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The untold origin story of Creative Assembly

A school gym in England, mid-’90s, and two local rugby players await orders. One is small and wide and called Adrian, and one is tall and weighs about 20 stone. He’s Big Dave. Adrian has been getting flattened by Big Dave all day but he keeps getting back up. It’s the rugby training in him: you bloody well get back up if you’re knocked down. But this instinct is starting to annoy the people he’s in the school gym for, the people making the sports game. They’re trying to motion-capture for a rugby game and would rather Adrian lay still. They should be careful what they wish for.

Adrian and Big Dave can’t replicate high tackles because they’re dangerous: plough into someone above the shoulders and you could kill them – how 6’4″ Big Dave has managed not to do this to 5’8″ Adrian already I don’t know. But the game makers want high tackle motion capture. What to do? They have a lightbulb moment, a Blue Peter moment, and shoot off to the local Millets camping shop in Slough, home of grey British comedy The Office, to buy camping mats and rope for a homemade harness. A harness for Adrian. A harness with a rope Big Dave will pull to simulate a high tackle. They give it a shot.

Big Dave is Adrian’s friend so he takes it easy on Adrian the first time round and barely yanks him off his feet. This annoys the man in charge of the company making the sports game. “No no no!” he blurts in a blunt and cockney manner. “Come on, give it some stick will you!” He makes Adrian run faster and Big Dave pull harder. And this time Adrian looks like he’s been hit by a bus: he flies back off his feet and lands flat on his back – and doesn’t get straight back up. He just lies there.

“Fucking hell,” he finally says. “I ain’t doing that again.”

These memories belong to an unlikely place, a ginormous studio that is very different today. Back then there were only a handful of people and they made sports games for EA, but these days they win awards for Alien: Isolation and Total War. On the week Total War: Warhammer 2 is released I turn the dial back to a time before Total War, and uncover a forgotten history in Creative Assembly, the early days.

“The aim was earning a living,” says Tim Ansell. There were no dreams of strategy epics and no dreams of blockbusters. In those days people wanted PC ports of Spectrum and Mega Drive games, and they wanted 23-year-old Ansell, apparently the only person in the country capable, to make them. Never one to turn down work he set to work. In 1987, his Creative Assembly was born.

For two years he worked alone in the spare bedroom of his house, happily steaming through whatever he could take on. He was the industrious, get-it-done type. But he could sense a change coming. He could sense the time of one-man bands – programmers making companies so they could write ‘managing director’ on business cards – coming to an end. “It’s like mate, you work for yourself, on your own, but anyway.”

Somewhat reluctantly he found an office and hired help, and he began picking up regular work for Psygnosis, overseen by a producer there called Mike Simpson, who will be important later on. Still, Creative Assembly was small, only one or two people big. It wasn’t until Ansell made a cold call to Electronic Arts, in an effort to drum up some work, things began to change.

“Half the battle is who you actually get on the phone,” he says. “Obviously if you get some dingbat somewhere who writes your name down and forgets to pass it on to somebody it’s a dead end. It just happened I got put through the assistant producer on FIFA Soccer.

“For him it was also incredibly fortuitous because they were scratching their heads looking for somebody to do a PC version and they didn’t know anybody. So all of a sudden this PC programmer phones them up saying, ‘Have you got any work?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah!'”

EA didn’t ask many questions. They were so keen they sent an Apple Mac in a taxi down to Horsham the next morning with all the source code on it. “Didn’t have a contract, no nothing. Just, ‘Can you get started now please?'”