War Horse

Total War Battles: SHOGUN by Creative Assembly

Published: July 19. 2012

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British dev studio Creative Assembly brings its storied RTS franchise to touchscreens in the form of Total War Battles: Shogun.

British dev studio Creative Assembly brings its storied RTS franchise to touchscreens in the form of Total War Battles: Shogun.

The Total War series has been 12 years in the making, as UK developer Creative Assembly has refined and redressed its expert RTS title into a finely-tuned (virtual) war machine on PCs around the globe. Now, the series has arrived in a new form: on iOS, to be precise, in the form of Total War Battles: Shogun. The game holds true to many of the franchise’s core tenets, with building, combat, and unit management, all set in 16th century Japan.

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“We had always considered re-engineering Total War for other platforms, so the idea has been around for quite some time,” says Creative Assembly’s Renaud Charpentier, lead designer on the studio’s digital team. “Then the iPhone revolution erupted, and pretty soon, some very powerful handheld devices were in everyone’s pockets.” The team looked at the rapidly changing landscape and thought about how they could preserve the feeling of the Total War PC games without being limited by either the original platform or the new one. “iOS is the biggest market in the handheld space, so we started there, but the objective was to craft an RTS capable of playing great on any handheld platform.”

The result is something Charpentier considers nothing less than a fully-fledged RTS. “You could sum up Total War PC as one of the deepest strategy games around, grounded in the reality of historical warfare,” he says. “Total War Battles: Shogun shares the same DNA: it’s recognized as one of the deepest strategy games on the App Store, and it features the same background as Total War: Shogun 2 on PC.” Indeed, you have the same sorts of strategic decisions to make: you drive your economy and command your troops, but in a structure that makes more sense on a handheld device.

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In action, the play sessions are shorter—around ten minutes instead of an hour—and the UI, the controls, and the way you give orders to your troops are designed specifically for the touchscreen. “Regardless of whether you’re playing Total war on PC or iOS, the overall aims are very similar,” says Charpentier. “You vanquish your enemy through good field analysis, proper troop setup and cunning tactical moves.”

When the team eventually got go-ahead on the project, the prototype phase began almost immediately. “Getting your initial idea up and running, and having something playable on a device, is crucial in proving that your vision is going to work,” says Charpentier. “Internally, we were pretty sure our direction was right and that our initial design would deliver. But no design document or Power Point presentation can demonstrate this better than a five-minute gameplay experience with the device in your hand.” In essence, this proves everything: that the looks nice, plays well and that your tech is strong enough and fast enough to achieve your aims.

The choice also came rather quickly to develop the game in Unity. “On many projects, getting to a first playable build can take a long time,” says Charpentier. “Using solid middleware like Unity can really reduce your risk. Once we had this in place, the game was basically up and running within weeks.” He says that everyone within Creative Assembly and the game’s publisher, SEGA, had a precise view on what we were crafting, which kept confidence really high and the project moving along briskly. The game started as a one-man experiment: working on game design concepts, looking at what could be done, and what should be done. Then a dedicated core team was recruited, and some of the experts from the Total War team helped on specific matters, like motion capture and sound design. All in all, the team was comprised of about 15 developers working on the game; the production time, after initial prototyping was 12 months.

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The game began with Charpentier himself. “Starting alone, I needed to be able to do some basic experiments, for things like battle rules, camera position, size of units, UI, and small-screen readability,” he says. At first, for the battle system rules, he used Microsoft Excel to script a little combat simulator—essentially rolling virtual dice and displaying numbers in cells. “That was enough to prove the rules, but then I needed to move on to 3D experiments, and create a real game scene… and so I had to leave Excel for a game SDK,” he says. “On other projects, I’d worked with SDKs like Unreal and knew they were far too complex and heavy to get simple things done fast. So I benchmarked a few, and Unity 2.6 was in the mix; I liked it so I kept to it, simple as that.”

> One reviewer of Battles recently stated that he could play through the entire campaign without stumbling over a single bug. Unity was the backbone of that.

Later on in the project, when the team had a lead programmer, they considered sticking with Unity for good, and ran various technical benchmarks in line with their gameplay features. “The engine proved fast enough on our first target device (an iPhone 4), and the rest of team loved the tools and the SDK itself… so we decided to use it to complete the game,” says Charpentier. “It proved to be a very good choice; we’ve had no major technical problems and we’ve found we can easily mod some specific elements to our own needs. One reviewer of Battles recently stated that he could play through the entire campaign without stumbling over a single bug. Unity was the backbone of that.”

In the end, the team ended up using the entirety of the Unity tech, save for the physics engine, which it had no need for. “The level editor was of great help to quickly put maps together and polish the level design, [and] we used the asset server to enable one-click game-data updates for the entire team,” says Charpentier. The artists created all of the game’s effects using Unity’s particle system, and used the Beast lightmap system extensively as well. “The animation system was instrumental for us, especially the ability to control animation blending,” says Charpentier. “Last but not least, the ability to create builds for very different platforms—iOS, PC, Android —this was enormously useful.” (The game will be released shortly for the latter.)

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Total War Battles: Shogun game has been very well received by critics and players alike, and has been a success on the App Store in every region, Asia included. The team is currently hard at work on updates that will add quite a bit of content to the already rather meaty experience. First up: A Skirmish mode that allows players to choose a map and level of difficulty, and go head-to-head against the AI.

From Desktop to Pocket

Primarily a PC developer, Creative Assembly explored mobile for the first time with Total War Battles: Shogun. So what did they learn about achieving AAA quality on mobile? “The Total War Battles team was recruited directly for this project,” says Renaud Charpentier, lead designer on Creative Assembly’s studio’s digital team. “Aside from some animation and audio expertise from the Total War team, we didn’t use the Total War PC tech at all.”

In fact, most of the team came from console development backgrounds, and found that working on mobile was very close to classic console development. “You have a fixed device, or a list of fixed devices, and they’re not going to change or get faster during the course of development,” says Charpentier. “Of course, a year later, your iPhone 4 is no longer the most high-end handheld, but it has the same amount of memory, processing power and you still have to get the best out of it.”

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“What we learned, in the end,” continues Charpentier, “is that achieving AAA level of quality on such devices is hard—as hard as achieving AAA quality on any other console. Sooner or later, you hit the silicon wall. That wall is stubborn and doesn’t care about your game design, so you’d better have some good base technology to be able to scale it. A good SDK can give you the boost you really need, and for us, that was Unity.”

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