Stu­dio Pro­file

To­tal War stu­dio The Cre­ative As­sem­bly on the fight for cre­ative free­dom within a pub­lisher



There’s a rule in war­fare, one so ob­vi­ous that Sun Tzu didn’t even bother jot­ting it down, that hav­ing a re­ally big can­non earns you a cer­tain de­gree of re­spect. Gov­ern­ments may rise and fall, monar­chs will be born, wave at people for a bit and then lose their heads, but an army with mas­sive guns tends to be af­forded a de­gree of re­spect­ful au­ton­omy.

For al­most 15 years, The Cre­ative As­sem­bly has been piec­ing to­gether its own su­per­weapon, dig­ging trenches in the PC re­al­time strat­egy genre with the pop­u­lar To­tal War se­ries. Since

Shogun: To­tal War’s de­but in 2000, the se­ries has notched up eight his­tor­i­cal bat­tle sim­u­la­tors, and these have es­tab­lished a niche in a mar­ket that had pre­vi­ously been in­ac­ces­si­ble to Cre­ative As­sem­bly’s pay­mas­ter, Sega, which ac­quired the UK stu­dio in 2005.

“Life as an in­de­pen­dent de­vel­oper is bru­tal and of­ten quite short,” says Mike Simp­son, cre­ative di­rec­tor and proud cap­tain of the To­tal

War mono­lith, who joined the team in the mid’90s, when the stu­dio was just five men. Cre­ative As­sem­bly has since grown to em­ploy over 300 staff and is now cleanly split into two teams, with one con­tin­u­ing work on To­tal War and the other busy de­vel­op­ing Alien: Isolation. “Hav­ing a ma­jor pub­lisher as a backer takes that prob­lem away,” Simp­son ex­plains, “and it means you can af­ford to be a lit­tle bit more ad­ven­tur­ous to some ex­tent, so that’s the upside. The downside is that you have a boss to feed, which you didn’t have be­fore. I think the two things bal­ance out. I’d much rather be part of a pub­lish­ing group than a sole de­vel­oper again.”

“We like to be quite in­de­pen­dently minded. We al­ways have been,” adds stu­dio head

Tim Heaton, who be­gan man­ag­ing Cre­ative As­sem­bly five years ago, af­ter leav­ing EA Part­ners. “I don’t think that in­de­pen­dence dis­ap­peared from CA when Sega came along. Ar­guably, that in­de­pen­dence has grown, be­cause we’ve built mar­ket­ing teams within CA. Less and less do we need that cen­tral set of typ­i­cal pub­lisher roles that they used to pro­vide.”

The stu­dio’s spir­i­tual sovereignty in its deal­ings with Sega’s warm mon­e­tary em­brace took some ham­mer­ing out, how­ever, with Cre­ative As­sem­bly’s ini­tial for­ays into mul­ti­plat­form projects post-takeover get­ting a rel­a­tively tepid re­cep­tion. Ac­tion-ad­ven­ture To­tal War spinoff Spar­tan: To­tal War­rior (2005) and fol­low-up Vik­ing: Bat­tle For As­gard (2008) failed to reach the same crit­i­cal heights as its world-class strat­egy games. “Vik­ing was flawed be­cause it ran out of time,” says Heaton. “Sega wanted it out. It came out on the last day of the fi­nan­cial year, and that’s never a good sign. One of the things that I was keen to do [af­ter Vik­ing] was to open a di­a­logue with Sega. We started to have proper con­ver­sa­tions about not be­ing forced to make com­pro­mises that are bad de­ci­sions in the medium- to longterm.”

It was those luke­warm early Sega projects, as well as the demon­stra­bly pop­u­lar strat­egy se­ries tucked up its sleeve, that would even­tu­ally give Cre­ative As­sem­bly the back­bone to stand up to its owner. “It was a learn­ing curve,” says Heaton, him­self an in­te­gral li­ai­son be­tween his stu­dio and Sega. In fact, af­ter THQ sold off Com­pany

Of He­roes de­vel­oper Relic to Sega early in 2013, Heaton vis­ited the freshly ac­quired stu­dio to tu­tor it on how to work with its new par­ent. “It was only re­ally when I went through that process [with Relic] that I re­alised how idio­syn­cratic and odd and ‘spe­cial case’ these types of things are,” Heaton says. “So, yes, a key part of the suc­cess of our stu­dio is in how we re­late to Sega and work with Sega’s pri­or­i­ties, but also with our own pri­or­i­ties, too.”

Along­side other projects, Cre­ative As­sem­bly is now de­vel­op­ing Alien: Isolation, a ter­ri­fy­ing, sin­gle-alien take on the sur­vival-hor­ror genre and per­haps the most rev­er­en­tial and ac­com­plished use of Sega’s prized li­cense in over a decade. For such a project to ar­rive at, and flour­ish un­der, Cre­ative As­sem­bly is ev­i­dence that its re­la­tion­ship is healthy.

Jude Bond is lead artist on the spe­cially con­structed con­sole team placed in charge of

Alien: Isolation. His ten­ure at Cre­ative As­sem­bly goes as far back as the pre- To­tal War days, when the stu­dio pri­mar­ily worked on port­ing EA Sports ti­tles to PC. “I came here in ’98 or ’99 – a very long time ago,” he says. “I started off mak­ing en­vi­ron­ment art for the EA Sports games we were work­ing on at the time. I would work on things like mak­ing a 400-poly­gon sta­dium, which re­ally shows how much things have changed.”

The team built for Alien: Isolation is made up of over 100 people. Many have been drafted in from all cor­ners of the in­dus­try, but es­sen­tially, as Heaton ex­plains, the team is built around a core of old-school stu­dio vet­er­ans. Sit­u­ated on an en­tirely dif­fer­ent floor from the 160-strong To­tal War team, it’s al­most treated as a stu­dio within a stu­dio. “It’s very much like two stu­dios in one, re­ally,” says Heaton. “We di­vide them quite hard, and that’s be­cause we want fo­cus. They’re very dif­fer­ent teams. To­tal War is su­per deep, very in­tel­lec­tu­ally strong. They’ve been mak­ing that game for over 14 years now, so it’s our real heavy­weight team.

“For the Alien: Isolation team, it’s kind of built out of a core staff that we al­ready had, but we [made it] so that it feels younger and more dy­namic. The Alien: Isolation team is full of people who have made triple-A games be­fore, but not nec­es­sar­ily within the Cre­ative As­sem­bly way of work­ing. So it’s a lot more ag­ile, a bit more rock and roll, I think it’s fair to say.”

But there’s an­other way of look­ing at both teams, says Simp­son, one that chal­lenges the im­pres­sion that the Alien: Isolation team was con­jured out of thin air. “There were al­ways

two teams,” Simp­son ex­plains, “so it’s not like we cre­ated a sep­a­rate one for Alien: Isolation. In fact, you could ar­gue that the con­sole team is the orig­i­nal CA and the To­tal War team was the off­shoot. That was the sit­u­a­tion back in the day. Cre­ative As­sem­bly started off do­ing sports games for EA. That’s the her­itage, so in that sense there’s al­ways been an ac­tion game team.”

Re­gard­less of which

team can claim to be closer to the beat­ing heart of Cre­ative As­sem­bly, the To­tal War and Alien: Isolation de­vel­op­ers are strictly walled off from each other. “The teams are spread ge­o­graph­i­cally as well,” Heaton ex­plains. “They’re on two dif­fer­ent floors so they can con­cen­trate on what they’re try­ing to do.

“There’s a dan­ger when you’re try­ing to do big triple-A games that you con­stantly rob Peter to pay Paul. ‘Oh, we need an Alien: Isolation pro­gram­mer; maybe we could just take that guy for a cou­ple of months’, or what­ever, and that al­ways di­min­ishes the other team. There’s al­ways go­ing to be a lead team work­ing on the next game, so it’s nice to be able to just go: ‘You’re not al­lowed to cross that boundary’.”

Evolv­ing from just a tiny hand­ful of de­vel­op­ers to host­ing and man­ag­ing two large and dis­crete teams nat­u­rally brought about some grow­ing pains, but with that ex­pan­sion came lessons in how to prop­erly grow a stu­dio. To form in 1987 and con­tinue to thrive well into a third decade is a clear in­di­ca­tor that Cre­ative As­sem­bly has been do­ing some­thing right for a long time.

“I’ve worked with people like Cry­tek and some of the leading de­vel­op­ers back at EA,” says Heaton. “There are al­ways flaws in all of those de­vel­op­ers’ out­looks, but the ones that are suc­cess­ful are the ones that have qual­ity built in. Those are the ones that have sur­vived through all the changes. I recog­nised it at CA when I came and saw ev­ery­thing. It’s re­ally im­por­tant.”

“From an art per­spec­tive,” Bond adds, “a lot of that has got to do with who we ac­tu­ally em­ploy and who our staff are. I think we’re quite happy to em­ploy people who have raw artis­tic talent. It’s not about tech­nique or know­ing pipe­lines, be­cause we can teach all of that. It’s much eas­ier to teach that than it is to teach some­one to draw or un­der­stand art.”

Heaton agrees. He at­tributes Cre­ative As­sem­bly’s longevity partly to its hir­ing pol­icy. “A bril­liant em­ployee is worth ten to a hun­dred times more than a ‘solid’ em­ployee, so it’s worth hir­ing those people. Some­times those people have ex­pec­ta­tions that are hard to man­age, but that helps dif­fer­en­ti­ate us.


“And when you have an out­look on life that’s as strong as CA’s, where you’re join­ing a team that have been mak­ing games for 14 years, then we can kind of im­print some of the prin­ci­ples that we want onto these bril­liant people and al­low them to do that free rad­i­cal think­ing with us.”

In one sense, To­tal War is keep­ing an in­creas­ingly am­bi­tious Cre­ative As­sem­bly teth­ered to the ground. When look­ing to ad­vance the game that still de­fines the stu­dio, it’s cau­tious about tin­ker­ing with the for­mula, but that doesn’t mean it shies away from change. “We try to do dif­fer­ent things on each To­tal

War game,” Simp­son says. “One of the things we’re very keen not to do is just stag­nate and pro­duce the same game over and over again, so we make sure that there’s a lot of dif­fer­ences be­tween each sub­se­quent game.

“There’s also the dan­ger that ev­ery time you change some­thing on a large scale, there’s risk in­volved, so we try to bal­ance the risk and the re­ward. But I think it’s much bet­ter to be am­bi­tious and fall short oc­ca­sion­ally rather than rest on our lau­rels and not try to do any­thing clever at all, so we’re con­stantly push­ing for­ward.”

Alien: Isolation has ben­e­fit­ted from pre­cisely the same risk-em­brac­ing at­ti­tude to de­vel­op­ment, sidestep­ping the tem­plated tropes that have dogged Alien games for years. Bond ex­plains how cre­at­ing an en­gine freed the team from many tech­ni­cal con­straints, and in do­ing so unlocked the abil­ity to cre­ate the light­ing tech­niques so cru­cial to its at­mos­phere.

“We’ve got re­ally, re­ally good tech for light­ing, which I don’t think any­one else has. Light and shade is so im­por­tant to the game­play… If we’d been us­ing an off-the-shelf pack­age, or were just port­ing it onto a dif­fer­ent en­gine, we would have been con­strained.”

To­tal War is the loud­est gun in Cre­ative As­sem­bly’s ar­moury, the big stick with which the stu­dio has fought for its in­de­pen­dence. And now it’s that abil­ity to work with­out con­straint that di­rectly fu­els its next big project. You’d be hard pressed to cor­ner the stu­dio into sum­maris­ing its think­ing so suc­cinctly it­self, though.

“We’re Bri­tish,” Heaton says. “We’re quite prag­matic, so we don’t have dicky mis­sion state­ments. We just keep try­ing to make good games. Some­times that’s hard, but we give our­selves ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to do just that.”

Cre­ative As­sem­bly’s stu­dio di­rec­tor, Tim Heaton (left). Jude Bond is lead artist on the re­cently un­veiled Alien:Isolation

Founded 1987

Em­ploy­ees 300 Key staff Tim Ansell (founder), Tim Heaton (stu­dio di­rec­tor), Mike Simp­son (cre­ative di­rec­tor, To­tal War), Jude Bond (lead artist, Alien: Isolation) URL www.cre­ative-as­sem­ Selected soft­og­ra­phy Shogun: To­tal War, Rome: To­tal War, Vik­ing: Bat­tle For As­gard

Cur­rent projects To­tal War: Arena,

Alien: Isolation

Part of Heaton’s job (left) is to act as an in­ter­me­di­ary be­tween Sega and Cre­ative As­sem­bly, en­sur­ing the stu­dio isn’t put in the po­si­tion it was with Vik­ing:Bat­tle ForAs­gard. A de­signer at work on To­tal War (above). The se­ries’ pol­ish buys the stu­dio lee­way for cre­ative risks

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