Creative commons

Creative commons

By Tim Heaton

June 30th 2011 at 10:00AM

Creative Assembly studio director Tim Heaton offers a frank view of his teamsâ?? recent history, and gives sage advice on keeping your studio successful in tough times

It was just before Christmas 2008 that I made my way to Horsham in West Sussex and met the team at Creative Assembly for the first time.

The move came from a desire to get back to working more closely with development teams and not just supporting them from the publishing side. I wanted to feel a little bit more directly in control of things, to spend more of my time doing and less time influencing.

Visiting Creative Assembly felt a bit like visiting a grand University, or one of those intimidating City Halls in my treasured Yorkshire. There was a sense of history and of heritage, and a culture that was embedded throughout the fabric of the place, right into the walls; redbrick walls to be fair, not grand gothic arches.

What was clear was that quality ran through everything that the teams were trying to do. Not just paying lip service to quality, or polishing quality in at the last stage, but people who think and act with pragmatic quality as their utmost priority at every stage.

A TALE OF TWO TEAMS

So, I leapt at the chance to use my experience from both development studios and big publishers and head the studio up. I set out to inform strategy, to implement some development process ideas I’d had along the way, and to bridge the gaps in both communication and understanding that can so frequently occur between a publisher and a developer.

It’s really been a tale of two teams since.

As I started, the Total War team were just finishing Empire. It had been a huge development and was proving tough to close down and squeeze into a box.

A suitably epic game, it was fantastically well received, and has sold tremendously well. It had far too many bugs when it shipped, and the tired team had to drag itself back up and fix them over the next few weeks and months.

The Total War team has a huge depth of experience. We gave out some ten-year recognition awards recently, and we were a bit shocked to give out 22 awards.

Considering the company size ten years ago, that’s just an incredible retention rate, and it’s that legacy that feeds into the striving for perfection on Total War.

That’s not to say Total War is a monolithic, tent-pole release game anymore – we’re already one of the leaders in downloadable content, working and learning with the team at Steam. We’re also looking at new opportunities on all the possible platforms, and already have a team working on a Total War game away from PC.

Over the past two years we delivered Napoleon: Total War and Total War: Shogun 2, and we’ve been very careful to try and improve on what happened during Empire. We handle the scope of the game very carefully, constantly re-assessing it throughout production. In the final stages, we get very wary about locking down features, going through a strict set of milestones. The Total War team is big, and we’ve created functional sub-teams within the overall team organisation to try and spread decision making and responsibility.

The devolution of decision making was an interesting process. Communication in a big team is vital, and we have lots of work to do still, but it’s a lot of fun working with a team that is so clear in its goals.

QUALITY IS KING

The other side of the studio is the console team. This team delivered Viking: Battle for Asgard in 2008, but not all was well.

It felt, certainly from the Creative Assembly side, that Viking’s quality had been compromised slightly because it slipped, partly due to feature-creep, and understandably Sega weren’t happy to give it the extra time.

On reading the reviews of the game it certainly felt that people were saying ‘there’s something really good here, but it’s not quite been realised’. Beyond that, the team live in a studio where quality is king, and I think there was a real loss of confidence from some of the key members of the console team.

As I started, the console team was pitching a new IP. In my opinion it was strong and had some really interesting innovation, but in a world where the words ‘new IP’ send a shiver down any publisher’s spine, it just wasn’t cohesive enough, and most importantly had entered that netherworld in a publisher where some people were interested, some were confused, and some just didn’t like it.

As soon as an idea loses traction in a big organisation with many voices, it’s probably dead. So, we killed it.

But it was clear the team were extremely talented; they just needed their mojo back. We spent a lot of time studying our figurative navel. Are triple-A console teams not worth the effort? Should we be doing casual games? Should we use these resources for Total War?

But from discussions with Sega, it was clear that having a western-based triple-A internal console team would be a valuable asset. It’s good to work with external developers, but as a publisher, you don’t have control; you often don’t have the history that allows trust to be built up, and occasionally there are conflicts in strategy and motivation. Having in-house teams allows you to have a much closer relationship.

A NEW DIRECTION

And then something brilliant happened. Using one of the licences Sega that works with, the team developed an in-house demo in just six weeks.

It was a million miles away from Viking. We showed it to Sega and they went ‘Wow…er…right…hold on’, and while it was being discussed, we created yet another demo, for a brand new IP, and that showed yet more of our technical ability and innovative gameplay.

These two demos, totalling about 10 minutes of gameplay in all, were the strongest early playable demos that I have ever seen. They changed absolutely everything. The team were extremely proud, and rightly so.

We felt like we had a direction, and all sides of Sega were excited. That first demo was based on the Alien IP, and though we currently can’t say any more, we’ve spent the last year building a hugely experienced team and some bespoke technology to deliver this really exciting game.

So, we continue to grow with Sega’s support. This is Creative Assembly’s 24th year, and I have no doubt the next 24 will be as tough, perplexing, interesting and fun as the last have been.