Designing the fearsome creatures of Total War: Warhammer

We talk to Creative Assembly about translating the Warhammer world into the Total War framework, and why creating an array of monsters is much harder than traditional human-on-human combat.

The new game Total War: Warhammer required four times as much work as any previous entry in the series. The challenge has forced Creative Assembly to staff up, becoming one of the largest developers in the UK. It has made them abandon their old release strategy, and completely rethink everything from animations and rigging to value systems and campaign maps.

Why is all of this extra work required? As Andy Hall, lead writer for the game, quips, "You can’t get an orc into a motion capture suit--I mean, they’d just destroy everything."


Total War games have always required a lot of micro on the part of the developers as well as the players. The simple animation and art task has been gargantuan, with specific individuals within units locking against one another in battle animations, on top of interactions between mounted and infantry, artillery and everything else, not to mention fortifications and other terrain. 

Even on Total War games like Attila or Napoleon that take a very specific slice of history, developers are presented with the unenviable task of creating not only an intricate campaign map with functioning society, diplomacy and geography, but the incredibly complex battles that allow a vast range of different combatants square off against one another. 

The one saving grace for Creative Assembly has been that despite the diversity of history, they still have the constant of human biology to fall back on. No matter the conflict, both sides have the same basic body types, and the same physical capabilities, meaning that the most outlandish things they have to render are elephants, camels, or complex artillery and feats of engineering. Still an impressive task, but, for the most part, manageable.

"Creating each race in Warhammer is almost as much work as a whole previous Total War game. That’s one of the reasons we’re starting with just four races."

With the announcement of Total War: Warhammer, that goes out of the window. 

The Warhammer world does have humans, and a few races that are human-sized or close enough to be equivalent. But the majority of its denizens are bigger, smaller, or just downright weirdly shaped. They break the human mold. This means Creative Assembly has the unenviable job of rigging, animating and balancing the absurd diversity of Warhammer’s armies. This includes how they interact with one another: Orcs against Empire, Dwarves against Vampire Counts, and every single monstrous ally that each of those races brings to the battlefield.


“It’s an incredible amount of extra work, and that’s one of the reasons we’re starting with just four races,” says Hall. “Each race in itself is almost like a whole Total War game from before."

"You can’t get an orc into a motion capture suit. The animators and the artists have had to create all of these bespoke animations"

"Take the Greenskins," he says. "Previously in Total War you had horses for cavalry, so a horse rig, and perhaps a camel and an elephant rig.” That would be for the entire game, across the dozens of factions that are available. “Greenskins on their own have wolves, spiders, giant spiders, boars, and then you have the goblins themselves, and the orcs, and they move totally different to one another. And both move totally different than a human.” 

Also, as is evident from the in-engine battle demonstration Creative Assembly released, there will be trolls and giants. “The animators and the artists have had to create all of these bespoke animations,” says Hall.

This also means that the way that Total War has animated their battles previously isn’t going to work here. Simon Mann, Battle Designer for Total War: Warhammer explains it: “In previous titles we’ve used synchronized attack animations, where two units sort of ‘dance’ in an animation together," he says. "When you have man-sized entities and horses, you only have so many interactions to handle. Because we’ve got all these different sized entities, from humans to giants, the main thing we’ve tried to do here is go for a more asynchronous system, where it’s about hit reacts."

“This means that the combat animations work nicely between different character types, but then on top of that, we have specific animations between different character sizes, so a giant can pick up a human for example, and smash its head in the ground and toss it away, but they wouldn’t be able to do that to an arachnarok, for example, so they go into a separate combat system.”


Creative Assembly has not only had to expand to meet the increased development demands of this game,  They’re also forced to adopt a different business model to previous Total War titles, which had a single flagship release, such as the recent Total War: Rome 2, followed by a more focused follow up, such as Total War: Attila.

Instead, they’re moving towards what Blizzard is doing with StarCraft 2, offering three separate stand-alone Warhammer titles, each offering a big chunk of Warhammer’s geography and population, with individual DLC and updates offered between releases. However, despite being stand-alone, each will feed into the other, combining the map sections from each into one game. The idea is that by the time all three are out, each of Warhammer’s sixteen races will be present.

“We’re really trying not to bite off more than we can chew,” Mann tells me. “We really went ‘this is as much as we can feasibly do’, and then we’re going to do the expansions in a feasible fashion, so we can get these other elements into the game in the long term.”

The difficulty of managing the scope isn’t just limited to the task of bringing the battlefield alive, as the outlandish nature of each of Warhammer’s races requires their renditions on the campaign map be similarly unique.

“Going back to that analogy that we’re doing four different Total War games at once here, you’ve got four different campaigns.” Hall explains, “You’ve got Greenskins, who aren’t going to care about taxing human settlements or public order. So we have to create new value systems and campaign systems specific to each race. For the orcs it’s going to be about the Waaaaagh, and momentum, and if you as the player come across an obstacle, such as a mountain range, or the dwarves get themselves together and stop you, you’re going to lose momentum and not do very well in the campaign.”

The result of this is that Creative Assembly is going to be making Total War: Warhammer for a very long time, building on a single product instead of iterating on a single engine and trying to adapt it for a different time period every few years. It’s an increase in work, but hopefully the stability of setting will allow them to avoid or at the very least mitigate the historic difficulty they’ve had with the complexity of their simulation running into a variety of issues and bugs on release.

It also provides a fitting swan song to the Warhammer world, as Games Workshop retires the setting after three decades and reboots it into Age of Sigmar. For a deal that Hall tells me has been in the works for a decade itself, Total War: Warhammer is coming at an appropriate time. 

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