Last week marked the first Yorkshire Games Festival, in what organizers are hoping will become an annual event. There were talks from industry legends like John Romero, a games showcase, and we even got the opportunity to conduct some fantastic interviews we’ll be bringing to you all this week. First up is the opening speaker, Creative Assembly’s brand manager, Rob Bartholomew. Rob opened events with a talk about promoting your game, designed to give indie developers an insight into marketing a game and engaging with their audience. There were some really edifying points on promoting your game in the appropriate channels and how to engage with content creators and the press. The brand manager for the popular historical strategy series Total War also shared some insight into how Creative Assembly have worked with their strong community to help further their brand.
After the talk, we caught up with Rob and chatted to him about the reception of Total War: Warhammer and the company’s plans for the future of the franchise, along with expanding on some of the more interesting points from the talk. After pleasantries were exchanged and mic checks completed, we got right down to it.
TechRaptor: There was something that came up in your talk that was really interesting, which was pushing toward content creators as a way to promote your game. Obviously, this has become a lot more prevalent in the last few years. Is it something that Creative Assembly are focusing on more as a studio now?
Rob Bartholomew: Yeah, good question, we’ve always seen the value of a community. Given that we’re quite a hardcore PC game. So we naturally gravitate towards having a kind of really involved vibrant community. We’re talking about real PC heartland kind of stuff so you know, naturally, it’s an area we look at. It does feel like it’s quite recent but this is something we’ve been doing for years, engaging wth those guys who do run their own YouTube channels and focus on Total War content. I think what we’ve made a really decent fist of over the last few years is helping those guys reach a wider audience while, at same time, helping ourselves reach that wider audience so it becomes very kind of symbiotic and it’s a good working relationship.
I think as a brand, as a studio, we certainly see that balance between what you might call the traditional press and content creation by the community and YouTubers as a real sort of thing that’s sort of seesawing away from one and toward the other and as a company you can see that in a very drastic way because we find that the big gaming websites aren’t interested in covering a lot of content we would love to see covered like DLC or ‘hey we’ve done this or we’ve made these changes to the game’ and I think that’s something that’s not unique to us because you rarely see the latest round of League of Legends patching on a lot of websites because it’s not new news that’s breaking it is kind of established community interest stuff even if that is reaching millions of players or affects millions.
So when at the moment we have over a million people playing Total War games in different shapes and sizes a month yet when we talk about new patch or new DLC release that we see relatively few websites pick that information up as it’s still very niche news. For us, we have to get that information out and the community and the content creators and everybody are really interested in what that has to say so we naturally start to gravitate towards working more with those guys and a little less with the press when it comes to DLC and regular updates and that balance kind of gets readdressed when we either have big game releases or those kind of bigger announcements. So it’s sort of reaching a natural status quo where we see a natural evening-out of where the interest lies. So I sort of just suggested it might be one against the other but I think again it’s a more nuanced relationship where we’re working out what information should be placed into different channels to entertain different people with different things.
TR: That’s interesting, would you say that the big advantage of content-creator generated branding, if you want to call it that, is that you’re targeting an audience that you already know is interested in your game? You know if you’re talking someone like Darren Total War [YouTuber] that you were talking about on stage then you know that the people watching his videos like Total War already, right?
RB: Yes and that’s where it gets more interesting because they’re going to be guys who focus on one game, one type of game, and if you are you know starting out as an indie dev then those guy’s are great to focus on because they’ll typically have slightly smaller audiences and might be focused on your game or maybe games very like your game so they are going to be positively disposed towards whatever you want to talk to them about. For us what we’re looking at guys who love Total War games it’s great to work with those guys and we enjoy working with those guys because they get us, they get what to show and what’s important. They’re also straightforward and give us feedback when we put a foot wrong and that’s valuable information from your community. Where that’s a challenge for us is that it’s very easy to just talk furtively to your own audience and you might forget that there’s a wider audience that might appreciate what you’re talking about.
Certainly with Total War: Warhammer one of our key objectives was to try and get a message out about what we were doing with a fantasy intellectual property for the first time. Working with Games Workshop, we have this kind of marriage between a big strategy game that we provide and their really vibrant colorful fantasy world that those guys have. Our hopes were that we would break down some of the barriers that people have with what the property is about such as maybe thinking Oh it’s a bit historical or it’s a bit dry. Oh it’s a bit too complicated I’m not going to get on with it. You know if we can speak to those guys and say hey now we’ve got dragons and magic and incredible heroes in shining armor, you know, maybe come and have a look at this now and we felt that that would be a really positive message for a wider audience. Talking to the right content creators about this and not just kind of focusing on your own guys and keeping people happy. Absolutely, spreading it wide, this was really a key objective.
TR: One thing I did want to ask you about that as well was bringing those two subsets of fans together; tabletop fans who may not play Total War and PC gamers who may not have been interested in Warhammer, what kind of feedback have you had from both those communities and is there a significant difference between them?
RB: Oh, there’s absolutely a difference. I think feedback throughout things has been fantastic. We will always have a core of our audience who are less interested in the fantasy games and I think certainly from the feedback we’ve had, or we’ve looked at, that’s the general sentiment we see out there. There is a huge portion of guys out there who thought ‘Total War was for history, I only like history and then kind of went ‘holy shit this is great.’ You know, really, ‘I think it’s got the Total War ingredients and sure it’s got dragons which I didn’t think I was too fussed about but, you know, the quality and array of content and the different kind of tactical situations you can now be put in when you have somebody who can cast fireballs, for example, makes it for an interesting strategy game and that’s actually what I love, notwithstanding that it’s not totally historical.’ There will always be people who don’t fancy fantasy that way and we’re going to continue to make historical games at the same time to hopefully entertain those guys as well.
When it comes to the tabletop guys again there’s some guys who aren’t so into games but what we were able to say is, you know, we understand the Warhammer fantasy world and we want to preserve it in all of its glory, because it is important to us as a studio to still get that detail right in the same way as we approach a historical game. So I mean, where we would look at primary source information and really looking at all of the evidence out there and historical experts from archaeology and from literature to get that historical accuracy for the Edo or Shogun period or for whichever period we were working with. We took that attention to detail to what we did with Warhammer as well. So there’s like twenty-five years of Warhammer IP out there; background information, characters, stories, and it’s kind of like a Game of Thrones style property – there are all sorts of politics going on in the Warhammer world and we wanted to replicate that really effectively and in a really vibrant and interesting way that players can get to grips with.
I don’t think anyone else who has worked with the Warhammer license has done as good a job as we did and I say that with a lot of pride in what we did and also some kind of attitude, maybe, [Laughs] but I really think we did the IP justice. I really think the fans saw that whether they were Total War fans or tabletop fans they saw that this was a real labor of love and I hope they’ll stay with us on this big trilogy journey where we’re powering up for. You know we always said that we wanted to make the whole Warhammer world and have absolutely everything we feasibly could have in it to do it justice. We’re having to make the three games to accommodate this and so even now we’re working on the second game in the series and we hope that people continue to see the love and the dedication and the amount of gameplay we’re providing in those titles and kind of come with us on that journey and you know still enjoy it in five years time or six years time, whenever we finish.
TR: So Warhammer is an established franchise for you now. There must have been talk of working on something like 40K after this?
RB: Yeah, well, I mean we talk about everything all the time as you can imagine. The process of getting Total War and Warhammer together and doing the original deal for games workshop took maybe ten years on and off of talks and planning. So obviously everyone looks at that and thinks that’s great you know it’s Total War meets Warhammer, you get Total War meets 40K, Game of Thrones, Lord of The Rings, etcetera that fans would love us to do and you know we’d love to consider doing those things when the time’s right but we’ve got a really long list of things that we want to do and a lot of that involves Total War: Warhammer for now. So yeah I mean the potential is there for those sorts of things and all sorts of partnerships and I think what we look for is that marriage made in heaven stuff that we have going off with Total War and Warhammer fantasy as well you know anything that kind of fits that equation is great and we’ll continue to seek that out.
TR: Actually, I’m glad to hear that because a few of the writers here at TechRaptor wanted me to ask you as well, in that vein, about Sega franchises. So are we likely to see any cross-overs of famous Sega brands in future? I mean I got some great suggestions, really, some people requesting Bayonetta, Skies of Arcadia, Panzer Dragoon, which sound really realistic. [RB cuts in with: Skies of Arcadia would be awesome] [Laughing] They have said please don’t make Total War: Sonic, though.
RB: We have, we… obviously it’s when we just talk about things the suggestion has come up for a total war sonic and silly things like that. I distinctly remember being in a meeting that kind of went off in that direction and somebody said oh yeah you know Total War: Sonic everyone looks at each other and laughs, and then it goes quiet for a bit and you’re thinking ‘What would that look like?’ I think that whether we would ever do anything like that, and right now I would suggest that the chances are pretty slim, It’s always a brilliant exercise in game design and thought to just go, ‘how would that work?’ Could you even take the Total War model and could you take Sonic or the key elements of the Sonic IP and actually mash them together? It doesn’t have to be Sonic, it could be anything you know it could be all sorts of things to fit with that formula. So yeah, I think it’s more of an interesting thought experiment something like that than anything we’ve been asked to do by Sega.
TR: It’s great to think about, though. So working with Sega as well, obviously, you’re working alongside a lot of other strategy devs—Relic, Amplitude have now come on, you mentioned Sports Interactive—are you in a position where you’re sharing knowledge with these people and in between studios? Are you competitive or do you work well together?
RB: I wouldn’t say that we’re competitive in the true sense of the word I mean we’ll see obviously quite competitive of ourselves anyway. So it’s always fun to meet up with the guys and chat to them. We probably don’t do enough talking to… we probably don’t talk as much as we should because I think there is great stuff that we could learn from each other. Certainly, from Amplitude you know because they’re new to the family and they’re still finding their feet with the same group. I’m sure they’ve got their own concerns for their own game which is in the throes of release at the moment. So there’s more we can always do but we certainly don’t ignore each other or anything like that and certainly with guys like Relic, who’re working on Dawn of War 3 that’s coming out soon as well, we’ve got DLC coming out for Warhammer alongside their promotion, we’re interested in some of the same consumers, we’re at different stages of our product’s lifecycle. So we’ve always got kind of interesting things to say to each other and in some ways, it’s a good excuse to talk about things when you’re coming up with a similar sort of thing from a slightly different perspective. Those guys talk to us and we talk to them to discuss all sorts of things. So in terms of technology no not really, but kind of methodology and best working practices then yes.
TR: Now looking at the reception to Total War: Warhammer, it’s been really positive stuff so far—critical reception and player reception. More so than Total War:Rome II, which had it’s share of troubles at launch. So what do you think changed in between launching Rome II and launching Warhammer that has made it this much more successful?
RB: Yeah I think it’s kind of interesting because you know as games they are in terms of actual sales success they are both up there together and until we released Warhammer, Rome II was the fastest selling Total War game and in terms of lifetime sales is to date our biggest selling Total War game which you might expect and I think we are well aware of launch troubles that the game had and the criticism it got from our hardcore and those people who did have problems but it was something we really took to heart – we patched the hell out of that game and turned it into something that we want to be proud of.
We said the first day we released that game we know it’s not up to the current level that some of our fans expected and we made a promise to work to make it something, not even to be proud of, but to be considered as one of the best we’ve done. I like to think we’re certainly at that stage, or I hope we achieved that with the release of the Emperor Edition which was about nine/ten months on from the original release of the game, we produced a huge patch to the way the game works and the way the game mechanics unfolded and a massive campaign pack expansion which added the Imperator Augustus content for free. For us, well it was really trying to kind of draw a line in the sand where we could go OK this is a game that we’re now properly proud of and everybody enjoys it and we’ve just taken that thinking forward a bit more as well into how we went about building Warhammer. Understanding better the mix of what the hardcore fans want and what the more mainstream game audience want from a Total War title and hopefully, from the response certainly, to a large degree we delivered that with Total War: Warhammer.
TR: Well, it certainly seems to be doing great. I mean, I know we’ve got a lot of writers in-house that love the game. Obviously, at TechRaptor we cover Tabletop games as well as PC games, so there’s a big audience cross-over there and a lot of love for Total War.
Now, in terms of this festival, it’s the first ever Yorkshire Games Festival, so is connecting with local developers like this important to you? Is Creative Assembly wanting to foster new talent coming into the industry is basically what I’m saying, and how do you pursue that?
RB: In terms of commercially how we’re set up as a business, and as well being wholly owned by Sega, it’s not that we’re specifically looking for you know particular partners or to ingratiate ourselves with certain devs or anything like that beyond the idea that it’s always goods to talk to everybody in the industry. It’s always worth finding out what anyone else is kind of concerned with and whether you can share anything from your experience to help anybody else out. So you know a lot of the reason I was here was to talk about promoting games and as we said I think that I only scratched the surface but maybe someone will walk out of that hall with some little idea about something they could potentially do and if they sell more games and they’re getting more people to buy games in general you know it’s good for the industry as a whole.
If we are a part of the U.K. industry and part of the wider games industry that includes Europe as well, regardless of what some people want to make of that, we are part of that same melting pot, a huge proportion of our staff come from abroad as well and we really feel like we’re part of a larger community than just CA. It’s important to chat with that community, you never know where those interactions might lead. If it’s not kind of a direct line of business relationships that, as I say, we’re not actually looking for it’s more about guys who might think that yeah I’d like to work with those guys or I like what they’re doing and want to find out more about it. So yeah I think it’s it’s interesting networking event for us in the non-traditional sense that we’re not necessarily looking to do business but we’re here to find out about business and just make sure that we know what’s going on.
TR: OK, well, that’s pretty much everything we have time to cover to be honest. Is there anything you’d like to say before I let you go?
RB: I just think it’s been really exciting to come here today, I didn’t realize I was opening, I probably should have tailored my introduction a little more specifically for that but it’s great. I love the way that you know events like this crop up it’s been fun just to come along to do but it’s been so well run as well and has packed out the theaters today for a talk about games marketing which you might not think would fly too well at a games festival, so yeah it’s been great.
TR: That’s good to hear. Thanks for your time Rob, it’s been great to talk to you.