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Former Total War dev accuses Creative Assembly of "mismanagement" and says strategy series AI is "limited by design"

Rome 2 programmer says “leaders seemed to resent critical feedback and treated it as unwelcome"

Dwarfs and blimps in Total War Warhammer 3
Image credit: Creative Assembly

A former developer at Total War studio Creative Assembly has written a lengthy personal account of his time at the studio, in which he details development troubles on strategy game Total War: Rome 2 and Total War: Attila, and alleges that these issues were exacerbated by an inflexible and counterproductive leadership structure and “chronic mismanagement,” sometimes resulting in what he calls a “toxic work environment.”

Julian McKinlay, who between 2009 and 2014 worked on Total War games ranging from Napoleon to Attila, also detailed his experience being blamed by a section of the community for Rome 2’s bug-ridden launch after appearing in a promotional video. McKinlay was blamed for misrepensenting information about the game. He makes clear he wasn't coerced into giving the interview, but answered questions based on what he understood about the then current state of Rome 2.

McKinlay also goes into detail on the issues he faced as a programmer, largely centred around AI, and claims that upper management either misunderstood or routinely ignored issues raised by programmers. He also alleges that leadership put the addition of marketable new features - and marketing itself - at a higher priority than giving the programmers the support and resources they needed.

He also alleges that the design and programming teams were at odds as regards certain features, and that upper management frequently sided with designers. “The way it looked from my point of view was that production leadership let designers do whatever they wanted, and it’s one of the main reasons that Rome II went so badly wrong,” writes McKinlay. “Designers instructed us not to improve [the AI] in certain ways, because they believed that players enjoyed being able to dominate the AI and that we shouldn’t deprive them of that.”

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“The Total War team was very hierarchical for its size,” McKinlay writes, “and key design and management decisions were made by a small handful of individuals at the top without any real oversight from the wider development team.” Total War’s “leaders”, writes McKinlay, “seemed to resent critical feedback and treated it as unwelcome. It was common for important decisions to be already treated as final by the time they were communicated to those of us in the trenches, if they were communicated to us at all.”

In terms of the aforementioned Rally Point video, McKinlay was subject to ridicule and harassment after it aired. He says this culminated in death threats, although he adds that he felt he “did not have actual reason to fear for my safety.” While he says that he doesn’t believe Creative Assembly intentionally stoked these fires, he believes that “this narrative was actually quite convenient for Creative Assembly, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I became a scapegoat for the project’s failures.”

McKinlay eventually left the studio during the development of Attila, after friction with the design team over feedback resulted in him being “chewed out by management”, which he alleges was “clearly intended to silence [him] for the convenience of management figures who wanted to continue doing things their way no matter the consequences to anybody else”. McKinlay left soon after, feeling that he had “made enemies in the team’s leadership and that it would probably affect my chances of promotions and things like that down the line.” In McKinlay's view, he parted after "it became clear that leadership was going to keep repeating the same mistakes."

Towards the end of the piece, which is far more detailed and gets much further into the weeds of actual game design than is practical to summarise here, McKinlay poses the following question:

One question to ask is, how well do these experiences represent the Creative Assembly of today? Given the recent problems faced by the studio it seems clear that studio management and creative leadership continue to be a source of major problems, but I should be clear that it’s not for me to say how similar the details of recent problems are to those that I experienced. One thing I will say is that several of the individuals responsible for the problems I’ve described in this statement either still work at the company, or did until recent layoffs, which I think says something about ongoing problems with the studio’s management culture.

“Despite ongoing problems with the games and a number of high profile embarrassments, the series continued to be profitable,” he concludes. “This fact was used against developers like me who argued for better practices, and was often used by creative leadership as a metric to confirm the success of prior projects and decisions regardless of other ways that they might have failed.”

It's worth reiterating that this is one developers's perspective on an entire studio, and one that hasn’t worked there for ten years, even if the recent Hyenas saga could suggest that some of the issues McKinlay raises are still ongoing. McKinlay is also not entirely negative about his time there, mentioning friends at the studio still.

One other former employee at CA has boosted McKinlay’s account. Will Overgard, CA’s community coordinator from 2012 to 2015, has shared the post on Xitter. “I still feel guilty for what happened to Julian, so give his statement a read for me,” writes Overgard. “I’m incredibly proud of what I contributed to CA…but I had a hand in destroying someone's career and that awful feeling never went away.”

We’ve reached out to Creative Assembly for comment.

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