Empire: Total War Interview: Creative Assembly on the Road to Independence and Not Selling Out

By Nick Breckon, Nov 13, 2008 10:42am PST When Empire: Total War ships in early February, it will include a new type of mode for the series--the Road to Independence, a story-driven campaign centered entirely around the American Revolutionary War.

At a recent event, I got the chance to speak with developer Creative Assembly's communications manager Kieran Brigden. We went over the new mode, and of course talked about the game in general. The interview also covers how Creative Assembly approaches these projects--and where the studio might go in the future. Shack: Can you explain what the Road to Independence campaign entails?

Kieran Brigden: Road to Independence is a story-driven campaign that sits alongside the grand campaign. It's another campaign for you to play in the box. It's separated into three chapters, so if you imagine it like, the first timeline, kind of comprises of the foundation of Jamestown by the British, the defense of those new colonies, surviving the winters, and defending your people essentially.

We haven't made it accessible by "dumbing it down." We've made it accessible by removing a lot of the micromanagement.
You then go into a second phase, which is the battle to remove other European powers from the sphere. So you've got George Washington fighting on behalf of the British as a Virginia colonist, not as a Brit but as a Virginia colonist, and you've got to get the French and everything else alongside the Brits out of North America. And then finally you move into the last phase of the campaign, which of course is Washington and the revolutionaries kicking the Brits out of North America and establishing the thirteen colonies as an independent nation.

Now what that means in real terms for players: it's a focused, goal-driven campaign. So you've got a number of resources, there are certain options available to you, and you always know what your next move is and why. So you're not going to go, I need to achieve this objective, maybe I'll attack this, defend that, make this treaty or whatever. The point is, that decision is made for me by the timeline in which I'm playing.

So it's a nice introduction for people who haven't yet played Total War games. It's also a really cool way of playing through a very interesting story. So in that respect, we hope it'll offer something new for both parties. Shack: Is this an attempt to appeal to North American audiences with a game that otherwise would mainly be about Napoleonic, European power? I mean, we're not all exactly history majors over here.

Kieran Brigden: A lot of people are sort of saying, "You're doing it to break into America," and that kind of thing. Yeah, it works, in that it's something familiar to Americans.

But it's also the first Total War game that features America as we know it. So it makes thematic sense to have it in there. Additionally, it's something that we think is a very, very interesting story to tell that fits with the narrative of the period. The period is one of colonization, revolution, independence, and nothing really tells that story as well as the American people's road to independence, starting out as literally a colony, no taxation without representation.

Hopefully it will appeal to Americans, but we know a large number of our fans in Europe are really keen to play the story-driven campaign. They're not like, "Oh, it's only for Americans." It's a story, it's a campaign based in history which they want to play through. Shack: And the European powers were involved as well.

Kieran Brigden: Exactly, they were involved militarily. So it's one of those things that we think will appeal to a lot of people. Shack: How much do you guys think of appealing to a wider audience as the series goes on? I know with Rome you made some adjustments to speed up gameplay. How much do you guys struggle with that? Because I know I'm sure you're all fans of historical realism in some sense, but you also have to make concessions for gameplay.

Kieran Brigden: The thing is, we make games, right? We don't do history simulators. So the fundamental thing is, is it fun to play? We never throw history out the window--we are always aware of what the historical constraints and flares are, things that are cool about that period, and the kind of mechanics that introduces.

But at the end of the day, blah blah blah, etc, it's a game. It has to be fun to play. A good example of something that we took out, that we would have otherwise instituted--tacking on ships. When you sail diagonally to the wind. That's true, you do it, it makes your ship faster and so on, but it was a pain in the ass to play. So we were like, you know what, we're not going to do that.

So what I mean from the design perspective--you're saying, as we get bigger and bigger, are we torn between the fact that we have this sort of established, hardcore historical fan base, and at the same time we have this business pressure to make numbers, and so on and so forth?

But I would like to say, on record, that we never "sell out." We never just go, "Oh, we're going to churn out another one, and we're going to make it so broad-brush that it's for everyone, and nevermind our real fans." We've got people that still write to us or email us that have been with us since Shogun, and they're always a key factor in what we do.

Total War is kind of a gameplay mechanic, a concept, you know? The interface we use, the turn-based strategy, the real-time battles. We apply that with modifications and extensions to whatever period we want to do and evolve it every time, so it gets that one step better. And certainly one thing that's really cool about Empire--it's more the subject matter and the achievements we were able to make graphically and gameplay terms that entice new people.

And that's the way it should be--it should be a case of other people looking at that and saying, "Hey, that's pretty cool, I'm gonna pick that up and try that." This is the most accessible Total War game to date. We haven't made it accessible by "dumbing it down." We've made it accessible by removing a lot of the micromanagement.


Shack: Can you share an example of where the micromanagement has been reduced?

Kieran Brigden: So you don't individually tax different provinces anymore, you don't have to recruit armies in different cities and then annually get then manually get them all to march to a destination and join them up. You can just go to your general, and go, "I want this, this and this," and then they're built all around him and they automatically come to him.

History is infinite.
It's little things like that that make a very big difference to new players. So they kind of pick it up and go, "Alright, I expect it to be like this. Oh, it is." And that's how you broaden your scope and appeal to a new audience, and you remain, I guess you'd say, artistically sincere. Shack: Speaking of Shogun, the way soldiers will duel in the middle of battles is right out of that game, isn't it?

Kieran Brigden: Yeah, yeah. There's a lot of things that we progress through, and then look back to, and go, "You know, we could do that really well." And then we look back and go, "That was a cool feature, and you know what, it works for this time period." We never forget our back catalog.

The guys--we have a really, really good retention rate at Creative Assembly. It's a company at which people really, really like to work. Certainly I'm privileged to work alongside some bloody good coders, some great writers, designers, artists, sound engineers and the lot, who have been there from the very beginning. So they've got, I guess you'd call it a "corporate memory." We've got a corporate memory that goes back all the way to our first titles. We're not a studio that just kind of empties the staff out every five years and then kind of pumps out a title.

We take real pride in evolving the series and taking in stuff that we used to do, that we can now polish up and make it even cooler, and dueling is a great example of that. And in the future you will hopefully see the exact same thing in future Total War titles. And that's something that I think we should be proud of. Shack: In terms of system requirements and scalability, what should users expect from Empire? What was this demonstration running on?

Kieran Brigden: At the moment it's too early to give specs, definitive specs, because we're pre-beta. First thing and biggest thing, it's not a DirectX 10 only game. It's compatible in DirectX 9, so you don't only have to have a DirectX 10 card.

Second, we again talk about the fan base and where we come from--we've got people that have been with us for a very long time, and they may not have the latest high-end system, so we do a lot of work in terms of the way we code the games, and make sure it works with any combination of hardware you've got. We want you to be able to get a decent level of performance out of whatever kind of kit you have--within reason, obviously playing it on a 386 might be a bit difficult.

We also add a huge amount of scalability to the game, so there's a ton of options, just like with any PC title--turn this on, turn this off. If you want beautiful naval battles and an ugly-ass campaign map, you can do that, not a problem. So we make sure it's scalable from a user's perspective. And we're continually working with all our hardware partners to make sure we run as best we can on everything.

It's a challenge for our programmers, who are professionals in their field. We don't do "bloatware." The guys don't go, "Oh let's just do this, it's cool." And then it just runs crap, or you need Deep Blue to run this game. It's a matter of professional pride, that they try and make these things scalable and work with a number of different PCs. The de facto answer at the end of the day is that the better your PC, the better your performance, as with all PC games. But in real terms, we want to make sure it's playable across a number of different machines. Shack: One of my favorite things about Total War games is going back to them five years down the line and turning everything up, playing battles with a million guys--

Kieran Brigden: Isn't that cool though? [laughs] You talked about the PR rig, what we're playing on at the moment. So the PR rig's not massive, it's not a massive, huge $20,000 gaming PC or anything. But I fired up Rome on that the other day, and I set everything to maximum, and when I auto-resolved my turn, it did the AI in like a second. And I was like, what the hell?! [laughs]

It's cool that you can go back to our games. We want to make sure that they're scalable upwards. If you've got an average PC now, you can play our game and enjoy our game. Three years from now if you look at your stack of CDs and DVDs, and you go, "Hey Empire, maybe I'll give that another go--oh my god." That's the kind of thing we want to go for. Shack: How do you guys ultimately make the decision to go with one historical period over another? Can you share any that you considered this time around, but rejected in favor of Empire?

Kieran Brigden: Total War games need to feature several key things. It needs to be a period of competition. There need to be a number of different nations or factions which could rise to prominence. You can't have a bipolar or a unipolar world. It's no fun. You've got to be able to just take a nation, and even if it's not your task, know that you stand a chance of creating a superpower.

The second thing is, there has to be a period of change. It has to be a time in which technologies progress, the world changes, allowing you to incorporate new functions, new techniques, to really give a sense of progress to the player. You're not just doing the same thing for 10, 20, 30, 40 years. And those mechanics are absolutely integral to what we choose for a Total War game.

But finally, it's what's fun. It's an era that's fun. The reason the 18th century is so cool as an era is that--most people go, we're in the 18th century, and they go, "What? That was like Darwin, right?" And you're like like, "No, we're in the age of the tall ship. Pointy hats, guys, corner hats, muskets. It's the American Revolution, it's all these different things." And suddenly they fall in love with the romance of the period. And certainly for me, beyond other Total War games, the reason Empire works as a time period and the reason it was the right choice as a theme, is that it's romantic. There's a real sense of that Master and Commander, other side of the world thing. Shack: I've read almost every book in that series. It's great stuff.

Kieran Brigden: Exactly. Stick your guys on the ship, you sail yourself to the edge of the known world. Suddenly there's a French fleet off the coast of South America, your guys are bracing eachother along to the colonies to try and desperately resupply something that you just built there.

You get a real sense of the kind of adventure and expansion. And the map physically changes as you progress--we've now taken buildings outside of cities, so you build on the region, rather than just having one city, you now have a farm, or a mine, or something like that. Shack: That's a little bit like Civilization, in a way.

Kieran Brigden: A little like that, yeah, where you can see the growth in the region, and its profitability and its relative wealth based on its industrialization. And the physical world will change around you over time, it's not just a case of a capital city getting slightly larger. It's a case of the world actually changing, other mills springing up, farms getting larger, cannon foundaries appearing.

And you start to find shipping lanes, trade routes becoming really busy. And there's that element of, I wonder where they're going--you see a massive Dutch fleet kind of sail off into the horizon, you think to yourself, "Where's that going? Is that headed for me? Is that headed to establish a new colony out somewhere in the Indies or whatever?" That sense of exploration and excitement is absolutely key to this period, and that's one of the reasons we chose it. Shack: So you guys have now covered a lot of the more popular historical periods. Do you feel limited as far as where you go next? Or do you feel like you still have a lot of options?

Kieran Brigden: History is infinite. Just because it's a known quantity doesn't mean it's a finite resource. Imagine it like this--you take 100 years, and you do it in six month season terms. What if you took a year and you did it in days? What if you took a hundred years, or a thousand years, and you did it in centuries? There's a million ways to approach this.

And if you look at something like Shogun for example, you're concentrating on families, on abilities, feudal daimyos waging for the Shogunate. And then you go up to something like Rome, major families competing for power and establishing SPQR. And then you go on to something like Empire, where you've got known, established nations competing with one another. Shack: It's sort of reflected in the map size between games, the zooming out or zooming in on specific territories.

Kieran Brigden: Exactly, exactly. You can look at history in any way. You can look at it as prominent families, you can look at it as nation states--a huge variety of topics begin to come into play. So in terms of where we go next and what we do, timeline wise, some people are like, "You've got to do the 20th century, you've got to get into the 1900s, you've got to do this, this and this." And that's possibly true, right?

But we constantly review our options, and like I said, we look at what's fun. What's cool? Where can we add value? Where can we do more? And where can we basically meet all the criteria for a Total War game? Where do you feel like as a player that you've got a damn good shot at taking on the world against all these other powers? And where do you see a difference between in your armies and in your cities as you play? Those things have to be met. And for me, the 18th century is something I wanted to do for ages, because I think it's absolutely cool. Shack: Creative Assembly already has a console division. Would you consider bringing the franchise to consoles in the future?

Kieran Brigden: It's an interesting idea, it's an interesting concept. We'd need to work out a way the way in which to approach it and the best way to do it. It's certainly not something we've written off, I'll say that.

Like you said, we have a very active console team, we're still producing console titles. If we decide to do Total War on console, then of course.. you will know about it. Shack: [laughs] Thanks Kieran.

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