Only In Death Does Duty End: The Unexpected Success Of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

I’m standing in a Games Workshop.

As a child, I always mistook these stores as toy shops. I would mistakenly enter one, eager to sample its wares. Then inevitably, I would realise it was ‘one of those’ shops and turn away. Disappointment clouding the rest of my day.

That was a long time ago. Today it’s different. I can honestly say this is the first time I have set foot in a Games Workshop with genuine interest behind me. What has brought me here?

Wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In this shop, I’m surrounded by imposing figures. Dreadnoughts, Imperial Guards and others line the shelves of the shop. Intricate figurines and collections everywhere. All of it is fascinating. Intoxicating, even. In the centre of the floor, a desolate landscape is prepared on the surface of a table. Unfinished walls of some grim structures and several dozen figurines in battle formation. I run an eye over every detail. There’s very little of it that I recognise. A piece of armour here, a logo there.

The reason I’m here in the first place is because something convinced me that it is worth my time. Not necessarily the tabletop games themselves but this world, this universe is worth exploring. That concept in and of itself can be a powerful thing. With everything that happens in our lives, the act of putting everything aside for a moment and actively seeking out a fictional history to be consumed by is quite the achievement. Its appeal strikes at a part of our hearts that in essence, returns us to our childhood. A place of fantasy, discovery and excitement.

For me, that place was Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.

Orks. The Emperor. Manufactorums. Forge Worlds. Inquisitors. And the Adeptus Astartes, otherwise known as the most elite super-soldiers in this universe – the Space Marines.  Every aspect of the Warhammer 40K universe is immediately appealing. To place it tens of thousands of years in the future frees itself completely from any modern-day or near-future shackles that most science-fiction settings may be burdened with. Humanity has branched off into so many parts of the galaxy both geographically or physically that approaching this fiction with the desire to learn more seems like a herculean task.

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Created by Rick Priestly in the late-eighties, Warhammer 40K has an overwhelming history. Colossal story arcs that have long-standing ramifications, species and races who intertwine throughout each other and hostile battles which continually rage on. A science-fiction universe of war, aliens, chains of command, religion, order and chaos. For an outsider, it can seem impenetrable. Something so already well established that if you weren’t on the ground floor to begin with, there doesn’t seem to be any point in trying to jump on now.

But sometimes looks can be deceiving. Released in September of 2011 on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine was developed specifically for that outsider audience. The ones who always viewed Warhammer 40K from afar. They needed a bridge and THQ’s Executive Vice President Danny Bilson decided to start building one. Tasking Relic Entertainment with taking a much-loved universe that had already experienced acclaim and success in their own real-time strategy games and putting it squarely in the third-person shooter genre was a huge risk.

With twelve years experience behind him (including production of Warhammer 40K: Dawn Of War and an expansion, Winter Assault) Relic Entertainment’s Raphael van Lierop was the game director of Space Marine. Right from the beginning and throughout every facet of production, he knew the demands that lay ahead.

“I knew this would be a huge challenge,” Van Lierop tells me. “Staying true to the source material, but also opening it up to a new audience without dumbing it down. In the end though, I believed that the core fiction of Warhammer 40K would resonate with players because it deals with some pretty universal themes that we see a lot of in science-fiction. As you probably know, 40K has been around for over 25 years so it has inspired a lot of other works. Even people who haven’t heard of 40K have unwittingly crossed paths with it at some time or another. That, plus in a world that loves over-the-top sci-fi action and grim dark dystopian futures, really you can’t do better than 40K.”

He’s right. Despite a subconscious reluctance to be voluntarily exposed to Warhammer 40K, it was always there. On some level, always present in the background of more popular, science-fiction media.

Part of that is the stark aesthetic. From the massive armour and cartoony Orks to epic landscapes and militaristic logos, nothing looks quite like Warhammer 40K, save only for the original fantasy Warhammer fiction itself. Front and centre of that unique look is the Space Marines themselves. Genetically-modified warriors that are at the apex of the fighting forces of the Imperium Of Man. They serve The Emperor and do so alongside their ‘battle brothers’. It is their image and story that Relic latched onto for the first departure from the real-time strategy genre. For Van Lierop, it was an obvious choice.

“We knew we were building the game for an action gamer audience and with a budget much higher than anything we’d done before, so along with this came the responsibility of creating a game that could earn its money back. And that meant, to some degree, finding ways to open the experience up to new gamers, to broaden the audience beyond the players we’d reached with the 40K RTS games. Those players were critical to us, and really we saw them as the heart and soul of our player community, but we also knew that if we only reached them we’d be a commercial disaster. So, the trick was trying to find ways to represent the 40K universe as a blockbuster action game experience. Taking familiar tropes that are well understood by action gamers, but wrapping them in a decidedly 40K look and feel, and thereby use comfortable mechanics as a gateway into the universe.”

“Beyond that, of course, we wanted to innovate and push some aspects of action games forward. But it was always in service to the IP. We knew that of all the factions in 40K, that this game would be about the venerable Space Marines, which in 40K means something very specific. In our industry, the concept of a “space marine” is widely caricatured and really it’s a running joke. I remember the first time we presented the game to journalists, how many of them asked if the name was placeholder, was it going to be changed before launch, etc. And we were like, ‘No, the game is called Space Marine because it’s about the fucking Space Marines. And in our game, that means something.'”

Space Marine‘s world is utterly convincing and it’s clear a lot of that comes from Van Lierop’s passion for it.  The story concerns the ‘forge world’ Graia, an entire planet designed for the sole purpose of military production. Covered with endless factories and huge production centres, it is the recent target for the Orks. The Orks are a goblin-like race who have invaded and the player takes control of the Ultramarines chapter of the Space Marines in order to stop them. Graia is a desolate, inhospitable place. Fit only for perpetual mining and factory output. However, it makes for a compelling setting in Space Marine.

Space Marines have different factions and Van Lierop’s choice to focus on three Ultramarines gave the player a chance to get on the ground with the strongest and most influential chapter of Space Marines. Most of them follow a doctrine (called the Codex Astartes) that must be adhered to religiously in battle. Like Sun Tzu’s Art Of War, the Codex Astartes is designed to be followed for peak tactical advantage. Any group of soldiers with these fascinating beliefs require further exploration.

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“What is their psychological make-up?” Van Lierop says. “What kind of world do they live in? What motivates them to get out there and face absolutely horrific threats day-in, day-out. We spent a lot of time with people at Games Workshop, just trying to get into the head of a Space Marine. We talked about their training, their indoctrination, how religion played into it, what is happening to humanity at this time in the future, their attitude towards ‘normal’ humans, etc. And so we built a game around that character. And we built mechanics that felt truthful to that character – for example, the choice to created a blended combat system that allowed seamless switching between melee and shooting.”

“Of all the things we took on with the game, this was the most challenging, and hardest to pin down. But we knew this was a big part of the experience of the Space Marine — the most formidable fighting force in the history and future of humanity. Same thing for the choice to avoid having a snap-to cover system. It was simple — Space Marines are not going to crouch behind pillars waiting for their shields to recharge. I wanted the player to be able to experience what it would be like to be an angel of death on the battlefield, to have the best training and weapons that humanity can muster, to face unimaginable horrors, and to know no fear. Everything in the game was built in service to that.”

“But yeah, we chose Space Marines and then within that we select the Ultramarine chapter because, frankly, it is the most iconic of all the Space Marine chapters, and again if you aren’t savvy to 40K there’s still a very good chance you’ve seen the Ultramarines logo and the bright blue Space Marine in the hobby shops or wherever, so it’s one of the most iconic and visually striking emblems of the IP. That choice was all about trying to pick a chapter that would be interesting and accessible to the newcomer, while also paying tribute to the Ultramarines for the deep fiction fans, because for them the Ultramarines have a very special meaning, they have a special stature within the pantheon of all the Space Marine chapters and there’s something inherently heroic about them and their specific struggle.”

If there’s a single member of the Ultramarines that embodies heroism and struggle in equal measure, it is Captain Titus. Reportedly over 170 years old and more than 7 feet tall (Space Marines are slightly different to regular humans), Titus is the player character in the game. A decorated veteran of battle, Titus leads his battle brothers Sidonus and Leandros on Graia and all the while, remains stoic and committed to the task at hand (thanks in no small part to actor Mark Strong’s stoic and measured voice work).

A mentor figure, he is a fascinating character for the lead in a video game. Whereas other depictions of war lean towards gung-ho combatants, Titus keeps his emotions in check. This is not to say he is boring but rather layered and not immediately giving up every part of his thought process for the player to see. Van Lierop has the utmost respect for Titus.  “For me, Titus was always a man with clear purpose and clear intent, who despite surviving the incredible process of indoctrination and physical modification undertaken to become a Space Marine, was definitely still his “own man”. He could think for himself, read between the lines, see shades of grey in a world that is often cast in stark black and white terms. In any other setting, these qualities would be unremarkable for a hero. But in the world of Warhammer 40K, this made Titus a monumental figure.”

“At its heart, the story of Space Marine is really one that questions fundamentalism and narrowness of thought. We have Titus, the hero, who lives in a highly indoctrinated world where there is literally a rule book, called the Codex Astartes, that informs him of what he should do in any given situation. And his very first action of the game, really, is to say to one of the other characters, Leandros, who is this sort of naive, by the book rookie, ‘you know, the book is great and all that, but sometimes you have to think for yourself’. And Leandros just doesn’t get it, and really this theme carries on throughout the game until the ending, where Titus choice of how to live his life — as a free-thinking individual — within this rigorously structured world, in a way proves his downfall. Or does it? You see we never get to find out because we didn’t get the sequel. In any case, there’s a lot more to the story than you see on the surface.”

Despite its vast implications, Space Marine‘s story and characters seem quite personal and reserved. Another major character featured in the plot is Lieutenant Mira, the commander of the surviving humans on Graia. Part of a regiment which was diverted to deal with the Ork invasion, she is suddenly put in a position of leadership for the humans and it is then that Titus and the Ultramarines find her. Lierop had specific visions in mind for Mira. “We knew we wanted to have a female presence in the game, because frankly all this dude bro stuff can get tiresome after a while, but my number one rule for female characters, and this is my rule in all games I work on, not just Space Marine, but it probably showed more there because it was less expected, is that they can’t be the damsel in distress type. They have to be able to take care of themselves. And Mira was even more important than a lot of other characters, because she had to speak for the entire human race.”

“The connection, I won’t go so far as to call it a “relationship”, between Titus and Mira is probably the thing I appreciate most in the story itself. It’s the thing I think we got right, more than anything else. To be honest, a lot of the other elements, the villains, the twists, the MacGuffin – those were all typical IP things we sort of had to have in there just to make it feel like a 40K story. They were expected. Needed, even. But, not nearly as interesting to me.”

“See, to Space Marines, humans are kind of a necessary evil – they are there and they are to be protected, but all that is actually secondary to the Space Marines’ first duty which is to kill all the fucking aliens who are trying to wipe out the human race, forever and ever Amen. And there are a hell of a lot of aliens – billions and billions, sort of knocking on Humanity’s door and waiting to come in and eat us and then there are the Space Marines, 10,000 strong, the only line of defines between our complete annihilation as a species. What an amazing setup! But, when that’s your starting point, your hero is kind of a demi-god who sees humans the same way humans sees ants, where do you go from that? How do you create that guy without turning him into some lifeless, robotic asshole that nobody wants to be around? And then how do you breathe some life into him without compromising the thing that makes him what he is, and without breaking the rules of the IP, which essentially state that we’re all going to die, it’s just a matter of a few Space Marines holding the line for a while and giving a bit of trouble to the aliens before we’re snuffed out forever, and everyone has to carry out their duty with this kind of stoic sense that is really quite epic and also ridiculous when you stop to think about it?”

Even before interviewing Van Lierop, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine opened my eyes. Not only to a new game but to an entire universe and history. One that I never thought I would have the slightest interest in. In that respect, it succeeds immeasurably. The game itself is a fun, brutal introduction to a galaxy scarred by war and conflict. But as a stepping stone, it rises to higher level and becomes something that is unusual in video games. THQ and Relic went out on a limb with Space Marine and more so than most attempts, balanced a different take on an established universe while not betraying its core focus and history. Some hardcore fans may disagree and Van Lierop certainly has mixed emotions two years after its release.

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“I think the ultimate success, sadly, would have been selling 5 million units of the game and getting to make the sequel we all wanted to make. But, failing that, it certainly was extremely rewarding to discover that we had managed to hit the mark in terms of remaining true to the IP and satisfying the fans and Games Workshop, both groups who are notoriously hard to keep happy, while at the same time introducing a whole new generation of gamers to the world of 40k. I think, if we’re honest, the game always had something of a ceiling imposed on it by virtue of how the 40K universe and the tabletop game itself is perceived. So, our goal was always to reach beyond this core audience and show the world how truly fascinating and engaging the 40K universe could be. And I think we accomplished that to the degree that Space Marine will always be a benchmark in that regard. The fans seem to love it also, which is a great testament to the team’s hard work.”

“It was a very difficult project, on a personal and professional level. We didn’t hit the quality bar I had hoped for. We didn’t achieve the sales we had hoped for. Those are two easy external metrics to determine whether a game you worked on was successful, right? So, by those measures, I don’t feel very satisfied with the way the game turned out. But, at the same time, there are a lot of intangibles, things that the players never know about, things you know you and the team overcame together, or obstacles you overcame yourself, over the course of development, the day to day victories, so you look for comfort in those. I think that in the end, given all the obstacles, all the marks against us, we put out a solid game that brought a lot of enjoyment to a good number of people, and that has to be good enough, for now. In a lot of ways, I guess, Titus’s story in Space Marine was the story of its development too. Or maybe it was just my story. Having said that, there isn’t much I would have done differently. Maybe a few things, but generally no. But yeah, I’d say not a day goes by where I don’t revisit some lesson I learned from the development of Space Marine. Every developer has at least one big project that was just a bear to get through, and for me, this is Space Marine.”

For the game director of Space Marine, it is almost a tragedy that Van Lierop feels unsatisfied. Its sales were moderate but as he said, not enough to warrant a sequel. It is a shame. Space Marine and Van Lierop opened a door for me. The Warhammer 40K universe was entirely unfamiliar to me but after taking a journey with Captain Titus, Sidonus, Leandros and Lt. Mira, I am eager to learn more. For any creative project, aiming to become a portal for new fans to cross through is admirable. But when that actually succeeds in that aspect, it can be immensely powerful and surprisingly exciting.

“Hey there, what brings you in today?” 

I’ve been staring at the tabletop battleground and an employee of Games Workshop has approached me. I tell him Space Marine has brought me here. He immediately acknowledges what I’ve said in a way that makes me suspect I’m not the first. We exchange names and handshakes and we start talking about the 40K universe.

Almost suddenly, he voluntarily reaches behind the counter and writes my name on an invitation card for an introductory lesson into the tabletop world. More importantly, he hands me my very own Space Marine. A jet-black, plastic figurine about one inch in height. I thank him quietly but internally, I’m jumping up and down with glee.

“So, do you want to get started?” 

It is because of Relic Entertainment and Raphael Van Lierop that I surprise myself by saying yes.

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