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The way of the samurai, with its violence and pageantry, is one of the most romanticized martial traditions in the world -- and no video game has done it quite the justice that Total War: Shogun 2 has. Released on March 15 to almost universal acclaim, the PC-only strategy game is a visual feast. DIG spoke to Mark O’Connell of The Creative Assembly, the developers of Shogun 2, about bringing the world of feudal Japan to life with art and technology.
Digital Innovation Gazette: Shogun: Total War was an offbeat game with a devoted, but relatively small, following. What brought you back for a sequel?
Mark O’Connell: The Sengoku period of Japanese history was a fascinating time, from both a political and a martial perspective. We’ve always harbored a longing to revisit it and apply everything we’ve learned through the evolution of the Total War series. The number of people who play Total War games has of course grown considerably in the last 10 years, and it feels good to bring the intrigue and military challenges of the period to new players as well as old.
Also, Empire: Total War and Napoleon: Total War were vast in scale. We felt a need to reduce this and focus more on the core values of the series. We aimed for depth rather than breadth.
DIG: Can you give us a rundown of the basics of the series?
M.O.: The Total War games have evolved in an enormous number of ways over the years, but the core mechanics have remained the same. Total War features a turn-based campaign experience involving exploration, diplomacy, city management, economics, and army building, coupled with real-time battles on an epic scale.
DIG: The game is very beautiful. How did you go about bringing traditional Japanese art into the digital world?
M.O.: Our dedicated art team basically did a hell of a lot of training. One of our artists literally learned how to paint with Japanese brushes, in the Edo style. We completely immersed ourselves in Japanese culture, with its music, its artwork, its literature, its language and its people. We then worked to apply this style to every part of the game.
DIG: How important was balancing the beauty with realism?
M.O.: It’s worth noting that we took inspiration from the artwork and styling from the Edo period -- which came later than the Sengoku period -- for Shogun 2. These styles resonate much more with a modern audience; they’re more recognizably Japanese, and that’s where the balance comes in. We wanted to create a strong sense of authenticity, and to do that we used a little artistic license.
Other than that, we never really felt constrained. While the period promoted a culture of focus and purity, the daimyos indulged in flamboyant designs that turned their armies into walking works of art. Personal heraldry, armor variants and coloring made samurai armies stand out with tremendous vivacity.
A great example of this is the Horo -- a painted silk balloon stretched over a bamboo frame that the general’s personal mounted guard would strap to their backs before riding into battle. From a design perspective, it was a uniquely beautiful period, and our art team really resonated with that.
DIG: What elements of the game, like motion capture, morale systems, and the like, do you see as being most important to the realistic aspects of the game?
M.O.: It’s impossible to say which are the most important, as different elements contribute to a sense of realism in different ways. Recreating the troop and the weapon types prevalent in Sengoku-period Japan, and achieving the correct balance between them, is a pretty key aspect.
But I’d also say that authenticity of atmosphere plays a large part. This comes from many aspects -- artwork, music, employing skilled and appropriate voice actors, for example -- which all merge into a single, compelling tapestry. It’s impossible to create an identical analogue of medieval Japan, but through extensive study of her history, culture, people and politics, we’ve created a compelling fiction that we feel reflects the cultural and martial aspects of the period with a sense of clarity.
DIG: What goes into developing a great tactical real-time strategy game? How do you approach innovation without alienating your core audience?
M.O.: Smart planning, lots of historical knowledge, and a team of brilliant people following a single vision are what you really need.
And innovation doesn’t have to be about a pile of new features or mechanics. With Shogun 2, we chose to innovate by creating a game of such sumptuous detail that every strand of its DNA speaks of the period in which the game is set. Every unit card, every icon, every encyclopedia entry and menu screen reflects an aspect of the era. During development, we often referred to a concept we called “The Zen of Total War.” It was like a torch that the whole development team carried to help us generate the sense of thematic depth that can come from simplicity.
Creating any kind of game, not just a strategy game, is about building a system for which there are set rules. As you learn how those rules work, you learn how to apply your knowledge for more desirable results -- for example, more victories and fewer casualties. Creating a smart and balanced ecosystem of unit types is obviously crucial to this, and achieving that balance requires an awful lot of experimentation and testing.
DIG: What tools did you use to develop the game?
M.O.: We have our own in-house tools, which we used to develop the game. Alongside these, we use standard tools that you might commonly find at any studio: C++, 3DS Max, and so forth
DIG: Are there any unique technologies at play in Shogun 2?
M.O.: Yes. As the Total War experience is split across two major areas -- the turn-based campaign and real-time battles -- we need two completely different kinds of AI that still complement each other. Multiply this complexity across numerous AI factions all vying for supremacy -- factions that are capable of making and breaking alliances among themselves -- and you have a hugely intricate situation that demands some pretty specific technology.
In addition, we’ve had to develop our own engine for battles (known as WarScape) because of the sheer amount of troops that can be involved. We’ve been modifying and improving WarScape as we go, and we feel it’s in a great place, as it’s able to handle enormous, visually stunning battles at really decent frame rates.
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