Shot and edited by Justin Wolfson. Motion graphics by John Cappello. Click here for transcript.
Creative Assembly’s Total War franchise has been around for so long that it’s old enough to drive, vote, and even drink in most countries. For the three people reading this who haven’t played at least one title in the series, the games provide a blend of real-time strategy and turn-based resource management that manages to scratch a number of itches simultaneously. You can direct the conquest of large regions from a god’s-eye overhead view and then step down to the battlefield and move units around like Command and Conquer.
As technology and the 2000s progressed, new entries in the series became more sophisticated; by the time 2013 rolled around and Creative Assembly was working its magic on Total War: Rome II, the design goals were ambitious indeed. Designers wanted to give players total freedom to move around all of classical-era Europe, from Caledonia to Arachosia and all points in between. Building a canvas this broad to play on meant the small team of designers had to rely on some clever procedural tools, and although you might expect those tools to be the point of this particular War Story, that’s not actually what the problem turned out to be.
What if we threw a war and nobody came?
In order to properly test a game with thousands of square miles of playable space, the designers employed automated tools running on their office PCs. In the evenings when it was time to go home, Creative Assembly would set as many PCs as they could to playing the game in AI-only mode, iterating through battles and scenarios in order to help see which units needed balancing and which scenarios needed tweaking. Along the way, they would also find areas where their procedural terrain generation hadn’t gotten things quite right (like requiring a campaign battle to awkwardly play out on a near-vertical slope).