Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is treading new ground in video games set in the grimdark future of the 41st millennium by dropping players into the bloodied boots of an unfathomably wealthy Rogue Trader in a party-based, tactical RPG. Although Owlcat Games has a solid track record for developing immersive, complex RPGs like the Pathfinder series, Warhammer 40,000‘s dense lore and the unique characteristics of its star-system-owning Rogue Traders presented some unique challenges and opportunities.
In an interview with Game Rant, executive producer Anatoly Shestov and senior gameplay designer Leonid Talochenko spoke about how they worked with Games Workshop on fleshing out Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader’s lore, how they tackled the Rogue Trader’s immense power in RPG terms, and how the team approaches concepts like number crunching and difficulty settings in their RPGs. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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How Owlcat Games Worked with Games Workshop On Warhammer 40,000 Lore
Q: The Warhammer 40,000 setting is a far cry from the usual fantasy setting found in most CRPGs. Did the setting allow you to do some things you couldn’t in a fantasy game?
Shestov: The whole idea of Owlcat making games is not about settings, it’s about user experience. One of the most precious ones that we feel when we’re playing is a sandbox experience. During the development of Pathfinder: Kingmaker and Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, a significant part of the team played different tabletop RPGs. One of the teams was playing Rogue Trader, and after that was Black Crusade and Only War–everything that Fantasy Flight Games published.
By that moment, the guys concluded that the whole engine of the game elaborates on a sandbox experience in the most precious way possible. So it was only natural for these creative teams to come to the executives of the studio to speak about the next game to pitch the Rogue Trader idea.
It wasn’t like “We want to make a game in the Warhammer setting, give us anything.” No, we were adamant that we wanted to specifically make a Rogue Trader game. We were pitching for it and we agreed with GW to make a Rogue Trader game.
Q: Warhammer is a massive franchise with surprisingly deep lore. What was it like working with Games Workshop on that? Did you have to consult with them regarding story, quests, or features?
Shestov: We not just consulted, we were having every piece of user-side content–basically everything aside from tech that comes to the audience–approved by GW. There isn’t a piece of the game that our Nottingham friends aren’t aware of or didn’t agree on.
Most of the time this was fruitful because, as you said, the mass of knowledge and information for the setting is so tremendous that it’s hard to account for every given piece. There were times when we were wrong about the whole concept of things, there were times that we were wrong about the imagery of things, and there were times when there was no answer because we were the first who asked such a question inside the setting.
It was a really intense process. GW helped us tremendously, and because of their help, we managed to achieve praise from the audience on behalf of their setting elaboration.
Q: Could you give an example of one of those times when Owlcat was the first to ask a certain question about the setting?
Shestov: What should music sound like in an Imperial pub or bar-like facility? What do they do? In our present community, we’ve got the impression that alcohol and smoking products are usually signs of some kind of problem. In GW’s setting, these are commodities for the highest level of society. So “drunken sailor” isn’t a theme, and “smoking worker in a factory” isn’t a thing.
Another question is how do different xenos races and people from the Imperium of Man communicate? Who speaks which language, or are there devices that are capable of live-streaming translations? The human language, the Low Gothic one, is so rudimentary and simple that any sentient being can master it in a matter of days. Any xenos that wants to do business with humans knows Low Gothic in some capacity, but it’s so bad and so rude that almost all of them prefer not to use it.
We got a lot of information about the tithe and how that whole system works. The whole idea of owning a planet in the Imperium is completely normal. Every piece of everything is owned by someone, and as long as this piece of something is paying tithe, it’s okay, it’s part of the Imperium.
But there is no such thing as a universal calendar or a way to count time or distance and there is no such thing as exchange rates. There are countless almost 100% autonomous communities that rarely encounter Black Ships or trade ships or any faction that is capable of going through space. It’s not as monolithic as we like to imagine. It’s possible that people living on a huge planet haven’t seen a voidship even once in their entire life. There isn’t such a thing as orbital space stations on every planet or places where ships are always docking.
Everything that comes from the ground, from the people working their asses off, is kind of unique. Almost every planet has something unique to it. There is no golden rule for how they work.
We also came up with lots of things about how the warp works and other things but it’s all classified. I can’t talk about it.
Talochenko: We also learned a lot about faith, but we can’t talk about this.
Q: The Rogue Trader is extremely wealthy and powerful. They own entire planets and that’s a unique power level for an RPG character. How does the character’s immense wealth and influence tie into the RPG design?
Talochenko: It changed our entire perspective on the game. In Pathfinder games, you always start as a simple person. You find a sword and you’re very happy because it costs like 80 gold coins. In Rogue Trader, you start incredibly powerful. You’re a multi-billionaire in Earth terms, so you don’t care about many things. At the same time, you own really powerful weaponry and have very powerful companions.
At first, it affected the way we look at combat. For example, we had several big meetings where we discussed how Rogue Trader’s combat should feel. We decided on many things, such as lots of weaker enemies so you’re not killing three or five enemies, you’re killing 50 in each battle and they’re exploding into bits and pieces, blood is everywhere, and you are feeling powerful.
You also don’t collect loot like in other games. You don’t collect it to sell it to make some pocket money. Buying a tank in Rogue Trader is not about having money to buy a tank, it’s about finding a person who will sell you one. It’s more about leverage. You will find the money. Maybe you’ll sell a factory somewhere to buy the tank. In general, you should feel power.
And as for other examples, when you come to a planet, you are probably the most powerful and influential person on the planet. Nobody can compete. There is a great moment when you get to Footfall and meet the governor of the planet, and there is an option to tell him to kneel before you and pray to you to help him. That’s the level of power you have. It goes through every part of our game, and we think that we succeeded in that you do feel powerful, you do have really powerful options, and you leave a giant footprint on the whole sector you’re in. You are not dealing with trivial matters, you are dealing with the fate of whole planetary systems.
Shestov: Production-wise, we were obliged to invent a new economic system for the game since we can’t use the typical “find things, sell things, buy things” system and it took us some time to find our present solution. We were obliged to make additional systems like the colony management system.
It’s a crucial thing for that feeling of being a Rogue Trader. It’s not like you’re going to people and making them do what you want them to do. No, it’s about you having input. We are using the momentum system in battle, the colony management system in exploration, and lots of additional special random encounters and interruptions in the narrative to facilitate that idea.
For example, when we finished our first internal version of the game, one of the main sentiments inside the studio was, “It’s good, but I don’t feel like a Rogue Trader, I feel like a regular person.” The “Abelard, introduce me” or “Kneel before me or I won’t even speak with you” stuff was introduced as a separate additional layer of development.
All of these things made the development cost more, but all of them allowed us to achieve this special feeling of something unique in a player experience. And of course, we made not just the actual RPG and economic system, we made space battles. You can’t just make one game at Owlcat while you’re making a game. Every separate piece of the game can count as a different game.
Rogue Trader’s Unique Takes on Space Combat and Morality Systems
Q: You mentioned the game’s space battles. Were you looking at other 40k space games like Battlefleet Gothic for inspiration with this system?
Talochenko: We certainly played Battlefleet Gothic games and we looked at the tabletop versions. We didn’t want to make something too difficult to understand because it’s a side activity and you shouldn’t be spending too much of your brain capacity to think about that stuff. We took the feeling of giant cathedrals in space and went with fewer, simpler abilities. In the end, you have around 18 abilities.
We want you to have a relaxing experience while not exploring or reading tons of text because our game has a lot of text. Something to refresh your feeling of the game. It was a long process with several iterations, and Anatoly is not happy about that because it costs a lot of money to make something like that and we failed several times.
Even in our recent versions which were available to people, it was not as fun as we wanted it to be. Sometimes it felt like a chore, and sometimes it felt like 5D chess or something like that. It was a painful path to the current system, but in our opinion, it’s fun and as we look at players’ opinions, most people think it’s fun. A lot of people say that it’s the most fun side activity in all our games to this date.
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I thought it was a nice change of pace. I think the game would be worse off without it.
Shestov: We wanted something that differs severely from the main combat system. For example, you can see that space combat is way more deterministic. There are fewer random elements overall. You can look at the battlefield and you can plan ahead. There is variation in how much damage you will deliver to the enemy ship and how their shields will react, but the variation isn’t from 10 to 100, the variation is more like from 20 to 25. It brings some amount of flavor not to be repetitive, but it doesn’t change a lot of things.
Another thing is your companions. The whole fantasy of Rogue Trader isn’t about the Rogue Trader per se, it’s about managing his officers who are making things happen. There isn’t just one version of the Rogue Trader who is a businessman making deals. Some companions are muscles or brains to collaborate with different fantasies of the Rogue Trader. We allow these companions to operate the ship’s posts to do different things and their skills matter. From time to time they’ll tell you things about what’s going on, and it deepens the immersion. Immersion is king in every game that we make at Owlcat.
Q: How did you approach the game’s morality system in terms of punishing or rewarding players for consistent decision-making or mixing up their choices?
Shestov: We punish them. We made the game not about winning or waltzing through the store, no, we made a game that will demand some thinking and some emotions, and we’re using all of the black magic that is possible to achieve this.
For a choice to be meaningful, it should cost something from you. If there is a choice that you want to make, but the numbers are saying that you’re going to lose something, that’s a good choice from our design point of view. That’s why we are not balancing things in a way where it’s like “It doesn’t matter what you pick, everything will be good, don’t worry, just play.”
In any strong setting, the morality system will be unique. The morality system in Hogwarts Legacy, Tyranny, or SWTOR will be different because the whole idea of morality systems is to give you another way to roleplay. Roleplay isn’t about expressing yourself in any way possible, it’s about receiving a response from the game on your actions.
The most direct way to receive that response is to introduce a system that will tell you “You are using this? +10 to Evil. You are using this? +10 to Good.” But it’s first and foremost a roleplay option, and roleplay, of course, is our foremost way to achieve immersion.
That’s why we are designing things not to be toothless, not to be affordable. We’re balancing things to achieve the most precisely desired emotion.
We are playtesting like crazy. We have almost 22 QA specialists right now. We got every lead on the team to spend hundreds of hours in the game, and we often have the entire studio playtest whenever there’s a major milestone. And we’re not just playtesting, we’re sharing feedback and we’re working on it. No UI element in the game wasn’t touched based on these sessions’ feedback.
The roleplay system, the morality system, the choices to behave like different kinds of Rogue Traders, and foremost to feel yourself in the Warhammer universe: those are what we’re paying attention to most often.
Build Design, ‘Crunch’, and Archetypes in Rogue Trader
Q: Some CRPG fans love the “crunch” aspect of doing the math on optimal builds and strategies, while others are less numbers-oriented and are most interested in roleplaying and narrative. How do you keep both kinds of players in mind with a game like Rogue Trader?
Talochenko: Not perfectly, first of all. We have lots of stuff we want to change and improve, especially for people who don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty details of our systems. But for now, like in all our previous games, we have quite extensive difficulty options. If you don’t want to think at all about the mechanics, you can play on Story difficulty. You can pick what sounds fun, and it will be good for you. If you want to play on Unfair, you will probably need to read through all of the abilities and talents and really learn how the system works, and we have everything in between. It all depends on how much you want to get into it.
We should probably explain things better or provide different tools for people not to think too much if they don’t want to. Currently, even if playing on Story difficulty, you still have to make decisions for all of your companions. That’s not the best part of our game currently.
You can make lots of different builds and mix and match different parts of our systems to create some cool effects. Something you can be proud of, like, “I made this thing work and it’s insanely good.” So we make loads of stuff for those people. For people who don’t want that, it’s in the difficulty settings.
It’s a strange thing that people find it somehow bad to play at low difficulties. Like, “Oh, now I’m a professional gamer. I want to play on the hardest difficulty.” Our hardest difficulty is called Unfair because it is unfair. It’s not designed for you to willy-nilly go and play the hardest difficulty.
There are a lot of games that make the highest difficulty easy enough that most players can play well and it’s not a bad thing per se. If you don’t want to make a super difficult game, don’t make a super difficult game. But we think that for people who want a real challenge, for people who want to feel like they are really, really good, there should be a high difficulty.
When Pathfinder: Kingmaker was released, there were tons of negative comments on Steam about how the game was too difficult. There were even topics called “Unfair is too difficult” and lots of people wrote stuff like, “Man, it’s called Unfair. What did you even expect?” And we had to deal with it because the perception of many people is that that’s the normal difficulty you should play at.
It’s sometimes frustrating to deal with those things because, in our thinking, the hardest difficulty is for like 1% of people, maybe even less.
Shestov: It goes back to immersion. When we’re introducing RPG as a genre, we’re introducing a way for you to feel powerful, to feel yourself as a growing power. One of the ways to achieve it is to give you ways to find these great game-breaking builds.
The other one is to introduce the challenge level over a regular mob that is one-shotting you. Just imagine how powerful will you feel when you are kicking the ass of such a mob? In a way, that’s a natural conclusion of allowing the player to feel himself–not the Rogue Trader imaginary character inside the game–the player who is playing wants to feel himself like he became a bit more powerful.
Q: Rather than being its own archetype, psyker abilities are a unique subset of talents that some characters have access to. Can you talk about how you approached the Psyker in terms of build design?
Talochenko: We were thinking about what psykers In other tabletop versions could do. As we looked into it, and as we played all the systems, we discovered that psykers can be basically anyone. You can be a super tanky melee psyker in tabletop games, or you can be a lightning-wielding maniac like the Emperor from Star Wars– “unlimited power” and all that stuff. You can be boiling the blood of your enemies or you can predict the future to make your next shot more accurate.
We were thinking about it and psyker just doesn’t feel like an archetype. It’s who you are and how you connect all the archetype features with the psyker features that make a unique character and a unique psyker. Not all psykers are the same and not all psykers have the same abilities. They use their psyker abilities to make them better at the things they want to do.
It’s super strange, but being a psyker is not the central part of being a psyker, You’re something else and your role is something different. Archetypes are more like combat roles in the party. We wanted it so that as a psyker or when you’re leveling up Heinrix or Idira, you can choose between leaning more into archetype abilities so that your fighter is more of a fighter, or you can lean more into psyker abilities so that your fighter is more of a psyker than a fighter. It also gave more freedom in your character building. It’s more fun this way.
Q: Any last thoughts before we finish up?
Shestov: Dear friends, dear readers, dear audience: we know that there are some bugs in the game and we’re working really hard on fixing them. In the future, you can expect a tremendously massive patch from our side. Like, tremendous. In the meantime, please keep faith in us. We’re working on it.
Talochenko: Also, there will be some nerfs.
Shestov: Let’s spoil it a bit for Joey. It’ll be nerfs for Cassia, for psykers, and what else?
Talochenko: Parts of the resolve gain and momentum gain, because it’s a little too oppressive. We are also looking at balancing burst fire because it’s a little bit… actually, it’s a lot out of balance.
Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader
Owlcat’s Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is an isometric RPG with a turn-based combat system. Set in the Koronus Expanse, the game emphasizes player choice and party setup.