|Creative Assembly Interview|
|Posted: 02.07.2009 11:56 by Joe Robinson||Comments: 4|
With the recent release of the 1.3 patch, Creative Assembly have further pushed their latest title, Empire: Total War, towards what many feel it should have been on release. Regardless of your personal feelings on that point, this latest patch has brought with it some significant improvements to the game, and now fans are wondering what the future holds. Strategy Informer’s Joe Robinson sat down with Creative Assembly’s front-man Kieran Brigdan, and asked what happens next...
Strategy Informer: The release of 1.3 brought forth a host of changes, what’s left on your ‘to do’ list as far as bugs and requested changes are concerned? What are you focusing on now?
Kieran Brigdan: We’ve got several issues left to focus on, predominantly these are balance issues. The roadmap has always been to get Empire to a place where for the vast majority it is stable and enjoyable experience. For the most part this has been achieved. Following from that we wanted to focus on performance and ensuring that we make the most of every players system. Our recent introduction of multithreading and multiple core support have gone a long way in this regard also. Finally, and perhaps most fiddly of all are all the balance issues. These include: Government types, values and of course naval invasions. The technology is there within the AI, it’s now a matter of trying to find the right balance points. There’s work still to do, we recognise that, hopefully our commitment to Empire and its fans is evident in the sheer focus we’ve put on fixes and the community since release.
Kieran Brigdan: It would be wrong to pretend Empire was perfect upon release. It was epic but it wasn’t perfect. As with any TW game there are always lots of things you’d like to have done differently or indeed done at all. We have a real passion for our titles and we believe in taking them further every time, this involves new technology, new thinking and new design. Sometimes these things have teething problems, and we’re committed to removing those. We’ve learnt a lot from our fans and players too. Their appreciation and support since release has been fantastic. Ultimately it’s the players that keep a studio alive, and it’s them that we want to deliver for. Here at CA, we’re all gamers. We know exactly what it’s like to get excited about a game for months and get it, love it, but wish X or Y was better. That’s what the focus on patching and support to our community has been about. Trying our best to do for them as they have done for us. Support.
Strategy Informer: Patch 1.3 also came accompanied by an optional extra DLC pack for extra units. This is a new business model for CA, so to you guys this must be like a new toy - what else do you see coming in the form of micro-transaction DLC? Will you just stick to units? Or will you be providing something... bigger?
Kieran Brigdan: We’re really excited about the DLC. Using Steam has opened up a whole raft of possibilities for us to deliver micro and/or larger content to the Empire community. It allows us to continue to expand the Empire experience over time and offer our fans more of what they love. That’s a genuine advantage of the Steam platform over other means. As for ‘bigger’ projects? For the moment the answer is ‘no comment’.
Strategy Informer: Also, was there a reason that the pack was released quietly on the side? Without any form of fanfare?
Kieran Brigdan: We released an update to our community, letting them know the content was present. We also released the information to the wider web and naturally, SEGA made others aware too. On top of this, every player who updates now has the new ‘Steam Store’ button on their menu, allowing them to see when new content is available (It highlights) and visit at any time.
We’re very proud of the Elite Units of the West, they’re cool and they represent a business first for us in DLC terms, so we’re waiting to see if the community likes this idea and supports it. If so, well we’ll see where it goes...
Strategy Informer: For clarification, for both the DLC units and the free units, where exactly can they be used?
Kieran Brigdan: All the free units and DLC can be fully used in multiplayer games and in single player campaigns. Even if you don’t own the DLC content they can be used against you in the field of battle! So if you own them, you can use them in multiplayer games against those who can’t.
Strategy Informer: A question burning on a lot of people’s minds is to do with the mod community. Obviously the new game, new business model, even the new technical aspects of steam require a different approach to the modding community. What are your thoughts on that? Is there anything about the modding community you’d rather see NOT happen? What support are you giving the community this time round?
Kieran Brigdan: The modding community has always been a big part of the TW series and it’s important we don’t lose that. Empire is certainly one of the more moddable TW titles in the way it’s been constructed. It allows you pull things out and put them in fairly easily as it’s been designed from the ground up as modular. Partly this aids our development process, and partly it aids the community. Of course as we go down the route of DLC and the like, some developers may choose to end support for mods, we don’t see as that’s necessary. Of course we have to be more careful with our code now in some respects, but that’s not too much of a problem. The mod community is one of the TW series strongest assets and we hope for that to continue into the future.
Kieran Brigdan: That’s just not the case. Nobody has a ‘license’ on history, any more than a museum or reference book could take issue with us depicting something of history in our titles and claiming we’d breached their copyright. Our modders will continue to produce high quality work of their own design, we will do the same. It’s not a competition, it’s a cooperative.
Strategy Informer: As Creative Assembly have said in the past, Steam provides an easier platform for you to roll out and apply patches to the game. Speaking candidly now – Empire: Total War was not a perfect game when it was released (but then what game is?). However, bearing in mind your thoughts on Steam, did this ‘ease of use’ impact at all on later stage development? Where their things that you decided could wait for a patch?
Kieran Brigdan: Thanks for asking a direct question. Empire was not a perfect release on Steam and we’re aware of that. Steam is new technology for us at CA and it’s true to say it’s given us a few teething problems, especially at release. But the benefits it’s already brought and those it offers in the future far outweigh us getting used to the platform. The ability to automatically roll out patches to all of our users universally has been critical and extremely well received. The community it offers, and the level of support we receive from Valve are phenomenal. And that’s before we start talking about the ability to offer easily available DLC and the like. That plus the multiplayer functionality it brings with it make it a very strong model for us. We’ve learned a lot from Empire’s release and from our community feedback so we’ll keep going from here.
Strategy Informer: Also, just after 1.3 was released there has been an issue with the recent Steam update as well, causing the DLC to no longer work. This isn’t the first Steam related problem either – members of the press getting their review codes via steam also faced problems, preventing them from getting a review out before release.
In hindsight of all this, do you regret your move to Steam? You seem to be the only game to have these problems, after all...
Kieran Brigdan: As before, we don’t regret the move to Steam. Yes we’ve had a few problems, but these have all been solved very quickly (The Steam client issue was patched by Valve and remedied for most users in just over 12 hours). Steam is a great platform and a good partner for our work. We’ve got new processes in place for dealing with things like client updates and patches now, to prevent those sorts of issues happening again in the future. No software is perfect; as long as you accept that and learn from what happens you can deliver a great experience to the player.
Strategy Informer: Empire: Total War was originally going to be released in February, but was pushed back to March. In your honest opinion, do you think you needed more time? Was there any pressure from SEGA to meet the March date?
Kieran Brigdan: There will always be pressures in both directions. That is the nature of the studio publisher dynamic. Studios would love unlimited budgets to develop forever and publishers, rightly, need to make a return on all the money they invest into a project. At some point you have to reach a compromise, for the sake of the craft as well as business. Development needs timetables and dates in order to give it a focus, so these things drive the creative process. We have a very good relationship with SEGA, and they too with us. We didn’t face any difficulties in Empire’s development beyond and above what any other relationship of this nature goes through, i.e. normal business practice. At the end of the day the players are who matter. If they like what you release and buy it the publisher makes money and the studio are happy at entertaining their fans. Would we have wanted to do more? Yes, and always yes. Every one of our designers, coders and creators are perfectionists. You don’t get involved with titles like TW unless you have an eye for detail, so there will always be things you want to polish or change beyond release. That’s as true for Empire as it was for Rome or Medieval, we want to do more. The difference this time with Steam and our patch cycle is we actually can. We’re proud of Empire and we’re keen to take it further.
Strategy Informer: Obviously opinion on Empire: Total War forums and other places has been far ranging and diverse. Now, you could argue that sales figures have shown wide-spread acceptance of the game, and that at the end of the day it is only a small minority of people on the internet.
However, are you and/or the team affected by what gets said on the forums? Do some of the more scathing posts annoy you? Depress you? Inspire you to do better?
Kieran Brigdan:We listen to the fans and the flamers, we talk to them and our wider community. We update our community on a daily basis and it isn’t just one way communication either. Our programmers, artists and others also spend time on the forums, reading up on issues players are having or recommendations they are making. You disconnect from your players at your peril and that means you have to face the criticism when it comes. Constructive posts are fine, if somebody has a genuine grievance and is able to express it politely and clearly, we’ll always look at what they’re concerned about.
We want our actions to speak for themselves: Constant communication, constant support and a desire to meet players’ expectations. As we’ve said on our forums before, a game sold is not a game forgotten. Empire’s players are not a bottom line to us, they are the people who appreciate our efforts, those who like what we do and who pay our salaries by buying our games. That’s not a relationship you can take lightly. They are the reason you work weekends and Christmas Eve, they are why you face an angry spouse and miss your bed. Because when you get the odd ‘that was awesome’ or ‘I’m doing a history PHD now!’ email. It makes it all mean something.
It does have another side too. We do get the occasional death threat, abusive letter, email or message. People get angry when things don’t work as they expect, that’s natural. However there’s a way of expressing those things that makes people listen and a way that doesn’t. We’ve got a demanding community, and that’s a great motivator. But if hate and malice comes into it, there’s no place for that.
Kieran Brigdan: We’re focussing on Empire first. We’re at a good point in the post release phase now with the majority of issues that people reported initially being sorted, and performance having been increased across the board. We’re now at the stage of balancing and tweaking to give an all round experience boost. We were proud of Empire upon release, we believe rightly so, it was great then and in time we’ve always believed it could be even better. With DLC and other options now open to us, we can expand the Empire universe quite a bit if we chose to, so...Watch this space.
So as you can see, there’s still plenty of fun left to be had with the main game. Still, with Empire’s state at release still very much a point of contention, ultimately it’s up to the consumers to decide how they feel about everything said within this interview. What’s clear though is that the best game in the series to date is about to get even better.