Creative Assembly Announces Free-to-Play Title Total War: Arena

Total War is going free-to-play. Fans at today’s “Designing Total War” panel at GDC 2013 were stunned when Lead Designer James Russell unexpectedly announced Total War: Arena, a 10v10 “multiplayer online battle arena” that promises to redefine Total War multiplayer completely.

Instead of huge armies of 20 units, players will command just three, working together as cavalry commanders to protect an ally’s vulnerable archers and vice versa. Despite these reduced forces, players can’t slack: “We want to make sure it takes just as much skill to manage your three units as it does in core Total War,” explained Russell. Things that were automated may now require manual control; developers are experimenting with aimed skill-shots, usable items, and the ability to command small squads or even individual soldiers.

All these features, it must be said, are still very much in flux, and the design challenges inherent to creating Total War: Arena are complicated in the extreme. Since Arena is a new title made for multiplayer from the ground up, designers must decide which aspects of Total War to keep and which to change. Refining the core game’s damage modelling is an initial priority. Balancing the team-based gameplay, Russell pointed out, “is a very, very important thing to get right.” If teamwork is too crucial, players will be loath to play on a team with any weak links. If it becomes insignificant, players won’t work together, which defeats the purpose of making a 10v10 game in the first place.

Instead of the singleplayer campaign map, players will spend downtime between battles — which will themselves be “maybe 10 minutes” — customizing units and commanders with both experience and virtual currency. “We want you to be forming a relationship with the squad as you improve it,” Russell said. Because the game is free-to-play, there will be a monetization system based around “accelerators” that will enable players to unlock content faster. The developers “don’t want to block off big areas of content,” and Russell insisted that players will be able to access almost all the content for free if they invest enough time and patience.

There was one big question on everyone’s mind: which historical period would the game focus on? The answer: All of them. Creative Assembly wants to pit different generals from different historical periods against each other, and give players access to as much history as possible. Periodic content releases will introduce new units, commanders, eras, and much more still to be determined. “Eventually, we can have a whole sweep of different historical periods,” said Russell, as the audience murmured its approval.

With Total War: Rome 2 also on the horizon, it’s an exciting time to be a Total War fan. Free-to-play, microtransaction-driven titles don’t endear themselves to everyone, but the prospect of Total War with a true multiplayer focus and a blend of RTS and MOBA gameplay is certainly intriguing. Stay tuned for more information when it becomes available.

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