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Not So MMO: Total War: ARENA - Throwing the Doors Open

By Gareth Harmer on November 27, 2017 | Columns | Comments

Total War: ARENA - Throwing the Doors Open

It’s an important week for the studio behind Total War: ARENA. While we’ve been making Thanksgiving preparations or hitting the Black Friday sales, UK-based Creative Assembly has been strategically planning the next phase of its online tactical fest. We were invited down to the Horsham-based studio to find out more.

The big news is a massive Open Week, where anyone can log in and take part in 10 vs 10 player battles, built on that real-time tactical experience that the Total War series is known for. Running from 12pm UTC November 24th through to 9am UTC December 4, anyone taking part will also be granted access to the full closed beta. On top of that, they’ll be granted access to three premium units as a thanks for taking part.

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While at the studio, I got some valuable hands-on time with Total War: ARENA, playing against real opponents already in the closed beta, and had an absolute blast doing so. I also got the chance to meet up with lead meta game designer Jan ver der Crabben and development manager Stefan Aluttis, to find out more about the current state of development, free-to-play approach (no lootboxes!) and partnership with Wargaming.net.

All About Data

Jan ver der Crabben describes Total War: ARENA as ‘sitting in the triangle between MOBA, strategy, and battle simulator,’ and that’s definitely my experience after spending a few hours in-game. Battles aren’t click-heavy as Starcraft II or Heroes of the Storm, but there’s a definite sense of pace and momentum that builds as each side engages in the conflict. However, with only three military armies or units under your command, effective use of terrain is vital.

The Open Week is a great opportunity for newcomers to try out the tactical experience, but the studio is also going to be mining it for every scrap of data in order to improve the game experience. An earlier open weekend was just a test to make sure the systems could handle a spike of users, as van der Crabben explained. ‘Up until now, we’ve kept the closed beta quite small, to make sure that we only get the exact number of players we need to have a good gameplay experience. At the same time, also to have a statistically significant number of players for our metrics to influence balancing.’

By contrast, the Open Week will look at how a larger group of players will impact matchmaking and progression as the group shifts through the tiers of play. Aluttis eagerly described why this new batch of players will be important to watch. ‘Previously we invited players to the closed beta, and we had some control over that. Making it open, allowing anyone with an interest to join, creates a whole new cohort of players. How they progress, how they play, what makes them different to the main group.’

Spit & Polish

Like Rome and Rome 2, Total War: ARENA is set in the ancient era of history, stretching from roughly 1000BC to 300 AD. During my play session, I had the opportunity of taking on the role of a Greek, Roman or Barbarian commander, with figures like Vercengetorix and Sulla making an appearance. Each Commander gets a set of abilities that relate to how they historically conducted battle, and come with a tech tree of units to unlock. At the start of each battle I’d pick three of these, like a unit of archers or a platoon of phalanx, or even mounted cavalry or siege engines.

Each unit has a particular play style - my legionnaires can turtle themselves against incoming arrows, but can be decimated by armoured cavalry if it manages to flank. I found this out to my cost in an early game, where I was creeping along a hillside and trying to attack the main battle from the rear. One of the enemy commanders had hidden in a nearby forest, waiting until I overextended, then charged down the hill and flanked them. My troops were nearly wiped out, sapped of morale, and pinned down. It was a powerful lesson.

Such is the nature of Total War. At first glance, it feels like an RTS. But the maps have hills, valleys and buildings that are more nuanced than a flat surface, and more varied than the lanes and jungles of a MOBA. There’s a fog of war, but it’s smarter than just a circle around your units. And the volley of arrows you just fired into a brawl can strike your own troops as easily as your enemies. Catapult friendly fire can butcher an army.

With all the maps, commanders and units, there’s already a ton of content in the game, but Creative Assembly aren’t quite finished yet. The Open Weekend also includes a polish patch, where several of the features have been given an updated UI to make them clearer or easier to understand. An example is the updated scoreboard, which now explains how you got rewarded and why you won or lost. If there’s a tipping point between features and polish, Total War: ARENA is fast reaching it. 

All-Access Armies

Step into Creative Assembly’s playtest room, and one thing sticks out: the sheer range of PCs. There’s a 7-year old Intel rig with an ancient graphics card at one end, creeping up in spec to banks of newer machines. What’s more surprising is that Total War: Arena runs on all of them, providing a smooth experience at a huge range of graphics settings. It makes sense for a 10 vs 10 online game, as wide spec support can make a huge difference to the potential user base.

‘We’re actually still working on expanding this range of machines,’ ver der Crabben added. ‘We want to make sure it runs on even older machines than it does right now, and laptops as well. A lot of the laptops, even the newer ones, aren’t that strong in terms of graphics capability, and so that’s something we’re focusing on to make sure that even these users will be able to run the game.’

The studio’s also been sinking time into spectator and replay modes, but the focus hasn’t been on driving an eSport - it’s happy to sit back and see if it happens naturally. Instead, these modes were added to support the burgeoning beta community. Aluttis described to me how video creators were frustrating themselves and other players by screwing up battles, trying to capture the perfect shot. The new options mean that streamers are getting involved, and YouTubers are churning out detailed how-to guides.

Even so, the content work isn’t done. Medieval Japanese was announced as a new faction at Tokyo Game Show, and others are also in the works. Seasonal events will also be making an appearance, although I’m guessing that these will be more like the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia than getting Caesar in a jaunty Christmas hat. Even weather might sneak in at some stage in the future, although it’ll probably be more of a visual effect than changing the dynamics of battle.

Gunpowder, however, will probably not be added. Both Aluttis and van der Crabben felt that it would change the whole feeling of battle, based on their experience with Napoleon: Total War. Units would rarely come in direct contact, and instead face off against each other at a range. If it ever makes an appearance, it would ‘probably take a very long time to move into gunpowder.’

Soft-Scoop Monetisation

As a free-to-play title, I had to ask about Creative Assembly’s monetisation plans. On the white-hot topic of loot boxes, ver der Crabben was straight-talking. ‘We don’t have them. In my perspective, having a progression system based on random loot boxes doesn’t sound very good.’

Instead, a Premium subscription offers increased unit and commander XP, and currency for participating in battles. Commanders can be unlocked using Gold, the game’s Premium Currency, but are usually fairly easy to unlock just by playing battles. Some Premium Units also cost money to unlock, although these are usually based around functionality (such as increased XP or Silver coin farming rates) or utility (opening up Archers to Romans), and would typically be weaker than the regular unit.

The real surprise was how free-to-play stalwarts Wargaming actually encouraged the studio to soften up or ease off on their monetisation approach, as van der Crabben explained. ‘When we were live on Steam prior to Wargaming, and we announced we were going to wargaming, a lot of our fans who were classic Total War fans were like “Oh my God, Wargaming are going to turn it into pay-to-win, the world is going to end.” What actually happened is that, since we’ve been with wargaming, our game is less strongly monetised than it was before. Wargaming agrees with us that for our game, a strategy game, that the soft monetisation approach is right.’

Yes, there’s the usual assortment of cosmetics, consumables (which can also be bought for regular currency) and currency conversion, in a similar vein to World of Tanks. Founder’s Packs can also be picked up that include a bundle of unlocks and closed beta access for you and some friends. 

But why reach straight for your wallet when the Open Week is open to all comers for free until December 4? Not only that, but everyone signing up gets to remain in the Closed Beta once the Open Week closes, and gets a trio of premium units to sweeten the deal.

So, if real-time-strategy is a shade too clicky, if your current MOBA had left you lost in the jungle, and your battle simulator is stuck in the trenches, Total War: ARENA might be worth a download. And don’t forget to let us know if you end up checking it out!

Gareth Harmer / When he's not blasting or fireballing his way through a virtual world, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer can be found dissecting the mechanics of online games. Chua at heart, he's also our resident columnist for all things WildStar.