At the start of the month Develop lifted the lid on Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, a new series of episodic downloads developed by Sumo Digital with Charles Cecil and overseen by the TV show’s exec producers.
It’s an ambitious new project that sees to very different mediums meet in the middle in a bid to engage new gamers and a mass-market audience.The man who made it all happen in the first place, however, is Simon Nelson, controller of portfolio and multiplatform at BBC Vision.
As part of our range of features looking at the creation on the new Doctor Who game, we caught up with him to find out why the BBC has started commissioning video games content…
What’s your background with Doctor Who: The Adventure Games?
My job is to make sure that the BBC’s TV operation is positioning itself to meet the challenges of digital – and also exploit the new opportunities to turn ideas into content and connect with audiences. We cover a range of things from knowledge and factual to children’s, comedy and so on. There are different challenges for each one. And different opportunities. In drama and stories in general we have always been fascinated by the potential of the participative medium that is the internet and online. And how we can fuse the new participative features that the web enables with our traditional skills in narrative storytelling, writing, production, and so on. Whether there were, by bringing creatives from different sectors together, some kind of magic that will arise from the two of them.
We made experiences before using games to support drama and we ‘d had some interesting stuff there, particularly in the children’s area where I think audiences have a higher expectation of being able to immerse themselves and play along. But I felt we could take it to a new level. Also we’d been using a mix of interactive agencies to create game-like experiences. We hadn’t gone the whole hog top work with an experienced games developer – or an experienced figure like Charles Cecil – and put them at the heart of the creative process with a TV brand and see what happens.
We talk a lot about ‘360- degree commissioning’ in our line of work, which is jargon, I know, but to be frank a lot the time we deliver 350 degrees TV and maybe 10 degrees on web and mobile. Here we really wanted to start with making the project part of the entire series of Doctor Who, and instead of creating 13 episodes we create 17 – but for four you play the Doctor, you are the doctor, and we take you to environments that will never be able to take you on TV, and expose you to levels of engagement only we can really deliver.
Why pursue those new channels? Is there an audience the BBC is otherwise missing with traditional TV?
There’s no doubt that younger audiences are more familiar with and likely to us e a range of digital platforms and new digital media. And so I’m firmly of the belief that if the BBC is to stay relevant to younger audiences it needs to be able to stretch its traditional content expertise beyond just the TV and radio. The BBC has been successful in doing that so far – look at integrated brands like Cbeebies and CBBC we are world class at it. So it’s no coincidence we picked a brand that has such resilience and cut through with the younger demographic. In looking at how we could stretch and develop that brand we looked at the possibilities of a game.
How did you come to meet Charles Cecil and Sumo Digital?
I was well aware that, even though our ambitions might be well formed, our ability to execute needed expertise. And to be frank, we had delivered some poor results in the past from not having that level of expertise. For a couple of years I’ve been using a games consultancy, Games Investor Consulting’s Rick and Nick Gibson – they are outstanding. They have a comprehensive understanding of games but were entirely able to address the issues TV is facing. They introduced us to Charles, and he seemed like a natural fit when we put him together with the TV team and Steven Moffat.
I think Charles is able to express public service and the BBC’s mission as passionate as anyone who has worked in the BBC for 20 years. So to have that commitment and passion, plus his experience in gaming – specifically a genre of games that puts story to the fore – it made him a perfect match. We’ve really benefited from his experience and guidance. There has been a real creative spark between him, Phil Ford, and the writing team on Doctor Who.
What have you learnt from working with Charles? How seriously has he had to guide you? Have you ever had to address or change his views on TV content?
I think there has been learning on both sides from working with each other. The writing and acting team of Doctor Who, and my own team, have been like schoolboys in s sweetshop when they visit Sumo, when they see the motion capture, and just the production process around the games. I was very impressed how sophisticated and well-run that process is for games. And also the absolute brilliance of the artwork and design team there.
But then again Sumo and Charles have been schoolboys in a sweetshop in the world that is TV. The writing process and writing arcs – they’ve learnt stuff there, and from the production processes in TV, including things like how we choose when to use CGI. And also the opportunity to work on this brand – it’s unique for people in our generation and below. Both sides have sparked off of each other.
What I was desperate for, really, was that the game wasn’t just a bolt on to the TV series. That it wasn’t just something that would go on the website alongside it, but is fused on in some way. And we’ve achieved that in a greater way than any project like this that I have worked on so far.
There’s plenty of anecdotes about how the two have worked: there’s a door on the TARDIS set built specifically for the game; the writing team have always wanted to do an episode set under water and we’ve managed that here; the fact the first designs for the Daleks and Cybermen were shared with the game team early on’ and the ability to thread story arcs between TV and interactive.
These are the things we can do as the BBC that no one else can do. The scale, ambition and level of integration with TV and to be able to reach mass audiences – and then hopefully get them to do something they’ve never done before and introduce them to new forms of content and interactivity. I hope this will help demystify gaming, teach them that it’s not all shooters and horror, but actually really wonderful immersive stories and worlds into which they and their friends can participate. The whole industry can benefit. It’s a proposition which hasn’t been done in this way before – all the age groups we touch get to have a go. And it’s subtle, viewers will feel they are missing out be not having a look.
Did you need to convince the TV team to get involved?
It was surprisingly easy – everyone got behind it very quickly. To credit the team, it’s not like they have been in linear content purely. The Doctor Who website has always been one of our most popular websites and the interactive team there is probably more closely tied to the TV crew than any other part of the BBC. So again it was one of the key pointers in making the decision – they were ready to go to the next stage. Everyone up to Piers Wenger and Steven Moffat – who is a big games fan anyway, very game literate – they were all very up for it. And everyone wanted to make a big splash with this series and do something different.
How does commissioning game content fit into the BBC’s remit?
Behind the scenes here with the BBC Online team we’ve worked hard to automate a whole range of activities that used to take time and money in order to focus on what we call ‘fewer, better’ projects of real scale and ambition. We’re properly putting our money where our mouth is here. We had a few wobbles – is it something we can do? It’s a different production process. We had to make sure that it’s the right way to spend the licence payer’s money, and that it is distinct in the market. We did a market impact assessment – apologies for the jargon – but that makes sure that if we are investing in a new area that it is an entirely appropriate intervention from the BBC. From a strategy and policy point of view it all fits. But also just from a creative point of view it completely makes sense. The game is unique and we are the only ones placed to do this. After that it was clear that we should just go for it.
If someone said ‘Oh you’re spending the licence fee on commissioning games’ what would your reply be? How do you justify it?
I don’t see it as commissioning games – I see it as commissioning extra episodes of Doctor Who. Episodes that take all of the good public service reasons why the BBC does Doctor Who – an investment in storytelling, UK creative talent, expanding the minds of our audiences with high quality content, and innovation – and extending them to another platform.
We’re not just charging up and saying ‘Oh that looks interesting, let’s try that’, we’ve started with a core part of our public service TV show, which is Doctor Who. And it comes through incremental investment, because if we were starting from scratch trying to do this, and get a new writing team and new production team it would cost a fortune.
One of the benefits we can offer is that we’ve ensured our investment is incremental and adds lots of value for the licence fee payer – and here we are delivering four episodes of two and a half hour’s play where the level of impact is arguably higher than when you watch the TV program.
How will this develop in future for other shows? Can it be applied to other shows or is it unique to Doctor Who?
Well, what we learnt in the past was that our previous projects didn't have the audience reach or impact we wanted. And that was because we hadn’t tied it to one of our big brands and taken advantage of the opportunities an organisation like the BBC has at its disposal.
In online drama we tried a lot of stand-alone online dramas – but they didn’t really cut through. Whereas we just did something with EastEnders called E20 – it was by far and away the best thing we had ever done there creatively and in audience terms. That opportunity to take an established brilliant team – and the EastEnders team are, like the Doctor Who team, inspired and brilliant – and empower them to take what they do on TV, and show what they can do on new media. That’s a model we are now pursuing. That doesn’t mean we won’t try stand-alone things, there’s opportunity to see if you can do one with out that big media umbrella.
But in the context of the announcements recently for the BBC[‘s review and spending cuts] there is no doubt that budgets are going to be under pressure over the next few years. And to a degree all the work we have been doing so far in order to get vastly more efficient in delivering the core website and infrastructure will help us deliver those savings. So I’m still confident that we will be able to back a few projects of real scale and take risks as appropriate. But the funding pressures we are under means that I don’t think people should see this as a major expansion into a new area – it’s appropriate projects into new areas that are right.
So it’s not as if you’d end up having a development resource in house for games?
Well one of the other reasons I was attracted to this as a project is that we have a remit to stimulate the creative market outside of the BBC in the UK. The games industry is full of great creativity and can benefit from the licence fee spend we can put there. So I don’t think we could have built this in-house and I don’t think games is an area that we need to be developing an in-house specialism around. But I have an obligation to spend at least a quarter of my budget externally and I’d like to think that could stretch creative talent across what is increasingly an online and gaming production set.
In London specifically there are a new wave of digital companies that create content that isn’t necessarily what the industry traditionally thought of as games but are part of that online/gaming crossover. Do you think the whole visual medium, including your TV heartland, is heading into this big overlap territory?
I am absolutely fascinated by the overlap between TV and games, and film/cinema and games. As this project shows there is real crossover you can exploit, and there is genuine creativity when you bring the two together. When people say to me ‘Why is the BBC in games?’ I see games in a spectrum of participation. For the BBC to stay relevant and connecting to any audience in future we can’t be the one-direction broadcaster delivering our content from on high to grateful audiences.
Audiences are much more demanding now, much more expecting in some way to engage with and interact with the content – from basic on-demand choice through to being able to share the experience, talk about it and comment on it, tell the BBC what I think about it, and rate it. All that low-level stuff through to more immersive ways of getting deeper in the content, and being in more playful areas and taking part a bit more in the story. At one end you have a full games console delivered immersive world, and at the other end the basic ‘rating a video clip’ functionality. We’ll play along the spectrum – we’ll never get all the way up to one end, but any media organisation that is going to stay relevant cannot not allow its audiences to interact with and play with its content.
At least one of the episodes is released during the show’s run – but others are out once this series stops airing. What’s the thinking there?
Part of the whole ambition for Doctor Who: The Adventure Games is to create something that is much more enduring than the single linear transmission run of the program – it’s something people can come to at any period of the day and get a Doctor Who fix, beyond the TV schedule. We were always anticipating that at least one of these is released outside the transmission window, because we have a number of different marketing opportunities across the year with Doctor Who – Sarah Jane Adventures, Christmas Specials, the website. The Doctor Who website is also relaunching, and that’s going to be the standout TV show website across the BBC and the idea is to say that Doctor Who is around for 365 days a year, and that the games are part of that at your convenience when you want it, rather than when we schedule it.