Established in 1987, English developer Creative Assembly is best known as the studio behind the long running Total War series of strategy games. A series that recently took a break from historical recreations of warfare with the release of the excellent Total War: Warhammer. But to get to that point, and today, was a long journey. One of discovery too, with the earliest days of the studio spent porting titles to the MS-DOS platform. 1989 saw the first of these to hit the market with the release of Blood Money, Baal, and Stunt Car Racer on DOS.
“We’ve gone from four people working above an estate agent in Horsham to over 500 across three state-of-the-art studios,” Creative Director Al Hope tells me. “Back in 1987, when Tim Ansell founded Creative Assembly, he was just one-person porting PC games. We are now the UK’s leading games studio. In a lot of ways not much has changed, the spirit behind our work is still the same.”
As a studio that found success porting titles to the PC platform, before transitioning into creating some the industry’s more well-known strategy war games Creative Assembly began a partnership with EA Sports in the 1990s. As a UK studio they were tasked with porting the first FIFA game to PC. From there the relationship grew where Creative Assembly was tasked to produce and develop games across various other sports like rugby and even Aussie rules football.
Shogun: Total War (2000)
The change in direction that would define the past two decades of the studio? That came almost by accident. Triggered by the opening of a new development studio in Singapore.
“We were originally going to make an RPG based on Monkey, Journey to the West, in a new office in Singapore,” Executive Producer at Creative Assembly, Mike Simpson explains. “But, around that time there were a number of Command & Conquer clones appearing and selling well. It seemed like a much easier option, so we started on that.”
Even though the studio was looking to create a game within an established genre, the team began looking at the state of the RTS as a whole. And with the ‘90s now well into its second half, advances in technology too. “It was top down, and our special thing was going to be a lot of ant-like men, flocking and swarming [in formation],” Mike Simpson continues. “Set in a time when troops moved that way, and in a location we were interested in – Medieval Japan. As we were working on prototypes, the first 3D graphics cards began appearing.”
The dawn of the 3D graphics revolution was here, albeit in its earliest incarnation. Separate cards, powered by state-of-the-art chips that could render fully 3D worlds at a high resolution. “Up to then all 3D graphics were software rendered, a slow process that limited you to straight edged objects and a few hundred triangles,” Mike adds. “3D cards could handle ten times the number of triangles, and one of our genius programmers (the legendary Tag) did some clever maths to allow us to render curved surfaces. Suddenly we could look at a battlefield through the general’s eyes, at a landscape of rolling hills with thousands of men.”
“So, we wrapped those battles in a relatively light turn-based strategy game. And from there Shogun was born.”
Medieval: Total War (2002)
Ground-breaking technology was only one part of the overall picture. By setting its RTS sights on the past, that also meant taking a serious approach to history. And then translating that into a digital playground of intense combat.
“When we started working on Shogun, there were a fair number of books on Samurai and the Sengoku Jidai – the civil war period we were looking at,” Mike Simpson explains. “But there was very little deep historical detail in English – populations of regions, major towns, and so on. When we looked at the books we could find, many were written by the same guy – Dr Stephen Turnball. So, we asked him to become our historical consultant. He provided a huge amount of material and maps that we just couldn’t have got any other way. As we worked our way through other periods, it became easier.”
Other periods and locations would become the big hallmark for the Total War series, and over the years draw in a new type of fan – the history buff. For the second Total War, the location would change to Europe, and the tumultuous time we all know as medieval.
“We developed our own experts, amassed a huge library, and scoured the internet for details,” Mike tells me. “The internet has helped a huge amount, but requires care – we did once settle a lingering argument between two teams over the date of the first use of the title ‘Kaiser’ by editing Wikipedia. And to this day we still use historical consultants.”
Rome: Total War (2004)
It wasn’t long before Total War became a genre onto itself. And with a few titles now out in the wild it was a series unlike anything else on PC. At a glance, to some it was simply that game with hundreds of units on screen fighting with old timey weapons. But to many more it was a richly detailed strategy game where unit formation, weaponry, and strategy all played important roles in how battles played out.
But, there was another side to the series that started to emerge. One that would take the historical accuracy of the types of units and warfare waged to a global stage. Where players could also manage a civilisation, expanding the context of each battle and placing it within a historical story that was entirely up to the player to decide how it would all play out. When news broke that the series was going to tackle the mighty Roman Empire, Creative Assembly took this as an opportunity to double down on its scope and vision for the series.
“Rome was a classic example of second system effect
,” Mike Simpson recalls. “It was deliberate. To avoid the death by identical sequels
fate some other games were heading for we had decided on an evolution meets revolution development cycle. Medieval was the evolution, so Rome was a revolution. We completely re-wrote the game engine for Rome, and every good idea we didn’t have time to do in the previous five years went in to it.”
The result as they say, speaks for itself. With Rome: Total War not only becoming the best-selling entry in the series so far, but also the best received. With critics and audiences alike falling head over heels for its blend of historical battles and intricate campaigns where no two ever played out the same.
“It was massively ambitious, but it paid off,” Mike says. “That evolution meets revolution strategy allowed us to guarantee if anyone was going to beat the last Total War game, it was us. Empire (2009) was another huge game, Napoleon (2010) was contained, Shogun 2 (2011) was all about Zen simplicity, Rome II (2013) was big and ambitious again. Varying the scope and ambition of the games keeps Total War fresh and interesting both to play and to develop. We’ve improved on the evolution meets revolution methodology to one of more continuous revolution, with part of the game being refactored
with each new product. But we’re still varying the scope and ambition of the games with each iteration, exploring new options and pushing up against the boundaries of what is possible.”
Spartan: Total Warrior (2005) and Viking: Battle for Asgard (2008)
To this day the Total War series is one at home on the PC, living up to the idea that intricate RTS games just don’t translate all that well to console. In 2005 Creative Assembly released a game loosely related to the series called Spartan: Total Warrior, where players were put in control of a single fighter in an action-packed cinematic recreation of the era.
“Spartan wasn’t made by the Total War team,” Mike tells me. “There have always been, well since I’ve been here, two teams at Creative Assembly. The Total War team and the action/console team. The other team was here first in fact, developing sports games for EA before going on to make Spartan and then Viking.”
In fact, it was after wrapping up production on a new Rugby title that the console team began working on Spartan. With clear nods to the Total War series early demos and prototypes were created to see just how many characters could exist on screen at the same time, which would eventually make its way into the final release. And by focussing on a single fighter that would end up slaying thousands of enemies, the team felt that it could lose some of the historical accuracy and inject myth into the experience.
In the end Spartan would receive mixed but mostly positive reviews when it debuted on GameCube, PlayStation 2, and the original Xbox. With most praising the sense of scope thanks to the populated battlefields. “We had considered console Total War,” Mike adds. “And we still regularly look at it as an option, but it’s never been quite attractive enough to set aside the other games we want to make.”
“For Viking we built an open world with a linear plotline running through it with some very clever scripting tech,” Mike continues. “It was a good game, but perhaps needed another six months or more to fill out the world, take advantage of the tech we made. And make the leap from good to great. We all learned from that experience.”
Empire: Total War (2009)
A huge technological leap forward for the Total War series, Empire introduced the series to the world of guns and gunpowder. Which naturally informed a lot of the design, triggering the next complete re-write of the Total War game engine.
“This was the second re-write of the Total War game engine,” Mike clarifies. “It added naval battles for the first time too. Empire was a huge leap forward, and the carefully crafted code architecture provided the foundation for the continuous evolution that has gone on since. Each time we’ve rewritten the whole engine it’s taken about three or four years to do it, and that is too slow a pace – our fans can’t wait that long.”
In speaking more broadly about the current state of the tech that drives each new Total War experience, Mike notes “Now we rewrite the game section by section, over the course of several games the whole code base will be refreshed, but without any big bangs
. We had hoped that this approach would also mean that the kind of bug storm changing everything at once produced would be a thing of the past. We were wrong about that.”
Which in the case of Empire, post-release issues ranging from bugs to incompatible video drivers and for some – not being able to install the game at all – were serious enough that official responses and direct community engagement were of the utmost importance. In the end, as time progressed these issues would dissipate with the product left to speak for itself. Empire: Total War would once again receive almost unanimous critical acclaim, and go on to become of the best-selling PC titles for its year of release.
Total War: Rome II (2013)
These launch issues however would also plague perhaps the most anticipated entry in the series so far, Total War: Rome II. “We learned a lot from our experience with Rome II,” Mike adds. “For a while after release we were doing weekly patches, which meant working on three in parallel – something that most games as a service
titles struggle to do. It was a good discipline to learn though. We also embraced auto-testing. Every night when we go home, all our machines play the game.”
A genuinely fascinating approach, and a forward thinking one too. “We can also spin up armies of machines in the cloud to play,” Mike explains whilst referring to live data captured at the time of this interview. “Last night 4204 tests were performed including 622 single player campaigns, 154 multiplayer campaigns, 240 custom battles, 1333 settlement battles, and 524 arena battles. Now, auto-testing can’t find all bugs, but it helps massively. Even so, the million or so battles we’ll play during a year’s development will be overtaken by players in the first 48 hours of release.”
That being said, post-release patches slowly fixed many issues with Rome II helping to create an experience that lived up to its promise and one that would directly inform subsequent Total War campaign like Total War: Attila (2015).
Alien: Isolation (2014) and Halo Wars 2 (2017)
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are two separate teams at Creative Assembly, and during this time that team was hard at work on a new type of game for the studio. A first-person survival horror experience, set within a sci-fi universe that was well-known across the globe. But instead of going the route of military combat, or shooting waves of alien entities, the studio went back to the very first Alien film from the 1970s. A stark, minimal world that one might think wouldn’t translate all that well to the world of videogames.
Thankfully, we were wrong.
“Alien: Isolation was a real passion project for us,” Al Hope tells me. “I’m a huge fan of the first film and was convinced that a game set in that world would be really special. Incidentally, SEGA had the license to make Alien games at the time, so it was just a case of convincing everyone how amazing it would be.”
By employing a visual aesthetic that was not only reminiscent of the first Alien film, but also consistent across all the new environments it introduced, was a sight to behold. And the game itself proved to be a hit with audiences, and much like the film quickly becoming a cult favourite. Alien: Isolation would also re-establish this side of Creative Assembly as a development force to be reckoned with, leading to a partnership with Microsoft and the release of the studio’s first RTS for a console with Halo Wars 2.
“Halo Wars 2 was really exciting for us,” Al continues. “We had an opportunity to bring Halo back into the RTS space and in doing so, get more fans interested in RTS. Looking at the portfolio of games that we make, it’s our attention to detail and authenticity that I think stands out, with both Alien: Isolation and Halo Wars 2 we had incredible source material to work with, and it was important for us that we stayed true to that.
Total War: Warhammer (2016)
With the console team breaking new ground by re-visiting a classic sci-fi film from decades past, the Total War team for the first time shifted its gaze away from history to the realm of fantasy. Specifically, the table-top realm of Warhammer.
“We’ve been talking to Games Workshop for years,” Mike Simpson explains. “Earlier on I think we both thought it was a great idea, but we weren’t ready to stop work on historical Total War to make space for Warhammer. So, we waited until we had grown enough to split off a whole team and do both at the same time.”
Not only was the launch of Total War: Warhammer a resounding success, and without to sorts of issues found in previous releases, but it also was a lot more than simply the same Total War but with orcs and elves. The same level of historical detail was applied to the fantasy world of Warhammer, which then informed the design of not only the battles and wide range of units but also how the campaign played out. A technical, design, and high point for the series that was the first part in a planned trilogy that saw the release of the second entry, not that long ago.
So, what’s next for Creative Assembly? Well, with 30 years already under its belt the future has never looked brighter with experiences on the horizon. Including the return to large scale historical Total War. “It’s been a huge amount of fun making the Warhammer games,” Mike adds. “And we’ve learned a lot and created some new tech making them. I think the historical games will benefit a lot from that.”
Exciting stuff ahead.
Thanks to the staff at Creative Assembly and all the local and international public relations teams for taking the time to make this possible.