PC Heritage, Bright Future: The Creative Assembly Interview

Sega-owned UK developer The Creative Assembly (Total War) has some unique views on the enduring nature of 'core' PC games, as the studio's Kieran Brigden explains to Gamasutra.

Though it has splashed out into some console games since it was purchased by Sega, The Creative Assembly is a steadfastly PC-oriented studio that continues to innovate and create large-scale strategy games that cater to its audience.

With the soon-to-be-released colonial-themed Empire: Total War, which has been in development for four years, the developers are pushing their gameplay and technical concepts without regard to whether or not they could potentially transfer to its console games -- though it would be a nice bonus, Kieran Brigden, the studio's communications manager, admits.

Here, Brigden lays out the roadmap of how the studio approaches developing console and PC games, how it fosters a meaningful and mutually-beneficial relationship with its publisher-owner, and what sorts of things are meaningful to maintaining The Creative Assembly's identity in the market.

In the face of Microsoft's recent closure of Ensemble Studios, another studio well-known for creating successful historical strategy titles, this look into a studio survivor is even more eye-opening.

Do you guys ordinarily spend four years on a game? Medieval: Total War II came out fewer than four years ago.

Kieran Brigden: Before we start answering, I'd say, just to give an idea to your audience, of course, we're on a ship, sailing out into the [San Francisco] bay, at full speed, so this is going to be some distracted answering. 

We do indeed [spend four years on a game], but this project has had more staff dedicated to it, and more time, than any other game yet. So, that's to give you an idea of what we're trying to achieve and how far we want to go with it. It's certainly the biggest, most ambitious total title we've done, in terms of time taken and team man hours spent on it.

Mark O'Connell, CA's PR and online manager: This is also the first time we've ever attempted naval combat, and it's something Total War fans have requested for a long time, so we wanted to give it the attention it needs.

KB: And we do all the groundwork and the basic exploratory stuff around the same time as the R&D. It takes a long time. For example: we're sailing here on the ocean; right? When you do waveform patterns and you have to try to make a realistic ocean environment, it took our coders a year to do that; and we have some of the most realistic oceans ever seen in a game.

How did you approach that?

KB: To get really geeky about this, the way they move, we actually solved the problem by taking two waveform-pattern algorithms and blended their output; that gives you realistic, random wave events, which look like ocean waves. Then, you add all the other lighting and everything else the graphics guys do. From their perspective, it's a real labor of love -- an incredible achievement.

Regarding being able to spend more time and man hours on this game than any of your previous titles, is that related at all to now being under the umbrella of a larger publisher?

KB: Yeah, one of the great things about Sega is the fact that they understand the value of the Total War franchise and the brand, what we're trying to do with it.

We don't just make another Total War game. Every time we do a game, it has to be right; it's researched; it's thoroughly implemented. And the publisher really values that; it's a very good relationship.

So, yes, they're willing to take the time and invest in us and allow us to achieve what we want to achieve, because they know, in the end, it's a fantastic game. We certainly have opened up some more avenues in that respect.

The Creative Assembly's Empire: Total War

That said, Sega's heritage is very much in the console space, and the Total War franchise -- the strategy parts of it -- are about as hardcore PC as it gets. Does that worry you from the perspective of their strategic goals and yours as a studio?

KB: Well, I see what you mean. In terms of Sega's growth and development, in terms of their corporate plan, in terms of growth and change -- obviously, it's more for them to answer.

Do you get any sense though of where The Creative Assembly fits within their portfolio?

KB: Again, in terms of the way Sega changes and grows, it's more for them to answer the question. But, by taking us on, they recognized they wanted more input in the PC sphere, and they wanted some very, very strong titles, and some very, very known developers. And certainly, by investing in a studio like ours, I think, they've added that. I would think that; I'm a bit biased. But I certainly believe they've added to their portfolio in that respect, definitely.

The PC market is changing a lot these days. What do you think the future of this kind of development is?

KB: Well, we have a console division as well, yeah. But this falls down to the question, "Is PC still alive?" It comes down to the question of whether PCs are still a viable platform; right?

Certainly, the answer is, "Yes." The answer is, "They most definitely are." If you want to get statistical about it, in terms of sales figures, projections, and actual market share, they're actually pretty damn good.

Look at, for example, the UK market -- I don't want to get too analytical, in [a recent] month, PC made up the third ranking, out of ten, in terms of market share for Ubisoft, out of ten formats. So, you've got Wii and 360, then in terms of percentage of the pie, the PC came in at third. When you consider that's behind the Nintendo Wii, that's not exactly a bad achievement. It's a fantastic piece of market share.

And, yeah, PC tends to rise and drop, rise and drop; but in my view, because of the technological advancement, the things you can do on PCs, and the continual growth of that hardware platform, it's a very, very viable platform for development.

Not to mention that, when you're developing console games, you develop them on PCs. You're coding primarily through PCs. As a market, it's certainly something that we're very familiar with and we see continuing in the future very strongly.

How well does Total War sell? Do you have data off the top of your head?

KB: I do. It's more a question for our publisher; you'd have to ask them about that one. But in real terms, I can tell you that our games are certainly very successful, and successful enough that Sega looked at us and said, "That's the studio we want," in terms of where they wanted to invest and how they wanted to grow their own company. They looked at Creative Assembly and said that it's a company that does well. Within its medium, it does very well; it's a profitable company to have. So, in that respect, yes, we do well.

And I hope, and cross my fingers, that Empire is the latest installment in that success and we see a market increase as well.

I genuinely believe -- and this is one of the things I love about doing PC games, and about PC games in general -- that you are a driver for hardware creation, you're a driver for the progress and evolution of hardware, and, indeed, for achievements in the entertainment industry.

Could you elaborate on that aspect of development?

KB: Well, it's very easy to overlook. When you have a standard console format and you're trying to get the best out of that console, you can get some awesome results. But when you're with the PC market, you're looking at technology that just hasn't been done before.

I mentioned the water and everything else. We worked very closely with Nvidia and ATI and with CPU manufacturers to make sure we're getting the most out of what they do. And we are driving their development, too; we have a very symbiotic relationship. When we need to do stuff, the entertainment industry really spurs PC-hardware development. It's what sells the latest generation of chipsets and cards.

From that perspective, it benefits us to have a very close relationship with them and push the envelope and really try to do more, technologically. And that's one of the things I really enjoy about PC development.

Our programmers, who are absolutely fantastic guys, will often say that the reason they work in PC gaming software, as opposed to financial systems or something like that -- which are traditionally more lucrative environments -- is because of the things you have to solve and the issues you address.

Whether you're a logistician, a mathematician, a physicist, or a basic core programmer, these guys have the ability to apply their problem-solving techniques to things that you just would never do anywhere else. Where else are you asked to write a morale system for a crew, based on the proximity of other vessels and the condition of the vessel they're on? And how do you go about characterizing and staticizing that psychology, that group psychology? It's things like that.

And that's before you even get into traditional fields like AI and graphics development. We're very, very lucky in CA to have a world-class team who really wants to do more and better every time. I certainly am very privileged to work with them.

We ran an interview with [SEGA of America CEO] Simon Jeffery, who probably regretted saying this in retrospect, but when asked about Secret Level [another internal Sega developer], he said, "They don't have world-class designers... They're not a Creative Assembly and they never will be a Creative Assembly," which is fairly harsh to them but by implication quite complimentary to you guys.

KB: You've got to be careful how you take praises like that. [laughs] We are always very, very grateful for any industry recognition and third-party recognition, that's all cool. Everybody's opinions are their own. But what they think of other studios is what they think of other studios. I'm just grateful they think well of us.

Do you report more to Sega Europe?

KB: Yes, because we're a European-based development studio. SOE are our main base of contact. But, of course, when it comes to massive costs like Empire, massive games like that, we still come over here to America, because we have a huge market over here, and Sega is fantastically helpful in that.

It's difficult for me to comment here, coming from the studio's perspective as opposed to Sega's, but from a studio perspective, you can say that I see the benefit in what Sega do. By having teams that know their markets and know what they do in their sphere -- Europe, for example, or in America -- they are very able to very quickly and flexibly adapt to new things that work for their market and adapt.

I don't mean this in a patronizing way, but do you find there are lessons you've had to teach Sega at all about PC development? Just historically, they don't have the same experience in that arena.

KB: You've hit the nail on the head, there, but it's not specific to CA and Sega. It's more, you're basically trying to explain one concept which is natural to one group of people to a group of people who it's not natural to. Part of my job is being between that layer. I act between Sega and CA. Very often you're going to need translation there. There's the traditional divide between the business climates and, of course, the studio's artistic vision.

One of the great things about working with Sega, and I'm speaking honestly here, is that it feels like they have an appreciation for that process. We have a real, genuine relationship with them where we will sit down, and we'll say, "Look, we want to achieve this; it's going to take this long; and we're going to do this, this, and this." And they'll say, "We like it, it's a great feature, let's do it. No worries." In that respect, we do work well together.

There's no sense of -- how do you explain it? There's no sense of ownership in the traditional sense, as if it all belongs to them -- the company and everything else. We have an identity as The Creative Assembly and they understand it's a valued brand and a valued identity, and that staff wants to be a part of that brand.

As you know, The Creative Assembly did ports of sports games and the like all the way up to stumbling on this R&D project that was Shogun: Total War. At that point, it was, "Wow, wait a minute, that's absolutely massive."

Then they went on from there, then we got the console division as well producing Spartan, or its most recent game Viking: Battle for Asgard. In doing all of those things, Sega proves always to be a pretty damn good partner.

That said, does it worry you at all when you see things like Microsoft closing down Ensemble? That was a publisher-owned PC RTS group that was consistently profitable.

KB: They were consistently good and produced good stuff, yeah. But no, it doesn't. And the reason I say that is because everything is a case study unto itself. I'm sure Microsoft had its reasons for doing what it did. I don't know whether I agree with those reasons or not, but it's not for me to comment on.

About the way Sega works, I certainly get the impression from Sega -- and that's backed up on a very real day-to-day basis -- that they value what we do. They are very much onboard with what we want to achieve and what we want to do with our games. Equally we are, as a studio, very much geared around working well with them.

At the end of the day, it's a job as well as an art. Our guys have to feed their families, you know? It's great to code awesome games, but they do have to feed their families. There is a business reality to games development, as you know. That's industry-wide, the difference between studios and publishers and this trend towards publishers owning studios. It's just the demographics of the industry shifting across the whole industry. We just follow that.

The Creative Assembly's Spartan: Total Warrior

You mentioned the action spin-offs Spartan: Total Warrior and Viking: Battle for Asgard. Even at a studio like The Creative Assembly, does it feel like there's a certain inevitability in the industry that you must have something on consoles?

KB: No, not necessarily. I mean, I do see your point on that one. We have traditionally been a PC developer. At our core and at our heart, we're a PC developer. But you've got to remember that our guys are very, very talented people and they always want to do new things. They want to try new things and push things in certain directions. By doing something like Viking or Spartan, we actually take things in a new direction, a new phase.

It's a big market. It'd be silly to ignore the business realities or the fact that consoles have a very big install base. In that sense, there's a business acumen to it. But it's also a case of saying, "We want to do what we can, we want to push the boundaries on these things too." They just pride themselves on making good games.

If you can get that game in front of Xbox players and PS3 players, great. If you get it in front of PC players, great. Each different medium allows us to do different things and they present different challenges. I think definitely that's been behind the studio's decision to move into console development as well as doing PC stuff.

How do you sell a game like this to people who aren't already fans? I imagine it would be a tough sell -- at a press event, you can't just sort of say, "Here, grab the controls and kill a bunch of guys."

KB: You're right. What's a tough sell? Well, maybe gaming PCs aren't as widely sold as Wiis, or something. So there's that. Then you say, well, what's a tough sell within that? Maybe a historical game. All right, so where have you gone, Creative Assembly? You've gone right down that route. But the continued success of our titles makes us profitable and tells me that there is a very accessible market there. People that get that and enjoy it.

Certainly with Empire, what we've been trying to do is make it so people who haven't traditionally tried our games don't feel put off. They can look at it and go, "Hey, that actually looks pretty cool, I might just try that out." They have a go with it and they think actually it's a lot less intimidating than they may have otherwise thought.

A lot of them will think that we do sailing simulations or true land battle simulations, and that's not it. We don't model every winch and every rope and everything else and force the players to control those things. At the end of the day, we make games. We make them historically accurate, but they've got to be fun.

It's not a hardcore flight simulator. It's nothing like that. It's a very different point of view. We always want to make sure it's entertaining and enjoyable. It's very cool to watch massive wooden ships blow the crap out of each other. To me, that's as cool as running around the street, stealing a car, driving it somewhere, and doing a mission. I think, there is an equally cool market to be had there.

One of the great things about this series, and this is made continually possible as technology increases, is the existence of finely-simulated interactions that simply happen as a result of what the player does rather than having to be individually tweaked -- the fact that a cannon hit in a slightly different place resulting in the ship being set on fire, for example. That must be rewarding as a developer.

KB: Yes. The principle underlying that for me is the emergent behavior of interplaying factors. That's something that CA's programmers and designers are just brilliant at.

You have to think about things like, how do you model the desire for a revolution in terms of the populace of the country? You can't just say, if you are always taxing people they will want to revolt against you. That is obviously true, but if you study history, you see that there are a thousand factors behind any one revolution, or revolt, or victory, or a loss. What CA does with its designers and writers and coders, is to sit down and bridge that gap.

We have to quantify those things in some manner. Identify those rules, and when you identify them, let them interplay with one another and see what the emergent result is. That is what gives you a really good game. That is what gives you the wow moment. You say, "Oh crap, I did not expect that."

For example, with that fire spreading across decks, or the cannons going off and traveling across one ship and through a hole and out into another one. What we've done is to lay the physics underneath the game research. We do correction, we do velocity, we do impact, we do terminal velocity, we do degradation of movement -- all that kind of stuff.

But what's key in the real world is to not tell the player all that stuff. You don't go, "Oh, by the way, you've got to watch the degradation of movement, loss of vortex in open space, you know." [laughs] What you actually do is just let it happen, and the player goes, "Cool, I blasted through that ship and into the next one."

That's what is supposed to happen. That's how the game works. You're quite right. Rather than coding in a chess-like way every possible rule, there is an increasing trend of understanding the more fundamental rules underlying something and allowing those rules to create different and inventive behavior.

Certainly that's typified most in our AI system. We moved from a state-by-state AI system, which was like a chess game -- do A then B then C -- over to a goal-oriented action planner, which was essentially a very new kind of academic technique. It's a constant list of priorities versus resources available. Those priorities are shifted like Post-It notes on somebody's desk: "The number one thing I must do today is this." Depending how increasingly important those tasks become, they move up and down the queue. Then, the resources are allocated to identify those tasks.

What that means is you get reactive gameplay. It makes a massive difference. In something like Rome, for example, the AI will say, "I have to break down the door or storm the wall to get into the city." That is state A. To get to state B, where it's fighting in the city, "I have to achieve that." But if you can interrupt it anywhere along that path, it never reaches the next state. It just keeps trying to get there.

Now, you say, "All right, I'm going to outflank the enemy and go around the back, and he's charging me down the center." Then, suddenly the AI goes, "My general is in danger." So, "protect the general" goes from priority six to priority one. Then, all of the resources are moved around doing that, and then the battle's taking on a very different dynamic.

It's that ebb and flow that makes it really interesting. To be honest, it makes it really cool. It's techniques like that, I think, CA does really well. I'm proud to be a part of that.

It will be interesting to see that kind of progress and technology make its way throughout the industry.

KB: We're getting to that stage where stories are experiences. You're giving the player a real memory, a real experience, a real sense of excitement. You have to find ways in which to continue to address that, but it has to be ecstatic. The bigger the game gets, the harder the content creation is.

If you script every single rule across a game like ours, where you have a massive global naval arms race between 50-plus different countries, politics, diplomacy, and everything else, not only do you get predictable gameplay, but you get a bad game. You get a game that will take you forever in development to code every quantifiable outcome.

So I think the idea of using these kind of techniques is really, really good. Certainly, we want to carry those things into our console work too. We don't just go, "Oh, we do these cool pioneering techniques on PC." If that's the way we approach game development, there's no reason we can't take that onto a console and try to apply that as best we can.

I'm a big fan of the way this thing's done. I would like to mention the battle mean by name. They are brilliant. The guys who write the AI and do all the battle tactics are led up by a chap called Charlie, and another very able guy called Richard. They are just fantastic.

They look at this stuff, they work out new ways to do it, they study the science behind it, the academic science behind it, and try and take it somewhere new. The PC offers you an opportunity to do that, and you can take those skills and apply that to console as well, which is something we're going to hopefully try to do.

On the note of the dynamic kind of factors that go into a revolution and so forth -- is it just serendipitous that the Sid Meier's Colonization remake came out last year, another game featuring a player-led American revolution?

KB: Yeah, I think it's serendipitous. [laughs] We do the basic due diligence, where you do a market analysis. You ask, "OK, what games are coming out in the period? What kind of other media is coming out in the period?" You work out what might work with you or against you, and so on and so forth.

But at the core of the thing is not necessarily the analysis of the competition or other things that make some kind of synergy for you. It's just making a good game. It's making a game we have consistently made in a better way, evolving it, making it bigger, better, and stronger, basically, to quote Kanye West.

One of the great things about CA and our relationship with Sega, coming back to your earlier question, is that we are allowed to do that. We're in a position where we go, "We want to do this, it's cool. It's going to take us some time to get the stuff together and all the rest of it." And we just make a good Total War game. That's our job -- make a good Total War game.

How that racks up against other games in the same thematic category or in the same real-time category, that's where you guys come in. You let us know, and ultimately the fans like it or they don't.

We do it for the love of our title, for the love of our games. That's the dedication it takes. I mean, the ocean took a year. The ocean took a year to program. Try to imagine what that means. One guy comes in every day from nine a.m. until six or seven o'clock, and his job is to sit there and make sure the ocean looks like a ocean. And he does that for a year.

That is dedication. That's the kind of thing you get out of a team like ours. That's why I say we just want to make it a good game, and we want to make it a fun game. Everybody is on that page. We don't sit there and tick boxes where things are achieved. It's quite dynamic.

I joined CA because they've a history of making games that I like to play. That's everywhere -- our coders, our artists, our writers, our designers, our studio director -- even the finance guys and the HR people are there because of that. That's how it works.

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