In 2000, Creative Assembly sent tremors through the strategy genre with Shogun: Total War. A Civilization-style game with Red Alert-style live battles? Impossible! But it wasn't. What it turned out to be was the start of a consistently brilliant march through history, controlling the armies of the Romans, the medieval kings and queens, and even Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington.
Total War has had some beefy additions along the way - naval warfare and campaign multiplayer being the most significant. Nevertheless, a decade on and the series has come full-circle to Shogun II: Total War, a re-imagining of the game-that-started-it-all for today's considerable technology.
This Sunday, 3rd October, Mike Simpson - the godfather of Total War - will take to the Eurogamer Expo 2010 stage to present Shogun II: Total War alongside Shogun: Total War and show you what has changed. But before he can do so, Eurogamer him down for a chat about what he'll be presenting and why Shogun II: Total War will be the best in the series yet.
Eurogamer: You've been described as the godfather of Total War - are you a violent person?
Mike Simpson: I'm not a violent person, no - quite the opposite. Except in games, of course, where all bets are off [giggles maniacally]. The whole studio spent years playing first-person shooters, starting with Counter-Strike every lunchtime. So I guess we have a long history of blowing bits off each other.
Eurogamer: But as the creator of Total War, if it came down to it, you could command an army couldn't you?
Mike Simpson: Oh yeah.
Eurogamer: Do you have preference about which army that would be?
Mike Simpson: An imaginary one! It's not a real world. It's playing around with history, playing around with things that happened. I don't think I'd like to command an army in the real world because I know what it's like.
Eurogamer: Shogun and Shogun II are based heavily on Sun Tzu's famous teachings. Do you use one Art of War teaching above others?
Mike Simpson: One rule? I dunno. The genius of Sun Tzu is that he's a lot like a programmer in that he came up with long, long lists of rules which actually had numbers in them. So he'd say things like, "If you outnumber your enemy five to one, envelop him; if you outnumber him three to one, engage him." It's almost like programming. And there are lots and lots and lots of individual rules.
Eurogamer: But if his teachings translate so easily into programming code, then your AI is going to be unstoppable!
Mike Simpson: That would be true if all things were perfect, but computer AI struggles to be as inventive and clever as he was. A human has always got a chance. It's only in finite games like chess where computer AI will generally beat your average human.
Eurogamer: And how long until computers take over from humans?
Mike Simpson: That's an interesting question.
Eurogamer: A rough guess? 2050?
Mike Simpson: No, no, it'll be longer than that. Doing real AI that actually thinks like a human is vastly more difficult. In the last almost 20 years that I've been working on games, it hasn't really progressed very much. We still really do the same kind of AI that we did back in the eighties. They're obviously a lot more sophisticated and use more processing power, but it's not really proper AI. Dumbness-avoidance is probably a better way of looking at it rather than artificial intelligence; we do a lot of dumbness avoidance.
Eurogamer: What will you be talking about in your Eurogamer Expo 2010 session?
Mike Simpson: We're going to run through Shogun II. It's 10 years since we did Shogun 1, so we'll be doing a bit of a retrospective comparison on the way things have changed and the way things haven't changed. A lot of things are remarkably similar to the way they were 10 years ago.
Eurogamer: Did you think things would be similar in the future when you were making Shogun 1?
Mike Simpson: We thought a lot of things would move on more than they have. We still find ourselves having arguments over the same bits of code that we were arguing about in Shogun 1. We're still struggling to come up with a better AI behaviour for a particular encounter. For example, things like 'kiting' the AI, that's always a tricky one, where players drag enemies out of formation and then deal with them one at a time.
Most games have that problem one way or the other but it's particularly important in ours, because if you can pull units out one by one against a superior force, well, you're going to win. But on the other hand you can't just sit there and ignore enemy units: there are times when you need to come out and chase off archers or whatever. There's a really fine balance there. That bit of code is something we have long discussions about, every project.
Eurogamer: Will you treat the Eurogamer Expo audience to a live samurai demonstration?
Mike Simpson: No, no samurai! That would be a health and safety problem I suspect.
Eurogamer: That's alright - I can get them to waive it.
Mike Simpson: [Laughs]
Eurogamer: You must do a bit of that, though - trying on equipment, swishing swords, dressing up.
Mike Simpson: That's not compulsory, but we do have samurai swords sitting around the office. We use them in the motion capture a lot. There's a very fine pair of samurai swords that one of the clans gave to us.
Eurogamer: Is it weird going back to Shogun 1?
Mike Simpson: No it's not weird, but we didn't think we would go back - there were plenty of other things we wanted to do first. But going back is like going back to an old friend. It's probably our - it's certainly my favourite period. It's the coolest of all of them. It has the most interesting units, it has the coolest content. The whole of that era and setting is more alien than most of the other periods.
Eurogamer: Shogun II has hero units, has blossoms, has thunderstorms - dramatic stuff. Are you hamming it up?
Mike Simpson: Oh yes. It's absolutely important to ham it up! It's supposed to be fun. I mean, it is fun. If there's ever a contest between something that's fun and something that's historical, fun will win.
Eurogamer: What's the best unit you've got in Shogun II - what's the most powerful unit?
Mike Simpson: There's a lot of unit customisation in the game, so you can probably take any two or three or four of the top units and customise them up to be the best unit. But the hero units are probably the most powerful, but they're quite small, so they can be swarmed. There's no simple answer to that question.
Eurogamer: What's the most ridiculous thing that you've got in Shogun II?
Mike Simpson: Samurai with rocket launchers! That sounds more ridiculous than it actually is, because they did have them, and they generally caused mayhem and fear.
Eurogamer: What's the reaction been like to Shogun II from the fans - are you looking forward to showing it off to people?
Mike Simpson: It's without a doubt the best-looking Total War game we've made. Art and style has been a big focus for the project, making something with artistic merit as well as being a great game. So, yeah, we are looking forward to showing it off.
Eurogamer: When you made Shogun, PCs were like calculators. What can you do now that you couldn't then?
Mike Simpson: Making the battlefields real. When we first started we had little tiny sprite men who didn't look very good - in fact, they were pretty shocking. Battlefields were all like golf courses, all rolling hills because that's basically all we could do. Gradually, as the technology has progressed, we brought more trees in and started to put some rockiness into the terrain and rivers in. And gradually these cartoons have become more like real worlds. Every step along the way we go a bit further in that direction, to the point now where instead of those tiny horrible-looking sprites, each of the thousands of characters on screen looks like a character would in a much smaller gamer. It looks perfect, and you can see out across a massive landscape. That's the idea we've had right from the start, but how we succeed in doing that has changed dramatically. We probably do have something like 200-times the processing power that we had back on Shogun 1.
Eurogamer: Over the years you've added various new features to the Total War series. The big ones I can think of are naval battles and campaign multiplayer. Are there still any massive features you've yet to integrate?
Mike Simpson: Yes, there probably are. We've talked a lot about what they might be. We have three games in one: the campaign, the field battles and naval battles. But there are whole new games we could do, not that we would any time soon. There's loads more stuff, actually.
Eurogamer: Can you give us a tease of one of these things?
Mike Simpson: I can tell you what we're not going to do! [Laughs] We're not going to do a beat-'em-up where you can do one-on-one challenges.
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Eurogamer: Duels between agents?
Mike Simpson: We're not going to do that either. But you could conceive of a whole new game with that. But that's something that we're not going to do as it would take up too much of the players' time. That's a valuable resource, and we already flirt with using it too much.
Eurogamer: You've promised big things for Shogun II multiplayer. Can you say what they are?
Mike Simpson: Not yet.
Eurogamer: Are they new things?
Mike Simpson: Well the challenge that I set the group that's been working on multiplayer was to revolutionise the way it's played. With a lot of PC games you get more people playing the multiplayer than you do the single-player, but ours is the other way around. We wanted to even that up a bit to the point where multiplayer was an equal partner with the rest of the game. That's what we're trying to do.
Eurogamer: The game's due out in 2011 - what's left to do?
Mike Simpson: We're actually at the interesting stage where we've got our feature set as was first planned and we're kind of linking them; deciding which bits worked really well, which bits worked less well. Some features we'll delete, some features we'll redraft to make them work better. This is actually the most interesting part of the project - trying to get it work well together.
Mike Simpson is creative director of Creative Assembly and the godfather of Total War.