As Creative Assembly ramps up on its latest project, studio boss Tim Heaton discusses one of Britain's unsung success stories
Creative Assembly's last game, Napoleon: Total War, concerned itself with the military adventures of a man who, despite his small stature, towered over Europe like a colossus. Ironic, then, that the studio should find itself faced with precisely the opposite problem.
Despite selling around 10 million games in the past decade, amounting to a healthy quarter-billion dollars of revenue, the company has an oddly low profile - so much so that when studio boss Tim Heaton moved there from Electronic Arts, "even though it was only twenty miles up the road, some of my peers didn't even know where Creative Assembly was based."
Where it's based, as it happens, is the sleepy town of Horsham - inside what Heaton describes as the industry's "Golden Triangle" of London, Guildford and Brighton, and rated, I'm proudly informed, as the second best place to live in the entire United Kingdom. Yet even here, the residents don't know what's on their doorstep - when Creative Assembly won a BAFTA for its work on Total War, the local newspaper was astonished by the firm's very existence.
The firm's low profile, Heaton says, "comes from the nature of making big strategy games - the culture is to put your head down and work until it's done." Moreover, if the firm's name isn't well known, the brand it has created, Total War, has immense recognition - both among consumers and among publishers. Following months of rumours about possible bids for the firm, Sega acquired the studio in early 2005, and now publishes both the Total War franchise and Creative Assembly's other titles.
Heaton's newfound concern for building the studio's profile is strongly linked to those "other titles". Since the Sega acquisition, Creative Assembly has widened its focus, establishing a console team which has operated alongside the Total War team to create titles such as Spartan: Total Warrior and Viking: Total Warrior. Although moderately well-received, these titles never reached the heights of the Total War franchise - meaning, in Heaton's own words, that one of his first tasks was to "figure out what we wanted to do with the console team".
What they wanted to do, it transpires, was to invest. Over the past year the company has worked on its console technology and explored game ideas which would move the team away from the Total War spinoffs on which it had cut its teeth. Finally, the studio brought a demo to Sega - "probably the best early demo I've seen in 15 years," Heaton claims, a statement given some weight by his background at EA Partners - and had their project green-lit, signalling that it was time to ramp up the firm's console team.