Creative Assembly: Interview with Tim Heaton and Maya Georgieva

Creative Assembly: Interview with Tim Heaton and Maya Georgieva
Sean Cleaver

By Sean Cleaver

June 6th 2017 at 2:15PM

Develop spoke to Creative Assembly studio director Tim Heaton and CA Sofia's game director Maya Georgieva about how the growth of the developer and what's in store for the future

Not only have you acquired a new studio, but also you’ve gone international. Tell us how the acquisition of CA Sofia came to be?

Tim Heaton: We’d thought about an additional studio location for a while. As we’ve grown to be quite big in the UK, and our projects are only expanding in scope and numbers, there are benefits to splitting some of the logistics of building our games. We were approached by Crytek at a time when they wanted to sell their Black Sea studio in Bulgaria. We met the whole team, and decided there was a skill level and outlook that really fitted our way of seeing the world, ranging from their strategy games pedigree to our shared culture of quality first. 

It took a while to sort out, and that was extremely difficult for some of the Sofia staff as they had to hang in there during a difficult time with Crytek, but I think it’s great testament to them as a team that they all stayed together through it, and trusted CA and SEGA to make it right.

It must have been quite a turbulent time for CA Sofia over the last few years. How has it been working at the studio before and after the Creative Assembly takeover?

Maya Georgieva: Prior to the acquisition by SEGA and Creative Assembly, it was a really stressful time for the team. Looking back on it now, it feels almost surreal as we managed to stay together as a team and we feel like it made us stronger and more determined. New beginnings are always full of inspiration and motivation and that’s what it’s been like coming into Creative Assembly. It’s so refreshing to get back to what we love to do, making games, and the challenges we now have are the sort of games development challenges we want.

It’s been quite a few years for CA with new IPs and successes in different genres, along with expansion. Tell us a little bit about how the developer has grown to meet these challenges?

Tim: Well, it has never been a strategy to grow big, that’s always just been a side effect of taking the opportunities that we’ve felt comfortable with, and excited about. We’re now at 530 staff in the UK and Bulgaria, and running a portfolio of different Total War development, Halo Wars 2 with Microsoft and some new things we definitely can’t mention yet.

SEGA have always been very supportive, and SEGA Europe is now an environment where the creative leadership is driven by the studios, and it feels like a very healthy environment in which to make games. You can see that in Alien: Isolation, a game that was driven by the passion and creativity of the CA team that made it, and also in our decision to use Games Workshop’s Warhammer IP in Total War – an IP that resonates deeply with the Total War team.

How does the studio environment differ from where CA/CA Sofia was five years ago?

Maya: Five years ago looks like a completely different studio to now! At the time the Sofia team were just starting work on what would later take shape as Arena of Fate. We were exploring a wide range of ideas, some that seem a little crazy in retrospect, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. We had a few new people join the team back them, some starry-eyed with little to no industry experience, they are now some of our seasoned veterans! 

We grew alongside each other and it feels like the challenges we’ve been through have really forged us together into the team that we are now. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Creative Assembly were so drawn to us in the first place!

Tim: There are a lot more of us than there were five years ago, but we try really hard to keep our key philosophies in place. That means making teams reasonably autonomous, keeping management relatively flat, striving for a collaborative and open attitude. I think the last five years have brought in a stronger understanding of career development and team organization which we have fully embedded in our teams, and we’ve invested much more in the physical environment too, with plenty of break out areas, activities and more space in general.

Tell us about your core studio values and what this means to you as a studio?

Tim: We strive for a collaborative, ambitious approach to making games, and our commitment to quality drives everything we do. We have 30 years of experience of doing this, and it’s deeply embedded in our DNA. We recruit very carefully, and we’re looking not only for skills but for a personality that can live up to those values. At heart we’re a craft led studio rather than a production line, and we try to do everything possible to allow our brilliant people to do great work, to try their hand at new things and to expand their skills. We focus very carefully, whether it’s on the day’s demands or the long-term goals of CA.

How do we see these core studio values come across in the products you create for gamers?

Tim: We want to make high quality games, while maintaining focus on what makes them great. If you lose focus on the scope of the project, you risk wasting significant amounts of valuable time – and budget – on elements of the game which genuinely don’t work. It is important to have the freedom and creativity with our ideas, but also to recognise when to say no or make difficult, yet essential, editing decisions in the interest of quality.

How does CA and CA Sofia approach a typical day of development?

Maya: There’s no secret sauce, if you’re looking for one. Something we have really embraced in Sofia is Creative Assembly’s approach to daily standups, starting the day with coffee and bouncing ideas of any daily issues we are facing. Then the whole place is abuzz with activity, games development is the crucible where the work of many different disciplines come together to create a product in unison, and for that, communication is everything. 

Tim: I can only echo what Maya says, it’s a mix of creative communication, problem solving and ‘in the zone’ type individual work. We try and build an environment to support all of those.

CA is growing. How hard/easy is it to implement and manage these values across distance and multiple sites?

Tim: Our culture is unique to us, and has grown and self-reinforced for the past 30 years. Because of our growth we’ve had to try harder to understand it, communicate it, and protect it. We talk to all our new starters about it, and we follow on with bespoke training. We train our leads in how to maintain our values and how to act with clarity and vision. We constantly question why we do things, and whether they’re leading to our key focus, which is making our games great.

We fight bureaucracy and we fight ego. We take the opportunity to do a lot outside of the day to day work environment too, whether that’s all hands meetings, parties, sports activities and supporting charities. We bring an awful lot of people to Horsham and we realise they build their lives here, so we try and help them establish a foothold from day one, and have fun after that. 

We are very diverse but we like to control our destinies – for example nearly all of our marketing, PR and community support is done within CA. That’s unusual for a developer, but it is one of the elements of our success. So, we were wary of somehow losing some control and focus by taking on a studio 1,500 miles away.

Face to face discussions are very important, and we realised that we could get to Sofia within three hours, that there weren’t any real language issues and that we could establish connections between people in Horsham and Sofia that were as strong as those within our Horsham teams. Since they have become CA Sofia we’ve had the vast majority of the team visit us, and we’re all regular visitors to Sofia too.

Develop has talked before about the perks of working for CA, but why is now a good time to get on board the CA ship?  

Maya: Creative Assembly offers that rare balance of exciting projects, and a range of them to get involved in, and security. It’s a good place to be in a well-established studio with a formidable track record for quality games.

Tim: I think the roster of games we have in development at the moment has just never been stronger. After 30 years we’re really into our stride! We’re big enough to give you all the benefits of a strong studio, including stability, but we’re organised in a small enough way that individuals make a huge difference, and we can give you the freedom to really learn hone your expertise in making games and studying your specialism.

What’s next for CA and CA Sofia? 

Tim: We’re going to build on some of our ambitions. Total War: ARENA, being published together with our partners at Wargaming, is such a fantastic game, and a very different take on Total War, should be fully live soon. Our roadmap with more Warhammer and with a return to our historical games means Total War fans will not be disappointed. Our expansion with CA Sofia allows us to do more of what we want to do, although we’re not talking yet about what they’re specifically up to. Meanwhile, the Alien: Isolation team are currently concepting something that is so exciting and so big I’m not allowed to talk about it. It’s a pretty exciting time to be at CA.

Maya: The future looks busy, challenging, and exciting. We’re working on our first project for Creative Assembly and while we're choosing our first steps carefully, it’s also ambitious and we have a lot of new ideas to bring to the table. While it’s too early to disclose details about the project, we can safely say it’s a Total War title that we know the fans want. Beyond that, we have plenty of ideas. So many games to develop, and so little time.