How Creative Assembly has survived 14 years on the industry battlefield – and is still thriving

Creative Assembly

Creative Assembly was founded in 1987 and has grown to currently employ around 300 staff today.

There’s a rule in warfare, one so obvious that Sun Tzu didn’t even bother jotting it down, that having a really big cannon earns you a certain degree of respect. Governments may rise and fall, monarchs will be born, wave at people for a bit and then lose their heads, but an army with massive guns tends to be afforded a degree of respectful autonomy.

For almost 15 years, The Creative Assembly has been piecing together its own superweapon, digging trenches in the PC realtime strategy genre with the popular Total War series. Since Shogun: Total War’s debut in 2000, the series has notched up eight historical battle simulators, and these have established a niche in a market that had previously been inaccessible to Creative Assembly’s paymaster, Sega, which acquired the UK studio in 2005.

“Life as an independent developer is brutal and often quite short,” says Mike Simpson, creative director and proud captain of the Total War monolith, who joined the team in the mid-’90s, when the studio was just five men. Creative Assembly has since grown to employ over 300 staff and is now cleanly split into two teams, with one continuing work on Total War and the other busy developing Alien: Isolation. “Having a major publisher as a backer takes that problem away,” Simpson explains, “and it means you can afford to be a little bit more adventurous to some extent, so that’s the upside. The downside is that you have a boss to feed, which you didn’t have before. I think the two things balance out. I’d much rather be part of a publishing group than a sole developer again.”

“We like to be quite independently minded. We always have been,” adds studio head Tim Heaton, who began managing Creative Assembly five years ago, after leaving EA Partners. “I don’t think that independence disappeared from CA when Sega came along. Arguably, that independence has grown, because we’ve built marketing teams within CA. Less and less do we need that central set of typical publisher roles that they used to provide.”

Part of Tim Heaton’s job is to act as an intermediary between Sega and Creative Assembly, ensuring the studio isn’t put in the position it was with Viking: Battle For Asgard.

The studio’s spiritual sovereignty in its dealings with Sega’s warm monetary embrace took some hammering out, however, with Creative Assembly’s initial forays into multiplatform projects post-takeover getting a relatively tepid reception. Action-adventure Total War spinoff Spartan: Total Warrior (2005) and follow-up Viking: Battle For Asgard (2008) failed to reach the same critical heights as its world-class strategy games. “Viking was flawed because it ran out of time,” says Heaton. “Sega wanted it out. It came out on the last day of the financial year, and that’s never a good sign. One of the things that I was keen to do [after Viking] was to open a dialogue with Sega. We started to have proper conversations about not being forced to make compromises that are bad decisions in the medium- to longterm.”

It was those lukewarm early Sega projects, as well as the demonstrably popular strategy series tucked up its sleeve, that would eventually give Creative Assembly the backbone to stand up to its owner. “It was a learning curve,” says Heaton, himself an integral liaison between his studio and Sega. In fact, after THQ sold off Company Of Heroes developer Relic to Sega early in 2013, Heaton visited the freshly acquired studio to tutor it on how to work with its new parent. “It was only really when I went through that process [with Relic] that I realised how idiosyncratic and odd and ‘special case’ these types of things are,” Heaton says. “So, yes, a key part of the success of our studio is in how we relate to Sega and work with Sega’s priorities, but also with our own priorities, too.”

Alongside other projects, Creative Assembly is now developing Alien: Isolation, a terrifying, single-alien take on the survival-horror genre and perhaps the most reverential and accomplished use of Sega’s prized license in over a decade. For such a project to arrive at, and flourish under, Creative Assembly is evidence that its relationship is healthy.

Jude Bond is lead artist on the specially constructed console team placed in charge of Alien: Isolation. His tenure at Creative Assembly goes as far back as the pre-Total War days, when the studio primarily worked on porting EA Sports titles to PC. “I came here in ’98 or ’99 – a very long time ago,” he says. “I started off making environment art for the EA Sports games we were working on at the time. I would work on things like making a 400-polygon stadium, which really shows how much things have changed.”

Creative Assmebly has come a long way since it started out making sports games for EA – Alien: Isolation is set to be its highest-profile title yet.

The team built for Alien: Isolation is made up of over 100 people. Many have been drafted in from all corners of the industry, but essentially, as Heaton explains, the team is built around a core of old-school studio veterans. Situated on an entirely different floor from the 160-strong Total War team, it’s almost treated as a studio within a studio. “It’s very much like two studios in one, really,” says Heaton. “We divide them quite hard, and that’s because we want focus. They’re very different teams. Total War is super deep, very intellectually strong. They’ve been making that game for over 14 years now, so it’s our real heavyweight team.

“For the Alien: Isolation team, it’s kind of built out of a core staff that we already had, but we [made it] so that it feels younger and more dynamic. The Alien: Isolation team is full of people who have made triple-A games before, but not necessarily within the Creative Assembly way of working. So it’s a lot more agile, a bit more rock and roll, I think it’s fair to say.”

But there’s another way of looking at both teams, says Simpson, one that challenges the impression that the Alien: Isolation team was conjured out of thin air. “There were always two teams,” Simpson explains, “so it’s not like we created a separate one for Alien: Isolation. In fact, you could argue that the console team is the original CA and the Total War team was the offshoot. That was the situation back in the day. Creative Assembly started off doing sports games for EA. That’s the heritage, so in that sense there’s always been an action game team.”

Regardless of which team can claim to be closer to the beating heart of Creative Assembly, the Total War and Alien: Isolation developers are strictly walled off from each other. “The teams are spread geographically as well,” Heaton explains. “They’re on two different floors so they can concentrate on what they’re trying to do. There’s a danger when you’re trying to do big triple-A games that you constantly rob Peter to pay Paul. ‘Oh, we need an Alien: Isolation programmer; maybe we could just take that guy for a couple of months’, or whatever, and that always diminishes the other team. There’s always going to be a lead team working on the next game, so it’s nice to be able to just go: ‘You’re not allowed to cross that boundary’.”

A designer at work on Total War. The series’ polish buys the studio leeway for creative risks.

Evolving from just a tiny handful of developers to hosting and managing two large and discrete teams naturally brought about some growing pains, but with that expansion came lessons in how to properly grow a studio. To form in 1987 and continue to thrive well into a third decade is a clear indicator that Creative Assembly has been doing something right for a long time.

“I’ve worked with people like Crytek and some of the leading developers back at EA,” says Heaton. “There are always flaws in all of those developers’ outlooks, but the ones that are successful are the ones that have quality built in. Those are the ones that have survived through all the changes. I recognised it at CA when I came and saw everything. It’s really important.”

“From an art perspective,” Bond adds, “a lot of that has got to do with who we actually employ and who our staff are. I think we’re quite happy to employ people who have raw artistic talent. It’s not about technique or knowing pipelines, because we can teach all of that. It’s much easier to teach that than it is to teach someone to draw or understand art.”

Heaton agrees. He attributes Creative Assembly’s longevity partly to its hiring policy. “A brilliant employee is worth ten to a hundred times more than a ‘solid’ employee, so it’s worth hiring those people. Sometimes those people have expectations that are hard to manage, but that helps differentiate us. And when you have an outlook on life that’s as strong as CA’s, where you’re joining a team that have been making games for 14 years, then we can kind of imprint some of the principles that we want onto these brilliant people and allow them to do that free radical thinking with us.”

Artwork from Total War: Rome II. You can read our review of Creative Assembly’s most recent release here.

In one sense, Total War is keeping an increasingly ambitious Creative Assembly tethered to the ground. When looking to advance the game that still defines the studio, it’s cautious about tinkering with the formula, but that doesn’t mean it shies away from change.

“We try to do different things on each Total War game,” Simpson says. “One of the things we’re very keen not to do is just stagnate and produce the same game over and over again, so we make sure that there’s a lot of differences between each subsequent game. There’s also the danger that every time you change something on a large scale, there’s risk involved, so we try to balance the risk and the reward. But I think it’s much better to be ambitious and fall short occasionally rather than rest on our laurels and not try to do anything clever at all, so we’re constantly pushing forward.”

Alien: Isolation has benefitted from precisely the same risk-embracing attitude to development, sidestepping the templated tropes that have dogged Alien games for years. Bond explains how creating an engine freed the team from many technical constraints, and in doing so unlocked the ability to create the lighting techniques so crucial to its atmosphere. “We’ve got really, really good tech for lighting, which I don’t think anyone else has. Light and shade is so important to the gameplay… If we’d been using an off-the-shelf package, or were just porting it onto a different engine, we would have been constrained.”

Total War is the loudest gun in Creative Assembly’s armoury, the big stick with which the studio has fought for its independence. And now it’s that ability to work without constraint that directly fuels its next big project. You’d be hard pressed to corner the studio into summarising its thinking so succinctly itself, though. “We’re British,” Heaton says. “We’re quite pragmatic, so we don’t have dicky mission statements. We just keep trying to make good games. Sometimes that’s hard, but we give ourselves every opportunity to do just that.”