Total War: Three Kingdoms lead designer talks about the perfect Total War setting

(Image credit: Sega)

This interview was conducted in April earlier this year and originally published in PC Gamer UK issue 331. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.

Leif Walter is in a relaxed state as I speak to him ahead of his appearance on stage to talk Total War: Three Kingdoms at EGX Rezzed in London. A fan of Total War since before he joined Creative Assembly, he now talks enthusiastically about the series and his work on it. During our conversation, he answers questions about how Creative Assembly decided on ancient China as a setting, how the era manifests in Three Kingdoms’ design, and what the future might hold for the Total War series.

PC Gamer: This is probably the first Total War to explore a new era or timeline since Attila, with the exception of Warhammer. What is it about exploring new eras, new timelines, in the series that excites the development team? 

Leif Walter: Well, for a Total War game, you always look for turbulent and interesting periods of history where there’s conflict and drama, maybe an interesting development at a cultural level. And when we first got in touch with the Three Kingdoms period, we realised very quickly that, basically, it was the perfect Total War setting. A lot of charismatic characters and leaders with relationships between each other and backstabbing and this kind of drama. Massive armies marching against each other. It’s basically the perfect Total War setting. You know, there’s the massive Han dynasty, the Han empire, which is basically the equivalent of the Roman Empire. And this big empire, crumbling, suffering from internal corruption, engulfed in this big civil war. It was the perfect setting.

For the most part, it’s Game of Thrones before Game of Thrones actually happened? 

Yeah, basically! I mean, like I said, there’s sort of fake gods and fake armies marching against each other. But mostly there’s cool, personal stories between characters and personal feuds, maybe sometimes irrational friendships or irrational rivalries. That would inform gameplay decisions and the directions for the gameplay design. It’s pretty clear we need these personal relationships to have an impact on your campaign.

How do you decide on the balance between the story and the game systems? How do you bring those two things together? 

It’s an interesting balance to strike. We always have the three big pillars between historical accuracy, authenticity, fun, and then of course some interesting gameplay that we want to bring in. And yeah, sometimes we have to make those sacrifices to increase the fun of both. I would say with Three Kingdoms, there’s the benefit of having two big sources that allow different factors to that problem. There’s Records of the Three Kingdoms for the pure historical period, and then the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel which delivered all this personal drama. So we have these two big sources we could draw from.

(Image credit: Sega)

You mentioned it in part in the first question, but what’s the creative process like in determining what is the right era or timeline to bring to a Total War game? Describe that for me.

I mean obviously we all have sort of an idea of certain historical periods. There’s loads of cultural knowledge of certain things like the medieval era, there’s knights, and in ancient Japan, samurai. And so the story of the Three Kingdoms is a bit of an almost surprise find because it’s not very well known in the west. It has a huge cultural legacy in the east, in China and Japan.

But in the West, it’s not very well known, so it was almost like getting sudden inspirations from, say, movies and then you learn more about that period, and then you try to match the historical context with possible gameplay mechanics and how they tie together.

And then sometimes you’ll be running through a situation where you feel like certain settings might be cool, but then you learn more about it, and you realise maybe there’s not enough cultural richness, not really enough battles, these kinds of things. The Three Kingdoms has both. Like I said, the perfect match.

You mentioned how in the West, it’s not as well-known as, say, in China and Japan. So how do you go making that sort of story easy for players to understand, who don’t really know that background? Or who just aren’t as historically savvy and so don’t know the story?

There are two big things about this. First of all, I think from my personal experience, Total War games—or any historical game for that matter—are a great vehicle to get players more interested in that kind of time period, so you deliver nice appetisers and then they start to learn a bit more about that period, then they go away from the game and get a history book out. I think this process, that’s where Total War games can be really cool. A piece of entertainment that’s educational.

Secondly, Total War is a sandbox game, so for us it’s always important to not necessarily tell the story in a narrative, it doesn’t have to play out exactly like the Three Kingdoms novel for example.

But what we wanted was to create an environment where players almost create their own Three Kingdoms story. And that’s so important. I know Ma Chao ended up being in Liu Bei’s army—being one of his generals—but it’s more about creating gameplay systems that allow players to forge their own story and so focus not so much on delivering that detail, but more about enabling players to tell their own stories.

(Image credit: Sega)

So how accessible have you made the game for newcomers, or for maybe those like me, who have had very light experience with the series? I think I’ve played only an hour or an hour and a half of Shogun 2. So how do you make that accessible for newer players or old players with little experience with the series?

That’s one big pillar for us was the concept of gating, so that... Total War is a complex tactics game—there’s no way around it—there’s always going to be that complexity and that’s what players are interested in. But what we wanted to achieve was that the game starts off with less systems involved, less things to be aware of, less things to run towards.

So to start off, it’s very straightforward, you build armies and take territories. But as you go and you learn more about the game, the game gets increasingly harder, more challenging and more complex.

You just don’t want to overburden the player from the start?

Exactly, because what’s most important for our fans, we wanted to create a rich Total War experience that has a lot of deep mechanics in it. So we didn’t want to make it, you know, over-accessible and streamline it too much, but have this journey through the game where you start off not overburdened with thousands of things to manage and then you learn more about the game as you go.

Can you talk about the inclusion of the Romance Mode, because it changes the dynamics of the game and has a different tempo to Records mode. With Records, it’s more strategic, but with Romance, everything feels more fast-paced, with a higher tempo, etc. Was that daunting at all to explore, settling on the difference in style and pace between the two modes?

First of all, like I said, we have these two big sources for the game, so it was pretty obvious from the beginning that we want these two perspectives. And like I said, especially in battle, we tell you the difference between [Records], where it’s all about how you position your troops and the manoeuvres you perform, and Romance, where you almost have an additional tactical layer on top.

[In Romance], you have your army interactions, and then your heroes and how they interact with the enemy heroes. So it’s a cool interesting additional layer and sort of fits the over-arching mechanics of battles to keep the tempo a bit up because you want a fast pace to move the heroes to another area, trigger an ability, leave an impact there, then move somewhere else. So you have a faster interaction with the game.

(Image credit: Sega)

The Total War series has visited so many eras and timelines, from Shogun to Rome and even Warhammer. And it feels like each setting brings a different size and scope, especially with the launch of the Total War Saga series. What is it about the series that makes it so consistent, even as the setting changes? What is it that keeps it fresh for players?

Like I said, Total War games are a very evocative sandbox for a historical environment. Especially for me, I was a Total War player before I joined Creative Assembly.

And for me, it was always to play the same pattern where I had this narrative in my head. I started with Rome: Total War and there you have your generals with their trades, and you tie everything together with a backstory about your generals, and it’s all embedded in this historical context. So it’s almost like watching, like you said earlier, Game of Thrones, or a historical series like the Rome HBO series, and I think it’s just a very nice journey for players. That’s what they appreciate, and then the different settings deliver a different flavour.

Quality wise, of course, CA are passionate developers who want to deliver high quality content, and we always try to be better next project, learn from our mistakes and try to make the best historical game possible.

What can CA do in the future to keep that consistency going for the series for the next five, ten, twenty years? Assuming we can all look forward to that sort of vision in the future...

I mean, Total War, that’s large battles, and historical settings and environments, and trying to achieve it in this game. That’s the formula... Now there are many more exciting historical periods to explore, we also listen to what our fans are asking for in some of the titles. So yeah, there’s a lot of amazing content to explore, and mechanic wise, I think we’ll always push the Total War formula and make it more engaging and tell even grander stories to players, enable them to tell their own stories. There’s exciting stuff to look forward to.