Making a good brand and exploiting it is a proven strategy in gaming; each new title is less about hit or miss and more about an experience that dedicated fans are familiar with. Sega’s Creative Assembly has poured almost 15 years into its Total War real-time brand, and now it is cashing in with multiple titles coming out at the same time.
In rapid succession, Creative Assembly has announced a bunch of games, and today, it is taking the veil off the preview version of its next big PC game, Total War: Attila, which is based on the Rome II: Total War game engine that debuted in 2013.
The newly announced 10-versus-10 multiplayer-only Total War: Arena game demo is based on the Rome II: Total War engine and art. Creative Assembly also recently launched the Wrath of Sparta expansion for Total War: Rome II, and it also announced Total War Battles: Kingdom, a free-to-play realm-building game.
We’ll see soon if this Total War blitz will lead to better sales. Over the years, Total War games have sold millions of units. And, even without a major release, Total War games have around 850,000 monthly active players on an ongoing basis. On average, Total War players play each game for 104 hours.
We caught up with Creative Assembly’s creative director, Mike Simpson, at a recent event to talk about the expansion. He noted that Horsham, England-based Creative Assembly now has more than 300 employees, including 170 building the Total War empire. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Simpson.
GamesBeat: The brand’s doing very well. I think you guys had a global assessment of how well it’s done over time. 850,000 people play it every month, even without a new release? What else, over 15 years, have you achieved?
Mike Simpson: Over time, we’ve built up a fairly big player base, which we’re adding to all the time. Every time we make a new game, we learn a lot about what we’re doing as well. There are aspects of the technology that stretch back all the way across those 15 years. I think that’s one of the reasons there haven’t been any competing games going into exactly the same area. It would take them 15 years to catch up.
It’s not even the things you would think would be difficult. Putting thousands of men on the screen, the graphics side, that’s all relatively straightforward. Any very good team could do that. Making them all pathfind and collide off each other, making each individual behave in a sensible manner, that’s exceedingly difficult. We’ve built up our repertoire of techniques for that over the years.
GamesBeat: It seems like a lot of strategy games can attract audiences in the hundreds of thousands, but every now and then somebody does something to break into the millions. This is one of those rare franchises.
Simpson: We appeal to a lot of different people. There will be hardcore gamers who’ll buy whatever the best PC games are. There are history fans who love anything with deep history. A wide variety of groups are attracted to us.
GamesBeat: Some of your competition has gone by the wayside, like the Age of Empires games. What’s the key to some of that longevity?
Simpson: They always were fairly infrequent. I think the really important thing is to make games you want to play yourself. If you try guessing what other people want, you end up making something nobody wants. If you make games that you as a team want to play, you end up making something that will at least appeal to some group out there. That’s important.
Another thing is to be quite ambitious with what you’re doing. A lot of other franchises settled in to producing sequels where the sequels weren’t that much different from the previous games. They tended to die eventually. You get to a point where people stop playing if it’s just the same game over again.
We try to make sure that at least every two games, we make a major leap forward. We’ll rewrite the engine, or major chunks of it. That’s both good and bad. The good side is that the franchise moves on and we end up producing new stuff all the time. The difficult side is that we keep rewriting our own technology. Sometimes we end up being more ambitious than we can deliver and it takes us a while to catch up.
GamesBeat: For a lot of these franchises, there seem to be a couple of different ways of doing things. There’s the craftsman strategy, like with Nintendo’s people, where they do something once every three or four years and make sure it’s really good. You seem to have done that for quite a while but also adapted to spreading out more, doing more branding across a bunch of different things.
Simpson: We have five teams. The original core team is working on the main game, Attila at the moment, and it’s still the same size as it was, or just slightly larger than on the previous project. So it’s not like we’re diluting the main team in order to do more projects. The main team will always be focused on single-player historical strategy games. All of these offshoots, though, we’ll try different things. Some will work well, some not so well, and we’ll just keep going.
GamesBeat: It seems like an age of multiple platforms. This multi-touchpoint approach seems like the one that fits.
Simpson: The capabilities of the platforms are converging to some extent as well. A top-end tablet isn’t much different from a low-end PC. There isn’t very much that you can’t do on any of the platforms anymore. Then it only becomes a question of what you want to do, not what you can do. That’s more interesting.
GamesBeat: It might be interesting if some of these new digital projects end up making a lot more money, too.
Simpson: That’s a bit of a lottery, though. Very few people have recipes that work more than once. The idea is that we just make the best game that we can – something we want to play, something we enjoy – and hope that everyone else likes it too.
GamesBeat: The audience has been growing to support a lot of different games, too. I don’t know if you’re at a point where you have a perennial, Call of Duty type of audience, one that plays all year round….
Simpson: We do. That’s always been true. One of the unusual things about the original Shogun is that it sold more copies in its second three years than in its first three years. The rest of the brand had grown and people would go back to pick up a copy of Shogun. These games last a very long time. People play them for four, five, six years after release. Out of that 850,000 player base that we have every month, some will be playing Empire, Napoleon, and so on.
As we keep going, one thing that we’ll end up doing is supporting games for much longer than we have in the past. It’s not like it was five or 10 years ago where you release a game and once it’s out the door that’s it. One of the five teams is now dedicated to ongoing support for previous products.
GamesBeat: My impression of Attila was that it could be a very hard game for the Romans, always being on the defensive.
Simpson: The idea is that playing the Romans is an epic difficulty in that game. In the real world, of course, they failed, or the western Romans failed. The eastern Romans succeeded and lasted another thousand years. It’s doable, but it’s difficult.
GamesBeat: That’s an interesting challenge to put on your players. It’s something you may not have done before.
Simpson: You have choices of lots of factions as well. You can choose one of the easier barbarian factions. There are levels of difficulty as well. Even playing the western Romans, if you set the difficulty level to easy it’s not that hard.
GamesBeat: That does present players with a new perspective, though. Something they haven’t had to get used to before.
Simpson: With most of the factions in most of the games you start small and grow from there. With the western Roman empire in Attila, you start off very big. You have a huge empire and you’re trying not to shrink too quickly.
GamesBeat: With the other games, are you able to share some assets across different teams?
Simpson: A little bit. Arena uses all the assets from Rome II. We’ll pick up more assets as we go on. That’s a game that, over time, will progress through history. It’ll jump from era to era and add new factions to play.
GamesBeat: How many people do you have working altogether?
Simpson: In the whole studio there’s more than 300 of us now. 100 or so are the console team who just finished Alien: Isolation. We’ve always had two separate halves of the studio. There’s always been a console action game side. In fact, they were there first. When I joined there were six people doing sports games for EA. Total War is about 170 people now.