How Creative Assembly convinced Sega to greenlight Alien: Isolation

This is an excerpt from the new issue of Edge magazine, on sale Thursday January 16. You can subscribe now in print, or in digital form on iPadAndroid and Zinio.

After finishing Viking: Battle For Asgard, Creative Assembly’s Alistair Hope and Jude Bond worked together with a small team to develop a survival-horror prototype designed to sell Sega on the notion of letting them play with the Alien brand it had recently acquired. “Not that we were really prepared to make it,” Hope says. “We were in a position to make it, but we didn’t have the team or the tools.”

In six weeks, a “handful of guys” put together a proof of concept, which in its very earliest forms had a player-controlled xenomorph in place of the complex decision-making tree that would eventually dictate its behaviour. The decisions made by the alien player in those miniature games of hide and seek would later form the basis of the creature’s AI.

“In a way, that was just us being fanboys, just having a chance to build some alien environments,” Hope explains. “But that little tech demo went a bit viral within Sega, and suddenly it seemed like this pipe dream of making a game based on the original Alien [film] started to get some momentum.”

The creature has over 20 context-sensitive kill actions, depending on whether it digs Ripley from a locker, chases her down or attacks head-on.

The Internet will almost certainly ask an entirely legitimate question at this point: why let a strategy game studio make a survival-horror game based on one of Hollywood’s biggest properties? “Strategy game studio?” Jude Bond asks. “We used to make sports games, until we didn’t.”

He’s right: long before Total War, Creative Assembly made Rugby World Cup 95 and ported FIFA to DOS. In recent years, the studio has dabbled with thirdperson action in Spartan: Total Warrior and Viking, but it’s a new team behind Alien: Isolation, one home to developers from Bizarre Creations, Black Rock, Crytek, Ubisoft, Realtime Worlds and more. “We have had to hire for this project,” Bond says. “We’ve had a lot of grief from production saying, ‘Why is that seat not filled?’ Because people just weren’t right for the job. We’ve been very picky.”

“When we started, we were just a couple of guys crammed in with the Total War team,” Hope says. “As they grew, we were getting pushed further into the corner. Now we’ve got our own floor and we’re about 100 strong, and building the team has been a bittersweet tale, I suppose. There have been some British devs that have had to close, and we benefited from that. At least we could find work for some very talented people.”

Environmental storytelling is everywhere in Isolation. Every room has history and a purpose.

Hope says his team knows Alien better than anyone else on the planet. He says it as a joke to illustrate Creative Assembly’s almost absurd attention to detail, but it’s undoubtedly true. No matter how much you love Alien, no matter how many interviews you’ve read and how much art you’ve seen, Creative Assembly has seen more.

When development began, it was given the keys to an archive of material never seen outside of 20th Century Fox’s vaults. While HR Giger’s name is the one most associated with Alien’s design work, it’s Ron Cobb who defined the film’s future. Cobb referred to himself as “a frustrated engineer” in an online interview, and it shows in the pen and paper designs for Alien’s sets and iconography, duplicates of which are spread across UI artist Jon McKellan’s desk.

“There was quite a lot of that didn’t make it into the film for quality or budget reasons,” McKellan says. “Lots are just variants of themes that did make it in, like these iconic Nostromo patches and the little pin badges they wear; there are lots of variants of those. We’ve got those sketches, and you can put them together to see what Cobb was thinking when he made them.”

That attention to detail extends to the work done behind the camera during the summer and autumn of ’78, to Derek Vanlint’s cinematography, and to the lighting and the colour grading of the film itself. Meticulous hardly covers it. “We are aware of when it was made,” Bond says, “so we are conscious of what lights we should be using, what the colour temperature of those lights should be. There are no LED lights in our game. We’ve appropriated a lot of the production methodology of the original film, so this feels like the real place. Not the real place, but the reality [you see] onscreen.”

Building human spaces to proportions large enough for a ten-foot alien to navigate was a challenge solved by art design and the creature’s hunched posture. The alien can take a corner at full sprint speed, making it more agile in the small spaces than any human.

“And there are things in the processing that were different back then,” McKellan adds. “In Alien and other movies of the time, you’re seeing red, green and blue making up the pattern of noise over a blue object, but in a modern effects-driven film like Transformers, it’s all corrected. It’s a pure blue. What’s happening in Transformers is you have a grain on the film and they’ve colourised on top, but what’s happening in Alien is that they filmed something blue and you’ve got the grain on top of everything. So, of course, we apply our noise grain [in] postprocessing after the colour.”

Alien: Isolation is planned for release in November across PS3, 360, PC, PS4 and Xbox One, and you can read more about the game in this month’s Edge magazine, on sale Thursday January 16. In the meantime, you can subscribe now in print, or in digital form on iPadAndroid and Zinio.