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Strategic Development

Creative Assembly's Mike Simpson on the PC vs consoles argument, development costs and deciding on which tech to support

In the first part of this interview, The Creative Assembly's studio director, Mike Simpson talked about the importance of innovating in a franchise, the pressure of community expectation and how the original game in the Total War series nearly ended up as a "cheap B-grade Command & Conquer clone..."

Here in part two he addresses the long-standing PC gaming debate and whether it's under threat from consoles, as well as offering his thoughts on development costs, and explaining how decisions are made at the beginning of a project on which technological developments will find their way into the next game.

GamesIndustry.biz PC development seems to be a bit of an after-thought for some genres now, with console dominated them, but it's still a key place for some things. Are strategy games simply better on PCs, is it just a case of implementation, or is it just personal preference?
Mike Simpson

For the actual genre I think you have to carve it up into its different bits - we could talk about RTS on PC or console, and there were a host of attempts to get RTS franchises onto console, but controls were always a problem.

Thinking about the kind of game we're doing with Total War, it just doesn't fit - that's the first thing. The size of the game is enormous, and there's no way of making it fit on a current generation console.

But I think you're right to some extent - strategy gaming is more of an intellectual, sit-back-and-think sort of process, and maybe doing that at your desk with a mouse and a keyboard is more appropriate than sitting on a beanbag in front of a TV.

GamesIndustry.biz With consoles more of an entry point into playing games now, does that pose a threat to PC gaming, in that without consoles maybe more would be playing PC games?
Mike Simpson

No, I don't think that for PC strategy games... I don't think it's a threat. There's certainly no sign from our franchise that's happening. We're always looking at ways to expand it, rather than working on an assumption that it's going to decline.

It is quite a complicated issue, and some of it's related to the whole console life cycle as well - when a new generation of consoles comes out, PCs suddenly look quite unfavourable by comparison. But three of four years later, when you compare the price of a PC with the price of a console, suddenly you're getting more power for your money with a PC, and things tend to shift back.

That's happened with all the previous generations - so I think there is a natural cycle.

GamesIndustry.biz Microsoft and Sony would have you believe this one will be a longer cycle, though.
Mike Simpson

Yes, they would - and it may well be driven by first-person shooters than strategy, but I think both of them will do better on PC than on console as time goes on, and the console fades back. You'll start seeing games that just cannot be made on console, and can only be made with the power of PCs.

GamesIndustry.biz 3DFX was something which shaped the future of Shogun - at what point in a game's development do you look at what technology is coming through, and decide it will help shape the title?
Mike Simpson

Unfortunately you have to do that at the start of a project, it's a bit like clay-pigeon shooting. When you set off you're making decisions about the kind of spec of the machine when it's finished, but it actually doesn't exist yet. It's actually quite difficult from that point of view.

If you get it wrong and you go too far ahead, you end up with a game which hardly anyone can run. If you're too far behind then everybody else's game will look better than yours.

GamesIndustry.biz What sort of factors do you look at, about how much you'll put in?
Mike Simpson

Well, fortunately technology does seem to march on at a reasonably steady rate. There are occasional jumps forward, but we can make some assumptions about how much more we can push forward on the graphics side, and so on.

That's probably ceasing to be the limit for our games now - scalability is the thing that gets you out of a lot of these problems. You make your game scalable, so you can turn all the settings down and run it on a toaster, or you can turn them all up and run it on a supercomputer, and it's perfection.

You can do that with most of the graphics stuff, but when you're talking about the logic work that goes behind making ten thousand guys on a battlefield all animate and act like individuals, and path-find, collide with each other, and so on, you have to come up with ways of scaling that as well.

I don't think there are any easy answers really. Some things don't make it - maybe that's the easy answer. We actually set our ambition quite high, and some things don't make into one game, so they'll fall off into the next one.

You might have some advanced rendering technique, but it's not quite stable enough, and that will turn up in the next game. That's about making your actual delivery scalable as well, so there are a number of end points you could end up at, some of which are towards the higher end of your ambition, while others are more at the base line. That way you're pretty much guaranteed to deliver, which publishers like...

GamesIndustry.biz Development costs have changed a fair bit since the days of Shogun - what sort of things does Creative Assembly do to limit them?
Mike Simpson

Well, having a stable franchise where it's possible to map out for some time into the future means you can develop your technologies in a way which most people would find quite difficult. That's one of the big things we do, especially on one of these big steps up, as we did with Empire - a lot of effort has gone into making sure that the code base will last us for a while, and be usable in a number of projects. It's something we can then build on top of in different directions.

Apart from that, having a team that stays together is an important thing from a code point of view. The knowledge that's inside people's heads is really valuable, and not having a high turnover of people means that we keep it here. People aren't having to constantly learn everything that everybody else has learned.

GamesIndustry.biz What do attribute the low turnover to? There's probably never been a higher level of competition for good staff, especially on an international basis.
Mike Simpson

Well, writing great games is what most people want to do. Once people find themselves in a team that's doing that, the reasons for moving suddenly fade away. The risk of going somewhere else and ending up... the sad thing is, most people in the industry probably never get to work on a game that gets over 90 in its Metacritic score, it's only one in a hundred that does that. A lot of people just go through their career and never do anything that spectacularly good, so once they do find themselves in a team that's doing that, why would you move?

I think that helps enormously, but there must be other things as well, because the whole studio's always had a record of not having a hig turnover of staff, and Total War isn't the only thing we do.

GamesIndustry.biz The games industry is rare in the entertainment and media world, in that 95 per cent of it isn't based in London - does that help? You're not too far from Brighton here, which is a hub.
Mike Simpson

We're actually between hubs, which I think is quite useful. Probably a third of people in the studio live in Brighton, it's only 25 minutes away. It's a similar range to Guildford, so we tap into there, and South London - so we gather people in from a variety of different areas.

GamesIndustry.biz You've got Sega as a parent company now, but how active are you in the development scene, with regard to some of the issues rolling around?
Mike Simpson

Like what?

GamesIndustry.biz Well, the politics of the industry. Age ratings, and so on. The work that Tiga does covers off a variety of things.
Mike Simpson

Well, we probably don't get involved with any of that.

GamesIndustry.biz Is that because you've got Sega as a parent?
Mike Simpson

No, we're just busy. We never did that before Sega. We're very internally-focused here, and a lot of the people have been with us a long time - they haven't worked at other studios, so there's not the social integration with other studios as a result.

GamesIndustry.biz The long tail for games is important these days - do you have ongoing plans for the support of Empire?
Mike Simpson

Yes, we have. We start off with a huge advantage over everybody else I think - the Total War stuff has a long tail built in. One of the interesting statistics with Shogun was that it sold more copies in the second three years of its existence than in the first three years. I don't think there's ever been a game like that before. And it's still on sale now - it's a game that came out, what, eight years ago now? And you can still buy it on Amazon for a fiver.

So we do have a long tail to start with, but then yes - there is a huge amount of scope for additional content with these games. It's something we haven't really done very much before, but I think the kind of systems for delivering it and getting money for it in return are only just maturing now.

GamesIndustry.biz The sorts of things that Electronic Arts is doing with Battlefield Heroes - free-to-play, micro-transactions - does that interest you?
Mike Simpson

Yes, we watch that sort of thing. That's a fairly extreme example, but yes. That may well end up being the future, that's all we do - give away games for free and hope somebody will buy an extra unit every so often [smiles]

GamesIndustry.biz And are there still lots of good time periods for future Total War games to plunder, or are you running out now?
Mike Simpson

No, there's still much more than we can actually do. There's a limit to how much we can cope with - we actually sit here arguing over which one we're going to do next.

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

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