Doctor Who game: behind the scenes

Doctor Who game: behind the scenes
Michael French

By Michael French

April 9th 2010 at 4:00PM

A game that's bigger on the inside than it seems on the outside

The BBC has turned to games in a big way – Doctor Who’s TV producers are hard at work on a new episodic title made by Charles Cecil and Sumo Digital. Develop took a trip to BBC Wales in Cardiff to find out why the time is right for the last Timelord to leap into games…


In the same way you could incorrectly view the TARDIS as just a wooden blue box, to the untrained eye Doctor Who: The Adventure Games is just another licensed game.

But step inside this unique joint production between TV show and the game – as Develop was lucky enough to do in February – and you see that the game (or rather, games) - is an epic project unlike any other.

A quick guided tour of its impressive features: it’s free, it’s released in four episodic chunks, it’s on PC and Mac, its first installment is out in just a few weeks, and it’s one of the closest collaborations between Big Media and games development ever seen.

Doctor Who: The Adventure Games is produced by one of the most successful UK independent studios of recent years, Sumo Digital, and fittingly overseen by adventure game auteur Charles Cecil – both working in tandem with new series boss Steven Moffat and the rest of his team.

It’s also the UK games industry’s best-kept secret, having been in the works since January 2009.

WHO’S GAME?
The timing for the game couldn’t be better.

As gaming seeps into the mainstream, the BBC finds itself facing new challenges. The global broadcaster has to keep its big entertainment properties like Doctor Who relevant by regenerating them for the moving target that is TV audiences.

That means a whole host of things. The show itself has a new actor in its lead role, plus a new production team, and even new sets.

At a higher level it means finding new ways to engage the viewers that watch the Saturday night episodes but want more, or are drifting away from TV to channels like mobile, the web and, of course, video games.

Pitched as not ‘just’ a game, but four extra episodes of the new series, Doctor Who: The Adventure Games helps the BBC address new online mediums.

But hold on. The BBC isn’t any good at games, is it? There were duff Doctor Who games before – text adventures, a dull FPS – and BBC Multimedia, run by BBC Worldwide, crashed and burned with the CD-ROM.

Simon Nelson, the BBC Vision’s controller for portfolio and multiplatform, is the first to admit that prior form hasn’t been brilliant for the BBC or Doctor Who. And as the man who greenlit this latest effort, he can explain the the thinking behind the new game.

“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 storytelling, writing, production,” he tells Develop.

“And if the BBC is to stay relevant to younger audiences it needs to stretch its traditional content beyond TV and radio. But we had delivered some poor results in the past from not having the level of expertise to do that.”

Successfully making a game of Doctor Who needs the right games industry talent, then. But bringing the right minds together to make the Doctor stand shoulder to shoulder with someone like Professor Layton led Nelson to cast a net across the UK, reaching from London to Sheffield via Cardiff and York.

A NEW VISION
It was London-based Nelson’s discussions with Develop columnist Rick Gibson of Game Investor Consulting about how the BBC can improve its work in games that connected him with York-based Charles Cecil, head of Revolution Software – just as Doctor Who was going through a big creative change, with a new cast and crew stepping in at BBC Wales.

He explains: “We’d not gone the whole hog to work with an experienced games developer before, or an industry figure like Charles, and put them at the heart of the creative process with a TV brand to see what would happen. Charles was a natural fit when we put him together with new lead writer and executive producer Steven Moffat.”

Before Sheffield-based Sumo was involved (there was a lengthy pitching process that included a number of high-profile European teams) – it was clear there was a spark between Cecil and the team in Cardiff. An original adventure game about the Doctor, that would be released alongside the TV show, proved too exciting an opportunity for Moffat to resist.

“One of the things Doctor Who does is that people don’t just consume it, they all want to have their own go at it,” Who’s new boss tells Develop. “I speak as someone who has been given the chance to make it – and children also love to make up their own episodes, invent their own monsters. The interactive quality of being inside an episode is very appealing, and being able to contribute to its outcome is exciting.”

BBC Wales’ head of drama and fellow Who exec producer Piers Wenger agrees: “There’s such a huge appetite for Doctor Who now in all its forms, be that web content or the show itself, we are just responding to the endless need for content around the show. We also have to keep finding innovative ways of satisfying the audience’s love for for the Doctor’s adventures. This is an innovative way to allow the audience – the young audience especially – to get immersed in it.”

Anwen Aspden, executive producer at BBC Wales Interactive, says that games – Doctor Who: The Adventure Games will be distributed in 250MB episodes via the Doctor Who site – align perfectly with Who’s youth audience.

“When you talk about our online audience they know and absolutely love new content online such as the Comic Book Maker and the Trailer Maker, which allowed them to interact with Doctor Who,” she says. “To build a new extension of that in games makes real sense.”

As a key person bridging the gap between the TV team and new forms of content – prior projects include the Doctor Who animated web show ‘Dreamland’ – she’s not to be underestimated when she calls the Adventure Games “a new form of drama”.

GENESIS OF THE DRAMA
That alliance between gaming and drama is the key to The Adventure Games. It permeates the entire project and informs its structure, delivery and creation.

So yes, the game features the cast of the show – stars Matt Smith and Karen Gillan have been rotoscoped and animated and provided hours of voice work.

But beyond that, the episodic format mimics the show itself. The first three of the four adventure episodes are written by Phil Ford, responsible for Doctor Who special ‘The Waters of Mars’, episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood, associated books and radio plays, and the script for Dreamland. The fourth episode is written by another Doctor Who scribe, James Moran, who wrote the series four episode that took the Doctor to Pompeii.

As for the platform, the game is being made for PC and Mac – because the BBC has to be able to address the widest audience possible as part of its public service remit, and that’s computer owners, not console owners. (That likewise explains why it’s free, because the BBC cannot charge for content.)

SEEKING NEW AUDIENCES
The wider demographic mix means that Doctor Who: The Adventure Games isn’t designed the way a normal game is. Its gameplay challenges are milder – the control scheme is simple mouse and keyboard and nothing more complicated – and its dramatic elements are stronger.

Explains Cecil: “Our approach is to make something that is like an interactive TV episode. You don’t get stuck, but are challenged. You have to drive people to play, but not put them off – the reward to overcome the challenge is the next chunk of Doctor Who narrative.

“Generally the gameplay is driven by stealth, minigames and a little bit of object interaction. But it’s not an adventure game where you are scratching your head trying to work out how to use two abstract objects together.”

Adds developer Sumo Digital’s creative evangelist Sean Millard: “We wanted to write a game that appeals to three generations – kids, their parents and older viewers. But that audience is so wide we can’t really have them stopping to think for more than two minutes – it’s not that your hand is held, you make your own way independently through the game. But the challenge is never about you sitting back and scratching your chin.”

Like the show itself, The Adventure Games don’t drag their feet in getting to the action, and don’t skimp on the unorthodox ways the lead character deals with tricky situations – something that show runner Moffat was keen to encourage from the off.

“It has to be like Doctor Who – not just use some of the visuals,” he says. “It needs to be like it as an experience, otherwise you are not providing what you are promising. What you’re promising is that this is like being in an episode – like participating in an episode.”

Moffat is very game literate, and points to his own game experiences – and frustrations – when talking about his input to the project.

“I loved the beginning of Tomb Raider, but I eventually got really bored with it. You were always shooting things – and the shooting parts are really, really dull. I always wanted to solve the problem of the big tomb, not worry about how long it’s taking to kill a sodding lion – and that’s not even exciting, because you’re not really killing a lion anyway, you’re just pressing a button.

“But [in our game] you’re solving a puzzle. And the Doctor is a great character to just be in the company of or to play in the adventure. You’re solving puzzles, you’re being clever. I’m not condemning them, but the violent aspect of other games is just fucking boring. I was playing Halo the other night and I’m more interested in how lovely the world is – I turn to the easy settings to get through it quicker. I’m interested in finding new things to explore.”

DISCOVERING NEW WORLDS
Exploration and education are a key part of Doctor Who: The Adventure Games.

As a BBC project the game episodes have to satisfy the broadcaster’s public-service remit, which dictates that its output must inform, entertain or educate. That puts The Adventure Games in a unique position. The episodes feature both the typical, traditional game-y elements, supplemented with Doctor Who drama – and also an educational purpose unlike any other game.

For instance on a surface level, the game itself features historical notes about certain periods in time or the environments you visit, alien and Earth-bound.

“You visit some iconic locations from history in the first episode and we’ve hidden items which, when you find them, give you info about the history of that place,” says Millard.

BBC Wales senior producer Mat Fidell adds:  “We’re hoping to inspire the ‘Pompeii effect’. That was when, after the series four episode about Pompeii aired, viewers rushed to Google to find out more about the city.”

But beyond that, the game also serves as a way to teach mass-market BBC viewers about games themselves. From a certain point of view The Adventure Games is not just a Doctor Who game – it hijacks the show’s brand to prime the nation to try other games, too.

Cecil says that, dramatic and script elements aside, the difficulty level was potentially the most scrutinised part of the episodes in order to make that element work.

“There has to be a sense of progression, but it has to be easy enough that people don’t get stuck for too long,” he says. “We’re looking into having an adaptive difficulty level so that if you have no expertise in games you could play and die four times but by on the fifth go it’s impossible to lose. Part of the remit is to educate people about games. We have to keep players involved.”

Adds Millard: “And some parents have a very stale view of what games are – that they are all about shooting and death. This is an educational experience on multiple levels that is entertaining, rewarding and informative. It’s what games should be when trying to reach all those different audiences.”

It’s an approach fitting for Doctor Who. He is iconic amongst TV viewers in the UK and beyond for championing heroic actions and good deeds. Doctor Who: The Adventure Games champion games as a force for good honest fun, and computers as a way for BBC viewers to find those experiences.

That’s all part of the grand plan according to Nelson back at the BBC HQ in London.

“I don’t see this as having commissioned 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, and expanding the minds of our audiences with high quality content, and innovation – and extending them to another platform. 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 programme.”

It’s a point worth remembering – and repeating. Talk to the crew in Cardiff, and they all say the same thing: It may be called Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, but in inception, spirit and execution its four episodic adventures are effectively an extra four parts of the fifth season’s 13 episode run.

“We talk a lot about ‘360-degree commissioning’ in our line of work, which is jargon, I know,” says Nelson.

“But to be frank a lot of the time we deliver 350 degrees TV and maybe ten degrees on web and mobile.

“Here we really wanted to make the project part of the entire series of Doctor Who, and instead of creating 13 episodes we created 17 – but for four you are the Doctor, and we take you to environments that we will never be able to take you on TV, and expose you to levels of engagement we can really deliver. We get closer to the show than ever.”

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE
Another impressive aspect of the production is the way game and the TV show are seriously intertwined. Doctor Who’s Cardiff production team have nurtured and welcomed the game in a way unlike any other hotly-tipped but otherwise disappointing film or TV and game crossover.

But that’s not to say that plotlines run between game and TV show – series chief Moffat is keen to retain the purity of drama and story that any episode, interactive or otherwise, can offer.

“For us, whether it’s an episode of the TV show or the game, they have to be complete and support itself,” he tells Develop. “But we always strive to make the series consistent. I used to hate it as a kid when those kind of things didn’t match. These games are legitimately part of the Doctor Who universe so are consistent with it.”

That means classic recurring villains – you know, the ones as much a household name as the Doctor and the TARDIS – will show up in the game, of course. But it also means the stakes are just as high – if not higher – with each game adventure.

“We can do things in those episodes that we can’t do in the TV show,” adds TV show exec producer Wenger, with a hint of envy. “We long to go to alien planets and to blow up the centre of London and go on the Underground in a post-apocalyptic world, but we can’t do them on TV sometimes.”

“Or if we do we’d need to have five cheap episodes after to make up for it,” jokes Moffat.

So Cecil and Sumo have been given free reign to come up with some of the most ambitious Doctor Who stories ever told visually. Yes, London gets blown up – another episode is set leagues beneath the sea.

ONE DOOR OPENS…
The best anecdote covering how the game and TV productions have merged involves Doctor Who icon the TARDIS.

Rebuilt for the new Doctor, this time around it is bigger, with a multi-level main chamber, a steampunk control deck and, most importantly, doors to extra rooms.

“We got to see the set very early on,” explains Cecil. “Ed, the head of design, became very excited by our requirements and showed us the new TARDIS to be sure our vision matched what they had. Prior to then we just thought it was cool that the game would allow you to explore the new TARDIS, partly because it is so different and new. But when we saw it the second time there were these new doors and stairs. I started to panic, and asked what they were for. Ed’s reply was: ‘Hang on, that’s for you guys – you said you want to explore the TARDIS in the game’.”

So the show’s iconic set, which will be seen every Saturday night until summer, has been built with the game in mind. Players will be able to go through the very door they see on TV in the game itself to find the Doctor’s drawing room, full of artefacts from the show’s long history.

Fidell explains: “It’s a new opportunity to introduce fans to the history of the Doctor. The drawing room features lots of iconic artifacts from his travels.”

Adds Sumo Digital designer Will Tarratt: “That’s one of the best bits of the whole design process – coming up with something I would get a kick out of as a player to investigate. That door you see in the show, it leads somewhere in the game and only exists because of the game. That’s brilliant.”

Cecil says it’s a good example of how excited the production team are about the game, as well. “They’ve been very helpful in terms of making sure they are aligned.”

It seems there has been a general flux of ideas and creativity between the new production team, new cast, and games design team as they jointly make a mark on the Doctor Who universe. Explains Millard: “Sometimes the TV team haven’t exactly known the answers to some of our finer questions on the design front.”

Things like the theme tune and the show’s iconic opening title vortex weren’t defined until later in the show’s production, but the very fact someone outside of the TV team asked about these things seems to create “a unique relationship of chasing and leading, chasing and leading,” he says.

“It’s helped establish the relationship between game and show,” Cecil adds.

Of course the show still drives the bulk of the creative vision, something Sumo respects after years toiling on Sega properties.

“We love that work, but with traditional publishers it’s usually very one way,” says Millard. Whereas on this game Sumo and the Doctor Who team have debated and discussed at length things like a new breed of Cybermen and other new things in the show’s mythos The Adventure Games get to debut first, he adds.

In one interactive episode, the Doctor and companion Amy visit one of the most famous planets in the show’s history – but one barely seen on TV in any real detail. That means Sumo has had to define the look and feel of it, something that the TV crew has promised to adhere to should the show itself ever go there.

“When the previous Doctor Who visited some of the iconic locations, they were shrouded in mist or very closely shot – for good budgetary reasons,” explains Cecil.

“The team here gave us free reign on those locations to just go for it, live up to the legacy and create things that are epic and menacing. Its an amazing thing – the game is defining what some of those big things in the Doctor Who mythos look like.”

No one Develop speaks to involved in the project is corporately bland enough to use the word synergy – but the stars really have aligned on the game to make sure this isn’t just some throwaway game but a living, breathing part of Doctor Who.

THE DOCTOR’S HEALING TOUCH
Can the rest of the industry benefit from this nevertheless ambitious new project?

Yes, it’s exciting and sees a UK studio – backed by the BBC, no less – make good on the episodic model that has been hard to crack. But the challenges Doctor Who as an IP faces in making the move to games are unique to this project alone.

That may be true – but Nelson and Cecil say there is a good after-effect to the story behind Doctor Who: The Adventure Games for the rest of the industry.

“There are plenty of anecdotes about how the TV show and game have worked together – these are the things we can do as the BBC that no one else can do,” says Nelson.

“But that scale, ambition and level of integration with TV – and then being able to reach mass audiences… Well, hopefully that will show viewers 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.”

Adds Cecil: “Yes, only the BBC can do this – and it might put a few people’s noses out of joint and turn things on their head a bit given that it’s free. But most importantly I think this can redefine what people expect of a computer game in terms of its story and really prioritise narrative as a part of the medium. That can only be a good thing.”