Sega’s The Creative Assembly studio is the steward of the Total War series, and its latest game, Total War Saga: Troy debuts August 13 on the Epic Games Store. This particular game is the work of Creative Assembly Sofia, and its game director is Maya Georgieva, a veteran of the Bulgarian dev house.
Georgieva got her start on the real-time strategy series with Total War: Rome II, which debuted in 2013. And now she has her shot at directing this installment, which is the latest in a 20-year-old franchise that has sold more than 20 million copies. I played the demo last week via Steam and then I interviewed her about the experience.
In the demo, I played two different campaigns, led by Menelaus of the Greeks and Paris of the Trojans. I’m excited about this game, as I read Homer’s The Iliad back in junior high school. I love how this game blends history and myth in a military simulation that operates both on a strategic regional level as well as a 3D battlefield experience.
I talked with Georgieva about the series, how the game came about, and how the team designed the experience to be a much broader experience than just a retelling of Homer’s narrow view of the war.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I’m glad you’re doing this game. I always wanted something like this, ever since I read The Iliad. How far back does this idea go for you?
Maya Georgieva: Honestly, the story of how we ended up with this setting and this idea for a game is probably a bit funny. We were doing a lot of content for Rome II. That was where we cut our teeth on Total War as a team. The first thing we did was stretching the capabilities of the game by going forward in the future. That was Empire Divided. It took place in the 3rd century, which was almost on the edge of the next installment, Attila.
After that, I wanted us to go back and make a game about the founding of Rome, a game about Romulus and Remus, the mythical origins of Rome. We ended up not being able to do that as a campaign. We figured out during the research that it’s actually a quite different era. We’d need to change too many mechanics. The art would be completely different. It was the wrong kind of material for just a campaign. But the idea stuck with us, how far back we could go with Rome.
If you follow the mythological and legendary accounts, though, it leads you back to Troy. The Romans believed that Aeneas, one of the leaders on the Trojan side, fled Troy after its destruction and ended up in Italy, where he founded a dynasty that eventually led to Romulus and Remus. The idea of going as far back as possible led us to Troy, and to the idea of making a game in the Bronze Age.
When you look into it, it’s quite different. You see those plumed helmets, those striking designs. It’s a very different era. When people think of Greece, they think about the polis and democracy, but this is an era where kings ruled, and all of them claimed to be descended from gods. They called themselves immortal heroes, or at least semi-mortal. It’s a completely different time. It was quite interesting to end up in this setting eventually.
GamesBeat: What did you come off of in order to do this? How long ago did you get started on it?
Georgieva: It was more than two years ago, about two and a half. Maybe a little bit longer, two years and eight months. We had a long preproduction time. I wasn’t available throughout the whole of it, because I was away from work on maternity leave. But I came back for the production phase. We’ve been doing this full time for two years. Total War Saga is a bit of a smaller title, but it still takes a lot of time.
GamesBeat: It probably helped that Three Kingdoms took this turn into myth and legend, with the leaders and that style of combat.
Georgieva: It definitely helped, at least by communicating this sort of idea to the community. Before that, our historical titles were strictly historical, and Warhammer was strictly fantasy. Introducing these romantic accounts of history in Three Kingdoms definitely helped us.
In the case of Troy, we don’t have any choice in the matter, because the historical record is just not complete for this era. We wouldn’t be able to make, for example, a historical Total War about this period in that same region without using the legendary accounts. Based solely on archaeology, we don’t even know what these kingdoms were called or who ruled them at the time. The Iliad gives us the names, their relationships, their characteristics, all the things we’re using to breathe life into the campaign at Troy.
GamesBeat: It seems like the scope is as wide as it can be. The region size is much bigger than just the city itself. It did seem like the armies came from all over the place to fight at Troy, but in this case you also have a lot of fighting elsewhere.
Georgieva: I’d say so. Our approach, what we called “behind the myth,” is our intention to visit the historical period that inspired the legends. It’s not just retelling the legends that everybody already knows. Those are definitely not accurate. The way we’re approaching the subject, those legends and myths hold a kernel of truth that inspired them, and that kernel is there for us to try to understand, and for historical researchers, and we’ve talked with a few of them. They’re using these same materials to uncover the actual history.
The history is broader, obviously. Historians don’t think that there was just one Trojan War. They’re more of the opinion that it’s probably an account of a bigger conflict, maybe spanning many years. Even the Iliad presents this as a conflict of 10 or 20 years. Just the siege of Troy supposedly took that long. So this isn’t just one war. The Greek expeditions would go across the sea, sack cities, and stay there for a very long time. It’s more like a period of 20 or 30 years of turmoil, which perhaps culminated in taking the greatest city, but it’s not just a single war. It’s a whole generation of hostilities. Quite a lot actually.
GamesBeat: Did you think about putting actual gods on the battlefield?
Georgieva: We did consider that. But we opted for a more realistic approach. The idea is that, again, we want to present our world rather than the fable about it. People definitely believe that gods exist. They believe that, for example, they have divine origins. They believe in omens in the skies. If they face what they think are evil portents, they’ll be demoralized. If they have good omens, they’re going to be inspired. But we don’t want to have ghostly figures of gods on the battlefield.
Even in the Iliad, it’s interesting. The scenes involving the gods are somewhat left on the verge of–is it real to the people on the battlefield? Did they actually see the gods, or is it just something that Homer talks about? It’s a bit on the mythic side there. But we try to be very tasteful, very modern in that respect. We’re trying to keep that tone in the game as well, on the edge between realism and the supernatural.
GamesBeat: It seems like there’s an opportunity for more storytelling here, too. Did you think about doing a lot of cinematics to go with this?
Georgieva: We created a lot of animations inspired by pottery art. In the events and quests, the epic missions in the game, you’ll see that they all have animated pottery-style artwork. Also, when you win a campaign, you’ll see a short movie, also in that style.
The idea, again, is to represent this concept of the truth behind the myth. Everything you see in the interface, especially with the faction mechanic windows and the epic mission animation, is from the later period. It’s in the style of how the classical Greeks remembered and represented this era. But if you go onto the battlefield, onto the actual campaign map, you see the real Bronze Age designs, both for the architecture and the armor. On the top level, you have the layer of myth, how people represented the bygone era, and underneath you see the reality of the time. You can even see it in the shroud that covers the map. It’s inscribed with words from the Iliad, but as you uncover it, it burns out like parchment and reveals the reality underneath. It’s a literal representation of the concept behind the game.
GamesBeat: I tried the Menelaus campaign, and I created too many armies too quickly. I ran out of food. I had to disband an army and start over to fight off all the rebels that appeared. It seems like you can’t be too ambitious in the beginning.
Georgieva: It’s not a learning curve, exactly, but you have to ramp up before you can rapidly expand, yes.
GamesBeat: Forty turns is almost nothing, it seems. You could go for hundreds of turns before you conquer Troy.
Georgieva: Well, yes and no. We wanted to present a shorter campaign, so players can actually finish it. We know that a lot of players aren’t always finishing their campaigns in Total War. Personally, I wanted to improve on that. We have two different campaign objectives, different sets. One is called the Homeric victory, and that’s around 100 to 120 turns. It’s a shorter objective or goal. Then there’s the Total War victory, which is more of a classical length, about 200 turns.
The idea is that between those two, there’s another difference. The first one, the Homeric victory, follows very closely to the story of the Iliad. As Menelaus, you’d be required to raze Troy, capture Helen, destroy Paris, and also a couple of other objectives within those 100 turns or thereabouts. Meanwhile, the Total War victory is more free-form. You can do whatever you want. You could even try to settle things with Paris, which is probably very hard to do, but it’s not strictly impossible. The system is there if you can manage to game it somehow. The Total War victory is longer, then, but it also allows for more freedom of choice. You can make your own legend in the Bronze Age.
GamesBeat: On the Trojan side, do they have much opportunity to be on the offensive?
Georgieva: Yes, they actually can. You can change history, basically. That was a big challenge for us, because the Iliad is pretty one-sided. We know what happens if you play as the Greeks successfully, but if you try to play Paris or Hector or Aeneas, the history and the sources in the Iliad don’t tell us as much. We had to borrow a lot from different sources.
In the case of Paris, for example, we found out that he’s considered by some researchers to be a figure that might have been an actual ruler who was a king in Troy, in the historical city of Wilusa, it’s called. The neighboring Hittite empire has records of a ruler called Alexandros, another name for Paris. We thought about what could be his victory. Taking the throne of Troy? Maybe turning the war around and sacking Sparta and Mycenae and conquering the whole region around the Aegean sea.
For Hector, he’s basically his father’s favorite. We realized him as a character who is more of a protector than a conqueror. His goal might be to build more around Troy than to spread rapidly in all different directions. We realized that in history, there existed an alliance called the Assuwan League. That alliance featured Troy as a part of it. There was a historical figure with a name that closely resembles Priam, Hector’s father. The way we worked that into the game, we thought about–if Priam is that character, who was part of that alliance until it collapsed, maybe his son will restore his father’s ambitions and fulfill them. That’s one of the faction mechanics for Hector, where he’s trying to restore the Assuwan League and realize the ambition of his father.
We drew inspiration from everywhere we could find regarding the Trojans. It’s one place where Homer can’t be of much help to us.
GamesBeat: If you want to build the Trojan Horse and sack Troy, I guess you can do that?
Georgieva: Yes, you can. We have three different versions of the Trojan Horse, actually. All of them are part of that truth behind the myth. The most plausible explanations, possible explanations of the Trojan Horse.
One of them is based on the idea that the Trojan Horse is more of a symbol, a symbolic representation of an earthquake, through the character of the god Poseidon. This is a bit far-fetched, but it’s one of the most common ideas explaining the Trojan Horse. That’s why we have a mechanic where earthquakes regularly happen around Troy. They can destroy the walls and you can use that as a window of opportunity to attack Troy where the defenses are weak.
The other Trojan Horse theory was that it was an advanced, for the age, siege mechanism, a siege tower. We have a technology in the game that leads, when you research different nodes of technology, the end node, the grand prize, is called the Beast of War. You unlock the ability to build those siege towers and use them against Troy. They’re quite effective, because with them you’re able to deliver your troops unharmed to the walls. Otherwise they’re going to take a lot of damage before they can breach the city.
But probably the most interesting is the one that’s the closest to the story in the Aeneid. It’s called the Gift of the Greeks. It’s a special scenario available to Odysseus. Odysseus, in the legend, was the one who came up with the idea of building this horse and filling it with soldiers, tricking the Trojans into bringing it into the city.
We found out that ships from the neighboring region, from Phoenicia, would have horse heads on the bows as an ornament. What we do in the game, we have one of those ships propped up with a lot of goods, like an offering to the gods, and you can hide units within the ship. When you do that, you get to play on a specific scenario map where the battle happens during the night. Some of your units, those you chose to hide in the ship, start out within the city, and the rest of your army is outside. It’s a very special scenario where you can re-enact the sack of Troy the way it was told by Virgil, more or less. But you need to have Odysseus or play with Odysseus somehow. You can confederate him, or maybe you just start your campaign with him.
There are three special scenarios for taking Troy, then, apart from just going there and being very good at maneuvering your armies. That’s also an option, of course. But I would suggest using one of the horses.
GamesBeat: I’m probably at a point where I need to give up and start over, but do you have a general rule on that? When it’s time to try a new game rather than try to save a game where you’re in continuous decline.
Georgieva: I wouldn’t say so? It’s a single-player game. You could probably try to save your campaign. That would actually make a very good personal story. But of course you can always start over with one faction or another that suits you better. It’s up to you.