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Tim Heaton is the studio director of Creative Assembly, the development studio behind the popular Total War PC strategy franchise and an upcoming Alien action game. How does the developer, which has been part of Sega since it was acquired in 2005, manage to maintain its quality standards for the franchise?
In this interview, Heaton describes how the team is structured to deliver 90-plus Metacritic games, how it maintains its autonomy from Sega while still availing itself of the support a publisher-owned studio expects, and explains the push-and-pull between two teams with two different goals and cultures, but one style of management.
So you oversee all aspects of Creative Assembly?
Tim Heaton: Yeah, absolutely. And we're a kind of a split studio; we're a schizophrenic studio. There are only two things going on in the studio -- one half is Total War and one half is this big console game that we are in production with now. It's interesting. When I came in, those two components existed, and they possibly have even grown farther apart since I've been there, deliberately, as a part of the strategy.
Total War is a massive, heavyweight PC game. We're doing rather interesting stuff with it. We're a very established, 11-year franchise. Some of the key players on that team have obviously been there for 11 years, so they are really sure about the game that they make.
And then the console team is a little bit fresher and newer. And we run the teams in vastly different ways -- the console team is more rock n' roll, and the PC team is a little bit more staid. And we project manage them differently, etcetera. So they're very separate teams, and I'm one of the only people who kind of actually bring those two strengths together.
Obviously, Total War is a very established franchise. So that's as smooth sailing as you could hope for, I guess, in the sense that you know it's going to get the resources and the audience, right? How do you work with Sega as your publisher, as an internal studio?
TH: I think we're really independent. Before Sega bought CA, it was a very independent-minded studio, and since we got bought, we've maintained that kind of attitude -- to the point that we run the marketing for Total War from inside the studio. It's something that normally a publisher will completely control. Recently, we've said we want to be really specialist on our marketing, and have really focused people, and so Sega has allowed us to build a team around that.
So it's good; they're a good dad to have, because they provide support where we need it. They tend to be watching the market for us, to steer us into the right direction that they think we should be going. And then infrastructure stuff, like Q&A and etcetera is great, just to have them as a big structure there. But certainly for Total War, I feel like CA totally guided that franchise; we're the kings of that franchise.
With the big console game -- which is based on the Alien IP, with the Fox IP for the films, and which Sega working with already, with Aliens: Colonial Marines from Gearbox -- that's been more interesting, because that is where we need more of the publisher guidance, due to the relationship with Fox, and so on. Sega certainly wants to keep a view on that.
But still, it's run as an independent team. We kind of decide our own milestones and we communicate with all the parties, whether it be the licensor or first parties. We go direct to those guys.
Total War: Shogun 2
When it comes to running a studio with two teams working on two different projects, with different characters about them --
TH: Oh, totally different.
Where are the things that come together, and where are the things that stay apart, and how do you identify those?
TH: So I think if you're a mega-studio -- like your Ubi studios and your EA studios -- I think there's a huge opportunity for cross-fertilization, and becoming more efficient through that. A medium-sized studio like us, I think you've actually got to build a wall between them; you've got to create a gap. Well, you've not got to allow yourself to be distracted by the problems of one team pulling away from another.
And I think that's an issue that CA has had in the past with Total War and Viking -- Viking was the last console game that CA produced, and that was a flawed game. To some degree it was flawed because we were also trying to make Empire: Total War at the same time. So yeah, I actually think with a small studio, it's useful to have dialogue between the two teams, and not useful to share resources.
Now, with your console team, obviously the PC team is strategy, strategy, and more strategy, right? Does the console team do other genres?
TH: The console team is creating an action-genre game on consoles, so, yeah, they are. And we recruited in. We started with a really small team on console two years ago with about 20 core staff, and we built out to 70 now. So we've been looking for a very specific kind of person to make action games. We've brought loads of experience in.
Luckily, bittersweet-wise, we've been able to pull staff from other studios that have closed down in the UK, and there have been a very few of those around us. But we're also now pulling from the States, and we're looking at all those UK dev staff who went to go work in Canada recently and over the past few years, some who haven't found it quite as interesting as they were hoping and want to come home, or have had a family, or whatever, want to come back to the UK. So I'm sure there are expats out there who want to come back. We've already taken a few on.