Total War: Arena's ongoing quest to reshape competitive strategy

Creative Assembly has a good thing going with its Total War franchise. For seven games now, it's been remarkable successful at combining real-time tactics and turn-based strategy, making money and consistently expanding its studio. Their next game, Rome 2: Total War, a sequel to the most beloved game in the franchise, is as close to a sure thing as exists in the game industry. But the game after that? That's Total War: Arena, announced at the Game Developers Conference, and it's a major risk, one with even greater potential reward.

Create Assembly has enough confidence in its games and its audience that the reveal wasn't a movie or demo of the game. Instead, it used a set of abstract illustrations to demonstrate its ideas for Arena. A few of these examples used Rome 2 assets, and that game will provide the initial base for Arena, but it wasn't graphics that were announced.

Total War: Arena will be an online battle between teams of a maximum of ten players apiece, with the individual players controlling up to three units. It will be free-to-play, with in-game experience and currency used to upgrade your units or purchase new ones. The monetization scheme will be based on purchasing "accelerators" which will help you gain experience and/or currency quicker, as opposed to pay-to-win or gated content.

Total War Arena has a long way to go in its big to reshape competitive strategy gaming

There's a lot to like about the overall concept. The success of League Of Legends and other games within the "MOBA" genre certainly indicates that there is a market for detailed real-time tactical games. But that particular genre is so specifically focused on its form of lone champions fighting over three lanes in teams of five that there should be room for broader styles of real-time tactics; the main Total War series involves real-time strategic battles but isn't a real-time strategy game like StarCraft.

Total War: Arena could appeal to huge numbers of people who either dislike the general MOBA form, or who wouldn't mind something different. No matter how much potential appeal Arena may have, many things could go wrong.

In his presentation, Lead Designer James Russell detailed a few of the sticking points. Creative Assembly wants Arena, with its three units under one person's control, to involve as many actions per minute as a single-player Total War game, with twenty units available at once. They didn't have a clear answer for how to accomplish that, and as Russell detailed, have been experimenting with ideas like being able to split units into smaller parts, or perhaps to have MOBA-style skill uses for units or their captains.

The willingness to describe a difficult issue and acknowledge that there wasn't an obvious answer for it yet was one of the aspects of the unveiling of Arena that was most impressive, oddly. Russell's GDC presentation, as well as a later interview alongside Designer Gabor Beressy, indicated a consistent behavior of acknowledging potential issues, willingness to confront them, and honesty about how early in the development cycle they were. Creative Assembly exudes confidence in their ability to make Arena work.

But it is quite early in the development cycle. Beyond simply an unwillingness to mention any kind of release date, the announcement of Arena was notable for not actually including any screenshots, let alone a demo video. A few videos using the Rome 2 engine as a starting point were shown, but the bulk of the presentation's visuals were mock-up drawings.

Total War Arena has a long way to go in its big to reshape competitive strategy gaming

A battle sequence from Rome 2: Total War

Still, there were some specifics to be grasped. Russell indicated that the units which would ship with the original game would be those of ancient Europe, particularly Roman and Greek, with more to come over time-a grinning Beressy mentioned that he'd love to see Attila the Hun face off against Genghis Khan as Scipio Africanus watched from the sidelines. They also wanted to ensure that the core game was working before getting deep into clan battles or trying to be treated as an eSport, but that both of those were goals.

There are a few areas worthy of skepticism, though. The designers say that they want battles to be around ten minutes long, but that time seems low even for many of the biggest single-player Total War battles, let alone Arena's fights with up to nineteen other people. Little to no mention of human community management was made, but the developers seem convinced that they can design game systems which prioritize or de-prioritize cooperation in ways that would prevent toxic player interactions from dominating game experiences, as happens so often in competitive strategy titles.

Creative Assembly has the ideas and the resources to make Total War: Arena into a genre-shaping event. But it also has a lot of work to do to give it that chance. It'll be worth keeping an eye on.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.