Steven Moffat and Piers Wenger on why the time is right for interactive Doctor Who
To find out more about the new Doctor Who game and how it tries to blend the world of TV and games production, Develop went straight to the top.
Steven Moffat (above left) and Piers Wenger (above right) are the show's new exec producers, and have seen through the introduction of a new era for the show. That means a new Doctor, new TARDIS, new companion - and a new game.
It may surprise you to find they are both game literate. Here they talk about, amongst many things, the process behind making Doctor Who: The Adventure Games with Sumo Digital, what extra ingredients they have brought to games development (and what they haven't), and what qualities a unique hero like the Doctor (who refuses to use weapons) can bring to video games.
Why make a Doctor Who game? Why now?
Steven Moffat: Well, there should have been one ages ago. It’s like the fact there wasn’t a Doctor Who Sonic Screwdriver toy 28 years ago – it’s ridiculous there hasn’t been one.
Doctor Who is a TV show almost structured like a computer game. I play things like Tomb Raider and think ‘Wow, this would be great if it was Doctor Who’. I once had a software patch that turned Doom into Doctor Who.
So this is simply overdue. The question isn’t ‘Why now?’ it’s ‘Why wasn’t it done ages ago?’
OK. So what took so long?
SM: I really don’t know – I’m new in the job. I have no idea why. But certainly during the old show they never exploited the property they had. Why was there no Sonic Screwdriver toy? Why weren’t those scarves on sale in shops? Why wasn’t the Annual any arsing good? (And why isn’t it now? but that’s another question.). All those things – they just should be there. It’s a natural.
We aren’t forcing Doctor Who into a new shape, The Adventure Games are so authentic and perfect for Doctor Who.
Piers Wenger: And also, there's clearly 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 Doctor Who and trying to think of an innovative way of satisfying the audience's love and appetite for the Doctor's adventures. This is an innovative way to allow the audience –the young audience especially – to get immersed in it.
SM: One of the things DW does is that people don't just consume it – they all want to have their own go at it. I speak as someone who has been given the chance to make it, of course. Children love to make their own episodes, make up their own monsters. The interactive quality of being inside an episode and being able to contribute to its outcome is very appealing.
PW: Well, everyone just wants to be The Doctor.
SM: Or the companion! One or the other they want to be in the TARDIS.
What's the thinking behind tying them so close to the TV and calling them ‘four new episodes’ of the new series?
SM: Well we always strive to make the series consistent. I used to hate it as a kid when those kind of things weren’t consistent. They are legitimately part of the Doctor Who universe so are consistent with it.
PW: And so the Doctor meets monsters first in the show and then they meet them again in the game. The other thing for us, on the other side of the fence, is that The Adventure Games mean we can now do things in those episodes that we can’t do in the TV show. 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.
SM: We just can’t physically do some of the great things you can in the game – and we can do some of them, but we’d need to have five cheap episodes after to make up for it.
Have you found yourselves planning the series out differently with any of that in mind? Do any episodes set up plot points that Sumo can revisit or continue?
SM: To be honest, no. For us, whether it's an episode of the TV show or the game, they have to be complete in itself. In Doctor Who every story has to support itself. The thing is, Doctor Who just spins off ideas anyway – that’s what he’s like.
PW: I think it's something we can consider in future – but we planned the scripts for the series we are currently making long before the development of the game.
SM: But there’s an awful lot of 'see and change' stuff in the making of the series anyway. ‘This worked, that didn’t work, let’s get rid of that episode and bring another in.'
But one thing that is vital to me when I’m thinking of scripts is – what are the kids going to do in the playground. How will they play as the weeping angels? That’s why it fits perfectly into a computer game – it’s specific, they can go and play with the ‘toys’ they see on camera. Doctor Who has always been a game in that sense.
How are the formats of the episodes decided? How did you boil it down into the four stories you have now?
PW: We only had the money to make four! [laughs]
SM: That, and the fact that you think ‘Well, what do you want to play at?’ Doctor Who isn’t about deferred pleasure, so if you want Daleks you get Daleks. And the Cybermen. We’re not going to make people wait two years to play that episode. All the good stuff, we made sure it’s in those first games.
PW: Plus, the broader idea of visiting strange worlds and different places really applies to these games.
SM: It’s everything that’s now, good, and in your face about the show.
Why did you choose Sumo Digital?
SM: They were the best. We had quite a lengthy tending process and in terms of what they delivered on the day, the pitch itself caused a jaw-dropping moment.
It was wonderful. [To Piers] Are we actually allowed to talk publicly about that?
SM: Well this is the most amazing thing about this ever. It was the moment that won them the job. Simply, they made the TARDIS bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Not by cutting from one to the other, but you control the little fella, the Doctor, and he walks in... and it’s bigger inside than it is on the outside. That’s it – the central magic of Doctor Who made flesh in a way only a computer game can do. I mean we can do that on TV with a cut, and hide the trick, but it’s seamless in a game.
PW: And they got the tone right too – their version of the show was just right. Back then we gave them very little detail about Matt [Smith – the new Doctor] but they managed to tap into what the Doctor was and see in him what the mannerisms are, on-screen via a 3D animation.
Matt and companion Karen Gillan feature extensively in the game as well. Have you had to build more time into the TV shooting schedule to allow for the demands of the game development? Has it been a challenge on time?
SM: [jokes] Oh yeah, we overwork them – don’t tell them, it’s verging on Japanese prisoner of war. And I’m actually 22 years old. [laughs] But if there was ever a man more perfect to be a computer avatar, it’s Matt Smith. It’s hilarious – he just looks like one. You think ‘Oh they’ve exaggerated him there... no, wait, he really looks like that.’
Seriously, the show is a huge effort.
PW: It’s just a bigger commitment on their part. The Doctor is in most scenes, but the scenes he’s not in usually could be time spent learning his many lines. Or sleeping, but basically – they aren’t even sleeping any more, he’s doing voiceovers for this.
SM: It’s tons of dialogue. The amount of work they are doing is insane. [laughs] It could be used as a custodial sentence.
Phil Ford is writing the first three episodes – why Phil? Was he an obvious choice?
PW: He’s steeped in DW and has written the show and Sarah Jane Adventure. But he’s also written for other interactive content. He wrote our Dreamlands animated Doctor Who series. And in our immediate pool of people who a) know Doctor Who, b) can write brilliant drama, and c) understand gaming, it put him in a minority of one.
SM: He’s the only one at the intersection in that Venn diagram.
PW: It's allowed for a real hybrid between a game and a drama. There really is no way around that, it is those two things. So while in a drama it doesn’t stop, in The Adventure Games, we have to allow for the gameplay. And you have to plan your junction points in the plot to allow the story to progress by involving the player, and their actions decide the success of the Doctor.
You have taken over the new show, and introduced a new Doctor, new TARDIS, new visual look to the episodes... and now a game too. Is it just timing that this happens during your first tenure in charge of Who? Or was it something you wanted to do, coming into the new series?
PW: We had a real appetite to continue to develop Doctor Who so it can be on as many platforms as possible. That’s something practically anyone doing this job with any sense should want to do – and the team before us were doing that.
We looked at the options and Doctor Who is show that has a very clear, fervent online following – that just meant the game makes sense. We are also very lucky to have such a forward thinking and expert multiplatform department who are much more on top of the innovations in that area and were able to hook us up with someone like Sumo Digital, who guided us towards what the best format for the game would be.
The games industry has tried to handle episodic gaming itself - but this is a series effort from TV's heartland. Does it surprise you that you're one of the first to this area?
PW: I think the fact that Doctor Who has self-contained stories lends itself to an episodic game.
SM: It’s reproducing Doctor Who very faithfully, very recognisably, it’s very authentic. [It fits games] because of course there will be drama, of course there will be cliffhangers. It’s a very secure, inevitable marriage in that sense.
PW: And the brand is so strong and people know it so well know you can do something episodically like this and be fairly confident that people will sample it, and have a go, and hook them in using the narrative of it.
Because people are so familiar with the type of adventure and the stories that the Doctor has, the pool of people that will come back and try it is much bigger because the familiarity means they know what they are getting. I think that means we are more likely to succeed than [those episodic projects that may have failed in the past].
Another thing that we like about this is that effectively we’ve created a different kind of game – one that, and this isn’t meaning to sound too didactic, but... People like Doctor Who because it's a mad adventures with spaceships and monsters to fight, clear danger and good and evil, and an epic struggle. The Doctor is a mad nutty professor brainbox who doesn't – although we don’t labour the point – doesn’t fire a gun.
That means the gameplay here isn’t completely trad or generic – it’s a puzzle game, there are strategies needed, and it provides the opportunity to engage a gameplayer with a different means of defending himself and moving the game forward.
SM: I always thought, in games like Tomb Raider… [To Piers] Have you played Tomb Raider?
SM: Well, I loved the beginning, 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 – but that’s not exciting, because you’re not really killing a lion anyway, you’re just pressing a button.
But in The Adventure Games 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! And of course, when you talk about children playing it, one thing the Doctor does is run away – most heroes don’t do that, but sometimes he’ll leg it.
So you’re aware that Doctor Who’s ethos is the opposite to some of the industry's biggest games? All our major successes happen to be quite violent. But you’ve turned around to say ‘we’ve made a game, but it’s on our terms’.
SM: I’m not saying whether it’s right or wrong, but [the violent aspect of 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 more interested in finding new things to climb into and explore.
PW: It’s not just the Doctor Who team that is trying to make a game that’s more like what you see on-screen as entertainment. Those military shooters are very cinematic are offer the same thrills and spills that a violent war movie would. What we’re trying to do is offer the same thrills and spills as an episode of Doctor Who. The music is very much like the music in the show. The cut scenes are faithful to an episode. That’s nothing different that we’re doing to anyone else in that sense. We're just being authentic.
I think that speaks to a lot of Sumo’s achievements – we haven’t micromanaged the game the way we do the production of the show, and we haven’t had to. They have been briefed and they work closely with Anwen [Aspden, head of Interactive at BBC Wales], but they get the Doctor Who-y-ness very quickly, hence why they got the job. But they have been able to mirror the proposition of the BBC One show. That’s really impressive.
Is there anything you’ve had to tell then not to do?
PW: They have learnt the same rules we have, very quickly. Sometimes you make an episode and you realise there is a Dalek in a room and the characters just look at it instead of instantly stand there looking at this lethal character instead of running off straight away. There was one instance of that in the game. And on TV some scenes don’t get shot the way you think they should, but you cut it differently, edit it or reshoot – you work around those things, you solve those problems. But the rules have to be honoured, whether or not they are part of the Adventure Games or part of the TV show.
SM: But the one thing I’d like to think we bring to it is that on Doctor Who we de know how to make good stories. We know about suspense, and sometimes deferring the pay off – sometimes I play a game and think ‘God, what an awful story.’ Sometimes in games that really is terrible. Suspense – Doctor Who really knows how to do that.
PW: And gags!
SM: Yes, gags! Really good, funny jokes. And good dialogue. That’s what we can bring. We were very keen for the game to be story-driven.
PW: It’s scripted, just like the show.
SM: It has to be like Doctor Who – not just use some of the visuals. 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.