[i]US, January 22, 2009 - Fusing elements of Civilization-style overworld map management and large-scale real-time strategy battles, the formula for Creative Assembly's Total War series has remained a popular one since the franchise launched with Shogun: Total War back in 2000. The latest version, Empire: Total War, is set in the 18th Century, and will include real-time sea battles, new modes, and a brand new multiplayer components, including a post-release multiplayer campaign update.
To get a better idea of how all that is going to work, we took time to interview Creative Assembly Studio Communications Manager Kieran Brigden.
Empire: Total War is scheduled to ship on March 3, 2009.
IGN: Last we heard Empire was being pushed to allow time for the implementation of a multiplayer infrastructure. What sort of infrastructure are you referring to? What's the status of that implementation?
Kieran Brigden: We are preparing the existing single player code base for the roll-out of a multiplayer campaign beta after release. Much of the foundations are now laid, although work will be continuing on this feature right up until release and prior to the beta itself.
IGN: Can you give more details on how the multiplayer campaign might work? For instance, can you save your games in the middle of a campaign and return to it later? It seems like you're limiting the action to just two players, at least in the beta. What player limits are you looking for in the final release?
Kieran Brigden: The multiplayer campaign game will be limited to 1v1, certainly for its first iteration; this is because we want to include playing battles from the campaign. In terms of how it will work, yes, you will be able to save your games and return to them. You could have several 1v1 games on the go so that you can have a series of opponents, enabling you to dip in and out of games against different opponents over a period of days, weeks and months. This links in deftly with the Steam buddy system: letting you see who's online and pickup with them.
IGN: What are the basic setup options for the multiplayer campaign? Are we just looking at the standard campaign with one other human player or are there special considerations to be made? Are there unique victory conditions when you're playing with other people?
Kieran Brigden: In the first instance, the victory conditions from the single player campaign will be applied for multiplayer. There are several campaign modes: shorter 100 turn campaigns or the longer 200 turn versions, and based on capturing a set of regions or earning the highest level of prestige by a given in-game date. At a later stage, we may well look to develop specific victory conditions and extend modes for multiplayer.
In terms of multiplayer campaign options, you can set up things like turn time limits, and how battles are fought (e.g. which battles to auto-resolve). Think of it like being able to play speed chess with the 18th century world. Some players will want limited turns and only specific battles, whereas others will want to play every engagement.
IGN: Which of the campaign's episodes will be playable in multiplayer? Are there any specific considerations that make an episode more or less suitable to that kind of play? Did you find yourself rebalancing any of the single player portion of the game purely to accommodate multiplayer action?
Kieran Brigden: For the beta we will be rolling out the Grand Campaign from Empire, in which you can play as one of twelve different nations. It's unlikely that we'll be rebalancing this for multiplayer initially, although the nations do play very differently, and offer a diverse set of challenges. We've spent a long time balancing each of the nations in the campaign and this work will carry through to the campaign multiplayer. Having said that, this is a beta and the purpose of that is to test and to gather lessons learned on things such as nation and unit balance.
IGN: This new mode is something we've wanted since Shogun. Can you give us some insight as to why with Empire you finally were able to add this new feature? Was the delay more a matter of game design or technology?
Kieran Brigden: Empire: Total War includes a brand new engine across the board in campaign, land and sea battles. The huge amount of work we've done with the engine has enabled us to explore the opportunity to make a multiplayer campaign game available for the first time.
The game has been streamlined, reducing the time the player spends on management each turn, making Empire more suited to a multiplayer campaign game. We've worked hard both to deepen the nation-management gameplay as well as reduce the time the player has to spend on it, and we've achieved this by giving the player more choices while reducing the burden of repeating those choices. For example, you can set a different tax level for different sections of the population, but you set this tax centrally rather than for every region. Also, you no longer have to recruit new army units at multiple cities and manually assemble them in the field: you can simply order them at the general in the field and they are automatically built in the nearest cities and make their own way to the army as requested.
All of these new design and technology advances influence multiplayer play. Synchronicity, connection, advanced gameplay options and game time are all issues that come into play with a multiplayer campaign. We're hoping the beta will be a big success in this regard.
IGN: Civilization IV was the first turn-based empire game that really seemed to eliminate most of the tedious waiting that's normally required of these types of games. What solutions are you looking towards to streamline play and keep players engaged all the way through the experience?
Kieran Brigden: We'll be looking at various solutions to this as part of the Beta process. Turn times can be limited and players will be able to set their own time limits to prevent opponents from spending too long managing their empire.
Unlike Civ, we have epic realtime battles which can take some time to complete and we don't want to make some players wait while others play out their battles. That's the main reason we're focusing on 1v1 to start with.
In addition, players will get the option to fight as the opposing AI army in any battle encountered by their opponent. So basically, the player can replace the AI in battle, meaning that players can be constantly fighting multiplayer battles that have an impact on the overall campaign. Want to buckle your opponent before they even reach your borders? This might just be the way to do it.
IGN: What's the status of the purely tactical battles with regard to multiplayer?
Kieran Brigden: Real-time battles both on land and sea will be included within the multiplayer campaign (and of course as standalone custom battles). Plus, as I've mentioned, players will get the option to fight as the AI armies against their opponent.
Of course, players will still have the option to auto-resolve battles if they wish to focus purely on the campaign.
IGN: You've said in the past that you want to make multiplayer accessible and would like to see that portion of the game scale to the player's interest. Can you expand on that a bit and explain how a casual player's involvement might different from that of a more hardcore player? Can you reconcile those two approaches so that players of different interest levels can share a game?
Kieran Brigden: Making multiplayer more accessible has been high on our list of priorities. This has involved streamlining the UI and making elements such as preset battles and preset armies available to the player. Experienced players can still tinker with every detail within their armies, but more casual players now have a ready-made, balanced force to go to battle with, on ready-made maps. In addition, we've included a "Quick Match" mode that automatically examines your online ranking and matches you with a similarly rated opponent. Player ranking helps balance opponents; new players can play with other new players, and veterans can stick to fighting vets, leading to a more satisfying multiplayer experience for all.
Although not in our initial plans, we may look to incorporate these features within the multiplayer campaign at a later stage. Of course, players can tailor their games according to experience via nation selection. Some nations such as France start with lots of regions. Others will have fewer regions and will be immediately more accessible. There will be nations and starting positions for players of all experience levels, but we'll be looking to the Beta to help balance this.
IGN: We know that you're going to add the multiplayer campaign after the core game is released. Do you have a time frame for the eventual release of this feature?
Kieran Brigden: We're not setting a target date at this point. Right now our focus is on getting Empire Total War complete and then we'll be looking at full support for the game outside of this Beta. We'll be releasing details of our post-release plans very soon, including for the multiplayer Beta.
IGN: How long will the multiplayer campaign beta run and what do you have to do to get in?
Kieran Brigden: It's likely that this will be a limited Beta (open to all applicants) to begin with before we open it up to a larger user base. We haven't finalised plans for the method of application but we wouldn't be restricting this to invite only; it's likely to be first come, first served.
IGN: The multiplayer news is obviously the big story here, but since this is the Total War universe, we've got plenty of other questions for you about some of the as-yet unexplained features. We're curious about the progression of the episodic campaign. How does the game start and what choices will the player have to make as they progress from one chapter to the next? Is there meant to be a narrative sort of continuity there or is this just a method to showcase different eras and slowly introduce players to the game design?
Kieran Brigden: First and foremost, the Road to Independence is a series of standalone focused campaigns driven by a single narrative which takes the player from the founding of Jamestown in 1607, through the bloody days of the French Indian War and ending with the War of Independence against Britain, and the establishment of the United States itself.
Throughout the campaign, the player is issued with a series of missions, some of which will need to be completed in order to progress to the next episode, but the way in which the player chooses to complete these tasks is entirely up to them.
Episode one begins with the birth of America itself. The player starts the campaign as the intrepid Captain John Smith and his band of settlers as they seek to create a new colony for the British crown and survive clashes with a nearby Native American tribe.
The story is developed by our narrator, George Washington. As young soldier of the Virginia colonies fighting on behalf of the British, he sets the scene as the French Indian War begins and America is propelled into full-scale conflict. The player's first objective in this episode is to claim the Ohio Valley. The French have a stranglehold on this territory, with a series of forts presenting a major obstacle for the player's armies. These fort battles will challenge even the most experienced Total War players, as all routes will be guarded by ambushing units, cannon redoubts and buildings garrisoned by enemy troops.
The third episode of the Road to Independence gives the player the chance to drive the British from America. This opens with the Battle of Bunker Hill. Here the player must hold back the advancing British for the opportunity to change history.
The full campaign game opens up in the final episode when the player can begin establishing America as a world power and take it in any direction they deem fit.
IGN: Can you talk about keeping the ruling class and the general population happy under each of the three government types? What sorts of technologies and actions will impact the happiness of your citizens or subjects?
Kieran Brigden: As you mention, in Empire the ruling class and the people both have to be kept happy, and different factors influence the happiness of each class. There are many options open to the player. Tweaking the levels of taxation across the population classes has a direct effect on their happiness, and you can also make certain troublesome regions exempt from tax if they are edging close to riots and rebellion. Towns can be developed as centres of entertainment by building bawdy houses or opera houses. These will help boost the happiness levels of certain classes within a region. The people also care about foreign policy. Attacking a hostile nation and winning great victories makes the people erupt with patriotic fervour. Attack and ally or continually lose battles, and your public won't be happy. Of course, you can always repress the population by posting troops in cities; it won't make the people happy, but it will quell unrest.
Another interesting new twist is clamour for reform. Building universities and researching certain technologies makes the population aspire to modern democracy. In an absolute monarchy, clamour for reform is a growing problem and it can be quite a challenge to advance up the tech tree while avoiding revolutionary agitation. In a democracy (especially a Republic), this is less of a problem, but if the population is not happy you may find that at election time your ministers are voted out of office.
IGN: What about the more extreme consequences of unhappiness? How likely is it that frequent and intense unhappiness will lead to the types of revolutions and civil wars that marked this period of history? What kinds of remedies can the player take if they've let things reach such a low point?
Kieran Brigden: The consequences depend: in the lower classes, you will see strikes, then riots before full-scale armed rebellion. The nobility issues letters of demand and will also launch armed rebellions if ignored. The army make up for each is different. Rebellions in some regions can result in the emergence of nations -- for example, Scotland or Greece.
In your home region (your capital), it's a different story with Revolution occurring if discontent boils over into revolt. The nobility will seek to install a new monarch, the people to establish a new Republic. Units in your armies may defect to join the rebels. The player can choose to fight as the incumbent government and stamp out the revolution, or choose to take control of the revolutionary armies tasked with taking the capital and overthrowing the old regime. A successful revolution forces a change in government so it could be that the player deliberately provokes a section of his population in order to bring about a desired change.
IGN: You've added new buildings to the game that players can actually use to garrison their units. Are we going to be able to see many house-to-house battles during city assaults or do you think that most of the fighting will still take place in a more traditional Total War format? How does close quarters fighting within a city influence your overall approach to simulating combat?
Kieran Brigden: Some buildings on the battlefield can indeed be garrisoned. This is part of the cover system introduced in Empire Total War that sees every single projectile realistically modeled in battle -- that's every single bullet and every fragment of shrapnel across thousands of soldiers. As a result, battlefield elements such as walls offer a degree of cover to units deployed behind them. Buildings offer the ultimate source of cover. Troops within will be able to fire from windows on an enemy in range but they will of course be vulnerable to artillery fire. In a siege situation, taking cover in a building can be a key tactic in the final defense of the central plaza. In a field battle, an abandoned farmhouse can offer a unit a strong defensive position that can turn the tide.
That said, I should clarify that battles for cities take place in the outskirts rather than in the centre of cities. Siege battles are really about capturing the forts guarding the approaches to the city. The biggest forts in the game are so massive they contain quite a few buildings and are a real challenge to capture, even with the mightiest army.
IGN: You're close enough to release now that you've got to have a good idea of your projected system requirements. Care to share them with us?
Kieran Brigden: Our minimum specification right now is a 2.6Ghz processor backed with 1gb of memory and a graphics card with 256mb RAM. Of course, there are a lot of scalable options for those players with lower and higher spec machines. However, as with all PC games the better your hardware the better your performance.
IGN: Finally, the Mongols invaded Shogun, the Vikings invaded Medieval, and the Barbarians invaded Rome. Who's going to invade Empire? The Canadians?
Kieran Brigden: You won't be surprised to hear that we're not quite ready to discuss future products or expansions for Empire. There are plenty of routes for us to explore, however, and I'm sure we'll be bringing you details when the time is right.