Creative Assembly boss: "This is not how I imagined my first month as studio director"
Gareth Edmondson on how COVID-19 has changed the studio, and what comes next for the Total War developer
UK studios don't come much bigger than Creative Assembly.
It has a history stretching back 33 years. The Total War franchise is one of the biggest strategy game series in the world. It has worked on IP including Alien, Warhammer, Halo and FIFA, and it has almost 700 employees worldwide. Taking on the position of leading such a company is no small feat, but for new studio director Gareth Edmondson there was no time to ease into the role, as he was immediately faced with steering the firm through a global pandemic.
"It's important to acknowledge that we are in a very fortunate position," he says. "Many studios, other industries and individuals have been so severely affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and I am grateful that we are able to continue working, and to support our staff remotely.
"As the largest studio in the UK, the transition to getting everyone working remotely was a monumental undertaking. The challenges we have faced have no doubt been much like those of other studios. We've focused on the health and wellbeing of our staff, getting the tech right to work remotely, and being more purposeful and considered with our communication channels than ever before.
"Of course, this is not how I had imagined my first month as studio director to be. There have been challenges, but this period has also really demonstrated the strength of our studio culture -- it's an incredibly supportive environment.
"Since our full transition to remote working I have held a weekly, studio-wide livestream to keep everyone as updated as I can. Our priority has been our staff wellbeing and over-communicating to ensure no one gets left behind. We are not just working remotely; we are working during a global crisis. I am particularly conscious of those who may be high-risk, high-anxiety, or perhaps living alone and more vulnerable to feeling isolated."
Just weeks after moving its employees offsite, Creative Assembly launched new DLC for Total War: Three Kingdoms, which Edmondson described as a "huge achievement." Having developed the ability to create and launch products with a remote team, could this change how Creative Assembly operates in the future?
"We were already exploring more opportunities for flexible working and the COVID-19 crises has of course forced us to move much faster," he explains. "There are still challenges, but the way the team responded has been fantastic. We have proven the technology can work for large-scale remote working, and our processes and communications are still effective.
"We are actively moving towards more flexible working opportunities, including exploring how we can offer fully remote positions for talented people to join Creative Assembly from anywhere in the world. We currently have around 90 open vacancies and we are still onboarding new talent, with 16 having started over the last few weeks. We've adapted our processes to get them set up remotely and after a few initial bumps -- it's working well."
Edmondson isn't new to leading games development teams. He takes the studio director position having held the role of COO for the past four years, and prior to that was managing director of Driver developer Reflections. Even so, he has a big task in following Tim Heaton, who during his nine years at Creative Assembly has overseen its most successful era.
"We're exploring how we can offer fully remote positions for people to join Creative Assembly from anywhere"
"In the day-to-day of managing the studio the shift has been pretty seamless," Edmondson explains. "We've transitioned slowly and I've been taking over directing Creative Assembly gradually, over the last couple of years. A studio of this size and with such a successful history requires a delicate approach. We absolutely do not want to disrupt what works well. However, we have some big plans for the next few years, and we are transforming elements of the business."
Heaton hasn't left entirely. He has taken the role of chief studios officer at parent company Sega, overseeing the company's European development teams -- that includes Creative Assembly.
"Tim Heaton will be uplifting services and quality across all the studios in his new role, driving forward shared learning opportunities and building on the foundations of Sega Dev Day, which Creative Assembly established in 2019," Edmondson says. "Having someone take a view across all Sega's studios, especially someone who is so familiar with CA, is hugely beneficial for us.
"The Sega Europe family has six development studios; Creative Assembly, Sports Interactive, Relic Entertainment, Amplitude Studios, Hardlight, and the recently acquired Two Point Studios. That brings with it a huge potential for learning, for growing and innovating together."
Moving forward, there will be more games in the Total War series, including both the Warhammer and historical lines. The series has recently enjoyed big success in China, and that's something that Edmondson is expecting to grow further.
"Total War has had a strong following in China, which has really grown over the last five years, and we've certainly been looking at ways we can more directly reach out to those players. Total War: Three Kingdoms gave us that opportunity, and we absolutely want to build on that. That means more content specifically for Three Kingdoms, but also working with NetEase to bring more of Total War directly to market in China. It's an exciting opportunity to grow our player base, but of course it is very much part of our wider global strategy."
"Now is the time to leverage the experience and talent we have gathered to create something new that we fully own"
One of the more interesting developments is the news that Creative Assembly is working on an entirely new IP in the shooter genre. It has explored other genres before, including survival horror in 2014 with Alien: Isolation. But for more than a decade, whenever it has drifted away from the Total War series, it's been to work on an established brand.
"When I first joined Creative Assembly as the COO one of the things that really impressed me about the team was the devotion to authenticity," Edmondson tells us. "Be that to historical authenticity with the Total War historical series, or the love that is poured into other IPs such the original Alien universe in Alien: Isolation, Games Workshop's Warhammer with the Total War: Warhammer series, or the Halo franchise with Halo Wars 2. We value our partnerships and we will continue that well into the future. That passion leads to great experiences, and we feel now is the right time to leverage the experience and the talent we have gathered over the years to create something entirely new that we fully own -- an IP that we can evolve and grow for many years to come.
"One of the benefits of a 33 year-old studio is the concrete foundations we have. Our stability means we can explore new ideas, based on what the teams are passionate about. Starting with a blank page is always thrilling. We can't wait to share with players what we have been working on and refine this new experience with their help."
Beyond new IP, Edmondson says that the studio is forever keeping a close eye on new platforms and distribution models as the industry prepares for the next generation of consoles.
"Technology, creativity and how we combine them for new experiences are constantly in flux and that's something that has always fascinated me," he concludes. "From that point of view, I find it all interesting, but focus is one of our core values and we must choose where we direct our efforts very carefully. To give you an example, we are not working on VR at the moment, but new hardware -- console and PC hardware -- and new platforms including streaming technologies are absolutely part of our plans."