Shogun 2 marked a return to the roots of the Total War series, which began with a portrayal of feudal-era Japan. This not only gave the development team at Creative Assembly an opportunity to improve on what it introduced in the original game, but it also presented a chance to make changes to the series as a whole--many of which were made for the better. We spoke with Mike Simpson, creative director at Creative Assembly, to get his thoughts on going back to Japan as well as why the team chose to make some changes to the Total War formula.
GameSpot: Tell us about the decision to return to feudal Japan as a setting after having explored Europe throughout various eras in previous games. How did it feel to go back to the setting where the game all started? How much pressure did the team feel about delivering a worthy sequel to the game that started it all?
Mike Simpson: People often ask why we went back to feudal Japan rather than visiting something new. There were plenty of options, but within the studio there was very little debate. We all wanted to do Shogun again. The period has a different feel to all the others, which we found irresistibly attractive. The period is extreme to the point of being quite alien, with extreme civilization existing alongside extreme barbarity. Going back to this was really exciting, but scary too. Achieving the feeling of calm perfection we were looking for was always going to be tough.
GS: Tell us about the decision to go with a smaller-scale game after having done larger-scale games like Rome and Empire. We understand that part of the reason the studio decided to go smaller was to cut down on the micromanagement of large holdings, especially later in the game, since managing construction and finances in dozens of different cities and provinces can tend to slow the pace of the game considerably. But was part of the reasoning behind scaling back the scope of the game to help the AI manage a smaller estate and focus on putting up a tougher fight?
MS: To get the feel we were looking for we had to capture the Zen of the period. We needed a game that was perfect---beautiful to look at, exactly the right size, with just the right number of features, and with each one earning its place in the game. Throughout the project we talked a lot about the Zen of total war and were constantly asking, "Is that Zen enough?" Designing simple but deep gameplay mechanics is way more difficult than designing complex ones. So it was nothing to do with helping the AI out with simpler mechanics--the AI is quite happy with complex mechanics; it is things like having a good spatial awareness or playing like a believable human opponent that are much more difficult.
GS: Speaking of AI, tell us about the studio's stance on artificial intelligence and Total War's reputation for having problematic single-player AI going into Shogun 2's development. Was this a constant thought in the back of everyone's mind, or just another goal on the list along with graphics, sound design, and balanced gameplay? Do you feel Shogun 2 now puts those complaints about AI to rest once and for all?
MS: Our problems with AI on Empire, and to a lesser extent Napoleon, were all about over-ambition. We took a huge step up from the previous games, particularly on the campaign side, and implemented an AI that was incredibly sophisticated. That sophistication had chaos as an intentional and essential component to generate realistic and reasonable behavior that wasn't easily predicted--just like a human opponent. But that chaos got away from us as more systems were brought online, and the AI ended up effectively arguing with itself to a point where it often couldn't decide what to do. For the hardcore players who wanted a real challenge, it was too passive.
With another year's work, the chaos has all been tamed, and the full genius of the campaign AI has now been unleashed. It's so good that on normal difficulty we have to bias in favor of the player to stop it from being too hard.
We have always strived to produce excellent AI, and we'll continue to do that. It's an endless task, but I can't now think of a large strategy game with better AI than Shogun 2.
GS: Tell us about the decision to go with Shogun 2's painterly art design and to have the in-house team focus on re-creating period art style. Why was it important to have the in-house artists create art for the game, rather than outsourcing to another firm or simply repurposing existing artwork by way of photos or scans?
MS: Another big part of creating a game with the right style and feel is the art. We had said from the start that this project was a chance for the art team to take the lead and to produce something exceptional. In a strategy game, that's a tall order, but that kind of challenge is what every artist in the games industry dreams of. The style we aimed for is not strictly that of the period the game is set in. We opted for a later style that is more iconically Japanese and is all about the way this period is remembered in Japanese culture. It took months of trial and error to get the style nailed--the palette of inks, the weight of the lines, the materials, the composition, and so on. Miss it just slightly, and it becomes too much like modern manga--you lose the period feel. You can't do that kind of work out of house.
GS: Shogun 2 represents the latest evolution of naval combat for the Total War engine, including amphibious attacks where naval units and land units both play a role. Tell us about what went into making Shogun 2's naval and amphibious game what it is. Are you satisfied with this evolution of naval combat, or are there other specific directions you'd like to go with naval in the future? In-depth boarding? Naval landings on multiple fronts?
MS: Shogun's naval battles benefit a lot from the history. There is stronger gameplay to be had with the Japanese ship types that have strong stone-paper-scissors relationships and are oar powered so they are not in constant movement. Empire's ship types had more of a stone-rock-boulder relationship where the biggest ship always won. Most of the gameplay was in the fine maneuvering of individual ships--tricky when you are controlling a fleet and everything is always moving. We also added land--islands and coasts--in to the battles that gives the players a frame of reference and makes "terrain" take a part in the tactics.
I think each game is developing our technology and exploring new kinds of gameplay with very good results, and there is plenty of scope for more of both in the future.
GS: Give us some insight into what went into making Shogun 2's multiplayer. The system seems to have a great amount of depth, but also requires strong commitment from players, in terms of putting in the time and effort to customize their warlord's avatar and also to function as a persistent clan for longer-term multiplayer engagements. Why go in this direction? Is it fair to say that Creative Assembly plans to focus on a more persistent style of multiplayer for future games, or was this more of an experiment?
MS: I think it's really important to experiment, and to push some of those experiments to extremes. The objective with multiplayer was to get a higher proportion of players regularly playing multiplayer, and to play around with some of the design and tech ideas for multiplayer in general. What the multiplayer team came up with was bigger and deeper and more complex than I had imagined it would be--it's less Zen than any other part of the game--but exploring it all is part of the fun. It's going to be fascinating to see how the players end up playing it. One of the things we want to experiment from here is using metrics--measuring the patterns of how players actually play--to help decide how to modify the game. We'll be using multiplayer as a test bed for that over the next year, with the aim of encouraging as many people as possible to play multiplayer.
GS: On a similar note, up until Shogun 2, recent Total War games seemed to have been gradually advancing forward chronologically. Is there any chance the series will revisit medieval Europe or ancient Rome soon, or is the team too enamored with gunpowder warfare…or is gunpowder even a consideration? Does the studio wish to explore more-recent theaters of war, such as World War I?
MS: We have a long list of all the eras and locations we want to visit. Pretty much anything you can imagine is on that list. We argue long and hard, not about what we'll do, but about the order we'll do them in. The order on the list changes regularly.
GS: Given that Napoleon was a smaller-scale game than Empire, is it fair to say that this is the future direction for the Total War series? Huge, epic scale is something that Creative Assembly has become known for, but the studio seems to have found even better results by narrowing the scope to more-focused, smaller-scale settings.
MS: Shogun was smaller scale because it was right for that scenario. Massive scale and scope was right for Empire. I think the scope of the game should be determined by the needs of the content rather than any overall big or small strategy. The smaller scale did help us contain the amount of work, and that led to a more polished, more perfect game when the deadline arrived. The secret is to make sure the deadline for the game matches the scope.
GS: Now that the studio has come full circle on its strategy games and successfully returned to feudal Japan, is there any chance it might consider branching out of PC strategy games entirely? Any thoughts on revisiting action games? Or console games? Or action games for consoles?
MS: We've always had a second team working on console action games--in fact, they were the first team. Having two teams in the studio working on very different products has lots of advantages. You'll all find out what the console guys have been doing when their game gets announced.
GS: Creative Assembly has made a name for itself as a top-tier PC strategy game developer that has taken the odd experimental step here and there to branch out in other directions. In a larger sense, what does the future hold for the studio? Is the team comfortable being known as a PC strategy game house? Is there a different way you'd prefer the studio to be known?
MS: We're proud of what we've achieved on PC, absolutely love doing it, and are still becoming more capable with each game. I can't see that changing anytime soon, but we are constantly looking to the future. This is an exciting time of very rapid change, and we want to be at the forefront of that, not overtaken by it.
I'd prefer us to be known as a studio that makes great console games as well as great PC strategy games. It will be a while yet before the console team delivers their bombshell, but it's coming.
GS: What are your thoughts on the current and future state of strategy games in general? When the first Shogun was released, it was up against healthy competition from a thriving PC strategy ecosystem. Years later, so-called triple-A strategy games are much more scarce, but we've seen the genre tentatively explore new pastures such as free-to-play online games, console games--largely in the form of downloadable tower defense games--and even a few games as built-in apps on social networking sites. In your opinion, where do things seem to be going now for strategy games, and where might they end up in the future?
MS: There are fewer AAA strategy games these days, but that's mainly because the games are so much bigger and better, they cost way more to make, and you have to sell millions to justify the cost. There's no place for big-budget mediocre games anymore.
But there are new pastures to explore--free-to-play and social games on low-end platforms are creating an explosion in the number of people who are playing strategy games. Those arenas are a fun place for developers to play around in--much more like development back in the '80s--and some of the principles behind those games, like social and viral features and design by metrics, are just as relevant for high-end PC games as for Facebook. But the most important thing they are doing is creating vast numbers of new gamers--hundreds and hundreds of millions of them--who play strategy games.