Creative Assembly’s Moddessy: Shogun 2 Unbound

By Andrew Smee on October 19th, 2012 at 8:00 pm.

Mods move in mysterious ways

Creative Assembly invited key members of its modding community to its Horsham based headquarters last month for a secret meeting. Seated around a conference table, modders looking over at developers whose work we had been rummaging around in for years, one question was on everyone’s mind: Why?

We now know what they were planning to announce: the Assembly Kit for Shogun 2, a full modding suite combined with full Steam Workshop support. After a short round of applause from the modders, there was one more question: What on earth took you so long?

Jack Lusted, who has been CA’s Modding Lead for the past few months – and an ex-modder himself who found employment through his work – came to the fore and explained the decisions behind the move to official community support. Bluntly giving the same reason most developers do when announcing they will not be supporting mods, he admitted that it simply hasn’t been possible to do anything like this before. At least, not with the current generation of Total War games.

Before Empire, it was relatively easy to get into the code and muck around, as the game discs shipped with raw development data that built the game on start-up, and modders engineered tools to take advantage of such free access. However, with Empire’s increased load on limited memory creating unavoidable bottlenecks, CA were seeing start-up times of a mind-numbing 12 to 24 hours during development. This naturally forced a change to run the final games on processed data, which had the unfortunate effect of closing off much of the game assets from eager fans of modding.

Nonetheless, this change in development was the first step in the road that led to the Assembly Kit. More assets and an ever increasing work load fuelled the creation of new development tools, and much needed updates to existing ones. Out of these, the creation of BoB served to push mod support to the forefront.

Standing for Build On One Button (the shortened acronym saving everyone’s sanity) BoB was a data processing tool that allowed the quick processing of development code to playable game much faster than the previous day-long wait, and it simply hadn’t been written during Empire’s gestation. The streamlining effect BoB had on development resulted in an internal argument for the full support of a suite of mod tools, with the realisation that such a thing could now be feasible. The other tools, previously workarounds around workarounds, were thrown out in favour of proprietary development tools like the TED battle map editor and database editor DAVe.

Bob, Ted and Dave are all in the Assembly Kit, but that’s not to say everyone else is. The original problem of what to do with all that raw data remained, with Shogun 2 weighing in at a staggering 120Gb. The data that ships with the Assembly Kit is a trim figure at 3Gb. Apart from the not so simple problem of bandwidth, CA just don’t want to make that many art assets available, protective as they are of their code.

It’s a tricky balancing act. Coding Manager Guy Davidson expressed a desire to be “industry leaders with mods. Better than Valve and Skyrim” – which is a powerful expression of how far CA want to push themselves. Taking that statement in his stride, Jack Lusted was at pains in his support of what the Assembly Kit represents. Taking questions from the modders, he fully admitted that he himself didn’t know exactly what the modding tools were capable of, at one point stroking his chin and wondering openly if it was possible to rebuild and change the campaign map editor before offering a vaguely confident “Theoretically.”

Then in the next moment he was offering to make new tools further than the Assembly Kit already offers, planning on including a City Builder and a Castle Builder, to write tutorials for the official wiki and figure out ways to work around limitations in the code. The Assembly Kit, Lusted firmly states, is “a first step”.

This mood of careful exploration of the mod space was set in place by Rob Bartholomew, the Brand Director of CA. Fully admitting to be the voice of unwanted reason, he stressed that CA is a business that supports over two hundred jobs. They need to make money. The trouble with modding, he carefully said, is that it has indefinable costs and hard to place benefits. “The community benefits are obvious,” he continued, “and we’d love to continue to foster the relationship we’ve built with the fans. But the commercial benefit?”

Bartholomew was reluctant to say if he thought the money spent building the mod tools would have a tangible effect. Before anyone could say the word “Day Z”, however, he mentioned it himself, wondering how much of that success was down to people simply liking to shoot zombies over an interest in modding itself.

Turning the room right around was Guy Davidson, who held the table with a friendly, fatherly presence during the frequent breakdowns into rabid discussion, which often strayed far from the modding tools – to the best courses to study at university (Programming), the nature of historical truth (a mystery), whether we can ever really know anything (not really) and favourite kinds of pizza (meat feast). I asked him what kinds of mods he would like to see, and he immediately came back with a firm “War of the Worlds Total Conversion. Imagine all your units hiding in underground tunnels, fighting a losing battle, just trying to hold on. With a classical Victorian setting, of course.” Attention modders: Get This Done.

Of course, Davidson did say that after it was made clear that CA would police mods on the Steam Workshop for IP-infringement, and he acknowledged the existence of an ‘underground’ mod scene the likes of which Skyrim sees. Jack Lusted came back with the promise that on the Workshop, at least, the mods would be curated by CA to make sure they don’t upset copyright holders and furthermore, actually do what they say, remarking on countless fan unnamed fan patches that profess to “fix the AI!” when no such value exists within the database. (You can, however, tweak economic behaviours to push AIs down certain paths, which is apparently “a real pain to test for – but we’ll do it anyway!”)

Retroactive mod support of previous games also seems as unlikely as tripods storming over London smokestacks, not least because of the ashamed confession from Davidson that CA has been so lax about documentation of tools in the past that they’ve lost whole source codes to entire games. The librarian in me groaned in despair, but happily enough, a head popped in later on during the day cheerily announcing that the source code to the original Rome TW had just been found on an external hard drive in the back of a cabinet. The modders immediately requested access to which the developers immediately came back with a “no official comment”.

That was the whole day in a nutshell. Careful acknowledgement of failings in support quickly turning into another happy anecdote of development and excited discussion about what happens next. The modders constantly pushed against the developers in an excited back and forth, continually denied access to desired features while being overjoyed at another aspect of the Assembly Kit, constantly regrouping and arguing for full access all the same.

Eventually the developers acquiesced with a weary “Come to us with a feature list of what you want and we’ll try and make it happen,” to which the modders immediately demanded in one voice: “Rome 2 Mod Tools.” Naturally, Rome 2 Mod Tools remained the very large elephant in the room which the developers were all expressly forbidden to talk about.

So it’s a big experiment, the developers themselves not entirely sure of what the Assembly Kit is capable of, not to mention what they themselves are capable of when it comes to complete and open embracement of the mod scene. How Shogun 2 will go on to handle mods will be a big part of CA’s future plans with Rome 2 – that much is obvious.

Whatever the bumps in the road ahead, it’s clear that mods are now entwined with the future of Total War. The developers are eager to see what will happen as fan development continues, with Guy Davidson hoping that he’ll see mods which will “shock and awe” him. So for now it’s a tentative first step – but full strides have to start somewhere.

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59 Comments »

  1. SirKicksalot says:

    But experts assured me these games weren’t moddable just because SEGA and CA wanted to sell DLC!

    • Captain Joyless says:

      And now they have…

    • Lawful Evil says:

      Hmm, experts? If you meant internet commenters, then no wonder things turned out surprisingly for you. Also, though not so often these days, there are several AAA games that foster modding AND get official DLCs (for example Skyrim).

      • belgand says:

        Skyrim also sold a ton of copies for consoles. To the point that many players and previews essentially treated it like a 360 game. The control scheme certainly implied that it was the primary intended platform.

      • Universal Quitter says:

        It’s not like Skyrim launched with modding tools. Also, since both have fantastic modding communities, and are entirely built by the hard work of amateurs, what’s the point of even comparing them? I mean, they’re both far more easily modded than the vast majority of AAA games that come out. They’re both have to be doing something right.

        Publishers want money. That’s how life works. Don’t ditch the game after the first year, if you want to play the best mods.

    • Vinraith says:

      It’s purely coincidental, of course, that mod tools have materialized a comfortable length of time after all the DLC game out, of course.

      • SkittleDiddler says:

        SEGA just had to release that Blood Pack as a DLC, instead of making it part of the vanilla game. They just had to.

        • SirKicksalot says:

          Well, they had, since it alters the game’s rating.

          • SkittleDiddler says:

            That’s a pretty silly concern on the part of SEGA, especially considering video gaming in this day and age.

        • Bhazor says:

          Yes, they had to otherwise many many stores wouldn’t stock it.

          • tuluse says:

            They didn’t have to charge for it though.

          • Bhazor says:

            Except if it was a patch it could be considered part of the base game.
            Which would up the rating.

          • belgand says:

            Free, but optional DLC isn’t part of the base game and, AFAIK, shouldn’t affect the rating in the slightest. It’s really just an issue of the price.

        • PleasingFungus says:

          The Blood Pack is either the best or worst DLC since Horse Armor. I’m just not sure which.

    • Baines says:

      As others said, Shogun 2 has already sold its DLC. CA is preparing to move on to Rome 2.

      And notice what was said and unsaid. The vast majority of raw data isn’t being made available, if modders are getting 3GB out of 120GB. CA doesn’t seem to know what the mod tools that they are delivering are capable of. The Brand Director still seems skittish about supporting modding.

  2. Bhazor says:

    “to which the modders immediately demanded in one voice: “Rome 2 Mod Tools.”"
    … yep that sums up many PC gamers alright.

  3. jonfitt says:

    7 Samurai mod!

    • Bhazor says:

      I’m hoping for Ran.

      • thrawn says:

        That’d be pretty sweet, but how would a Ran mod differ from vanilla Shogun 2? You already have epic samurai battles storming castles… so… insane commanders? Maybe the ability to burn the keep? As a fan of both Ran and Shogun 2, I’m just curious what you are thinking here.

        • Bhazor says:

          So long as it has Kaede’s laugh/attack as a geisha assassination movie anything is acceptable. Seriously one of my favourite moments in any film.

    • Premium User Badge

      Smashbox says:

      I want: Shogun’s army vs Godzilla

  4. serioussgtstu says:

    The term ‘underground mod scene’ seems a bit redundant at first glance, but I suppose within the wider context of the steam workshop a destination has to be made.

  5. Desmolas says:

    The Total War engine since the original Shogun has been a state-of-the-art mind blowing piece of software technology. You dont have to think very hard to come up with cool settings to fight in its battles engine. I want a WW1 trenches and no-mans land total conversion. No! I want a WW2 Operation Overlord re-enactment Total War style! No! I want a Warhammer 40k inspired total conversion. Zorglings, Tyranerds, Eldeer, Hoorks and the Republican Guard!

    • pakoito says:

      You have The Legend of Zelda mod (http://www.moddb.com/mods/hyrule-total-war). No real need for more, 10/10 will play forever.

      • hypercrisis says:

        If there’s a fan-base crossover I didn’t expect to see, it’s this one.

    • belgand says:

      Maybe it’s just because I’ve never played a WWI game or perhaps I’m just entirely mistaken, but I feel like it would make for a rather dull game. Seems like a lot of time just sitting in trenches punctuated by massive slaughter for little to no gain.

      Personally I think an Inca Empire mod could be really interesting. It’s something that’s almost never been covered with any degree of depth in gaming, yet they ruled a massive empire.

      • Desmolas says:

        Wow! You just made me think of American Conquest. Remember having 100 guys holed up in your little fort, then hearing the warcries of a thousand angry Incas rushing at you through the woods? Damn that game was sweet. Id help make an mod homage to that.

  6. Vinraith says:

    I’m glad to see the series moving back towards mod support, but I certainly hope Workshop isn’t required for modding.

    • Premium User Badge

      Smashbox says:

      Hopefully the steps they’ve taken to open up their engine (described since Empire as a very difficult task) will allow them the courage to provide mod support from the start with Rome.

      • Grygus says:

        That might be nice, but I don’t really see the problem with withholding these tools until they’ve been able to make a little cash from DLC, as long as the tools are eventually released. The way it has worked out for Shogun 2 seems to be the best scenario for everyone involved, really.

    • Bhazor says:

      What do you mean “back to mod support”? This is *way* more than they ever did in any previous game.

      • Berious says:

        Up until Empire there was a buzzing mod community for the TW games. We were really spoiled by Medieval 2 – loads of great mods. Then Empire comes out and the modders complain that too much is hardcoded or obfuscated so consequentially we don’t see anything like the same modding scene. I hope Rome 2 is more like Medieval and less like Empire.

    • SkittleDiddler says:

      It’s a Steamworks game, so I would imagine that the Workshop is mandatory in one way or another. At the very least, the majority of user created content is going to be found there.

      • Bhazor says:

        Valve attempting to restrict content and make the PC a closed platform?

        Ironic
        http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/07/26/i-suspect-gabe-newell-may-not-be-a-fan-of-windows-8/

      • Reaver20D says:

        Don’t forget that Skyrim is also a steamworks game and that doesn’t enforce you to use steam workshop. Infact you can get higher quality mods on Skyrim nexus. Doubt it will be the only method used but I’m sure we will see in time.

        • SkittleDiddler says:

          True, but I’m more concerned about cross-compatibility in general than anything else. Since Skyrim is a Steamworks game, it obviously only allows Workshop access to those who have a Steam account. What if Skyrim were not a Steamworks game? Would Steam guarantee Workshop items would be separately downloadable from the client and be compatible with non-Steam versions of the game? I doubt it.

          Conversely, we’ve got Nexus, which allows us to download mods that work with multiple client/non-client versions of hundreds of games.

          This argument is ultimately meaningless for games like Shogun 2 and Skyrim, but it’s a reason why I’m not a big fan of publishers that force Steamworks + Workshop exclusiveness on me.

    • Grygus says:

      I don’t see how any comment is warranted. Self-proclaimed awesome person quits being awesome because people do not call him awesome, lashing out publicly so that supporters will call him awesome and even people who disagree will give wanted attention. The end.

    • Flobulon says:

      Well, there was certainly an implied reference in the “countless fan unnamed fan patches that profess to “fix the AI!” when no such value exists within the database”.

      • Jorum says:

        Yes this does seem somewhat hubristic.
        I mean Empire was an absolute shambles.
        When pushed the AI couldn’t even play the game properly which is unacceptable.

        I’ve tried Darthmod many times and (like him or not) it does seem to cause dramatic and obvious differences to the game and the AI.

        Darthmod is massively popular, so he must be on same wavelength as many people as to what kind of AI and game fans want from CA.
        I’m surprised that CA didn’t want to at least get an idea of what he thinks they are consistently getting wrong.

        Unless, from experience, they know he will just rant and condemn everything and say they’re all useless?

      • colw00t says:

        Darth has always claimed to change things at a level that would probably require access to the source, which has always struck me as questionable considering how unstable the rest of the mod tended to be (they are always compilation mods and he’s never been good at crediting the original authors).

        • Jorum says:

          Well I don’t know technical details.
          I mean his mods usually seem to do *something* whether through the way he thinks it does or trial and error luck is open to question I guess.

          Considering that a CA programmer openly admitted their AI was so complex and segmented they realised it was wildly chaoticly unpredictable to tiny variation who knows what is/isn’t possible to influence.

  7. Grygus says:

    All this time, I thought his name was Jack Lusted.

  8. Slinkyboy says:

    Fuck CA. They seriously disrespected Darth Vader himself. Seriously. I don’t take any CA game seriously without the DarthMod. I’ve put 300+ serious hours into DarthMod Shogun 2. Vanilla is just junk. Seriously!

    Edit: I hope he comes back. He really deserves more recognition from CA, those pigs.

    • colw00t says:

      Darth, you could at least post under your own name.

      • Baboonanza says:

        That’s not Darth, that’s his mum.

        • Nick Thomadis says:

          @colw00t @x1501
          I just saw this message and I had to reply. I have already said what I had to say and everybody can check that I do not troll to sites with different names. I know at least two that do that. Do not mention my “mother” in your pitiful online discussions, keyboard ninjas.

          @mods please delete these messages as they are offensive for my name.

  9. Jorum says:

    “Bartholomew was reluctant to say if he thought the money spent building the mod tools would have a tangible effect”

    Well after the debacle that was Empire I would definitely not have bought Shogun 2 were it not for knowledge modders would probably come along to fix or at least minimise any bugs and problems.

    So without modding I would not have bought there last product. And without modding I doubt I would buy any of their future products as I don’t have enough trust their ability not to mess up.

  10. Jason Lefkowitz says:

    The trouble with modding, he carefully said, is that it has indefinable costs and hard to place benefits. “The community benefits are obvious,” he continued, “and we’d love to continue to foster the relationship we’ve built with the fans. But the commercial benefit?”

    The commercial benefit is that it extends the saleable life of your product. A thriving mod scene can create commercial demand for the base game for years, as the mods attract new players who missed the hype cycle on the game’s launch.

    • colw00t says:

      Yeah, but it’s hard to quantify that to your shareholders, which is what he’s getting at, I think. It’s a fair point.

      • x1501 says:

        Especially in this age of yearly sequels and overpriced DLC, where unnecessarily prolonging the life of your current product would potentially mean cannibalizing your next year’s products sales.

        • brotherthree says:

          Its a wonder they have time for the modding community between iphone releases

    • Jorum says:

      just to repeat myself again, it’s more than this.
      not just extend lifespan, and get “second wave” but also to get upfront sales that they otherwise wouldn’t get.

      without knowing there was going to be a extensive mod community I wouldn’t have bought shogun 2, or Oblivion, or Skyrim, or etc etc ….

  11. Unaco says:

    Good stuff. Modding is good. Total War is good. Now we just need a Malazan Total War mod, and everything will be good. Well played by CA.

  12. colw00t says:

    The mod I would love to see for Shogun 2 is just an “automate” mode. Get a full set of maximum-smartness AIs and make them duke it out. I’d love to watch that. It would probably break their AI, but still, after seeing how different Europe can look in any given game of Crusader Kings, I want to see what can happen.

    • Askeladd says:

      while looking at them you should take notes of their settings and action and comparing it to the outcome and then rating what resulted positively/negatively and what was just odd behavior. Refine your report and send it to CA with attached savegames.
      Maybe you’ll get a job with them?

    • CraigTW says:

      We actually have this already. We let the game play itself overnight without human intervention for long-term stability and AI testing.

      Craig Laycock,
      Community Manager
      The Creative Assembly

  13. -Spooky- says:

    .. till wait to the first WW2 Mod to bomb Japan with A bombs at all.

  14. Loyal_Viggo says:

    What Rome 2 really needs is full mod tools from the start…

    Then updates for: (IP be damned)

    Call of Warhammer
    The Third Age

    Those are the only mods I still play on Medieval 2.