Every spring since 2005 the BBC has geared up for its seasonal Easter debut of a new Doctor Who TV series.
For anyone that monitors the kids' and family media and entertainment market, this is a pretty serious moment – merchandising, magazines and book markets are primed to release their spin-off licensed products and solidify the show in the hearts and minds of children in the UK.
But in 2012, however, there is no new series. And yet Doctor Who is returning – except as a brand new online browser game, Doctor Who: Worlds in Time, pushed to market by BBC Worldwide.
The launch isn't just a convenient switcheroo for Doctor Who from one media to another – it's the embodiment of a long-in-the-works strategy by BBC Worldwide to seriously plant a flag in games.
Robert Nashak is the man in charge of this effort. He joined BBC Worldwide two years ago, fresh from Electronic Arts, and is based in the US. BBC Worldwide has offices in both London and LA, but Nashak says the Californian office predominantly looks after improving and maintaining relations with developers and the likes of Apple.
The idea has been to marry the best minds of the worlds in traditional media with online media so consumers get more involved in this kind of ‘always-on' entertainment,”?he says. We're targeting not just core gamers, but the ‘new gamers' out there. The vast majority of the public that don't really realise they are gamers, but are engaged online.”
Doctor Who was always the obvious candidate to lead this effort. Its ratings are consistently strong in the UK, and is growing in the US, being the most downloaded TV show on iTunes.
While it took some time for the BBC to realise that the rejuvenated show's audience would want to play spin-off games, since it woke up to the brand's potential the Beeb has been prolific with Doctor Whovideo gaming.
It has tried everything it can – pure-play download episodic adventures, mobile games with in-app payments, and boxed products released at retail.
This new game, Worlds in Time, however, is arguably the biggest bet yet, inviting players to interact together, playing the role of the show's ‘companions' to help the Doctor stop an alien threat.
Players log in, visit locations either with other players or alone, solve puzzles and talk with other characters to progress the plot. They can chat and talk to other players too in a social environment – or join guilds and team up in squads of multiple players.
There's also the usual character customisation and crafting elements, with players eventually able to earn themselves a sonic screwdriver.
Commercially, it's free-to-play with an in-game currency called Chronons. Players get a certain amount free every day to spend on what they do, but can pay for more if they want – the staple social gaming mechanic seen in Facebook and in some of the more commercially successful mobile games.
All in all, it's straight from a Social Games 101 lesson – and the mechanics alone make it clear why BBC Worldwide hasn't turned to the traditional industry for this. The emphasis is on social interaction, narrative and non-violent content – the very stuff online pioneers have exploited, not the big budget console video games.
But of course Nashak says the big point of difference versus Moshi Monsters and Runescape, the most comparable games with the very youth audience World in Time covets, is that Doctor Who brand.
There is a lot of competition out there – but we have one of the longest running and most beloved TV properties of all time,” he adds.?We know they are very vocal online and are looking for ways to get more immersed and contribute to it more.
We've created a game that is accessible to non-fans – all the narrative can be played whether you have a working knowledge of the show's stories or not. The important elements are the social mechanics and the narrative and puzzles.
After all, its name is an acronym for ‘WiT' – it's a game that's about brainpower, not firepower.”
Nashak predicts a wide audience”, but the target demographic of age 13 and up and the emphasis on non-hardcore content makes it clear this is a casual/social play, with the customisation and guild elements designed to keep players engaged.
But the bigger strategy behind the game is the real story.
We want to move beyond just a licensing model – and with Doctor Who we have a worldwide brand to work with,” says Nashak.
We aren't creating ancillary products any more, this has been built with the creative team behind the show heavily involved. They are very engaged with what we are doing. The goal is to create a multi-year proposition – it's the first online Doctor Who game, and is an ideal way to build a community out there.”
The traditional games market hasn't been forgotten by the BBC – a new PS Vita and PS3 game is also on the way, developed by UK studio Supermassive Games. But it's clear that it doesn't always want another games company to handle its big brands. It wants to do things direct. Recently dissolving plans to release a Strictly Come Dancing game was another sign of this.
And in the even longer term, the corporation hopes that its online games efforts will inspire what gamers see on-screen. An original villain created for Worlds in Time might just be scaring kids on TV on a Saturday night.
That's the vision long-term,” adds Nashak. We didn't come here just to deploy the content across platforms – we want to interact with what's happening with a show. It's definitely our aspiration. In this newer media landscape, we're all expected to push the envelope and keep our properties relevant – and the BBC is well placed to do that.”