As seen on TV: Why television's biggest names are on the hunt for games developers

As seen on TV: Why television's biggest names are on the hunt for games developers
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

May 9th 2016 at 1:14PM

Broadcasters are increasingly turning to games developers to engage broader audiences with their brands. James Batchelor finds out what opportunities this presents for studios

Discuss licensed games in any way, and you will inevitably spend most of your time talking about poorly-built film tie-ins or reskinned mobile games where familiar characters barely disguise tired mechanics. 

You might not discuss, or even think about, TV.

And yet, some of the world’s biggest broadcasters – from the UK’s BBC and Channel 4 to US giant HBO – are reaching out to games developers to form new partnerships; not just commissioning titles to help promote current shows, but giving devs the chance to create something that can truly add to a famous brand. Even Cartoon Network held a game jam earlier this year to see what devs could come up with based on its newest show.

Colin MacDonald (pictured left), head of Channel 4’s All 4 Games publishing arm, says this is down to the growing convergence between games and other media, as well as audiences consuming more TV through smart devices.

“There has been a shift in broadcasters’ way of thinking,” he says. “In the past, they used to think of themselves as TV broadcasters for TV sets in the living rooms. Now they think of themselves as providers of content for different screens. A lot of their content is now shortform for people watching on phones on their commute – and video games are another part of that as well.”

Bradley Crooks, head of digital entertainment and games at BBC Worldwide, adds: “There has been a big surge in the strength of TV. People were saying it was a dying format five years ago, but now some of the biggest budgets in entertainment are for TV series – just look at what Netflix are doing with their Originals.

“Big shows like The Walking Dead have shown that it is possible to transfer IP into the gaming area and be very successful with it. That’s made all TV companies more willing to think about bringing their IP onto different media.”

Crooks also observes that smart devices have massively expanded the BBC’s potential audience. While the firm has previously dabbled in Doctor Who and Top Gear titles – IP that appeals to traditional gamers – the rise of mobile means there’s a big enough market for the BBC’s upcoming Strictly Come Dancing game, and potential for other brands such as The Great British Bake-Off. Likewise, Channel 4 has produced games based on The Jump and Gogglebox.

ITV, meanwhile, has actually taken games into account from the beginning on some of its shows – primarily the reinvented Thunderbirds Are Go. Two mobile games have already been released, with another due when series two arrives and a PlayStation VR project in the works.

“What’s refreshing for me as a games guy is that I am now being asked to collaborate with the TV folks to help develop IPs from the ground up, two or more years from the first broadcast,” says David Miller, VP for digital games at ITV Studios Global Entertainment. “We hope that by working in this way, we’ll be able to bring a fully rounded experience to the audience, one where the boundaries between linear and interactive are blurred.”

Big shows like The Walking Dead have shown that it is possible to transfer IP into the gaming area and be very successful with it.

Bradley Crooks, BBC Worldwide

 

SERIAL HITS

Another factor that has attracted broadcasters is the games industry’s many examples of how developers can tell stories episodically – just as TV showrunners do. While Telltale’s The Walking Dead is based on the original graphic novels, it has provided a way for fans of the show to take part in the series’ fiction, as has its Game of Thrones titles.

In fact, mobile and web developers are even able to update their game quickly to reflect the latest events from TV – Game of Thrones: Ascent, for example, rolls out new quests each week based on the latest HBO episode, while Crooks says it’s entirely possible to update Strictly Come Dancing to include the outfits worn by the stars every weekend.

There are even examples of studios attempting to tell TV-like stories in their games. Trion Worlds is treating updates to action MMO Defiance as new seasons now that the SyFy series has been cancelled, while Remedy’s experiment blending gameplay and live-action in Quantum Break has been well received.

“Episodic content is an interesting prospect, and I think you’ll see more of that happening,” says Crooks. “Telltale is doing its new supershow format, where you have the crossover between the TV show itself and a game. That’s something I’m very interested in investigating with BBC brands. We’re also thinking about interactive narrative, which would lend itself to shows like Sherlock or Luther.”

MacDonald adds: “It’s not just the big budget guys like Remedy that can spend hundreds of man-months crafting these cinematic experiences – people like Sam Barlow and Mike Bithell put emphasis on narrative,” he says. “It’s not the mechanics that sell franchise-based games – those just facilitate the story.”

You have immediate access to a universe, a set of characters and – if the execution is animation, a wealth of assets. This can save months of work and reduce costs significantly.

David Miller, ITV Studios

 

THE PROPER CHANNELS

Working with broadcasters can save devs from one of the toughest challenges they face: discoverability. Crooks observes that not only will IP like Top Gear and Doctor Who help your game stand out, but the social media and marketing support broadcasters can offer will also assist with promotion.

But MacDonald warns that quality is still paramount: “A good brand is a way of making your game stand out, but it still has to be a good game. You could buy your way to the top of the charts but, if it’s not a good enough game, you’re not going to stay there.”

Miller (pictured right) observes that such collaborations can also make life a lot easier for developers: “You have immediate access to a universe, a set of characters, a set of principles and values – and if the execution is animation – a wealth of assets. This can save months of work and reduce costs significantly.”

Much of the talk from broadcasters so far has been about mobile, but that’s not to say these firms are discounting consoles. The challenge, as MacDonald puts it, is the economics.

“Channel 4 has a lot of cool shows but some of them are only well known in the UK – things like Hollyoaks,” he explains. “I can justify doing a mobile game, because for a reasonable budget I can do something that’s good quality. To do something that stands up against what’s already on console or in VR would require much bigger budgets, and when it’s an IP that’s not known outside the UK, I’m unlikely to see much of a chance to recoup that investment.”

But, Crooks says, virtual reality is definitely something BBC Worldwide is considering – to an extent.

“On the cheaper end of the VR market, there are ready-made mobile devices in people’s pockets that double in power every year or so,” he says. “I’m not sure how easily VR will be taken up by the public at home, but in terms of events-based stuff and installations there will be a lot of stuff happening. Again, that’s an area we’re looking at.”

 

PERFECT PROGRAMMING

BBC Worldwide and Channel 4 are actively seeking development partners, but both are being extremely careful with their choices. Developers need to show they care about the brand.

“If they’re passionate about the show, they get what’s important about it and they’ll find a way to get that across in the game,” says MacDonald. “If they’re just treating it as a bit of work-for-hire, it’s not going to be anything special or capture anything special about the IP.

“It also has to plays to the dev’s strengths. If I had the James Bond license and I wanted to do a driving game, there’s no point me approaching someone who makes amazing match-threes. Finding the developer that has the right experience and passion is the key.”

Don’t just talk to the broadcasters in your home region – there are loads of broadcasters outside the UK as well, that developers should think about working with.

Colin Macdonald, All 4 Games

Crooks (pictured left) adds the broadcasters have to be more cautious with certain brands than others, particularly if they don’t fully own the IP – the BBC’s hugely popular Sherlock being a prime example.

“It is a question of dealing with the IP properly,” he says. “There are a number of stakeholders when you’re dealing with an IP like Sherlock, so there’s a lot to do when making sure the quality of the title you put out is high enough because ultimately it reflects on the property itself.”

If developers want to impress broadcasters and establish themselves as viable partners, they need to put considerable time, effort and passion into their proposal. 

“Ultimately, we want to see what the game idea is,” says Crooks. “Coming to us with some sort of concept based around our IPs is the best way to approach things – especially if through that you can show how much you know about the brand, and show your skill in the platforms you’re planning to use as well.”

MacDonald concludes: “Don’t just talk to the broadcasters in your home region – there are loads of broadcasters outside the UK as well, that developers should think about working with.”

If you would like to find out more about working with either BBC Worldwide or All 4 Games, email games.support@bbc.com or cmacdonald@channel4.co.uk. Meanwhile, ITV’s David Miller can be found via LinkedIn.

DISRUPTING THE CHANNEL

Disruptor Beam has already built a strong reputation for building titles based on popular TV franchises. The studio made its name with Game of Thrones: Ascent, developed in partnership with HBO, and has this year released Star Trek Timelines, which celebrates all five eras of the TV show. 

CEO Jon Radoff offers developers the following advice: “The primary challenge with creating a game around a TV licence – or any licence really – is to keep your game content familiar to the fans, but also fresh.

“Fans want to feel ‘at home’ within your game, encountering content and stories that are familiar to them, while also experiencing something new and different.

“For us, it’s integral that the team loves the licence and are fans themselves. Then it becomes easier to create content that other fans will enjoy.

“Having a great partner also helps. When you are working closely with the licensor and they are amenable to your team’s creative pursuits while providing constructive feedback, the product benefits.”

Article originally published in the May 2016 issue of Develop.