or whatever, yes, absolutely. We want to make sure there’re some gameplay effects there, but we’re experimenting with exactly how that works. It is not going to be just an aesthetic.
RPS: Can you talk about anything you are thinking about in terms of that?
James Russell: I think we wouldn’t really be comfortable because there’re various different approaches and we’re looking at two different philosophies in particular. We’re just trying to work out exactly how that works. You did see a little hint of that kind of thing as well in Fall of the Samurai with third person mode. I’m not saying that’s what we’re going to do, that’s an example of the player having direct control over what goes on in that view.
[Fall of the Samurai’s third-person unit camera for cannons and gatling guns is mentioned]. It did make a big difference to the gameplay because you could particularly aim at individuals, so with cannons you could aim where two units were crossing to try and go through, so it did have proper gameplay effects, it wasn’t just a gimmick.
But you lose your attention, and that’s a big thing. Player attention is a resource in a strategy game for the player to spend as they choose. I think on the campaign map, the human levels side of the game is obviously deeply interwoven with the way that the game plays, and so for example, what we want to do is weave in lots of human level dramatic threads into the gameplay.
We’re going to really take the dilemma system of Shogun 2 to town and we really want to make much more of that part of the game where you’re presented with interesting human level dilemmas. But we’re not just doing it one by one, we’re going to have sequences of chain dilemmas that trigger up in certain situations, depending on how you’ve been playing the game. They’ll influence and have effects on the whole game.
I think one of the amazing things about the era is that it was a time when individuals made history, through their personal decisions, you’ve got all these legendary figures and we really want to bring out some of those personal choices and actually have branch sequences of storylines where you get to make personal decisions and see that play out in the game world, and see the effects that that has. So it’s about humanising elements of the campaign game, because the geopolitics of the time was intimately bound up with individual’s own choices. We want the player to be thinking ‘do I save the Republic or do I make a play to become emperor?’ We want that to be a proper dilemma that the player has.
RPS: Even though essentially the campaign is to some degree non-linear, you’re carving your own path across Europe and the rest, does it necessitate that some fixed stuff has to happen so that you can then encounter these key storyline beats?
James Russell: No, I don’t think so, I see it more as there’s this huge landscape of possibility, and what we do is lay little Easter eggs everywhere, but loads of them.
RPS: ‘Easter eggs’, eh?
James Russell: I was going to say ‘lay traps’ but then that might come across badly. Traps, Easter eggs is not really the right word because that implies that they’re really rare. We want loads of them everywhere. The thing is that they’re not just singular things. The way that you’ve made a decision about one will influence which future ones come up, and they’ll have game effects, and they’ll change the dynamics of your actual core campaign. They’re not just little niceties. That’s the intention.
We’re kind of gathering together loads of archetypal Roman elements, and thinking about ‘ok, some will be weaved in like that, some will get their own mechanics’. There’s all these archetypal Roman concepts, and we want to get all that in the game somehow, whether it’s a unit, whether it’s even an ancillary or trait, whether it’s a proper mechanic, or whether it’s woven into this branching dilemma system. Things like slavery, circuses, all that kind of stuff, they’re going to be in the game, and some will have their own mechanics, some will be woven into these personal storylines.
RPS: Are you going to have to play as Rome essentially in your first play through of the campaign?
James Russell: No, we don’t want to do what we did last time where you can only play as Rome. We feel very comfortable now having really focussed the gameplay in Shogun 2 and gone where we really went all out to bring the gameplay down into that one small contained play area, we’re now really comfortable rolling it out into a vast world again. We feel very confident with keeping that contained in a way, in terms of how it feels to a player so they don’t get overwhelmed, but they feel that there’s this massive world to explore.
Because of that there’s this massive variety on the campaign map, so we don’t want to restrict that to experienced players. You’ve got all this variety, like barbarian cultures in the northern forest, exotic kingdoms in the eastern desserts, all that kind of stuff, we want the player to be able to experience that so we definitely don’t want to force you to play Rome.
RPS: They’ll all have these Easter egg plot elements per culture, then?
James Russell: Yeah. Variety’s a big deal, so we’re not just focussing on Rome. We want to have for instance different tech trees, or certainly different tech content for different cultures, that kind of thing. We talked a little bit about you thinking do I save the Republic or do I become emperor, we have this idea of themes of betrayal, internal conflict, intrigue. And obviously there’s the Senate, and that has its own agenda, and all that kind of stuff. But there are those elements that will be in the game for different factions, any culture can have its internal conflicts, can have its court intrigues, or tribal rivalries, however it’s framed. So we want to get the variety but we definitely don’t want to short-change any other culture.
RPS: I really like the idea of playing it as warring Scottish tribes or something, competing amongst each other for who gets to wear the biggest headdress.
James Russell: (laughs)
RPS: So with the seamless, or what appears to be seamless, naval to land stuff, what’s the scope for the player really getting screwed up if he’s coming in from the sea and he could be skirmished on route and then he just lands with just twelve men because it all got sunk. Can that happen?
James Russell: Ok, so, on the campaign map, what it necessitates is the breaking down of the distinction between armies and navies, because what you effectively saw there is a navy capturing the capital city of a big empire, so what that means is navies become strategically more important on the campaign map, and it breaks down that distinction. If your navy, when it’s approaching land, in that combined battle which is like a coastal battle, if the ships got sunk by catapults on land, you only had one ship that managed to land, and it would land troops, then yeah, you’d just have your one unit. It’s possible.
It depends on exactly how we do the morale system, it might be desirable for that one ship to rout if the situation was hopeless. Obviously we’re still looking at all of the details of how it combines. It’s a single battle type.
RPS: And can you get out of there if things are going badly, have your guys run back to the ships and flee?
James Russell: Well, not necessarily. That would be much harder and historically it’s much easier to land your ship because you just row it straight at the beach, and then it beaches itself up on the water and they all jump out, to actually embark on the ships you’ve got to get the entire crew pushing it back out to water, and then they have to get up on the boat. It’s quite a different thing.
RPS: Rome, as a setting, seems to be something of a high point for this series. What do you think it is that makes it stand out above all the rest in many minds?
James Russell: I think there’s just something uniquely evocative about ancient Rome. And not just Rome itself, but the whole timeframe. It’s the whole sword and sandals culture, but there’s something very unique and identifiable about the nature of Rome. Something unique about the look and feel of the Roman legions. It’s also the archetypal empire-building era of history. Before the Roman era you had mythic periods and Ancient Greece and all that kind of stuff, but you didn’t have these small kingdoms conquering the world in that way. It’s the world’s first superpower. There’s also something uniquely modern about Rome in its focus on civics and infrastructure and making a society as well as a war machine, taking their education to other countries.I think people can identify with Rome in a really strange way.
RPS: They came so close to being all out villains, but they just about pull it back by generally having improved society at the end of all the bloodshed. The world was sort of a better place for them ultimately.
James Russell: Yeah, I think it would have been pretty brutal being smashed by the fist of Rome. It’s quite nasty. You wouldn’t want to mess with the Romans, and they were obviously horrendously brutal, but it was a brutal world I think, and they had a vision of a society. Although I think they wanted to conquer the world and dominate the world, I think they were ultimately a creative force not a destructive force. They weren’t in it for the destruction, they were in it to create glory for a positive vision of a society.
RPS: They thought they could make the world better.
James Russell: Yeah. They genuinely thought they were superior and everyone else was savages, absolutely, but they had a strong positive vision of their own society that yes, they had a superiority complex of course, but they weren’t a kind of nihilistic destructive force.
RPS: Although if you take it all the way to the top with the emperors and the senate, then that essential rot is there, it's all about in-fighting and betrayal, it’s not about any sort of philanthropic intent…
James Russell: Absolutely, I think that’s human nature though. I think that’s the way that human beings are. I think there’s something unique about it in the popular imagination as you say, there’s something very, very special, and I think in some ways it feels less alien than for instance the medieval mind. I think people can identify with what it might be like being a Roman and I think they could get the motivations of a Roman senator in a way that I think it would be difficult to get the motivations of a Cardinal in the Middle Ages, or even a knight. I think there’s something modern but also impossibly romantic, romantic’s not the right word…
RPS: Game of Thrones at the moment owes quite a lot to the Roman saga, I’d say.
James Russell: And Star Wars. All sort of things I think. There’s something just so powerful about it I think. From a developer perspective as well I think it’s a great, rich tapestry, that world, to have all that variety of fighting styles and environments. Different cultures, I think it’s a unique point in time.
There endeth part one. Tomorrow: let’s talk about AI, baby.