As studio leader of Creative Assembly, Mike Simpson is responsible for pushing forward the Sega-owned studio as it scales more heights. He explains to Develop how far the team has come â?? and where itâ??s headed.â?¦
In its 17 years, Creative Assembly has worked on a fairly diverse portfolio of titles, whereas others may limit themselves to a specific genre or niche. How important is it to have that level of experience when developing games at the moment?
There’s a surprising amount of crossover between titles of different genres, both technical and design. CA has worked on sports titles in the past, and is currently focused on the strategy and action genres. But the mocap, animation and twitch-based gameplay experience we gained on the sports games was directly applicable to action; the high-performance path-finding from the action games is directly applicable to the strategy titles and the man level behaviour from the strategy games is directly applicable for the action games.
By having experience from a wide range of genres, we are better able to push up against the boundaries of the genres we’re currently working in. It makes for more innovative solutions and a more innovative end product. We’re actively seeking to bring in even more experience from other genres when we’re recruiting.
CA is one of the few developers to thrive in the otherwise flat PC space, which even the likes of Lionhead has said it is hard to succeed in. Why do you think this is?
It’s always been true that to succeed you have to be first or best. Preferably both. With Shogun at the start of the Total War series we took on the challenge of depicting a large scale battle in 3D almost before it was technically possible. We were lucky to be first and best. It was difficult to do, and that put off other developers from following us for a long time – much easier to write a C&C clone, or an FPS, or a racing game. We also made sure that if anyone was going to beat us, it would be us. Each product in the series blew the previous one away.
Those few developers that climbed the mountain after us got to the top only to find we’d built another one on top of it. And we’re still going. There are other great games out there, but none of them are directly challenging us on our own turf. That’s how to succeed: stake out your turf, be first and stay best. A certain amount of luck may also have been involved.
CA has also worked well with expansion packs, updates and the like. How do you see this model changing as digital distribution comes to the fore over the next few years?
Digital distribution opens up a host of new possibilities. Content can be tailored for smaller niches, rather than having to have mass market appeal to make it viable. It can be packaged in smaller pieces. It can be produced by the fans. It allows minor updates and regular patches. We’ve stuck a toe in the water with the Alexander download pack for Rome, and learnt a lot. It’s not a revolution yet, but it could be. We have plenty of toes left.
There's a view that, once acquired, successful independents get swallowed up by the publisher machinery or fade away. We presume you disagree – but how does CA disprove this perception?
I don’t disagree with this view – there are plenty of examples to support it and few long-term examples to disprove it. The guys at Sega were well aware of this danger when they acquired CA, and that’s the first step to making it not happen.
Sega’s intention is to keep the studios running as much like an independent as possible. We choose our products. We choose our staff. We keep our culture. We spend their money, go to their parties and are part of the wider Sega family, with all the support that comes with that. And we get to plan ahead – past the next milestone, the next product and the one after that. Stability allows efficient innovation. It’s developer heaven.
It does require vigilance though. You have to watch out for systems and procedures that stop you from doing what is sensible or necessary, or slow it down. You have to watch out being taken for granted, for resources or mindshare being focused on key external developers because unlike you, they might walk away. You have to watch out for becoming too comfortable.
What are your thoughts on how Spartan: Total Warrior was received?
Spartan was our first action game, and in many ways a fine piece of work, but from the market’s point of view it was neither first nor best.
If CA revisits the action/adventure genre what have you learnt from Spartan that will inform your second pass through the genre?
We’ve learnt a lot about how to make games in this genre, and if we go for it again we’ll aim to carve out a more solid piece of turf to call our own, and produce something outstanding. We’ll be first in some significant way and best in as many ways as we can manage.
The studio is also expanding significantly – how do you expect the company to grow? Will the new clutch of staff members be used to form a new team, or will they complement the current teams?
We’re expecting to hire at least another 40 people in the UK over the next year. We currently have two teams. The aim is to build up the team size and quality to the point where one of the teams can fission into two, and take on a third project – a project we’ve been wanting to do for years. We prefer to grow our own people, but are supplementing that by hiring a mix of grads and experienced people. We’re looking at a wide range of skills at all levels, but what we really look for primarily is talent, or potential talent. We have a studio full of talented people who like to work with other talented people.
CA has a base in Australia – what exactly is that team's role in the company's operation and what's the benefit of having a studio located in that territory?
The Oz office started off as a small group of guys we just wanted to work with. We shared work on the Rome code – not an easy thing to do across an office, let alone across the world. It worked. There’s a large pool of talent in Brisbane, and they’ve drawn on that to build a whole team, and are just finishing their first solo project – Medieval II. There are advantages to having a studio on the other side of the world. It means you really can work on tough problems 24 hours a day, and also give staff with itchy feet more options.
There's a been an increase in companies setting up in Australia – the CA Australia team is very close to the Pandemic and THQ ones, for instance. Do you expect more companies to follow you to this under-exploited territory as recruitment and outsourcing challenges rise?
For some reason Brisbane has become the games capital of the region. It’s reached a critical mass that makes it a magnet both for people seeking work in games and companies looking to set up. As the industry grows and goes global others will spring up. Wherever there are people who love games, they are going to want to make them.