Creative Assembly has survived for nearly 31 years because it has listened to its fans — and pushed them in a direction they didn’t always know they wanted to go. The division of Sega makes the hardcore real-time strategy game series Total War, which has sold millions of copies over 18 years.
The success of Total War has enabled Creative Assembly to create a studio in London and other locations with more than 600 people. The company has multiple teams, including some that focus on delivering historical strategy games that fans want.
But it has pivoted and branched in directions as the game market has changed as well. Recently, Creative Assembly branched into fiction and fantasy with the launch of its Total War: Warhammer and Total War: Warhammer II games, based on the fictional Warhammer universe in partnership with Games Workshop. I talked about that with Rob Bartholomew, studio brand director at Creative Assembly, in a fireside chat at Casual Connect Europe last week.
Creative Assembly has poked around with premium mobile titles, web-based games, multiplayer-only titles, and shorter games based on specific historical moments dubbed its Saga series. In the latter category, Creative Assembly just launched Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia. And Creative Assembly is also working on Total War: Three Kingdoms, which bridges the history of ancient China with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms mythology.
Some bets pay off, but Bartholomew said not all of the experiments work. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Can you fill us in on the history of your studio?
Rob Bartholomew: We’ve been going for more than 30 years, 31 in August, but it’s only in the last five or six years that we’ve really grown to a considerable size, working on multiple products at the same time. For much of our history, we were a single-game studio, working on a variety of different sports games, mainly, for EA back in the day. It’s only in the last 17 or 18 years that we’ve worked on the Total War games.
Shogun was the first game in the series, back in 2000. That did quite nicely. We followed that with Medieval and then Rome, which was really our breakout title. We’re very fond of Rome. That was a game that benefited a lot from a rise in Roman pop culture interest at the time. Russell Crowe was out there in Gladiator. Time Commanders was on the telly, which is something we helped out with the BBC. There was a lot of Roman-specific history out in the general culture. We definitely rode that wave of enthusiasm.
GamesBeat: Technology got much better. These games where you’re maneuvering on a strategic map now included the two armies meeting on the field. You’d zoom down into a real-time 3D battle. That became much more doable as PCs got more powerful.
Bartholomew: Absolutely. We benefited from the hardware shift to dedicated 3D graphics cards. So, you had this combination of turn-based empire building, Risk-style gameplay, and then, real-time strategy battles. It was those real-time strategy battles, where we now have in excess of 10,000 men on the screen at one time. It just looks fantastic. It creates these great cinematic visuals for us. We have that to hook people in, and then, this really in-depth empire-building game. We’re using those tactical battles to wrap around that gameplay.
GamesBeat: It’s almost like the visuals made a niche strategy game more accessible to a larger audience.
Bartholomew: It was a really good marriage of gameplay and visuals. Something we still hold to in our development process today is the idea that we want to push the bar on visuals and build for the next generation of PC hardware. That gives you a really long tail on the back end. We benefit massively from our games having very long sales tails. We’re still selling copies of the original Rome, the original Medieval, and even the original Shogun in some small numbers. Certainly, the original Rome and Medieval II from the early ‘00s still hold up. They scale up and look great on modern hardware.
GamesBeat: This drew the attention of Sega how long ago now?
Bartholomew: I’ll probably get this wrong, but I think it was 2008 that they bought us. We’re wholly owned by Sega. They’re our publisher, distributor, and owner. That relationship has been massively significant for us in the last decade. They’re a hugely supportive partner to work with. They’ve not crushed the creative life out of the studio or anything like that at all. We’re very autonomous within the Sega family, and they’re very supportive of what we want to do.
GamesBeat: And now you have 600 people?
Bartholomew: We’re based in Horsham, which is south out of London. For those that don’t know, it’s a tiny little market town, sort of equidistant between London and Brighton, which is where a lot of our staff live and come in from. We have three buildings there in Worsham. A couple of them house our main teams, and we have a motion capture facility as well. Just last year, about 10 months ago, we ended up buying Crytek Black Sea. They’re now CA Sofia, out in Bulgaria. That really ramped up our capabilities as well.
We’re working on six or seven different projects and games right now in various different stages of production. We have our big core game that you’ll be familiar with, hopefully, the traditional big-box Total War games. We do our own history flavor of that. We’re going to continue to do big history games. But we also have a very successful line of fantasy versions, which we’re producing in conjunction with Games Workshop. That’s Total War: Warhammer.
GamesBeat: Do you think of that as a pivot for you guys, that you no longer focus solely on history?
Bartholomew: Very much so. We knew we had a formula that worked when we applied it to history. We had a lot of readily available source material. We knew how to set a game around that. It fit the gameplay and the immersion we were going for. But what we’ve looked at doing in the last five or six years is to try and apply that formula to different game formats, different markets, and different platforms.
We set to work on mobile games and released a couple of those. We’re working on a free-to-play title, Total War Arena, with our friends at Wargaming.net. And yes, we’re producing this line of fantasy games that we hope will sit alongside our history games. So far, so good. We’re two games in now as of last year. We have a third one on the way, in the very early stages of pre-production at the moment. We have this notion of a grand trilogy of fantasy titles to kick off that side of our business.
GamesBeat: You could have stayed on the road of doing your main game every few years and getting this captive audience excited whenever that came around. But you also started thinking about these different doors into the Total War franchise. Can you talk more about that?
Bartholomew: It’s very much the case that we haven’t grown for the sake of growing, whether in terms of the number of people or the number of buildings or the number of projects we’re doing. We spotted opportunities to apply the Total War gameplay methodology and thinking to different markets as they presented themselves as good ideas.
The fantasy games are absolutely part of that. But they’re a very gentle realignment of what the core market for Total War games should be. If you like Total War: Rome II, you’ll probably like Total War: Warhammer. It contains a lot of the ingredients you like. It’s just that this time, we’ve got dragons and fireball spells and all that stuff. That might not be entirely your cup of tea, but you can easily pivot to it.
What that also allows us to do is to blow the dust off the franchise, in a way, and present the franchise in a new light to an audience that might not consider Total War. A lot of what our consumer surveys told us is that a lot of people are aware of the Total War franchise. You don’t get to be 17 or 18 years old as a franchise without people generally being aware of you. But what we also found is that we had a problem with familiarity. People didn’t know enough about the franchise, enough about the gameplay, enough about the things that it offers you to dive in.
When we’re able to offer the Total War formula with dragons and giants and trolls and things like that, you might see something in that that you find more approachable or more familiar to you that gets you interested. The same goes for our free-to-play titles, our mobile titles, and some of the other things that we’ve got in mind as well. We hope that people see them as a way into what we see as our core gameplay mechanics and our core expertise and understanding.
GamesBeat: Would you say that you’ve found something transformative yet in these new business models? Electronic Arts talks more these days about FIFA Ultimate and the opportunities they have through live services compared to actually selling $60 boxed games. They’ve found more ways to make money through the same fans, to make money year-round.
Bartholomew: Our core business is big triple-A boxed PC products that sell at full price, hopefully forever. We don’t like to give anybody an excuse to see our games as less valuable than we think they are. But something we have developed over the last five or six years is our recent focus on downloadable content, building additional content that we can keep feeding into the audience that’s enjoying those games.
We have about 1.3, 1.4 million people every month playing Total War games, and we have an installed base getting on to 22 or 23 million. We’ve sold coming up to 30 million units of DLC. What we’ve found is that the larger, the more in-depth, and effectively the higher-priced those pieces of DLC are, the more successful they ultimately become for us. That’s an interesting thing we see, and we don’t necessarily see it replicated around the industry. It seems to be quite microtransaction focused.
We’re more about large, meaningful chunks of content that really change the way the game is presented and played and a focus on users who are primarily interesting in the single-player game, who really love an in-depth game. “I’m going to spend 24 hours playing the game this weekend because there’s a new update,” that kind of consumer. The larger the DLC, the more meaningful we can make it. The more heavyweight it is, we tend to find the more successful it is.
GamesBeat: How have fans reacted to some of the changes you’ve made over the last few years.
Bartholomew: I think it’s fair to say that our franchise fans are quite conservative, with a small “c.” They want change and improvement, but they don’t like it when it happens. That’s always been the contradiction among fans of anything, including game fans. We like to think we’ve brought a lot of our audience with us by just providing them with more content that they love. That doesn’t mean they’re absolutely fine with everything we do. We have a very vibrant, engaged community that doesn’t shy away from telling us what they think.
That’s a cornerstone of our success, though, the fact that we have a really strong fan base of people playing our games every month, who are so dedicated to our games that they want to devour all that content. But they’re always willing to tell us what they think we should be doing right or what they feel that we’ve done wrong. Something we’ve certainly learned over the last 18 years is how to listen to that feedback. Obviously, not all of it is valid, as anyone who spends any time on the Internet knows, but there’s great value to be gleaned from that if you can filter it in the right way and distill it into useful actions.
GamesBeat: You have a couple of recent games that spell out these different directions you’ve gone as far as supplying new things of your fans. Thrones of Britannia is a “Saga” game, and then, you have Total War: Three Kingdoms coming as well.
Bartholomew: Thrones of Britannia is an interesting one for us because it was some thinking that developed out of periods of history that we’d really like to touch on but that we haven’t been able to do much with because they don’t support the really big era settings. They’re not massive in the same way as something like Rome or Medieval. It’s more about these little flashpoints of history, kind [of] like the American Civil War. We’ve touched on this somewhat in the past. The follow up to Shogun 2 was the Boshin War, a game called Fall of the Samurai. It’s a really interesting geopolitical situation that maybe only lasted four or five years, but it made for a great Total War follow-up title.
Thrones of Britannia is really an experiment for us, seeing if we could take the aftermath of the Viking invasion of the British Isles and turn that into a more detailed look at that period than perhaps we would have done for a larger Total War game. We’re releasing it at a price point that makes sense given the fact that it’s a follow-up title using a lot of Attila and Rome II technology. It’s not as cutting edge as a new release, but we didn’t want it to be seen as an expansion pack. It was also a chance for us to try out some different game mechanic changes for the franchise.
As anyone who goes to the Steam product page for the game will see today, it’s landed a very mixed reception at least from the sort of people who are doing Steam reviews. I think we’re sort of 55 percent or 60 percent positive. Some people are really upset with it. Some people think it’s the best Total War game they’ve ever played. It’s difficult to plot a course from that feedback. We’re doing a lot of looking at that feedback now, digging into it. We’re trying to identify where we can improve that without throwing the baby out with the bath water.
If there are people that think this is the greatest Total War they’ve ever played, it doesn’t matter that they’re a minority. We’ve done something right for those guys, and we want to preserve that momentum moving forward while trying to address our core market as well. We’re coming to the realization that maybe this is not for that section of the audience — and being brave about how we address that in the future.
GamesBeat: Sometimes, you push in a certain direction, and your fans push you back where they want you to be.
Bartholomew: That’s probably one of the biggest dangers to our business and to anyone who has a long-running franchise. Your fan base will assume that everything you do, everything attached to the franchise, is for them, and when it doesn’t measure up to their expectations, they will treat it harshly. That can be potentially quite damaging from a marketing and PR perspective. So, we do have to be careful and considerate about what we do and when we do it.
Ultimately, we don’t want our core fan base to stop us from doing things that might generate things that other people love. We have mobile games out there that we know our core market doesn’t necessarily engage with, but they have hundreds of thousands of users.
GamesBeat: Total War: Three Kingdoms is set in China, about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms mythology as opposed to pure history. That seems to be another interesting step in a different direction.
Bartholomew: It is first and foremost a historical game, but it’s based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms literary works, which are near to the period. What Three Kingdoms represents for us is a fantastic opportunity to engage with the Chinese market. We know there are a huge number of Chinese Total War players, and China as a market for our titles has just been growing and growing over our last few releases, as I’m sure many others have noticed in their own businesses.
It’s a setting we’ve always wanted to do, but I suppose we’ve always had it a little lower on our wish list until recent years, where it’s started gaining importance as the market has become more attractive to it commercially. While we would have had a lot of players in China 10 or 15 years ago — unfortunately, we weren’t selling a lot of games in the territory at the time. Now, there are systems in place where China is a market that can be very lucrative. We’re hoping that this will not only refresh the fan base we have in China but deliver a Total War game to an audience that might not have played Rome.
GamesBeat: This has a richer fictional or narrative opportunity for you compared to a game that’s strictly historical.
Bartholomew: That’s what’s very exciting from a development point of view. You have this incredible cast of characters from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms works that the Chinese audience, and some others as well, is intimately familiar with. We talk about the subject matter as if it’s a kind of Chinese Game of Thrones to our Western audience because it’s so brilliantly stacked with larger-than-life, colorful, heroic and villainous characters.
Something the Warhammer games have taught us is that people connect really well with those big, bold characters. Obviously, we have this fantastic cast of heroes and villains in the Warhammer world that we’ve tried to do justice to with our games there. That’s something our fan base and the players of those games have connected strongly with.
In our past, Total War has struggled with the idea of giving character and humanity to these games. You’re administering an empire and sending 10,000 people off to wage war for you. It feels kind of impersonal. It’s difficult to get a sort of character-level emotion in there. But certainly, Warhammer and now the Three Kingdoms period give us the opportunity to connect to our players in that way as well, which is a learning we’ve taken from those games and brought forward into all of our historical games.
GamesBeat: Is there a larger lesson you’ve drawn from your experience getting to this point? What would you say about being able to last this long, to pivot when you need to, and make sure you’re guiding your brand in the right direction?
Bartholomew: Step one to success: have 10 years of a franchise under your belt [laughs]. It’s an easy, rather unique sort of situation to be in in a lot of ways. But definitely, one of the challenges is trying not to slay the goose that lays the golden eggs. You know what’s going right for you. If you pivot too much or you change the way you think too much, you’re going to lose that home ground, the thing you’ve been building up.
A lot of the decisions we’ve made have been very sensitive to the idea that what we have is a big success, and we want to continue doing that. We enjoy playing the games we make, much like our fan base does. We want to keep supplying that, making that kind of game and innovating within that space while looking for those new opportunities on the outside. We’re always mindful that we mustn’t forget that home ground. We mustn’t stray too far. We must always service that part of our business without letting it weigh us down.
It’s a very fine balancing act. But I guess the one thing we try to adhere to is not to drop everything and chase the next big thing. We’d love to do more work with VR. We’d love to let you play Warhammer: Total War in AR on an actual tabletop and see everything come to life. We have technology that does that. We have some prototypes that the guys have knocked up that make things very exciting. But it’s difficult to attack that opportunity in the way that it really deserves to be attacked while maintaining what we’re doing as a core business. We’re always looking for those little improvements we can make, rather than the big revolutions.
Audience: Do you have any desire to branch out further into mobile games?
Bartholomew: We have done in the past. We released a couple of games. Total War Battles: Shogun was in 2012. That was a premium-priced game, almost a lane-based puzzle version if you like. It didn’t quite nail the Total War vibe we wanted to go for, but it seemed like a suitable game for the market at the time. We kind of missed the boat on the price point and the value promise. Once we came down, everyone was doing free-to-play.
In the last couple of years, we have a game called Total War Battles: Kingdoms, and that’s more of an empire builder, free-to-play, with some of the Total War massed battles inside it as well. We’re not actively supporting it with content at the moment, but it’s still up and running, and it’s worth checking out. I think we learned a lot from that. It remains a modest success for us out there.
We have no real plans to do anything in the immediate term. One thing we learned is that it’s a tough business to get into. That’s hardly a unique viewpoint, but it’s very tough. We did learn a lot of little development tricks, little commercial tricks, a lot of things influenced our thinking about all the games we put out there. That links to what I was saying, which is that you don’t want to pivot so hard that everything collapses, but investigating these little experiences and having these experiments, you can learn a huge amount from them even if they don’t set the world on fire.
Audience: Following up on what you said about AR and VR, would you think about multiplayer games there? Would it be possible to have multiple players in these massed battle scenarios?
Bartholomew: We do quite well with multiplayer across all of our games. There are multiplayer modes in there, and we’re working with Wargaming.net on Arena, which is a 10v10 massed battle game. That’s free to play, so you can always check that out as well.
In terms of AR and VR, when I was 12 and playing Warhammer at home, I wanted them all to come to life and fight each other. I remain hopeful that we can do something like that. It feels like something should be done, and we’re probably in the best place to give that a good shot. But it’s all about being appropriate to the tech and spotting when the moment is right. We’re always mindful of our core market, our core business. But that’s definitely something we’re interested in pursuing.
Disclosure: Casual Connect paid my way to London. Our coverage remains objective.