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How Creative Assembly's Process Breeds Quality

April 30, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Do you have anything like a safeguard to not cut too much? It seems like cutting too much could be a danger.

TH: Oh, for sure. Well, we start with a bigger scope than we need, until we know what we can cull.


TH: Yeah, absolutely. And we do work to a date, and we absolutely want to work to a date. We almost have to be constrained; if we weren't constrained, we'd never finish a game. We like the constraints, and we like making money, and we know we need to be ready for certain dates and events; we know how marketing works.

So it is a fine balance, but the beauty of Total War is we've got 11 years of experience of that balance, and we pretty much prove we can get it right. And we're doing exactly the same thing on the console game. I'll be honest. We don't have 11 years of pure experience on 360 and PS3, but we go through exactly the same methodology.

You talked about getting a piece of the game 90 percent there and then cutting it anyway. Does that have a hit on morale, or does everyone understand?

TH: Yeah, it does. So there's two hits on morale while we make the game, and we constantly debate this. At the beginning we don't tie down a lot of stuff. We let a load of stuff bubble around, we don't define it too hard, we take some risks...

And certainly some elements of a team -- and this always happens with every team I've ever worked with -- just go, "Come on, just give me a game design document. Just tell me what I need to do and then I will do it to the best of my ability". And we slowly, hopefully, educate people that's just not the best way.

And we will enter a fog of ideas for quite a long time, and some of those things will have risks against them right up until the end, and then we might pull them. And really yeah, it does. It pisses people off, absolutely, but it's for the best. But nothing makes the team prouder than delivering a 90 percent game and selling two million copies. So that's the bottom line, and people do come to understand that.

Do you just wait for the end and that payoff for people to see, or do you have anything that you do to boost morale?

TH: Well, we do regular updates, obviously, and we do monthly or bimonthly sessions, but there's so many of us now that we can't do it in the studio. We go to the local cinema and we do a half day presentation of progress, and share some of the thinking that's going on, and we'll do a report from GDC, and so on.

So we do that, and equally we have the Metacritic analysis, which we keep showing to people. And as long as people can see that, actually, by the time we get there, we'll be where we want to be -- then people will understand what the decisions that are getting made late, or people's work that doesn't get into the final game, is still a valid way to think about the big project.

It sounds like also you try to avoid documentation as much as possible. How do you use documentation in the studio? When you're talking about this "bubbling up", is that a prototyping process?

TH: It is. The team is about 100 development staff on Total War. And so we break the team into functional groups -- so there's a campaign group, and a battle group, and a UI group, etcetera. So we devolve responsibility down to those guys. And to be fair, on the amount of documentation that we do, we almost leave it up to them.

At top of those functional groups, there's communication between them, so the leads on those groups need to have regular dialogue, and we'd much rather they'd just talk than do anything too systematic about that.

And below that, some of the more buttoned-down teams and do a huge amount of documentation. And in general, the overview of the whole project management, the team is reasonably waterfally; we're a touch old school on it. But actually, when you get down to the lower level of the functional team that, if they want to, they will go Agile. We've done a fair amount of support on teaching people about Agile and supporting them.

So it's great that we can go, "Hey, you just figure it out." We went through a phase when I was early in the studio. That's what I wanted to do, and everybody went, "Oh, that's great! We really want responsibility! Give us responsibility to make decisions!" And then we'd sit there and they'd go, "Right... So what do you want us to do?", and we'd go, "Okay. You're not getting it yet. That was your decision to make."

You talked a little bit about the fact that you take into account how reviewers will perceive the game, versus actual players. Can you talk a bit about why you approach it that way?

TH: Yeah, we do. Reviewing is important; it's still important. And there are some hygiene factors that perhaps you need for some reviews that maybe aren't as strong for players. At the moment, Total War is primarily a single player game, and we have talked about how valid multiplayer is in the way that we've sometimes done it in the past. We actually feel we'd be really stung by reviewers if we just took multiplayer out. It would maybe be a tick box feature that would disappear.

And for the players, if potentially 80 percent of players are playing single player only, then the vast majority aren't going to be affected by that. Given that, just to be clear, some of the multiplayer ideas that we've got in development at the moment are clearly going to define the future of Total War, I think. So we're not going to cut multiplayer.

But things like that, just the perception of the first five or 10 minutes of the game is super important for some reviewers -- not hardcore reviewers, but more mainstream reviewers. Whereas our average play time on Total War is 40 hours; 50 percent of our players play for 40 hours, and 25 percent of our players play for 100 hours or more.

So I've heard some stats about Skyrim and other games, and I think we've beat Skyrim on playability, and we see that day to day, direct through Steam. So that's not research; that is real data from our players. It's quite amazing.

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