Returning to Athel Loren: Realm of the Wood Elves Anniversary Interview
Today marks the fourth anniversary of the release of the Total War: WARHAMMER DLC Realm of the Wood Elves!
To celebrate, we chatted with members of the Total War: WARHAMMER team who worked on the DLC about their memories of the development process, the rationale behind Realm of the Wood Elves, and how it helped pave the way for many of the Total War: WARHAMMER series’ subsequent features.
CA: What did you work on for Realm of the Wood Elves?
Richard Aldridge: As the lead designer back then, basically a bit of everything. But my “main areas”, if you like, were the defining the core game mechanics for the team to work on, along with the narrative of the campaign and the tricky task of deciding what would make the cut for the Wood Elf army roster.
Michael Beirne: I was development manager for Realm of the Wood Elves, and looked after the day-to-day running of the team and their tasks to make sure everything was on track for its release.
Oscar Andersson: Realm of the Wood Elves was the first project I worked on as a designer on the WARHAMMER team. I designed a couple of maps and helped out with balancing Wardancers, Wildwood Rangers, Glade Guards, Deepwood Scouts, Waywatchers, Waystalkers, and Glade Lords.
Baj Singh: At the time, I was the lead character artist on the Realm of the Wood Elves DLC.
My primary responsibilities were managing and mentoring the developers responsible for creating the 3D character art (as well as approving the concept art to ensure it fit within the team’s specifications).
CA: What were the key aims behind Realm of the Wood Elves when it was first conceived?
Richard Aldridge: Very much to play up their ideals and philosophies from the lore of the tabletop – a fairly insular faction that build tall and deep, but not wide like a standard Total War faction, which looks to paint the entire map in their colour. Quite the challenge, really, when you think of how Total War works. The Wood Elves feel at times almost anti Total War in their outlooks.
Another strong idea was to highlight to the player that the Wood Elves are not purely Elves at all, and in fact roughly half of their army is made up from magical creatures of the forests, like Treemen and Dryads. This was in part why we chose the characters that we did to create this split, which looking back is why we’ve made some of the changes in The Twisted & The Twilight as this was too much of a split and a disadvantage.
I also wanted their campaign to have a strong narrative element. We had received lots of positive feedback for the Beastmen campaign, which had a climactic end battle, and I wanted to try and expand on this further by making the Oak of Ages the centrepiece. This, of course, got me and the team thinking about how to structure the campaign around the Oak and create gates essentially for you the player to pass through, which led us to Amber (which I will talk about more in a bit).
Michael Beirne: Wood Elves were always a popular and highly demanded faction, and as we’d previously made a Beastmen DLC we wanted them and their biggest faction rivals the Wood Elves to do battle.
The Wood Elves have some iconic units like the Eagle Riders and Treemen, which draw parallels with classic fantasy but with their own unique flair.
As the first Campaign Pack we made for Total War: WARHAMMER, we wanted unique campaign mechanics, and came up with the Oak of Ages system as a unique way for the Wood Elves to defend their home region while simultaneously looking to expand their empire. We had a unique Amber currency and a climactic custom siege battle at the end of the Season of Revelations campaign.
Baj Singh: From the art point of view, it was an opportunity to help bring an interesting diversity of characters into the WARHAMMER roster, ensuring that they stood out as unique against the existing races.
CA: What are your main memories of working on Realm of the Wood Elves?
Richard Aldridge: Amber is a funny one, really, as in many ways it opened the door greatly for what we can now do in the WARHAMMER trilogy. It essentially set the tone for multiple currencies or resources if you like to be on the table for a faction. Without Amber, you wouldn’t have had Canopic Jars, Vortex Currency, Blood Kisses – you name it really.
It was a challenge back then to convince the wider team that the faction needed another resource in the game to collect other than just Gold and Growth – it’s mad really when you think about it and where we are now.
Now I know Amber didn’t quite work out as I or the team had intended it to (we have since changed it in The Twisted & The Twilight), but for me it was pivotal in both setting the Wood Elves apart from all the other races at the time of the DLC’s release and, more importantly, being the basis and foundation for most of our mechanics since. Without this granddaddy of a feature, we wouldn’t have the DLC we have now.
Michael Beirne: On Total War: WARHAMMER, the DLC designers worked in parallel with the core game designers – the DLC designers were ambitious and wanted to push the boat out on each DLC. Wood Elves was an elaborate undertaking, and the first Campaign Pack for Total War: WARHAMMER. With the relatively new DLC team striving to make standout content, there were doubts along the way from the core team – especially about the unique Amber currency. There were some heated debates on that feature. We weighed up scrapping the Amber currency altogether a few times!
I also remember the flair of the Wood Elves on the battlefield – the weapon trails and unique arrow types looked like a firework display!
Oscar Andersson: It was very much a learning process for me. There was a lot to take in and I made my fair share of mistakes that resulted in valuable learnings.
Baj Singh: From my time on that project, it was great seeing how the team tackled all of the art and animation involved, particularly in the cases of the Treemen and Great Eagle Rider units as these were quite unique to our game in terms of their mechanics at the time.
CA: Do you have any particularly interesting and/or funny stories about the development process?
Richard Aldridge: This may not what you’re expecting me to say, but I remember at the time the feedback that we were receiving from the previous DLCs that we’d released was really starting to build more and more confidence in the team to try and push our designs and ambitions.
This might seem a little odd now with where we are today, but back on WARHAMMER I we were still very conscious of trying to keep WARHAMMER a Total War game that our classic fanbase would enjoy playing and to not go too wild to start with and damage the core essence of a Total War game. But after Beastmen and the two subsequent Lord Packs, we knew that the sky was the ceiling based on what people were saying and to just go for it.
That’s why we saw the multiple starting locations, the split skill trees, 360 firing arcs, new currencies to play with, etc., so thank you for pushing us – it’s made the team what it is now.
Michael Beirne: I don’t know if someone still has a picture of this, but our brand manager Joey was obsessed with Wood Elves! She even came into work dressed as one (I think it was for Halloween? Or a live stream?).
Oscar Andersson: Wood Elves were a first in Total War history to feature missile infantry that could both fire on the move and fire in every direction while moving. Previously we’d only done missile cavalry with similar characteristics, so this was new unit design space as missile infantry would have a lot more firepower.
I remember the team was anxious about how that would translate into gameplay and how powerful that mechanic could be, and we had a lot of iteration on the balance of these new units. In the end we erred on the side of caution, and the Wood Elf Deepwood Scouts and Waywatchers turned out to be underpowered on release as a result. It just goes to show how hard it can be to judge how strong radically new units are.
Baj Singh: I think the Treekin unit proved to be quite a unique conversation within the team. It was introduced into the roster quite late, and so there was very little time from an animation point of view to really make them stand out.
I can’t remember who it was, but someone suggested that we look at the Chaos Spawn animation rig and see if we could repurpose that in a meaningful way – an idea which was originally scoffed at – but in retrospect it was definitely the right way to go.
CA: Were there any particularly challenging aspects or moments when working on Realm of the Wood Elves?
Richard Aldridge: I think it’s fair to say that developing the mini campaigns was always quite the challenge for us, not in creating the map and decorating it but in trying to emulate the grand campaign in a much more bite-sized chunk.
We certainly tried a few things, and I remember we toyed with the idea of having the Wood Elves mini campaign very much as a survival mode for quite a while – essentially sending stacks and stacks of enemies to burn down the Oak and then recording how long you could last, with your score being recorded on a leaderboard of some sort.
As much as we enjoyed making these campaigns, by digging down deeper into one part of the world – in this case Athel Loren and seeing it in all its glory – I think we always struggled to pull in enough variation from the grand campaign that you have all come to love and enjoy (from what we’ve heard!).
I still have a soft spot for these campaigns, but we’ve moved on and taken on board the feedback that we received for them.
Michael Beirne: All of it! The DLC team were ambitious with this Campaign Pack, and it was our big release for Christmas 2016 so we didn’t have much space to move the deadline. It was the first new campaign map in Total War: WARHAMMER, and also had other technical and UI challenges. We had to lay the foundations for making future Campaign Packs.
Oscar Andersson: The main memory I have is trying to solve the problem of dance abilities for Wardancers. We knew the units needed to have dances represented as abilities in some way, but at the same time we wanted to avoid the problem of having dance activation be mandatory for getting the unit to perform at its intended power. In the end, we baked one of the dances into the unit stats of the Wardancers and made the other dance an optional ability that would be situationally useful. This worked in terms of gameplay, but I think it did end up falling short in terms of the unit’s fantasy.
Baj Singh: I remember the Dryads being a unit that was quite difficult for the concept/character team to get their heads around. We were trying to think of a way to make the unit feel natural visually while ensuring that it was customisable by the team for variation.
In the end we settled on a socketing system, allowing us to plug in different arms and heads to allow enough visual differentiation between each individual Dryad.
CA: What were you most proud of contributing to Realm of the Wood Elves?
Richard Aldridge: I think Amber for the reasons I mentioned earlier, not in its implementation within the Realm of the Wood Elves but what it has allowed us to do since. I was also super proud of showing off the entirety of Athel Loren in all of its glory in the mini campaign.
Michael Beirne: I was proud of the DLC team. I was proud we managed to release such a complex DLC in our slot before Christmas. I’m proud we challenged Total War conventions with the unique mechanics. I’m proud of the artists, and how unique and interesting the characters turned out.
Oscar Andersson: For me, Realm of the Wood Elves was a project where I made a lot of mistakes in terms of unit stats and I pitched many flawed unit roles. It has taken me quite some time to get the Wood Elf content to a point where I’m happy with where each unit is in terms of stats and unit role.
Baj Singh: Haha, unfortunately due to management commitments I only managed to work on the Sisters of the Thorn character (which I was happy with). The rest of the team did an amazing job, and I am eternally grateful for the enthusiasm and commitment towards their craft and the project.
CA: What are you most looking forward to about the Wood Elves rework in the upcoming Old World Update?
Richard Aldridge: It has to be the Deeproots mechanic. This was something we wanted to deliver in our original vision of the Wood Elves. Seeing the armies now being able to essentially teleport around the world between the various magical forests and bring the Worldroots to life is almost like having a dream come true. I guess we managed to twist enough programmer arms on this one!
I’m also super excited for us to be injecting some new life into Naggarond in the Vortex campaign with the Sisters’ new starting location to help make this a more interesting and diverse location to play in. I know it’s not quite the “Lustria Bowl” yet, though!
Oscar Andersson: I’m mainly looking forward to seeing what the tweaks we’ve done to the old units and characters does to the way the Wood Elves fight battles.
The season of war is here!
For more peeks behind the scenes at the Total War development process, be sure to check out the rest of the blog – and don’t forget to pick up your copy of the Total War: WARHAMMER – Realm of the Wood Elves DLC here!