It's 1997 and Command & Conquer fever is at its height. Vastly inferior rip-offs hit the shelves on an almost weekly basis, milking a frenzied gaming public for all it's worth. Meanwhile, a small, virtually unknown outfit called The Creative Assembly is happily porting sports games for publishing giant EA. Or, as you're about to find out, not so happily at all.
"We'd seen the first C&C clones come out and do quite well, so we thought to ourselves, 'that's got to be easy to do'," explains Tim Ansell, founder, owner and CEO of The Creative Assembly. "We'd seen this one C&C clone called KKND (Krush, Kill 'N' Destroy) and it was an absolute pile of crap. Then we heard it'd sold 600,000 units. At this point I went mad - there we were busting our balls porting sports games for EA and only selling around 100,000 units, while this crap was selling 600,000. So we decided we'd do our own upmarket clone."
And so the idea for Shogun: Total War was born, a basic run-of-the-mill RTS in which your goal was to conquer all and become shogun of all Japan. Needless to say, things didn't quite go according to plan.
It's hard to believe that the initial vision for what would eventually become the world's most exciting and ground-breaking RTS was such a modest product. "We were originally aiming to make Shogun a B-title, which would sell around 250,000 units. We started off with an 18-month development plan and a small budget, but at each stage it looked better and better. By the time the game was finished, it'd turned into a three-year project," reflects Tim.
Mike Simpson, senior producer at CA and an 18-year veteran of games development, picks up the story. "When we started the project, it was a top-down strategy game. 3D graphics weren't possible at the time as there weren't any 3D cards around back then. The major difference with our game was that it had large numbers of men, rather than just a few dozen like most of the C&C clones. We started off the development process by making some mock-ups of 'troop flocking' with tiny little men watched from a top-down perspective. At that time, there were hundreds rather than thousands in each battle. In retrospect, it looked pretty cool."
But it was the advent of the 3DFX card that was to change not only the direction of the game, but also the face of RTS gaming forever. "When the first 3D cards came out, Tim suggested tilting the camera down and putting in a General's Eye view," explains Mike. "The lead programmer said it would be impossible to generate those kinds of 3D landscapes, but we tried it anyway and it proved to be possible after all."
The General's Eye view was an idea taken from the Waterloo games (part of Talonsoft's Battleground series), which enabled you to switch between a top-down 2D perspective and a 3D viewpoint. So, while Shogun was to prove hugely innovative in the long run, it certainly wasn't without its influences. "The problem with these games was that it took about 15 seconds for each frame of animation to come up on screen," laughs Mike. "And there weren't any individual men, just hexagonal blocks to represent formations. But we liked the concept and knew it could work for Shogun."
Under The Influence
However, as any Total War fan will tell you, Shogun and its offspring are games of two halves, with a 2D strategic map complementing the epic real-time battles. Present from the project's inception, this Risk-style campaign map provided a new dimension to the RTS genre, while enabling turn-based fans to indulge their love of troop accumulation, movement and resource gathering too. Part of the fun of Shogun is that it can be played entirely from this perspective, with battles being auto-resolved by the computer.