The BBC’s commercial arm has a new name and a new outlook to games. Seth Barton meets industry veteran Bradley Crooks at Television Centre to find out what it's looking for from developers and partners

The BBC is planning to put games at the heart of what it does with a new ‘Gaming First’ initiative. Simply put, games at the Beeb have historically been licensed from TV properties, sitting alongside books, backpacks and pencil cases in this regard. The new initiative aims to elevate their status within the organisation, putting them on a par with other mediums. Beyond that, the BBC is now looking to games to be a leading light, a format that can create, revitalise and carry IPs to audiences that TV, for example, is finding it harder and harder to reach.

So if you’ve got an idea for a new IP with mass appeal, are working on a new technology that break the boundaries of storytelling, or think you could do something incredible with an existing BBC brand, now’s the time to get in touch with Auntie.

ALL TOGETHER NOW

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Auntie, in this case, is one Bradley Crooks, formerly of EA, PlayStation and Headstrong Games but now head of digital entertainment and games at BBC Studios. Which will leave those less familiar with our national broadcaster asking: what’s BBC Studios?

And you’re right to ask. In short the BBC spun off its programme-making studios into a non-license fee-funded arm 18 months ago, so that they could produce commercial work for other channels – while still making core shows like Top Gear, Strictly and Doctor Who.

Three months ago those studios were then merged with the long-running commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. That’s the part which sold Top Gear around the world, published the Radio Times and, crucially, licensed out BBC properties to games publishers. Something I know well, having worked there many years ago.

“So now you’ve got a combined entity that can take you right from financing and inception of a TV show, right the way through to production and distribution, and all the ancillary things, such as commercialisation of that outside of the UK,” Crooks explains. “It gives us an end-to-end commercial entity. That can take briefs from other places.”

And it’s that merger, between open market TV production and commercial nous, which has kickstarted Gaming First.

FIRST OF MANY

Crooks has been at the BBC for approaching three years. “When I arrived, we were going to do licensed games based on TV IP,” Crooks recalls. “But even in the time I’ve been here the media landscape changed rapidly and we found ourselves as a team quickly expanding our areas of interest, and innovating on how we put deals together, how we bring our IP to an interactive experience.”

That said, the BBC has long been happy to innovate. Placing Top Gear into Forza Motorsport was a masterstroke of brand extension, then there were Doctor Who packs for Lego Dimensions, and it used its BBC Earth brand for the excellent Life in VR experience. The idea now is to get all the content pulling together to build the IP, rather than putting TV content at the heart of everything.

“You have to think about it as having many strands, TV is one of those, but there are other channels to market, lots more ways of representing IP in content,” Crooks says. “Translating books into TV is a well-trodden path, there’s no reason why it can’t work with games,” he points out.

My first thought is to think of the best narrative games and do adaptations, as is happening with Alan Wake in the US. Hellblade looks to be a winner, we agree, a period drama of sorts with some heavy but worthy themes, very BBC. But personally I’d love to see it take on Bake Off and resurrect the spirit of It’s a Knock Out with an Overcooked TV show.

Getting us back on track, Crooks summarises: “It feels like if you can find the right IP and the right structure for it, there’s every reason to think you could create a successful TV show from gaming IP.”

However, the idea isn’t simply to greenlight a bunch of TV shows based on gaming properties. It’s rather letting games stand on their own two legs alongside what we might once have called traditional media.

BBC Earth: Life in VR, which launched exclusively on Google Daydream

BBC Earth: Life in VR, which launched exclusively on Google Daydream

Life in VR is a good example, it’s interactive, it’s kind of game-like at times, but it’s not a game really. I think there are great opportunities around natural history content, but lots more as well, such as quiz games or our science output, it’s just a matter of finding the right vehicle and the right partners,” Crooks says.

He gives a couple of key examples, both of which we’ve covered in recent months. E-Line Media’s Beyond Blue is a ocean exploration game which takes its inspiration from Blue Planet, but sits alongside it as its own work. Crooks explains why: “There are good reasons for sophistication in these relationships, rather than simply making a game of the show. That could be slavish in its recreation and therefore somewhat redundant in its ability to bring a new angle and message.”

And there’s Tiny Rebel’s Doctor Who Infinity. This evolution of match-three style puzzle gameplay uses the Doctor Who brand, but goes off to tell new and original stories with it, expanding the canon of the long-running show, rather than being simply derivative of its latest iteration.

“Eventually I’d like to think we could have characters from our games appear in other parts of the franchise. Possibly even the TV show. There’s no reason to think a proper franchise, done the right way, couldn’t have this cross-pollination going on,” enthuses Crooks. “And it’s a great way of bringing Doctor Who content to a broader audience. There’s no reason why eventually you couldn’t be a Doctor Who fan who hasn’t watched the series.”

That may sound somewhat far-fetched, but we now have millions of Marvel fans who have never read a comic book.

Doctor Who Infinity broadens the IP rather than being simply derivative of it

Doctor Who Infinity broadens the IP rather than being simply derivative of it

FIRST FOR PROFIT

To be clear, the BBC isn’t about to start simply splashing around huge budgets, for either lavish game-to-TV conversions or vice-versa. “We wouldn’t want a huge empire of gaming devs,” Crooks tells us. This may not be taxpayers’ money but it still has to make commercial good sense for BBC Studios to make its investments.

“It’s relatively early days, we do want to talk to people out there about ways to invest in new content, but I don’t think the BBC is going to be saying here’s millions of pounds to fund a big triple-A title. The majority of our work will remain licensing in nature,” he continues. However, the BBC is “definitely looking at investing in different ways in new projects. That could include cash investment, probably on a co-investment model. Or it might be marketing support.”

The latter could potentially provide a new game or IP a huge amount of visibility. Then there’s access to a huge wealth of content and to household name talent.

“If you’ve got the showrunners involved, senior writers too, you can begin to see what you can create in terms of the opportunity,” Crooks explains. “It could be R&D and tech because there is tech at the BBC and we could help support game devs bring product to market. There’s a lot of AR and voice [recognition] technology in development here.”

And Crooks is also interested in talking to developers who are creating new tools and technology in order to make new kinds of content possible.

“The whole media landscape is going to change over time, and TV will change, there will be more interactive TV, more blurring of the lines,” he says.

The interactive movie has certainly come a long way in recent years, with Splendy’s The Bunker and CtrlMovie’s Late Shift, and then of course there’s the upcoming interactive episode of Black Mirror, that Charlie Brooker is reportedly making for Netflix.

“We have an interest in companies that have transmedia experience or aspirations, or maybe technology or appropriate skills. That’s an area we’re looking at,” he adds.

The BBC also has strong relationships with some of the biggest technology companies in the world. “Google, Facebook, Intel, Dell – we have a whole host of relationships there,” Crooks tells us.

And those companies often fund content and activations to support their long-term goals. For example, the BBC worked with Google on Life in VR, which was exclusive to Google Daydream. The ability to put together commercial deals between major tech players and BBC IPs is an intriguing one, and it’s easy to see why developers in the AR and VR space would be keen to take on that sort of work.

“Again we’re interested in talking to other brands out there. In partnership we’re interested to bring marketing-based activations to market, or even commercial products,” Crooks says.

GLOBAL REACH

The BBC has long been a big global player, but the success of Netflix has shown what is possible and the organisation is keen to further its reach. At the same time all broadcasters are finding some audiences harder to reach and are looking for other ways to let them access their IPs. Gaming First looks to help address that.

“It’s taken quite a long time, but people are coming around to the idea that games can be quite compelling, with the ability to bring in new audiences to a franchise. They are a really good way to bring in target markets that are normally quite difficult to reach,” Crooks says.

In short, mobile games could provide traction for the BBC’s IPs with youth audiences and those in developing territories dominated by mobile devices for content consumption.

And to achieve all this, BBC Studios is looking to move quickly: “Within two years we’d want some stuff out in the marketplace, we’d hope to have made those investments. Maybe start the process of bringing IP in, if not be in production with some of that stuff.”

And Gaming First will help Crooks and his team internally at the BBC to get in earlier on the hottest new things: “We need to get into the discussion much earlier, about how an IP comes to be considered in the first place, how it’s evaluated and how we go through that whole process, as a business as a whole. That’s part of the new process, to have more visibility.”

He goes on to explain that there are still times when you hear about something big too late, such as The Bodyguard.

“It also comes back to rights management, sometimes we don’t have the games rights, they’ve gone somewhere else,” he says – which is something else that should be improved in future.

So with that better grasp of IP coming through the BBC, a commercial brief to get the most out of that IP, and a more active desire to invest in outside technology and skills, the BBC is looking more open for business than ever before. 

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