Tim Heaton: ‘I blew two CRTs up that first week, smoke came out of the back of them’

Every month an industry leader wraps up MCV with their unique insight. In December, our Final Boss was studio director at Creative Assembly and EVP of Sega Studios in the west Tim Heaton. He talked his milestones at CA, how he tried to learn C++ in a week and how being in the industry doesn’t make you better at video games (unfortunately!).

You’ll have been at Creative Assembly for ten years next month, congratulations! What’s your fondest memory to date?

Can I pick three? The release of Alien: Isolation is possibly my single happiest Creative Assembly (CA) memory over the past ten years. It was a passion project with a purpose, and at the time it felt as though everything was against us. To see it well received and still now referred to as a great game makes the difficult times worthwhile. The five-year journey of making that game covered every element of fear, suspense and success against overwhelming odds that the game itself contains.

Secondly, I would pick the making of Total War: Warhammer. The team, the content and our relationship with Games Workshop were a culmination of all that is good in Total War’s evolution. Seeing the grand beasts of Warhammer stomp over the Total War battleground, where only humans had been before, was really exciting.

And thirdly, it was during a recent visit to Shenzen in China. Looking out from the 30th floor of a hotel over one of the most vibrant places in the world and realising that CA has opened so many doors to new experiences for me personally.

Can the industry possibly change as much over the next ten years as it has over the last ten?

I hope it does. The fun in making games for me is both the difficult balance of design vs engineering, and the ever changing technical and business challenges. However, I would like to see games, and the teams that make them, a little better understood in the mainstream.

We’re getting there, and successes like Fortnite help with that. I heard someone refer to gamers in a generic way as ‘Fortnite people’ the other day. But I do wish we were seen as more culturally relevant, in the same way as film, TV and books.

With the greatest respect to your current role, what is your dream job?

I come from a programming background, and I miss the focus and logic of that. In my first job I confidently stated I had great C++ experience, and then desperately had to learn it in the week before I started. In my first week I had to write a graphics driver. My new boss confidently said: ‘Well, just try, you can’t do any damage’. I blew two CRTs up that first week, smoke came out of the back of them. I think that’s when people started considering my management abilities ahead of my programming ones!

CA’s core output is pretty time-consuming stuff, do you find time to play your own games, let alone anyone else’s?

Of course, I play our own games and I try to play all the big releases as well. Spider-Man and RDR2 have been providing a lot of fun recently. But nowadays my nephews come around and ask: ‘Do you want a go Uncle Tim?’ and I have to decline rather than show them how rubbish I am. Being in the industry doesn’t actually make you better at these games!

Traditionally, development studios work in something of a bubble – are there benefits to that or is it always something to fight against?

Development studios are often quite autonomous and because of that they develop very particular personalities and quirks. Even the four studios across Sega West – CA, Sports Interactive, Relic and Amplitude – have strong and very different personalities.

At CA we’re very craft-led and focused on attention to detail. I think these values have come from both the people we recruit and because of the games we make. These personalities allow certain kinds of creativity to flower and that’s something we try to encourage every day.

Equally there is so much to learn and to share that we do try and raise our heads and look out a bit. GDC is a great way of seeing areas of the industry and triggering debate. More and more, we are sharing ideas across not only the internal Sega studios but with a widening set of other independent studios.

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