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Assembly Time!

Studio director Mike Simpson on franchise innovation, community pressure, and how Shogun was nearly a "cheap B-grade Command and Conquer clone"

One of 2009's most anticipated titles is out later this week - Empire: Total War is the latest in the hugely successful PC strategy franchise, with review scores falling so far mostly in the 9-10 out of 10 region.

Here, in the first of a two-part interview with the studio director of iconic developer The Creative Assembly, Mike Simpson, he explains the importance of continued innovation in a franchise's lifetime, the pressure of a dedicated fan base, and how the first entry in the series, Shogun, was originally supposed to be a "cheap B-grade Command & Conquer clone..."

Q: It feels like Empire's been in development for a long time now - how long has it been?

Mike Simpson: It's probably been about three years, from start to finish, which - for one of our revolutionary Total War steps - is actually quicker then we've done it before. Shogun and Rome both took about four years from the very beginning to the very end. But it takes a while.

Q: Has it been a relatively smooth process, compared to the others?

Mike Simpson: Yes, I think it probably has. Part of that is knowing exactly where you're going. Once you've got your franchise established, and you know what the basic parameters are, you've got a lot of guidance as to where to go. It's more mapped out, so there are less surprises along the way. There are still some, but less - it's not heading completely off into the garden hoping you're going to arrive somewhere interesting.

Q: When Shogun first came out you had plenty of time periods to choose from, but from the ones you've chosen since - Medieval, Rome, Medieval II - was Empire the next logical step?

Mike Simpson: It probably wasn't the obvious choice, by any means. There are a number of things we look for when we pick a time period - there are things that you need, just from a gameplay point of view. You need to have a technology race, to drive the whole tech tree, so the idea of the 18th century, with the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, lots of themes of revolution and enlightenment... it's basically Western civilisation waking up and starting to do new things. That makes it a really interesting period from that point of view.

The second thing that you have to have is a period in which there are lots of factions that start off relatively equal, any of which could have dominated in some way. Again, the Empire era had all these colonial powers which set off out into the world to build empires, and any of them really could have dominated. So it ticks that box.

The third thing we look for is content which is interesting and cool, and Empire might seem a bit of a less good pick from that point of view, but we do look quite carefully at what's going on in the rest of popular culture. You'll notice that there have been quite a lot of popular 18th century films recently, like The Duchess, and the John Adams TV series, which won more Emmys than anything else has ever. So there's a wave of popular culture as well that we've tried to hook into.

Those three things between them mean it's a good pick.

Q: And of course, it's important to keep innovating and expanding the gameplay with each new episode in the series. This time you have the naval battles, the new campaign areas, and the trade element...

Mike Simpson: I think that's one of our core principles, to make sure we're doing something new with each release, even if it's just an add-on, or evolutionary step, we still make sure there are new features in there. I think that's one of the flaws of the other big RTS franchises is that they stay pretty static - they don't change from game to game, they just give you more of the same. Their popularity tends to decline over time, and eventually they die.

We're very aware that we don't want to do that, we want to keep going forward and make sure that the game's new and fresh to play. Apart from anything else, it's got to be new and fresh to write - we'd get bored silly making the same game over again.

So we make games that we want to play, and naval battles is something that we've always wanted to do. We couldn't do it on Shogun or any of the others really, because it's such a big leap forward in terms of tech. But we had the opportunity to do it with Empire.

I think the thing that stopped us before was that we didn't want to do something half-arsed. If we did naval battles, they've got to be better than anybody else's naval battle - even if that's all they're doing. It all has to stand up, so we put a lot of effort into it and it's all worked out pretty well. It's definitely satisfied our aspirations for Master & Commander-style naval battles.

But we've also done a lot of work pushing forward the other areas of the game as well. On the campaign side we're very aware that the previous games were... they've always been big games, but they were getting quite daunting as well - quite hard work to play, in a way. So we wanted to make the player's passage through the game much smoother - not burden you with lots of chores, but still give you the fine detail and control.

I think we've succeeded in doing that as well, and it doesn't take as long to play as previous games did. Maybe part of that's the setting, though, because you're not obliged to take over the whole world to win, that's not really what the game's about. You can carve off a huge chunk of it and win, but you don't have to conquer every last province.

And the third area, the land battles - it's surprising how different the gameplay is with musket-based combat, where it is all about lines and fields of fire. It's very different from the melee-based stuff we've done in the past - and battlefield-generation has come forward a long way too.

Overall I think it's been worth the enormous amount of effort that's gone in.

Q: You've always picked fascinating points in history - what sort of level of research do you put in as a team? Obviously there's some authenticity you have to sacrifice for gameplay mechnanics, but how close can you get?

Mike Simpson: We do a huge amount of research, and some of that's easy - making sure that the unit types are all there, correctly depicted, and have appropriate levels of power and cost, and so on. Just making sure that stuff's right.

The really hard bit comes when you're trying to fold quite complicated ideas into the game in a way which is simple.

Q: Like Enlightment?

Mike Simpson: Yes, the idea that as you educate your public, and they get more aware of what's going on in the world - and the possibilities within it - they get less happy being feudal serfs. If you're not careful, if you go too quickly, you could end up with a revolution.

Now, there are different ways of handling that - you could stamp down on it, and run a completely autocratic regime, try to hold back the forces of Enlightenment, burn all the universities and that kind of thing. That can work, if you can keep a lid on it, but if the lid ever blows off... it'll be a big explosion. Or you could go down a much more gentle path of reform.

Another good example of a complicated system that you have to try and turn into a gameplay mechanic, is trade. World trade, even in the eighteenth century, was a very complicated system. In our first stab at it, we actually tried a proper simulation of supply and demand, with lag... I think we'd have needed a suite of supercomputers just to work it out for one turn - it was an enormous network problem to solve, and we couldn't do it that way.

We had to simplify it down to something which has all the right feel for a trade system, and rewards the player for doing the right things - so you can make money at it if you get it right, but you can get it horribly wrong as well. You start all the trade agreements, and that feeds into diplomatic relationships, and it's all there - but it's simple enough for us to make a game out of, and it doesn't end up being like a chore.

Q: What was the initial feedback like when you put the game out to previews?

Mike Simpson: Well, we've got a fairly large and vociferous fanbase, and they wait for any snippets of information. We had somebody start a rumour about a demo [before it was announced and released] one day at 2pm in the afternoon, and 5pm there was a 70-page thread on the forums. So there's a huge amount of anticipation. But the feedback we got was great.

Q: How much do you listen to community feedback when creating your games?

Mike Simpson: We pay a huge amount of attention to what they're saying - particularly those things which annoy them, because they're always right. If something annoys a person to the point at which we get long threads about it, clearly it's something that needs to be looked at and dealt with.

There are things which they ask for, which if we gave them, they wouldn't actually want. Some of those are quite interesting - ever since the days of Shogun the fans have been asking for a multiplayer campaign, so they can play the full game against a group of 10 or 15 individuals. We've been saying since the start that it would take so long just to play through just one turn... with 15 individuals they've all got to take a turn - it would take about ten years to finish a game.

But they kept asking, and we've kept thinking about it, and eventually we've come up with a way of doing it - at least for one versus one - which will work really well, and we'll be trialling that at some point soon.

Q: Does it add a layer of pressure when you have such a dedicated fan base?

Mike Simpson: They are the baying mob, and we have to give them what they want, so yes - we do feel pressured. I don't think that's a bad thing though.

Q: It's either something to be scared of, or it's something to motivate you...

Mike Simpson: Occasionally we get annoyed with them when they get stuck on one particular thing, which probably isn't quite right - they get the wrong idea. Before we announce things there's quite a lot of speculation that goes on, and sometimes we'd like to just say something to put it to rest, but you can't do it until you get to the point where you announce things properly.

Q: The strategy scene was changed for good with Shogun - how do you think Total War has changed it, and where does it sit within the genre now?

Mike Simpson: It's interesting, because when we did Shogun, it almost happened by accident. We didn't set out intending to write that game as it turned out - our intention at the time was to do a quick and cheap B-grade Command & Conquer clone. We saw other people doing games like that, and thought we could easily do it.

So we started with a top-down view, and the only innovation we were going to have was lots of little ant-sized guys instead of a few tanks, or whatever. At some point along the line we got the camera down to the viewpoint of the general and set off in this whole 3D landscape thing.

But it did happen by accident.

Q: I bet you're pleased with that accident...

Mike Simpson: Yeah, it was one of those lucky things. Somebody suggested we use the new 3DFX graphics cards that were just coming out then, to do this viewpoint, and it turned out it was posisble.

Having made that sideways turn and moved away from the rest of the RTS guys, and not really being quite the same as Civilization - although the campaign map has some similarities - we did then set off in that direction.

By the time we'd finished Shogun it was particularly apparent that it was a real genre-setting thing - it could have been just a one-off. It wasn't really until Rome when it cemented itself, and by that point I think it was really difficult for anybody else to follow. Very few people have tried it - it's such a big hill to climb.

Where we are now, for example our battle AI, there's been more than ten years of continuous development on the same body of coding techniques. How is anybody going to catch up with that? It tends to put people off, and because of that we've had the genre pretty much to ourselves, which is great.

Mike Simpson is studio director at The Creative Assembly Interview by Phil Elliott.

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