Q&A: The creators of <i>Decisive Battles</i>

RTS meets TV in The History Channel's new series, which re-creates ancient battles with the Rome: Total War game engine.


Double-click the video window for a full-screen view. PC Gamers must have rubbed their eyes when Decisive Battles debuted last month. The new History Channel series re-creates some of the most pivotal battles of the ancient world, including Cannae, Thermopylae, and Marathon, with computer graphics that look an awful lot like gameplay movies from the upcoming real-time strategy game Rome: Total War.

That's because, essentially, they are. Eschewing the crude maps and fake footage employed for most military re-creations on television, Decisive Battles uses the Rome: Total War engine to generate entire armies from the Greek and Roman empires. Though not quite as polished as the big-screen CG battles of The Return of the King, the show's battles offer a similar level of detail. Formations of computer-generated soldiers--each with unique costumes and weapons--wheel about to face each other. Massed pikemen fight off charging cavalry. War elephants trample infantry underfoot. Thousands of individual warriors fight and fall according to an order of battle set thousands of years ago.

By using the Rome: Total War engine, Decisive Battles crafts some of the most realistic depictions of ancient warfare on television. But how historically accurate are they? Will any of the show's battles be playable when Activision ships Rome: Total War next month? And whose bright idea was it to (finally) use cutting-edge game technology in a television show? GameSpot posed these questions--and others--to two key players behind the scenes of Decisive Battles: Margaret G. Kim, the show's executive producer, and Ian Roxburgh, studio marketing manager of The Creative Assembly, Rome: Total War's developer. Here's what they had to say.

GameSpot: How did the idea for Decisive Battles originate?

Margaret Kim: A young producer from David Paradine Productions, James Bagshawe, had previously worked in the video game industry, and he came to me with the idea of using video game graphics to help illustrate historical battles in documentary programs. He showed me a demo of the video game Rome: Total War, and I was immediately intrigued. We developed the program idea further to include a host on location at the actual ancient battlefields, created a format, and produced a pilot.

Ian Roxburgh: We were approached by David Paradine Television. They’d seen the early magazine and Internet previews of Rome: Total War, and asked if we’d be interested in using the Total War engine to produce CG graphics.

GS: Wargames have been around for years. Why did it take so long for TV producers to use one in a show? Was it just a question of graphics?

IR: It’s almost entirely a question of graphics. Medieval: Total War was a great game, but the graphics wouldn’t have held their own too well in a TV environment. The new Total War engine (used in Rome: Total War) is the first time a game has produced such high-quality graphics whilst maintaining the huge scale of the battles.

MK: Video games have been around for a long time, but they are nowhere near as sophisticated and realistic looking as they are now. Some of the artwork is just amazing, and the capabilities of the game engines are becoming more and more advanced. So, part of the reason why we're incorporating video game CGI into TV programming now is because the quality of it is a lot better than it used to be. In fact, I attended E3 this year and was quite impressed by some of the stuff that's out there now. Video game graphics have evolved to such a high level that some of it is now comparable to other advanced animation.

GS: [To Ian] Did you approach The History Channel or did they approach you?

IR: They approached us.

GS: [To Margaret] Did you ever considering using any other games?

IR: No.

GS: [To Ian] How do you work with The History Channel to make sure the battles are historically accurate?

IR: First of all, most of the collaboration is between us and David Paradine Television (the production company that actually makes the show). They provide us with a detailed script of the battle and the voice-over, and we build the battles to re-create what they need to show in any given scene. David Paradine Television and CA have worked very closely together on this. We speak on a daily basis while making the show.

GS: How much work goes into a single episode? What is the process of its creation?

IR: David Paradine Television would do the research and write the script and then send it over to us. We’d then build the battles in the same way as we do for all the "historical battles" in the game--but then use a few cheat codes when we play them out in order to be able to choreograph the exact movements of the troops for that particular battle. This battle can then be replayed, and camera tracks can be set according to the director’s wishes. This action can then be rendered out as a series of TGA files, which are then used to create the images you see in the show.

GS: What battles do you plan on covering in the series?

MK: We've now aired three episodes: Cannae, Gaugamela, and the Battle of Marathon. That last episode tells the story of the Greek general Miltiades and how he fended off the Persians on two fronts with the help of a runner named Pheidippides who ran 26 miles to tell the Athenians of their victory at Marathon. Future episodes will include the battles of Thermopylae, Adrianople, Chalon, Carrhae, Pharsalus, Spartacus and the Slave Revolt of 73 BC, Cynoscephalae, Kadesh, Teutoberg Forest, and Watling Street.

GS: How did The History Channel go about choosing the battles? Did CA have any input in the process?

IR: The key was to find battles that were turning points in history for one reason or another (hence the title of the show). In order for us to be able to do this without sidetracking too much from our main raison d'être (making Rome: Total War), most of them were taken from within the time frame of the game. We were able to add new art, etc. for the few battles that fall shortly on either side of this time frame.

GS: [To Ian] Did someone from CA survey the locations of the battles to help ensure a historically accurate re-creation?

IR: The surveys were conducted by DP Television and the details sent over to us.

GS: Are the battles featured on the show playable in the game?

IR: Some of them.

GS: While we know a lot about these battles, we don't have every detail. How much of what we see onscreen is documented fact, and how much is the animators' creativity?

IR: It’s all historically accurate. Some of the troops may not be exactly as they were if you’re looking at the minutiae of detail--but most of it is exactly how it was.

GS: If Decisive Battles is a success, do you plan on doing another season?

IR: Yes, definitely.

MK: Yes, absolutely. We're already looking at some other eras, and I hope we will indeed be going into a second season of the series.

GS: Are there any other strategy games that you think would be useful to create historical battles? There are so many WWII RTS games to choose from...

MK: Sure. We're looking at them. We'll see how this first season of Decisive Battles does and take it from there.

IR: I don’t think there’s another strategy game out there that can reproduce anything like this kind of authenticity, scale, and graphical quality.

GS: Do you think other types of games would be good for re-creations--for instance, a flight simulator for a show about the Battle of Britain or a naval sim for a show about the Sinking of the Bismarck?

IR: Possibly. I’m not too beefed up on the very latest games in these particular genres, but, providing a game is of sufficient graphical quality and can generate enough units to fully re-create the tactics of a particular battle, I don’t see why not.

MK: We have no immediate plans of incorporating video games into other programming other than our current Decisive Battles series.

GS: Do you think game technology could be used in other genres of television, such as a third-person shooter to re-create a crime on a news program?

IR: This sounds very feasible. I’d imagine, however, that these kinds of re-creations are pretty cheap to do anyway, and so there’d be no call for using a game engine for this purpose.

MK: It's certainly possible. Decisive Battles is an example of a really great way of incorporating video game graphics into what has been a traditional documentary style and making it completely fresh and new.

GS: Do you think games can be used as a tool to help teach history? I remember that Civilization would give you little lessons whenever you discovered a new technology.

IR: Absolutely. In fact, we’ve been contacted by many teachers over the years asking for permission to use Medieval: Total War as a teaching aid. We’ve even been approached by a government-funded learning center to see if it could be incorporated into the national curriculum! You’ll be surprised how much history people can learn from playing these games--and all whilst having fun!

MK: Yes. Video games, like television, can be a really effective teaching tool, and I think anyone who watches Decisive Battles comes away knowing and understanding a lot more about history than before. And it's done in an engaging and fun way. What more can you ask for?

GS: Do you think there will be more crossovers between games and television?

IR: Yes. The way technology in games is progressing (and will always progress) it’s just a matter of the creative people getting their thinking hats on, coming up with a good idea, and then approaching the relevant developer/publisher.

MK: I think so. I am excited about Decisive Battles, because its use of video games, the Rome: Total War engine, is unique. It hasn't been done before, and The History Channel is on the cutting edge on this front.

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