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News video games 26 October 2023, 06:28

author: Jacob Blazewicz

Black Clouds Gather Over Total War Devs; Profit-hungry Managers to Blame

The problems of the Total War series and its developers by no means began this year or last year. The latest leaks indicate that studio executives gambled on increasing player spending at the expense of IPs development.

Source: Creative Assembly / SEGA.
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Not only Paradox Interactive has problems this year. Creative Assembly has also lost a lot in the eyes of gamers, and the team was allegedly hit by major layoffs. How unhappy the situation looks for the creators of the Total War series, is evidenced by anonymous statements from former and current employees of the company.

Conversations with developers employed at the British studio began to appear online immediately after the cancellation of Hyenas and the cold reception and de facto failure of Total War: Pharaoh. Many have contacted youtuber Volound, but other sources have also obtained information on the situation at Creative Assembly. Some of it was gathered by the host of the Bellular News channel, who summarized the reports in his own material.

Let us stress in advance that this is unconfirmed information, so approach it with a dose of skepticism.

Total War, cut content and technology debt

Let's start with what we know even without leaks and rumors: gamers have by no means started complaining about Creative Assembly only now. In addition to accusations of too much and expensive DLCs and a lack of refinement at launch (sounds familiar?), they pointed out the lack of innovation and significant improvements in Total War games of recent years, as well as the lack of completely new projects, i.e. those that are not successive installments of the strategy game series.

According to Volound's materials and an interview with Balint Marczin (who was involved in the development of the first two games in the TW: Warhammer sub-series), the lack of news was not due to a lack of ideas. Third Warhammer was to receive, among other things, more extensive multiplayer options and an army painter.

Black Clouds Gather Over Total War Devs; Profit-hungry Managers to Blame - picture #1

Total War was supposed to become an annual release and DLC.Source: Bellular News / YouTube.

However, most of these ideas ended up in the trash, including naval battles in Empire. Which may come as a surprise, since Creative Assembly is reportedly the highest earning studio owned by SEGA (in part because it occupies a niche with essentially no competition in the market).

What's more, Volound's sources claim that the developer is working on a new engine that would make it easier to add new elements (the current engine remembers the days of Rome 2 and is so "clunky" that it apparently can effectively discourage the developers from experimenting).

Except that work on it has come to a standstill, even though the studio's tools now don't so much "have a technology debt as they ARE a technology debt" (in the shortest terms: the term refers to when a company uses suboptimal software solutions to save money in the short run).

Profiting on players at the expense of development

Paradoxically, this very position of CA is supposed to be the cause of the studio's troubles. After all, SEGA was supposed to require that a new Total War game be released every year, necessarily with a bunch of DLCs.

  1. Well, the studio is, as it were, supervised by a so-called branding team, which is responsible for presenting the studio's projects to the publisher. In other words, it is this group that decides which ideas will be implemented.
  2. The problem is that these "managers" have, according to Volound's interlocutors, too much influence over the studio's work, even drawing up "bibles," i.e. project development plans covering a game's entire "life cycle." This would not be a huge problem if it were not for emphasis on raising profits by increasing "average spending per player" and realizing this through short-term solutions.
  3. In practice, this manifested itself as huge emphasis on creating DLCs in the form of "reskins" of old content and the aforementioned release of a new TW every year. Thus, employees were distracted from other activities (including the development of the studio's technology).

Lack of respect for players?

Balint Marczin mentioned that this approach is somehow a manifestation of Creative Assembly's lack of respect for the buyers. He was seconded by Voulund's interlocutors, because while the idea of DLC itself is not bad in their opinion, the studio was to exploit it in a very 'cynical' way." It also did not particularly care about the opinions of players, basically ignoring their comments.

Rob Bartholomew is considered the main culprit. Leaving aside the unflattering and vague comments of Volound's interviewees and his opinion among fans (vide threads on Reddit), the brand director's approach to Total War is supposed to be the quintessential example of the "branding team" problems at the studio. Bartholomew was said to have been showing up at company meetings, presenting sales charts as part of the argument for the aforementioned increase in "average player spending" (read: the rampant release of DLCs).

One source even went so far as to say that "9/10" unpopular decisions - including price increases of DLCs and exclusivity deal with Epic Games - were "owed" precisely to Bartholomew and other branding team managers.

How to save Creative Assembly

Paradoxically, the alleged layoffs at the studio may, according to Volound's sources, have a positive impact on the studio's situation. Especially if the rumors about the dismissal of Rob Bartholomew are true. Unfortunately, he may have been accompanied by about 40% of Creative Assembly's staff. Keep in mind that for now this information from Volound has not been officially confirmed (via Linkedin).

Former CA employees also point to two other circumstances that could improve the situation at the studio:

  1. first, competition, if only from Paradox Interactive. If Volound's sources are to be believed, Creative Assembly feared the publisher's expansion into real-time battles, which - given Paradox's recent moves - may be justified. A strong rival would come as a big shock to the developers of Total War;
  2. secondly, a sharper reaction from the community. Some sources believe that if fans had reacted earlier to the series' problems like they did to Pharaoh, perhaps there would have been positive changes at the developer long ago.

Let us emphasize again: the above information is in no way confirmed and should not be taken as fact. We will be able to check Volound's credibility soon - if indeed Rob Martholomew will part ways with Creative Assembly.

Jacob Blazewicz

Jacob Blazewicz

Graduated with a master's degree in Polish Studies from the University of Warsaw with a thesis dedicated to this very subject. Started his adventure with GRYOnline.pl in 2015, writing in the Newsroom and later also in the film and technology sections (also contributed to the Encyclopedia). Interested in video games (and not only video games) for years. He began with platform games and, to this day, remains a big fan of them (including Metroidvania). Also shows interest in card games (including paper), fighting games, soulslikes, and basically everything about games as such. Marvels at pixelated characters from games dating back to the time of the Game Boy (if not older).

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