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.