Creative Assembly on the changing face of PC gaming

Alex Calvin
Creative Assembly on the changing face of PC gaming

Sega. The name still conjures images of Sonic speeding across a CRT screen with the plastic black Megadrive sitting besides it.

But that Sega hasn’t existed for a long time. Today, far from a console giant, Sega is best known for its growing PC presence, with the likes of Sports Interactive (Football Manager), Relic (Company of Heroes) and Creative Assembly.

That last studio is a fast growing UK gaming powerhouse. It is best known for the Total War PC strategy series, but it is also behind hit console game Alien Isolation and the upcoming Halo Wars 2 for Windows 10 and Xbox One.

So who better, we thought, than to discuss what the future of PC gaming might look like? And our first port of call was this week’s MCV cover story.

Physical PC games are declining at a rapid pace. Creative Assembly itself announced that after one week, 81 per cent of sales of its 2015 PC hit Total War: Atillia, was made digitally.

But the firm’s brand director Rob Bartholomew does not believe the bell is tolling for boxed PC games. Not yet.

“There’s absolutely still a market for physical PC games,” he says.

“That might not be as true these days in the UK and the High Street has taken a hammering. And the stores that are left are less inclined to hold PC back catalogue and cover every brand new PC game. It helps that we are a big name in the PC space – we have a brand that carries weight at retail.”

DIGITAL DOMINANCE

Of course, digital is the home for PC games – primarily thanks to Steam. But with so many games hitting the outlet every day, it’s not an easy place to get recognised.

“Being in charge of a triple-A brand, we get a lot of support and we have the effort to put behind that,” Bartholomew says.

“If I was an indie developer, then it would be a worry because there is an almost unfiltered approach to what’s available out there. 

“Social media plays a big part in helping spread news about games. Some devs are better at leveraging those channels than others.

“Something that a lot of indie devs ignore at their peril is the dirty word of ‘marketing’. It’s one thing to have a great game, and that can organically grow with the right people taking notice, but there are definitely some sectors where the idea of having a brand and having someone do your marketing or community strategy is somehow dirty. The original purpose of marketing is to communicate what is great about your game. There are certain avenues in marketing, PR and community management that indie developers in particular might take for granted or ignore.”

BLOWING OFF SOME STEAM

Steam is not the only digital PC retailer, but it is by far the biggest force in that sector. An overly-dominant player is a dangerous thing in any industry. It could stifle competition and hurt innovation But Bartholomew isn’t worried that will happen with Steam.

“It’s amazing to see Steam continually go from strength-to-strength,” he says.

“It’s really interesting to be working with them when they’re looking at new hardware solutions like Steam Machines or Steam OS or VR. It’s fantastic to see them not just sit back and let that environment stagnate. It’s great that they go out and inform the next stage of PC gaming as they undoubtedly have with Steam.

“There are absolutely questions as to how ironclad Steam’s grip is on the industry, but if we have shown one thing with the ascent of Steam, it’s that things can change relatively quickly. No-one knows that better than Valve.”

Valve’s ‘hardware solutions’ include the Steam Machines, which finally launched last year. These are part of the firm’s attempt to bring PC gaming to the living room.

“PC gaming coming to the living room is important,” Bartholomew says.

“It’s a great set-up if you’ve got the right game for that environment. It’s something we’re really interested in. Playing Total War on a big screen when sat on a sofa is a bit tricky, and we’ve been skeptical. It’s something we’ve been investigating quite closely. We are very much keyboard and mouse-based and we have a complex UI compared to a lot of other games. But our designers are really excited by the possibilities of the Steam Controller, and certainly seeing some of our battles on a big screen in your front room is quite something.

“The promise is tantalising. We’ve released a configuration for the Steam Controller. It works, but your mileage may vary depending on the combination of your TV screen, how far you are away from it and your hardware set-up. But it’s not hard to imagine a lot of users finding a place for that.”

VIRTUALLY REAL

One of the hottest topics in the PC games industry at the moment is VR, which is coming to market after a long wait.

“We’ve all been in the industry long enough to have seen crazes come around and go; some of those have been successes; others have been flashes in the pan,” Bartholomew explains.

“I want to believe in VR, and I would love to see some long legs on it. But I’d also like to see it learn its place in gaming as an interesting platform.

“The PC has got to be the big driver in that. PC is always a driver of good new hardware. There’s always a space for console, and it’s a very attractive magic bullet to get VR accepted in front of a TV in a family sitting room.

“PC gaming is where the enthusiasts and the install base lives. Given the benefit that indie devs and home brewers have brought to the PC space, they are going to embrace VR in a big way and a lot of content can be generated in that manner.

“That could drive a real underground movement that builds a more profitable and commercial space for larger operations to be successful in.”


TOTAL WARHAMMER

Creative Assembly’s Total War series turned 15 last year.

And it was a pretty busy period for the studio as it revealed that it was working with Games Workshop on Total War: Warhammer. Not only is this the first time that there’s been a licensed entry in the Total War series, but it’s also the first fantasy effort in the franchise. The title was also the product of nearly a decade of conversations between Creative Assembly and Games Workshop.

“We’ve probably seen the most rapid period of growth for the brand in terms of the number of players that are on our games, the number of projects we have on the go as well as the number of directions we are going in. We’ve also moved into free-to-play gaming with our mobile title Kingdoms, and our free-to-play PC title Arena as well,” brand director Rob Bartholomew explains.

“We’ve learned a huge amount in the last 12 months, masses of information has been gained about the free-to-play and mobile markets.

He continues: “Games Workshop is a fantastic partner. It understands its IP amazingly well. We both come from a very similar background – games makers based in the UK having been around for 20-plus years. It also helps that a lot of the guys from the team have grown up and are still playing Warhammer table top as well.”

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Tags: pc , sega , creative assembly , total war , Rob Bartholomew

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