Doctor Who: The Adventure Games - Part 1
29th Apr 2010 | 15:52
With Doctor Who: The Adventure Games the BBC and Sumo are not only taking advantage of a franchise that probably should have had video game representation a long time ago but they're doing it for free.
We got the chance to sit down with legendary developer Charles Cecil, Sumo's creative director Sean Millard, voice of the Daleks Nicholas Briggs, Dalek operator Barnaby Edwards, Doctor Who writer Phil Ford and the BBC's Ian Tweedale, asking what, why and how. We already know Who.
Why Doctor Who: The Adventure Games? Why now and why in this way?
Ian: I think we just felt that Doctor Who as a brand was perfect for gaming. We felt that the sort of narrative drama that we've got is appropriate and in a way it was a natural progression from TV to online gaming in this case or gaming where you download online.
We really wanted to see this as part of the overall approach that we did for Doctor Who and developed into a new narrative format and so we see this really as being very much a 17 episode series rather than 13 episodes. We have 13 TV episodes, we have four episodes that you can play online and really take part in it.
We wanted also to really appeal to a broad demographic. The demographic sort of matched what we had with the TV show as well. So the game is not purely focused on the sort of teenage boy hardcore gamer and 20s gamer, it's actually aimed at a much wider audience. So we've almost got a media literacy angle to this in the sense of wanting to introduce gaming to a much wider audience than may be familiar with it so to do that through a brand like Doctor Who was very appropriate so those are some of the key drivers to it.
How do you take a character like Doctor Who, who's not known for duel wielding or lightsabers, and make a game out of that?
Sean: Traditionally game design is all about progressing a character through a map or a world, putting obstacles in their way, letting them work out how to pass them and progress to the next. Normally we do that with locked doors and barricades but if you've got a sonic screwdriver you've got a skeleton key that will unlock any door and it becomes a significant pain in the game design rear. So Charles and I had to think very creatively about how we'd use the sonic screwdriver and how we block progression and unlock progression.
Charles: Originally we were going to have it lost right at the very beginning weren't we...?
Sean: The very first scene of the very first episode it was going to slide off into the sea...
Charles: And Stephen Moffat turned round and went, 'No'....
Sean: That was our first creative solution...
Charles: So that was the end of that particular one...
Sean: Also another thing that we rely on traditionally in videogames, character led videogames with good guys and bad guys, is guns, canons, laser guns, light swords, combative elements and the Doctor solves all the problems of the universe and saves humanity increasingly regularly with the power of negotiation and sensible talk. That isn't a great game mechanic either so we had to think about how we deal in a non combative way with Daleks and Cybermen.
We came to the conclusion that stealth and avoidance and interaction with a lot of world obstacles in the game was probably the best solution...
Charles: One of the key things is that we didn't want people to get frustrated so there are plenty of game objects to interact with, you know it is an adventure in that sense but it isn't one where you're stopped in your tracks and you sit and think for hours. Like a telly series we wanted to keep it moving fairly fast. Hopefully the challenges are exciting and interesting enough to give you a reward for moving forward but not stopping you for hours on end.
Sean: And as Ian sort of said the demographic for the television is literally 6-60 and normally at Sumo the breadth of one of our game demographics would maybe be eight or nine maybe ten years and so to try and design a game that's going to be accessible to a six year old as well as grandma, that's a real challenge in itself and importantly, still, gamers get it and enjoy it...
Charles: I guess it's obvious but if you've got the so called casual audience at one end the hardcore at the other, you know the hardcore do love the simpler games the casual games but the casual audience won't play the hardcore games so we're somewhere in between attracting both.
It's actually not a particularly hard thing to do as long as we put in the elements that attract the hardcore, but pitch it in terms of not understanding the requirements of the grammar then you really should be able to encompass everybody and that's certainly our objective.
Sean: And the golden moment is when four members of a family or whatever are sitting around a monitor all contributing to the experience, you know, one's controlling, the other three are solving the puzzles and they're all shouting over each others shoulder. That's the vision we've got in mind of how we want this game to be played really. A proper family affair.
Steven Moffat said that the game is the only time you'll be able to follow the Doctor from an exterior into the TARDIS and it's bigger on the inside, something you can't do particularly well on TV. The game is the only space where you can build such fantastical objects and stuff like that. So, Phil how have you found that sort of freedom coming from a traditional writing point of view to one that's about games.
Phil: Well the thing about a game is that you can go to places that we'd never be able to go to in the TV show. It would just be prohibitively expensive to develop the City of the Daleks as we do in the first episode and to have this horrendous planet where they come from would have been horrendously expensive to develop as a CG planet. So there's that huge freedom and the great thing about all of the interactive adventures is that in each episode, because that's what they are they are episodes, we go to another wonderful location, which we just never have been able to go to on telly.
That's the great thing about it, and yes you can do stuff like go into the TARDIS and see the TARDIS in some ways in far more detail than you ever will do on the show I guess because you've got the freedom to actually explore...
Charles: The other thing is that when you wrote all about Skaro we obviously researched to find out what Skaro looks like and realised that actually, apart from Tom Baker where you've got the mists and the rocks, it's always been sort of rather fudged over hasn't it?
Sean: It's always been a rather attractive quarry hasn't it?
Charles: It has, it's been a quarry. So we asked Piers, you know, "What's it look like?" - "Brutal." And that was it, "Brutal". So our job was then to create the vision that these people had and because the concept art has moved on to matte paintings - you probably saw that where you can see through the windows and you see the landscape of Skaro - and it's an incredible privilege to create that from the minds of people who've envisaged it but haven't been in a position to put it in the television show.
Phil: I mean it is one of the, well, it probably is the most iconic next to Gallifray itself, planet in the universe, the origin of the Daleks and we've never really seen it.
Sean: But then from a Doctor Who geek point of view what kind of privilege is that? To sort of invent what Skaro's going to look like? That's really been the icing on the cake with this as well. It's like, "Oh God for forty years no-one's actually nailed that down and we are the ones that are going to be able to do that." It's brilliant.
Phil: And quite apart from traveling to Skaro of course and then back on Earth, the first episode opens in ruined London and again that's something we could never have done not to that extent. So animation, whether it's a traditional animated episode or whether it's an interactive game, just gives you a much broader canvas on which to tell your stories, so your stories just become bigger and that's always a good thing.
Ian: What we really had to make sure is that it works in a Doctor Who way of thinking as well so it's not a game about Doctor Who, it is Doctor Who and it's just more episodes but they're interactive. But it's got to feel like Doctor Who. So I think what we've done, which is perhaps a little bit different in the games industry more broadly, is that we've had the TV writers working like that - so closely to the games writers.
It's really been a co-production between BBC Wales but also Sumo and all the key people who've been involved in the TV series. They're very very closely involved in the whole thing end to end so I think in that sense it should really feel like Doctor Who. It is the same sort of production it's just an interactive version of it.
Phil: And in terms of the story, the stories are all constructed very much in the same way that the stories would be constructed in the TV show as well. So in terms of; the Doctor arrives somewhere, opens the doors and in the first one it's ruined London, he's presented with a problem, he's presented with people who need saving in the first one, it's effectively the entire human race and specifically Amy.
Then there's the conflict and there's a resolution and we have about 20 minutes or so of cutscenes then you have the key elements, which is the gameplay. The gameplay effectively is what moves the story on because you know if you don't solve a puzzle or get yourself around the Daleks the game doesn't move on, the story doesn't move on. So it ultimately will feel very much like an episode of Doctor Who. Just that you actually get to take part in it.
Sean: And hopefully it will contribute to what happens away from the telly series as well. We were saying earlier that we think of it a bit like a 21st century playground: When we were little we'd play Doctor Who and we'd all be walking around like Darleks or Cybermen and we'd all be trying to avoid them, but now you can actually be Doctor Who and you can actually play with the Daleks and Cybermen. That's a really exciting proposition, hopefully, for the kids as well.
Ian: I think the kids, they're used to sort of playing Doctor Who and the companion. I think for adults that's a bit harder but I think with the game all we're saying is, "It's ok to play," actually and for people who may not have been involved in gaming before then, "It's ok to play".
Nicholas you were saying the game's got some sort of exclusive.
Nicholas: Oh yes well, obviously I wanted to make the Daleks as authentic to the TV series as possible so it's me doing it as I did it for Victory of the Daleks with the new Daleks. I suddenly realised that I had a lot of lines for the Daleks chasing the Doctor and Amy around London and I said to the director Guy Russel, "Which Dalek is this?" He said, "Oh it's the red one and I said well the red one didn't speak in the TV episode." So I had to come up with the red Dalek voice and now should the red Dalek ever speak in the TV series, if the Daleks ever come back, then I shall know how to do the voice.
Was it different playing the Daleks for a game?
Nicholas: Doing the Daleks for a game is a bit like playing the Daleks for the Doctor Who audio adventures for Big Finish, in fact it's the same studio. So we're in little separate booths, and I was very separate because I was the only person there that day, I was acting with myself.
When you do it for the TV series you're out sitting by the monitors with other groups of people who can't hear the Dalek effect they can only hear it being on the set behind the scenery. So I suddenly stand up and start screaming and all the people sitting round me behind the monitors just think I've gone mad.
Sean: What do you actually sound like when you're doing it? Do you actually say (Dalek voice) "Exterminate" or are you actually saying it quite normally?
Nicholas: No no you have to (Dalek voice) really do all that sort of thing.
Charlie: Jimmy Saville on a bad day.
Why did it take so long for there to be a Doctor Who videogame? Why didn't you do it before?
Ian: Well actually we've been looking at this since about 2006 just after Doctor Who came back so I think we had to have a clear view of what we were trying to achieve in terms of commissioning and I think where we've changed in the last sort of year or two has been to do fewer bigger, better things and not be as broadly spread and really focus in on some of the things where we can have a big impact. I think this is one of them.
It's one of our biggest investments in any sort of multi-platform commission before and what we want to do is have big imactful things. It was part of the evolution of some of the commissioning structures which wasn't quite right in 2006 but is now. Hopefully we will have a big impact.
Do you think that in the future most or all Doctor Who series' will come with interactive episodes?
Ian: One of the quotes that was used by someone else was "It's about time" and it's a lovely double use of the wording so, it is about time with Doctor Who but it's also about time we did this. I think it's a natural progression.
Why is the BBC doing this kind of thing? The BBC's there to inform, educate and importantly to entertain. It's not necessarily about which platform it's in, it's not just about TV programmes, it's not just about radio but actually we've got the Internet now and we really do believe that it's about delivering to those core principles what we can do in a much broader sense. I think it's sticking to those core principles and not particularly thinking about one format over another.
Essentially this is the sort of thing our audience expects. We've had lots of audience feedback saying we want originated content for Doctor Who and it's not just a website about the Doctor Who programme it's originated web content that is about Doctor Who and this takes it one step forward, it's not about Doctor Who, it is Doctor Who. So I think that's the big advance in terms of this and we'll see what happens over the next few months after we've launched it on the 5th of June.
One of the beautiful things about being involved in BBC public service is that we can take some risks that the commercial sector can't take in quite the same way and we can push boundaries and really develop interesting ideas that maybe have a broader impact on the industry as well in a good way and hopefully this would do because we're trying to bring a much broader demographic to gaming than perhaps we've currently got in the industry as well.
Sean: And there's something that the BBC are in a unique position to do as well. Without underplaying it, it completely undermines what the public's minds of what a perceived free-bee is. It doesn't necessarily mean anymore that it's a quick five minute experience. We're saying actually, you've got your TV licence, that means now you can have a two hour interactive experience as well as watching telly. For me that was one of the mind blowing aspects of getting involved in this. It's sort of, "Oh my God free-bees aren't crap anymore." That will hopefully sling the gates open for people who wouldn't normally come near it.
Charles: It was also summed up by MCV in their editorial when they announced it, to say that actually this has the potential to really open up the market to a much broader audience, which in the long term, will really help the industry as a whole, because it would get people to understand that games can be extraordinarily compelling in a very positive way. So hopefully it'll have a very wide reaching effect.
Ian: We did have someone who'd never played a game before and she said because it was Doctor Who she was encouraged into it and now she would consider doing gaming in other areas as well. That's one of the real ambitions that we've got and one of the objectives to bring forward to this.
Sean: And uniquely the BBC are the people that would or could do that and Who is the perfect vehicle as well.
Check back next week for part 2 of our Doctor Who interview.