The First Roll of the Dice
We begin this history with its humble origins; this was no genesis built around blockbuster releases the likes of which the franchise enjoys today. The earliest, low-fi offerings would one day be followed by games developed using budgets of more significance, because in the years that followed those first tentative steps, the tentacles of Games Workshop's popular franchises extended their grip on the digital realm.
You could argue that it all started with HeroQuest, a Milton Bradley board game that would eventually evolve into the more recognisably titled Warhammer Quest. The original was a tabletop game based on and in Games Workshop's Warhammer universe, even if its origins aren't as clearcut as those of the games that followed. It spawned a reasonably faithful video game adaptation that came to PC in 1991, developed by 221B Software Development and published by Gremlin Interactive (or Gremlin Graphics), the same company that would also publish the first science fiction offering, 1992's Space Crusade (which, incidentally, is the point in this history where much of the GR-UK team came on board). Like HeroQuest before it, it was a simpler take in terms of lore and gameplay than what would follow after, and like its fantasy-themed contemporary, it was based in the Warhammer universe (this time 40K), borrowing concepts and style from the board game setting developed by Milton Bradley and Games Workshop.
HeroQuest would get a similarly isometric sequel in 1994, but Space Crusade would end there, replaced by the EA-crafted Space Hulk, a game that fits neatly into the 40K universe, and one that to this day remains a favourite of those who played it. This was a real-time first-person squad-based hyphen-heavy strategy game for PC and Amiga that landed in 1993. The game borrowed heavily from the board game original, even if the pause mechanic changed the dynamic somewhat. Vengeance of the Blood Angels followed two years later on the ill-fated 3DO (the year after on PC, PSOne and Sega Saturn), and carried on with the first-person, claustrophobic feel of the original Space Hulk, but upped the ante thanks to much-improved visuals. Those Genestealers looked mean as hell, and still do to this day. Space Hulk wouldn't make a return for many years, not until the divisive series entry from Full Control that saw release in 2013.
Blood Bowl is another example of a series spinoff that launched in the '90s, only to make a return in the years that followed. Cyanide took it upon themselves to realise a video game version of a game that riffs on football (of the American persuasion). As was the case with Full Control's Space Hulk, Cyanide had to find their own balance between maintaining the core, and delivering something that a gaming audience would appreciate. "We keep the concept of the game and the basic rules of it," Gauthier Brunet, lead game designer on the recently released Blood Bowl 2, told us. The focus is still on playability, as the studio obviously wants to attract a new and growing audience to the game. "We make it as simple as possible, but always keeping the core rules of the game."
That's not to say that there aren't embellishments, but in the case of Blood Bowl these tend to happen off the field and in the management part of the game, a move which Brunet says allows them to stay true to the original vision of the board game while still fleshing out the world that surrounds their particular corner of the franchise. "We worked in collaboration with a writer who is a former Games Workshop employee and we had fun updating the Blood Bowl universe to something more relevant to our world. Blood Bowl always has been a parody of sport in our modern world. We wanted to update this parody, bringing all the new vices that we all know, from the relationship with money and investors, to the modern communication tools that change the way supporters behave with their favourite club."
Blood Bowl is the perfect example of how video games need to adapt their source material and make it fit for a different medium, and it's one of several examples where Games Workshop are sympathetic to the needs of developers working within their IP. "When you are working on an IP that you do not own, you have to change your pipeline to include the validation process, similar to working on a movie adaptation. The difference is that Blood Bowl is a game, people at Games Workshop are all gamers and they are aware of all the constraints we are facing," Brunet explained.
One series that captured the personality and atmosphere of Warhammer better than most was Relic's Dawn of War. While both main entries in the series adapt the source material in different ways, the first (released in 2004) offers a markedly different take on the tabletop game that it's based on, while the sequel (that launched in 2009) more closely follows the formula laid down in one of the studio's other real-time strategy series, Company of Heroes, and thus is more focused on combat in cover and capturing resources.
Although the studio didn't try to clone the tabletop, they revealed their affection for the IP via the tone and character of their game. Relic's principal designer, Philippe Boulle, told us that there was an internal campaign with Warhammer 40K players based at the studio petitioning to work on the license. He outlined the twelve-year collaboration between the studio and Games Workshop, explaining how they "came to the original project as fans, as people who wanted to see what we loved about the tabletop brought to life on our PCs, and I think they reacted well to that."
The two companies collaborated on the Blood Ravens, a Space Marine chapter created for the Dawn of War franchise, and it's a fine example of the cooperation that regularly happens between Games Workshop and the various studios working with their licenses. "Their interest is always to help us make something great, but that falls within their property, that doesn't dilute it, that doesn't make it into something that it's not." According to Boulle there is "a lot of freedom about how we get to the essence of the property."
"They make a very big distinction that they're licensing the intellectual property, not the hobby. So our job isn't to reproduce the tabletop slavishly, our job is to get at the essence, to the thing that attracts people to the IP," Boulle told us, before later adding that they're "not beholden to the balance that [Games Workshop] pursue on the tabletop, and they fully recognise that we're our own game, we're in control of our gameplay, it's just a matter of making sure it resonates with their property."
Relic has the freedom to evolve their game through iteration, and in time they have adapted the series to fit their house style, moving further and further away from the tabletop ruleset that inspired them in the first place.
A counterpoint to Dawn of War comes via Space Hulk. Creators Full Control are currently on hiatus, the company still in recovery and limited to collecting funds from sales with a view to possibly one day making a possible return. The misfortunes suffered by the studio could make up their own article, so we'll not delve too deep here (indeed, it's probably not even that relevant to this particular point, as their Warhammer 40K games actually sold pretty well). They did, however, stumble into a harsh critical reception when they released their first game in 2013, which was closely based on the original board game. We asked CEO Thomas Lund why he thought this was the case, and he outlined two theories.
"Video gamers wanted a video game," he told us, "board gamers wanted to have a true conversion. The video gamers did not expect the slow gameplay with dice roll in a window. If you approach Space Hulk from an 'I like Dawn of War,' then you could see this clash right away."
Lund continued: "We went into this project from a company perspective of not wanting to make the video game, and sticking to the battle proven formula of the physical game, totally open-eyed that we would hit a smaller niche of players. We tried to communicate this during the pre-release phases, but I am unsure if everyone understood what we were saying. We did have various ideas ourselves where the game we were making could be improved as a video game, or even a non-99% conversion. But once we went down the path of communicating that the game was true to the physical game, we could not implement those things without backtracking."
While this is most certainly true, another theory of Lund's is that adaptations like the one they made only serve to expose the difference in complexity between video games and board games, as well as highlighting the absence of that all-important social factor; the beer, the table, the dice in your hand, the despair etched on the face of your opponent when you vanquish them. The implication of what Lund says is simple: the social interaction that's built around tabletop gaming doesn't translate so well into video game format. It's a persuasive hypothesis. With that in mind, it's no surprise to hear that when the studio turned their attention to crafting a follow up, 2014's Ascension, they were much more focused on the video game side of the equation. We cruelly asked the company CEO to choose, and while Lund is proud of both games, he thinks the second plays better than the first. The question is then, could they have built that game the first time around?
"To be honest I don't think we could have. One reason is that we, for Space Hulk, could concentrate on the production itself and not also have to juggle a complete new game design, while also growing a company at the same time. For Ascension we had all the art pieces and the lessons learned from Space Hulk, and could concentrate almost solely on how to build the game experience rather than the Lego bricks themselves. If that makes sense.
"I will look back and be proud of both games really. Space Hulk because we did something unexpected and made a game for a group of people who had (at that point) almost no other games to play. I think we were one of the first true conversions of a major game. Ascension because it's a great video game."
If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that there's plenty of expectation surrounding Warhammer. Perhaps Space Hulk also fell foul of the Xcom factor, with the Firaxis reboot changing our modern expectations of what a sci-fi turn-based strategy should feel like. A bold and noble experiment from Full Control it may have been, it does seem to act as a cautionary tale for developers contemplating working on such an established IP, as none of the other studios we talked to are contemplating bringing the tabletop so faithfully to life.
There's plenty of historical precedent for developers doing their own thing, even when designing their games around the core tabletop experience. Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat landed in 1995, and was probably the first title based on the franchise that focussed on moving large numbers of troops around a battlefield - for many fans the beating heart of Warhammer. SotHR was in many respects a trailblazer, and introduced concepts that would later make appearances in the Total War series and in Warcraft III (the latter being hero units, an innovation that formed the basis of Dota). It's fair to say that this particular game was ahead of its time.
PC strategy specialists SSI published Final Liberation which followed in '97 (based on the grander-scale of the Epic strand of 40K), and the following year we got Dark Omen, a sequel that like SotHR before it, was crafted by Mindscape (although the second, which ditched the Skaven and went instead for an Undead enemy, was published by EA) and borrowed plenty from the tabletop ruleset. It would be several years before we'd see a meaningful return to the fantasy half of Games Workshop's stable, and it wasn't until Creative Assembly finally unveiled Total War: Warhammer earlier this year that a game based on the series generated such serious excitement.
"We really are making a Total War game here," Creative Assembly's battle designer Simon Mann told us when we asked how they were making something that had the feel of the tabletop, but retained the essence of the existing Total War franchise. He explained that they're doing it by "taking the spirit of the tabletop game" and translating that into video game form. This means that first and foremost, their game is going to fit the Total War mould.
"With a Total War game you've got a lot of elements that a Warhammer game doesn't actually contain such as campaign games, real-time battles. It's not something you can really directly map." Even if for some reason they had wanted to make a carbon copy of the tabletop, it simply wouldn't work, and as such the studio has to cherry pick the ideas and concepts that they think are going to best serve their vision. Mann, not for the first time during our interview, rolls out the word "spirit" to describe the various elements that they're taking from the tabletop to the desktop. Lead writer Andy Hall described that spirit as "endless, perpetual war," and when considered next to their own war-centric PC franchise, "the two just merged naturally."
Total War and Warhammer does seem like the perfect fit on paper, and it's a collaboration that fans of both - often they're one and the same - have long been asking for. Creative Assembly and Games Workshop were more than aware of the suitability of this particular match, and have been plotting the union for many years, since around the time when Bandai Namco were releasing Battle March on PC and Xbox 360 in the mid-00s.
"We've been talking to each other for ten years, on and off, and basically it was just about getting the right moment, the right time," Hall told us, explaining that for CA it was a case of waiting until the studio was able to make a Warhammer game without interfering with their cycle of historical games. With the history side of things ticking along with Total War: Arena (and whatever they're working on post-Attila), and with the studio also counting Alien and Halo among the IPs that they're either working on or have recently finished with, they're obviously at a point now where they're ready to multitask on an unprecedented scale. "The stars finally aligned in 2012 which is when we first announced the game, and now here we are."
Here we are indeed, and already there's huge anticipation and expectation building around their take on Warhammer, which may or may not turn out to be a poison chalice. It's a factor that every developer needs to consider when building a game based on a Games Workshop IP; the existing fanbase means that creators must be mindful, and that caution needs to extend beyond player reverence for the original tabletop games.
"There is definitely a level of expectation," Iain McNeil, development director at Slitherine, told us. "The IP has not really been a problem but the previous games in the IP have set some expectations of what users want to see in a game. For example, there are many Dawn of War fans out there and all they want is a sequel to Dawn of War and any strategy game which is not that can get a tough reception! For many of these fans, Warhammer 40K and Dawn of War are synonymous and they can't imagine one without the other. We try hard to make it clear what we're making and why, but changing perceptions isn't easy."
The sentiment from McNeil echoes what Thomas Lund communicated to us; it's not only the original IP that holds sway over people's expectations, so to do other video games based on the franchise, and it's easy to see why studios are wary of big hitters like Dawn of War. McNeil's team at Slitherine and The Lordz Games Studios took a style similar (but far from the same) to the one seen in their Panzer Corps series, and used it as the basis for creating Warhammer 40,000: Armageddon, which in this case means hex-based combat and quirky pixel art assets. While their particular take on the IP works well, it's easy to see why the studio are keen to put distance between themselves and unrealistic expectations (and unfair comparisons).
The solution is for developers to be given the autonomy they need to make their games work, retaining their own vision, and being able to differentiate themselves from their peers, and to be fair, this seems to be something that Games Workshop is doing a good job of facilitating. This means that devs get to do things a little differently, and can push up to the boundary between what they can and can't get away with. Of course GW are protective of their IP and don't offer too much flex, but this too is something that can push devs into trying out new ideas: "Occasionally there are things we'd like to do that we can't for IP reasons, but often limitations force you to be more creative and come up with more interesting solutions," McNeil said, however, he also added that Games Workshop is "the best licensor we've ever worked with."
Of course, one way of dealing with player expectation is to involve them early on in the process, which is exactly what they're doing over at Rogue Factor, the studio currently working on Mordheim: City of the Damned. Creative director Yves Bordeleau explained that "while it is indeed stressful to work on an IP with a huge fan base," they figured that the best way to deal with that was to "include them in the development process through the Early Access program on Steam. That way we are working in total transparency with the fans and we get incredible feedback along the way; thus improving the game with each update we push on Steam."
Bordeleau's team, like so many mentioned here, aren't aiming to exactly replicate the tabletop, and thus they're flexible when it comes to making design decisions, although it was noted that the IP holders are still very hands-on: "Since we are working on an adaptation of the game (not a 1:1 digital port), we have plenty of leeway. Games Workshop has provided a lot of creative input and are of a tremendous help with the design process," he said.
A game that took Warhammer 40K in a markedly different direction was Relic's third-person shooter, Space Marine, which followed a template not dissimilar to Gears of War. "It was really fun to be able to play in that universe from a different perspective," Boulle said when we asked about it. "It was a little outside our wheelhouse in terms of expertise... It can be a tough shift." While the man from Relic couldn't speculate on whether there were ever plans to return to the Space Marine concept while the studio was under the umbrella of THQ, he did venture that the studio are focussing on their RTS pedigree now that they're part of the Sega family: "As fun as and as rewarding Space Marine was, we don't have current plans to revisit it."
Elsewhere in the Warhammer 40K universe there's examples of games that didn't work brilliantly when viewed through an alternate lens, Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior being a case in point, the first-person perspective of Kuju Entertainment's 2003 shooter failing to make a big enough impact to spawn a sequel.
Another new angle comes from Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr, an action-RPG from Neocore Games that explores the more "chaotic" side of the sci-fi universe, this time via an isometric perch. "We are huge 40K fans," lead writer Viktor Juhász told us. "We always wanted to create an action-RPG set in this universe because there hasn't been any, so it seemed like a nice challenge."
While being faithful to the essence of the IP, the studio is doing like Relic and Space Marine, and are taking the franchise in a new direction, in this instance by creating an action-RPG. "We want to be as faithful to the universe as we can," Juhász said, before explaining how the game will be based in its own cordoned-off sector in space, a line drawn between the stars that gives the studio a certain amount of flexibility to do as they please, within reason of course. "I had so much freedom when creating this storyline. It's a very, very 40K story," he continued, adding that working with the detail afforded to him by the existing lore meant that he had a "huge playground" to work in.
Juhász described it as "a close collaboration" with Games Workshop, although he did mention that the company are quick to correct "when we are not doing something right. It means we are always checking in, they're always very glad to help us out. We want to stick to the rules, and we have all the help we need to be faithful to the lore."
When it comes to their vision for Total War: Warhammer, Andy Hall and Creative Assembly are also trying to take the franchise in a new direction, and they're aiming at delivering an epic sense of scale not yet seen in past adaptations. If anything, the games that they're known for are of a grander scale than the tabletop they're basing their offering on. We wondered how they've managed the shift from tabletop to desktop, and whether the subsequent design changes that came from that shift have impacted on their initial vision.
"Being able to work on a tabletop IP has sort of released us," Hall told us before his colleague, Simon Mann, added that the biggest challenge was actually the switch from turn-based to real-time: "we've tried to see how much of it we can get in, how interesting we can make it, how close to the source material but while still making it very much working in a real-time setting. The challenges of real-time are very different to those of a turn-based game."
This is the same whether we're talking about triple-A, or indie and mobile (there's plenty of smaller studios working on Warhammer games at the moment, so many in fact that it's hard to keep track), but regardless of the platform, Games Workshop will not let developers stray too far from the existing framework that's in place, and as expressed by Neocore, the company will shape development by making judgement calls. Herocraft's Vladimir Kravtsov explained that while there are "more pros than cons for us" when sticking to what's already mapped out, there are still things you can't do, something they discovered when making their mobile game, Warhammer 40,000: Space Wolf.
"Sometimes we are facing situations when we can't do something cool because of the rules of the Universe. For example, we speculated about the possibility to introduce female characters in our game. Girls do exist in Warhammer 40,000 fandom and we thought that it would be easier for them to immerse into the game if it had female characters. Unfortunately, no women are allowed among the ranks of Space Marines."
Cyanide's Sylvain Sechi, Blood Bowl 2's project manager, told us that while maintaining the attention to detail that fans expected was a challenge, it was also one of the real positives of working with the IP: "It's the details. The Warhammer universe is huge, yet every little detail really matters to give credibility to the universe across all entertainment medias. It takes time, dedication and passion to be able to focus on even the smallest details, like the shape of a beard or the precise angle of a shoulder spike when you're in a rush to ship a game. But despite the energy that it requires, I believe that's our favourite part."
While there are restrictions in play, the lure of working with the IP has drawn plenty of devs to drink at the well of Warhammer. Why so? Obviously, there's commercial potential there, an existing and popular framework to work within, but there's more to it than that. Most of the developers that we spoke to, at least as far as we could tell, are genuine fans of tabletop gaming, and in particular, hold the Warhammer games in the highest regard. It's a potent combination and it certainly goes some way to explaining why there's such a large number of recently released, incoming, and still unannounced games in development.
Currently in the works on the fantasy side of the divide is Fatshark's co-op action game The End Times - Vermintide, which has just been given a release date. Of course, we've mentioned Mordheim: City of the Damned and Total War: Warhammer once or twice, and in the latter, there's a trilogy of interlocking standalone games planned as part of the deal between Sega and Games Workshop. Blood Bowl 2 released last month.
On the other side of the fence there's the sci-fi MOBA Dark Nexus Arena (let's hope it fares better than Wrath of Heroes, a fantasy-themed genre entry that never made it past beta) and space-based RTS Battlefleet Gothic: Armada. Elsewhere, Focus and StreumOn Studio are having another bite at the Space Hulk apple with Deathwing (which should be more fast-paced than Full Control's offerings). There's Eternal Crusade, another attempt at cracking the MMO market, and one that hopes to proceed further than Vigil's ill-fated Dark Millennium, which died a death along with publisher THQ. Throw in Early Access chess variant Regicide, mobile title Freeblade, and action-adventure offering Eisenhorn: Xenos (plus there's rumours of a Necromunda game in the works), and there's a healthy queue forming. However, in terms of 40K, there's only one game that draws extreme excitement, and Relic is remaining tightlipped about the likelihood of another Dawn of War.
"40K remains a very important property to us," Boulle teased. "Right now we're focussed on our back catalogue, so we've done and are continuing to do things to reinvigorate Dawn of War, Dawn of War 2. We're continuing to look for ways to support that back catalogue, and continue to make great stuff in that IP."
With such a wonderfully inconclusive answer, it's easy to speculate that they're either cooking something up, or that they'd very much like to. And with overlords Sega also overseeing CA's deal with Games Workshop for Total War: Warhammer, it's not unreasonable to think that there might be something in play. Obviously, that's pure speculation on our part, but we live in hope, especially after an online domain name for Dawn of War 3 was recently registered.
What we can surmise then, when looking back across the width and breadth of Warhammer's shift from table to screen, is that the IP is in rude health, both in terms of figurines and their digital realisations. The transition from physical to digital isn't always smooth, and there are pitfalls that must be avoided, but the worlds created by Games Workshop have proved fertile hunting grounds for developers of all shapes and sizes. Sure there's been some poor games over the years, and others haven't aged as well as they might have done, but we've also seen some genuine classics emerge throughout the past twenty-odd years. The future looks bright with so many games currently in development, and the potential is there for many more studios to roll the dice and try their hand at realising the world of Warhammer.
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